Happy New Year. Stop Lying!

A few years ago I decided to stop lying as a New Year’s resolution. This seemed like a reasonably positive development in my growth as a human. I would not have identified as a chronic misleader, or as a person with a strained relationship with the truth; I was certainly not pathological. My resolution was not an attempt to correct some deep character flaw unique to me. Rather, it felt like a worthy goal—and maybe a necessary one if I wanted to enjoy meaningful relationships—to raise my awareness of how I think and speak. I hoped to pay full attention to the way I characterized my actions in order to do the hard work of fully owning my junk.

 When I told others about my plan to stop lying, many laughed, intrigued, but some were appalled. They seemed to be mostly bothered by the implication I left floating out in the air: If I had resolved to stop lying then I was suggesting to others that I had a big problem with lying. They wanted to protect my reputation from me, and urged me to stop describing my resolution in a way that reflected so poorly on me.

In this way, they missed the point entirely. I resolved, in fact, to stop protecting my reputation. It is exactly the urge to protect ourselves that causes us to edit out our mistakes, misgivings, selfishness, and failings. It is our need to appear good that incentivizes us to not look too closely at our selves. I realized I had a tendency to revise my life in real time in a way that helped me seem awesome, with little regard for others. When I openly shared I planned to confront said tendency, some people lost respect for me, a fact that strikes me as absurd.

More than absurd though, such a reaction confirmed for me that most of us are wholly unwilling to even admit all the ways we subtly choose our own narratives over the narratives of others. Put another way, most of us are pretty good at critiquing others, but we often view ourselves sympathetically. The term myside bias sums this up nicely: we are more likely to truthfully and critically evaluate the arguments of others than we are our own. When it comes to self-reflection, it is difficult to see clearly. Indeed, we often even lie to ourselves, and we have to stop if we want to enjoy lasting community with others.

I have often shared my conviction that defensiveness destroys the possibility of meaningful relationships. In a very real way my commitment to stop lying was less about my own integrity and more about my desire to collaboratively create meaning with those around me. Driven by a need to defend ourselves, we cut off the possibility of discovering truth in community. On the other hand, what if we could learn a new way to be that makes self-defense an odd waste of time? What if we disciplined ourselves in such a way that overcame myside bias by actively inviting others to help us in the work of reflection?

Today, as 2019 begins, I’d like to offer self-honesty as a way to make room for meaningful relationships in our lives. For me, as we’ve just discussed, this work begins with a commitment to stop lying. It then quickly requires me to correct these mistakes, to confess and make amends every time I notice my need to revise history in a way that defends or favors me. My hope is that this personal work will impact our communities in transformative ways.

In the Holy Scriptures that record the life of Christ, there is a story of a man sent before the Messiah to prepare the way for the Lord. His job was to get people ready for the Savior who would bring Good News to poor and broken people. He did this in a few ways: First, he realized that the status quo was to live in a way that protected and defended the self at the expense of others. He instinctively knew this way of being in the world was incompatible with embracing the Messiah, so he rejected a lot of society and lived counter culturally. Next, he was crystal clear about his own weakness. He caused a stir everywhere he went, but he continually stated he was not the main event. He helped people realize they could be honest about their own disappointments and even failings because a Savior was coming to rescue them. Finally, and this is my favorite part, he loved to call out people so committed to their own lies about themselves that they could no longer see the impact of their selfishness on the people around them. He called them snakes sometimes, which feels a bit harsh. But he followed that up with this amazing suggestion: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Long story short, this man, John, who lived his life trying to help people get ready for a Messiah who came to create a community of honest people who thrived in their need for each other, knew that self-honesty always led to apologizing and forgiveness, and that doing that kind of self-work always produced fruit. The fruit of honesty is the ability to belong to a community. To be a part of a large and messy we. To stop trying to be right, or well-defended, or exceptional, or deserving. The fruit of repentance is an ever-expanding sense of “us.”

To be a person who fully owns her mess miraculously makes me a person safe for the mess of others.

In 2019, let’s stop lying. Let’s stop revising history to make us look good. Let’s be people willing to see our flaws, to name them, to repent of them, and then to enjoy the fruit John talked about. To enjoy each other, because we have lifted our eyes away from our own reflection long enough to see the beauty in those around us. Happy New Year.

 

on resolutions, bias and pooping dogs

We got a puppy about a year ago, and she is worth talking about for a couple of reasons during this season of reflection and resolution.  First, she is a constant reminder that I cannot, in fact, will things to be true that just aren’t.  For instance, I thought adding a puppy would not destroy our lives, give me old lady shingles, and trigger a depressive and exhausting year.  I was wrong.  Maybe she is not to blame for my year of hellishness, but she certainly did not help things.  It is as if our family bus was teetering on the edge of a cliff, and I thought that our new dog would help stabilize said bus.  Instead, she ran full throttle and pooped in the front half of the bus so many times that it plummeted to the depths below (I may or may not have some PTSD-like flashbacks of dog poop on my carpet.).  My misjudgment stems from the truth that we are dog people, and after grieving the death of our beloved first dog-child, I thought we were ready.  I was wrong. (Also helpful is the fact that my husband was adamantly opposed from the beginning.  That is a precious little gift that keeps on giving…).  The point is that choosing to care for others is difficult and does not always go as planned.  In 2018, do it anyway, and perhaps expect the messiness that loving others might require.

The clear presence of diversity among humanity should temper adherence to our own cultural norms. Is it fundamentally unfair for me to project my cultural norms onto you?

The second reason to talk about our dog is that people care a whole lot about gender coding.  One of our favorite mini-series (now that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write AND one that exists with absolutely no context, given that I can’t name another mini-series) is Lonesome Dove.  It is Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in their prime, best friends, poignant, and funny as hell.  Their names are Augustus McCray and Woodrow F. Call.  Naturally, we wanted to name our next dog Augustus, but my sister beat us to it.  And so we have a dog named Woodrow.   A she-dog named Woodrow.  This name leads me often to refer to her mistakenly with a masculine 3rd person pronoun, and apparently that is a big deal (“This is Woodrow, he enjoys chewing on my couch and is a girl.”).  At first I thought the disapproval was a strange manifestation of trans-phobia, but having defended myself for 16 months, I think the angst at my mistaken gendered references comes from a loyalty to dogs.  The outrage seems to surface at the intersection of dog fans and gender binary adherents.  Their incredulity is credible, their passion sincere, and their assumption of righteousness solid: “Why did you give her a boy name? You have to stop calling her a he!!” My response is consistent: “She’s a dog.” 

Apparently our bias about the “right way” knows no bounds, and this should be considered as we reflect on the year behind and resolve for the year ahead.  Bias is a product of intersections among and between familial, socioeconomic, racial, gendered, ethnic, religious, geographical, cultural, linguistic and educational normativity.  Each of us was raised in a specific set of circumstances, and grew to engage in a specific set of circumstances, both of which help shape our assumptions about the world.  Sometimes these norms are codified in a clear way in a family or community setting.  Often though, they simply shape our thoughts, expectations and opinions of ourselves and others.  The perspective from which I view the world is distinctly shaped by these biases and norms.  We all have them and we all do it.  I am not arguing against bias, but pleading for us to examine and name our biases in this new year. 

Any glance to the right or left confirms that we are surrounded by people distinct from ourselves.  This is obvious to all.  And yet, we somehow take our own cultural norms, often utterly unexamined, and project them all over every person we encounter.  The clear presence of diversity among humanity should temper adherence to our own cultural norms.  Perhaps even that is too much to ask, though.  Could we at least agree that we each have biases, that these instinctively shape the way we rank and value the actions of others, and that perhaps it is fundamentally unfair (and a vast overreach) for me to project my cultural norms onto you? 

I am simply arguing that a modicum of self reflection might reveal that my bias shapes the way I view you, just as your bias shapes the way you see me, and perhaps naming those areas of bias could lead to productive conversations in which we explore our differences in the new year. 

Many of us are fabulous at navel gazing in the first month of the year, but we are shockingly ill-equipped to bring a metacognitive gaze to our sense of self possession.  That is to say, we cannot hope to truly see or understand the perspective of another if we have not first stopped to think about the way we think.  When we discover the origins of what we call “normal”, we become curious about what someone else might call normal.  Our postures change from those of accusation and judgment to observation and curiosity.  We begin to look for the origins of the norms that produce certain viewpoints or sets of actions, a crucial skill if we hope to appreciate others. 

This is not a call to abandon our norms as baseless and without merit.  Adherence to cultural norms and traditions can be very important in helping one position oneself as a subject, in identity formation and in the acquisition of agency.  I am simply arguing that a modicum of self reflection might reveal that my bias shapes the way I view you, just as your bias shapes the way you see me, and perhaps naming those areas of bias could lead to productive conversations in which we explore our differences in the new year. 

In Lonesome Dove, Woodrow and Augustus are set in their ways.  They are stubborn bastards who refuse to align their actions with the values of anyone else.  And yet, they both understand and respect the places from which the other comes.  Augustus is never going to work on purpose, and Woodrow is never going to squander the day away.  Their friendship works because they understand the perspective of the other, and this understanding becomes the foundation for establishing value and mutual respect in friendship. 

I took Woodrow on a hike last week, and as we were crossing the field to enter the trailhead, she squatted down to poop.  Is there anything more humiliating?  It is the worst.  I stood there, increasingly self-conscience, intentionally trying not to watch and feeling shame if I made eye contact with anyone.  Good Lord!  What must they think about this atrocious act of...humanity? dogmanity? And then I thought of bias, and was reminded that everybody has one, and nobody wants to admit it.  Every dog has to poop.  Every person carries assumptions around with her that hinder or expand her ability to care about someone else.  And yet, instead of finding camaraderie in the shared experience of exploring and naming our bias, we all stand awkwardly in the park, avoiding connections with others while we pretend like we can’t smell what is right in front of us.  If you resolve to notice and explore your bias, you might find that you become a more curious and compassionate friend in 2018.

resolving with others in mind

The ringing in of the New Year traditionally brings with it a natural time to reflect on the year behind and to think about how to approach the year ahead.  While this can be a time for excessive navel gazing, I think it also offers us a chance to think about the way we interact with each other.  As 2018 begins, we would do well to think beyond how each of us can personally resolve to improve our physical, spiritual or mental health; I am challenging us to also think about our collective health as communities.

What could be possible if we, as a people, moved from postures against, to advocacy for?

The weeks surrounding the New Year are fascinating to me because we acknowledge for a moment that our intentions and resolutions are worth paying attention to.  We understand that these lives we live are fleeting, and that we can do better.  That the way we treat ourselves, our families, and our communities powerfully influences the meaning we make in this life.  Changing that number on the calendar causes almost all of us to recognize that time is moving on, that each of us are aging, changing, surviving, one year at a time.  The loss of control we feel at the relentless progression of time creates a moment where we think about the things we feel we can control.  Thus, we resolve.  We resolve to care more, to create space, to be courageous, to be patient, to be present.  We resolve to actively produce good in ourselves and in our environments. 

The way we treat ourselves, our families, and our communities powerfully influences the meaning we make in this life. 

As we resolve to advocate for ourselves and our families in our thinking and practices, I want to suggest we take advantage of this same moment to observe the way we take stances for or against the people and policies in our greater communities.   In this season of obsessive reflecting and resolving, why not also think about the way we think about our place in society?  Do you have issues you care about?  Is the stance you take primarily negative or positive?  The New Year provides us with a built-in opportunity to resolve to be people who “advocate for” rather than people who “rail against” or, even worse, than people who roll their eyes and shrug their shoulders about the lives of others.

While many of us are committed to advocating for ourselves in our pursuits of emotional, physical and spiritual health, our default perspective in the public sphere is primarily negative.  When I reflect on the year behind, I observe that in small conversations and large interactions, many people approach others primarily through a stance-taking rubric.  I am against X.  The problem with my school/neighborhood/legislative body is the presence of Y.  These negative stances are the result of a paradigm of lack, of fear, and of blame, and they prevent possibilities of collaboration, destroying chances to improve through advocacy and cooperation. 

Many of us engage in the public sphere by being passively against things we don’t like, rather than being engagingly for things we find life-giving and good.  Allow me to be practical for a moment.  If you identify as a pro-life person, do you actually take action to advocate for life or do you demonstrate your stance FOR life mostly by being AGAINST abortion?  A person who resolves to be pro-life could advocate for life by educating themselves about rates of childhood poverty and food insecurity in their city, and then joining with the best non-profits to help lower those numbers.  They could find the best agencies in town who support and care for women navigating unplanned pregnancies, and walk with them as they try to care for their children after they are born and for the years that follow.  They could educate themselves about access to birth control, and work to make sure every woman capable of bearing children can prevent unwanted pregnancy.  They could educate themselves about the best organizations and government programs helping with early intervention and education for babies and young kids whose lives and opportunities are being slowly aborted with each benchmark they miss.  They could evaluate the other stances they take, and commit to align all of them with a perspective that values and affirms the dignity of every created being.  They could decide to be actively, productively, effectively for life.

The New Year provides us with a built-in opportunity to resolve to be people who “advocate for” rather than people who “rail against” or, even worse, than people who roll their eyes and shrug their shoulders about the lives of others.

In these days of the New Year, what if we began to notice the way we resolve to improve the health of the communities in which we live?  Are our resolutions focused on advocating for ourselves alone?  Do we primarily engage with our greater communities through rejection and negative stance-taking?  As 2018 dawns, I want to listen to the way I think about myself, my family, and my city.  It is worth knowing if the ways we think about others is negative and critical.  Those thoughts are not only toxic for our own psyches, they are eventually destructive to the people around us.

In this first week of 2018, as you resolve to create environments where your best self can flourish, join me also in resolving to think about the stances we take in the public sphere.  What could be possible if we, as a people, moved from postures against, to advocacy for? What could be possible if we rejected the idea that being anti-anything creates a positive trajectory? What if we resolved to be people who advocate for the things that engage our compassion and passion?  If we approach society with affirmative perspectives on the resolutions we make, we can move through the world on a foundation of possibility, abundance and hope.