squishy skin and other unmentionables: a path toward belonging

Sitting on a beach near Miami recently, I was struck by all the beautiful bodies. South Florida: land of sensory overload. Bodies seem sculpted, perfected through multiple interventions. Couples look so perfect, so fashionable, that it is easy to believe every other person must be someone famous, right? In a place like that it is tempting to lose your self in the watching of others.

The striking image of one couple is seared in my mind. I have not forgotten seeing them together, and although we did not speak, they taught me a great deal about how to live a meaningful life. I was not struck by their perfect chin lines, yoga arms, mirrored glasses, bangled wrists, or loafers covered in the sheen of wealth. I was not tempted to think they were famous, and I did not envy the perfection they displayed to those around them.

In fact, they were old and flabby, and our only interaction involved me watching them as they put sunscreen on each other.

The man wore swim trunks, pulled up high, just below his rib cage in the way that elderly gentlemen often do. His wife’s face was framed with white frizzy curls, her body in a floral one piece that had seen many a season. They shuffled onto the pool deck together, like so many other retired couples in South Florida. As they began to settle in to chairs, getting out their books and bottles of water, she seemed struck by the ocean before them, and paused, taking it all in. Meanwhile, he reclined, and soon she sat and began putting sunscreen on. She used the good stuff, thick, and so hard to apply one can only hope it created a formidable block to all those carcinogenic rays. Done with the places she could reach, she handed him the bottle, held up her hair, and, without a word, turned around.

He rose from his chaise lounge, poured sunscreen into his hand, and then began to rub it all over her back. She was chunky, so his fingers squished the skin, pinching and rolling her excess, rubbing every square inch, in full public view. In a place where every body is perfect, such a scene felt almost offensive. How brave she was to stand there with her squishy skin exposed! It was a little gross, but I was mesmerized. They were so clearly comfortable together, so aware of their imperfections and their need for each other just to get through a day at the beach, that the eyeballs of the world were irrelevant to them.

It was ugly, but it was also beautiful. (As life often is).

 Here is what they taught me: if we want to be known, to walk through life growing in meaningful connections with others, we have to expose our ugly parts. Many of us can access our desire to belong, to be in easy community, to be a part of an “us.” When told it will require vulnerability, honesty, and exposure, however, most of us decide to pass. We want the easy comfort of being known and loved despite (or, dare I say, because of?) our infirmities, but we don’t want the daunting challenge of admitting we need another person to get all up in our business in order to do life.

We do though. Watching this anonymous older couple forced me to pose a hard question: If I share a lot of life with someone else but s/he never gets to lay hands on my ugly squishy parts, then what am I doing with my time? Moreover, are meaningful, life giving relationships possible if I am always mindful of how much I share, deciding when to be authentically honest and when to hold back just in case it is not safe to go all in?

If we long to be known, cherished and held onto, we have to expose our vulnerabilities.

The hard to reach places on our backs are small reminders that we were made to depend on others. We thrive when we belong, when we are reachable. Interdependency works best when we are open about the parts of us that aren’t camera ready.

As I often find in the beautiful truth of an image that imprints the soul, I also noticed that when we allow ourselves to be touched in the most embarrassing parts, we might find ourselves helped and even protected. Truth be told, the sweet old man was not particularly loving in his sunscreen application; still, he was willing to get messy, all up in his wife’s business, to protect her. The truth is that we can’t make it on our own. We need each other in ways we can’t even imagine. What a worthy thing to know, to say out loud, and to try to live by.

Of course, the best part about all of this is that those places we love to hide are also the places that long for an embrace. When we are touched there, in the spots we want to ignore, we know, deep in our bones, that we are not alone. Such a connection with others is incredibly beautiful, and worth exposing ourselves for. In ways small and large, I suspect we could all benefit from a little less curated image, a little more here I am, in all my (damaged) glory.

 Believing, as I do, that we all carry the imprint of God in our created selves, I suppose the lesson here for me is that we diminish our capacity to thrive in community when we hide any part of our being. While it is true that it is scary to expose ourselves, I suspect it also feels really lovely to be seen, touched and known.

weaponizing civility in an age of authentic meanness

People in my world have lately become consumed with the Enneagram. It is not a new thing; rather, it is a centuries old way of understanding nine perspectives on how to approach and respond to the people with whom we share this earth. Lately, Nashvillians are obsessed. To be fair, other parts of Nashville are annoyed. Supremely annoyed. I was at a party last night, and when a friend came in and heard us talking about enneagram numbers, she rolled her eyes, turned on her heal, and said, “I’m going to get an alcohol.” Hilarious.

According to enneagram teaching, some personality types crave authenticity more than others. For those of us who strive to transparently reflect our own authenticity, we also highly value this trait in others. We struggle to understand how others spend so much energy to project an image that might differ from reality. We struggle to understand how others can work so hard to choose their words carefully rather than just articulating how they feel. We can begin to feel that any effort to revise or improve our interaction with the world is not authentic, and therefore a lie. This is a dangerous assumption.

Incivility is not a sign of authenticity.

While I hear and have contributed to the enneagram mania, I also hear a lot of people wondering where our civility has gone. We find ourselves in an age where incivility seems to impress people, where truth telling is only recognized if it is laced with meanness. Treating each other civilly, with kindness and respect, seems insufficiently weak. Encouraged by our leaders to fear others and blame those who disagree, we see the world through binaries. Because we have often lost the ability to see the many facets of a problem and the myriad possibilities in solutions, we become uncivil. Civility is born out of mutual respect, and I’m afraid if one affirms their respect for an adversary now, one is accused of being inauthentic.

What are authenticity and civility? How do we recognize them? Are they good? Are they inherent or are they products of discipline? I believe humanity is at its best when they are both on display, but I am now aware that for many, these two ideas are diametrically opposed. In the last 2 years, civility has become the enemy of authenticity. Put another way, in many circles, the presence of civility exposes one’s inauthenticity, while incivility confirms authenticity.

This is wildly untrue, and yet easily believed by many of us. It goes something like this:

  • We want leaders who are authentic and who tell the truth, too bad if your feelings get hurt in the process. 
  • Civility doesn’t get stuff done, and I’m tired of tiptoeing around instead of telling it like it is.
  • If you say something that is not politically correct then it means you’re authentic, so I trust you.
  • You cannot authentically believe in this cause and be civil to those on the opposing side; you prove your loyalty to us by being dismissive of them.

I’m interested in how our desire for authenticity affects the way we relate to each other in the public sphere, particularly around the ideas of political correctness and civility. For a segment of the population, authenticity dispels political correctness, and political correctness is a sign of insincerity. This is problematic for at least a few reasons. First, it is based on an idea that the best measure of authenticity is meanness. It suggests that deep down we are all jerks who have disdain for anyone who might contradict or even affect us. It assumes that to be authentic is to be unkind. It assumes that the only way to honestly reflect oneself to others is with rudeness.

Second, it undermines political correctness not just as inconvenient for the speaker, but as a problem for a society who prefers authenticity. It equates political correctness with dishonesty, a supposition that leads a person to best demonstrate her authenticity by violating norms of kindness. In this equation, to be politically correct is to be fake, while being insensitive to or dismissive of others is the mark of authenticity.

Third, when we pit political correctness (or civility) against authenticity and therefore trustworthiness, we create an atmosphere where trustworthy leaders are those with the lowest regard for the value of others. We reward leaders who earn our trust by honestly disparaging others with demeaning authenticity.

Fourth, it is easy for us to mistake civility for political correctness. When being politically correct is the opposite of honesty or authenticity, civility—mistaken for political correctness—becomes a mark of weakness or a sign of untrustworthiness. Accusations of civility are actually weaponized to expose a person as weak and inauthentic. Civility dies when authenticity is misunderstood.

In enneagram parlance, as an 8 with a strong 9 wing, I crave authenticity in making things right, but I hope to do it in a way that elevates everyone’s value. In regular-speak, I hope to remind: You don’t have to be an asshole to be a passionate or effective leader! You are not selling out your cause if you are kind to people with whom you disagree. You can be both authentic and civil. You can tell it like it is in a way that keeps the conversation going, rather than shutting it down. It is easy to blame “them” for our rejection of civility. It is easy to think it is “their” fault that so many of us confuse bullying for refreshing authenticity.

It begins with me though. As a member of society, it is on me to find a way to authentically advocate for my values without damaging others in the process. It is my job to speak with civility even when I passionately disagree. If I can’t do it on my own back porch, or in the break room at work, or in the stands at the ballpark, then I have no business blaming “Washington” for our incivility. Authenticity is not demonstrated through incivility. Let’s stop blaming “them” and instead become authentic leaders committed to civility in our own circles. If we do so, we will expand our notion of “us,” and remember we are a people who need each other.

charlottesville: Part 1

on authenticity and moral authority

In the last week, we have witnessed our leaders, and, more importantly, our friends, struggle to access moral authority in the wake of violent protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville, VA.  Moral authority is a tricky thing, and the outrage resulting from elected leaders’ slippage with the concept reveals many of us are not exactly comfortable with the idea either. It should also be acknowledged that the term ‘moral authority’ is itself fraught, having been misused for centuries to protect power and restrict the freedom and dignity of others.  Indeed, as a person of faith very aware of my own failings, I don’t often wield the sword of moral authority unless it is to help powerless people.  In the context of this week in American public discourse, I find myself defending the idea as a positive counter to ‘moral equivocation.’  Our discomfort, and hypocrisy, in using moral authority stems from a racial and power divide that has holds America.  The majority of those in power—white people—tend to believe that laws are just and that justice prevails.  Those whose primary identity rests in their distance from such power though, understand that a thing can be legal and morally repugnant.  These disparate approaches to justice and the law create a need for moral authority that affirms the dignity of all people, and understands historical context and the fluid nature of normative trends.

These disparate approaches to justice and the law create a need for moral authority that affirms the dignity of all people, and understands historical context and the fluid nature of normative trends.

In his most recent press conference with reporters, held in the gilded halls of the elevator bank of Trump Tower in New York, the president presented a view of his moral framework based more on equivocation than authority:


I will tell you something…you had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that. But I’ll say it right now….You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.

While this offers a condemnation of physical violence, the moral authority is based on the false notion that when we say words that “nobody want to say”, they must be true. The 2016 election exposed this new basis of moral authority for most in our country:

1)    Authority comes from truth.

2)    The best way to spot truth is to look for authenticity.

3)    Authenticity is best measured by a leader’s willingness to say something no one else wants to say. 

Here we find the flaw that has most recently corroded moral authority.  Framing a statement as hard to say does not make it authentic or true.  Sometimes ideas are not repeated in the public sphere precisely because they lack a moral foundation.  Sometimes ideas can be widely shared and be morally reprehensible.  Racism and white supremacy are two of those ideas.  When brash ‘authenticity’ replaces factually grounded historically contextualized statements as the arbiter of truth and fairness, we have lost our grip on moral authority as a society.

In the last 48 hours, much has been said of the moral equivalency drawn by the president between white supremacists and activists promoting the equality of all people.  These groups clashed in Charlottesville, and then:

REPORTER: Mr. President, are you putting what you are calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?

TRUMP: I am not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I’m saying is this: You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and horrible. And it was a horrible thing to watch. But there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You have just called them the left, that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.

REPORTER: You said there was hatred, there was violence on both sides?

TRUMP: Well I do think there’s blame. Yes, I think there is blame on both sides. You look at both sides. I think there is blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it. And you don’t have doubt about it either.

His argument rightly condemns physical violence as a “horrible thing” to watch.  However, the statement, straining to clearly denounce violence and hatred, misses the mark for at least two reasons.  One, the authority on which the statement rests is the president’s willingness to say the thing that others won’t say (“you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is”).  As we just discussed, this is not a sound basis for moral authority.  Second, his statement lacks moral authority because of a willful ignoring of context.  The historical contexts of slavery and the ways in which we have acknowledged and ignored America’s relationship to racism are the contexts we must understand if we are to talk about the way that Charlottesville is a response against and a reflection of the specific cultural moment in which we find ourselves.  More of this in Tuesday’s essay. 

For now, I think our discourse as a society will improve if we examine the relationship each of us have independently established between authenticity and truth telling.  Many of us, longing for community and easily distracted by consuming bits of knowledge, look to social media for our points of connection.  We are more engaged than ever before, and yet depression and anxiety rates are higher—and diagnosed younger—than ever before as well.  These platforms create crucial environmental realities that nurture a desperation for authenticity.  For instance, because we are each now actively involved in producing images and records of our lives, we perform our identities.  These acts demonstrate for us the performative nature of the act of telling, subtly undermining our trust in the truth of the stories others tell.  Our own complicity in telling polished stories about ourselves creates a craving in us for authenticity.  Further, the ubiquity of platforms reveals that every site, author and source possess a bias.  We know this, even if we love reading news that confirms our own bias! The plethora of angles and analysis allows people to consume “facts” about the world that fuel the outrage enjoyed by their particular brand of moral authority.  These realities have created an environment in which we crave authenticity, reordering our priorities to the extent that we applaud authentic hate simply because it feels like the opposite of political correctnessCan we not pursue authenticity and kindness simultaneously?  Must compassion be thrown out as falsely produced weakness?

We applaud authentic hate simply because it feels like the opposite of political correctness.  Can we not pursue authenticity and kindness simultaneously? 

As we examine the cultural moment in which we have allowed authenticity to become a placeholder for truth that can sustain the kind of moral authority we need in the wake of Charlottesville, I’d like to suggest we scrutinize the ways in which we evaluate claims of authenticity.  Are we willing to praise statements that overlook toxic hatred because they feel authentic?  Unchecked, our love of authenticity removes our ability to be outraged by morally repugnant ideas, simply because they are universally held and must therefore be inauthentic.  We have already lost our grip on moral authority; must we also allow meanness to replace honesty as the measure of a person’s authenticity? 

On Tuesday, context for Charlottesville and moral equivalency.