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.

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 privilege: the problem with weaponizing words

Few phrases are more polarizing than “white privilege.”  I live, write, teach, parent and work at the intersection of wealth, race, religion and politics, so I regularly witness how this phrase is accepted as true and rejected as utter horseshit, depending on the audience.  Part of what makes my life so ‘beautiful ugly,’ to borrow a West Indian phrase, is the reality that every day I talk to people who do not believe the same things I believe about the world.  We certainly interact with people whose experiences do not reflect our own in any way, but some of us are functionally isolated, and cannot conceive that other views of the world even exist.  These distinct realities exacerbate the ever-expanding political divides we suddenly noticed in the fall of 2016, and we now seem to live in a world in which we cannot accept the lived experience of another, let alone understand terms that help explain such diverse realities.

Even though it is often perceived as such, an acknowledgement of the existence of privilege is not itself an act of aggression.  Privilege is a dynamic in every type of community, real or imagined. 

White privilege is such a term: terribly helpful and utterly divisive.  For folks who understand American culture as one that instinctively privileges whiteness, this phrase describes the result of a history of unchecked bias and power.  For other folks in my community, this label is an aggressive attack and a callous dismissal of hard work.  I have had the privilege of teaching about America’s history with racial divides, our fruitful attempts at protest, and our slow path toward acknowledgement and reconciliation to rooms full of people whose experiences share little in common.  The tiny needle I try to thread, as a starting point, is to convince sincere but sheltered white Americans that our society is deeply racist and that white privilege is both real and not a personal indictment against them, while simultaneously not “losing”—for lack of a better term—the people of color in the room.  At times, in trying to offer a working definition of white privilege, I sense a collective eye roll…from EVERYone.  How do we learn to identify with, acknowledge and challenge a concept so critical to discussions about equity and reconciliation when we can’t even begin the conversation without losing everyone in the room?

One of the problems with talking about privilege is that we tend to think in terms both too large and too intimate.  We use totalizing language about how people “always act,” resorting to stereotypes and worst-case scenarios.  Not helpful.  On the other extreme, we take any mention of history or statistics to be a personal indictment, as if anyone who acknowledges an unjust status quo thinks I am to blame for societal inequities.  Also not helpful.  Having experienced these two reactions, I think it best to first explore how cultural norms are established and eventually privileged, outside of a racial construct. 

When the concept of privilege is either used to attack others, or is perceived as an attack, productive conversations cease. I want people to understand privilege in all its forms, from cultural to religious to power to wealth to race, but weaponizing the term to put someone on edge incentivizes no one to reflect on their own areas of privilege. 

Can we admit we all experience moments of privilege?  Privilege is a reflection of cultural preferences and power dynamics in any environment.  Rather than articulating the role privilege plays in injustice, perhaps a productive line of inquiry leads us into micro-settings in which privilege plays a role.  Consider Oberlin College and MIT.  Given their draw to boundary pushing, artistic minds, or savant-esque math and coding brains, respectively, these two environments privilege very different types of people.  If you are a person who seeks and celebrates beauty, who values counter-cultural creativity, then Oberlin might be the place for you.  At MIT, on the other hand, the dominant culture values logic, systems’ thinking and order. While wonder and creativity certainly play a role in the way engineers engage the world, an emphasis might be placed on understanding and deconstructing, rather than on appreciating and creatively engaging.  Those who view the world through an artistic lens are privileged at Oberlin.  At MIT, a systematic, computational mind is privileged as superior. 

The norms of these universities do not exist to demonize one type of person; instead, they are the natural result of perspectives shared by the majority stakeholders of each institution.  Privilege, in that way, does not represent a moral good or reveal an intentional hierarchy that is foundationally rooted. Instead, the existence of privilege simply reflects a reality that certain people will receive a warmer welcome, an assumed sense of belonging, and the benefit of the doubt.  People who do not share the perspective of the dominant group—whether because of their point of view, gender, language, ethnicity or race—face implicit and explicit barriers to being appreciated, valued and welcomed.

Privilege exists in every environment, and most observant people recognize the power of norms to protect the status quo and the privilege it provides to those who share the dominant culture.  Indeed, at the micro level, many types of racial privilege exist.  For instance, I know white women who try to connect with black colleagues in a majority black office, or black women who try to volunteer in a majority white Parent Teacher Organization, both of whom feel like there is an invisible barrier they cannot cross, relationships to which they do not have access. My point here is to remind us that the acknowledgement of the existence of privilege is not itself an aggressive claim.  Privilege is a dynamic in every type of community, real or imagined. 

When the concept of privilege is either used to attack others, or is perceived as an attack, productive conversations cease.  White privilege is a phrase sometimes weaponized by those advocating to halt increasing inequities across our communities.  Those of us who are troubled by polarization in society know that underestimating and simultaneously protecting privilege is the root of segregation and inequality in society.  I want people to understand privilege in all its forms, from cultural to religious to power to wealth to race, but weaponizing the term to put someone on edge incentivizes no one to reflect on their own areas of privilege.  When I privilege my perspective on privilege, I sometimes spew the term out as an accusation against white or wealthy or male or Christian others.  This is not helpful.  Like a driver who ignores the impact of her choices on those with whom she shares the road, a person accusing others of white or wealth or male privilege, making no effort to continue a conversation or contextualize our places in society, is inadvertently privileging her perspective on privilege.  My hope is that if we deconstruct the way we use this term, perhaps we can lower defenses long enough to encourage the open observation of our own areas of privilege, and then begin to ask at whose expense—if any—we maintain our place.  

Next week I will discuss the realities of white privilege, the damage it does to all of us, and unpack the defensiveness and difficulty that follow our use of the term.  If we don’t learn to keep the conversation going, we will never form a more perfect union.