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.

how binaries destroy us: in honor of father john misty

People love to say our country is divided, and it certainly seems to me that it is.  The more interesting observation for my money, however, is on the nature of that divide.  I’m sick of the old ones—and they don’t seem to fit anymore anyway.  Democrat/Republican, urban/rural, public/private, rich/poor, Christian/all-the-others, progressive/conservative, yuppie/hippie, dominant/minority, those who “get it”/those who don’t…they’re all examples of binary thinking that strike me as rather simple, and frankly, as evidence of unexamined thinking. 

And yet, I have whole-heartedly rolled around in such binaries for the last politically-crazed year like my dog in freshly laid mulch: with a relish that is both nauseating and a little baffling.  So why?  Why do we refuse to bring our life experience, which is most definitely un-binary, to bear on the way we describe the tensions we feel with each other?  Why do we pretend that all who kneel do not respect those who served our country, while all who stand do not care about those marginalized by injustice?  The answers lie in understanding the foundational ways in which we relate to and contextualize each other. 

Why do we pretend that all who kneel do not respect those who served our country, while all who stand do not care about those marginalized by injustice? 

I believe our tribal instincts are exacerbated by our immersion in segregated communities.  While most of us live, play and worship in racially and economically segregated spaces, almost all of us connect online in politically segregated arenas.  Our ability to respectfully approach others with curiosity is severely hampered when we only hear attacks about “them.”  The dependence many have on social media to connect with others and validate their own value tends to be—at best—equal parts sincere engagement and performative pandering.  We know this, and feel it in our souls even as we compulsively check our feeds for extrinsic encouragement.  There is a place in each of us that understands we are complicit in participating in this bullshit exchange-space, and this is the place from which our cries for authenticity arise, even as we exchange our own experience of ambiguity for binaries that exclude others and comfort us. 

That for many, President Trump’s shoot from the hip style is refreshingly authentic is hilarious for some and devastating for others.  Some of us know him as an honest and authentic outsider, unsullied by the “swamp.”  Some of us abhor him as a fundamentally selfish and unethical hypocrite, amazed daily that others can’t see through the show.  The former group, despairing in the inability to feel heard and respected by society, celebrate the President as embodying the authenticity they crave.  The latter group think Trump’s election reflects a great mistake, a blip in our otherwise just and thoughtful democracy.  Absurd as it is, the alienation they felt in the last eleven months overwhelms any notion of connection they shared with fellow citizens.  Instead, they buy into binaries.  I sometimes resonate, feeling the fabric of society had been torn, and that I no longer belong to, or even understand those who live on the other side of the binaries we allow to define us. 

I sometimes feel that the fabric of society had been torn, and that I no longer belong to, or even understand those who live on the other side of the binaries we allow to define us. 

For some who allow binaries to define their views of community, they now gravitate toward a new view: that the President exactly reflects the reality of the sentiments held by voters.  In short, Trump is America—or should I say, ‘Murica—and we deserve him.  This may very well be true, and there is certainly daily evidence to support such a claim.  We are hateful and mean, consumed with self, entitled victims.  We are, in fact, bad at taking care of each other.  But we are also really good at it, and my contention is that binary thinking prevents us from recognizing both of these facts.  Thus, viewing the era of Trump through such extremes is insufficient and, frankly, does not offer an analytical framework nuanced enough to understand this moment.  Could it be that we are all selfish jerks and compassionate neighbors?  Could it be that we are all presenting lovely masks of ourselves and taking strides toward authenticity? 

This brings me, with great pleasure, to the person and persona of Josh Tillman, aka J. Tillman, aka Father John Misty.  A folk singer/songwriter/rocker, Tillman presents the most interesting tableau of meta-authenticity I have come across in a spell.  While creating and performing critically and popularly acclaimed music, Tillman is loathed by many who dismiss him as a self-obsessed crackpot philosopher who waxes poetic about the nature of performance in America today.  Yes, maybe.  But his awareness of self, his self-mockery, his ease with conflicting ideas even as he articulates them passionately, makes me a fan.  He deconstructs society’s impulses even as he deconstructs his own drives, all while acting boldly on those drives!  It is hilariously refreshing to hear him think out loud.  For Tillman, the notion of binary thinking is outright absurd, a shoe that does not fit any foot in the kingdom. 

Reading about and listening to Tillman, where ambiguity and nuance organically infuse every thought, offers a clear juxtaposition with destructive and ill-fitting binaries. In processing through this last year, it is evident that we have, as an American culture, adopted what I call a binary cycle, in which our basic notion of self worth arises out of belonging to one side, and this becomes the rubric by which we judge others as well.  Our thinking about others, and, importantly, about self, is dictated by binaries.  Extremes certainly helped elect our President, but they have also reduced us to thinking almost exclusively in terms of us and them.  Tillman is a reminder that these binaries, and the biases to which they give birth, are, in fact, the foundation of our fractured society.  This is why American society has fallen with no means to get up.

(But there I go again.)  No we haven’t.  Our society is not defined primarily by our binaries.  We demonize “them” all day long, but we are also a compassionate people who often care sacrificially for others.  In Nashville, TN, in the midst of the travel ban on majority-Muslim countries and the halting of refugee resettlement, agencies who work with immigrant and refugee populations were flooded with volunteers and donations.  Also in Nashville, gun violence has risen dramatically in parts of the city inhabited mostly by minorities.  While many people with power seem oblivious to this crisis, some of us are starting to notice curiosity among those who heretofore have refused to link gentrification, education and development policies to the displacement, disruption and despair of many marginalized communities.   I see evidence every day that we all have a capacity to care about “them.”  We the people are totally selfish and greedy, and generous and compassionate.  We are not a binary, and when we think of ourselves and others through a binary lens we lose sight of ourselves and destroy the very fabric of society that still holds us together.

Our society is not defined primarily by our binaries.  We demonize “them” all day long, but we are also a compassionate people who often care sacrificially for others.

So this is my call, in honor of  those who kneel and stand, and in thanks to our dear Father John, to invite more of us to join his conversation.  Can we begin to recognize how binary thinking dehumanizes ourselves and others?  Can we reject totalizing statements and replace them with curious listening?  Can we create new habits of recognizing our commonalities before only seeing divides?  Can we reject binaries in favor of expanding our us?