speaking up (even around turkeys)

I am an infuriating parent (Yes, I am sometimes also infuriated, but that’s a discussion for another day). I find phrases that apply to multiple situations, that might hold true over decades, and then I repeat them ad nauseum until my children want to file for emancipation. When they were in the early stages of language acquisition, I heard parents absentmindedly remind their whining children to “use your words.” I understand where this phrase is coming from, and what it is supposed to accomplish. I’m not a fan.

Despite the fact that I don’t tell my kids to use their words, we have to teach children to articulate their perception of their needs, wants and opinions. In our house we use, “speak up.” I say it to them when they are 2 and can’t get the right sounds out, when they are 5 and whining, when they are 9 and punching someone, and when they are 15 and moodily brooding. “Speak up,” I say! Articulate how you feel and what you need. It is crucial in relationships to speak up when you feel uncomfortable, wounded or treated badly.

I suppose we learn to use our words, but many adults don’t know how to speak up. Some of us don’t feel worthy, or are uncomfortable with discomfort, or struggle to find the right words at the right time. There is another reason though. Increasingly, our cultural norms teach us to stay quiet. Norms can be subtle, hard to acknowledge or even recognize, but they hold great power. Lately I have observed the power of norms to help people betray their own stated values. In the cultural context of Nashville, we are taught it is bad manners to disagree. It is rude to argue publicly. It is “getting political” to express concern over dehumanizing policies or speech from an elected official. For many Christians, it is “losing sight of Jesus” to speak up against oppression. It is causing trouble to defend a peer when they are treated unfairly.

Instead, we are taught to stay loyal, even through silent support. Stay loyal to the power in charge, loyal to your tribe, loyal to the status quo. We are primarily committed to our hive, not our convictions. We easily get the two confused, and our cultural norms reinforce the idea that speaking up is not a good idea. I understand these impulses, but as a person trying to imitate the convictions and habits of Jesus, I can’t follow them.

The life of Jesus, as recorded in the Biblical text, is a tale of speaking up. When he publicly announced he was the Messiah, Jesus claimed that he was the One the prophets spoke about. In the early days of the Kingdom of Israel, and later of Judah, the people had a king, but God also gave them a prophet. Prophets spoke up. They reminded the people they had a loving God, and they reminded them God cared about how they treated each other. They challenged kings who led with corrupt power or who led the people to care more about idols than about doing justice and loving mercy. Jesus indeed came to fulfill those prophecies, preaching good news to the poor, and challenging news to the powerful. Over and over he spoke up to defend the vulnerable, to challenge the greedy, to address brokenness. He enraged people with his willingness to rock the boat. He was murdered for speaking up.

And yet, I see the community of folks calling themselves Christians around me rejecting that life altogether. I hear pastors warning against those who speak up, as if they are an example of those who have lost sight of the Gospel. I see the discomfort at lunch if a person utters concern about the policies or bigotry of a “Christian politician.” If the hive says support that person, then an individual in the hive better not speak up in a way that might undermine them, even as an act of faithful obedience to the teaching of Christ. Having lost the will, and atrophied our ability to speak up, we keep our heads down and remain silent when the people who represent us behave and speak badly.

I recently heard about an elementary school in Tennessee where the kids are celebrating Thanksgiving with costumes and a play. The handout told parents their kids could choose to be an Indian or a Pilgrim, and should dress as such. In addition to using a word to describe American First Peoples that they themselves have described as offensive, the assignment contained no suggestion of intercultural awareness, humility or curiosity. I understand why a parent wouldn’t want to speak up. No one wants to be “that parent.” A parent might not feel like they know enough about history to speak up, or might not have time to get involved. What if you did though? What if we could speak up in a way that created new possibilities and offered a way forward for the teacher?

I know one parent who felt uncomfortable but did not speak up. Another taught me how to imagine speaking up in this context. She read the assignment and then asked if she could meet with the teacher. She spoke up with solutions, not accusations, with honesty, not blame. It went something like, “When I read the assignment I was very excited the kids get to celebrate this holiday. I was sad when I saw the word Indians instead of Native Americans. I think this simple change teaches our kids culturally competent language, and helps all kids feel welcome in our classroom. I wanted to offer a few ideas on how we could honor the legacy of First Peoples that we celebrate at Thanksgiving, since our history together is much more complicated than a shared harvest meal. I also totally understand that it might be too late to change for this year, and if we can’t I wanted to let you know I’ll keep my daughter home that day. I want her to understand that pilgrims learned a lot from Native people, and they also abused their trust and treated them badly. With a little tweaking this lesson could teach us to celebrate our good moments and learn from our mistakes.” This is a lot! I get it. But our kids and their teachers deserve parents willing to speak up to improve learning. Remaining silent in this instance teaches a class full of kids false history and to use a word hurtful to other Americans. When is the dignity of other people worth risking your comfort and capitol for? In what situation would you be willing to speak up?

Speaking up is seen as a threat to the status quo because it is a threat to the status quo! Importantly, speaking up does not have to be denouncing. It can be an invitation to reflect, to align one’s actions and behaviors, to be a part of a larger community. Speaking up can start a conversation that never ends where we share the work of making meaning together. Speaking up can inform, creating space for curiosity and examination. This week if you find yourself sharing a large table with a group of people from various hives, can you find courage to speak up when hurtful words are spoken? This Thanksgiving, instead of stuffing down your wounds or discomfort, try to speak up, and see where the conversations leads.

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.