a break to recover compassion

The news of the week lands hard on our weary hearts. As synagogues grieve and grocery shoppers are gunned down for existing, troops head to the border to confront weary folks walking north. I have so many thoughts about how we got here, where we are headed, and what our “I’m not the problem, you’re the problem” culture means for all of us.

Tonight though, life got in the way. The essay of the week will have to simmer until I find the 5th dimension of time needed to get it all done. Instead of writing, I was present for a hurting person. Knowing what I had to do, I somehow saw that the lament needed a witness for the possibility of ending in hope, rather than despair. Witnessing and bearing the burden of someone’s pain is never the wrong choice.

I will offer this in the space I leave: One of the many casualties found on the side of the road these days is our impulse for compassion. I am not speaking here of compassion-based progressive policies. Instead, I muster the strength to barely whisper: The impulse to move toward a grieving person is not an endorsement of their ideology. Stance taking is not required to acknowledge another person in need. It is not inherently “political” to recognize a person in pain.

We have been hoodwinked into believing we pick teams first, letting that determine who is worthy of empathy or human connection. Can I simply suggest that you fight to free your impulse toward charity? Go ahead and pick sides, get in the arena and advocate for policies you support. In the process though, grab the hand of hurting people as you walk through your day. Lean in and make eye contact, offering a smile to a person waiting in line. Recover your ability to see people, to let compassion or curiosity drive you closer to them, BEFORE you let politics tell you if they are worthy of your belief. Before you weigh the way your compassion will be interpreted by others.

Endorse connection, a human seeing another human, before you decide who you are allowed to hear or see. The lives I get to see up close are working really hard to get through the day. Kindness says little about the righteousness of the recipient, and a great deal about the value of the contributor. Be kind, present, compassionate, and let those connections prevent you from buying the lie that life is about picking sides (even when election day is one week away).

the destruction of defensiveness: listening is hard

If you haven’t had the privilege of being around fighting kids in a while, allow me to reassure you: They still do, usually for ridiculous reasons. Another fun fact: Kids are wildly hypocritical. And so are we.

For instance, one of my kids is fond of calling his brothers “tattle tales.” It makes him furious when he gets outed for being less than awesome.  In his mind, no sin of his is even remotely as egregious as the act of exposing said sin to a nearby adult. He can’t deal, and it makes him not only blind to his original sin, but fuels his righteous indignation at the poor kid who reported him.  He gets mad at the conversation instead of the act that caused the conversation.  Even worse, despite his firm stance against others disclosing his bad acts, he is known to throw a brother under the bus. In other words, he who hates a tattle tale is, in fact, a tattle tale.

While defensiveness is common, it is lazy, destructive, and selfish; we have to do better. 

Thank God we have outgrown such childish ways, right? Not so fast, my friends.  We know that defensiveness destroys collaboration; indeed, we see how destructive it is in others.  A friend snaps at another friend, but explodes when she is called on it instead of saying, “yep. My bad.”  A subordinate at work fails at an assignment, and rather than admit it and learn, he makes excuses.  A leader who is interviewed gets the inevitable question, “Any regrets?”, and responds with deflection, doubling down on bad choices as “the right choice at the time.”  It is easy to see how ridiculous others are when they fail to listen and then reflect on how they might become healthier.  In someone else, it is easy to see the willful ignorance required to deny a bad outcome or one’s own role in it.  It is much harder to avoid defensiveness when our own relationships (or sense of right-ness) are on the line.

In the last year, voices deemed hysterical or whiny or angry by those in the American majority have been elevated.  By some miracle that I don’t fully understand, many Americans now listen to women who claim #metoo, and are wondering what can change to ensure men do not treat women as objects to be assessed, groped or raped.  Many Americans now listen to those who are pleading for black lives, and are wondering what can change to ensure black lives do, in fact, matter.  Many Americans now listen to rural voices who have lost jobs and respect, and are wondering what can change to ensure we don’t ignore voices outside the city center in planning for our future.  Many Americans now listen to the voices that claim Confederate statues actively erase important parts of our history, and are wondering what can change to ensure we recognize and hear our whole history.

But many others feel attacked when those voices utter a word.  When we hear the story of another as a personal attack on ourselves, we don’t hear those voices.  Defensiveness and listening are mutually exclusive activities. A few weeks ago I wrote about Generation Bruh, and how my white son’s response to reading about Emmett Til’s murder was disgusted outrage.  Importantly though, his outrage was laced with defensiveness.  As a white male reading about horrible violence committed by other white males, he felt attacked.  I was dismayed by his defensive response to Til’s murder, and yet it reveals the destructive and pervasive reality of defensiveness in our American momentIf a person lives in the majority, is served well by the status quo, and has experienced a merit-based fairness in the systems of society, it is very easy to feel defensive when confronted with evidence that suggests injustice abounds. This feeling of defensiveness is heightened when the reality sets in that the people who often benefit from this abuse of power look like you. 

Defensiveness and listening are mutually exclusive activities.

The jump from recognizing injustice to feeling blamed for injustice is a short one for many of us.  We live in a largely segregated (and gender coded) society, and such divisions have kept us not only from having authentic relationships with each other, but also from understanding different versions of ‘reality.’  I assume that my understanding of history is the THE way to understand history, and I have no need to hear about the experience of another (especially one who might discount my understanding).  Defensive responses stem from feeling attacked, and are clear indications that many of us have one-sided historical understandings.  When confronted with diverse realities, our own perception of America is disproved as perhaps incomplete, and it is easier to react defensively than face the injustices pointed out by others.

It is quite hard to be an informed person in the United States and not know that our history, systems, institutions and laws favor white, wealthy, increasingly urban, males.  The fact that defensiveness is a leading response to this reality is absurd to me, but it also makes sense.  The weight of historical and current injustice is SO overwhelming that many of us cannot bear it.  We resort to a defensive posture out of self-protection.  Something deep within us wants to cover our eyes and ears and cry, “It’s not my fault! It can’t be true! What do you want me to do about it?”

Whether we feel overwhelmed or personally attacked, defensiveness is a privileged response.  It ruins relationships, prevents honest reflection and hurts our chances to collaborate or improve.  Rather than listening to understand the perspective of another, we end communication, absolving us from reflection, abolishing our potential need to make amends, and delegitimizing the initial problem.  As long as I respond defensively—like a child yelling, “tattle tale!”—I do not have to engage in the revealed pain of another.  I do not have to confront the histories or inequities I have erased or ignore.

I want to posit that while defensiveness is a common approach, it is lazy, destructive, and selfish; we have to do better.  My teenager is learning to make sense of the world, and I hope defensiveness is only one step in a long journey toward an awakening into his place in the world.  If we hope to offer Generation Bruh help or wisdom, we must confront our own delusions, legacies and defensiveness.  Whose histories have we erased? When do we feel attacked or overwhelmed? Whose experiences do we diminish? How do we respond to the pain of others? 

on thanksgiving

It is strange to think Americans have a holiday set aside for gratitude, as if we accidently still believe that saying thank you is so important we need some time off to do it properly.  I love it.  I love the fact that it is a 4 day holiday for many people, a holiday in which the stressful part happens on the first day, leaving 3 days to just be.  The first time my husband and I decided not to do the Thanksgiving Dash, where we tried to see our two families in two different states in five days, we felt like we had discovered the country’s best-kept secret.  It was like a Christmas Miracle to spend a day watching parades while we cooked scrumptious food for friends, followed by a 3-day pajama/football/leftover fest.  If you have never not travelled, I highly recommend it!  For this week set aside to give thanks, I offer a few moments of gratitude….

In my life I have found that the degree to which I recognize my own vulnerability—confessing it to God and others—is the degree to which I am able to create space for others to recognize their vulnerabilities. 

I’m grateful to know my need.  This year has shown me that I am vulnerable, and that I am privileged to live a life in which my vulnerability is not evident to all.  But it’s there, and my efforts to conceal it or expose it deeply shape the way I engage with others.  In my life I have found that the degree to which I recognize my own vulnerability—confessing it to God and others—is the degree to which I am able to create space for others to recognize their vulnerabilities.  When I hold my own desperation loosely, allowing it to shape my identity, I am better able to see and interact with people who struggle with their own insecurities by offering them dignifying compassion and empathetic companionship.  I am thankful for an increasing awareness of my need.

I am grateful for the circle of failure I am in.  (Let’s be honest, most days I am NOT grateful for failure in myself or others.)  I can’t deny that this year I have had to work relentlessly to battle despair, anger and cynicism, and yet I have often fundamentally failed at basic civil relationships.  I have been profoundly lonely, alienated from the people I grew up around, from fellow citizens, and from many people who claim the same Christ I love.  Being ticked all the time doesn’t work though.  I am grateful for a growing awareness that I cannot live reacting with anger and judgment.  I am working to find another way to appreciate others, even when they baffle me.  I am working to replace judgment with curiosity, cynicism with hope, and apathy with constructive engagement.  This work is miraculously beginning to change my instincts: If I believe all people are created in the image of God then I cannot dismiss anyone as ridiculous, bigoted or unworthy.  This awareness is forcing me to lean on grace, to rely consistently on a force outside myself to care well for others.  It requires me to realize that ‘there but by the grace of God go I’ into grudge-holding and finger-pointing meanness too.  I am grateful that I am constantly aware that I have a huge capacity to dismiss and judge others, and that it takes miraculous intervention to live differently.

Protesting unjust systems is not bad manners, but an acknowledgement of entrenched injustice and a belief that we the people can form a more perfect union together.

Finally, I am thankful for discomfort.  Protests make me uncomfortable, because I instinctively think there must be another way.  A nicer way.  A less disruptive way.  A more mannerly way.  However, immediately questioning the motives or methods of every protest suggests that the status quo is always just.  The status quo is not just for all people.  I have discovered this year that my discomfort with protest is not about the disruption or the activism; I believe both are necessary when we live in a racial and socioeconomic hierarchy.  Our laws and habits and systems are wrong all the time, and we have to work together to improve them.  Protesting unjust systems is not bad manners, but an acknowledgement of entrenched injustice and a belief that we the people can form a more perfect union together.  My discomfort comes from the binary reaction to such protests.  If you support Black Lives Matter then you must loathe police.  If you kneel during the anthem then you have no respect for our military.  On the other hand, if you are pro law-and-order, you must be a bigot.  If you think it is disrespectful to kneel, then you are racist.  These reactions enflame our worst projections, and prevent nuanced conversation.  They are labels and positions that do not reflect the vast majority of us.  They ignore the possibility that we could listen to learn instead of blindly reacting to each other in anger.  They destroy the likely reality that most of us can find merit in the perspectives of both sides.  I am grateful this year for these lessons, lessons I only learned because so many brave officers, protestors, veterans and players decided to stand or kneel or march or listen or speak up for vulnerable others.  I am grateful to realize that each of these issues is not two-sided, but multifaceted and complicated, and require us to all work together.  I am thankful my discomfort with our reactions to protests taught me to find another way, to educate myself and others, and to get involved in legally changing unjust laws and practices. 

This awareness is forcing me to lean on grace, to rely consistently on a force outside myself to care well for others.

In short, need, failure and discomfort have been my greatest teachers this year, and I am profoundly thankful.  These experiences sometimes result in despair, blame and anger, but they are more often leading me to see how I have been part of the problem, and I can work to become a part of a way forward.  Perhaps we could all do well to shout fewer positions and instead ask more questions.  Maybe we could all do well to point fewer fingers and instead listen to our own unfair and angry inner voices?  Might we all do well to examine our need, our failure and our discomfort for the gifts hidden therein?

Happy Turkeys, all!  Next week, I will begin writing about Advent, a season of expectancy important to those in the Christian faith.