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).

not political? get practical: 5 ways to stop being the problem

Last week’s essay made the case that the problem with our current national public devolution is not outrage or political involvement. Rather, our apparent inability to communicate with each other is a result of our obsession with ourselves, our restricted interaction with people whose life experience differs from ours, our clear commitment to prioritize that which furthers our agenda, and our discomfort with ambiguity. I heard from friends who read, nodding, grateful tears running down their faces, and from friends annoyed that I suggested “outrage” or “getting political” could ever be a valid option (and many people in between!). Here’s the thing: We all agree we are really, really bad at talking with each other about the state of America right now; we shake our heads, tisk our lips, and roll our eyes at the state of us, but we fail to recognize that we are both part of the problem and have infinite resources to change our behavior.

I’m a college professor, and I regularly tell my students that we adults have utterly failed them. That we are terrible at talking to each other. That we seem to have no ability to lean in to the lives of people whose experiences differ from ours. That we are actually not the kind of adults anyone should want to be. They laugh, but some of them agree with me. When I remind them that it takes difficult work to recognize our own bias, to admit that the problem in not “out there” but “in here”, that we are deeply lazy, selfish people who love to blame others instead of doing what we can do to make things better, a few of them get a panicked look in their eye, because they know they will turn into us if they don’t find a different way to be in the world.

In an effort to promote a different way to be in the world, this week I’d like to offer suggestions on how to stop screaming at your television/radio/neighbor and instead invest in your own environment, changing the way “normal” is done around you. There are many ways to respond to the Kavanaugh hearings. Decrying public engagement or passion as ridiculous, shallow outrage, is not helpful in my view. Here are a few practical suggestions that might serve the cause of justice and promote communal flourishing as we all learn to be better grown ups who share a country and a neighborhood.

 1)   Don’t undermine women in your life. Don’t use phrases like “middle school girl drama” to describe grudge-holding or silly bickering. Remove gendered insults from your vocabulary. Treat women as if their value and importance to society go far beyond their physical endowments. Teach them to speak up for themselves and then listen and respond when they do so. Don’t talk trash about your mom or mother-in-law, your boss or your waitress.

2)   Instead of raging about the inequality displayed in the Senate, take inventory of your own power. In your home, community or place of work, how are people respected and how is gender navigated? How do you show respect, and who do you silence? Who gets the benefit of the doubt and who is treated with skepticism? Clean up your side of the street, in the places you live and play and work. If you are privy to sexist or denigrating comments, whether sexual in nature or gender-based hyperbole, speak up! Let people know that you are neither safe for male locker room talk nor for females bashing males.

3)   Don’t confuse young men with conflicted and gendered teaching. In the South especially, young men are taught to protect women, to open their doors and to carry their things. Often, the same men who teach these lessons tell off-color jokes, clearly appraising women’s bodies with their eyes. They extend their “protection” of women to a patronizing withholding of information from women: ‘I don’t trust your ability to function in stress or to contribute to solutions’ gets phrased as, ‘I didn’t want you to worry.’ Don’t tell young men to treat women one way and then undermine that with your own behavior.

4)   Openly engage in the world around you. Refute the bullshit that paying attention or commenting on the political arena is somehow hysterical or an act of outrage. If men can grow up so insulated, with such privilege, that they regularly got blackout drunk and violatingly handsy with women in their paths, yet still demand the respect of others, we should be outraged! If a man spent a career respecting others, admitting mistakes, making amends, and applying the law to society in just ways, but was falsely accused of multiple counts of sexual assault, we should be outraged! If a woman’s understanding of her own body, safety and sexuality was badly impacted by an early assault from an entitled peer, we should be outraged! If our elected officials acted to further a conspiracy of damaging lies, or looked the other way when someone committed multiple counts of perjury, or acted to protect powerful unrepentant sexual assailants, we should be outraged! The presence of outrage does not presuppose an unhealthy person. Engage in the world around you, and consider what will make you speak up, or in whose defense you will stand. If there is no scenario that might make you speak, or gently disagree with a friend, or defend a person your circle has dismissed, then ask yourself what holds your love and loyalty.

5)   Know your history. Face the sexism and abuse and misogyny that has carried our country along. Explore the dark activities we have called normal. Educate yourself on the differences in patriotism and nationalism, between leadership and greed. Look into the divides between who we teach our kids to be and who we are when no one looks or no one cares. Many of our recent public moments could help us face a culture that excuses or even encourages behavior that destroys or handicaps lives. Don’t allow one person to be the anomaly; look for patterns and find your own places of compromise. Face the reality of our past, confront our present, and change the future.

 Our choosing of sides is problematic. Our love of finger pointing, blame, victimization and outrage are absurd. Our jump to accusation and defense are not helpful. But they aren’t the main problem. The answer is not to back away. Apathy is not a spiritual gift. Standing aloof will not bend us toward justice. Perhaps the answer is to get more involved, more engaged. What can you do, tomorrow, to be a part of the solution, rather than blindly being a part of the problem you complain about?

bad manners: how we talk politics

This week is election week in Middle Tennessee, and that means the phone calls and door knockers are out in droves. Sometimes the eager human standing on my porch has such a painful combination of nervous earnestness that I am tempted to say I’ll vote for a candidate I find unacceptable in almost every way. My favorite moment so far has been with a nearly prepubescent-looking young man who came to the door. I was dressed inappropriately, my daughter looked abandoned as she stood crying for juice with her hair only half braided, and I was holding onto my dog’s collar for dear life as she tried to attack our visitor (or maybe escape to her freedom in the civilized wilds of our neighborhood). Despite the fact that it clearly was NOT a good time, my young guest launched into his shpeal. I already supported his candidate, so I tried to listen, hunched over to hide my pajamas, clutching the dog with one hand while unsuccessfully attempting to smooth my daughter’s hair with the other. We crossed the Rubicon of reasonable interaction when I realized he was determined to use his entire script, and was actually trying to casually get to know me so he could discern which issue he should emphasize. After a few failed attempts to ask me to chat about my background or neighborhood, I tried to gently but abruptly say, “This is really not a great time for me to have a conversation, but I am grateful you are on our street, and I appreciate [specific things] about your candidate, and I’d love a yard sign. Thanks for stopping by.” If there is a way to be both gentle and abrupt, I don’t know it, so I’m sure my supportive words were diminished by my haggard and rushed delivery. Indeed, I think we all felt relieved it was over (except for the damn dog!).

If we are unwilling to talk with people about our evolving views on life in a civil society, are we not helping sustain an uncivil one? 

I have equal parts admiration and cringiness for such campaign volunteers.  Admiration because they believe so strongly in the necessity of an informed and engaged citizenry that they brave the heat, wild animals, hostile encounters, and awkward interactions with people like me just to tell us an election is coming and they have some thoughts to share! I admire their effort and determination. I cringe because they don’t know who will open the door: an ally or an adversary. Yesterday a representative called to tell me, with nary a pause for breath, that her candidate was committed to American values, not lying and politics-as-usual, just like President Trump. She went on to say we needed more tax relief for job creators, less government regulation, and a solid governor who was very pro-life and very pro-gun. I attempted to abruptly but gently (again, not possible) interrupt her to say, “I appreciate you calling but I don’t think it is possible to be “very” pro-gun and pro-life and I think most of those policies would be terrible for our state. Thanks for calling though!” As the call ended, I wondered why I didn’t ask her what she cared about instead of simply trying to get off the phone. Could I engage a person reading a script like that to ask them how de-regulation will help the citizenry, or how being pro-gun lines up with being pro-life? I know these positions make sense politically, but how are they aligned in real life? Do they come from the same ethical framework? She might have had a compelling argument, and I could have learned from her. Instead, I gave my opinion and ended the call, as if a conversation was not even possible.

Is it possible to discuss politics without getting defensive or aggressive? The lack of conversations like the one I imagined above is directly linked to the divisive speech and acts that fill our public sphere. We don’t know how to talk to each other about the things we care about. We don’t know how to care about our own interests and the interests of others. Even worse, we aren’t allowed to wonder aloud about the things we aren’t fully sure about.

It is considered bad manners to bring up political issues at many supper tables or work lunches, but I am advocating for exactly that. In an age in which some of our news, most of our political ads (and many Presidential tweets, for that matter) seem to stand alone, beyond any context or factual evidence, face to face discourse about issues or candidates is a remarkable thing. What if, instead of thinking it was bad manners to talk politics, we tried to talk about our hopes or convictions or understanding of economics and regulatory processes with other people?  What if we talked about school board candidates with people whose kids go to Title 1 schools, charter schools, and zoned schools, or with principals, teachers and folks who work in the central office? If we only discuss such things with “safe people” (aka people with whom we agree), then we are far more likely to vote in an uninformed way.

If we are unwilling to talk with people about our evolving views on life in a civil society, are we not helping sustain an uncivil one?  I know many have been burned in political conversations that go off the rails; however, it seems to me that we are trapped in a prison we are all actively building.  We say, “I just can’t imagine supporting that person” or, “How on earth does X think it is okay to believe this while voting for that?” What if we instead directly asked, “Will you help me understand your thoughts on this candidate (or this issue)?” or, “I honestly struggle with part of the platform. What are your thoughts?” Some folks know exactly what they believe, while others struggle to coherently justify their voting record. Those with strong beliefs need not bully those who are uncertain. Imagine being the person others come to in order to learn about an issue or a candidate. Imagine being a person who engages in conversations not to persuade or to win, but to understand, to inform, and to open new possibilities for thinking. Political conversations require patience and curiosity; it requires humility to realize you might not have thought through every possible outcome or implication of your position. Nevertheless, such conversations are necessary! If we don’t like our political climate, we need to talk face to face about candidates and issues with one another. Let’s make apathy, bullying and ignorance bad manners. Let’s talk with each other.