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.

to live well or to fit well (they're not the same thing)

I am new to rowing, and have spent months feeling like an awkward bird learning to take off and fly. Watching crews on a river, imagining The Boys on the Boat, it looks so fluid, even graceful (unlike my festival of knees and elbows). Last week, when a coach at the gym announced we would do a “Progressive Row” for 15 minutes, increasing in power every minute, I did not know where to begin; not knowing what it feels like to row with power, I couldn’t trust myself to experience progress. Uncertain, I checked the screens of the rowers beside me, and although my screen recorded more power (#winning), the truth remained that I had no idea how to pace myself, what to expect, or what to aim for. So I asked. My coach gently (and awkwardly) suggested I pay attention to my own body instead of screens, to notice when my effort was effective and how much it took to exhaust me. Who knew?

 Many of us suffer from a similar inability to pace ourselves in the public sphere and around our own kitchen tables. What are we allowed to care about, to be bothered by, to strive for, or to challenge? Dialogue across lines of difference rarely feels comfortable, and our instincts fail us in the moments we now frequently encounter. If a person makes a comment demonizing or defending all ___________ (choose your own adventure: men, Muslims, private school kids, women, people of color, rich people, the foreign born, home school kids, Jews, white people, teenagers, Christians, impoverished people), do you counter their assertion? If a person says they are pro-life or pro-choice, do you ask them to clarify what policies they advocate and why? If a person subtly roots a political stance in their faith tradition do you ask them to guide you through their exegesis? If a person utters hate speech, or refutes hate speech, in your hearing, how do you respond?

 Like a flailing new rower, we don’t trust ourselves in such conversations, but instead try to mimic those around us, and in the process, lose our voices. When we look to others to pace us, we abdicate responsibility for our own lives. We work to hit targets—and strive to adhere to cultural norms—set by others.

 Adjusting habits to match the pace of others reduces your ability to check yourself (before you wreck yourself). I am currently raising a few teenagers, and they provide a perfect case study: In real time, I watch them decide if they will live by a code established by their peers or orient their choices around their own set of principles—even if it is confusing and messy. Teenagers are famous for this abdication, allegedly jumping off bridges because their friends think it’s a great idea. In them, we see this lack of discernment as a passing deficit, and shake our heads, knowing they will grow out of it.

Do we, though? Many of us have never learned what it means to move at our own pace. Rather than choosing to live in a way that aligns our actions with our beliefs, we often live in a way that is intentionally less (or more) than our peers. Image-driven apps like Instagram and Snapchat spur us to have enough parenting wins to stay with the pack, or to seem as apolitical as our church, or to have as many friends as the rest of our insta-worlds. The damage comparison does to the soul is well documented. Our efforts to impress, to keep up with a pace set by others, to demonstrate our relevance-but-not-outrage, consumes us. It is a never-ending, potentially all-consuming beast that devours our ability to reflect on how to live our own aligned lives. We seem unable to articulate and pursue priorities consistent with our understanding of our place in God’s economy. When we are unwilling to disregard the power of cultural norms if those norms are not healthy, we are stripped of joy and community.

Unsure of how to live well with others, we look around, instead making sure to fit well with our chosen “people.” Choosing comfort, we pick environments where we don’t stand out, or where we share similar fears, hopes and frustrations, assuring us we are on track. We participate in what sociologists call “hivemind” bias, meaning our understandings of identity, beliefs and positions are reached through our loyalty to the group to which we belong. We see ourselves primarily as part of a specific community, and speak not with individual discernment, but as people supporting “our people.” Furthermore, many of us find our people through homophily, a process that leads us to gravitate toward those with whom we share a clear commonality—often related to race, gender, ethnicity or faith. Homophily leads us to huddle in groups of similarity, ignoring any differences and reinforcing perceptions of unanimity by adhering to the thoughts and positions of the group.

 Cultural (or group) norms have a way of quietly replacing our own sense of values. Norms are rarely intentionally established; rather, they develop over time, gaining strength as the instincts and habits of a few people grow and spread, eventually establishing dominance as unwritten rules of society. Blindly adhering to such norms helps increase the power of those who resonate with that culture, while simultaneously marginalizing those whose instincts do not adhere to those cultural norms. You are either loyal to the hive, and therefore relevant and desirable, or you are isolated and without power. No wonder we struggle to speak up.

 For the next few weeks I plan to explore the ways in which we perform our loyalty to our hive, even if it requires us to betray our own values. We find ourselves in a country in which hate speech is ubiquitous, unchecked, and increasingly linked to violence, where our sense of our hive, our “us,” is so strong that any outsider is an enemy, a threat, or invisible, and where norms require us to cheer on anyone who blames the other side, and crucify anyone who asks us to think about the impact and import of our own words. Who is your hive? Has loyalty to your people replaced your own sense of discernment? Do you know what it feels like to pace yourself, or do you look around, frantically trying to figure out how to be a person sharing space in America?

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).