aim higher: on time and labor

As another Labor Day passes, it is helpful to stop and take stock of why we pause, how we work, and why we rest. We Americans, in particular, derive a lot of value from our relationships to work. Our national mythology is wrapped up in the idea that hard work and an independent spirit are powerful enough to eliminate every other factor that might hinder our success. Our national origin story stems from the ongoing idea that we Americans are exceptional, that we are destined for glory because we determine to work at a thing until we achieve more than anyone thought possible. We pretend our work gives us control over time, and so we commit everything to work. This American Dream and our shared American stories merge to produce a red, white and blue baby who finds unlikely success because she works harder than everyone else, ignoring the deficits of her past and determined to keep moving forward, convinced that sacrificing her health now will secure her well-being down the road.

The commitment to ignore limitations as we find all value in productivity is uniquely American. Because we are convinced that our hard work will set us apart and reveal our worth, we are invested in our own upward trajectories. Time, for most of us, moves in a linear fashion, climbing upward we hope, but always moving forward. Rest then, unproductive as it is, is not valued. As a society we are invested in moving along, in facing the future, in improvement.

 Time doesn’t always behave within the constraints we give it though, does it? We work hard, committed to our own narratives of ascension, only to be rejected, forced to face the same failure or insecurity over and over again. We do all the right things, marching along the straight line we planned for ourselves, only to find that a career surprise, a struggle with mental or physical health, a tragedy, or a slower-than-expected relationship reality derails the benchmarks scheduled on our linear paths. We work to heal from a would in our past, only to find ourselves panting, hearts racing, as sweat runs down our back. Panic and anxiety defy time, forcing us to relive traumatic moments or to be stuck in our current one with no clear path forward.

In much of the global east and south, time is held differently than here in America. Instead of a linear path moving in a straight line from the past into the future, time’s nature is recognized as cyclical. Time moves along, and then doubles back; the future and past are inextricably linked, identities evolving and deconstructing simultaneously. America’s insistence on forward motion can offer hope that things need not stay as they are; however, the progress of time does not erase the lived experience of the past. Instead, notions of cyclical time have a way of making space for the past to coexist with the present. The all that you have seen and known and been is very present with the all that you currently experience. Cyclical time takes away the power of chronic productivity and control by acknowledging the mystery of time and the balance discovered through rest.

This weekend, my niece turned 7, and family and friends gathered to celebrate her joyful, resilient life. It was a wild celebration of loud fun, and we were mostly fully present and grateful for her birthday. We were simultaneously swimming in grief though, because every year of her life her big brother had a birthday the day after hers. Her birthday and his are inextricably linked together, but this year he is gone and his birthday marks a terrible absence. A cavernous longing. In the same 2 days we celebrate her life and possibilities in this very moment, while also reliving so many birthdays from years’ past. Time cycles on time so that we live both the present and the past, the joy and pain, together.

The holy scriptures of the Torah speak of a God who knows that time is both linear and cyclical. Time moves, but the present can’t be fully appreciated unless it is experienced in the context of the past. Throughout the record of God’s relationship to the Israelites, God often says, “Remember this moment when you caught a glimpse of who I am and of who you are. Build something in this spot so that you won’t forget. Tell your kids about our encounter as you go about your day. Carry this day with you because it will impact your experience of every future day.” God, in these scriptures, knows that time and memory are much bigger, much more mysterious, than a simple chronological line.

In this series on the disconnect between what we tend to say is true about our existence and how we live in our existence, we must notice that our dependence on hard work, on a better deal coming tomorrow, on time marching on, severely limits our ability to embrace the wonderful mystery of life. We don’t know—on any given day—if our best days are ahead or behind. We don’t know if the moments we now wish would end will be the same we soon long for. We do know that our experience of time is never as straightforward as we have been led to believe. Instead, time marches along and loops back on itself. At times we find ourselves released to be present today with little worry to yesterday or tomorrow, while at other times we find ourselves humbly thankful that the past can still feel incredibly close, shaping our now.

Today can be new, but it doesn’t mean yesterday can’t continue in beautiful ways within us. Watching my niece blow out her candles, I experienced joy in the miracle that we get to celebrate her life in the midst of such awful sadness. Infused throughout those moments was a palpable and shared deep grief that her brother was not standing next to her, his own cake next to hers. And yet. He was there. He was present in every single heart that wrestled to make space for the joy and the sadness. The present and the past. Creating room within our cyclical realities for work and rest is important if we hope to share each other’s stories and engage our present moments, pregnant as they are with the past.

Holding on to cyclical time in a country committed to linearity is labor, indeed.

aim higher: how we think about men

“I know how to do it at school, but I don’t know how to do it at home.” Our four year old daughter loves to yell at me, perched atop the toilet near our kitchen. Yesterday, after telling her I could not leave the stove to watch her pee, she demanded I come wipe her. I reminded her she knows how to take care of herself, and does it at school all the time. That’s when she whine-yelled the sentence above on loop for several minutes.

Her reasoning was ridiculous, but I have a feeling she learned it from us. Many of us have standards for behaviors that vary based on our setting. For instance, I am more likely to yell at someone who angers me at home, but I have yet to do so at work. My kids’ behavior at home reminds me of wild elephants that are occasionally affectionate but always leave a wake of destruction in their path. I sincerely hope they do not behave that way in other people’s homes. My own mother has wished for years that I had different standards of clothing for home and public. Alas, I continue to baffle her, rarely looking in the mirror before I grab my keys.

Her hope that I will dress up for the outside world reflects a larger cultural acceptance that our behavior and habits change depending on where we are.

This is certainly true in many areas of my life, but at times it all seems rather absurd to me. Why do I use restraint or fully engage only in certain arenas? Why do our expectations of others fluctuate dependent on place? My favorite iteration of this type of thinking is when married women disparage their husbands, laughing as they complain that their partner is genetically incapable of picking up his shoes, returning his glass to the sink, lowering the seat, or remembering when the kids have choir. The deficits of males who live in interdependent households shared by others are widely mocked and accepted by women and men alike.

Often the party pooper, I loathe this type of thinking for at least two reasons.

First, these stereotypes totalize our gendered experiences in ways that I find unobservant. The basic construct that ALL MEN do any one thing strikes me as ridiculous. We know plenty of slobby, disorganized women, just as we know type A, neat freak men. Given this, why do we agree to pretend like there are no exceptions to the rule that men mostly function as needy, additional children?

I think the answer is imbedded in the question. We love to think we are exceptional, while often painting others with the broadest brush possible. I am more than a product of my gender or cultural norms or habits, but those other people are all the same! We offer ourselves the dignity of agency, choosing how we live and how our actions impact others, but we easily slide into assuming the people around us are just the way they are, and we might as well get used to it.

We might be less likely to dismiss others if we notice the unique individual standing before us rather than seeing them mostly as a product of the group to which they ‘belong.’

The second reason I think humorous stereotypes about men are unintelligent and maybe even dangerous is this: We expect and allow men to rule the world while treating them as incapable slobs around the house. The boldness of our society-wide cognitive dissonance is staggering. How do we simultaneously view men as natural leaders, effective visionaries who complete tasks while improving systems as they go, and—at the same time—as utterly incapable of getting their laundry to and from the washing machine? In my view, we mostly give them far too much credit in the public sphere, and far too little credit in the private one.

It is tempting to treat men like extra-large problem children. It is often all in good fun, and many men seem to enjoy the banter and revel in the labels placed upon them (Maybe they have discovered that such incongruent stereotypes work in their favor. These widely mocked behaviors pave the way for men to kick ass at work and do little at home. Sounds like a sweet deal, but I know better). Even if it is socially acceptable to belittle the function of men at home, it reduces us in toxic ways.

I need look no further than my partner and husband, who is a physician. He is, in fact, prone to leave his junk wherever it lands at home, he often forgets who goes where when, and his instincts for tidying up are lackluster. However, he has never, to my knowledge, forgotten about a surgery or left medical instruments inside a person’s body. He is, in fact, incredibly organized, decisive, dare I say tidy?, at work. He is a fabulous leader and detail oriented in all the right ways. Knowing this, why on earth would I treat him as an incapable slob at home, preventing him from engaging our family in all the helpful ways that only he can?

When we reduce folks to a stereotype, locking them into a tribe or a group rather than seeing them as individuals capable of growth, we limit our ability to hope for better. We choose to deal with the status quo rather than to challenge it in order to improve.  

Why do we act certain ways in some contexts, and abandon those standards in others? We know how to be compassionate in many spaces, but we thwart those instincts in others. We know how to speak up, using our voice to raise a different point of view or to protect a vulnerable person in some moments, but we remain silent in others. For the next few weeks, I’ll explore the ways our habits demonstrate my daughter’s thinking as she hollers incessantly from the bathroom. Let’s think about all the ways we “know how to do it at school, but don’t know how to do it at home,” and then dream together as we imagine how to remind ourselves that we already know how to care deeply about the growth of those around us, if only we will pay attention.

on earth day (in your neighborhood)

Today is Earth Day, so I’m offering a few thoughts on the earth and how we inhabit it. It seems to me that in order to think well about the earth we must first consider the way we share our human existence in it. I like to think of my approach to others as a community park where anyone can wonder in and enjoy sharing space, hardship or conversation. In reality, though, my default approach is often more like a country club where certain others are deemed worthy (or not) of welcome. This is the worst! It reveals my instinct to make my self and my preferences exceptional. I privilege me. Deep down, although I know I am ‘one of many’, I somehow keep behaving as if I am ‘the one.’ On this day set aside to honor the earth, it is a helpful exercise to think about the way we think we fit together. Fundamentally, do I want to share, or hoard?

God is a big fan of community. We know this because our origin story is not about a guy, but a community comprised of Father, Son and Spirit God. Genesis explains that God created Adam and Eve as partners, and later sent pairs into the ark in order to preserve life after devastating destruction. God also sent disciples out in pairs, and then made sure his mother and best friend did not forget to do the obvious—care for each other in his absence—upon his death.  God is a creator of community; long lasting, through cycles of scarcity and plenty, togetherness is one of the messages of Scripture. God’s neighborhood—God’s ‘us’—is bigger than ours.

God created the earth: Sky, light, sea, land, and all the plants and animals in it, and then proclaimed the creation “Good.” He created people and called them, “Very Good.” For the first work God asked Adam to build a community with the animals. To name them. To care for them. To be with them. This work gave Adam dignity and purpose, charging him with stewarding his dominion as a shared participant in the community. It was the second manifestation of God’s love of community. First, the Trinity.  Second, living things sharing space. Neighborhoods, if you will.

 Just as God created the cycles of day and night, the growing process had a cycle of working and resting. We work to plant the next harvest or child or litter, and then wait for life to come and grow. This waiting, being one part of a bigger whole, is a manifestation of the necessary humility built into the universe. We have the privilege to do our part, but we know our part is ultimately insufficient. Our human experience fundamentally reflects and mimics the experiences of others, following the earth’s rhythm repeated all over the world.

And yet, we do not think of ourselves as mimickers. We are not like them, those other living things. We are “very good”, not merely “good.” Our notion that we are not just different from but actually better than provides a foundation that allows stewarding dominion to become arbitrary abuse. Sharing becomes hoarding. We often are unthinking and selfish in the way we relate to natural resources, but some of us justify our abuse of the earth as somehow embodying the role given to us by our Creator. But we are not exceptional. We are part of the whole. We are one of many. 

The earth’s cycles speak of humility in the very sharedness of our neighborhoods.  We cannot live apart from the earth. We cannot live apart from other people. We are not self sustaining. In fact, we can only sustain our own lives when we acknowledge our dependence on and place in the whole.  A responsible ethic of living and stewardship must be rooted in recognizing that we are part of an ecosystem, and that our notion of community must expand to include the earth and all that is in it.  It is singularly terrible that in America, those who identify as Christians seem most likely to ignore the fragility of the earth and the people trying to live in it. Giving ourselves the mantle of ‘exceptional’ in our ecosystems has led to privileging our perspective, our needs and our wants over every other stakeholder in our environment. If we do not see ourselves as an important part of the fabric of sustaining life that God created then we will indeed, become exceptionally destructive, vulnerable, and, ultimately, unable to flourish in the world we were given, and then destroyed.

This Earth Day, might we each take a moment to recognize our dependence on the earth and those with whom we share it? Dependent humility, not exceptional arrogance, is the posture best suited for those of us trying to love our neighbors well. Sharing, rather than hoarding. How can your actions (in your very neighborhood) add to the flourishing of your environment (human and natural), rather than making sure you get what you want in the short term? Together, let’s do the hard work of expanding our thinking about neighboring to also include the animals and water and earth and food with whom we share the task of sustaining life.