Of all the things I am grateful for in this season of Giving Thanks, this tops the list: the ways my family has taught and modeled openheartedness. Around my table on Thursday were me, my spouse of four years, our (but originally/mostly his) children, his parents, my mother and stepfather, and my stepmother. Unexpected, occasionally awkward, and ultimately beautiful.
Although my parents divorced when I was only eight, they shared such similar values, and it is evident in how my families have continued to love each other. My grandmothers became close friends well after the divorce, when both were finally widows—a friendship that somehow survived a custody dispute between my parents. My father was a pallbearer at my maternal grandmother’s funeral a full 14 years after my parent’s separation. Last spring (closing in on 40 years after the separation) an uncle on my dad’s side attended the celebration of life service for my mother’s sister; they adored each other their whole lives. He said to me, “Just because your parents divorced did not mean the rest of us did.”
I am so grateful to be able to continue this modeling of openheartedness for my three stepchildren. Yet I want them to understand that these things do not just happen. It is a choice that requires intention. Or rather, cultivating these rare and unexpected relationships requires an intention to make openhearted choices again and again. To do so is simple, but it is not easy. Forgiveness, patience, empathy, and a willingness to see the best in the other are all necessary. And for it to work, everyone has to make the effort.
This inheritance from my family is inherently valuable. Yet I also wonder how it could inform my work for justice in the world. How might these familial lessons about loving across wounding and division help me conceive my work as cultural healer? Where might these models of open-heartedness, of miraculously enduring tenderness take me if I am willing to follow their lead?
Photo credit: Free Design 4 All (Wordpress.com)
It is a beautiful autumn day in the Upstate of South Carolina. Though a tad chilly, I have the door open in my home study, light and air pouring in. My two cats are sitting right at the screen door, taking it all in. Dappled light and shadowed leaves dance on the floor. And for the first time since I moved into this home well over a year ago, I can hear the unmistakable sounds of children at play, the song of their voices winding through the thick woods behind our house from the elementary school on the other side.
All these things bless me as I sit reading news and unending analyses of the recent anti-Semitic terror attack on Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, of vitriolic rhetoric become fatal violence—again and again—all over the U.S. Like many here in the U.S., I am soul-sick.
Grief is certainly warranted. But immobility is a luxury we cannot afford.
In the wake of the synagogue shooting, a saying from the Talmud, part of Judaism’s sacred teachings, has been making the rounds on social media (sadly in some cases without attribution). It encourages us to be motivated rather than daunted by the world’s grief. To “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” in this moment, however we can… however you-uniquely-you can… however I can. We are called to participate in the mending of the world, using our best gifts.
What those gifts are may not be immediately clear, especially if we are caught up in the media aftermath. Stepping away from the media frenzy and claiming some quiet to discern your gifts for mending is one of the most sacred things you can do right now.
What small but irreplaceable threads shall you offer to the mending?
"When a government was created by misogynist, white supremacist criminals for the purpose of legitimating genocide, land-theft, rampant immorality, slavery, monetized rape and wealth building for whites-only, all in the name of 'freedom', this is the kind of warped society you get."
--Crystal M. Fleming, author of How to Be Less Stupid About Race
Twitter | 12:10 p.m. | 28 September 2018
If you are white, how do you hear this particular telling of U.S. history? What is your visceral reaction? Are you offended by it? Repulsed by it? Do you "get it" intellectually but not emotionally? Or is it a gut-punch?
Just a couple of years ago, I would have read this telling of U.S. history as understandable but also shocking. Today I read it and nod. Rather than reactive shock, there's a sharp intake of breath. I feel profoundly overwhelmed by all the work that remains before us, not to mention within us if we are white. It's a gut-punch, in other words, but of a different type. I am learning to listen differently: more openly, more deeply, less reactively.
If you struggle with listening non-reactively as a white person, you may benefit from reading the work of Robin DiAngelo, who coined the term "white fragility." She has a new book-length treatment out, but the gist can be found here: "Why It's So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism."
Then, when you are ready, check out Fleming's book too.
This week we learned that Bill Cosby has been sentenced to 3-10 years in prison for the sexual assault and sexual harassment of Andrea Constand. (And she is allegedly not his only victim.) As a woman, I find this news gratifying, if also insufficient in the face of the trauma she and his other victims have endured during and after his abuse. That one of America's most beloved entertainment figures, someone who possesses both star power and financial power, can still be held accountable for a pattern of reprehensible behavior is truly good news. It means that the #MeToo movement is making some headway.
As a white woman, however, I must ask why Cosby has been held to account while so many other influential white men have not. Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer come to mind first. While both lost their positions of influence, neither is going to jail for their crimes of sexual misconduct. Meanwhile, Donald Trump's open confessions of sexual harassment and sexual assault have not harmed him in the least. Why have these men gotten a pass? One certain answer is: #Whiteness
Cosby's publicist said the trial was "the most racist and sexist trial in the history of the United States" and placed him in the company of black men and youth falsely accused of accosting or raping white women. Other Facebook posts have made the rounds, using lynching language to point out the racial double standard whereby Cosby has been convicted while white men run free. Alongside Charles Blow, I say, "No." Absolutely no. Do not disgrace the memory of Emmett Till and others, do not dilute the horrors of lynching when what you need to do is call out a double standard... even a double standard that is undeniably unjust.
We can unconditionally condemn Cosby's behavior while also condemning a system whereby white men have not faced the same consequences for their own criminal behaviors. We can work toward a more just criminal justice system and make sure that sexual predators face consequences for the traumas they have inflicted.
A first encounter with the concept of "privilege" can be tricky for many people. Part of the power of privilege is its invisibility to those who possess it. It is most obvious to those who do not possess such privilege, to those who in fact are the counter or Other to that privilege... and thus the ones who pay the price.
How might we start to explore and understand the privileges we do possess when they are the air we breathe, the water in which we swim? One is to try to understand the concept without defensiveness, even if we are skeptical at first. We likewise need simply to listen to those who do not share our privilege. Listening can be difficult because if we are really listening, we will hear things that make us uncomfortable. But if we can listen with curiosity, we will learn important things about ourselves and others.
Keep in mind that privilege manifests in many forms: race, gender, sexuality, socio-economic class, ability, age, citizenship status, etc. Moreover, because our identities are multiple, we might possess privilege in certain respects and not others. Using our experiences of non-privilege can give us insight into the privileges do possess and open us more fully to others.
If you are just starting to dig into the concept of privilege as more than a hashtag, here are some quick places to begin.
Conviction is an important attribute. As the old song goes, “You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.” Yet conviction has a curious status in today’s world.
On the one hand, my students often express the sentiment that they cannot really critique another person’s ideas. Taking an “it’s their opinion, so who am I to judge?” attitude, they hesitate to draw any ethical or moral lines. This often forces me to pose extreme or bizarre scenarios in an attempt to elicit at least one “Okay, you are right: I can’t go there.” One of my commitments as a college educator is to teach students how to develop and confidently articulate their moral convictions, informed by their experience but also by sound knowledge and critical thinking—rather than capitulating to a pure relativism that feels socially safer.
Curiously, this “who am I go judge?” attitude proliferates amidst a highly divisive society fed by the partisan echo chambers of media and social media. Forgetting that some of their Facebook (and possibly “IRL”) friends might be targets of their rants—or just not caring—people post or re-post status updates that trade in sweeping, absolutist stereotypes that distort the complexities of our lives and who we are as individuals. (Last week, for example, I learned from an acquaintance with whom I share a genuine mutual regard that I apparently am “an enemy of American liberty.” I had no idea.) With no room for nuance or actual conversation in these spaces, conviction tips readily into self-righteousness. If the Christian sin of pride is at work in the world today, it is in our cultural-political modes of speech.
The Christian antidote to the sin of pride is humility. This, too, is a worthy attribute based in the recognition that we all are limited in perspective and knowledge. But too much humility can smother the expression of conviction. This can be especially dangerous for those voices who historically have been silenced by a sort of 11th Commandment that “Thou shalt not think too highly of yourself.” Black Lives Matter or #MeToo, anyone?
If we want to move forward with both conviction and humility, perhaps we could learn something from the Buddhist counsel to remain curious about the world. Tara Brach, a teacher in the Vipassana tradition, commends curiosity as an approach to pain (physical or psycho-emotional) or anxiety or really anything troubling, including other people or external circumstances. Instead of overly identifying with the pain or the irritant, she suggests we instead observe it with curiosity. What might be revealed if we are just curiously observant? What might we see and hear?
A practice of curiosity is easier said than done in a world where we are conditioned to just react. I struggle to listen with curiosity to those ideas that run counter to my own, especially when supporting facts seem to be distorted. More like my students than I’d prefer to admit, I often hold my tongue to keep the peace even while quietly fuming. Quiet fuming does not breed curiosity or an openness to hear the other person however. I also have a tendency to take it personally when people I know (and possibly love) express convictions that seem so starkly contrary to my own. But if those holding such convictions are people whom I respect and love, then shouldn’t that open me up all the more rather than shut me down?
Curiosity as an active, intentional practice can help us do our work with both conviction and openness. How and where can you cultivate your spirit of curiosity this week?
Photo Credit: zawtowers, Flickr Creative Commons
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic concept that honors the imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness of the material world. It dares even to name such things beautiful. (Some explanations and illustrations can be found here and here.)
What would it mean to take a wabi-sabi approach to justice work? My friend Traci got me to thinking about this. She and I, alongside others, are engaged in an ongoing communal reflection on white identity. It is hard, sometimes painful, always disorienting work. But the sponsoring organization Speaking Down Barriers offers some key community guidelines that help structure the space for such intense explorations. One of those, "I will not seek to be right or perfect," recognizes that the work of excavating our own implications in white supremacy is a halting, non-linear, perplexing process. When paired with pledges "to speak and listen in truth and love" and "to speak only from my own experience," we are able to engage ourselves and one other without demanding perfection in speech or action. Authenticity, respect, humility, commitment: yes. Perfection: no.
The process rarely feels beautiful in the moment. It mostly feels insufficient in the face of overwhelming injustice. But we all show up because we recognize that such work, if not sufficient, is still vitally necessary. It is our very imperfection that draws us together.
Honoring imperfection need not be an excuse for inaction. Quite the opposite. If we think we cannot contribute anything until we get it just right, we will stay silent forever. We will fail to speak out or stand up or march forward. But if perfection is not the standard, then certain risks drop away.
A wabi-sabi approach to justice work assures us that perfection need not be our goal. Rather we reach toward a vision of beloved community, continually calibrating a balance between conviction and humility. The work of justice is about mending the world's brokenness, starting with ourselves and our own communities. Such mending may be imperfect, but for those engaged in the work it is not optional. We do the work, always imperfect, incomplete, and impermanent. And every now and then, beauty alights in our midst and takes our breath away.