Vulnerability

brene brownA different type of post today, though not unrelated to my latest, I’m Not Black.

Below is a video of a TED Talk given by Brené Brown. Brown’s website describes her as “a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.” The concepts she lays out in this video speak to me deeply about myself, my children, and my relationships in general. I have failed terribly in all of these areas over the course of my life, but now I have stepped out on a path where they do not define my worthiness. I must own my failures, but they do not get to own me.  

Brown’s talk is honest, delightful, and penetrating.  You may have seen it already.  See it again.

I’m Not Black

flesh-colored-crayonsI’m white. I know, shocker, right? The reason I write this is that I have been more aware of it than ever in recent days. Within that awareness is one even keener, and that is that I am not black. Before I explain myself, I want to provide some background.

Although my ethnic heritage is Irish, German, Polish, and Dutch, I most closely identify with my Irish roots. It was the one identity that was clearly celebrated during my childhood. My maternal grandfather, though born in America, spoke with the brogue of his Irish-born parents. We sang. All the time. At parties. Extended family gatherings almost always included drinking, story telling, singing, laughing, crying, along with the occasional verbal or physical fisticuffs. It all plays in my memory like a scene from a novel. There are visceral and idyllic qualities to my Irish-ness that I not only relish, but also share with anyone who will listen. I love being an Irishman, and therefore I don’t usually think of myself as white, but as Irish. The white part just “comes with.”

When I was growing up, there was one black family in my town, and everyone either knew them or knew of them. That’s because the rest of us looked like a casting call for Casper The Friendly Ghost Meets The Pillsbury Dough Boy.  We were white. And racist. N-word jokes were commonplace, one halloween three kids dressed up as KKK members (no joke), and racial epithets flowed freely whenever we watched sports on television.  To be fair, not everyone was racist, either in my town or my family, but it was the overall milieu.  I am not proud of that, but that’s what it was.

Fast forward to my freshman year of college, where a young black man from Linden, NJ named Omar became my roroommate and one of my closest friends.  (Sadly, cancer took Omar’s life earlier this year, to the great loss of all who ever knew him.)  To know O was to love him.  He wore Cliff Huxtable sweaters, had perfect pitch (we were music students), could sweet talk his way out of library fines and video rental surcharges, and he was full of love.  I loved him then, and I love him now.  O and I would talk a lot about it what it meant to be disappointed by our fathers, or about girls, or what is was like being black or being white. Those “black and white” conversations planted seeds in me that, quite honestly, wouldn’t sprout in fullness for a number of years.

I was adamant that while it was true that I didn’t know what it was like to be black, Omar didn’t know what it was like to be white, and therefore they were separate but equal experiences. I was wrong. They weren’t, and they still aren’t. Being black in America is a person-forming experience, one you don’t have if you are white in America.Whites don’t experience life as white people, but as people. By and large, blacks experience life as black people, not simply as people. Omar most definitely opened my eyes to this. Many voices have joined his in the intervening years.

Ali Barthwell has an insightful post at www.empathyeducates.org entitled, I Don’t Know How to Talk to White People About Ferguson.  She communicates so honestly about her experience of racial turbulence as a black woman who travels in a mostly white social circle.

Witnessing racial violence feels more personal when you’re black. I couldn’t watch the video of Eric Garner being strangled by the NYPD because his large frame and dark skin reminded me of my father and my uncle. Trayvon Martin was killed as I was teaching black teens on the west side of Chicago who wore hoodies to class every day. The first time I had seen women with bodies like mine (full soft bellies and pendulous breasts) on screen was in the film “12 Years a Slave” as they bathed to prepare for auction.

The ongoing tragedy of police brutality, media manipulation, and injustice in Ferguson, MO, is unbearable to watch but I can’t tear my eyes away. I’m consuming every piece of news and every editorial that emerges from the tear gas and no-fly zone. Seeing images of black people like me lying dead or injured in the street is creating chaos and turmoil inside me.

But as a black woman in a mostly white social circle, I don’t know who to turn to and how to talk to them.

How do I talk to white people about this!? How can I possibly explain the rage, fear, sadness, and every other emotion I don’t have a name for yet as I watch these events unfold?

My white friends are tagging me in posts and articles about the shootings and subsequent protests forcing me to look at more images of racial violence because I’m their politically conscious black friend.

Will my white friends understand that those images remind me of my younger brother? Will my white friends understand that I’ve been lying awake at night wondering if my younger brother, who is the same build as Mike Brown, will be stopped by the police? Have they ever sat in front of their younger brother at lunch and said “I’m worried that the police might hurt you”? Because I did that this week.

I’ve never thought things like this. I’ve never had to. It’s not part of my experience. To be painfully honest, the only time I am ever really aware of the color of my skin, forget my experience as a white person, is when there is a social situation in which I am in the racial minority. I feel it and see it, and yet I have the privilege of stepping back into a setting where I am surrounded by people who look like me. Black people in America do not have that privilege, because they carry inside themselves the individual and collective experience of being the oppressed, unwanted minority.

So, I said privilege. That word, when it follows the word, white, stirs up defensiveness in many white people. It sounds derogatory, and while it can be used that way, it is a reasonably undeniable fact. When the president of a company has the corner office, with a private bathroom, and a secretary to manage his schedule and guard his time, he has privilege. He is not better than others — he does not possess greater intrinsic worth. He is simply afforded things that others in the company are not. White privilege is similar, and it plays out in not having to think about your world the way that Ali Barthwell does. I’m grateful I don’t have to think that way, because wrestling through that type of fear seems so incredibly difficult. Benefitting from the privilege of my race, though, has implications for me if I want to live well in a racially charged culture.

The biggest implication is coming to grips with the truth that being a black person in America must be seen through the eyes of black people. To understand, to truly understand someone whose personal history is different than mine, requires stepping into their world. And, the only way to do that with any integrity is to listen and trust. There’s the real rub. It is not so much that black people don’t trust white people, though of course that mistrust exists, but rather that white people, in general, are afraid to trust black people enough to learn from them in life-changing ways.

If you are white, what do you feel when you read the following words from Jonathan Capehart’s piece in the Washington Post, The Michael Brown shooting, the ‘war on whites’ and me?

I…wrote about the lessons my mother taught me growing up. How I shouldn’t run in public, lest I arouse undue suspicion. How I most definitely should not run with anything in my hands, lest anyone think I stole something. The lesson included not talking back to the police, lest you give them a reason to take you to jail — or worse. And I was taught to never, ever leave home without identification. The reason was not only a precaution in case something happened, such as an accident, but also in case I’m stopped by police for whatever reason. To this day, whether I’m going on a run or just running to get something out of my car nearby, I never step out of my home without my driver’s license, insurance card and my Washington Post business card with my partner’s cellphone number written on it.

When you’re black and especially male — in the United States — you have to go to these seemingly overboard, extra lengths in the off-chance they might save your life.

Seriously, what do you feel?  I read them over and over and over again, and all I could say was, “My God, how can anyone live like that?  What does that do to you, to walk around each and every day with that weight on your shoulders?”  I don’t know, and so I have to enter into the lives of those who do. I must listen, and learn, and do what I can to help them lift that burden off of their backs, to afford them the privilege to simply be a person in my presence.

Please, don’t accuse me of white guilt, because that’s not what I am talking about. I am not responsible for being born into the family and community I was born into.  I am not pandering to people of color as some sort of penance, either.  And please understand that I know that I am not talking about every white person or every black person.  I am speaking in generalities because I believe they apply, in general.  There must be a new level of understanding on the part of the privileged, in order to show empathy to those outside of that privilege.  In that way, the privileged invite the non-privileged to become instructors and leaders in the dialogue between black and white.

I am a person of Christian faith.  One of the most comforting central doctrines within that faith is what is called the Incarnation. It is the belief that God came down as a man in order to experience what we experience, to know first hand what it feels like in all ways to be human. Whether you believe the Christian story or not, the concept is profoundly beautiful.  Jesus left his place of glorious privilege to fully participate in humanity, from birth to death, with everything from joyous laughter and terrible betrayal in between.  If we are ever — ever — going to surmount the disjointing of race in America, then those in the position of privilege are going to need to leave that privilege behind, literally or figuratively, and delve fully into the experience of those outside of that privilege.  God help me to do just that.

Ice Water and Embryos

iceThe ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. If you’re like me, you’ve had a semi-tortured relationship with it. I loved seeing it all over my Facebook feed for the first few weeks, then, after a bit more inundation, it was kind of pesky, because I am selfish and I want to see what I want to see. But, my cold heart was warmed when I started to catch the spirit of the challenge, and when I saw the widespread appeal. George W. Bush taking the challenge, and then challenging Bill Clinton, in return. CEO’s and sports and media moguls with their videos alongside those of my friends — it all began to fascinate me. It also taught me of the innate desire in us to help other human beings, to make an impact, to celebrate life while bringing life to others. I was so encouraged, and I still am.

Then I saw this headline:  The ALS Challenge kills babies. I will let you click through to read the whole article. It was posted on the American Family Association’s website, and the article was then shared and commented on via Facebook by friends who, in my opinion, are usually critically thinking, reasonable evangelical Christians. I describe my friends this way because the article itself is sensationalism wrapped up in ethical God language.  I will confess that I have no love for the AFA, as they are the type to constantly throw rocks at the culture in the name of Jesus, even though Jesus never did that. They name themselves as Christian, but their brand of Christianity is foreign to me.

A second, slightly more reasonable post, this one by Churchleaders.com, read this way:  ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Donations Raise Concerns for Pro-Lifers.  Again, you can click through to read the whole article.  From a secondary source, it quotes the president of the ALS Association saying, “My answer is this: invest prudently in helping people with ALS and their families and caregivers in the battle against the disease, while resolutely pursuing all avenues to extend, improve and ultimately save lives.”  So there is some reasonable wisdom.

I wrote the following in the comments section of the Churchleaders.com Facebook post:

Leave it to Christians to throw a bucket of cold water on ANYTHING good, even on throwing a bucket of cold water on yourself to raise $ for ALS research. 

Stop shopping at stores whose profits are used for things you find morally objectionable. Stop
 talking with people whose beliefs offend yours. Stop buying products produced in Chinese sweat shops. You can’t and you won’t. 

Evangelicals didn’t even lead the abortion debate when Roe v. Wade was decided. It was the Catholics. Evangelicals were ambivalent to abortion legislation. 

I write this as a follower of Christ, as a sinful, broken man who does NOT have all the answers. Having said that, we MUST do better than to be seen as finding something wrong with everything so that we can be the right ones. 

And later, in response to a well written challenge to my seeming dismissal of those with ethical concerns regarding stem cell research, I wrote this:

There is an inconsistent ethic here. 

By and large, evangelicals support the death penalty. By and large, evangelicals supported the invasion of Iraq. By and large, evangelicals cannot articulate the various methods of embryonic stem cell research. 

For most evangelicals, it costs them nothing to be opposed to embryonic stem cell research. It would cost them, though, to be thoroughly consistent in supporting and participating in commerce and social action that treats post-womb people as Christ-like as possible. That is where the evangelical pro-life stance reveals its gaping inconsistency. 

ALS research is a kingdom fulfilling work, which, I agree, should not harm others in the process. My point is that there must be ways to investigate the research methods involved without throwing out the term embryonic stem cell research, and conjuring up the image of embryos created for the sole purpose of research, which is an extremely rare practice.

The COMPLETELY irresponsible and sensationalizing tactics of the AFA, in my opinion, should be dismissed for what they are.  They are Christian cranks, the original trolls, if you will, looking for anything remotely good and making sure that they have something bad to say about it.  Who to boycott, what to write your senator about, how to make sure you are not defiled by the world.  I refuse to be associated in name (Christian) with that group.  They are moralizers.

The more evenhanded approach of Churchleaders.com is less unpalatable, as they are seeking to help people be wise in the employment of their values.  In the end though, our inability to wield a consistent Christian ethic is never really addressed.

When we do, somehow, truly come to grips with the fact that we’re all gapingly hypocritical in our ethics, when we finally embrace the truth that Jesus would neither kill an unborn child, nor throw the switch on the electric chair, then we will begin to honestly assess our own gaping ethical holes.  For the record, mine seem so huge in my eyes as to disqualify me from even writing things like this.  However, as both Shakespeare and Arthur Weasley say, “The Truth Will Out.”


Addendum: Here’s a promising and fascinating article on advances in embryonic stem cell research.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/08/060823-stem-cells.html

One Grave, Two Sons

WWIIAlumThe wet, brown earth made the whole affair slower. I can’t remember specifically what was said, but I remember how it felt that mid March. A deadly combination of heavy snow cover and a spring rain conspired to mire us in a slow-motion graveside processional. The smell was spring and the air was winter as rain pounded on the green canvas shelter . Our folding chairs rested unevenly on the astroturf ground covering. There were seven guns, twenty-one shots, one flag, and countless condolences. As the crowd dispersed, I recall it like an overhead perspective from a Hitchcock film: a sea of black umbrellas, concealing a school of humanity below.

Thirty-six years later, I stand at that same grave again, this time with my son, Liam. At eleven, he is just slightly older than I was when we lowered my father into the ground. Now, we are cleaning off a foot stone that the U.S. Government provides for veterans. This one reads:

WILLIAM E STAUFFER
TSGT US ARMY
WORLD WAR II
1925 – 1978

I kneel and begin pulling weeds and grass from the edges of the stone, revealing its obscured symmetry. Liam joins me. He doesn’t need to be asked to help, but instinctively feels the gravity of maintaing the dignity of the dead in the simple act. Liam asks if my dad would have been disappointed in me, not having served in the military myself.  “I don’t know buddy.” He knows about my relationship with my father, the entirety of which was tainted by deep anger and alcoholism, yet he perceives the respect as we tend to my father’s resting place. I am glad for his keen emotional awareness.

As we rise and turn to leave, the words flow naturally, “Ok, Dad.  See you soon.”  I’ve visited the grave countless times, often voicing similar farewells. This time, though, the goodbye barely finishes sounding before my throat tightens in fresh grief. I hope to keep my emotions to myself as we walk back to the car, not wanting to burden my already sensitive son. Liam is shading his eyes from the sun, now low in the evening sky.

As we shut our doors and buckle in, Liam keeps his back to me, hiding his own tears. I ask him if he’s sad, and as he nods silently,  kinship and love pervade my senses. “I’m sad, too, buddy. Look at me – I’m crying, just like you.” The mutual sadness comforts and bonds us. William III and William Junior mourning the loss of William Senior, together, anew.

The Incomprehensible Nature of Suffering

depression

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” – Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms)

I was in the 5th grade. He lived with Pam Dawber. LIVED! My jealousy knew no bounds, but I liked him, too. He may have been the only dude — be it a dude from a planet named Ork — that I would have trusted Mindy with.  Mindy was MAJOR TV crush material.

Suffering really makes no sense. If you are the type who will now reel off quotes that tidily sum up the meaning of suffering, don’t. I will cut you. Go hang out with Matt Walsh, that odd little internet troll who has a habit of being as harsh and insensitive as possible about topics that require precisely the opposite. I will cut him, too.  (Not really.  I don’t cut people.)

Robin Williams suffered from depression and addiction, and he lived an amazing life with that darkness as his constant companion.  I know that darkness, because I suffer from depression, too.  I don’t know Robin Williams’ depression exactly, but I know it enough.

If you have ever suffered from depression, or suffer under it now:

You know what it’s like not be able to physically move because of the emotional pain inside you.  

You have hidden from the most basic responsibilities, because they seemed huge and frightening.  

There has been a time you shut the emotional door, and possible a physical one, on everyone in your life.

You have felt small, insignificant, useless, and as helpless as possible.

You know what it’s like to see yourself as a burden to even those closest and dearest to you.

You’ve experienced well-meaning, but wrongheaded people, who have hurt you in your pain.

And you may have contemplated deeply what the world would be like without you.

At first glance, you might think that Matt Walsh is just a ballsy blogger who stirs up a bit of trouble with his controversial take on cultural events, trends, and issues particular to the Christian church. As his latest blog about Robin Williams and depression proves, though, this is not the case. He writes for those who already agree with him. What he posts is misguided. It’s damaging. It is too near the events to not hurt those involved.  And it patronizes those who are fighting for their lives.

I don’t really want to bash him personally, because I truly don’t believe that people are all good or all bad, or categorically one thing. We are all an amazing amalgam of mended bone and broken soul, joyful love and filthy habits.  So I will say simply that in this instance, Matt Walsh has missed the mark, spoken when he should have listened, lectured when he should have sympathized, and feigned empathy in ignorance, or perhaps to validate his argument. I find it particularly distasteful, at best.

Here is the truth. In the midst of suffering, particularly suffering that seems to originate from inside yourself, the last thing you need is someone to poke their head into your prison cell and say, “Never give up the fight.  There is always hope.” I never needed that when I suffered, and I wanted punch the people who said those things square in the face.  What I needed was someone to enter my prison cell, sit down next to me, and, when I was ready, walk through my pain with me.

Don’t speak. Listen. Don’t lecture. Sympathize. Don’t pretend to understand. Enter in. That’s what suffering people need.

Change, it is a comin’…

change-architect-sign1Consider this a pre-announcement.  🙂

There have been a number of changes in my life in these past thirteen months, some generally positive, some particularly exciting, and some – quite honestly – devastating. All, however, have catalyzed a radical reforming within me.  In the end, there are a good things that have and will come of  these changes. One such good thing is a new career direction.

For over 15 years, I have served in leadership in the local Christian church, 12 of those years vocationally. It seemed the continuing trajectory of my work life. However, due in part to what Kathy Escobar calls faith shifts, my desire to “make a living” as a pastor / Christian leader has been drastically realigned. I’ll write more about this experience another day.  What I will write about today, though, is what’s next for me.

Through the encouragement of a number of trusted friends — trusted meaning that they love me enough to tell me the truth — I have decided to pursue one of my longtime passions, which is writing. It will take two forms, blogging and book writing.  The blogging will inform my book, meaning that you will see some of the book’s content here. The book, its working title, and its subject, will be addressed in a more formal way in the coming weeks.

Let me say that I am thrilled at the prospect of writing as a career, because I will be uniting one of my deep loves with my vocation. Along with singing professionally, directing and coaching musical groups, and composing and arranging music, I am taking the headlong plunge into the vocational world as a full-time creative.

Why tell you all of this? In the next few weeks, I am going to be asking you to partner with me in this endeavor in specific ways. It will involve risk taking on my part to do this. The upside, though, will be a beautiful community effort, one that I believe will bring healing and hope to the lives of many.

For now, I will simply say, stay tuned for a formal announcement in the coming days.  I can’t wait!