Race and Kindness

Two subjects seem to collide regularly in my thinking as of late: race and kindness. While it goes without saying that they aren’t mutually exclusive, they do seem to be, as activities go, a couple of things we struggle doing well in our society. Dissing dying senators and black teens slammed to the floor in Waffle Houses made for a just a minute sample of yesterday’s Twitter feed alone, with much collateral tweeting. It’s enough to clog the soul. I’m not interested in discussing all the nuance of individual situations here because that’s not my point. What I am trying to convey is that we have a problem with kindness in our society, or, I should say, a lack of kindness, and that we have an ongoing issue with race in our society, and that they are interrelated.

One doesn’t have to disagree with President Trump to at least nod to the consideration that much of his rhetoric is derogatory, ad hominem, and generally insulting. And one doesn’t have to spend more than five minutes on social media to see egregious examples of clashing, divergent ideas of power and race in America, regardless of what one thinks the solution should be.

Today, I listened to a podcast from On Being with Krista Tippett. This particular episode was an interview with John A. Powell, entitled, Opening to the Question of Belonging, and it was pervasively good. What I mean is, it seeped into my bones as I listened because Powell did what all really profound public intellectuals do, he synthesized into concise, coherent language the soul-clogging thought and emotional twisting I mentioned above. He talked about our most divisive social issue in the kindest way, breaking down the science of implicit bias, and how we as a society can step on the path to a new understanding of one another. I am now rabidly consuming other talks of his, as well as reading his book, Racing to Justice.

The salient observation here is that kindness –dare I say, love — towards all exuded from Powell man as he leaned firmly on this potentially explosive hot button. It made me long for more public leaders, in thought, politics, or otherwise, who unite with their speech, rather than agitate and divide. And it gave me courage towards examining my own implicit biases.

I want to be someone who fosters belonging.

Bang! Your argument is dead.

I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m writing about guns. I know almost zero about guns, except to say that everyone I have ever known who owned guns acted responsibly with them. I grew up in a rural, mostly farming town, where most of my friends and neighbors hunted. We had off from school for the first day of hunting season. My friends took care of their guns, were trained on how to use their guns by responsible adults, and were good, conscientious hunters. An ex-girlfriend’s father would go sit in his tree stand and take notes – without his gun – before he ever shot a deer. Total respect.

While I was fascinated by guns, I never truly liked them. I didn’t think they were bad, I just didn’t care for the idea of hunting and killing animals. No judgment, because I happily ate venison supplied by those who did. It just wasn’t my thing.

Watching the debate over “gun control” unfold after the horrific and too many to mention school shootings, is difficult on many fronts. The arguments emanating from those who have suffered are compelling. You have to have a calloused soul to not be moved by their loss, whether or not you agree with their proposed solutions to mass school shootings. However, I believe that many of us who desire a change in how Americans purchase and own guns have started the debate from a place of weakness, because we give away our lack of understanding before we ever engage those whom we seek to persuade. We often don’t treat gun owners as equals, and we similarly don’t care whether or not they have well thought out, sound arguments. They do.

First, let’s stop saying some things. Phrases like “guns are only designed to kill.” They aren’t. Some are designed for sport. Some are designed for hunting. Some are designed for personal protection. Some are designed for military use. Killing is one thing guns can be used for, but not the only thing. Better to say, “it’s the killing with guns that really bothers us.” That’s more honest, and a place from which most responsible gun owners would be glad to step out with us in conversation.

We should drop the term, “assault rifle,” because it makes us sound uneducated about the “killing with guns that really bothers” us. The “AR” in AR-15 stands for Armalite, the original manufacturer of the gun. Are guns like the AR-15 used in war? Yes. We just shouldn’t say “assault rifle,” because we will be dismissed by people who have been regularly and vehemently attacked by many who know very little about what they are talking about beyond how they feel about “the killing with guns.”

Regarding the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, let’s not easily dismiss it as antiquated. It wasn’t written by a bunch of yahoos, but by the kind of people who get their faces carved into mountains. These were leaders who were hyper-aware of the tyranny of military-enforced governance. “Don’t tread on me!” To be wary of an illiberal government is not unfounded. Let’s respect that concern. We should argue from a place of mutual respect for the laws, documents, and individuals that shaped the nation we are today, imperfect as it may be.

Finally, consider this:

“One factory preset of the human mind is a tendency to assume that our models of reality are identical to reality itself.” – Roger L. Martin (The Opposable Mind)

Strongly held convictions and deeply felt emotions are no substitute for nuanced, thoughtful, evidence-based positions. These positions are never arrived at in a vacuum, much less an echo chamber. We must speak with people with whom we disagree, listen to them, and reflect back to them what we hear them saying until they tell us that we understand them. In the case at hand, if we believe lives are at stake, then getting it right is worth the time and relational commitment required.

 

A Resistance of Persistent Kindness

“If I’ve got my timings right, and clearly I have…this is Christmas 1914, and the Human Miracle is about to happen – the Christmas Armistice. Never happened again, any war, anywhere, but one day, one Christmas a very long time ago, everyone just put down their weapons and started to sing. Everybody just stopped. Everyone…was just kind.”

~The Doctor (Doctor Who “2017 Christmas Special”)

If you’re not familiar with the series, The Doctor is an alien time traveler who regularly interacts with humanity in Earth-saving, universe preserving ways. In the episode mentioned above, he was tasked by future humanity to return a British officer to a WWI battle, from which he was mistakenly taken, so that the officer could die at the hands of a German soldier who was about to shoot him. The Doctor, who possesses a vast storehouse of wisdom and knowledge amassed over his 2,000 year lifetime, acts on gut instinct and returns the officer at the very moment the German troops begin to sing “Stille Nacht,” initiating one of the most remarkably beautiful moments in human history, the Christmas Armistice, thus sparing the British officer’s life.

How is possible that these warring factions, one bent on overthrowing the other, could find such a moment of peace? How is it possible that these men lowered their arms, crossed no man’s land, and embraced? Shared humanity. Just thinking about that moment, as it really happened or as depicted in Doctor Who, leaves me in tears. Even as I type this, my eyes are filled.

So, what has happened to us on the battlefield of the internet, where fellow humans with whom we disagree are reduced to something less than human? My particular favorite Facebookism is when we refer to someone as a “piece of shit.” What does that actually accomplish? I believe the primary thing it does is diminish another’s intrinsic worth, removing any compelling reason to listen to them, learn from them, or allow them to edit us in any way. There are copious studies on tribalism, confirmation bias, etc., that shed light on these behaviors. What I am talking about here, though, is simple, basic, human kindness. The lack of it is killing us.

Many bemoan the ills of social media, how it ruins discourse. I’m not sure I buy it. The devaluing of another human being is a moral action, not a technological byproduct. Yes, impersonal settings (read, not in the same room with only text and images to express sometimes complex and nuanced ideas) make it easier to lose civility, but let’s be real. We would never allow our children to act the way we grownups do on social media, no matter what the setting. In a society that teaches tolerance and acceptance on a grand scale, in public practice, we no longer value kindness the way we once did. How ironic that we show the least tolerance in the very venues we use to promote it.

Now, before you accuse me of longing for the good old days, I fully acknowledge that pride, bigotry, hate, and dismissiveness of those with whom we disagree have all been around since humans have. But, it seems that there are so few left who will cross no man’s land, who will “put down their weapons and…sing,” who will just be kind. Why? My guess is that we are scared. Scared to be wrong, scared to change, scared to lose power, scared to go first.

What is gained by putting down our verbal weapons, by leaving our trenches, by singing songs, by being kind? Recovered humanity. And doing those things is essential to peace, public service, and productive debate. In fact, it’s essential to everything.

Immediately, some will read this and say, “But the [insert the favorite object of your ire here] really is a P.O.S for saying or doing such and such.” No. No, they’re not. They are people who say and/or do things that we disagree with, or that we may even find reprehensible. Don’t devalue them. Especially don’t devalue the one who you are inclined to hate. In doing so, you levy judgment in a way that, if levied on you, would hurt unfairly, because you know that you are more than your worst behavior. Sometimes, we are hardest on others when we recognize our own failures in them, all the while not accepting that they are more than the sum of their most egregious sins, acceptance we offer ourselves much more freely.

So, should we stop calling out what is wrong? No. Should we let bad or criminal behavior go unnoticed? Of course not. But when we engage in discourse with other people over these issues, we must keep their humanity in view at all times, even if they don’t do it for us.

In my faith tradition, one gospel writer notes that as Jesus Christ was being nailed to a cross in a public execution, he uttered these words, “Forgive them, Father. They don’t know what they’re doing.” He was kind to the people who were killing him. It makes me think of all the times I was unkind to those who were acting out of their own pain or confusion towards me. And it makes me think, too, of all the people who name Jesus as Lord but then spend their time crucifying everyone who they don’t like or agree with. That is worthy of a separate post.

By and large, people with whom we disagree aren’t trying to kill us. In all seriousness, though, when we devalue others as to something less than human, that is essentially what we are doing. When a politician is labeled a piece of shit because he denies climate change, or when he degrades women by his words and actions, we kill him. When a professional athlete is labeled a piece of shit because he protests police brutality against African Americans by kneeling during the national anthem, we kill him. When we launch ad hominem attacks on individuals with whom we disagree, we are dehumanizing. We are killing them. Killing them.

My views (political, cultural, religious, etc.) have evolved, morphed, and even reversed in some cases, all because people valued my humanity while challenging my beliefs, assumptions, tribalism, prejudice, bigotry, you name it. I am so grateful for this. In some cases, my views remained the same, yet I was equipped to articulate them better because of the exchange. In others, I opened gateways of thought for them. In all cases, they shied away from labels, ideological identification, and, above all, anger. They were kind. And the peace that kindness imported to my mind and soul allowed me to objectively assess the topic at hand.

For the sake of our shared humanity, it’s time to raise the level of our public discourse. We must resist with persistent kindness the temptation to obliterate our fellow humans. I kindly welcome opposing viewpoints.

 

 

Greeting Death Like An Old Friend

harry-potter-the-deathly-hallows-could-have-turned-out-so-differently-if-j-k-rowling-634691Today in my inveterate Facebook scrolling, I came across an interview with Maurice Sendak, by NPR’s Terry Gross. It was his last such interview. He had this unique marriage of sadness at the loss that death inevitably brings to the living, with a seeming lack of fear of it for himself. He was an atheist who did not believe in an afterlife, yet felt sure that he would see his brother who preceded him in death. I appreciate and respect the dichotomy. We are not all a smooth system of beliefs. It also made me think of my own experience.

When I was four years old, my mother sat me on her lap to tell her that one of her older brothers, my Uncle Billy, had died. I cried, asked questions, and my mom helped me as best she could. It was some good parenting on my mom’s part. Uncle Billy, only in his early 40’s, was the life of the party, and a hard working, loving father and husband. My little soul didn’t understand why this would happen, and couldn’t begin to comprehend the grief that I would witness in the coming days. The hushed sadness that attends the wake of a life taken too soon. The gut level weeping of my beautiful Aunt Peggy that screamed out in rage against her brother’s death. Little did I know that my family knew death already, in ways that I still struggle to wrap my head around.

In the early 1960’s, my Mom’s two younger brothers, Tommy and Barney, were working together on the Hoboken Police Force. In a traffic stop that turned into an attempt to apprehend a car thief and recover a stolen vehicle, Tommy fired his weapon to try and disable the vehicle, but instead accidentally struck Barney in the head as he dove out of the way of the oncoming car. Barney died. Tommy was never the same – how could he be? Death came too soon.

I grew up only knowing one grandparent, as my mother’s mother had died while I was in utero, my father’s mother in the late 1940’s, and my father’s father while I was a baby, struck by a hit and run driver. None of them made it past their late 60’s.  My mother’s father, the one living grandparent I knew, died when I was nine. Death came too soon.

One year and three months after my Grandpa’s death, the news came that my own father had been killed in an accident at work. He was a month shy of his 53rd birthday. To say that my relationship with him was difficult would be a serious understatement, yet the sense of loss and life change to a ten year old was profound. The smells and sounds of that day are forever burned in my memory, along with the absolute gaping sense that death came too soon. It was uninvited.

As the youngest of ten children, many in my extended family were quite old – great aunts and uncles, distant cousins, their near circle of friends. When they died — their deaths seemed to occur in rapid fashion — most had lived full lives, and the pain of loss was different. Present, yes, though somehow muted, like sad music played softly in an adjoining room. Death seemed in those cases somewhat more well mannered. Then came Cheryl.

I was a young teenager when I learned that my friend Cheryl and her boyfriend, Bob, were killed in a car accident. An elderly gentleman had become disoriented, gotten on a major highway heading against traffic, and struck Cheryl and Bob head on. Cheryl was not my best friend, but was she was a light. She filled a room with her joy, as if she had been given an extra serving of whatever it is that makes us human. Death was so rude, so selfish, so callous – it invited itself to a party that should have gone on for sixty or seventy more years.

Somehow, that blow was like a hammer to a stake in my living heart, deadening it, while at the same time making me more keenly aware of the life that remained. I sat in the dust of a philosophical crossroads for many years after that, allowing death to shape me. And shape me, it did, though not in the usual way.

In my late teens, I re-heard the story of Jesus. He was a good and beautiful human, whose only crime was showing others clearly what death had wrought for millenia. He invited people to Cheryl’s party, a vibrant and vivacious romp through life which, though spotted with pain and suffering, was to be spent in community, where no one needed to be left alone to contemplate their mortality. Jesus’ reward for his transforming life was death. He angered the death eaters of his day, the soul-sucking dementors who sapped life from others to pad their own. They had death on speed dial, and Jesus made their fingers itchy.

Now, I am a man of Christian faith, though I live and believe it imperfectly. Unlike Jesus, I have invited proverbial death into the lives of those near me at times, over which I mourn. Yet, it is the perspective of Jesus that has instructed me best. I’ve come to see that death brings life. He saw his own death as a door that would lead to the healing of the world. The kingdom in which many of us inherently hope, would rush in, that death would be sent home with a copy of Emily Post, and the ache of unfulfilled longings salved.

It would be better if Cheryl never died. If my loving and doting aunts and uncles were still here, life would be fuller and richer. My grandpa was so special – he should still be with us. Even my unhappy, angry dad, it would have been better for him not to have died. Uncle Barney and Uncle Tommy should still be here (Tommy died at 48). Uncle Billy? No question. His wife and five children would have been so much better off had he remained. Even Maurice Sendak – our lives would have so much more whimsey in them if he were still writing. But, in the end, I would never have written this had he not passed. And if writing this helps one person see death differently, following the model of Jesus, a new door has been opened because of it.

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.