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.

What are we worth to each other?

The juxtaposition of sublime and ridiculous in our media slathered culture is almost too much to bear, even when contemplated for just a moment. Daily on Facebook, we see videos of dogs sitting on cats sandwiched between the latest Kellyanne Conway memes and TrumpCare discussions. (You can decide which of these is sublime and which is ridiculous, by the way. I’m a big fan of canines dominating felines, so you know where I stand.) In the midst of this humorous and horrific hodgepodge, the following was posted, and it revived a dormant man-crush of mine.

In this young man’s speech, I was reminded of his grandfather:

“When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other – only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers.

Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is now what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.” – Robert F. Kennedy

Kennedy the elder delivered these words on April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed. I’ve written about RFK before here, and he is worth revisiting. You would think that this man’s heart, so shaped and shattered by grief, would be reduced to spewing scornful wrath from his public pulpit. Instead, in measured tones, he waded deep into honest assessment, humbly dispensed wise counsel, and embraced higher ideals.

What strikes me is the timeless nature of his words. Consider the tone and tenor of our current public discourse, as witnessed in the deluge of social media postings: hate and fear of our fellow humans; diminishment of others for their race, beliefs, or political leanings; worst-case scenarios over job losses and violent immigrants. It all makes it sound as if RFK was looking over my shoulder as I was scrolling Facebook this morning.

With all due respect, some of the smartest, most gifted friends I have are also the most vitriolic. They somehow see those they disagree with as sub-human. They post or share these types of things:

  • A pro athlete doesn’t stand for the national anthem, and he is a “piece of shit.” “
  • “[Congressman] shreds Paul Ryan…”
  • “Chuck Schumer hits back after Donald Trump calls him a ‘clown.'”

Humans we disagree with are pieces of shit or clowns. We love seeing those in the wrong “shredded,” filling our tribal echo chambers with the gurgles of maniacal glee. What will come of this?

RFK ended his speech with these words:

“We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.

Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”

While there is true physical violence perpetrated each day, there is more insidious violence among us, the hatred of our fellow humans. If called out, or even questioned, it is often denied, excused, of played down. But when we publicly diminish the value of others – those with whom we disagree, and even those whose acts we find unacceptable – we actually diminish ourselves. I’m learning that I do not need one more person in my life who agrees with me, likes me, or follows me. What I do need is to live at the deepest levels of peace with all humans whenever it is possible, and to keep their dignity intact, whenever it is not. Life is too short, and our desire to live happy, satisfied, and fulfilled lives too utterly universal.

 

What We Need

what-we-needIt happened. What seemed implausible months ago is now a reality. My social media feed reveals that I have friends and family from every wave of the political spectrum, and so I scroll from tears to laughter, anger to boasting, fear to hope, wash, rinse, repeat. Now that it’s here, now that we must learn to say the words, “President Donald J. Trump,” what is the process by which we enter into these uncharted waters? What do people need?

People Need to Grieve

Let them. Let people be angry, express fear, say things that they may regret later…let them. This is a new sensation for me. In the past, when my candidate hasn’t won, I was certainly concerned for the direction of our country, as well as the social and moral implications of a given leader’s influence. But this is measured on a different scale. That was Fahrenheit, this is Kelvin. And loss of this magnitude requires expression of grief. The grieving process is just that, a process. How someone feels today is not necessarily how they will feel tomorrow, and since we know that Facebook posts often leapfrog the filter between the initial thought and the mouth, let people grieve it out.

People Need to Hope

Let them. President Donald J. Trump represents strength and safety for many people. Smart people – not caricatures of backwoods hillbillies – voted for him and look forward to his leadership. In recent years they saw their fears unmitigated, and their hopes unrealized, and they chose to effect change. Your answer to the question, “What makes you hopeful?” is different than mine, and if I find your answer confounding, it doesn’t lessen one bit your need for hope. Nor mine. Celebrate hope, foster hope, and express hope. Let them hope. It is woven into the human psyche.

People Need to Be Understood

Understand them. As expressed above, smart people voted for a candidate you find unacceptable, frightening, morally bankrupt, incompetent, etc. A surefire way to foster alienation is to refuse to learn to articulate each other’s views. Think about what disgusts you about the US Congress: toddlers in grown up clothes whining and crying and threatening and bullying and pointing fingers and saying, “They started it.” (See this gem.) Wouldn’t you love to see political opponents sit down and clearly outline each other’s position, setting the table for substantive discussion and real compromise? Let’s show them how. Listen, then articulate back what you heard to the satisfaction of the one to whom you listened, then speak your position. Try it. It’s amazing what keeping human dignity intact can do for progress.

People Need to Create

Yeah, that seems out of left field. But, let them. Let people create art, media, literature, music, and dance to express the depth of human experience, especially during confusing and tumultuous times. Let gifted political minds craft something better than a two-party system, something that increases viable choices for a diverse society. Let cultural visionaries paint with broad, beautiful strokes that inspire us to climb to new heights without ever stepping on others to get there.

People Need Love

Give it. Not the kind of love that is blind and giddy and goes away with the first pimple. Rather, the kind that looks at another human being — no matter how different they appear, no matter how incomprehensible their values seem, no matter who they love —  and sees immense worth. The kind that seeks to meet the need in the other. In my life, I have met wealthy businessmen, famous actors, and professional athletes, as well as homeless men and women, orphans, and the marginalized and abused in our society. My conversations with the former groups often revolved around lofty ideas, money, power, and politics. With the latter? Basic human needs, in the context of deep mutual understanding. It was the language of love. They gave it, and they received it.

Conclusions

My thirteen-year-old son quoted Queen to me this morning, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.” He is grieving, and he needs hope, creativity, and love to move on and live in this world as a productive, positive member of society. I do, too. So do you. Let’s give to each other what we need.

RFK > DJT

RFKMLKThis morning I read Richard Cohen’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Donald Trump’s Intolerable Cruelty. Putting my confirmation bias on the table, I’ll say up front that a number of Cohen views are also my own. They resonate deep within. You’ll find no interest here on my part to engage others on Trump’s virtues or lack thereof. To be clear, I believe Donald Trump to be a rogue, megalomaniacal narcissist, who possesses the resources (read: butt load of cash) to feed his psychoses in front of the masses. I have (hopefully) a much less developed narcissistic megalomania in me, and, coupled with (definitely) less capital, my damage can be mitigated in this world. Trump is emotionally nuclear, and the implications for a Presidency of similar description are quite clear.

What really struck me in the piece was this paragraph,

Trump has his charms. But he’s a towel-snapper — a rich kid who has always had it easy. He has never had the character-building setbacks that sometimes season the callow — Franklin D. Roosevelt’s polio or Robert F. Kennedy’s loss of his brother John, for instance. These are the sorts of things that reduce the rich to the powerlessness of the poor. Trump has none of that. He lives in a pre-Copernican world of his own. The sun revolves around him.

It made me think that Trump has either chosen to appear unaffected by suffering in his life — we all have it in one form or another — or, he was shaped by it in a way that both handicaps him and gives him personal force. I get that, and see similar leanings on both counts in myself. This surely must explain at least some of DJT’s appeal. He touches on topics and feelings that come from an unproductive or stunted response to suffering. But RFK…

Somewhere in my transformation from a robotic follower of all things conservative to striving to be a critical, independent thinker, I rediscovered the recorded speeches of Robert F. Kennedy. This one in particular:

This is an example of what Cohen wrote about. RFK used wisdom gained from torturous, dripping pain to help give productive focus to the suffering of his listeners. Months later, RFK was killed, it would seem, because his own torrential suffering gave him hope that political and economic systems could be shaped to put shoulder to the anguish of others. That was too threatening to the view of the American Dream, of American Culture, of perhaps American Exceptionalism that was held by some in his day.

Not so with Trump. He foments base-level responses to pain in his audiences. He may occasionally touch on something true or real (“even a broken clock…”), but his manner in doing so, and his end game, is to ride anger, bigotry, fear, and anti-intellectualism straight to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Someone once said that if you have all compassion and no truth, you are half way there. But, if you have all truth and no compassion, you are less than nowhere. So, it follows that care for others sets the table for straight talk. In Kennedy’s speech, he spoke extremely difficult things to a crowd of mostly Black Americans, difficult even more so because he was White. He was able to do so because the insufferable droplets of pain upon his own heart produced not only wisdom, but also deep compassion. All these years later, it is still beautiful to observe.

I want a candidate who has much more RFK in them than DJT. I always will.

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Elephant-Donkey-boxingThere is a Facebook phenomenon that has me scratching my head. It’s the practice of searching for friends who “like” Donald Trump’s official page, and then unfriending them. It seems strange to me, but I may be missing something. To be clear, I personally believe that the Trump campaign is a freak show, and that he is a venomous, hate spewing fear monger. He is inarticulate, incoherent, traffics in lies and half truths, and would be a complete and utter embarrassment as Commander In Chief. The question for me is, why would we disengage from those in our lives with whom we disagree? I know a number of people who support Trump and will vote for him, who are not like him. They speak clearly and intelligently, and are reasonably well informed. This makes me want to engage them more, not dispense with them. There are several reasons for this:

  1. I don’t know everything – I may learn something through engaging them
  2. Understanding others, especially in such a way that enables me to clearly articulate their opposing position, is a way of earning trust and having substantive dialogue
  3. The spirit of tolerance actually calls me to respect those with whom I disagree (telling others that I will be unfriending them seems like an act of disrespect and condescension)
  4. The act of dismissing from our lives those with whom we disagree seems very much like the ugly spirit of political discourse the pervades Washington, DC

So, is it possible that those who #feelthebern can actually have friendship and mutually informative interactions with those who want to #takebackamerica? I think so. What do you think?

Hooray, your candidate sucks!

Read-A-Facebook-Argument-482The dreaded incredibly exciting Presidential election season is upon us! With it comes the social media shaming sharing, where we troll our candidates’ opponents and destroy their character through primarily ad hominem attacks extol the virtues of our preferred candidates. This makes us feel as if we are morally and intellectually superior to our friends allows us all to make educated and informed comparisons between candidates. Because of this social media phenomenon, we realize that Facebook is the last place on earth to have a mutually respectful exchange of diverging or opposing ideas a wonderful place in which to engage in friendly debate. I’ll stop following all friends who act like elections are an episode of Jerry Springer be waiting with bated breath for this next round of enlightened, politically themed posts. Hooray, your candidate sucks healthy, rigorous dialogue makes us better citizens!

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.