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The Retirement Fund Revolutionary

The best paper I ever wrote was for my Ethics & Sustainability class in my MBA program.  My professor was likely the most progressive I’d ever had, perhaps not surprising considering I got my bachelor’s degree at a conservative Catholic school.  The class was unlike my other business classes; instead of balance sheets and Net Present Value, the emphasis was on corporate ethics and responsibility – an outside-in approach. I transitioned well though, proudly earning an A on my paper, titled “American Collusion: How Corporations, Shareholders, and Legislators Work Together to Oppress the Marginalized in Society.”

The paper intertwined the capitalist corporate ethos of profit and exploitation with issues that compelled me – topics like the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements.  Fundamentally, my research was concerned with the corporate responsibility solely to shareholders, a divergence from a previous era in which businesses answered to all stakeholders including the community and the environment. Not surprisingly, when shareholder value held the trump card, the existing wealth gap bulged.  As a result, marginalized groups had fewer opportunities, and individuals and communities in the lower classes suffered. They not only suffered with poverty but with all poverty’s attachments – unemployment, homelessness, discrimination, incarceration. It’s no coincidence that victims of the wage gap, like victims of systemic racial injustice or sexual violence are disproportionately BIPOC individuals and women, most economically disadvantaged.  Though it was impossible to prove causation, rising corporate greed and the growth of movements of individuals harmed by the state or people in power rose to the level of strong correlation.

The primary solution I advocated was organizing. When unionized, workers typically less susceptible to financial exploitation and even sexual harassment, thanks to the ability to collectively bargain.  Of course, unionizing alone would not solve all these issues but it’d been proven to bring the playing field at least marginally closer to level. It was a well-reasoned argument.  It was a damn good paper.

The day after submitting my final copy, I went into work. 

Often, the first thing I do when getting into work is check the company stock price. So much is tied to it.  Besides being an indicator of our company’s overall health – my job security – it’s a marker of how well my portfolio is doing.  We’re incentivized with company stock options.  If the company share price rises, we get the option to cash the options in at maturity, for considerable potential profit. And my Roth 401K is spread over several investments, so it typically moves in tandem with the market.  As the index rises, so does my personal wealth in my retirement fund. My paper quickly became a distant fog as I returned to the reality of emails and meetings, seeking continuous improvement in our manufacturing processes and pure value driving for our shareholders. My mind leaped from philosophy to strategy in a few hours – a philosophy of a more equitable nation butting heads with our business strategy of suffocating our competitors to maximize profitability.

This cycle continues.  At home I shop on Amazon, the poster child of labor exploitation, for books on progressive policies and anti-racism.  When my solidarity t-shirt doesn’t arrive on time, my head erupts with rage at the machine that’s supposed to deliver in two days without error.  I listen to Nas and J. Cole rap about class struggle on my way to the mall to buy high-end, name brand clothing and shoes that I don’t need.  With my browser open to an article about poverty levels and rising eviction rates, I open a new tab to haphazardly monitor my interest accrual in my mutual fund investment.  I’m all about progressive, anti-capitalist, revolutionary change – until it gets personal.

Each day I must reconcile – or choose to ignore – the hypocrisy between what I claim to represent and what my actions indicate. Unions, as I argued in my paper, are great and necessary.  But if manufacturing employees at my company unionized, I realize the havoc it would wreak on our internal systems and our profit potential (and possibly, one day, my own salary).  The abominable system of capitalism, one in which the rich profit off working class labor needs reform.  Just not complete reform.  I still need my retirement fund that’s predicated on ownership of other companies’ stock. Sweatshop labor, like the Uyghur minority’s forced labor in China, is unfathomable.  But do I check the tags of the Ralph Lauren sweaters or cheap soccer jerseys I buy from overseas?  Never. I may be triumphant in signaling my virtue, but my personal exploits are not congruent with my stated ideals. I’m a perpetuator of the very system I seek to dismantle.  If I am the change I wish to seek in the world, I’m also the damned problem.

By this precedent, I can also be the solution.  But to be the solution would require a transformation in lifestyle, a retreat in my participation in practices and norms rooted in white supremacy, exploitation, and greed. In the book of Matthew, a man asks Jesus how to enter Heaven.  Jesus tells him to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and come follow Him.  According to Matthew 19:22, “[H]e went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.” Though apolitical, Jesus was most certainly radical, and his disdain for wealth was probably matched only by his compassion for the poor.  But in this encounter, too often I see myself as the man walking away in disappointment, not the radical outsider.  I want change, I want to do right, but when given the roadmap to revolution, I stow it in the glove box and settle for a more comfortable route.

I think it’s important here to acknowledge that greater institutions must advance the types of changes I want to see before the needle moves. Nevertheless, it’s a humbling experience to evaluate my own dissonance between my publicized desires and my actions. My hope in writing this is that I reach an acceptance of what parts of me need to change to align with my stated values.  But I can’t start until I acknowledge my own blind spots because, to quote Gandhi, “if you want to change the world, start with yourself.” And before I change myself, I must know what to change, and how to better live out my values – not just on paper, but in practice.

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Short Stories: Wakeup Call on a Red Eye

Before the pandemic I traveled quite a bit, and my frequent flier status gave me both excellent seats and a sense of entitlement. 

I was once set to take a red-eye flight from Las Vegas to the East Coast, a flight that wasn’t my favourite, but would offer me the following day off work. No stranger to overnight travel, I began my routine as standard – arrive in comfortable clothes, check in, grab a book, sip a heavy beer, and board the plane moments before hitting my REM cycle in stride. Unfortunately, a mechanical malfunction on the plane upended that routine.  We were forced to deplane and returned, groggy-eyed, back to the terminal to wait on a fix or replacement jet.

After deliberation, the flight crew couldn’t identify an alternative. A sympathetic and understandably nervous stewardess shared the bad news over the intercom.  We were welcomed to cozy up on any open floorspace in the Vegas airport until the next morning.  Furiously, I refreshed my boarding pass on my phone, confirming my departure time had changed to 7AM.  

I carried my silver-medallion-status-swagger to join the other outraged passengers in line.  Whether this was in the staff’s control was not my concern.  I seethed, preparing to unload on the desk attendants. To formulate my argument, I began listening to and collecting aggrievement snippets from fellow passengers.  But not everyone was so aggrieved.

As I inched closer to the front desk, I overheard a father, surrounded by his family, explaining the circumstances to his young child.  The child seemed agitated and confused, likely not fully grasping the situation but knowing enough to feel wronged.  While I don’t remember the father’s words verbatim, I remember him being unfazed and reassuring.  Sometimes, he explained, things don’t work out the way we want them to. We must learn to accept that, maintain a positive attitude, and adapt.

His levelheadedness, his words, and his spirit moved me – not just figuratively but literally.  I abandoned my spot in the grievance line to an open seating area where I assembled makeshift sleeping arrangements for the night. This hadn’t worked out the way I’d planned, I didn’t want to accept it, and yet I resigned to this father’s statement  Whereas I’d intended to wake up reclined in a seat to plane wheels touching the ground, I instead woke up on my hoodie-turned-pillow to my phone alarm.

But the biggest wakeup call was one of an emotional awakening, initiated unintentionally by this young dad. And it’s stuck in my head not because it was monumental, but because it was so benign. He was explaining something to his child, offering a lesson, offering encouragement, positivity. He didn’t expect me to hear him, but that’s what made the encounter so important. The impact far exceeded the intent; his gentle words resonated so boldly.  

I’m reminded of this experience regularly, and as the pandemic eases and the world reopens, I want to embody that unsuspecting positive influence. It’s so important to note that those around you are constantly observing and listening.  This is not to say they are eavesdropping or stalking you, but that at any given moment, others can see, hear, and feel your emotion, energy, and body language – just as well as your words and actions.   I’m sharing this story because I want to do better. I want to pause and breathe next time and think about how my actions in any circumstance can be a wakeup call to others.  It could be in the most unsuspecting of times that we can have the most profound impact.  

Protection

Please know you are constantly in my thoughts. Despite your perpetual presence in my mind, your footprint on my psyche, there are no concrete traces of you in the world. You are immaterial, you are nonexistent. And yet this very nonexistence thrusts you into a spotlight of not just being but of wonder and awe, concern and dread. It might be unfair to weaponize the abstract ‘you;’ to use what you may (or may not) be to express my own frustrations. Perhaps it’s your fluidity, perhaps it’s your permanence in my heart urging me to express to you my feelings. Perhaps I’m afraid to sign my own name to worldly frustrations and fears and my personal agonies.

Why am I so inclined to think about you? Maybe it’s a societal pressure, a bending norm that floods my social media feeds with your prospective peers – their first week, their first month, their first year, each in a meticulously coordinated Gap outfit. My peers present only jubilation online; their happiness and success reach across my entire timeline, towering over political hot takes and graduate school diplomas. They dominate their sphere and, because I cannot look away, they dominate my sphere, too. I want that happiness; or, at least, I want that perception of that happiness, that feeling of achievement, that beauty of stewardship and unrelenting love. I want that for you too.

But my head is very cluttered. This does not make me unique, but it directly affects you. I don’t let fear govern my life. Fear is a monstrous machine, a tactic used by the Right, a tactic used by the Left, a tossed salad of Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow takes and media and my second amendment-loving uncle. Sometimes you are what you eat, but I consume this salad regularly and have morphed, not part of the salad kit but influenced by it. Shit, maybe I do let fear govern my life. But how couldn’t I?

Do I fear for you? Of course. What, specifically, I fear is far nuanced. The expectation of preserving the world’s wellbeing is on your shoulders.  That isn’t in any manual, but that’s my expectation of you because it’s my expectation of me.  And my performance has been fucking dreadful.  I’m a grain of sand on a beach of apathy. While glaciers melt, I bring my own bag. While unarmed Black men are murdered, I re-read Ta-Nehisi Coates.  While foreign people are oppressed, I post scriptures online.  I’m terribly inadequate – only adept enough to acknowledge my own inadequacy. I fear you’ll either feel the same uselessness, or I fear that you won’t. If you do, how will I gently let you know you’re facing the impossible? If you don’t, if you gravitate to consumerism and career and leisure, what will I have done but photocopied my own image?

I fear for your mentality. I mostly dismissed Punnett Squares when learning about them in high school, but I remembered the dominant gene. I remembered it first for a test, but later because of my own inclinations and my own internal struggles. They call it a “chemical imbalance.” I do too, because “motherfucker” is not a formal medical term. But if you are to be the product of this lottery, I fear the outcome. Would you scratch off a number to reveal a life supply of palm sweat, overthinking, and irrational and debilitating anxieties? Would you face flare-ups of panic, bouts of hopelessness, cycles of disillusionment? Would this torturous, insufferable motherfucker suffocate you? If so, what could I do? I bought you the ticket and scratched off the numbers.

I fear your arrogance. This may seem an unfair projection, but you are me and your arrogance is my arrogance. It’s possible I could assure you nice things. A stable income. A place to sleep. Amenities on top of basic staples. A middle-class socioeconomic status in a “safe” neighborhood. Good schools and academic mobility. The Jeopardy category for all these clues is titled “privilege.”  Your peers may reject this reality because my peers reject this reality. I abused my truth of whiteness, heterosexuality, affluence, and opportunity.  My harmful anti-Semitic and homophobic and racially insensitive and misogynistic troupes found praise and encouragement from my mates. My arrogance clouded – and is clouding – my reconciliation. When they say, “learn from your mistakes,” I want that to mean your spending and eating habits. I don’t want you to learn from your mistakes that harm others because those are mistakes beyond destruction. They can damage people, just as I have unknowingly done. Your peers may carry on, telling you you’re too woke or too sensitive, but you must understand the gravity of your words and actions. Yes, I want to protect you from the world, but I also want to protect the world from you.

You have unfathomable power, both to hurt and to be hurt. I fear for your livelihood. It’s true that I rolled my eyes when commanded to “text when I arrive safely.”  I did not understand that my safety was in constant jeopardy.  Nor could I grasp the threat I carried to innocent bystanders.  When I blasted J. Cole behind the wheel while shooting off a text, or watched unresponsive as my roommates binge-drank, I abetted reckless endangerment in the name of having fun.  Fun.  Some would retort that “you have to live your life” but you must be living your life in order to live your life. And if I somehow manage the Herculean effort of shepherding you from your own threat, how then will I shepherd the other 7 billion? Drivers are becoming drunker. Disease is becoming deadlier. Powerful men are becoming more predatory. Gun culture is becoming more glorified. Mass shooters are becoming more common and more accurate.

You could certainly argue that my approach is a fearmongering sibling to my laundry list of late-night hosts and social media posts that incite fear. I don’t mean to spread concern, only to describe my own interpretations. I am a cynic, but also an optimist and a realist. I know that if the immaterial ‘you’ one day crystallized, there would be joy and laughter, sharing of a mutual boundless love. Though I carry unnecessary fear and anxiety, political and humanitarian anger, I’m also living a life defined by a supply chain of love, from the Most High to my elders to my younger siblings. Perhaps it’s because of this love I’ve sensitized to a supply chain of pain. I want to terminate genocide and I want to uplift my friend going through a rough patch. I want everybody safe. I don’t want to heal your wounds; I want you to have no wounds.

All this weighs on me as I struggle to answer the question my timeline is unconsciously asking, almost beckoning with their sonogram and stroller ride photo reels, beleaguering my decision to be indecisive. With one eye I read a comical onesie slogan and see a toothless smile; with the other I read The Onion’s ‘No Way to Prevent’ mass shooting satire and see tearful faces. In my hands I examine a box of contraceptives that are branded as ‘protection’ and I wonder: is this protection for me, or is it for you?   

Of Goliaths and Genocide

One of the more cringeworthy episodes of “The Office” takes place at business school, where Regional Manager Michael Scott presents the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company to the class.  After mansplaining basic business and economics using candy bars, Michael is hit with pointed questions about the future success of Dunder Mifflin in a competitive marketplace.  His bravado shrinking, he goes on the defensive, offering platitudes instead of strategy: “David will always beat Goliath.” One student is unconvinced. “There are five Goliaths…Staples…OfficeMax…” he begins before Michael sharply cuts him off.  “You know what else is facing five Goliaths?  America. Al-Qaeda, global warming, sex predators… mercury poisoning.  So, do we just give up?”

It’s textbook Michael Scott – managing only four “Goliaths” while missing the point of the exercise entirely. I don’t remember if I laughed or cringed – it’s possible I’ve done both on occasion, considering I’ve seen that episode multiple times.  Reflecting years later, though, I’m neither amused nor horrified by Michael’s misguided monologue.  I’m intrigued.

The writers probably wanted to highlight Michael’s narcissism and poor critical thinking, but his off-the-cuff “Goliaths” speak to something I’ve been struggling with lately.  Michael’s characterization of our country’s greatest threats might be off – but by whose standards? America is facing far more than five Goliaths, as is our immediate environment and the global environment, and to try and prioritize or rank presents a real challenge. It’s almost economic in nature; we have limited emotional capital to tackle unlimited problems.  How do we ensure our lives yield the best return when balancing the global Goliaths with our personal needs? If we want to impact the world, if we want to summon our inner David to dismantle these global Goliaths, where do we invest that capital?

A threat that only recently drew my attention is that of the mistreatment of Uyghurs in China. If you haven’t looked into this devastating story, you should. Investigative journalism, notably by the BBC, has revealed atrocious human rights abuses committed against innocent Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region.  Reports and testimony conclude that Uyghurs suffer forced sterilizations, abortions, rape, child separation, and culture-stripping, all in the name of assimilation to Han Chinese culture. It’s difficult to fully corroborate; the authoritarian Chinese government is far from transparent, and countries with economic reliance on China are reluctant to label this genocide.

Each account of the Uyghurs broke my heart, particularly those from Uyghur women who escaped or otherwise exited the country, taking great risk to tell their traumatic stories.  Every thread of my emotion began arming itself to go to battle for these people.  This was it.  This was the Goliath of the day. I wanted to drop everything and find the heaviest stone, the strongest slingshot.  I was ready to sign petitions, to write lawmakers, to share on social media, to do whatever I needed to do help slay this beast.   

As days went on, though, my attention diverted.  A breaking news story, a random tweet, a call with relatives, and a chapter read, and suddenly this imminent Goliath had dissipated, giving way to the concerns of climate change, the sins of systemic racism. My personal agenda also interfered, as the personal Goliaths of self-care, family relationships, and friendships re-entered my view. Allocating all my emotional capital to saving the Uyghurs suddenly had high opportunity costs and better alternatives. What about our problems at home?  Should I not tackle my community before shifting to global efforts? How strongly should I emphasize my own well-being and my relationships?  My vision of prioritizing the giants was as erratic and noncommittal as Michael Scott’s. As Goliaths multiplied on the horizon, I stood idly, unmotivated, with a handful of empty slingshots.  How are we to ever make progress?

It seems there’s no ideal point on the sliding scale of emotional currency.  Every investment will come with opportunity cost. I’m craving a playbook for managing my emotions, maintaining relationships, and winning a victory for humanity. I want the proverbial supply-demand curve that shows how to optimize the economics of emotion. How do we ensure a swift ending to the Uyghur genocide in China, while also demanding that nobody in our communities go hungry?  How do we also maintain emphasis on the threats of climate change, to leave a better future for the next generation, and systemic racism, to better understand the horrors of America’s past? And how do we alleviate the burden of emotional resources, so it doesn’t fracture our relationships, friendships, family bonds, and personal wellbeing? Emotional capital is limited; Goliaths are limitless. And it’s frustrating as hell.

When writing, I always try and reach some sort of conclusion, recommendations on observations on complex issues.  But I’ve found this overly difficult.  Prioritizing Goliaths and building arsenals of slingshots and stones offers no easy solution.  I think back to a frazzled Michael Scott, though, more for what he asked at the end his Goliath monologue. “Do we just give up?”

This much we know: we cannot give up.  And as much as the threat of ever-present Goliaths looms large, there are many people and organizations armed and up to the task.  Perhaps we can draw on the symbolic Davids for inspiration. I’m moved by people, both in my life and in the public eye, who spend emotional currency wisely and for the greater good.  I think of politicians, athletes and public figures who use their platforms to speak out on behalf of issues they feel passionate about. I think also of community leaders who, despite a smaller platform, tackle problems in the community with ferocity.  Undoubtedly, even these icons struggle with the management of emotional capital, juggling Goliaths publicly and privately.

Even if we lack answers to this question, I hope to start a dialogue.  Whether it’s genocide or climate change, or even an issue as local as homelessness, these giants don’t leave without a fight, and even if defeated, more will emerge to fill those voids. We’ll never exist in a world without Goliaths, but I’m hoping for a unified front in attacking them, where the communal shared vision – even the erratic Michael Scott – manages what’s most important and build the best battle strategy. I’m looking for balanced emotional economics, such that we balance personal upkeep with our ability to identify and bring change with the highest return on investment – whether genocide, inequality, or local politics.  I want to prove the impulsive Michael Scott right about one thing, whether in Dunder Mifflin terms or global terms: “David will always beat Goliath.”

Ken

How a Prospective Political Foe Changed My Perspective

In an unprecedented change of pace, I found myself setting my phone aside in a Jiffy Lube waiting room a few weeks ago to engage in conversation with a few strangers.  Typically, I’d avoid speaking with anyone in such a public space, preferring the safety and confirmation biases that my phone screen, social media, and news app offer.  But as we waited, the few of us cracked light jokes about mechanics’ ability to find new problems in the deepest, unknown recesses of our engines.  As the room cleared out, though, I was left alone with one stranger, whose inquest went far deeper than windshield washer fluid.

The man asked me benign but packed questions at the beginning, as though I could only captivate his attention by offering my full Wikipedia bio.  We spoke about our upbringing, life travels, experiences, and careers.  I learned his wife is a traveling nurse, especially vital during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that he was rarely rooted to one place for too long.  I begrudgingly repeated my sermon about my corporate job, apartment life, and other fragments of the speech I deliver to my aunts at Thanksgiving. 

In the back of my head, I kept wondering whether this stranger had poor social awareness or carried a genuine interest in deep, provoking waiting room discourse.  With Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s death not too far in the nation’s rearview mirror, he opened up about his formation in a diverse military city, and his children’s participation in racial justice rallies in their respective cities. He was eager to learn my perspective. He didn’t address Mr Floyd or Ms Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery, but the way he spoke about his past and present, it became evident he was aware of these people and the issues of systemic oppression. Just as I began letting my guard down and engaging in deeper discourse, his name was called, and he was gone with a quick but heartfelt goodbye. 

I reverted to my phone screen, somewhat enlightened but mostly unmoved.  It was the kind of exchange where you think “that was pleasant,” and proceed to wash them from memory. 

Not ten minutes later, he reappeared.  Thinking he forgot something, I smiled from behind my mask and then looked back down at the NPR article I’d been reading.  In fact, he had left something behind, but it wasn’t a wallet or cell phone that compelled him to leave his completed car.  He’d left our conversation unfinished.

A bit unsettled, I dug my heels in, wondering how much deeper two strangers could possibly go in a civil manner.  And he immediately nodded towards my Black Lives Matter wristband, contorting his face as he shared his concept of BLM, believing that, as a Christian, “all lives matter,” and anything to the contrary was “dangerous.” Normally I’d be outraged by such a stance, but the calm in his voice kept my aggression at bay.  In a hushed tone, he asked me how I’d shaped my perspectives.  There was no condemnation in his voice, no judgment, only genuine wonder at why and how and why I’d adopted this stance.  I shared my faith background, my deeper understanding of history, and my urge to participate in such a powerful and peaceful movement. We locked eyes at key inflection points – speaking about our faith, our fractured understanding of racial injustice, and our overall lack of answers.  I found myself uncomfortable in the topic and yet somehow so comfortable around this stranger.  He nodded.  He looked on pensively.   He did not judge, did not interrupt, did not disagree.  He listened to hear me. 

As the mechanics pulled my car to the front and I completed my payment, the man finally introduced himself as “Ken,” thanking me for a genuine dialogue and asking if he could pray for me.  I obliged, and he put his hand on my shoulder, and prayed for me in front of the large glass Jiffy Lube windowpane.  With masked smiles and kind sentiment, Ken and I parted ways.

***

Reflecting later, the sincerity and delicacy of Ken’s approach to our discussion was nothing short of brilliant.  My assumption is that, early on, he saw a Black Lives Matter wristband and felt a disparity, a misalignment.  But the beauty in his approach was in its safety.  When Ken spoke, he created a safe space – a space in which I felt comfortable and aligned, not angered.

He sought to extrapolate similarities; our faiths bring us to the same understanding of “true north;” that is, we believe in the same end goal.  We are both aware of the pains facing our world today.  And, above all else, he galvanized us around our shared humanity.

When I think about our partisan world, so often, I see how tribalism dominates over all other forms of identity.  Instead of reverting to identity politics and rancor, Ken brought us to the same team.  Only when that had been established did he bring up ideological differences; at which point he expressed a genuine curiosity in unpacking differences and creating shared understanding. If there was a playbook on how to engage a stranger in a critical conversation, I believe Ken ran the perfect route.

This encounter grows in power every time I reflect on it.  Racial strife, a contentious election, social media, and hyper partisanship have eroded the possibilities around respectful chance encounters.  I keep thinking what might have happened had I “met” someone with Ken’s views on a social media platform. How quickly would we dismiss one another’s opinions? How quickly would we dismantle the other’s argument to score likes and retweets?  How quickly would we revert to our differences, and give in to our tribalist tendencies, which media so readily reinforces?  How quickly would I hate Ken?

I wanted to share this story because I think we should all approach one another like Ken.  Partisanship and identity politics will always take precedence over empathy and mutual understanding unless we work hard to understand one another.  It isn’t comfortable and it isn’t easy.  Striking up a random conversation takes courage, and to speak about anything beneath the surface with a stranger is completely taboo.  Before my oil change, I was probably mentally prepared to start a heated Facebook argument with someone two hundred miles away, knowing the screen would shield me from the humanness of the moron on the other side.  Instead, I left with hope, with a redefined faith in the genuine nature and potential of humanity.

I will not stop saying that Black Lives Matter; I will not waver in that belief, nor will I settle in the fight for justice and equity.  However, Ken taught me an invaluable lesson on how to approach difficult conversations in the absence of history or context.  He showed me how tribalism can come second if we’re willing to create a safe space, find commonalities, and listen to comprehend, not just to respond.  There’s no silver bullet for the plague of polarized vitriol in our rhetoric.  But I truly believe, if we can follow the lead of a stranger who I’ll likely never see again, we can begin to better understand one another on a level far deeper than waiting room small talk.

One Thousand Four Hundred Sixty-One Days

In his “Happy Thoughts” special, Daniel Tosh tells a joke about the Olympics, highlighting the inexplicable emphasis Americans place on sporting events for which they have little knowledge or care.  “I hate summer games, for that matter,” he explains, particularly emphasizing “…a sport no one cares about for 3 years and 11 months at a time, then for one month, I got to act as if the vault affects my patriotism. It doesn’t.”

I love this joke because it’s so relatable.  When the Olympics come around every four years, I somehow find myself glued to NBC, watching intensely as the best athletes in the world battle over nanoseconds and centimeters for athletic and international prowess, never more aware of my American identity.  And I don’t like that this post is predicated on a Daniel Tosh joke, but I think he’s getting at something critical here. Athletes I don’t know in sports I don’t follow suddenly carry the entire stake of our nation, and millions of eyes are glued to their TV sets.  And then, as quickly as it began, the torch is extinguished, and we switch back to the NFL, reality shows and Netflix and bury any memory or concern for professional badminton until the next cycle.

Too often, I think that Americans view presidential elections through a very similar lens. Instead of Tosh’s hilarious vault comparison, though, the thrust of our patriotism hinges on one day, one outcome, and two terribly imperfect candidates’ visions for a fractured nation.  But the most striking similarity to me is the infrequency of these events; just as we disproportionately weigh gymnastics in an Olympic month, we too overweigh election results in November.  Intentionally or not, Daniel Tosh exposes a contrast in our national identity – what do we do in the four years between Election Days, and how do we let that define us?

It’s damn near impossible to avoid the election in the current climate.  Beyond the news feed advertisements on Facebook and Twitter, campaign fliers clog our mailboxes and attack adds interrupt our TV programs.  Debates are hyped up, then overanalyzed. Once-taboo conversation about immigration and abortion dominates work and family dialogue. Society has pushed the election narrative so hard that it becomes difficult not to think in terms of two absolutes: either your candidate wins, and the country improves, or your candidate loses, and the country implodes.  Let’s ignore for a second that this false binary is complete rubbish.  The real brilliance in this broad media strategy is that we unwittingly put all our eggs in one, grandstanding, name-calling, unpresidential presidential basket, and ignore all our other political and social responsibilities.    

Voting is very important.  But it is also very rare.  In between U.S. federal elections, there are approximately one thousand four hundred sixty-one days.  In each of these one thousand four hundred sixty-one days between elections, we can, in a non-fraudulent manner, vote – and vote often.  Democracy takes on so many more forms than an election, and the beautiful part is that we can have such greater impact locally than at the national level.  We vote with more than our ballots; we vote with our feet, our time, our money, our energy, influence, and advocacy.  To view the presidential election as the political apex is to completely miss the value of democracy, and to completely neglect our individual potential!  

This interpretation of voting is not novel, but often gets swept away in nagging media coverage of the presidential race, and every nuance that comes with it.  And while there is fear of sweeping socialism that suppresses individual freedoms, or fear of technology dominating our subconscious, we must realize we are already conceding if we narrow our scope of our own democratic power.  Presidents are limited by endless checks and balances; the best-intentioned Executive Order or Bill can spend an eternity in legislative purgatory.  While Washington is and always has been anemic, it’s up to every one of us to pump iron through the blood of our communities – to enrich them, to mobilize them, to energize them.

Each of those one thousand, four hundred sixty-one odd days carries tremendous political responsibility – regardless of party, religion, or any other identity. Who do we support in this interim? For whom do we care? How do we offer our time and services?  I’m reminded of a saying that’s stuck with me through contentious election cycles when I begin feeling overwhelmed and utterly powerless:

“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy.  You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” – Unknown.

Our communities are yearning for our votes.  And what’s more, participation in concrete voting activity far surpasses voting for convoluted ideals.  Think about an issue like income inequality, the effects of which permeate both the national and local landscape.  A $50 campaign contribution is abstract, in the sense that you are donating money towards concepts.  Those dollars could be spent on TV advertisements, paying staffers, cold calling, tours or rallies.  Even if your candidate wins, what does that money really pay for outside of campaign staffers, convention centers, and television advertisements?  Most likely, none of your contribution serves the values you are supporting.

Conversely, consider a $50 donation to your local food bank.  Such a contribution is concrete; that institution will purchase food at discounted prices, advertise its mission, and feed people who you can see in your community.  Even more impactful?  Get involved.  Vote with your feet, your hands, your compassion.  Advocate in your community for the same groups you’re asking your elected officials to advocate.  If you’re angry over the Republican tax cuts’ enhancement of inequality, don’t just vote against these ideas at the polls. Vote against them in your neighborhood and serve those who have felt the horrid effects of a pandemic atop a growing wealth gap and health coverage hanging in the balance.  It’s been said that you can’t complain if you don’t vote.  But if you vote and earn the right to complain, what means do those complaints serve unless you back them with action?

Like watching the United States compete in the Summer Olympics, we should feel a sense of patriotism in voting, just as we feel it when watching our athletes succeed.  And voting, however marginal, is still important.  It’s the backbone to a healthy democratic society.  But we must extend our vote beyond the polls, through our advocacy and actions and charity, and continually serve the needs of our communities, where a vote manifests itself in so many varieties.  Because this year, November third matters – very much so.  But so does November fourth.

What if the president really is a very stable genus?

Early in the morning on January 6, 2018, the president took to the new era bully pulpit, Twitter, to defend his mental stability.  In an infamous tweetstorm, one which coined a future book title, he proudly labeled himself, among other things, “a very stable genius.”  Like many of his tweets it was met with wide-ranging responses; critics cited its absurdity, supporters defended his overconfidence, but most able-minded people agreed on one thing: this statement was not true.  But what if it was?

I’m going to ask you to entertain a thought experiment.  It will not be enjoyable or hopeful or comical, nor will it use scientific methods or concrete data.  It will be based on perspective and examples with which we’re familiar.  As I seek to legitimize a claim many find irrational, I wonder if this framing can help us understand, genius or not, how to counteract easy-to-consume bias and sensationalism.   

Recently, the news cycle broke two significant stories amidst coronavirus updates and celebrity scandals. In one, The Atlantic released a damning, if not fully corroborated, report in which unnamed sources describe the president’s disdain and mockery for slain war veterans.  It even suggests he skipped a trip to a cemetery in France to avoid getting his hair wet, all while calling dead American soldiers “losers.” Because of the source anonymity, and the fact that top officials are joining the president in discrediting the story, it’s impossible to say whether, or how much of it, is true.

The second story is demonstrably true because we watched it play out in real time.  Amidst America’s reckoning with race, the administration ordered the Office of Management and Budget to eliminate spending in government racial bias and anti-racism training.  This train wreck required no anonymous sources because, in addition to this remarkably tone-deaf action, POTUS doubled down on Twitter, calling the training “a sickness.”  If there was any remaining gray area in this administration’s backwards racial policies, they put it to rest with this one.

Why does this matter?  In one sense, it doesn’t; most readers’ initial shock at these atrocities will likely give way higher-voltage horror tomorrow. On the other hand, maybe that’s the entire point.

We humans are bad at processing information, and especially bad at processing a lot of overlapping information at once. Media and technology regularly exploit our attention deficit by rapidly feeding us small doses of bad intel.  Through misleading headlines, internet memes, and 280-character messages, we succumb to brief, episodic reactions and then move along. New technologies in the past fifty years have abetted our carelessness to nuance and depth, replacing substance with shock. 

So how would one exploit our flawed consumption of information?  I’m not saying it requires genius, but I do believe the president has provided a blueprint.  Ensure your every word and every action turn heads, disregarding morality or decency. Be the news.  If a news cycle lasts an hour, do something significant each hour. If a Twitter trend averages a half day, assure your callous behaviour and shameless insults become instant hashtag material.

I’ve heard plenty of reasoned counterarguments, ranging from narcissism to mental instability. But we must acknowledge that these attention-seeking tactics work. When he talks, people listen.  Some listen in suspense, others in indignation. The mavens pounce on the headlines and the rest of the world follows their lead.  One could of course argue that these are just asinine presidential whims, but for experiment’s sake, I’m branding it as something not often affiliated with this administration – strategy.

The terrifying manifestation of this strategy is its ability to drown landmark legislation, issues and movements with an inflammatory yet hollow distraction.  This might not qualify as “genius,” but there is an undeniable propensity to congest the information market. With so many Tweets to analyze, with so many press conferences to dissect, there’s little room left to publish meaningful stories about mental health, income inequality, climate change, sex trafficking, or racial justice.  If your mission is to suffocate these from the airways of the national narrative, here’s the strategy.  This is why I think the two examples presented earlier – the salacious article about the military overlapped with the removal of anti-racism training – lend some credence to the thesis. We can focus our energy on one of these issues or even both, but a day after publication there will be new national headlines that leave our heads spinning. Reflecting and revising this a week after the initial onslaught reminds me how angry I was but also how quickly my attention was diverted.

Outrage subsides over time.  How outraged are you today about America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, the June 2018 upholding of the revised Muslim ban, the Transgender military benefit elimination and children locked in cages at the border? Yes, they are callous and yes, they are unthinkable, but on a given day they’re so far down the list of hot news topics. When these stories originally broke, like the initial travel ban or immigration crackdown, my reaction was visceral anguish. But that anguish had a shelf life. With unfettered Twitter access and off-the-rails press conferences, the president severely clogs the media pipeline, and these issues lose their power over time. “Modern presidential” tweets highlight our leader’s brazenness and repugnant character, but they draw disproportionately strong reactions to unimportant messages. We miss the powerful, systemic forest for the shiny, distracting trees.  Maybe it’s dumb luck. Maybe it’s strategy. Maybe it’s genius.

So, what can we do about it?  We cannot change the president’s personality or insensitivity, we cannot change the news media’s inability to pinpoint good information, and we alone cannot change trends on Twitter.  Right now, especially, information, messaging, and policies are extremely important – and opponents should not run of the platform of disdain for the most recent tweet.  I have a couple of thoughts on how we can better react – or not react – based on the situation.

  1. Prioritize the issues critical to you.  Doing so will help weed out distractions and aid you in messaging your stance more concisely.  If climate change is your top priority, arm yourself with information on climate justice and specific policies, like the Paris Climate Accord, which will strengthen your focus and message. If it’s income inequality, read about historical inequity and how the Republican tax bill, as well as disasters like COVID-19, have exposed America’s wealth gap. I think when we apply careful thought to any issue, whether the climate, racial justice, income inequality, or anything else, we can avert constant despair perpetuated by ever-changing news by sticking to a thorough and concise message. 
  2. Be mindful of what you share.  On social media, there is a tendency to overshare recycled memes and video clips which, even if met with agreement, erode their significance over time. Memes are often generated in tandem with news cycles, so you’ll likely subconsciously share content that is reflective of the most recent tweet or statement but fail to construct a strong case for any real issue. Additionally, avoid sharing content that is either doctored or bereft of meaning.  Sharing a caricature of the president as a crying baby not only proliferates the political divide, but the knee-jerk incendiary posts actually advance the craft of exploiting meaningless media and evading critical issues.
  3. Question and challenge media.  Understand that headlines are crafted specifically to drive intrigue and outrage – it’s the most lucrative approach for these outlets.  Vet articles and ask whether the story is worth its attention or holds extreme importance and needs to be shared.  Scholarly articles, nonfiction works, and journal publications should always surpass news and social media for the lion’s share of our consumption.  Although this is rarely the case, proper vetting can help fight the onslaught of irrelevance.
  4. Don’t fall victim to angry impulses.  No one exploits the disastrous 24-hour news cycle than the president.  When we label a tweet “breaking news,” real breaking news loses its power. I’m not saying that we cannot be outraged by outlandish, offensive, and provocative language from the Oval Office.  But if you are focused on the issues most important to you, you might better filter these distractions out and, by sticking to message, refuse to let every minor outburst detract from the bigger picture.
  5. Join in the change efforts.  The absolute best way to combat manipulative and exploitative media strategies is to ditch your phone and get out in your community.  Go advocate for local causes, invest time and money into organizations that promote equity, justice, political mobilization, poverty alleviation, whatever your preferred cause.  I truly believe that if most people shift their primary focus from media to movement, we can see drastic societal change.

As much as it made for an intriguing title, it’s very unlikely the president is a sta.  But whether the patterns of distraction and exploitation are intentional or not, what matters most is that we’re aware of our vulnerability to these impulses.  If we can take anything from this thought experiment, my hope is that it would be a message of a better future, one in which we don’t normalize outlandish and condescending remarks, but also do not let these gross tweetstorms dominate a much more important narrative.  Stick to key issues, turn off the news, and live out the values and principles you expect of yourself and others around you.  The movement towards progress doesn’t start in Washington, on CNN, or on Twitter but rather with your efforts and your communities’ drive towards change. With the right focus and commitment, it won’t matter whether the president is trying to garner attention with unpredictable gripes and insults; that should always play a minor role if your energy is devoted to the right, honorable, and just causes.

I’m Losing Faith in my Faith

You know the term “cradle Catholic?” I’ve never understood whether that was meant as praise or insult.  Perhaps it’s neutral. But I am a cradle Catholic.  Born into a Catholic family, I was baptized in the Catholic church, attended CCD and a Catholic college, served in the youth group in the Catholic church as an adult.  I’ve embraced, loved, hated, mocked, deserted, praised, given up on, returned to the Catholic church.  A mercurial relationship with the Church has nonetheless fostered for me a strong relationship with Christ, so the cradle Catholic label is one I largely accept, if not embrace.

It’s weird being a young adult in the Catholic Church because we’re such an underrepresented demographic.  Young adults of all faiths tend to distance from their respective faiths once freed from the household tyranny that mandates uniformed weekly Sunday service. For some reason, the mass migration seems particularly prominent in the Catholic church.  This reflection is not an exposé on the disenfranchised demographic, but rather of my own struggle with Catholicism and why, in the wake of recent events, I find myself more strongly considering joining my colleagues in renegotiating my contract as a Catholic.

Although I love Jesus, and realize His perfection is central to the Catholic church, I also see a threshold of institutional failures which make me inevitably begin to question the institution.  And while the Church has fostered a great place to worship, coupled with community and charity, it is not without blemish.  Catholics, like supporters of Boy Scouts of America, USA Olympics, the NFL, politicians, and myriad other broken institutions, have had to deal with the fallout of scandal. Time and again we, whether congregants, supporters, members, or fans, must weigh the organizational failures with the goodness they provide. 

I guess where the questions started for me, or at least where they gained momentum, was at the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, which outlined decades of sexual abuse of children by clergy members, and reassignment and cover-up by Bishops and other Catholic authorities.  These atrocities shattered my trust in the institution. Many leaders failed children – the most vulnerable in the church community and a group whom we know Jesus loved dearly. It wasn’t all leaders, or even most, but it’s undeniable that there is a systemic level of failure, of choosing public image over children, finances over lives. Beyond that, many clergy members muddied the response, offering excuses and deflections rather than apologies and prayer, and just further testing my faith in the Church.

One of the reasons I stayed was because I felt that the people around me were, largely, good.  Additionally, as young leadership dissipated, my involvement in youth group enabled me to influence Catholic teens in positive ways and gave me a great platform to push for progress.  And I keep coming back to the people, the Church body – my fellow youth leaders, the teens we served, the congregants at the church, mission trip attendees, the choir.  The list goes on. If church leadership was rotten but the people which make up the church body are upstanding there was reason to stay. But what happens when you lose trust in the people?    

New events threaten my belief in the goodness of the people, highlighted by opaque and apathetic behavior from our parish.  Imploring church leaders to post a statement speaking out against racism in the light of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor’s heinous murders, I thought I’d gained ground when our Pastor released a brief statement which weakly condemned racism and regurgitated some words of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).  Was it anti-racist? Far from it.  But it was a step in the right direction from a church that seemed mum on racial injustice. It recognized racism and affirmed that the protests that followed were the result of centuries of oppression. Progress is progress.

To my surprise, a day after the statement went up on the church’s Facebook page, it came down.  Furor erupted among a select group of my church friends, and we sought answers via mass emails to the Pastor and messages to the Facebook page. Why was this taken down?  After receiving very little response, we saw one day a replacement message – one which ignored racism altogether, called for love, and, most despicably, described George Floyd’s murder as “…a man [who] appeared to be treated unfairly.”  It was pathetic, it was hollow, it was meaningless.  And it intentionally sidestepped any buzzwords like racism, instead advocating for “love.”

As our questions were dodged, I began to wonder: what are the odds that the original statement wasn’t received well from our predominantly white congregation?  When ignored, one cannot help but to speculate. When one speculates, one would consider the backdrop of the church demographic and its reaction to the appeal that racism is wrong, or that the church calls for justice for George Floyd, who had a criminal record, or Ahmaud Arbery, who may have trespassed on a construction site. One may be inclined to think that these Black men, whose reputation had been smeared by right-wing analysts may have less importance in the church’s eyes because they were not unborn fetuses.  One might surmise that human dignity becomes subjective when white church donors express anger in that sentiment. Would one be wrong to speculate these things, when one receives no closure, no response, no transparency from their church?  As much as I feel let down, I realize the church, having hurt vulnerable children, also leaves the marginalized Black community behind. 

Is this the final straw?  Of that I am not sure.  I’ve complained and griped but also need to consider the options that exist for advocating awareness and change.  A friend introduced me to Catholic Charities, a group which aims to serve the marginalized communities like the poor, immigrants, and our Black and Brown neighbors.  I’m also still trying, however futilely, to engage church leadership in dialogue. At my core, my faith remains steadfast; I intend to keep Christ at the center of my life.  But the walls of the Catholic Church seem to be caving in from many angles – leadership, congregants, the community.   At some point I’ll need to ask myself: is this the best capacity in which I can serve the Lord, serve children, serve marginalized communities, and feel full support in doing so?  Time will tell.

What We Cannot Learn from Data

In the context of George Floyd’s horrific murder, I’m realizing how little I understand and how little I understood.  As our country experiences cyclical repetition, I’m learning the importance of being antiracist. I’m also learning the immeasurable value of listening, of education, of reading, and of learning. And I’m understanding that I’ll never fully understand what it means to be Black in America.

Can history breed understanding? How about data, statistics, quotes and memes?  Maybe so. It’s an approach I’ve been trying.  Encouraged by a wealth of music, literature, and documentaries, I proudly hoist my accolades up in argument.  I am well-read and, by God, you’re going to know I know my shit.  I’m armed with mass incarceration data from “The New Jim Crow.”  I can explain the facts about drug criminalization from the documentary “13th.”  I can reflect on “Nobody,” where Marc Lamont Hill uses the backdrop of the questionable Stand Your Ground laws that exonerated Trayvon Martin’s killer.

But as I pursue education and awareness, I’m also plagued by a competitiveness, a determination not just to make my point, but to fight those with opposing philosophies.  And statistics headline many arguments and statements, in the online and public forum. It’s nearly impossible to go on the web without reading some cringeworthy opinions, many of which are backed by data.  For example, one white blogger questioned systemic oppression, saying he knows a bit about black culture and knows that, “they [Black people] make up about 13% of the overall population and commit almost 40% of the crime.”  There’s a lot to unpack here – beyond his supposed knowledge of black culture – but this is data.  If this writer shares with his like-minded friends, it’s no longer merely a notion but a statistic. Black men are “criminals.” Black Lives Matter activists and rioters are dangerous terrorists (thesis of a different blog I read).  The data tells us so.

What’s worse is when these viewpoints come from people with significant power and influence. I read an op-ed by Tucker Carlson on Fox News (I’m still investigating the flaw in my News app algorithm).  But in the spirit of open-mindedness, I read, “Is America being torn apart by a total, complete – but provable – lie?” The truth, as he explains, is the fact that Black people are not disproportionately singled out or killed by police, thus rendering the riots unreasonable and media-driven. And Tucker has data. Last year, of the 802 shootings by police logged, 371 of those killed were white and 236 were black. He adds that there was a total of 10 cases last year in which an unarmed Black person was killed by police, going on to try and justify each. He feared the lie was “used by cynical media manipulators and unscrupulous politicians who understand that racial strife – race hatred – is their path to power, even if it destroys the country.”  This is a man flouting petulant bullshit in the wake of a real crisis. It’s also a man whose show has millions of viewers.  And it’s a man who has data – he might not have a soul or a conscience – but he has data.     

Of course, there are statistics, facts, figures, entire books which amplify the opposition here. But while data matter, while information matters, it took diverting my eyes from books, NPR articles, and graphs for me to start seeing a bigger picture.  The pulse of the movement is not numbers. It is not documentaries. It is people.

To set the scene: this is a rally Carlisle, a small, Central Pennsylvanian community.  This is the same Carlisle that houses my monolithic group of white, middle-class adult friends.  It’s the same town where my company, led by mostly white males, employs mostly white males, in a city where most authorities are white males, in a county where white males make up many legislating bodies.

Enter the first speaker.  She’s a Black woman, an educator at the local high school, who first remarked how, by removing her mask to speak, she could breathe. No sooner had those words left her mouth, she began crying.  Raw emotion.  Our mayor, a Black man, spoke about our duty to stand up to racism, adding unequivocally his pleas to local lawmakers to pass much-needed police reform legislation.  The crowd responded to his passion with loud applause and cheering. Raw emotion. We heard from the Black Dean of Students at the local college, who struggled to grasp the difficulty of having “the talk” with his kids.  The talk, he explained morosely, wasn’t the typical birds-and-bees talk; it was a set of guidelines to keep his kids safe if pulled over by the cops – in my community.  A remarkable Black high school teen poured her heart out in front of the audience, reflecting on intersectional fear for her life (“Will I see age 30?” she asked) and frustration at the subtle racial remarks from peers, teachers, community members.  Local Black students reflected on the things they can’t do safely, like jog, get a speeding ticket, party on New Year’s, have a broken taillight, all because of the carnage before them.

And it was in this moment, listening to these speakers as they were moved to tears, to anger, to passion, to raw emotion, that I realized that nobody here gave a damn about crime statistics or policing data.  These speakers, who were parents, children, students, teachers, elected officials, volunteers, athletes, community leaders, and so much more – they all spoke from the heart. And they did so not because 1 in 3 Black males will be convicted of a crime in their lifetime. They did not do so because in random “stop and frisk” situations in New York, police targeted minorities over 85% of the time.  They did so because they were hurting.  And no statistic could possibly measure up to the tears, to the calls to action, for the applause, and to the emotion reverberating from the microphone.

These speakers didn’t feel this fear and anger because of media conditioning; they were speaking from experience.  And you cannot measure experience, you cannot measure emotion, you cannot measure pain. And I learned something important about how we approach this dialogue. Because the data matter.  Very much so.  We need to track and share data that contributes to systemic racism in order to aid in understanding of these issues, erase past mistakes, and drive policy.  We need authors like Michelle Alexander and Marc Lamont Hill and Bryan Stevenson and Ari Berman, who paint real issues with data-driven brushstrokes. But we should never undermine the power of raw emotion, of anger, sadness, outrage and fear.  It’s these emotions that propel the arguments so strongly, that help us contextualize these pivotal moments in our history.

I will never understand what it’s like to be Black in America.  As I learn more, I’m going to try to do more to be antiracist, to do more to fight for justice and for reform. I’m also going to stop overlooking the most prominent evidence in this argument – the way people feel. Data, statistics, they can be manipulated to fit any narrative.  But you can’t manipulate emotion, and there’s nothing realer than that.

Black Lives Matter.

Why I’m Troubled by the Argument to Reopen

The ongoing debate between public health and economic stability is incredibly perplexing, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhere stuck in the middle, with a constantly shifting perspective. 

Each day, more people lose their lives to COVID-19 complications, and countless others are rendered jobless or unable to make rent payments in the economic fallout.  As family members grieve loss of their loved ones over Zoom funerals, small businesses begin to permanently close their doors.  It’s heartbreaking from so many angles, and varying opinions matter here.  I imagine someone who has lost a loved one to COVID-19 complications will have different views on a reopening strategy than someone who is healthy but recently unemployed.

There’s a legitimate argument that the cure cannot exceed the problem; that a prolonged quarantine, while saving lives by slowing infection rates, will lead to death related to depression, anxiety, poverty, and homelessness.  There’s no denying the salience of this argument.  What I once viewed as a “lives versus economic stability” very well could be a “lives versus lives” conversation.  With no clear-cut solution, and it feels like even the best political intentions could end up devastating millions of people.

But here’s my objection. I’ve seen many peers and Facebook strangers alike argue for the need for swift reopening, in order to improve mental health and keep people out of poverty.  On the surface, it appears a noble fight. But just as these arguments are convenient and timely, they are often overwhelmingly hollow. It’s beyond frustrating to see issues so severe as mental health and income inequality politicized and then tabled, used only as leverage to make a point.  I see it when Second Amendment warriors proselytize mental health awareness, as if the millions of Americans battling depression and anxiety want to be bucketed with a mass shooter. I see it when politicians tout the stock market, unemployment rate or the rising middle class, as if those struggling to feed their families wouldn’t trade a Dow Jones gain for affordable housing. As soon as the gun control or economic debate subsides, the ‘champions’ of these causes often vanish to fight the next Twitter opponent. While I understand the concerns with extending a lockdown, it pains me to yet again see the vulnerable thrust into the spotlight of goodwill, only to be shoved backstage when a sense of normalcy is restored.

These issues aren’t just painfully real – they’re within arm’s reach.  As someone who has struggled with mental health to this day, I’m acutely aware of its depth and scale. I saw a figure that calls to mental health crisis hotlines increased 600% over the course of the pandemic.  This is profoundly upsetting but should also call to attention the mental health crisis that has existed long before the novel coronavirus.  According to the American Foundation for Suicide prevention, America lost over 48,000 people to suicide in 2018 alone.  And while it often goes undetected to the untrained eye, this shouldn’t inhibit advocacy.  Helping to erase the negative stigma, donating to mental health causes, participating in awareness campaigns, and becoming better educated to serve your loved ones are all tangible practices available to every able-bodied American.  It’s foolish to think disparaging our anemic president or your tyrannical governor for contributing to the mental health crisis will change anything and rebuking them doesn’t make you a hero. This issue requires so much more than the occasional impression that you give a shit. Mental health is a subject that deserves, and always has deserved, to be treated with empathy, respect, and, equally importantly, action.

Poverty, joblessness, homelessness and food insecurity are matters which I’ve been fortunate not to face, but about which I care deeply.  And to see the impact of poverty, just take my city of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, as an example. Though it is positioned as strongly middle class, 2017 data pins Carlisle at a poverty rate of 17.1%, which would be a disturbingly high rate for a pandemic, let alone ordinary time.  While the local food pantry has seen a devastating 30% increase in clientele, we cannot simply pretend that there was no need before.  While I’ve seen many community leaders step up in crisis, wearing masks while prepacking boxes, loading vehicles to minimize contact, and adapting to an entirely new method of safe food distribution, I’m reminded that our food pantry had quite a population to serve before pandemic struck.  This is not a new problem.

While it’s difficult to measure apathy, I evaluate participation among my colleagues and friends in community service activity, or lack thereof. There’s a significant gap between the amount of time I see peers and colleagues in social settings like bars and rec leagues than at the food pantry and other civic organizations.  While several people do give time and resources to the community, it seems most attitudes towards these institutions range from disinterested to wholly insensitive. Fallacies like pure meritocracy prevail in many arguments – I worked hard to get where I’m at, and others have the same ability to do so. Time constraints handcuff people from simple volunteer efforts.  In stable and unstable times alike, this is not acceptable.  The ability to serve is abundant, it is needed, and it always has been needed, in the form of resources, time and talents.  And unless you are and have been a real advocate, I find the manufactured grief over poverty to be morally reprehensible, so long as it serves as means to your own end.

I do realize I cast a wide net in the assessments of those who are, in my opinion, weaponizing issues in the war over reopening.  There are many people who devote their time and talents to these causes, whose contributions indefinitely outweigh my own. I look up to them. I respect them.  This also isn’t to say I don’t have blind spots.  I do, and I understand that there are myriad issues in which I’ve over promised and under delivered. To admonish the abundant apathy is only half the equation; my purpose, our purpose, should be championing issues to the greatest extent possible.  I hope not to chastise but to provoke; not to belittle but to inspire.  At this time more than ever, those of us who are privileged in health, safety, and economic stability have a tremendous opportunity to help alleviate the impact of this disaster. Just just as the world was never made better by political props and message boards, now, more than ever, we need to get involved to bring our communities back to normal.  Or perhaps this time, with impassioned, sustained care and action – we can create a better normal.    

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