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.    

I’m Pretty Sure Racism is the Real Racism

Note: This subject is intended to serve as an opposition to the article “Reverse Discrimination is the Real Racism,” published by blogger BetteroffwithTrump.  To read the original article, click HERE.  I strongly disagree with the entire sentiment and tone of the article, but I think it’s imperative to read it in addition to this to gain perspective.

 

I recently read an article by a white person which insisted, “We’ve all felt it” with regards to being passed up for a job or losing a spot on a sports team to a less-qualified person of color. I’ve never “felt it.”  And it’s possible that I’ve just been lucky enough to escape the crosshairs of the oppression of the overlooked white race.  But what’s far more likely – I’ll even venture to say definitive – is that I’ve avoided any racial self-realization because I, along with my predominantly white friends, relatives, and effectively all white people, have never been the target of discrimination.  In fact, were I not to be so myopic I might realize the great disparity around me: the racism (yes, the real racism) that has afforded me opportunity and freedom from consequence, sometimes at the expense of others.

The original article pulls at the heartstrings of the perpetually oppressed white American.  Following the “we’ve all felt it” relatability pitch, the author fades into a Rube Goldberg-esque maze of unrelated and hyper exaggerated claims that seek pity for white people who are overlooked due to Affirmative Action and reverse discrimination.  The author pinballs from the plight of white, qualified families to the unfair treatment of our president because of his whiteness to the bias of teachers and authority figures to believe black students over white students.  If, as Trump said, it’s a dangerous time to be a young man in America, it must be an extremely dangerous time for white men.

Only it isn’t.

It isn’t lost on me that Affirmative Action policies might seem unfair in certain light and may have influenced decisions which knock certain white people down a rung or two.  But Affirmative Action isn’t just for legislative optics.  Post-slavery, post-Jim Crow era laws, white people are still disproportionately afforded luxuries that minorities aren’t.  Statistics indicate that the United States’ prison population is around 2.3 million, and that black males are six times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts (https://www.openinvest.co/blog/statistics-prison-america/).  Considering something like drug crimes, which make up a large proportion of the incarcerated population, black and brown people are disproportionately arrested and tried even though the usage rates is about the same among their white counterparts. Regarding education, geography and wealth have a tremendous impact on the opportunity afforded a child.  Statistics notwithstanding, look no further than my personal experience.  There isn’t the slightest shred of evidence that Affirmative action (or “reverse discrimination”) impacted my upbringing and education.  My parents were never incarcerated.  Their parents were never incarcerated.  And affluence assisted my educational endeavors.  By the standards my parents set, I underperformed in high school.  I failed to live up to my academic potential, dropping most honors classes and hoping to ride my cross-country accolades into a prestigious school.  And it worked.  I was accepted by all but one of the schools to which I applied.  My eventual school of choice, Saint Vincent College, was 83% white. Surrounded by like-minded, similarly dressed, teammates in the same income bracket sealed one certainty: I’d never need to think about race.  How was reverse discrimination to hold me back when there wasn’t a trace of its existence in my education, let alone my life?

Naturally, let’s switch to Donald Trump.  While I realize this might appear to be a non-sequitur, it attempts to follow the far-from-seamless transitions of the original article.  Trump, the article whines, is the “first president to be a victim of reverse discrimination.” First off, no.  The president is many things; he is not, however, a victim.  The “support” behind this claim is the fact that Donald Trump was born into wealth and that he has been a successful businessman, and therefore, because he does not come from humble beginnings, he is discriminated against.  I want to put everything in quotations, so my readers understand these spectacularly absurd claims are not my own.  As a white male, I can assure you that the president’s upbringing has so little to do with why I cannot stand him.  His successful businesses do not horrify me.  His open racism, blatant disrespect for others, oppressive and damning legislation, and many other characteristics, do.  It’s important to be nuanced here; many politicians are scorned because they are viewed as “elites;” they come into power and retain power by raising money and keeping lobbyists in their pockets.  President Obama faced the same criticism, and justifiably so.  Buy we don’t see Donald Trump as a bully because he is a well-established building developer (tallest building in New York City after 9/11!), but because of the way he openly mocks colleagues, reporters, and immigrants, many of whom are suffering in the wake of severe crises.  As it’s been written, “They also accuse him of being racist for saying words that others say; but when Trump says them, it’s always racist.”  While this is incredibly hard to decipher, I think it’s symbolic of the author’s subconscious awareness that the president is racist.  When he insults people because of their color or country of origin or passes legislation that seeks to ban Muslims because of their religion, that, not his business acumen or his millions of dollars, make him a terrible human being.

Although nearly every sentence in the original blog post made me cringe, one of the biggest offenders was this: “(P)rincipals and teachers will take the word of a Black student over the word of a White student for fear of backlash from their parents.”   A pitiful blanket statement, this seems to be a common argument – not formed from evidence – but generally by an email chain your racist uncle forwards to the family.  In fact, considering who teachers – and, in the grander scheme, authority figures – believe, I’m tempted to consider who, between a black and white student, is offered the opportunity to state their case.

When I was nineteen years old, I threw a house party because my parents were out of town.  A crew of Abercrombie-clad, underage white teens flocked my parents’ house, toting beverages and, for some, weed and paraphernalia. Singing along to Biz Markee and playing beer pong, our group was suddenly rattled when two police officers showed up to shut the party down.  Soberingly, we faced the officers, handing over our identification cards with full knowledge that everything we were doing was illegal.  But as the cops scanned our IDs, they had one simple command.  “Nobody drives home,” they demanded, and then drove off.  They didn’t need our word.  Without speaking, our affluent, white, college-aged group had unconsciously convinced these authority figures to “take our word.”

In February of 2012, a young black boy named Trayvon Martin was walking through his neighborhood legally, unarmed, and carrying a bag of Skittles and a bottle of soda.  According to Wikipedia (the preferred source of the original article), Skittles and soda are legal in all fifty states and Puerto Rico. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, approached Martin even after his superiors had directed him not to pursue.  Zimmerman, for reasons unknown, defied his orders and, though what happened in between is not perfectly clear, shot and killed Trayvon Martin.  This story, to me, is emblematic of the disparity that exists.  Do authority figures really “take the word of a Black student over the word of a White student?”  How are we to take Trayvon Martin’s word?  Trayvon is like us partygoers in that we never spoke to tell our side of the story.  But then our stories differ.  Authorities saw us, trusted us, and gave us an inexplicable pass for breaking the law.  The same authorities never offered Trayvon, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, or Eric Garner the same luxury.  Most of them had not broken the law.  We had.  But we turned the music back up in the garage as they were hauled away in body bags.

It’s comfortable to make blanket remarks about “the left” and “the right,” about people who leech off the system and ride “reverse discrimination” to the top while hardworking Americans suffer.  It’s convenient to recycle lines from a forward of a forward of a forward of an email from your uncle about how the left “rewards children of color, migrants, or presumed disadvantage over those who played by the rules.” (grammatical errors not my own).  Be born white.  I played by that rule. My awareness of my own privilege is but a drop in the bucket when likened to the experiences of millions of people oppressed on basis of their race, gender, orientation, country of origin, among many others.  My knowledge of “reverse discrimination” is even less than that.  Not only have I not experienced it, I’m not entirely sure it exists.  The original article included a call to action, an insistence that we call out reverse discrimination wherever we see it.  I’ll agree to my due diligence there.  But let’s also call out areas in which privileged white people bemoan their bad luck due to socialist policies that discriminate against law abiding, white citizens in favor of lazy people of color who take advantage of the system.  Or, to put it bluntly: let’s call out racism.

I’m Not the Hero I Think I Am

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  ~ Maya Angelou

At a rally in downtown Carlisle, Pennsylvania, I watch intently as impassioned speakers speak out against a local distribution of KKK fliers around the city.  My blood boils as community leaders denounce the gross and rapid spread of hatred around the community and, more broadly, across the nation.  I reflect on the despicable rally in Charlottesville in 2016 and the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.  I think about movements which reflected decades of injustice and abuse of power, initiatives like Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement. I even consider verbal ignorance like professional pitcher Josh Hader’s racist tweets or anything that comes out of the president’s mouth. Mostly, though, I’m thinking about myself.  What a beacon of hope I am.  How passionate I am about social justice.  Why the self-appropriated title of “hero” once seemed so fitting.

Throughout these passing events, I’m working to enhance my education. I’m reading biographies by Malcolm X and Michelle Obama.  My podcast queue includes NPR’s TED radio hour and prominent news outlets.  I have yet to realize how deeply this education will impact me – for better and for worse. I’ll challenge my beliefs, explore new horizons, and develop a better understanding of history.  Conversely, reflection and regret will hit me like a freight train.  Being ‘woke’ will bring me a stronger worldview, but it will also help me realize I’m not the hero I’d so honorably made myself out to be.

It started with a podcast.  On an episode of the TED Radio Hour, a black woman recounted instances of being the victim of racism. The speaker explained how at school the predominantly white teachers and students would repeatedly correct her grammar.  When she used certain slang, they – with overwhelming ignorance – taught her how to speak “correctly.” When she did speak correctly, they would say she was acting “white.” Invariably, this woman didn’t just talk about what was said to her or how people acted towards her. She discussed how the actions of the majority made her feel.  Somewhere, I’m reminded of the Maya Angelou quote that people will forget what you say and do, but “will never forget how you made them feel.”  Subtle or blatant, these offhanded remarks hurt, leaving her feeling defenseless, isolated, humiliated.

If you know me well, you know that I’m energized by a spotlight.  My attention-craving personality has introduced me to a variety of people and has helped me make and entertain friends in many circles.  But there’s a downside. My hunger for attention is satisfied only by getting a rise out of people.  Countless times my mouth has landed me in serious trouble – often for an ignorant, lewd, even harmful remark or gesture. My intentions may rarely be malicious, but the TED speaker’s words shook me.  What had I said to others that was disrespectful?  Further – and more importantly – how did I, the friendly, shameless, outgoing, insensitive hero make others feel?

Cue the heroism giving way to a darker, truer reality, one marred by stories I painfully recounted one by one.  These best capture the tone-deaf lengths my teenage and early 20-year-old persona would go towards commandeering attention. The belly laughs, the raised eyebrows, the retweets, these were the vindicating factors that drove my insatiable need to be liked and appreciated.  But at what cost?

For one, in college, I remember a black friend of mine telling a story and using slang.  Condescendingly, I laughingly explained to him his flawed syntax.  I did to him exactly as the TED speaker had experienced.  But his reaction played second fiddle to that of all my other white, male, similar-minded counterparts.  They laughed.

During the summer of one of my college years, I remember verbatim a spur-of-the-moment tweet I’d posted regarding some of the girls on campus.  I’d tweeted some insensitive content in the past, but this one was so derogatory, so sexist, and, quite frankly, so harmful.  It was unnerving to the point which a graduate student confronted me sternly about the tweet.  I took it down on his recommendation, not because I felt remorse but because I respected him.  But from my friends?  Only laughter.

On numerous occasions in college and even after, my affinity for homophobic humour got me into serious dilemmas.  On one occasion, I half-shouted an anti-gay remark in the dorm hallway, only to turn the corner and see a fellow student, who was gay.  But shame quickly faded to vindication when my friend patted me on the back after having fled the scene.  We shared a hearty laugh.

There are many more examples I’m not proud to share. I’ve made homophobic, racist, Anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and many other horrendous statements in my younger years.  My youth was not shaped by this timeline alone, but my infractions have not been victimless. Often, I’m left wondering if there aren’t some friends from my past and even present who would recoil at my self-perception as a warrior for social justice. I wonder how I, the hero, the activist, has made those around me feel.

Back at the rally, I’m applauding enthusiastically as another speaker talks about the power of love and strength in the community.  But in my head rings a different message, a personal call to action.  It’s not a solution to our nation’s problems, and only really addresses my own guilt.  But I want to apologize.  I apologize for the ignorance, the insensitivity, that has undoubtedly stained the way I’ve made others feel. I apologize to those whom I have hurt. And as I recognize past iniquities, I’m confident in a few things.  I’m not the same person that I was in high school and college.  I am growing.  And I’m learning.

We can use our voice to get cheap laughs, to devalue and to isolate others.  Or, we can use that voice to build others up, to fight for them, and to stand up to injustice and evil.  If we take the time, not just to think about the shock value of our words, but to consider their power, we can focus on how our words and actions make others feel. If we can model this behaviour, and treat others like this, we can come that much closer to being true heroes.

Spoken in Love

Every year in the youth ministry at my church, I am tasked with delivering a presentation at the eighth-grade weekend retreat.  The theme of the presentation is “modesty” and how dying to ourselves can bring us closer to Christ.  In short, the concept is that modest behaviour forces us to focus less on ourselves and allows more space for service to others and to God.  Using the ministry’s prepared speaker notes, I quickly created a presentation, hitting the key points and infusing some personal examples as the outline suggested.  I always did my best to deliver an emphatic presentation, one which explained my understanding of modesty in concise terms for my eight-grade audience.  But although I spoke about modesty for four years, it took me that long to truly understand it.

My speech started off with a softball question; I asked the group what word came to mind when they heard “modesty.”  I perpetually smiled and affirmed the first response of “humility.”  Yes!  Humility!  To me, modesty was humility, and just that.  I decorated the speech with my failures to be humble, and how these failures separated me from Christ.  Sometimes I acted arrogant, sometimes I placed too much emphasis on the way I dressed and whether I was perceived as cool.  These talking points were easy.  But there was one element which never resonated with me.  The speaker notes, which I took seriously, mentioned the need to be modest in speech – aware of the way we talk.  I taught it although I didn’t fully understand the tie to modesty.  “We avoid telling the truth,” I would recite dryly, “because we are afraid people cannot handle the truth when spoken in love.” I wasn’t sure how this pillar of modesty fit into the equation, but when the room echoed with applause at the end of the speech, my mind quickly erased the dissonance and I set my notes aside for another year.

I lived within the scope of that definition of modesty.  Personally, there was no reason for me to really make any changes in my life, because I was modest enough.  But my narcissism somewhat blinded my ability to see true modesty revealed around me, and, equally important, where I lacked.  I considered myself to be modest because I did just enough.  I volunteered – occasionally.  I didn’t brag about my career accomplishments – that much.  I gave time and energy to others – when it was convenient.

The moment I was hit with the reality of modesty came in the most inconspicuous setting.  Over Chinese food with my family one night over the Christmas holiday, my mom, dad, sister, and brother engaged in a discussion about New Year’s goals.  Expressing my desire to lose weight, I anticipated an encouraging nod or two and nothing more.  But my family pressed me.  What was I willing to do to lose weight?  Was I willing to change my diet?  Was I willing to give up drinking?  Was I willing to focus on exercise and my mental health more than I’d been doing so?  Did I think I had a problem with drinking too much?

Through my nods, I passionately dissented in my head.  My irate and emotional reaction was masked with my ignorant humility.  They were berating me with the right intentions, I reasoned, and would impress them with my submission.  I thought about my accomplishments and the great control I had on my life, but answered politely and, as I viewed it, modestly.  The intent was to get past the dinner on good terms, not so much to implement any life changes.  As far as I was concerned, I didn’t drink too much, and I had a grasp on my health.  I could take a beating to humor my family.

But my family was dead right.  Long-overlooked issues were slowly eroding my mental and physical health.  Not that I was perpetually depressed or anxious, but I was doing nothing to combat my mental health issues (an ongoing struggle which I address in depth in an earlier post).  My diet was unjustifiably poor.  I drank too much, too often, and ignored its contributions to my weight and health issues.  But I had never been challenged on any of my lifestyle choices – only reinforced by making jokes on Twitter and laughing off colleagues’ remarks about my expanded waistline.

I left the dinner smiling and hugging my relatives but still fuming about my unfair treatment. My infuriation on my drive home slowly gave way to a subtle pride in my poised reaction.  Thinking I was the only person still dissecting the discussion, I was a bit alarmed to see an incoming call from my father.  It was an hour since I’d left, maybe two.  Curious about the nature of the call, I listened as he offered a sincere and heartfelt apology for holding that conversation on my last night in town.  He feared I felt that everyone had ganged up on me, and he wanted to fully assure me of my family’s love for me and pride in my accomplishments.  When my father explained that he couldn’t stop feeling badly about our conversation in the hours that had passed since dinner, something hit me.  A line flashed in my head.  “Sometimes we avoid telling the truth because we are afraid people cannot handle the truth when spoken in love.”  Was I humble in my acceptance of their words? Perhaps.  But my family was more than humble.  They were vulnerable.  They spoke truth, out of love, and put themselves on the line.  Being on the receiving end of the conversation was tough, but I started to realize it had to be ten times harder to be on the delivering end.

Humility certainly plays a large role in the scope of modesty.  But there is an additional element to modesty, to dying to oneself, one which I didn’t realize until I was staring it down.  To be modest is to be vulnerable.  To die to self is to risk certain repercussions to speak necessary truths.  To be modest is to love in action.

I haven’t yet thoroughly thanked my family for their words, but I have been working towards better health and better habits.  I’m drinking less, I’m running more, I’m taking deliberate steps to improve my mental and physical health.  Like any process, I have good and bad days still.  But after meeting a few of my fitness goals, I started realizing the need to appreciate the sacrifices each of my family members made at the dinner table that night.  Thank you, Mom, Dad, Maura, Trey.  Thank you for being willing to put yourselves in a position of vulnerability because of your love and care.  And thank you for giving me some better content for next year’s presentation.  Because I intend to accept “humility” as an answer to a modesty synonym, but I fully intend to add the word “vulnerability.”  And instead of blandly reciting a passage about fear of speaking the truth, I can provide one of the clearest and most powerful examples in my own experience.  I can speak about a moment in which I listened to hard truths, truths which doubtlessly took courage to express.  Truths which took modesty to express.  And that, I can confidently tell the audience, is spoken out of love.

The Buck Stops Where?

Oh how the Fox News and the CNNs so perfectly capture our current political environment. “Harsh tone, divisive rhetoric, partisanship.”  Sound familiar?  If you’ve scrolled Twitter, watched the news, really – if you have a pulse – you’ve probably heard these catchphrases thrown around.

So maybe the pundits could diversify their vocabulary, but the truth is, they are absolutely correct. Right now, we have a president who embraces his platform by coughing up hairballs of complete nonsense, whether spewing Twitter conspiracies or lashing out against anyone bold enough to disagree with him.  We witnessed the aftermath of a horrific act of violence, one in which a disturbed liberal man fired mercilessly at Congressional Republicans at a baseball practice, nearly killing one.  We heard the inexplicable innocent verdict for a police officer who shot a black man seven times, killing him in front of his girlfriend and daughter.  And we felt – and continue to feel – the tension between misogynistic “Make America Great Again” hat-bearers and irritable, “march-in-the-name-of-anything” protestors.  This landscape is far beyond the politically-correct “divisive, harsh rhetoric.”

I’m not a writer or a historian, so bear with me for a moment. But I thought back to the saying, “the buck stops here.” Soliciting some help from Google, I recalled that this was a favorite of President Harry Truman.  Truman, it turns out, was so fond of it that he had the text inscribed on a plaque and placed on his desk.  Embodying “the buck stops here,” means taking full accountability.  I can’t speak to Truman’s effectiveness as a president (I can assuredly say he never tweeted insults at his predecessor) but I can appreciate what he stood for in this mantra.  Truman was big enough to hold himself accountable for decisions and accept responsibility for outcomes.

See, this got me thinking about our current state of complete disarray. To imply that there is a sole person responsible for this debauchery would be insane.  We’re human.  We live in constant exposure to evil.  So the proverbial buck needs to fall on about seven billion shoulders.  14 billion shoulders, really.  But there are a few positions of power in which, in my view, should really take – rather, embrace – responsibility.  That could really hold themselves to a standard of bringing about unity, of bringing about peace.  And this man sits in the same office as Harry Truman once did.

Now if you have a Twitter account, look at some of the president’s recent tweets. Common threads include, but are not limited to (prompt speedy telemarketer voice): Hillary’s poor performance, Hillary’s emails, Hillary’s ‘collusion’ with the DNC, Obama’s lack of integrity, FAILING Obamacare, the “Obstructionist” Democrats causing setbacks, the witch hunt that targets only Trump, the need for a real TRAVEL BAN, how good he is at winning, how fake news is the enemy, and just about anything else negative.  Someone with such an HONOR, with such an OPPORTUNITY to reach millions of people is openly mocking United States Senators on a social media account.

So my question is this. Why doesn’t the buck stop at the president’s desk?  Why does he insist on the bitching and the bragging, rallying his supporters and riling up his critics?  Imagine for a second if Trump tweeted about his desire for a unified America.  Imagine watching him say that he cares for the poor, for those without healthcare or fearing losing their healthcare, for the unborn, for women’s rights, for minority lives, for refugee safety, for the middle class, for the LGBT community, for ALL HUMAN LIFE.  Imagine scanning @realDonaldTrump and seeing something comforting like, “hey – I’m going to fight for you.  I want to bring us together.  Every human has dignity and deserves to be treated accordingly.”  Imagine the most influential person in the United States of America taking accountability for some of the maliciousness that has spread like a virus through every crevice of our nation.  Imagine.

Again yet we wait. And sides grow further apart as they continue to tear at each other’s throats.  We the people need to do our part to settle the disagreements and to see eye to eye.  But Mr. President, it’s time to cut the bullshit.  Time to stop mocking those with whom you disagree.  It’s time to step up, and not just say but show us that the buck really does stop at the president’s desk.  And then, MAYBE then, we can start to make this country truly great.

 

Note: All opinions expressed in this commentary are solely my own, and they are just that. They are not to be treated as facts, nor as alternative facts.