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.

Made for Greatness

I think voting in the presidential election is the least impactful thing you can do to effect change. Casting your vote does not make our country great, regardless of your vote.  I’m not saying I don’t think everyone who can should vote, because I do.  But let me explain.

First, I did not vote for Donald Trump. I can spell out myriad reasons behind this, but let me use his verbal assault on Muslims and immigrants in general to help paint my example.  When President Trump initiated the controversial “travel ban,” I reacted like many Americans across the country.  I was pissed off.  I was upset.  I felt like our country was gravitating towards a position of complete apathy towards those people suffering in the Muslim-majority nations, viewed by the administration as possible terror threats.  Granted, I did not know a whole lot about the ban in terms of background. My knowledge of the conditions of these countries was limited to a number of high-profile photographs of children in Aleppo, stranded in a sea of rubble, and often wounded.  Nonetheless, my heart poured out for these citizens who were to be denied access to the United States.  The only vindication came after thousands of noble Americans swarmed U.S. airports in protest and a federal judge blocked the ban.

A bullet dodged. Still, my blood boiled with anger over the merciless acts of the United States government. How, I thought, can we turn our backs while people are greatly suffering, in the name of protecting our own people? Was America not built on the principles of welcoming and compassion towards others? This act of aggression perplexed me.  But I knew I was not alone.  Days after the travel ban order passed, I watched television coverage of thousands of protestors speaking against the ban across the country.

And then I had a thought.

The seven war-torn countries that made up the ban list all had something in common. They were viewed as threats because of terror attacks, both domestically and abroad, committed against countless innocent civilians.  Moreover, these countries suffered government corruption, extreme poverty, internal warring, and tremendously poor living conditions.  Naturally, it felt right to feel sympathy towards the citizens of these tormented countries.  But then it hit me. These conditions did not begin yesterday.

Nor did they begin last week, last month, or last year. These are countries which have been facing extreme conditions for a long time.  For me to take notice only when a president I don’t care for blocks refugees is absurd.  Was this about my love for refugees or my disdain towards the president?

I dug through bank statements. Clothing, drinks, dinner, groceries, more drinks, more dinners.  Not one penny to a global relief organization.  UNICEF, the Red Cross, and other relief agencies did not even have my name or information in their databases.  I thought back to my interaction with others.  Not once did I think to stop by a refugee center to help.  Not once did I reach out to see how I can help those struggling in our community, refugee or not.  I had even quoted Scripture on my Facebook page, from Matthew 25: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  I beamed with pride; it was a subtle criticism of the current administration (and its supporters), and a reminder of my love for all these “brothers and sisters.”  But I read and re-read the passage from a different angle; I looked at Trump’s actions versus my own.  How did I show my love for human dignity abroad?  Moreover, how did I show love for human dignity in the United States?  In my own Central Pennsylvania community?

My answers were consistent across the board: resounding inaction. I was so caught up in the Trump administration’s hatred that I had forgotten about my own potential for greatness.  I treated the least of my brothers and sisters exactly the way Trump treated refugees in dire need: with blatant ignorance.  I walked around with my head down or on my phone, poring over the injustices of the world.  In doing so, I bypassed the homeless man who was down on his luck, the family in need of a meal, and the community organization seeking financial assistance.

Everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to change his or her own community. I can’t help but think that if every protestor, if every voter, if every human being with means reached out a hand to help someone else, we would be so much stronger as a nation.  I’ll be the first to call myself a hypocrite.  But I hope this epiphany leads me to move to make a difference.  It can be tough, it can be uncomfortable, but it is an absolute necessity.  Pope Benedict XVI once said, “The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” We can all be great, but we need to divorce ourselves from the comfort of our computer screens.  Maybe we can’t reverse a presidential decision, maybe we can’t end world hunger.  But we can start.  We can help our neighbor.  We can lift up our brothers and sisters in our community.  And we, you and I, can start making a real change in the world.  It can be uncomfortable.  It can be incremental.  But it can be great.  And the beautiful thing is, it doesn’t need to wait until the next local, state, or presidential election.  It can start today.

The Impact of being “Just Friends” on a Young Adult

Most everyone with a pulse has at one time or another been on the receiving end of the “just friends” conversation. It sucks.  Really sucks.  And it leads us to overthinking, self-doubting, and, more than anything, discouragement.  We want to feel wanted.  We want to be affirmed that we are attractive enough, funny enough, smart enough, and genuine enough.  We want to be enough.

If you ask my college friends about my romantic encounters, they will probably unabashedly tell you that I had mastered the art of getting “friend zoned (the official title for a male and female who will never enter into relationship, but will, you know, totally stay friends).” My school was small and intimate – it had almost a high school feel to it.  On campus, many sports teams and friend groups overlapped, which meant that it was incredibly easy to make new friends and develop new crushes.  And many times I failed in my efforts to enter into a new relationship.  Fortunately, however, because of the amicable environment, I ended up staying friends with former crushes, shortly after allowing my bruised ego to heal.  This was a staple of Saint Vincent College.  It was a part of what made my school experience so great.

I moved to a new city after graduation, and young women in my demographic were suddenly incredibly difficult to come by. Since moving almost three years ago, I have been on a handful of dates and have developed a few relationships, some of which had more substance than others.  All ended fairly similarly to my college encounters, though, something to the tune of, “I still want to stay friends.”  But that’s where the similarities end.

See, I had grown familiar with this conversation. Hell, I’d made so many visits to the friend zone I kept a spare toothbrush there.  But in my new town, there was such a grave disconnect.  It was almost as though the phrase “staying friends” took on an entirely new meaning.  In school, “just friends” meant you would largely remain acquaintances, albeit through necessity.  I was surrounded by peers, and always had a great network of love and support.  Even girls who expressed their desire to be just friends would still go out of their way to be friendly to me.  Additionally, there were so many similar-aged girls in similar positions who had interests similar to mine.  If one relationship did not come to fruition, there was a good chance that you were a hallway, a classroom, or a dorm’s distance away from a fresh start, a new prospect.

Not only have I been stripped of this opportunity, but the dating landscape has completely changed. Rather, the post-dating landscape has changed.  It is certainly not because my companions in the last three years have not been kind, compassionate, genuine individuals.  That aspect is no different from school.  What is different is the fact that I have transitioned from 1 degree of separation to a million.  When meeting new people, it always seems to come out of left field.  My encounters have been with store employees, graduate classmates, and a rare bar conversationalist; I have to make a very deliberate, concerted effort to meet girls whereas in school it was so natural.

Meeting people this way isn’t entirely bad, but it’s tough to rebuild bridges after a failed relationship because, usually, no bridges existed in the first place. This leaves a few undesirable options.  You can still hang out with one another in group capacities, but when you have no mutual friends, it’s tough to bring someone around and risk speculation.  Inversely, spending one-on-one time is a tough call to initiate, because implications still linger when a guy and girl are spending time together in any capacity.

So usually the best way to get the point across is unfailing avoidance. It may not be the ideal for either party, but seems to be the natural progression.  We get on with our lives. We continue to pursue career, social, and relational objectives on our own.

So in spite of my complaint-riddled thesis, I want to draw a positive blueprint for moving forward – for myself and for anyone else who has experienced this struggle. My conclusion is this: as a young adult, the best path to carve is to create large social circles, and let things happen naturally. It’s frustrating, because making friends in the real world is much more difficult; but to say “just friends” and to mean “just friends” can lead to greater outcomes, no matter how many degrees of separation.