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And the right thing is what, exactly?

19 Jul

For as long as I can remember, I have believed in the processes of disturbing the comfortable and comforting the disturbed.  I personally was born into an extremely comfortable life, so I find myself intentionally seeking out disturbing situations.  The seeking is usually on my time and my terms, which itself is privileged.  I never quite imagined that taking a vacation to San Francisco would be disturbing.

But there, on vacation, I found myself face to face with the most abrasive homeless men I have ever met.  Now, in St. Paul, people experiencing homelessness stay fairly pocketed.  It is easy to go about my day and not have to think about people in my community who are struggling financially.  Yet the man on the street corner with a sign has always haunted me.  There he is, looking me in the eye, a fellow human, and I am forced to face my wealth on his terms and his timing.  And what is the answer?  Give him an apple, or a twenty or a business card?  Sit with him and ask to hear his story?  Volunteer at a shelter and hope to build relationship with him?   Go home and give half my clothes to Goodwill?  Work for policy change while his is sitting there?

The difference is, the homeless man in St. Paul sits at the intersection calmly.  The homeless man is San Francisco is not quite that passive.  Dan and I found ourselves being followed by a man for blocks, screaming at us on a busy street.  He was older, carrying a bottle of vodka, and he was relentless.  Instead of these haunting questions bubbling up as I drive through an intersection, they were forced into our ears as a tactic of public humiliation.  When it became clear that we were not going to give this man cash, he followed us for a few blocks screaming, “Do the right thing!  I am a veteran!  This is so fucked up!  Come on!   I am a marine!  Do the right thing!  That is so fucked up!”

He disturbed me.  I have thought about that man ever since.  The battle wages in my head.  I do not live or pay taxes in San Francisco.  I am not relevant there.  It is better to do work at home.  What do I owe him?  He’s drunk.  Giving him money will lead to more dependency and learned helplessness.  He needs professional help that I cannot give him.  Yet his words won’t leave me.  I don’t want to be a teacher who thinks that teaching about justice is enough, a teacher who expects her students to do all the hard work.  And he is right, the fact that a marine who is drunk at noon on the street has to beg for money in an undignified way is fucked up.

Do the right thing.  He made sure that I know that he exists.  What, then, must we do?


Our New Closets

8 Jun

On a rainy Tuesday, my thoughts keep wandering back to contact theory.  I have nothing new or brilliant to add, but at times my circular thought gets so consuming that I have to write it out.

Last night, a friend told a story of pressure his parents received to have an abortion instead of having him.  His older brother had MD, and chances that my friend would have it too were high.  He had never told me that before, and we began talking about the tension between his family being fairly Catholic and other Catholics telling them to abort the baby.

I just finished teaching high school juniors a course on Christian Controversies.  The students are stunningly brilliant, but tend to be sheltered.  I could not help but notice that our conversation about the LGBT community and the Church teaching that goes along with that was extremely mature and nuanced.  This was much in part, I believe, due to the fact that we had a transgendered student in the class as well as students who are gay and lesbian on varying degrees of openness.  The students knew they were talking about people, not just issues.  But when we moved to talk about abortion, the conversation grew immature and overly simplified.  Few young people were able to sit in the complexity of the issue.  I am guessing this had something to do with lack of contact with people who have had or considered having an abortion.  The conversation was missing life stories.

As more people come “out of the closet” to self-identify in the LGBT community, I pause to question what other closets their are.  I do believe that if we had more stories to attach to things “issues” like abortion and rape, the conversation and legislation around it would be transformed.  Where I struggle is that I firmly do not believe that people in power should need to hear painful and powerful stories in order to care.

Looking into the face of my friend last night, my thoughts around abortion, although ultimately may not have changed, did grow more complex.  Although we should never have to learn at the expense of another, being witness to powerful moments, when story humanizes issues, is a gift to be held carefully.

Who Will I Trip Over While Taking the Long View?

3 May

Where is the balance between charity and justice?  Between thinking big thoughts and hitting the ground running?  Between effort and rest?  Between retreat and engagement?  Are my gifts best used giving fish or teaching to fish or working to change the whole fishing industry?

Ladies and gentlemen, a small sampling of questions that have been plaguing me lately.  In one of my classes, I showed a film that asked the question, “Is aid to Africa doing more harm than good?” Is foreign aid creating dependency and learned helplessness?  How is it that we should more compassionately distribute wealth so that everyone lives with dignity?  Who should receive micro-loans and scholarships? Should generous donations go to governments, NGOs, middle class employers to create jobs, the poorest of the poor?  How can more relationships be built?   In my favorite scene, two brothers grapple with these same questions.  The question is posed, “Is it more helpful to educate powerful people about poverty or cross boundaries and help people experiencing poverty one at a time?”  As I look out into the faces of affluent teenagers I am showing this film to, I admit to them that this is my daily struggle.  I leave my lesson on poverty to return to my comfortable apartment.  Is it making a difference?

This past weekend, I traveled to North Carolina for a gorgeous wedding.  Before the rehearsal, my spouse and I walked to Duke University, saw the chapel and sat down in the sunshine to enjoy an organic, colorful lunch from one of the many cafes.  I love universities, and really, all academic institutions.  They seem like utopias to me.  We sat at lunch listening in to young, vivacious thinkers and old professors in bow ties philosophize about the world.  I found myself at peace and enlivened.  Many religions agree that the path to knowledge is the path to God.  And I believe it.  To have the leisure time to pursue knowledge feels liberating to me.  And I have seen repeatedly that a key to peace is to educate young people, especially women.

Yet there is also something about academia that grates on me.  As I believe that the path to knowledge is the path to God, I also believe that Jesus is the poor.  Literally.  And academia seems so disengaged and distant from people who are experiencing real poverty.  It is a luxury to be able to choose whether to engage in an intellectual conversation about philosophy and theology regarding poverty while other people are living it.  Do I dare analyze aid when people actually need food right now while I am thinking about it?  Is the pursuit of knowledge also running from reality?

I am finding in me more and more a simultaneous desire to be immersed in education and scholarship while living engaged in the world of people experiencing poverty.  Where do I place myself so that the power I have in the world can most effectively be used to transform the hierarchies in our world?  How can I have informed, passionate opinions without living among people who are different from me?  Can I pursue knowledge without fleeing from the world?

Tomorrow morning I will leave my comfortable apartment to teach affluent teenagers about poverty.  I just wonder sometimes who I am tripping over while taking the long view.

The Shower

20 Apr

I began to sense that there was something contagious in the air that made everyone around me wants a baby to call her own.  And there was something in the water making those babies, to the specific joy of their fathers, all boys.  I found myself on support staff for the race for babies.  All the wives of my spouse’s college friends either had babies, were pregnant with babies or where praying unceasingly for babies, wondering what was wrong with them for having to try for so long.  This was not a game I was partaking in.  I love babies.  They are clearly the personification of God’s grace.  They offer love without even realizing it.  They are fascinating to watch as they eagerly learn and change, things adults do not like much.  But my uterus in no way is yearning to be occupied.  Still, when people around you jump on the baby train, somehow the young, waiting, single and barren ones get dragged along for the ride.

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and I pulled myself away from my writing to shower and primp.  It was time to go to yet another baby shower.  And it was at said baby shower that I started thinking about what it meant to be a woman, a white woman, a partnered white woman, and a partnered rich white woman in the US.  You see, generations ago, our ancestors came to the US from places like France, Bohemia, Ireland and Germany.  It was the melting pot, and quickly our ancestors learned that to survive here, one must assimilate as quickly as possible.  So they dropped language, religion, food, art and celebrations from their countries of origins to fit in with the other people in power who had white skin as well.  Now, we are left, rich and white, with no sense of what to eat, how to worship or how to celebrate huge rites of passage.  Having a baby is a really big deal.  But we did not take the time to learn ritual surrounding this transition of the Native Americans, and we were told to leave European tradition at the coast and cling to white power.  In 2010, we are striving to make meaning of life, to celebrate it in a significant way, and we have absolutely no idea what to do.

The men in my life do very little to celebrate the baby life mark, but let’s look at other rituals they have created out of thin air.  The twenty-first birthday consists of taking shots until he is unconscious or projectile vomiting.  The initiation into a fraternity may consist of drinking pickle juice with vodka and headcheese, rolling in the mud, carrying blocks of ice for miles or tampering with goats.  A bachelor party calls for golfing, eating barbequed meat, gambling away money and being entertained by a woman who comes to take her clothes off to the beat of their cheering. Now, this is not every man, by any means.  But the above information has come from wonderful men of integrity in my life, so it does happen.

Women tend to mark turning points a little more peacefully.  And although there is less destruction involved, it can also tend to be extremely boring.  And taxing.  And consumer driven. The women throwing this baby shower that I attended on the beautiful Saturday afternoon had difficulty figuring out what to do.  We have no sense or history of ritual.  The thing I find most odd is because we are making this up as we go, the guest always have to be told what to do, what comes next, because it is always different, one of the fundamental problems.  First, we ate.  Now being women, we ate light of course, because God help us if the pregnant woman of honor were to gain too much weight while with child.  So food was light croissants, salads and a fruit dessert.  I kind of wish women would embrace eating food that hits the soul a bit, you know, really celebrating.  Salads just don’t cut it for me. Next, there were games.  There are always games, like dress the bride in toilet paper or unscramble words with a baby theme. The games on this day were a multiple choice quiz about celebrities and their baby’s names followed by a matching of adult animals to what they call their baby counterpart.  A baby hippo is called a calf.  Really?  Then we proceeded to the kitchen table where we all made scrapbook pages for the mother to be so that she could just slip pictures in the pages without worrying about the stickers, crazy scissors or mushy quotes corresponding to the theme of the page.  And finally, like always, there were gifts.  She opened bag after bag of things she had registered for at Target, Babies R Us and the like.  We cooed and mooed as she displayed things like bottles and spoons, burp rags and pumping bags that just did not seem coo worthy at all to me.  I cooed along, even for the little socks and onesies, all pink so we could socialize the baby to her gender as quickly as possible.  Then ice cream was served with cake, defeating the whole idea of the light lunch, pictures were taken, and people headed home. Three hours later, I felt like I wanted to shower, or, I don’t know, take off my baby shower attire and drink a beer with some guys.

I try not to let others in on the internal struggle that happens during these made up rituals that we have.  I am, in fact, as rich and white as they come.  But I can’t help thinking about my ancestors and wishing that they had kept their real last names, stayed bi-lingual and taught each other the old, time-tested celebrations surrounding life’s big moments.  I come back to this so many times a year.  We have no cultural identity, so we just continue to assert our power, our access in our rituals.  When we should be talking about the genocide that happened when the Europeans came to settle in the US, we instead stuff ourselves with food and pass out to big guys tackling each other on our flat screen digital televisions.  To celebrate the fact that Jesus, a man killed because of his radical political and relational power, was born to a poor peasant in a barn we get dressed up and give each other presents from Best Buy.  Birthdays, baptisms and bar mitzvahs all come with gifts and more gifts, a showering of presents.  The average wedding in my state puts the couple and their parents back $20,000.  Graduating from high school?  You guessed it, money, gifts and buffets.  Knowing little else, we lean on what we do know to mark our coming of age.  We eat lots of food and spend a lot of money on stuff.  For me, it is not enough.  It makes me feel empty and sad.

I don’t know what the answer is.  All I know is that I hate going to baby showers.  I think part of it is claiming our ancestry even if it means claiming the ugliness that comes with the history of being white in the US.  It is creating rituals that do not center on consumerism.  We could stop being so self-centered and learn other languages, learn about other religions and rituals and food and art.  We need to decide what we stand for and make sure we stand for something that is life-sustaining.

Transforming Anger to Compassionate Agitation

30 Dec

I have been thinking a lot about anger lately, mostly because it has seemed to become a more popular emotion for me, which is new, and slightly disturbing.  I used to stay up at night dreaming up curriculum for my classes, and I noticed a shift to dreaming about telling people off.  I think anger has something to do with being right, or thinking that I am right.  And that seems to have something to do with self-importance, and taking myself all too seriously.

I am currently in my third year of teaching, and I worry about it as a career.  I used to love to be a student, I loved to learn, and although I got good grades, I never worried about being right.  I wonder, now that I am a teacher, I spend more time proclaiming and less time listening.  Could that be affecting my anger, my sense of self- righteousness? Do teachers feel the need to be right?

Now, I am not a relativist.  I do not think that all opinions are equally valid.  I am with Socrates.  I believe that humans have the tendency to be like sheep, and it is good to question, to form my own opinions, to become intelligently non-conformist.  And I do think that there are some times when I am right, and that rightness needs to be proclaimed in the face of wrongness.

And I do see some people taking the path of least resistance in order to avoid anger.  Anger turns people off, it is offensive and hurtful, but then again, so is apathy, right?

And some women tend to avoid anger because it is not an emotion that is valued in women like it is in men.  Angry men are strong.  Angry women are overly emotional bitches in the middle of their period who should be dismissed as irrational.

I just want to sleep at night.  And that is a choice.  To be asleep or be awake.  And people who are awake get angry more often, and loose more sleep.  There is a point where anger is paralyzing instead of creative, and that is the line I am trying to draw.  I know too much anger is unhealthy, but is a little bit a sign of paying attention to injustice?

My spouse and I were listening to sermon podcast about the man who got trampled to death on Black Friday at Wal-Mart.  It was a horrible story.  And I went into Best Buy right after that and freaked out.  I started to cry.  I felt righteous and angry.  I felt awake, as I watched everyone there buy things that would help them stay asleep.  I think our country is obsessed with consuming, focusing too much on what we have and not who and how we love.  We have too much while others have too little.  In this matter, which is severely brought to light during the holidays at Best Buy, I think I am right, and I think it it worth of a little anger.  If that anger moves me do something to change our systems.

This is not, however, the type of anger keeping me up at night.  There was a misunderstanding at my work place that kept me up at night for a week.  I was replaying conversations and inserting more effectively stinging lines where I wish I would have said them.  This is not creative anger.  This is paralyzing.  A good friend shared a quote with me that instantly gave me the language I was looking for. “The first moment I feel anger I have stopped moving toward truth and started moving toward myself.”  (Buddha)  And that was it.  I was so ready to hear that.  The paralyzing anger is self-centered, while the creative anger is seeking truth.  One is static, one is dynamic.  I have been actively working on taking myself less seriously in matters of the former.  I have been taking myself more seriously in the latter.  Anger is starting to be replaced by truth.

Anger is a sign that there is hurt to be tended to.  Anger is an emotion that may be felt in the quest for truth.  In these ways, not all anger is to be avoided if it can be used as creative energy to bring change.  There are some things worth losing a little sleep over, but my ego is not one of them.  I began to think about compassionate agitation over anger, and it has made all the difference.

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