Jun 152020
 

“This is usually where the desire to dismiss claims of racial oppression come from—it just doesn’t make sense to you so it cannot be right.”

                                                Ijeoma Oluo in So you want to talk about race

I can be justly accused of remaining silent for far too long when words condemning racism should have been spoken. I can, and must, find the courage to speak up whenever and wherever racism enters my world.

However, I am coming to learn the most subtle and deceptive forms of racism erupt, not from the world around me, but from the world within.

In the past weeks, people across the globe have struggled to face the senseless, persistent, and horrific murders of BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) in this country—and find ways to end the atrocities. I have watched and listened, trying to take in the stories of pain, anger, sorrow, and resentment that have filled my news and newsfeed. I listen, and think, as Oluo says, “it just doesn’t make sense…so it cannot be right.”

Of course it doesn’t make sense. How could I possibly even begin to understand the raw emotions coming from a person whose life I have not lived? How could I possibly feel what it is like to wake every morning in a skin that is not white? How could I possibly know the sheer frustration and despair of facing a world replete with obstacles that prevent me from being successful, and inflict constant, lingering fear in me and those I love.

It does not make sense to me, but I cannot dismiss that it does make sense to someone who has lived that life. The only way for me to acknowledge the pain, anger, sorrow, and resentment is listen with new ears. I must listen, as best I can, to stories that are in stark contradiction to my own lived experience. I must acknowledge the validity and authenticity of all stories. It is exceedingly difficult because my day-to-day privilege holds at bay the horrors faced by BIPOC. It is the difficulty of the work that makes it that much more necessary.

As I have endeavored these past weeks to listen with new ears, words and stories come at me with new meaning and urgency…and new worlds open before me. Perhaps, more importantly, I find new worlds opening within me.

Jun 042020
 

Changing the world, it is said, is an inside job.

I’ve used this tale before, but it bears repeating. A couple whose son suffers from horrible bouts of anger and fear take him to a Buddhist monk. “Would you,” they ask, “help rid our son of his demons?” The monk pauses and says, “bring your son back in one year.”

A year later the couple returns with their son and the monk begins the lessons. Grateful, but confused, the couple asks why the teaching had to wait a year. “Ah,” the monk replies, “I had first to learn how to rid myself of anger and fear.”

There is arduous work ahead to tear down the insidious walls of institutional racism…to claw at its massive foundations. I am committed to doing what I can to aid that effort, but, in the end, I cannot help anyone rid themselves of racism until I first learn how of rend it completely from my own life.

How could I not have racism written on my soul having been thoroughly immersed in the white neighborhoods and schools of my youth. How could I learn the harsh reality of racial inequality when my grade school had no one of color, and my high school graduating class had just a few? How could my biases not have been further obscured having been a member of my college’s student senate without people of color at the table? How can I live in my community where faces of color are few and far between, and not see racial inequality? Why has it taken to my elder years for me to fully grasp the depth and breadth of white privilege that paves the paths before me…and impedes them for those of color?

In fact, each of these lessons, and hundreds of others, have been critical courses in the curriculum of my life. I have just been too naïve and selfish to enroll.

After reading, among others, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Just Mercy by Bryon Stevenson, Antiracism by Ibram X Kendi, Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson, it becomes impossible to look in a mirror and remain oblivious to the biases that run so very deep.

Many years ago, I created a symbol as a reminder…a simple piece of cardboard holding two U.S. dimes. On the back it says:

Changing the World is an Inside Job
To change the world, you must shatter paradigms.
Begin with your own!

Should you see me sometime soon, I will try to have one for you as well.

These are difficult and often frightening times. But, for me, they are most difficult because I am being forced to acknowledge the demons inside. Even though I married a woman of a different race, I am aware I still harbor prejudice and racism. I must admit, and come to terms with, those biased, often repugnant views. It is only by tearing down those walls and clawing at those foundations that there will be any real hope for the future.

May 042020
 

What if the answer was deeper, less objective and more nuanced than a simple recounting of the number of times the earth orbited the sun since the day you arrived?

If I asked, instead, how creative you are, I would be confused and disheartened if you answered “5,” “23,” or “99.” Those are meaningless in the context of creativity. I would appreciate hearing that you love to write poetry or music. It would tell me a great deal to hear that your passions are theater and improv.  I could look more deeply into your soul if you say, “While I am not terribly accomplished, I take great pride in some of the pencil sketches I have attempted.” I was touched recently by a caller who told me she loves to write music, especially pieces that erupt from her deep sorrow and invite others to listen deeply to their own with less judgement.

Similarly, if I asked about your generosity, your capacity for love, and the extent to which you are trustworthy and honest, what would you tell me? Should I ask of your wisdom, I would gain insight even if you were to express doubts about the depth and breadth of yours.

With one exception, there is no upper limit on the qualities that define our character. Our admiration for another is in direct proportion to the extent of their creativity, generosity, love, trustworthiness, honesty, and wisdom.

The one exception, or course, is our culture’s, oft unspoken, acceptable upper limit on the number of years we have lived. There is no remark about creativity, generosity, love or wisdom equivalent to being “over the hill” regarding age.

What would it mean if the answer to how old you are was similarly nuanced? What if, instead, how old you are is defined by the character you cultivated during the years you have lived? To which, of course, there is no limit.

What if, instead of telling me your age, you were willing to admit you are old enough to know the limits of your knowledge; that you are coming to understand the power of questions and are less compelled by the veracity of opinions—yours and others. To what extent would you be willing to share you are old enough to focus more on what is left for you to be, and less about what is left for you to do?

I would love to hear you have learned the power of compassion and how you might use yours to ease the journey of others; that you are discovering, when you are with another during a time of deep sadness and grief, it is not within your power to fix, but absolutely within your power to be fully present—and that that is enough. Might you also admit you have less fear about your legacy and are taking comfort in knowing that such a thing is unknowable.

Should we meet sometime soon, and I ask how old you are, know that I do not care a whit about the years you have lived. What I care to discern is the extent to which you have fully lived during your many revolutions of the planet Earth, and developed character worthy of the time you have been given.

Apr 202020
 

Does the species Home sapiens belong? Do we have a rightful place among the billions of other species that inhabit the astonishing biosphere in which we find ourselves? Would Mother Nature, Gaia, Pachamama, or whatever name you bestow upon this, our home, be better off without us?

I have contemplated these questions for many years and have concluded that none get to the core question that must be asked of us: do we even want to belong?

Make no mistake, we want to be here. We certainly want the species to exist, but existing is not the same as belonging. How many people have found themselves in a community where they existed, but never felt as though they truly belonged? To belong to a community means you are completely immersed in, and willingly abide by, the traditions, ethos, attitudes, and tenets of that community. The moment you breach the culture, you find yourself very much alone—on the outside, looking in.

Charles Eisenstein, in his remarkable work, “The Ascent of Humanity,” documents the history of Homo sapiens as an endless journey to ascend from our animal origins.

“From the very beginning, fire reinforced the concept of a separate human realm. The circle of the campfire divided the world into two parts: the safe, domestic part, and the wild. Here was safety, keeping predators at bay. Outside the circle of firelight was the other, the wild, the unknown.”

As a species, we abhor the thought we are nothing more than animals. One of the most savage things we can say about another human is that he (or she) is “nothing more than an animal.”

Animals are wild, we are sophisticated. They are cruel, we are kind and generous. Nature remains dirty and dangerous, humanity has produced purity, safety, and beauty. We speak, write, and sing of the beauty and wonder of nature, but we do so from an emotional distance. Even during temporary incursions, we enter, always certain of an escape back to the safety of our villages. Most of us would be horrified to find ourselves “there” with no means of escape.

In nature, every species faces times of peril. And when they do, they do what they have always done to protect themselves: flee, remain and build herd immunity, or adjust to the new environment. I am not aware of a species that races to find sources of water to extinguish a forest fire. I have not heard of a species that builds levees for protection from massive flooding. No species, to my knowledge, ever sought a vaccine for a threatening virus. In the end, often accompanied by horrific loss of life, nature finds ways to live with the “enemy.”

My answer to the question of whether we want to belong is, we do not. In the face of COVID-19, SARS, or H1N1, if the traditions, ethos, attitudes and tenets of the community require us to simply flee, remain and build herd immunity, or adjust to the new environment, thanks, but no thanks. We will use our innovation and creativity to fight. We will stop at nothing less than annihilation of the enemy. In the face of H5N1 we killed tens of millions of birds.

Do we belong? If, unlike other species, our response to any challenge is annihilation, I wonder if the biosphere might be healthier without us. Perhaps, the recent onslaught of potential and real pandemics is Mother Nature’s way of telling us we are on the outside looking in.

Apr 132020
 

“I would steal the stress and abuse from your life in an instant if I could, but I cannot. However, has the chaos you are facing taught you something about the human journey that you can use to help others?” I have asked some version of this question to hundreds of people over the past 17 years. The most typical response is, “You have no idea!” I recall asking one woman, who was bone weary from a life of giving and having been taken advantage of, why she might want to go on. Her response filled my heart. “I still have so much left to give.”

If you ask people to recount the most learningful, creative moments of their lives, a surprising number of those stories will have arisen from times when life seemed out of control. It is during those times, when life sidles from order into chaos, we are called to be maximally creative. A spouse is unexpectedly gone, and the broken family must discover new ways to survive. An unforeseen chronic disease suddenly invades, and life abruptly pivots. Loss of a career or life goal demands we see the world anew.

In the 1990s, when Dee Hock was writing his extraordinary book, “Birth of the Chaordic Age,” he thought a great deal about that edge where nature is maximally creative, where chaos and order suddenly overlap. He searched all the major languages for a word to describe that intersection, but none was to be found. So he borrowed the first syllables from “chaos” and “order” to create the word “chaord.” If you wish to find the emergence of creativity and innovation, you simply need to look for chaords, and you needn’t go far. Except for the species Homo sapiens, every other species in nature experiences the intersection of order and chaos every single day.

Covid-19 has thrown the entirety of the human species into that overlap of order and chaos. Out of the chaordic experience of the last several months, I’ve been witness to innovation, creativity and emergence of new ideas unlike anything I have ever experienced in any comparable span of time. I am heartbroken for the millions who are finding the future filled with anxiety and pain, yet I am astounded by the generosity and creativity that has emerged to try to ease that pain. Money being raised to fill food pantries…volunteers shopping for the elderly and infirmed so they may remain safe…neighborhoods coming together on balconies to remind us of what we have, as to opposed to what we are losing…millions at home sewing masks…artists of all ilks flooding social media with astonishing music and beauty…essential services pivoting to provide and help us remain safe…and, factories instantly repurposed to produce PPE and respirators. The global eruption of generosity, love, even intimacy, is palpable.

Around the globe, humans are doing everything possible to edge out of this chaord and return to our normal sense of safety, control and order. As much as anyone, I grieve the losses, and fear the future we face, as long as the coronavirus reigns rampant. And yet, I feel a paradox in the offing. Will we, even to some small extent, grieve the loss of generosity, love and intimacy not nearly so palpable when life does return to “normal?”

Apr 022020
 

The woman on the other end of the call tried desperately to speak through anxiety and a torrent of tears. “Take a deep breath.” I said, “I want to understand what you are facing.”

“I’m overwhelmed. I’m confused. My life is falling apart. I tried to call my therapist, but her mailbox is full, so I can’t even leave a message. I don’t know what to do.” The tears and anxiety returned.

“Why are you feeling so overwhelmed?” I asked. Trying to hold back tears, she replied, “This virus has turned my world upside down. I have two young children and I have to be everything: mom, teacher, cook, housekeeper. I’m drowning. I try to do it all, but I can’t. I feel like a total failure. There isn’t even any time during the day to care for myself.”

I continued, “First, I am in awe of your herculean efforts to try to do everything.” “Thank you,” she replied, “That’s really nice to hear.”

 “In addition to attempting everything, are you expecting perfection?” I asked, suspecting the answer. “Of course. I take pride in doing things well, and right now, I’m failing at everything,” she said through a renewed wave of tears. “So, in addition to not checking everything off your list, you’re piling on guilt for not being perfect.” “Yes,” she responded quietly.

 “Can we agree that these are extraordinary times, and that nothing is what it was a few weeks ago? These times demand that each of us discover new ways to be in the world. What would it take for you to accept you can no longer be perfect in everything, and be gentle with yourself for the imperfections?” She said it would be difficult.

“I understand, but here’s a thought. It’s the end of March. What would happen if you picked a date, say June 1, and decided to quarantine your judgements and guilt until then? What if, for the next two months, you decided, since life is crazy, imperfection is what is needed. You can go back to being perfect after June 1, if you so choose. But for now, can it be okay to be imperfect? If there are dishes in the sink, it’s fine…clothes to be washed, oh well…beds aren’t made, so be it…every school assignment isn’t finished, pick it up again tomorrow. Could you quarantine the judgements for 60 days and be kind and gentle with yourself?” After a short pause, she said “I think I could, but it would be hard.” I reminded her everything is difficult right now.

I asked, of all the things not getting done, what hurts the most. “With all the other things I feel I have to do, I’m forgetting to be Mom. My children need that more than anything and it’s last on the list.” “So,” I pressed, “if you let other things be imperfect, do you think you might find time each day to play with your children? Just have fun?” In a truly joyful voice, she said it sounded wonderful.

In the end, she told me she marked June 1 on her calendar and was putting everything aside that afternoon to spend time being the Mom her children need. Then she said, “Can it be okay to be imperfect in other things so I can be a good Mom? Absolutely!” Suddenly, it was me in tears.

Mar 182020
 

“I’m done. I can’t take it any longer.” she said. “I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety since I was a child and I simply cannot do it any longer.” I struggled to find words to help, and I told her so. In the midst of our conversation, she told me her psychologist believed every person has a purpose. “Once I find mine, she thinks I’ll feel better. But what if I don’t believe every person has a purpose?” I admitted I wasn’t sure that was true either. “But here’s what I do believe. Each of us can gently nudge the world every day. Everything we do, every moment we help another human or improve the environment, nudges the world ever so gently in a minute new direction. Hundreds of times each day; millions in our lifetimes. And, if you believe in the Butterfly Effect, some of those gentle nudges will change the course of human history.”

She interrupted. “That was it.” Fearing I might have said something to push her over the edge, I confessed my confusion. “What do you mean?” I asked. “A few moments ago, you admitted you were struggling to find words to help. Well, that was it. When I called, I was determined to self-harm. Now, I won’t.”

That is one of more than ten thousand calls I have answered on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. I am often stunned by the unique path each call carves, into the world and into my heart. In ten thousand conversations, I had never used those words. Why, I wonder, was I given them in that moment?

I have reflected on them frequently since that moment of meeting. Perhaps, they were not only for her, but for me as well. Having long sought a deeper understanding of my own life and its meaning, those words speak to me. They tell of the value of many small deeds—nudges, if you will—done every day. In those moments when I rue not having done something “big” with my life, these words console me. To echo the caller, perhaps that is it.

A war rages within, that pits a plethora of culturally held beliefs against a deep sense they may be inherently at odds with who we need to be as members of this fragile biosphere. The older I get, the more at odds I feel with the milieu in which I carve my own path. One of the most deeply troubling cultural convictions is the belief that a human life is valuable if it contains a “big” accomplishment. The bigger the impact on humanity, the more valuable the life. We celebrate that belief every day in newspaper stories, magazine covers, and narratives that go viral on social media.

What if a life is valuable regardless of the size of our “accomplishments”? What if it is valuable simply because the one who lived it, nudged the world in many, many positive ways? What if the “size” of one’s accomplishments have nothing to do with our insidious ways of measuring and evaluating a person’s life? And, since I often list my title as “Speaker Provocateur,” allow me to be provocative. What if nudging the world is all we should ever attempt to do?

Nov 222019
 

Resource Curse. It’s the plague wrought upon the planet when a person, company, institution or government finds themselves awash in inconceivable wealth.

In Blowout, Rachel Maddow’s comprehensive, forthright, and beautifully written examination of the oil and gas industries, we learn of the curse rained down upon our species as a result of billions of dollars concentrated in the hands of small numbers of individuals. We have selfishly stolen this wealth from Mother Earth—stored for hundreds of millions of years and limited in quantity—for our insatiable and gluttonous consumption.

This capacious wealth, coming out of the ground in torrents, brings out the ugliest aspects of our humanity. Corruption, tyranny, murder, exploitation, and all other forms of inhumanity, explode from the haves at the expense of the have-nots. Countries with the greatest influx of fossil fuel income, because of rampant corruption, often end up with tremendous poverty, horrendous environmental problems, impoverished educational systems, increased infant mortality, reduced life spans, and poorer quality of life.

It is frightening to understand what humans are capable of in the face of unimaginable wealth. What is most frightening is that I don’t believe this is the result of money finding its way into the pockets of a few corrupt individuals. While there are examples of people with enormous wealth who use it for good, I fear resources of this magnitude could easily corrupt most people if it found its way into their pockets. I fear even I would lose my sense of self in the face of hundreds of millions, or billions, of dollars suddenly at my disposal.

In the end, the wealth that literally erupts from the earth, has given humanity the ability to alter the environment to the detriment of millions of other species; likely even our own. I wonder if ours is an aberrant species, so destructive of the magnificent biosphere to which we were heirs, that God is in tears?

Oct 042019
 

Note: The following will be published in the November/December issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The morning of September 12, the world of Neighbors magazines was torn apart. Kate Sullivan, who, with her husband Tim, published Neighbors of Batavia magazine, was ripped from our lives. The vision they shared—helping communities discover their heart and soul—has had a profound impact on Batavia. A colleague, who new Kate well, observed that she never made friends, she simply expanded her family. We will all miss her greatly.

In the last issue of Neighbors of Batavia, based on Bill McKibben’s insights in his recent book, Falter, I touched on three trends—environmental devastation, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering—each of which will dramatically alter our future. (This essay is also a recent blog entitled “Opening Door and Windows – Part 1)

In that essay, I suggested that if we were in a burning building, and the occupants were in denial, we could open doors and windows so, upon realization of the fire, people could escape. What might it mean, I asked, to “open doors and windows” in our communities, so we might escape the approaching unintended consequences? Upon reflection, I realize that metaphor fails. As opposed to a burning building, what if there is no escape as heat begins to scorch our souls?

I am reminded of a long-ago moment as I ascended an ancient volcano that now forms a portion of the island of Oahu. In Hawai’i, little land is wasted when hillsides are transformed into neighborhoods. Narrow stretches of parched, red dirt, punctuated by occasional tufts of dry grass, are often all that separate homes from roadways. As streets wind their way up the mountainside, there is typically little safety for a lone pedestrian, with cars flying by on their way to who-knows-where.

One afternoon, I noticed an elderly gentleman tending to the small patch of earth that separated his home from the rest of the world. His was garden-green and lined with a row of delicate flowers—a small, yet beautiful, oasis. I walked the opposite curb so as not to trample his creation.

As I approached, he looked up with a smile, pointed to his “lawn” and said, “Please walk here…it’s safer.” To this kindly gentleman, a stranger’s safety was more important than the stretch of nature to which he tended so carefully.

Of the effects sure to erupt from our creations, the most devastating will likely be massive human dislocation. Environmental disruption will force millions to flee ancestral homes and search for livelihoods in distant lands. Artificial Intelligence will decimate traditional careers and throw additional millions onto the street in search of new ways to feed their families. When terrified neighbors, or fragile families from distant lands, find their way to my doorstep, what then? Should I fear for my soul if I someday choose my needs over theirs; if my own terror overwhelms my obligation to clothe the naked and feed the poor?

In those moments, what would it mean, for me to turn to strangers in need, look them in the eye and say, “Please walk here…it’s safer”? What am I prepared to give up in order to protect the humanity of another? How much should I be expected to give? As I face such heart-wrenching decisions, how courageous and vulnerable am I willing to be?

As this war rages inside me, pitting me and my safety against my yearning to help others, I am reminded of the wisdom given to us by Rabbi Hillel, one of the most important figures in Jewish tradition: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” These questions tear at me.

Then, as I recall recent events, I realize I needn’t rely on ancient wisdom. Guidance is close at hand—the path illumined by the life of Kate Sullivan. Perhaps I needn’t help neighbors or those from distant lands. In those moments, I simply need to expand my family.

Aug 052019
 

Fair warning. For those who look to these posts for comfort and reconciliation, this piece is likely an exception.

Several recent books and conversations emboldened me to peer some distance into the future. The vista is, at best, sobering.

Bill McKibben, an environmentalist who has been writing about global warming for more than 30 years, recently published his latest volume: Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? In it, McKibben expands his perspective by examining not just the environment, but also artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

A friend once cautioned, in every human endeavor, intended consequences sometimes happen; unintended consequences always happen. The consequences we intend for artificial intelligence are more efficient decision making, less repetitive work, greater safety, and lower costs to produce the necessities of life. However, did you know the most common job description in the United States today is “driver?” What happens when autonomous vehicles force millions who call themselves drivers to find new sources of income? How many of our neighbors will suddenly struggle to pay their bills?

Genetic engineering could force us to abandon everything we know about what it means to be human. While “germline” genetic engineering—altering heritable human traits—remains illegal globally, should it someday become acceptable, we could begin to design our children. Since only the wealthy will have that capacity, McKibben wonders if we might end up with two classes of humanity: the wealthy who have been designed to excel in every facet of being human, and the rest who become second class.

Similarly, environmental challenges could force tens of millions across the globe to abandon coastal areas and leave farmland suddenly incapable of supporting crops. If that should happen, people flocking to the U.S. southern border might number in the millions per month rather than a hundred thousand. What then? If U.S. coastal regions become uninhabitable, where will those millions go. My niece, who works on environmental issues, suggested the upper Midwest will become an attractive destination. What happens if Batavia suddenly finds thousands at its “southern border” seeking refuge?

I recommend McKibben’s work, with a substantial caveat. He suggests a “solution,” but it’s easier for me to believe in fairy dust. A wise gambler, he submits, after winning a comfortable amount in a casino, will walk away; she has enough for a comfortable future and is satisfied. McKibben suggests humanity has had a good run at the casino we call Mother Earth. We have won a great deal; enough, if properly distributed, to provide a comfortable life for the species. It’s time, he suggests, we walk away and be satisfied with our winnings. No further environmental damage, and a halt to development of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

If that’s the best hope for our salvation, please pass the fairy dust.

I was discussing McKibben’s views with some intelligent, astute friends. “Certainly,” they assured me, “someone will figure each of these things out.” It reminds me just how many people have their heads in the sand. They profess an understanding of potential disruptions, but, in the end, are in denial that any will substantially impact their lives.

So, what to do in the face of those who are in denial? Many years ago, an author asked what you might do if you were in a building you knew to be on fire, while other occupants were in denial. You could, she suggested, run around yelling “FIRE!” However, you would likely be labeled a crackpot. Alternatively, you could open the doors and windows, so when others are convinced of the danger, they can find their way out.

In the years since that metaphor was revealed to me, I have wondered what it might mean in our communities to “open the doors and windows” so, when our neighbors become convinced of coming disruptions, they can find their way out. I’m not sure I have an answer, but I’ll have some thoughts in a future post.