Feb 082021
 

“So here, then, is the last fifty years of American politics summarized: we became more consistent in the party we vote for not because we came to like our party more, but because we came to dislike the opposing party more. Even as hope and change sputter, fear and loathing proceed.”
                                                                 
Ezra Klein

I fear for the future of the United States of America.

Until recent years, if you asked how much the United States changed over the nearly 70 years I have lived, I might have said that it had changed, but, for good or bad, it is not fundamentally different from what it was in 1951. I thought of this country as a stable exemplar of democracy.

But I have begun to wonder about our democracy and its stability. Two recent books, Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein and Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum, leave me wondering if we could lose our democratic republic as have countless democracies during my lifetime.

When change is incremental, we are often blind to monumental shifts that amass over time. In 1950, The American Political Science Association published a paper coauthored by many of the country’s most eminent political scientists. In it they pleaded for a more polarized political system. They lamented the Democrat and Republican parties each contained too much diversity, looked too much alike, and worked together too easily. In those days, when going to the polls, many citizens split their ballots, caring more about issues than party affiliation.

Things began to change dramatically in the 1960s. Prior to 1964, the Democratic Party was the party of the Dixiecrats, southern democrats who pledged allegiance to Jim Crow laws and “separate but equal’ policies, ignoring the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the emergence of Barry Goldwater and his allegiance to states’ rights, the Dixiecrats jumped parties. Lyndon Johnson, the night he signed that legislation, was said to lament, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

As divisions grew—as the parties became ever more distinct—Americans began to choose sides, not unlike we do with sports teams. Voting became less about issues and more about making sure your “team” won. As Klein said above, voters came to dislike the other party more and more, allowing fear and loathing to proceed.

While an inspiring future vision can encourage people to act, inciting fear calls forth powerful passions and unpredictable behaviors. In the face of abject fear, rationality and logic exit the stage, replaced by irrational and senseless acts. Given enough fear, anger can easily become the appetizer we choose, followed often by an entrée of violence.

Over the past two decades, fearful rhetoric has come to dominate our political discourse. How many recent political campaigns promised policies aimed at a brighter future versus asserting that a vote for the opponent would give the other party the power to destroy you and everything you love? And, of those who promised a path to the promised land, how many either changed their rhetoric or went down to defeat?

In her book, Anne Applebaum recalls a conversation with behavioral economist Karen Stenner. Stenner reminded her that people are often attracted to authoritarian ideas because they are bothered by complexity. The work of Nobel Award-winning economist Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) reminds us the human mind is lazy. We will typically choose a simple, albeit errant, answer to a problem, rather than doing the work of challenging our assumptions. Is it any wonder, then, that we have witnessed the emergence of QAnon, countless conspiracy theories, and authoritarian rhetoric? They offer simple, if not irrational, answers in a complex world.

Our 32nd president, Franklin D Roosevelt famously said, “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Unless we recall these extraordinary words, learn to speak to one another with compassion and understanding, and face our fears together, we just may face them torn asunder.

Jan 142021
 

It is so very difficult. When I witness anger and hatred boiling out of a mass of humanity, as that which flooded my life on January 6, part of me wants to turn away and remain in denial. Another part sets out, with the rest of me as an unwitting accomplice, to hate those who hate. In those moments I am reminded of words from The Prayer of St Francis: “Where there is hatred, let me sow love.” Neither turning away, nor allowing hatred to take me hostage, helps heal the wounds that underpin the anger that erupts in the world.

Let me be clear, I am terrified by what the far-right intends for the future of the United States, and globally. There are millions who want a racist world order I find reprehensible. But in this moment, I am desperately trying to separate the movement from individuals that inhabit it.

Anger and hatred are often consequent emotions. If I have learned anything from 18 years answering calls on a suicide hotline, it is this: what shows up as anger and hate, usually emerge out of profound sorrow, deep hurt, or debilitating fear. Sometimes all three. Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi punk rock musician, and founder of the Free Radicals Project, now works tirelessly to prevent extremism and help people disengage from hate movements. In his raw, emotionally-charged book, Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism, Picciolini reveals his secret to helping people escape…he listens. He listens without judgement for what he calls the “potholes” in their lives—abuse, bullying, desertion, loss, grief, and more—that leave them feeling lost, alone, marginalized, and worthless. Arguments, logic, and rationality are, in his experience, not helpful. Those devices, to which we so quickly turn, leave the person in his midst feeling unheard, lost, and lonely. They can even trigger a frightened, vulnerable individual and send them back to the safety of the extremist community that first took them in. Understanding and empathy are the only keys that unlock doorways.

In a post on social media, I recommended four books, including Breaking Hate, that have helped. They do not, even for an instant, enable me to accept the hateful language, but they have offered a glimpse into the emanation of far-right vitriol. When I suggested these volumes, one respondent replied, “Understanding it is pointless. The only thing to do is to stop tolerating it and begin prosecuting, stopping, and jailing every last traitor.” If we are talking appropriate consequences for a mob trashing the rule of law, I agree. However, if, instead, I focus on the millions of individual broken souls that inhabit that dark and dangerous landscape, I must demur. In an interview, Jitarth Jadeja, who spent two years as a dedicated follower of QAnon, but now understands the horrific lies and fabrications, was asked how to help others discover the truth. “It has to start with empathy and understanding,” he said.

Shortly after January 6, a friend asked, “What about ISIS? They want to kill me. Am I supposed to offer them empathy and understanding?” Call me naïve, but, even there, in a one-on-one, human conversation with a person who sees differently than I, what might I discover about the treacherous mountains and terrifying chasms millions must endure? Those lessons are only available if I first try to understand rather than insisting on being understood.

The Prayer of St. Francis continues: “Where there is doubt, let me sow faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.” If I begin in this moment, is there even a remote chance of healing a miniscule portion of the profound sorrow, deep hurt, and debilitating fear that is in my midst every day, but to which I am often blind?

 It is so very difficult, but, in the end, it is the most enlightening and joyful of journeys.

Dec 082020
 

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
                                                                                Martin Luther King, Jr.

The arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice; however, its trajectory is not unerringly true. As I step ever so gently, perhaps timidly, into the new year, I feel a terrible vulnerability; my naiveté gone, replaced by a honed understanding of how the arc of justice can, at least for a time, be torn asunder.

2020 showed how the arc wanes when doing battle with selfishness. I have always known the human experience to be a fragile undertaking, but I was naïve to its true frailty until a microscopic virus transformed every relationship in my life, some becoming stronger, but many stressed. During the past months, we could have bent the arc significantly toward justice, but millions opted to put their perceived needs ahead of the protection of their neighbors. We lost a priceless opportunity, I fear. Millions were left exposed to the ravages of a danger many refused to acknowledge.

2020 proved the arc can warp when facing greed and corruption that often accompany quests for power; at least for now, we appear to have escaped by the narrowest of margins. The first transition of governance I recall was dealt to us through tragedy on November 22nd, 1963. Yet, even in the face of Kennedy’s assassination, the United States was strong and robust. Prior to 2020 I witnessed eight transitions between Democratic and Republican administrations. I never imagined here, in the United States of America, that that monumental transfer of power would ever take place with anything but the utmost dignity and grace. That naiveté, too, has been ripped from my life. Power will, once again, transfer, but dignity and grace seem somehow an afterthought.

2020 reminded me that, for millions of Americans, there never has been a moral arc, let alone one that bends toward justice. Mid-year, as I wrote my racial autobiography—recalling my relationship to, and history with, issues of race and injustice—I remembered the myriad times I became aware of inequity and inequality based solely on race. Then, sparked by the unjustifiable deaths of so many persons of color, I embarked on a chilling journey into an oft hidden and largely ignored history of the United States. Once again, my naïve worldview was disrupted by the realization that, while I am aware of racial inequality, millions live with its brutality, hostility, and cruelty every moment of every day.

Finally, 2020 opened my eyes to the escalating war the moral arc is waging with hate, fear, and bitterness. In the midst of my learning journey, I came to know of the many centers of hate, not just in this country, but globally, that would have us believe there are castes of humanity; a hierarchy of people, and that millions believe other races to be sub-human. The year 2020, invited that hatred to reveal itself and fan the flames of war against the arc toward justice. In this war, I refuse to take up arms, and willingly proceed in my nakedness.

So, as I step tentatively into the new year, I do so feeling incredibly confused and extremely vulnerable. I do not believe the arc of the moral universe has been irreparably harmed by a single year in human history. I continue to believe, and I will work relentlessly to witness that arc, once again, bending toward justice.

Sep 142020
 

“We never knew what we were going to see—what kicks (sneakers) were going to be on sale; what beef (conflict) was going to be cooking; what guads (boys) and shorties (girls) were going to be rocking (wearing)…We did not care if older or richer or Whiter Americans despised our nonstandard dress like our nonstandard Ebonics…Fresh baggy jeans sagging down…Dangling chains shining like our smiles. Piercings and tattoos and bold colors told the mainstream world how little we wanted to imitate them.”

Ibram X. Kendi, in “How to be an Antiracist”

As I read, I confronted prejudice, bias, and fear. I imagined myself surrounded by Kendi and his friends on “the Ave”—where Jamaica Avenue crosses 164th Street in Queens, NY—where he spent many hours during his teen years.

In those moments of imagining, I was not just uncomfortable, I was alone, out of place, and frightened. I was intimidated by the air of self-confidence, rebellion, and defiance. Suddenly, enveloped by an entirely foreign culture, there seemed nowhere to find a solid physical or emotional footing. I am quite certain my insecurity would have me judge with disapproval and seek an immediate escape.

Shortly after my imagined, but all too real, visit to that “foreign” land, some friends and I were discussing what to do in the face of dialects we find difficult to understand. One person asked, “Should there be a standard of communication—a linguistic English we all agree upon so we can communicate effectively?”

Assimilation—expecting other cultures to become like us—is something Caucasians have done for centuries from the moment we sailed from Europe and colonized the world. Other races, other ethnicities, were judged as something less until they learned our more “perfect and sophisticated” ways. How much beauty, wisdom, brilliance, and creativity did we crush as we trampled ways of knowing we found foreign? Had we, instead, listened with new ears—honored, and built upon, rather than burying, the wisdom that emanated from their traditions, languages, and cultures—would we inhabit a world today with sagacity beyond anything we could have imagined?

When we expect others to strip themselves of their ways of knowing—assimilate into our culture—we lose their unique perspectives. Wisdom that loses its intensity, veracity, and authenticity when translated into “perfect” English remains beyond our reach. Profound wisdom does not come to us easily. It comes through struggle. It is hard, difficult work. A businessman I knew, who traveled frequently, used to say, when you’re talking with someone whose first language is other than English, you need to “go ‘round the bush three times.” On the first journey, you hear and see only through what is most comfortable. It is not until the second and third trips that you begin the hard work of listening with new ears to understand the true meaning behind their words.

So, I return to my visit to “the Ave,” albeit imaginary. I wonder if I might see my insecurity and fear, not as signs of danger, but signposts pointing to the prospect of learning. If I could summon the courage to do the hard work of setting my fears aside and listening with new ears, might new ways of seeing, new insights into our humanity, be in the offing? When I expect others to speak perfectly in the language with which I am most comfortable, I vanquish their wisdom and impair the future.

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?

Nov 302018
 

I am sad much of the time these days, and, as I reflect, it feels as though much of my sadness erupts from fear. I am frightened about a future rooted in an environment impregnated by discord, untruth, misconception. I fear we have become a body politic lacking the interest or will to seek wisdom, connection, and love. In a garden, manure is a magnificent fertilizer. However, the dung created by our war of words, rather than being nourishing and procreative, is toxic to the germination of ideas. Our body politic needs intensive care.

We seem to exist in a world in which few are willing to listen. Everyone, it seems, is willing to opine, but opinion lacking authentic, thoughtful curiosity is hollow. How might the world be different if every expression we utter ended in a question mark—either real or implied? What might emerge from our conversations if we were deeply eager to engage in inquiry-affirming dialogue?

Politics, it is often said, makes strange bedfellows. I recently read Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse’s book, “Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal.” As one of the most conservative republicans in the U.S. Senate, is a fair assumption the Senator and I would disagree greatly on the solutions to the problem. However, we are in full agreement on the root causes. In a recent interview on PBS, Sasse explains:

More and more people are processing their politics not primarily as what they’re for, but as a form of anti-tribe. What are we against?

And so, I think you see a willingness among the American public to accept more falsehoods than would have seemed normal at most moments in U.S. history, because people hear them as a kind of rhetoric that is mostly a framing of the other side and the things that we’re against.

We need a politics that isn’t chiefly that, isn’t chiefly against. We need a lot more ‘we’ and a lot less ‘them’.

In the end, I am left with a bit of hope when we who disagree, can peer together and gain some clarity on root causes. If we can follow that agreement and clarity with inquiry-affirming dialogue, and a profound interest in listening, perhaps we can find a fertile garden in which to propagate new ideas, and a new life-affirming future.

Nov 162016
 

On a recent Operation Snowball retreat, I was deeply moved by a wise, kind and generous young man struggling to find himself within a difficult and heartbreaking life. When he and I spoke, I talked of the need for him, as he became an adult, to redefine his relationship with his parents. That conversation reminded me of a piece I wrote many years ago as our son left for college.

“What’s happen’n here is a long goodbye.”  

Country artists Brooks & Dunn

Why, I have been wondering, is saying goodbye sometimes so very difficult.

We recently took our son to college to begin his freshman year. Leaving him was harder than I imagined it would be. The morning after we returned home, I awoke early and could feel his absence weighing heavily on my heart.

What made me so sad was the realization that the young man I encounter in the future will be a different person. He will always be the son I love, but he will be my son in a different way—increasingly he will be his own person. What’s confusing is that my sorrow does not erupt from a desire to have him remain the boy I have known. Quite the contrary, I am in awe of the thoughtful, responsible, creative, enthusiastic young man he is becoming.

So if my deep sadness does not come from saying goodbye to the young boy as he becomes a man, then from where does it emanate?

What I am coming to realize is that there is a second person to whom I must bid farewell—a person far more difficult to leave behind. I must, I discover, say goodbye to the father I knew myself to be. I’ll always be available when he needs me, but the simple truth is that he needs me less. I am less important—or maybe important in a different way—now that he is beginning to make his own way in the world.

And while I can love, and be inspired by, the young man we are welcoming into the family, I am less comfortable with, or confident in my ability to welcome, the father who must show up. I can no longer treat my son as if he were merely revision 1.01 of the boy who left us. But how do I stop myself from offering the unsolicited advice that seemed so necessary when he was younger? How do I give up the fear that if I don’t watch over him—if I don’t co-manage his life—that the suffering he will inevitably face will not destroy him? Where will I find the strength to know that he really does have the wisdom to create his own life?

Saying adieu to the father who is over-protective, the one essential to his son’s success, the one who must protect him from the oft-scary world…that is a really long goodbye.

Jun 282016
 

I began as I always do…“Thank you for calling the depression hotline. How can I help?” The young man at the other end sounded disappointed; he had hoped to discuss, not depression, but anger management.

He had just left a store and was sitting in his car, overwhelmed with anger and self-loathing. Moments earlier, he became frustrated in the checkout line. When his frustration got the best of him, he lashed out at a woman, letting loose some hurtful comments. He was deeply disappointed and judging himself unmercifully. “It’s not the person I want to be,” he explained in a voice near tears. What I could hear was his fear that unreasonable, unrestrained anger defined him. “This is the kind of thing I won’t let go of for weeks,” he admitted.

As we talked, I came to understand the complexity and confusion that defined his life. He faced many difficult decisions and emotional battles, yet had no one he could look to for support. He was an only child, his parents were both gone, and his wife simply did not understand. He felt abandoned and very alone. My heart broke for a young man crying out for some measure of comfort.

No one calls the hotline with profound feelings of self-disappointment and failure if they are not molded from a core of kindness, generosity and humanity. I asked if he would wish to be a person who regrets letting himself and the world down, or if he would rather be a person who acts without humanity and simply does not care? “I want to be the person who is deeply sorry,” he said without hesitation. “So, in this moment, you are being exactly the person you hope to be?” He paused and, with a bit of intrigue, admitted he was.

While he did not understand Buddhism in depth, he had been introduced to it when practicing meditation with a friend from Thailand. Reaching back to the Buddhist aphorism that when the student is ready the teacher will appear, I asked if he had learned something about himself as a result of losing his temper. “If something similar happens in the future, can you imagine being more gentle, kind and loving in that moment?” “Absolutely,” he said. “So you are a wiser, kinder, and more generous human being than you were even a few moments ago?” I pressed. “It never occurred to me to think of it that way,” he confessed, “but maybe I am.”

“I’m not suggesting you should ever intentionally hurt others in order to gain self-awareness, but, and I hate to break it to you, you are after all, only human. You will likely err again.”

In spite of our wish to always be kind, gentle, generous people, and in spite of our most heroic efforts, each of us will fail to live up to our expectations of self, time and time again. We can use moments of failure to define us as inadequate, horrible human beings, or they can afford unique insights into who we actually are, and who we wish to be. As Abraham Lincoln suggested we can allow ourselves be touched by the “better angels of our nature.”

As my new young friend began to grasp the profundity of this ancient wisdom, I could feel the weight of the world lift ever so slightly from his overburdened shoulders. “You’re amazing!” he exclaimed near the end of our time together.

As time has allowed me to reflect, I would wish for one more moment with my young protégé. “First, it is you who is amazing my young friend. I can sense how much you strive for wisdom, goodness and generosity in the face of profound confusion and abject loneliness. Your immense humanity inspires me. Second, I have done little other than share a bit of insight that comes to us through the wisdom of the ages. I am simply thankful for having been able to reach for it when you needed it. Finally, I will not consider myself anything near amazing until I can hear in my own life the voice of self-compassion and love I am asking you to hear in yours.”

As these words appear, I am grateful to have this young man remind me the “better angels of our nature” are always inspiring.

Jan 122016
 

Try to get over the narrow idea that surrender is abject defeat. Surrender, in spirituality, is total acceptance.
                                               From the Bhagavad Gita, as translated by Jack Hawley

When he finished playing, we embraced and I told him how he and his music have taught me a great deal about life.

Jeff McLean has filled our house with music many times in the ten years since he and my daughter became friends. Typically, night has overtaken us as he sits gently on the piano bench. He asks if it’s okay to turn down the lights; he prefers to play in near darkness. Within moments, he, the instrument and the music become one. I often wonder if he places his fingers on the keyboard, or if the keys reach upward to find him. In those moments, it seems music, piano, and musician relinquish individual identities and surrender to what is being called from them collectively. Jeff’s hands and fingers move effortlessly, called into position by the music and the instrument that will declare it to the world. The experience often brings tears to my eyes.

I have a sense that if Jeff tried to rein in the music and piano, forcing them to do his bidding—failing to accept the latent invitation into the communal creation—the room would become infused with notes borne of conflict and control, rather than music that emanates from generosity, love and relationship.

We live in a world that would have me believe, with enough effort—more force and control—I can fill the future with music of my own making. I can rein in the world and make it do my bidding. Should I fail to align the world with my vision, it’s solely due to a lack of effort and diligence. Jeff, the music, and the piano invite me to see the world in a new way: divine my path through surrender rather than diligence. In this world, I relinquish my individuality, accept the invitation to be found, and give of myself without reservation. When I find the courage required by surrender, the future arises from generosity, love and relationship…and is infinitely more beautiful than anything I could even imagine on my own.

The world of surrender, for me, is a brave new world…a truly foreign, oft frightening, land. But in a book I read recently, the author suggested, in those moments when life offers comfort or fear, we should choose fear. Comfort confirms that which we already know. Fear offers the possibility of learning and wisdom. My real life exists in that brave new world, so here’s to surrender, fear and courage.

Thank you Jeff for this exquisite lesson.

Oct 052015
 

It was an unexpectedly tender moment. On a recent Sunday morning, as I sat at a local coffee shop, a friend approached. “Roger, I know you advise people on occasion. I was wondering if we might chat for a moment.” I’m not a counselor, but as a friend, I readily agreed to explore her obvious pain. Tears began to fill her eyes. “I discovered my daughter snuck out of the house late last night to be with her friends. She has never done such a thing. I don’t know what to do.” 

 Moments of vulnerability, when two people face our unknowingness with honesty and courage, are rare, but so pregnant with possibility. When we choose to inhabit those moments raw and childlike, they offer miraculous opportunities to learn together. All I know of parenting and adolescent psychology are random, often misguided, thoughts gleaned from being a parent. Since I know little more, if anything, than she, perhaps we could allow our experiences and wisdom to collide, and then simply be open to what we might discover together. 

 Seeing the pain in her eyes, I asked if she could let everything drop away and discern the deepest emotion prompting the tears. She paused, thought, and said she really didn’t know. I asked if I could suggest one—I knew what would be at the heart of my tears if I was living her life in this moment. “Are you frightened? Afraid? I suspect you love your daughter more than life itself. You feel yourself losing control, and are simply frightened something will happen to interrupt her life in some horrific way.”  

 With that, fresh tears appeared. In that moment, I knew we were touching on emotions all parents share and understand in much the same way. 

 She went on to explain she and her daughter had an argument several weeks earlier, and it was never truly resolved. “Our relationship is changing in ways I simply do not understand. I know it must change as she becomes an adult, but this feels so frightening.” 

 I asked how she discovered the conceit of the previous evening. She revealed she had surreptitiously taken her daughter’s cell phone and looked at the previous night’s texts. “She’ll be angry when she finds out I looked at her phone.” 

 The relationship between parents and children is complex and often confusing. There is little I know for sure, but I have a fundamental belief: love and honesty must gird the foundation of the relationship. But honesty is so very difficult when we forget to take the time to search deep inside, and show up stark naked and deeply vulnerable. 

 Fear, misunderstood, turns quickly into anger. The reptilian remnants of our brain flood the cortex with neurotransmitters that disable our ability to think. In those moments, we allow anger to throw us unbidden into the craggy terrain called retribution. “How dare she discount my wisdom as a parent? I’ll show her who’s boss!” In the short term, retribution can feel good. In the longer term it annihilates relationships; fractures the foundation built of honesty and love, and replaces them with compost made of distrust and disrespect. I know this dysfunctional path all too well. 

 There is an alternative to retribution. For thousands of generations in native cultures, humans believed in reconciliation rather than retribution. How can victim and perpetrator face one another to simply understand the pain and heartache that allows sometimes horrific actions to emerge? So often, just being heard is enough. We simply want others to see us, and acknowledge and honor our pain. 

 In the end, there is no painless path into relationships, especially with those we love. If there was, what value would they truly hold in our lives? Pain, and the often unfathomable heartache that comes when we fear the loss of those who mean the most to us, is the price we pay for love.