Spiritual Teaching in a Sacred Secular Classroom

All this is true, more or less.

Teachers are consigned to a certain type of purgatory.  Not hell, mind you.  It is not punishment.  Just a stage where you work through things.  While the each generation of people moves on into the adult world, only reminiscing of their school days in hazy shadows or half-remembered dreams, teachers— being the conduit of ideas for the next generation—relive their own educational experiences every time they discover some slight comparison in their own classroom.  Over and over and over.  Call it the eternal recurrence of education, I suppose.

The value to this phenomenon—if there is one—is that we have the opportunity to re-evaluate what we are taught, as opposed to letting it settle deep into our the recesses of our mind, background noise for our beliefs, forming our conscious opinions and reactions unconsciously.  Unexamined, the lessons of the past take root and help define us—for good or for ill.  Reviewing what we are taught by the experiencing of re-teaching it, or questioning its validity, places us squarely in the stream of time, hopefully a check against becoming stagnant.

But the moment it happens is like an eerie déjà vu’.  You’re bopping along, teaching your ass off one day and you know the lesson you are teaching, the material you are covering.  Except once you were the student.  Now you are the teacher.  The paradoxes this switch creates can be unnerving.

I found myself in one of these pretzels the other day.  It’s Quarter 2 in philosophy class, so it’s time to study religion. For a solid month and a half, it is an ongoing discussion of God’s existence, the ongoing battle of faith and reason, arguments and justifications of faith, and the variety of religious experiences—common and absurd—around the world. I often privately joke that those joke-ass politicians and preachers who lament the lack of God in schools should stop by my room during this time, as there is probably more talk of God in that room than almost anywhere in public schools.

But Thursday might have been the icing on the unleavened bread.  It started before the first bell of school. One of my English students sheepishly brought me a Ouija board.  His girlfriend was presenting a project on Spiritualism: she wanted to use it as a prop, but she didn’t want to endure the spiritual shade she would likely receive for toting it around school for two periods.  Could he just drop it off?  Sure.  It seems that her suspicions were right, as I got a bit of a sacred stink-eye from students and staff alike just for having it next to me.  I put it atop a bookcase in my room and thought little of it until the class arrived a few hours later.

Three hours later came philosophy. A project on Jediism.  Spiritualism project was next, but the connection to the spirit world was broken as the lunch bell rang.  A few of my students asked if they could take the Ouija board to the library and play.  I flinched.

“Just don’t tell anyone I sent you.  The last thing I need is the reputation as the Public School philosophy teacher who sent his kids to contact the devil in the library.”

My fear comes from a fairly well-founded place.  As a young child I remember frequently going to church youth camps and meetings.  The exact details are fairly sketchy, but I remember spending a fair amount of time…Sunday school, Summer Camp, Saturday seminars…in organized religious-based youth meetings.  Lots of teaching from a “Biblical World View” goes on in these places.  And perhaps what I remember most about these meetings are the warnings about the trappings of the secular world, the kind of things we should be wary of to be “In the World and not of it.”  They never approached the level of “Hell House” for shtick, but the message was clear: the secular world is full of spiritual pitfalls.  It’s bits and pieces of memory, really, but public school was often characterized as an obstacle course of temptation to lead the soul astray, so much that parents often experienced guilt for sending their students to be taught in that den of thieves–the public school classroom.  I remember hearing that Led Zeppelin snuck Satanic messages into “Stairway to Heaven”–the speaker’s prom song.  I remember hearing that science and history might try to sway you against the way the Earth was really  created.  And I definitely remember picking up somewhere that messing around with Occult material like Dungeons and Dragons and Ouija boards was basically inviting the devil into your soul, ensuring you a one-way ticket to the dark side.  And not the cool one with the Death Star.  The one with eternal fire where you have to perpetually watch crappy after-school specials with an incompetent teacher, where you can have only one salad dressing for all eternity,  where you are consigned to infinite Cleveland Browns fandom.

 

And if I’m to believe what God’s Not Dead claims, there’s nothing more godless than a philosophy teacher who challenges religious arguments as part of his curriculum.  I could hear the angry, uninformed script letters from Ralph Reed and the AFA basically writing themselves.  So after lunch, when the students returned and actually used the board in their project—admittedly with a condescending and sarcastic attitude to the Hasbro product’s mystical powers—I can’t say that it didn’t unnerve me a bit.

But the project concluded.  On to the main lesson.  One I had spent quite some time mulling over.  We were at an intersection in class where the infinity of ideas came against the finite nature of class time.  Buber may have argued that this is how we understand God, but for me it was where I tried to synthesize the ideas of nihilism and religious existentialism in the course of about 50 minutes.

“Vanity of vanities.  All is vanity.”  If there is a more succinct nihilistic sentiment, I can’t recall it.  Solomon, who the Judeo-Christian tradition claims as “the wisest man alive,  searching for meaning in the meaningless world, finds that all of human endeavor was pointless, that nature would follow its random course with or without him, and he would eventually die, his life the proverbial dust in the wind, dude.  My students felt the weight of these notions, but none of my students could place the source.

“Nobody knows where this comes from?  None of you?

Crickets.  Silence.  The ineffable void.

“Bunch of damn heathens,” I mockingly scorned them.  “Book of Ecclesiastes. Most beautiful book in the Bible.”  They were duly amazed that the Holy Book of two major world religions grappled with the nihilistic sentiment, when nihilism seems to strike at the very heart of faith.  Although I had been raised religiously, I didn’t find Ecclesiastes until I was in college, already beginning the wane of my church attendance.  It spoke to a similar creeping dread in me, spoke to me like few parts of the Bible ever have; I both revere its sentiments and question its conclusions to this day.  The creeping dread of nihilism, I often tell my students, is a problem we all face from time to time.

Image result for abraham killing isaac

We discussed why people feel this way, and how religion addresses this fear of being nothingness.  I related Kierkegaard’s epiphany—that all true connections with the divine are marked by absurdism and ineffable paradox and should be approached with laughter—by narrating the story of Abraham and then moved to the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments—spending 40 days in the mountains, the revolt of the Israelites, the smashing of the tablets and the bitter water-as as an example of the rocky mystical beginnings that blossomed into established religions.  They were rapt, like six-year-olds in Sunday School.  Many admitted they didn’t know any stories from the Bible. They were hooked on these tales I had taken for granted, the same stories I had heard over and over in my primary education.

Image result for moses smashing the tablets of the law rembrandtHere’s where the paradox begins to strike me.  If I were to go back to lessons of those youth conference days as a public school teacher who allowed a Ouija board and a faux-séance as part of a project, I would be a pariah, the very archetype of all that is most wrong in Public Schools.  I would be the epitome of the darkness they fight.  If, on the other hand, I were the Public School teacher who made the kids—many of whom had never read the Bible—read KJV OT followed by laying down some primary Sunday School stories, I might be something of a hero to the flock, the lone light shining in the darkness.  Pat Robertson might even say some nice words about me right after Harry Potter went off, right before condemning “the gays.”

Of course, neither of these is true.  Philosophy and education in my classroom are all about finding the position a student is in and giving them a nudge, ever so slightly, so that they can grow.  I certainly have my beliefs about the world, and I could never extract those beliefs from who I am even if I wanted to. But in the classroom, it is not the ego nor the agenda of the teacher that should matter.  My job is to shine some light on the path they tread.  Their job is to figure out themselves and their path in the world.  I do my work and step back.  We are there to reveal, elucidate, inspire.  We are not there to indoctrinate.

Thursday dwindled to an end. But the paradox I discovered in myself and my teaching? I can barely describe or speak of, which is probably why I tried to take a few thousand words to do so.  How bizarre that the kid from those youth conferences would grow into the teacher who both met and defied those lessons within one class period.  How absurd.  I found myself laughing as I locked the door on my sacred space for the day.

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Down the Highways of the Old Confederacy

I am not from The South.  I have lived here all of my adult life, but I have always had difficulty considering myself a Southerner.  I was reminded of it early and often when I moved to North Carolina, no matter how many times I reminded the kids on the cheese wagon that we Bostonians hated the Yankees, too.  But even as an adult who has lived three-quarters of his life below the Mason-Dixon, I often find myself an outsider in this culture.

And yet, I know it fairly well, even if I don’t get it.  I’ve traveled its back roads, climbed its mountains, sang in its churches, drank its sweet tea and ate its grits, paddled its rivers to gain an intimate knowledge.  Like many of us here, I take the same paths over and over and over again, a regression I found recently as Nic and I pointed the Prius in a southwestardly direction to see her family just across the Louisiana border in Beaumont, Texas.

For many who do not know or are not familiar with the south, the perception can be one of abject misery and backwardness, a point driven home by a Wisconsan at AP Training who lamented the strangeness of our national politics and then pointedly said, “but I guess you’re use to this, being from North Carolina.”  And as we make the travel from 85-65-10—through the “Deep South”—we pass through cities that can be laden with heavy American history.  Sherman’s march through Atlanta.  The Montgomery to Selma march.  Mississippi Burning.  Hurricane Katrina rips through New Orleans.  But for us, there are very personal memories on this path raised on this path and new memories created every trip.  There’s the impromptu high school parade at the Jonesboro exit.  Our walking tour of the Auburn campus.  The worst hotel sleep ever in Mobile. Strolling the beaches in Gulfport and Biloxi.  Walking through the French Quarter.  Chicken on the Bayou.  A speed trap that caught me in Vinton.

As we enter Texas, the speed limit raises and we enter narrow construction lanes.  We stop at a What-a-Burger somewhere between Orange and Vidor, then cruise all the way to Beaumont.  From there, it’s a week of tacos, board games, and laughter.  I know all the streets in my in-law’s hood from running over the years, and I’m starting to remember how to get to the Starbucks and the gym without having to use a GPS.  This paths are well worn indeed.

But the history of this town is obscure to me.  It’s a city of over 100,000 people, which makes it large and modern in comparison to the many towns of fewer than 10,000 that surround it.   Beaumont, it seems, has a relatively high murder rate for its size in Texas.  My in-laws’ church in the heart of the city recently participated in a successful gun buy-back where they received many weapons but–just as importantly–many threats from the people in the city.  The following Sunday, community leaders sat in a panel discussion about potential solutions to murder with the BBC filming for documentary purposes.    The preacher spoke euphemistically a few times about “the sins of our fathers.”  I’m not sure I know exactly what the sins are, but judging from the panel discussion, it seems that—like a lot of Southern cities—Beaumont probably has some racial skeletons in its closet, skeletons, that—like a lot of cities in this country, including Charlotte—still cause social problems today in the correlation of race and poverty.  This church is attempting to at least bridge that gap, to take steps to solve what is often a heated, uncomfortable issue by reducing the violence that plagues the city.

It’s hot in Texas, and I spend a lot of time inside reading when I’m there.  Perhaps serendipitously the thread of race relations wove through much of what I remember reading.  There’s this essay in one of my favorite publications about he virtues of Tarrantino’s Django Unchained.  The author compares how Germany and America use art to portray and deal with our relative racists and genocidal pasts.  He argues that unlike Django, most American films that deal with race paint the racists as unrelatable villains as opposed to everyday people, minimize the actual violence and pain caused, and look to a hopeful future, as if this is all behind us.  That night, we watch The Help on TV.

The second read was Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, a 2016 Man Booker award winner.  For me, it’s often refreshing to read a book without having to worry about how I would teach it.  The book satirizes the state and history of race relations in this country in a way that has me cackling.  Like most good works of satire, it is both irreverent and poingant.  I know lots of people I want to convince to read it just so we can talk about it.

If this book left me in stiches, the third reading regarding race left me with dread.  It was a brief article on my favorite left-leaning political blog, announcing that Charlottesville had voted to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park (once Lee park, but changed).  The move mirrors such efforts in other southern cities to remove symbols of the South’s confederate past, from the removal of the Battle Flag over the SC state house after the Mother Emmanuel AME Zion shooting in 2015 to the recent effort remove Confederate monuments in New Orleans.  The rationale seems to be that removing these symbols of the racist past are necessary for us to move forward.  I thought about Beatty’s narrator, who would likely argue that removing the statues won’t end racism any more than having a black president did.

The trend to remove these monuments has gained momentum.  But Southerners are fighting back.  The monuments in New Orleans had to be removed under the cover of night with police protection.   In all of these cases, the removal has met with charges of disrespecting Southern Heritage, memes quoting George Orwell, and the prideful opposition of southerners regardless of their state.  A slight in New Orleans or Charlotteseville is slight across Dixie, it seems. So in Charlottesville, a Southern university town that—like my beloved Chapel Hill, likely believes it is above the dirty past of the rest of the South–a  “Unite the Right” rally had been planned to protest the removal of the statue.

I cringed.  This wouldn’t end well, but I had no idea how explosive a situation it would become.

By Tuesday, we headed home, mapping a different route through Dixie, heading north to Little Rock.  Randy, who has travelled these roads all his life, ticked off the names of the small towns through which we would pass: Lumberton, Kirbyville, Jasper, San Augustine, Carthage, Marshall, and finally to Texarkana. Small town after small town where a NC tag and  a Prius surely made us seem like outsiders, but not so much that we needed to worry if we stayed under the speed limit and I kept my hair tucked under my hat.  Lucky us. How privileged.  Soon we were in Little Rock.

I had hoped through our new route through the old confederacy we would see the markers of history.  Unfortunately, time, traffic, and Little Rock’s tenuous relationship with our GPS kept us from Little Rock Central High School.  As a teacher, I inherently see education as a tool to social progress.  So, it’s odd to think of a school as a site of one of the most regressive battles of the Civil Rights Era.  Here, Governor Orville Faubus, pandering to his white supremacist base, refused to comply with the Supreme Court and integrate schools.    Eisenhour tried to talk him into changning his mind, but eventually had to bring in the National Guard to protect high school students from an angry mob of “ordinary” white people. Watching the “respectable” white people is revolting.  It seems so hopelessly out of time, and yet even in Charlotte, once a national model of integrated schools, educational disparity at the nexus of class and race persists and reform often meets a genteel, polite resistance.

 

 

Sadly, we only have time for a walk in the park, where the dogs frolic in the fountain, and lunch at Stickyz Chicken (which is lets us put our dogs on the patio, and has a great space). Instead of the high school, we go to the beautiful, renovated waterfront district, where bands can play and public art brackets public water parks where we see black and white children playing.  Every thing seems so peaceful, so newly renovated, the shadows of the past paved over in brick, shiny glass, and sculpture.

We need to get to Memphis, which is another 2 ½ hours east.  Memphis sits on the eastern bank of the Mississippi.  Named after an ancient Egyptian city, Memphis greets us with a gaudy, mirrored pyramid emblazoned with the Bass Pro Shops logo to commemorate the city’s etymological heritage.  We turn right off the interstate as soon as we get into the city, the GPS  leads us to one of the most unlikely of historical markers—The Lorraine Motel.

You’ve seen the pictures.  In 1968, Dr. King had come to Memphis to help the working class, to march with striking sanitation workers.  The night before, his speech suggested he was aware of his own impending demise.  The next morning, an assassin’s bullet pierced the Memphis sky and struck King.  Today, few citizens are venerated in American history as Dr. King.  The Wall Street Journal claims that his “I Have a Dream” speech magically ended all racism in America.  Talk about your out-of-touch costal elites.  But here, a somber reminder: the motel, which fell into disrepair in the early 80s has become the foundation for the National Civil Rights Museum, which also includes the boarding house where the bullet originated, the whole moment of King’s death captured in the eerie trajectory of a few hundred yards of city block.

I’ve been to many awe inspiring places: the Grand Canyon, Machu Picchu, Stonehenge.  But I am overwhelmed in a tone I have never known.  The nexus of so many intersecting strands.  A clash of ideals.  A true crossroads of our nation.  The courage and the fear inspired in one man’s actions brought to a mighty head in his assasination by motivations obvious, yet still myriad and dark.  Now this motel sits somewhat anachronistically in what is clearly an effort for a revitalized Memphis, with newly painted signs, down the road from a hotel honoring the history of blues—the very heart of American music, borne painfully in slave culture, once reviled by the clergy as the Devil’s Music—a few blocks from Beale Street, a few more from a gleaming NBA arena that the city has just apporoved for $1.7 million in renevations an a state-of-the-art AAA baseball stadium.

We have one more place to see in Memphis, but the GPS gets us lost again.  Around the corner from the Lorraine, we see a middle-aged African American woman, alone at a fold-out card table with signs and brouchures protesting the construction of the Civil Rights Museum. I slow down enough to see what seems on the surface a contradictory argument—that the King memorial is destroying the very people he fought for.  But as the GPS leads me through Memphis, we see the cracked streets, the shanty houses, an elementary school that has been boarded up in disuse.  The GPS, in trying to find Sun Studios, keeps trying to take me through Foote Park, which is currently surrounded by construction fence guarding the concrete rubble of what once was.  Like Charlotte, Memphis is a mid-level city trying to grow, and that means sometimes it is clearing out the “the undesirable” for the new and gleaming.  Frustarted, we decided to head to the hotel on a brand new 240, but finally find Sun, where Elvis, Cash, and many others got their start.  It’s now a museum to iconic musicians who Nicole decided, after watching Walk the Line for the first time a few weeks ago, were kind of jerks.  Regardless, it remains a testament to the fact that the American South, perhaps because of its pain and suffering, is the fertile soil in which so much of our music began to blossom.

The next day takes us through Nashville, where we briefly stop in Centennial Park, home to a full-sized replica of the Greek Parthenon, the home for Nashville’s art museum, stands across the green from a modern Southern temple–an SEC football stadium at Vanderbilt.  We have lunch and ice cream from the food trucks where a mom leaps back in front of me to ask the ice cream lady if the chocolate and peanut butter ice cream she just ordered for her kids has nuts in it.  I shake my head.  How can you choose nuts and think you won’t have live with them.

From there, we move further east, to a small town called Decatur, where family has done us the grand favor of loaning us their house for a few days.  We drive twisty roads through the mountains into what is truly the rural south.  “Towns” are few the further we get from the interstate, and soon we arrive to this small enclave (a town of around 1,500 people) punctuated by a Piggly Wiggly, three gas stations, and Italian/Mexican restaurant (which Nicole dubs “a crime against humanity”) and a few fast food joints.

The next day we explore.  The land is beautiful, surrounded by massive rivers that I long to kayak.  We stop at an isolated gas station where the clerk answers my questions about fishing and directs me to his goo ole boy buddy in the parking lot when I ask him the best place to put in and camp.  “Wherever you can find a place.” As we drive around, we begin discussing what it would be like to live out here.  Are you stuck or are you fortunate?  In many ways, the area embodies much of the virtue people extol in the south.  It’s simple, relaxed, a contrast to the fast-paced urban, modern life.  Lots of time for reading, playing music, fishing, and thinking.

We point the car home on Friday.  I convince Nicole to let me take the scenic route over the Cherehola Skyway, a winding mountain road between Tellico Gap, TN and Robbinsville, NC.  It means going rural instead of interstate, through Athens (a booming town of 15,000 with a university a third the size of the high school where I teach), then Etowah, a winding road on which we count four Rebel Flags, one on the same porch as a New England Patriots flag.

I begin to think a lot about the people who live here and the flags they fly on their porch, flags that people defend with slogans like “heritage, not hate”, flags that proliferated after it was removed from the Columbia State House, flags that will stand along the Nazi swastika in Charlottesville.  I went to a high school where the flag was a common clothing accessory way before I could digest what that meant.  On the last day of school, kids with big trucks would attach huge battle flags and race up and down the street in front of the school.  I know the people who live in the rural south who bring buckets of vegetables to my mom’s house when their garden is abundant, who kindly give me directions about where I can find a dock for my kayak, who let me out of a speeding ticket with a warning because I know a little “aw shucks” routine.  I know people who fly the flag who have done me immesurable acts of kindness. I also know people who can be hostile to the wrong kind of outsider.  I want to believe as I drive through this beautiful country that none of these people would take their flags off their porch to use them as symbols of hate in Charlottesville.  But I also know that historical symbols and monuments accrue meaning by their use.  That one owner of the flag can’t escape the meaning that others ascribe to it. That any monument serves us best as a point to reflect where we are going, not just a reminder of where we’ve been.

But that wasn’t going to happen in Charlottesville.  There was not going to be a quiet contest of ideas.  The statue was coming down by order of the city council.  As a carpet-bagging yankee, it fills me with great ambivalence.  I know lots of my southern brothers and sisters who see this as destroying a past worth preserving.  But even as a child I had a hard time understanding the desire to venerate this history.  Certainly, the flood of outsiders escalating Charlotteville proved that racism is not endemic to the South,  but we can’t deny that the South has frequently been on the wrong side of moral history.  From slavery to Jim Crow to resisting the Civil Rights movement.    There is much about the South to celebrate.  But values that make the South a wonderful place to live—generous people, genuine music, amazing natural resources—are not embodied in a flag that has become a racist totem nor in statues  to men who died protecting the Confederacy and its economic model of violent, immoral human enslavement.

We didn’t drive through Charlottesville, but it came to us in our living room as soon as we returned home.  I’m not sure I really care whether or not a statue stays or goes, but I find the argument that we should preserve history to be somewhat hollow.  All monuments fail to tell the entire story, but these celebrate the valour of a defeated army.  On the other hand, making the destruction of these monuments the focus of racial reconciliation also seems superficial.  Sure, it is a powerful symbolic victory, but does little to do the work that we need to work for a more harmonious society. But harmony has always been hard in the South.  Part of the trick of the Jim Crow South and the birth of the Klan, according to several historians, was that the wealthy landowners convince poor whites to intensly hate the poor blacks so they would never realize that their economic interests would be better realized if they worked together.  That racial animus became the series of laws and “Sundown Towns” throughout the South, an animus even exploited by Nixon’s Southern strategy.   What has stood out the most for me, however, is that while otherwise well-intentioned people from the South have pitched a battle that has allowed White Supremacists, neo-nazi assholes, and the freaking Klan to come out of the woodwork in 2017. And once again, these groups begin to convince alienated white people that their path to Southern Shangrila lies in hating People of Color while claiming it’s about “heritage, not hate”.  But if Southerners really care about preserving our history, we better look it in the face.  Because we can’t just we want to preserve heritage and act like hate wasn’t a part of it all along. And if we can’t find a way to differentiate, to celebrate the South while doing the work to repair the sins of our fathers, to really make the South an amazing place for all the people who live here, then that rebel flag and those monuments will contine to have the taint of racism that those hoodless Klansmen put on them every time they show up to defend another statue.

Almost a year ago, my beloved city erupted into nights of protests and property damage after the police shot Keith Lamont Scott.  It seems like it is Charlottesville’s turn to go down this road.  Ironically, the actions of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville has only emboldened cities and colleges to remove these monuments.  And with citizens, politicians, and college students alike looking to right the wrongs of the past, it feels like we will continue to travel these roads for sometime.  As we do, it helps to remember that there are two pernicious lies that arise about race and the south–whether the monuments stay or go.  The first is the favorite of the white supremacist–that the past was glorious and valorous, and we need only return to it.  The second is the refuge of what King called “the white moderate” who prefers order over justice–that the past is in the past, that all our problems have been solved, and that every thing is cool if we just leave well enough alone.  It is perhaps as deadly a lie, as it catches us off guard when conflict erupts over unresolved issues.

In another week, I will return to my job of teaching young people how to interpret visual communication, parse rhetoric, seek truth, and perhaps most importantly, be a valuable member of a harmonious community.  As our trip through the Confederacy comes to a close, I realize that progress in the South is still to be made

This is what democracy looks like

The sky over Charlotte as I drove home Thursday evening was a molten pastiche of pinks, oranges, golden rays behind clouds, and gray.  On many nights, I might marvel at the beauty, but tonight I think of how Emerson claimed that nature reflects our heart back to us.  My head has been swirling with thoughts all day, and my heart has been heavy.  The sky seems an appropriate blanket of sorrow and confusion for this night.

Five nights ago, the sun set on my city as I danced among orange-clad drummers at the Festival of India.  Tonight, I watch those same streets clogged with riot police, protesters, tear gas. Chaos of a different order.

Fortunately in the world of social media, everyone seems to have an easy solution.  I probably should have put myself in a media sequester.  But watching events unfold, I found myself in conversations with half a dozen people and curating the stream of opinions online.  And while some of my friends’ opinions were predictable, I also watched people who often agree on most political issues arguing about the community reaction to the recent police shooting.

Yup.  Everyone’s got a solution.  If people would just ________, everything would be cool.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s not going to be that easy this time, that it’s not going to be easy for a while.  

These are the voices I hear in conversation over this unrest.  My own rhetorical voice tells me that “unrest” is too euphemistic, but I fail to codify it otherwise.  So, I turn to another voice for help.  John Steinbeck.  Writing about the swirling winds and currents that brought the Great Depression, he watched the downtrodden, driven off their land,  turn “I” into “We”, the revolutionary step.  “…if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive.”  Throw BLM and these protests into that list.  Street protests and civil unrest is often the “after” of a chain of events, not the beginning.

I’m not trying to absolve anyone’s moral culpability for violence, but watching these protests from the comfort of my couch, flipping from the news to the Bosox and back, I feel that all the armchair quarterbacks suggesting “what they ought to do or not do” could use some of Steinbeck’s insight.  One policeman shooting a citizen would not bring people into the street.  But put into the larger web events, and we have people compelled to take the streets to stand up for their lives.  Social media and video technology have allowed what were once the “isolated incidents” of a “few bad apples” to aggregate into data.  People read this narrative and integrate their own experiences, their own run-ins with the cops, their own frustrations.  Keith Lamont Scott dies at the hands of police.  People stand in solidarity with each other.  People clash.  These things are results, not causes.

It’s easy to ignore these webs of causality, these warning signs, sometimes, especially when we don’t want to see them.  Every time a new story fits this narrative of police mistreatment of African Americans, we dissect the facts of the case to judge culpability.  We evaluate the prior record of the victim to see if they deserved to die.  We evaluate statistics to see if discrimination and judgment the victims claim is true.  I’m all for truth and empirical data, but it doesn’t always tell the story of the experience of individuals, frustrating experiences that when ignored fester and boil over.  The facts are still in dispute in this case.  The ambiguity fuels the frustration, the mistrust.  And even if the facts absolve the police, we are likely to see more protests, more civil disobedience.  And again, people will blandly ask if we can’t just all get along, move along.

But the signals have been there.  A few weeks ago, I kept thinking the Colin Kaepernick story was a media grab for ratings, a non-issue, a sensationalist celebrity debate meant to draw eyeballs and mouse clicks.  But now I look at how that story became about the honor of soldiers and the patriotic obligations of football players and whether millionaires have the right to stand up for the underprivileged and whether or not you can criticize America and still have the right to stay here.  But it ignored what Kaepernick and activists have been trying to articulate:  there is discontent with justice that is not always impartial and color-blind in this country, no matter how much we want it to be, no matter how much we want there to be peace without having to deal with the underlying causes of the disruption.  And when we refuse to deal with people when they protest calmly and rationally, we invite them to turn up the volume so they can be heard.

Many people in the hope for a cessation of turmoil and unrest have invoked MLK. He wouldn’t want this, they say.  He would want people to protest peacefully, they say.  It’s a nice thought, but it is inaccurate, as Clemson Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika accurately noted to Coach Dabo Sweeny when he invoked MLK over the Kaepernick issue.  While King did advocate non-violent protest, he did not do so without qualification.  “Obnoxious negative peace” is where people simply accept injustice in the name of order, simply the absence of tension.  “Positive peace”, however, respects the dignity of all humans, built on the principles of justice.  Simply wishing for order without justice, without real change in our heads, our hearts, our social inequities is only asking for the problems–the distrust, the violence–to rear its head and the next catalyzing death.  As King smartly predicted, failing to deal with injustice can boil over into violence.

Late Wednesday night, I was unable to pull away from CNN in the center of my city.  It’s two nights later and I’m still glued.  Late Wednesday night, William Barber came on with Anderson Cooper.  Barber, who has been instrumental in Moral Mondays, rattled of a litany of cases he was pursuing, instances of injustice broad and specific that have fed the distrust many Aftican Americans feel.  Later, the street reporter caught a public defender who had been on the front lines all night  and tried to pin him down to condemn the violence.  He refused to give a simple answer.  He could not separate the actions of the protesters from the actions of the police.  He was there to protest, too, “to keep my brothers safe”, he said, a statement with so many layers.  

He spoke with a clarity of vision I could not match.  As I watched late into the night–the news, the running superficial commentary–I wanted to say or do something meaningful, but A quick Facebook post seemed too shallow to hold the complexity of my confusion.  So, I tried to sleep with all my these cloudy impressions.  The next morning, I wanted to curl up with my laptop and write and write until I figured out this swirl of thoughts weighing on my heart.  I wasn’t going uptown.  What was I going to do to bring positive peace in my community?

But duty called before I had an answer.  I had to be there for my students, my school.  I had to engage with people, teenagers and adults.  By six I was out the door, but lessons about Descartes, Tim Burton, and argumentative writing seemed hollow, not quick enough, pertinent enough for the needs of my community.  In the brief spaces of contemplation, I’ve spent the rest of the week trying to figure it out.

I teach King’s “Letter” every year, usually in context of other essayists who discuss issues of justice.  A couple of weeks ago, before Charlotte erupted in protest, some colleagues and I started kicking around some new ideas with these texts in the context of this national conversation.  Somehow, I feel a new urgency rising within me, an impulse that I feel will inform my teaching and my interaction with with my students for some time.  For better or worse, my city has been awakened in a way it can no longer ignore.  Sitting back, lobbing abstract ideas on social media or yelling at the television are insufficient for the changes we need.  These are not abstract ideas.  These are the issues we still grapple with, the ideals we should still strive for, the problems we must solve to have that “positive peace” that respects justice for all.  And if we want positive peace, hopefully my talents can be used to help give that change a push, even if I don’t know what that looks like today.

At the end of his sometimes ranting poem “America“, Ginsberg, after calling out the litany of injustice he saw, claimed patriotically and calmly “I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.”  So, this morning, maybe in this blog post–where I usually try to remain as apolitical as possible–I’m putting my white shoulder to the wheel.  It’s inconclusive.  It doesn’t solve anything.  But words are the work I know and use to try to push us in the right direction.  I don’t know what else that work will be, but we all have a responsibility in bending our community to a more just place for all to live.  This is what democracy looks like.

Insert Your Outrage Here: Learning to Argue in a Digitally Fractured World

Despite my verbal diahrrea of “analysis” as I tortured myself watching the RNC Monday night, I’ve actually tried to keep this blog apolitical.  All my homies IRL know that I watch politics like a junky with a monkey.  Hell, I’ll DVR Meet the Press just so I can yell at Chuck Todd at my leisure after sunday morning Yoga class.  But this blog?  I’ve tried to stay out of the fray.  Let’s be frank: people can easily turn into self-righteous jerks when they discuss politics online, (myself included) and they also attract similar self-righteousness from those who disagree.  While maybe being politically controversial might garner a few more readers, it’s not really the vibe I’ve been looking for.

That said, it’s been really hard to keep my mouth shut with all that seems to be going on in the news.  Por ejemplo, last week I was working on a post about introducing nature in classrooms when two more police shootings went viral.  Then there was shooting of officers in Dallas and then Baton Rouge.  All of this was set in the backdrop of the most bizarre political season in my lifetime.  Suddenly, a blogpost about paddling my little kayak down a little river and those subsequent meditations seemed…well…little.

Usually, I have one of two reactions when the world of social media gets hot with rage over politics and current events.  One is to jump into the fray with both feet, posting articles I support and arguing against those I don’t, often devolving into quibbles that drag for days.  The other reaction is to completely disengage.  Take a Facebook vacation.  The last few years have seen me lean much more to the second option as a salve for my mental health.  While I still think it’s a civic duty to stay relatively informed about what is going on in the world, I’m not sure arguing on social media qualifies, and it sure as hell doesn’t help my peace of mind.

But there’s one trend I can’t ignore any longer.  I know it because every time we have a major tragedy in this country, every time a major political story breaks, I keep coming up with this observation: people respond to the events of the world in very predictable ways.  Think about it.  You know which of your friends will post the liberal spin.  You know which ones will post the conservative spin.  You know which ones will react to the emotional tragedy.  You know which ones will cry for peace.  You know which ones will say, “I don’t usually talk about this, but I’m about to speak my mind.”  And you know which ones will write long, boring blogposts acting like they’re watching it all from above, like some half-enlightened jackass who sees what others doesn’t.

But–as always I digress.  I keep seeing this pattern over and over.  I’ve had the idea for this post for a year, and it keeps coming back.  Benghazi.  The Paris Shootings.  The lack of attention on Turkey after the Paris shootings.  The entire Presidential campaign.  Black Lives Matter.  Every mass shooting in America ever.  And most recently, the police killings.  There’s always something shocking in the news, and this is not to belittle the importance of any of these events.  But what never shocks is the predictability of our online reactions.  Tragedy strikes.  Insert your outrage here.

As a result, people can come off like real assholes on the internet.  There, I said it.  The intransigence we revile in our politicians is complete child’s play next to the vituperative arguments that occur online.  In the world of the internet, we don’t have to look at people when we argue which makes us gauge reactions from others less, and in many ways technology encourages us to look at people who disagree with us as uninformed rubes worthy of scorn and contempt.  Indeed, this is not always a problem with human nature.  At times it is the nature of the internet itself.  Consider the TED talk below (one of my favorites to show my classes)  It poses that the way that many search engines and social media algorithms are created, you are more likely to get information that confirms your bias than information that contradicts it.  So, if you’ve been reading that Hillary kicks puppies every day for six weeks (or as Ben Carson just suggested, she worships Satan), you’re likely to decry an attempt to show her in a more flattering, humanitarian light as being a hoax perpetrated by the “librul media.” Or if you’ve been reading lots of “little hand” jokes about Trump, you’re less likely to believe he can handle foreign policy.

 

The result?  We end up arguing as teams.  We see winning the argument as more important the solving the problem about which we are arguing.  We increase the possibility of confirmation bias.  We become as politically divided as ever.

Never fear, fellow citizens.  I’m a professional.  This is, after all, why you’ve read this far.  Most of my days are spent teaching teenagers how to argue, and by proxy how not to argue.  Amazingly, as I pondered the weight of this problem, I realized that the tools with which I equip my students are the same tools that can help us navigate our way out of this swamp.  The list below is by no means a comprehensive tool box, but merely a starter kit to improve your online arguing experience.

 

USE QUALIFICATION

Surprisingly, this shows up on the ACT writing rubric, yet few adults know how to use this handy tool.  Qualification means you make a claim, but acknowledge the limits to it being true.  Consider the difference between the following claims:

Donald Trump is a divisive and dangerous candidate.

While Donald Trump is a divisive and dangerous candidate, many of his positions on international trade deals have merit.

The statement in bold is the qualifier.  It states that though the main thrust is a dislike of Trump, there are qualities of his agenda that are agreeable.  I borrowed this from a video posted below (it’s 23:00 minutes, but I found it both enlightening and encouraging).  In it, Van Jones and Newt Gingrich, two political commentators who often butt heads, spoke in tandem after the Dallas Police shootings.  Both talked extensively of how after this period of turmoil in our nation, people of all political persuasions will need to work together to move forward.  Jones, usually liberal, talked about how he often feels cognitive dissonance over Trump: he finds him to be racist and offensive, yet Trump’s economic ideas mirror some that Jones has held his entire life, using this example to show that though we disagree on somethings, we can find common ground on others.  Qualification demands that we see the limits of our own claims and also demands that we see the validity of claims of others where they exist.

 

UNDERSTAND THE GLUT OF SOURCES

The internet has put information at our fingertips that our parents’ generation could never have imagined.  But as Eli Pariser claimed above, the internet often conforms to fit our own personal biases.  Often times, we must remember that for every article we read that fits the narrative we hold about the world, there is one that will spin it the exact opposite way.  Sadly, it becomes our responsibility to wade through the bullshit of the political class to actually find the truth.  Perhaps that has always been the case.

Consider the following video, which came out before the RNC started.  In it CNN anchor Don Lemon interviews Millwaukee Sheriff David Clarke.  In the span of a few hours, I saw friends re-post interview, either saying that Clarke owned Lemon or Lemon owned Clarke…as if who “won” this argument–as opposed to the recent deaths and how to prevent them in the future–was really the issue at hand.

My interpretation was that this is one of the most awkward interviews I have ever watched for nothing more than the fact that the two men are talking about the same thing, but are not talking to each other.  Clarke doesn’t listen to Lemon’s question.  Lemon gets defensive.  In the end, little is discussed, and various sources side up with their team to spin the interview.

It’s really easy to get stuck only on the sources we click frequently, to rely only on the interpretations we read regularly.  But we have to remember that there are other interpretations out there, and that some voices are more credible, more reasoned than others.  Some are factual.  Some are informed opinion.  Some are straight up propaganda.  Clicking and reposting or re-tweeting the first thing that catches our eye is not being an informed citizen.

EMOTIONAL CONTENT

When I teach logical fallacy in class, the one that students struggle with is “Appeal to Emotion.”

“What’s wrong with emotion?” they ask.

“Nothing,” I reply, “Unless emotion is all you have to go on.”

Emotion in politics is so powerful.  Logic may convince you of the right and wrong, but emotion gets you butt off the couch to do something.  Unless you’re on social media.  Then it just makes you stay on the couch in perpetual indignant rage.

Consider the video below.   Marcus Luttrell is the retired Navy SEAL veteran who authored the book Lone Survivor on which a subsequent Hollywood film was based.

 

By most accounts, Luttrell’s speech was the highlight of the night, which could be as much of a condemnation of everyone else’s lackluster and plagiaristic performances.  But placing veterans on the Rostrum is a shrewd political move.  Audiences respect their military service, which brings a certain gravitas to their words; patriotism, after all, is a powerful in-group emotional response.  Moreover, Luttrell ( in a part before this clip) damned the teleprompter and went off script, which provided some great “plain folks” appeal.

Granted, this is a political convention speech, so it’s main purpose is to emotionally rally the base and motivate the uncommitted to vote.  But so much of politics and the news is emotionally driven.  It’s the basis of click bait.  It’s the reason Bush the Elder used Willie Horton.  Unemotional people don’t get to the polls, but they also don’t hastily re-post things on the internet.  Why is the dictum “If it bleeds, it leads” so popular in news? Because death and blood shocks, horrifies, provokes empathy and sorrow, all of which makes us stay tuned through the next commercial break.

I would suggest that we should always be aware of our emotional reaction to the news, and how our emotions are being targeted.  My biggest critique of the Luttrell speech is his line that “the world is a dark place.”  Are there scary places in the world?  Of course.  But there are also warm-hearted, welcoming people as well.  The fear is an effective, time-honored political tool.  “The world is a scary place, and only candidate/policy X can make it safer.”  Fear, anger, and disgust have been identified as the primary emotional reactions that precede moral reasoning.  Trigger any one of these buttons and our brain begins to rationalize moral condemnation on its object.

Being aware of our emotional state is perhaps even more important when we recognize that we suppress our own emotions to fit the beliefs we’ve professed.  In the week that was…the week that had highly publicized killings of African American men followed by the killings of police officers, I struggle when I see my fellow humans find ways to rationalize the death of any of these.  In a cosmic sense, we all die some time and death is inevitable.  But people will minimize their empathetic reaction toward death based on the framework of their political belief.  We need to be conscious of how we are manipulated through emotions by politics, but we also need to be conscious of times when our politics limits our ability to experience emotions, when we see people as an “other” so much, that we forget to remember their humanity.

The problem with not understanding our emotions in our political beliefs is that they allow us to be susceptible to the worst fabrications of our political class, they allow us to continue to believe ideas that may have been proven untrue or no longer useful…just because we are defending our own personal political dogma.  When someone challenges us politically, we should engage them with the desire to learn, not out of anger.

Bertrand Russell once said

“If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do…So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on you guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.”

Indeed.  What does our outrage solve?  We often think of argument as something that inherently divides us.  Undertaken in the spirit of learning and empathy for our fellow humans–and done skillfully and honestly–it can be something that can help bring us together.

 

Exodus from Paradise

I didn’t want to write this post.  I didn’t want it to turn out this way.

It started coming together as I was descending a trail into inky darkness, a familiar trail I’ve trod over an over in my life.  It crossed an icy stream barefoot in the middle of the night just to make camp.  It warmed to the thought by a roaring fire where stories of yore traded and cups of nectar drained underneath the stars.  We soon realized it was 2 in the morning by the judgment of a watch, and we laughed at how time had been rendered impotent amongst the trees.

 

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All of these would’ve been story enough to post, to muse meanderingly on the passage of time and my place in the universe.  But alas it was not meant to be.  The morning came.  We broke fast.  We chopped trees and girded our supplies for the cold night to come.  Then, for me and Chuck, it was time to hike for the day.

I’ve stopped carrying separate camera for the last few trips, and for various reasons of convenience, weight, and sheer laziness, I now just throw my smartphone in my backpack.  I used to loathe the idea, as if to go into the woods would sustain the illusion that I could have my own separate Eden, untouched by the dirty fingers of the “real world,” which included any contact through technology.  When I first started camping, lo those many years ago, none of us had them.  Now I’m sure we all have them, even if they stay in our bags.  Mine did on the first night, then came out to take pictures and log miles as we began our trek.

I hadn’t turned Airplane mode on, so over the night, some texts leaked through.  One from Nicole let me know what had been happening in the real world: ISIS attacks in Bagdhad, Beruit, and Paris.  I thought of those I knew in that part of the world, thousands of miles and mental worlds away from this tiny, secluded sylvan wood.  For a moment it seemed momentous, like the threadbare plots of a hundred science fiction films where the protagonists somehow wake to a world vastly different than their own.  For a moment, I thought I should tell everyone.  And then I decided against it, decided that if I could, I would sustain the illusion for the others, who in retrospect may have known and were also working to sustain the illusion for me.

The hike was familiar and beautiful; trails I’ve hiked for close to twenty years now were brand new to Chuck.  Winding stairs carved into rock.  Valley vistas.  Waterfalls.  Fellow friendly hikers trading trail tips.  All seemed unfazed or unfamiliar with the nugget of news I carried with me.  And while I marveled at the beauty, this knowledge often made me wonder how things would be different when we exited this hidden Shangri-La and made our way back to the black-top plains of humanity.

 

Back in that world–the world of politics and literature–the conversations would be different.  The knowledge would be different.  In my film class, we had been watching V for Vendetta.  My students, too young to remember, needed a refresher on the post-9/11 world, and so my mind often trailed back to the days immediately after our country had incurred terrorist attacks fourteen years ago, how people had been shocked by the carnage; how people had seemed lost searching for answers; how people yearned for something, anything to be done; how people felt that the veil had been lifted from their eyes to an entirely new world, as if none of the previous world had mattered.

I knew there would be some of this.  I knew that every time I turned on the television or the radio when I got home that there would be reference to these attacks.  “Since Paris” would become a phrase that gave new gravitas to every item big and small, from love stories to football games to newly initiated military campaigns.  I knew there would be arguments on social media, vitriolic volleys about what should be done next, about who we should bomb to solve this problem so it never happens again.  I knew there would be passive reluctance to discuss these issues in face-to-face conversation, lest angry, heated debate occur.  I knew the news here would be small stories of bravery and exciting stories of minute-by-minute manhunts, everything related to Friday night.

I knew there would be disorientation.  I remembered this clearly from the last time.  It’s easy to buy into the illusion that the world is a safe place, especially if you have the good fortune to live in a first-world country (which probably explained why the world mourns Paris and largely ignores Beruit and Bagdhad).  We go about our days, living our lives in relative peace, so much that we have to remind ourselves that Starbucks running out of Pumpkin Spice Lattes is NOT the worst thing in the world.  And then something traumatic–a natural disaster, a terrorist attack–shakes this illusion, and people clamor for answers, information, action–anything that will make the world make sense again.  In the film V for Vendetta,  the society overreacts to terrorist attacks, ceding power to the government in the hope of ensuring safety and order once again.  It’s not just the terrorists who change the world; it is also the fearful and power-hungry who react in their wake.  And when I mused on this nugget of news long enough that it turned to despair, this fear–hollow as hope–was what cast the darkest shadow: that the world–in light of these new events–would seem so new, shadowy, and strange that we would fall to drastic and destructive overreach, that we would overreact and lose our moorings once again, that I would leave the woods to find a world vastly unrecognizable compared to the one I had left.

Light began to play a funny trick in the valley.  Hiding behind a mountain where Chuck and I were looking for a spur trail, we got cold in the shadows.  We became a bit despairing, and decided to cut the hike short to get back to camp, where it took us a couple of hours to warm by the hearth of the fire our friends had so generously attended.  Again we supped, laughed, drained our cups, traded stories, and rendered time irrelevant as by 8 we were all fighting to stay awake.  We reluctantly slumped from the fire to brave the cold of the night, much colder than the night before.  In the morning we woke to frozen water in bottles and the frantic attempt to generate body heat by packing quickly.

As we exited the trail and got in the car to ride home, I told my fellow travelers what my phone had said, as if I only just found out as I got back in the car.  We talked about it for a bit, then returned to happier memories of the camping experience. Ritualistically, we had our post-trail breakfast, but our favorite Horseshoe Cafe was closed.  So we found another breakfast haunt where the five of us sat in the middle of a dining room surrounded by four televisions, all tuned to CNN, all showing constant video streaming from Friday.  I checked my Facebook feed to find that those I knew in France were safe and every other person’s face was the tri-color.  The televisions continued, looping illusions of constant violence, the same shot of the shocked band over and over, the same shot of mourning Parisians over and over, the same speeches of politicians over and over, offering platitudes and issuing threats.  Between bites of biscuits and pancakes and eggs, we watched the rapid recurrence of images until we had emptied our plates.  Sated, we shook hands in the parking lot.  We’ll have do this again some time.  And we will.  And we will.

 

 

The Sound of Heads Exploding All Over the Internet

head-explode

Summer vacation has given me more time to peruse social media than is probably healthy for any human being.  But for someone who humors himself at trying to step back and marvel at the bizarre the carnival that is our human existence, the twists and turns or the American political climate over the last week has been nothing short of mesmerizing.  It would be easy for me to sit back and laugh dismissively at those whose heads are exploding across the internet this week, but the truth is I’ve been sucked into the vortex of not a few Facebook arguments carrying water for my argument, trying valiantly–or so I thought–to prove my side the best.

For some, the flag, Obamacare, and Gay Marriage now being…just…marriage, may feel like a sucker punch in the solar plexus, and the interwebs have been alight with vitriol, frustration, and coping mechanisms on how to get along in this topsy-turvy world.  Nowhere was point driven home more than when on Friday night, Nic and I went to a local park to scout a photo shoot.  What seemed a rehearsal dinner occupied one of the pavilions with lights and revelry, but as a younger gentleman helped an older gentleman restock the soiree with a cooler of beers, they lamented together: “What’s the world coming to this week?”

On the other hand, there are those who may see this week as a winning streak of sorts, to stand bestraddled over their vanquished foes, sneering at their logically fallacious arguments as being rolled under the tide of history.

Of course, this contrast is convenient.  There are those who buck the predictable pattern, who bemoan the drop of the Confederate Stars and Bars and still congratulate their rainbow-clad brothers and sisters on their newly-gained legal rights.  But such nuances are few and far between, especially on the internet, and specifically social media, where posts are the equivalent of shouts, reasoned discussions–if they ever occur–quickly devolve into rhetorical wrestling matches, and people threaten to end friendships over which article you posted on your newsfeed.  You’re either on my team or you’re an idiot.

So it goes.

Yesterday morning, however, the rain began to cool the heat of the week, and I found myself scrolling down my Facebook feed, posts from people I love and admire and cherish.  And when these ideologically polarizing decisions decisions came down, we may as well have been on two different continents.  Yet I see in all of us an impulse both noble and damnable–the desire to ensure that the world that is be in accordance with the world that we think should be.

I’m not going to be so hippie-ish to suggest that deep down we all want to the world to be a better place.  But we know when things anger us, disgust us, or cause us moral indignation, and often–though we try to use logic–these can be extremely emotional reactions.  Moreover, the scope and reach of our logic can be limited by the boundaries of our own experience, understanding, and empathy.  And whether we found ourselves as “winners” or “losers” in the ever-marching goal of wishing the world to conform to our moral vision–divinely inspired or not–it seems we are all guided by the same impulses and limitations.

So, when the dust settles on this past couple of weeks in the political world, when these issues won’t be in the eye of the social media maelstrom, and all people go back to posting pictures of their kids and dogs and dinners and vacations, what will we all have gained from this?  What kind of world will we have moved toward?  My fear is we won’t really even care, and that impulse to do the good won’t be piqued again until the next big issue rises–as it always does.  Maybe this is just part of the ebb and flow of interaction online.  But if we’re going to give into this impulse, I want to make it more than just a knee-jerk reaction.  I want to work toward a world where we don’t let divides on vexing political issues turn us into permanent enemies.  After all, if love truly wins, doesn’t that stretch to neighbor and “enemy” alike?  Let this not be love in a condescending “bless their ignorant heart” or “I love you but I’m praying for you” kind of way, but rather in a way that looks at the other as similarly imperfect to ourselves–a reflection of our own impulses and limitations–and in that way perfectly deserving of on honest and open compassion.

On Forgiveness and the Death of Mandela

I have to admit that I’m a bit of a news junkie.  The one story that garnered the most text and eyeballs in the last month is the death of Nelson Mandela.  Regardless of political stripe or creed, talking heads from around the world rushed to laud Mandela’s struggle and legacy.

As often happens with dead luminaries, a narrative tends to form in the telling and retelling of their lives, a narrative that often becomes simplistic and repetitive.  For Mandela, it seemed, there were two major elements of his narrative: his longsuffering patience in prison at the hand of his adversaries and his forgiveness as he ascended to the South African presidency.  These two elements, the story goes, cemented Mandela’s legacy as a great man whose likes we have rarely seen and will rarely see again.

Let us hope that this is true, I thought.  I know, it seems strange.  But the more I thought about Mandela, I thought about how historical leaders who we bestow with the crown of greatness are always made so in the crucible of great injustice.  We remember Mandela’s courage, patience, and vision because these qualities were put on display in the setting of racist Apartheid South Africa.  Lincoln’s greatness was born in the crucible of American slavery, Gandhi’s in the oppression of imperialist British rule.  But in many ways, these leaders represent a change whose time has already come; they represent they zeitgeist of their time.  If an injustice persists long enough, there will be a natural backlash, and often these “great men” are there with enough sense to let the change take place.

So, when heard an NPR pundit muse that we look around and don’t see leaders like Mandela, I thought that we only need wait until the next great political injustice for the next great man to be crowned, and if we go long enough without canonizing a great man, perhaps we could be thankful for not needing one.

But this pundit’s musing struck me strangely in a second way.  She posed that the forgiveness, this willingness to move past the past as something we don’t see in our current leaders.  Her yearning for this quality, this willingness to renounce the need for vengeance, seemed oddly misplaced.  After all, the virtue of forgiveness isn’t one we often expect in our leaders; indeed, it is often difficult to find it in ourselves.  I began to think of how difficult it is to move on from our own perceived slights on a daily basis.  In Mandela’s example, we praise a man who embodied this virtue of forgiveness, a humility that sees a greater need than personal vengeance, and extol him for this courage.  But asking why we do not see it in other leaders seems a less pertinent question than if we see it in ourselves.  For if we cannot, we must always expect that Mandela, than man who forgives, will be exceptional.  How much greater would we be if it were the expectation rather than the exception.