Check out my guest post on the blog Being In Community:
Check out my guest post on the blog Being In Community:
Check out my guest post on the blog Being In Community:
This morning, my almost two-year old son, holding up his arms to me, nestled his head against my neck as soon as I picked him up. For a moment, I savored the sweetness and the peace. It was a simple moment, like one experienced by many souls past and present on this earth, and it was priceless.
But then the day flooded in. Syrian children and other innocent civilians being bombed to death, or starving underground in order to avoid being bombed. Angry and worried gun-owners insisting that we need guns to protect us against the bad guys. Oh, and parents who less than two weeks ago lost their teenagers–teenagers!–and somehow managed to contain their mourning enough to go and plead to their governments to act, for this is not the first massacre.
The world is full of evil. There is also good in the world. And innocence. The goodness and innocence, small and pale in a world that is always competing loudly for our attention, are easy to miss.
But maybe the evil is too. Not the evil that makes itself known in blood and flesh spattered across sidewalks and high school lockers as kids run screaming. Not the evil that threatens people with their lives, or brazenly steals from them. That is evil we all recognize for what it is.
But there is also the evil that whispers to our fears, fanning them. The evil that blinds us to the way our own thoughts are fueled by self-preservation. Or pride. The evil that steals our peace, our churning malcontent bruising those close to us.
For Christians, this is the season of Lent. In the Orthodox church, it is a season of close examination and testing of our spiritual state, of repentance and a drawing near to the Source of Life. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me. It is only by drawing near to God that I can regain my perspective. While I cannot eliminate evil from my world–none of us can–I can seek God’s wisdom in how to recognize it. How to respond to it. How to love even those who bruise us. I can ask Him for the sustenance that the world in all its wonder cannot give. I can ask for peace. And I can have faith that God will answer.
“What then is freedom?
The power to live as one wishes.”
–Marcus Tullius Cicero
The word “freedom” and its close corollaries (liberty, independence) are woven deep in the fabric of the United States. It is part of the water in which we swim without knowing it (apologies to the late David Foster Wallace and his commencement speech–worth the read). Not for us Americans is the omnipresent deference to one’s social group (family, cultural, religious, or geographic community, or nation even) that one finds in, for example, many near and far Eastern cultures. No, it is an individual’s right to live “free” that is so intrinsic in our culture that we don’t even question it. There is a reason that old Westerns are the most American of movies.
From whom or what is this freedom sought? From anyone or anything that obstructs us from living a life of our choosing, arguably, whether that be a societal or governmental force.
So who or what holds the power to grant or deny that freedom?
In Power Shift, author Alvin Toffler posits that traditional sources of power come from the use or potential use of one of three power sources: knowledge, money, and physical force. Governments, for example, can derive their power: from a military or police force whose potential use of physical force dictates what people can do; through knowledge its executive agencies possess that allows it to make decisions that private citizens cannot make, and to take actions based on them; and/or through the ability to incentivize or discourage certain behaviors through monetary awards.
Understanding of and receptiveness to an idea hinge upon how that idea is framed. So it is with freedom. Two different frameworks have evolved around the word “freedom” as it relates to our society and government in recent decades, such that now different segments of society use that word to advance two very different ideas. We can mostly agree that American freedom is the ability to live how you wish to live, choose who is a part of your life, etc.
But beyond that is a tension: freedom can mean the ability to live free from societal oppressions that plague some segments of our society more directly than others. Behind this is a recognition that the oppressive forces of racism, sexism, etc. limit the opportunities of and take away opportunities from those who are the objects of that prejudice. Those individuals, who on paper are just as entitled to the freedoms of every other American, are barred from not just opportunities, but from benefits that other citizens are allowed (red-lining is an easy example); in short, they are less free. Proponents of this idea of freedom advocate that we do not live in a free society until all members are equally free.
The second kind of freedom is framed as a lack of another type of restriction. It is freedom from governmental regulations, like, generally speaking, excessive taxes or overly stringent laws. Proponents of this type of freedom would give, as a recent example, the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act. This stance resists the idea that lawmakers, who often live elsewhere and don’t know the intimate details of their constituents’ lives, should make laws that limit what their constituents can and cannot do.
At first impression, there is an easy distinction between the two frameworks: the first is a proactive approach to create a society that strives for freedom for everyone by making sure every citizen has access to the same opportunities. (Whether they take advantage of those opportunities is another question.) The society it works towards is free from sociological ills; let’s call it Freedom through Social Equality.
The second framework focuses much more on the role of government. Its proponents may or may not accept that society is plagued by injustices, but either way, they do not want to see the government try to solve those problems. It is governmental overreach that proponents of this freedom resist; this framework will be called, for purposes of this essay, Freedom through Limited Government.
To demonstrate Freedom through Social Equality, allow me to give an example from my days of working on equal opportunity in employment. There are many challenges in hiring. It is very hard to predict how well a candidate will perform in the job and get along with other employees. Many employers use interviews to try to predict, but haven’t we all known someone who is terrible at interviews and so can’t get a job at which they’d excel if given the chance? (Or, conversely, people who interview really well but are sparse on actual skills, or work ethic?) This particular subset of work, equal opportunity, has to do with reversing hiring practices that intentionally and unintentionally favor some candidates while disadvantaging others. This is done through several ways: choosing words carefully for a job listing, soliciting applications in a certain way (mitigating complete reliance on the “ol’ boys’ network”), paying attention to interviewing techniques and even locations, using the same set of interview questions and ratings of the answers for all interviews, just to name a few.
On the macroscopic level, proponents of Freedom through Social Equality believe we as a society should likewise study how society disadvantages some while giving advantages to others, and then actively work to reverse those inequities. As the body which holds the power to regulate civic behavior, it is the role of government, such proponents believe, to implement this work.
And in fact, the government has regulated behavior through policy for decades, if not for the purpose of erasing inequalities, then at least for encouraging what our civic leaders believe are behaviors that benefit society. Our current tax system provides an easy demonstration: filing jointly is meant to benefit married couples. Why? Because our government decided that it would be good for society to encourage the stability that comes with marriage, so it gave a tax benefit to those who chose to make the commitment of marriage.
Then there’s Freedom through Limited Government, there are fundamental underlying assumptions through which proponents of this view see society. The first is that less restriction leads to more innovation and more prosperity. So markets will grow stronger with only basic and necessary regulation. Markets exist to make money. When regulation becomes excessive, organizations have a burden of compliance (through, for example, filing out report forms, providing training, or carrying out mandatory practices) that requires spending money and effort that could otherwise be spent on their core mission or on innovation.
Recently, market theories have been applied elsewhere in the public sphere: two that are on many people’s minds today are health care and education. Market theory says that if we leave these areas to compete, enterprising minds will come up with ways to make health care cheaper or offer stronger education systems. Currently, there are public options for education–and in very few places, specialized medicine beyond primary care–that anyone can access. Taken to its extreme, market theory would privatize both these services.
An underlying assumption behind market theory is that money is the main–or at the very least an important–motivator for behavior: everyone wants to earn money, and to pay less money for goods and services. But there are other powerful motivators for behavior. For people who hold a strong spiritual or even political ideological worldview, following those beliefs may be an even stronger motivator than money. Proponents of Freedom through Limited Government, I would argue, can hold different worldviews (there are pure market capitalists, deeply religious people, pure libertarians, etc.), but what they hold in common is that government should, to the degree possible, not promote any worldview.
It is here, at the intersection of constituents’ worldviews and the role of government, that the tension about what freedom is comes into sharpest focus. Because of course, every government reflects, to some degree, the values of the people who elected it. This country began as one based on Judeo-Christian values. While the separation of church and state has been pretty universally adopted, there are values from this tradition that remain. Some are now challenged (like the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman), while others continue to be widely cherished (like the importance of honesty, or hard work). As a society, our values are reflected in our criminal laws, tax code, and in countless other areas of legislation.
But given that our society, today more than ever, consists of such a variety of worldviews and motivators, there is the question of what, or whose, worldview–or put another way, moral code–a civil society should abide by. That is what much of our political tension boils down to in the current climate. What behaviors should the government continue to regulate or encourage, and what should the government leave to the private sphere? Is it the role of government only to advocate for policies that will bring economic growth to its constituents (and consequently enrich the government)? And if government’s role should be limited to economic policy (in addition to the basics of building public services (roads, waste services, etc. and of running a national military), that raises another question: how far into other areas should the government go in order to advance economic growth? Do issues like wealth disparity or climate conservation have an impact on economic strength, and if so, is it then within the government’s purview to address them? When it comes to behaviors, to what extent should the government regulate them? Why is it acceptable to mandate some behaviors, like wearing a seat belt in the car, but controversial whether the government should allow or ban the use of recreational marijuana? And should the government be consistently present across spheres: economic, civic, moral/ethical, etc?
These questions bear some contemplation. While freedom is important, so is the need to preserve another aspect of our American heritage: a country whose laws are fair, where movement between socio-economic class is possible, and a country that is governed by the rule of law, to name just a few aspects. How do we keep the American ideal of freedom for the individual without allowing the individual freedoms of some to tread on the opportunities of others? At what point do individuals’ rights to freedom strike a balance with the country’s civic health?
This country’s stars and stripes offer a very visible demonstration of this balance between individuality and membership in a group. Any one of the fifty stars has clearly defined boundaries; its bright white does not fade gradually into the surrounding red. But any one of the fifty stars alone is just a star, its power diminished by its solitude. Placed among the collection of 50 stars, though, the strength of those stars is striking.
“We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.”
A typical day in my life doesn’t usually go according to plan. But one morning last week was an exception. I fit in a workout and shower before 7am, the older kids got dressed and did their morning chores without extra prompting, and the day was off to a positive, earlier-than-usual start. It stayed that way all day, too. Hi-fives and feel-goods all around.
Here’s the issue: whenever I have a day that good, I expect every day to be that good. Just like I expect the kids to always be good just because they’ve demonstrated that they can be. Just like I expect myself to always be super-productive in every way. (You’d think nine-plus years of motherhood would have beaten that out of me, but I am, by any indication, a slow learner.)
And then, when the day’s not so smooth–and it usually isn’t–I am hard on myself, hard on the kids and impatient with pretty much everyone and everything. That person is not the person I want to be and this daily pattern it is not the way I want to live.
The older I get, the more I am convinced that the things we would wish for if genies were real are things that cannot be wrapped and put under a tree. Improved health. Restored relationships. Peace. Freedom from worry. A job we love. We all have something. And for many of us, the fact that we don’t have this thing can easily lead to frustration and, well, impatience with ourselves and with the world. There is a restlessness to our humanity that no amount of consumerism or distractions can satiate.
There is a well-known passage in I Corinthians, Chapter 13 of the Bible that lists love’s attributes, and among those attributes is patience. I’ve read or heard this passage approximately 783 times in my life, and I think I’ve always understood “patience” to mean doing things like waiting for a slow walker, or, I dunno, listening to your grandma tell the same story for the tenth time. It’s only recently dawned on me that this is a very superficial understanding of patience. Patience is kindness is forbearance is love is patience. It is seeing the flaws and failings of another, and of myself, and accepting the person anyway, being gentle anyway. Not because you don’t see the flaws or don’t expect better, but because you know how hard life can be on each of us, and because a gentle response has never done the harm that an impatient one has.
This has become manifestly apparent in my parenting. Between encountering a new preadolescent in my oldest child, scooping up the 30-some pound angry acrobat that is my terrible-two-ish youngest, and not neglecting the middle child, I often lose whatever cool I may have once had. And when this happens, I doubt my skills as a parent and worry that I am ruining my relationship with them and scarring them for life. A little more self-restraint and patience with each of them and myself would make all the difference. Of course, a change this fundamental is easier declared than made, but it is still January, and it is not too late for resolutions. (Not that it ever is: resolutions are made when you are ready for them, not when the calendar dictates.)
So, patience. It’s my resolution for the new year. Patience with the kids when they act like, well, kids. Patience with myself, as I am a less-than-perfect mother and human being. Patience for this messy, imperfect life that we all live.
In 1923, there was a 31-year-old man applying to become a naturalized citizen of the United States. He was college-educated and a U.S. Army veteran. His case ended up going all the way up to the Supreme Court, where his petition for citizenship was ultimately rejected. It was rejected because, even though Bhagat Thind was classified as Caucasian (a racial category used at the time but since debunked), the Court deemed that he was not a white man, and therefore not eligible for citizenship per the laws of that time.
Most of us have heard about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. There’s more to America’s immigration story. After World War I, the National Origin Act of 1924 also sought “to confine immigration as much as possible to western and northern European stock.” As recently as 1954, the Attorney General, Herbert Brownwell, launched a program he dubbed “Operation Wetback,” in which he deported half a million people to Mexico, more than half of them U.S. citizens. This bears repeating: hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens were deported from the U.S. as recently as 1954.
In 1954, our current president was ten years old. The America of 1954 and the America of 2018 are worlds apart. There were no cell phones in 1954, and no internet. The Korean War had just ended and Vietnam hadn’t happened yet, and neither had 9/11. The Montgomery bus boycott was still one year away. But the two Americas are not so far apart that a single lifetime cannot span them. Why does this matter?
It matters because many of us, whether we were alive in 1954 or not, think that we are past racism. We are “post-racial,” we are an advanced and civilized society. The Civil Rights Movement happened, some laws were passed, and we are all good now. We think everyone knows that race is not genetically dictated and does not, in any case, dictate your character or your humanity. (Didn’t know that? Or don’t believe it? I have some good reading to recommend. Or go attend some lectures. Watch some documentaries. However you learn, go educate yourself.) But we are not so far removed from the America of 1954 that its racism does not still run thick through the nation’s veins.
Yesterday, our president used extremely vulgar language to describe immigrants from Haiti and African countries, saying we should instead be attracting immigrants from Norway. Let me be clear: the language wasn’t describing the countries’ governments. If it was, he would have included places like Yemen, or Syria, or Ukraine. The language he was using was describing the people, and specifically, black people. It is shocking and angering, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. His words were vile and offensive, no doubt, but we first have to acknowledge that many Americans still believe that what he said is true (the “at least he says it like it is without being PC” defense). And until we acknowledge that this belief is not Donald Trump’s alone, we cannot address the fact that Trump isn’t “saying it how it is,” he’s saying it how he thinks it is, and so are the people who agree with him. And until we get them to understand that this is not, in fact, how it is, we cannot truly advance as a country.
A lot of ugliness has been unveiled in the last year, and a lot of ignorance. It is disheartening and it is, sometimes, frankly frightening. But it has to be unveiled in order to be eradicated. What gives me hope is that many people have also shown a lot of bravery and a lot of kindness and a lot of intelligence in this past year. And while I don’t claim to have many answers, I have hope in those things. We will never be a perfect country where every person is well informed and well-intentioned, but I believe we can be a whole lot better than we are right now.
Donald Trump’s racism is not just his problem. It is not just his problem for two reasons: the first is that he represents and speaks for all of America, whether we like it or not. The second reason is that he is not the only one who holds these views. So it’s all of ours to work through. And we begin by knowing our history.
Recommendations I think would be helpful:
Books on Immigration, compiled by the Smithsonian
Books on Race, with this second list. Take note of the books that appear on both.
Readings on race and immigration featured on PBS
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-Blindness. The New Press, 2012.
Ian Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York University Press, 2006.
U.S. COMMISSION ON CIVIL RIGHTS, The Tarnished Golden Door: Civil Rights Issues in Immigration (Sept. 1980).
In the months leading up to my birthday this year, the big questions have often and repeatedly pushed into my thoughts: am I living the life I want to live? The life I was meant to live? Have I accomplished all that I should have by this age? (What is it, by the way, that I should have accomplished?) This was, you see, the year I turned 40.
Even just typing those two digits is surreal. Forty-year-olds can’t claim the hint of youth that thirty-somethings can claim (and that twenty-somethings possess outright). And the evidence is there. My body doesn’t recover as easily as it used to from exertion and injury. Also, forty is the age that women are supposed to begin getting yearly mammograms–how’s that for a sign of aging?
On the flip-side, I have less fear of people’s judgement of me, but more fear for the fragility of life. Fewer things make me panic, but when I do worry, it’s a can’t-sleep-at night kind of worry. The way I respond to life’s surprises has changed, and I hope it’s for the better.
I realize I’ve traveled many miles when I look back at the last decade: my belly has swelled and deflated three times with the growing of three new lives–well, not fully deflated, but that is a topic for another day. I have nursed those three infants for a total of almost three years. My family has suffered, and survived, the sudden loss of my father. I have completed a professional degree, accomplished some work missions that I am proud of, and written my first book. I have learned immeasurable lessons about forgiveness, bravery, kindness, love, and a number of other things that make us human.
The time for textbooks and swaddling blankets is behind me. Turning forward, I know that many personal and professional opportunities for growth and failure await me, as do more lessons in humanity. Looking forward, I also know that my mission, along with my husband, is to lead those three lives in our charge through childhood and adolescence and nurture them towards the best of themselves.
Forty is in part a look back at one’s life to see if any of those 14,610 days have been wasted, but it is also a reckoning that my life, assuming God grants me a long one, is half over, more or less. And do-overs are not guaranteed. Time is fleeting; you can neither pause nor repeat it.
If I miss enjoying my kids at a certain age, that chapter is gone. They keep growing and cannot revert. If I miss the opportunity to do something new, that opportunity may never come again. If I decide to give the markers of our lives (birthdays and holidays, for example) a pass one year because I just don’t feel like it, that occasion is gone. If I have the opportunity to lift a stranger or friend up in their time of struggle, and I do not, for whatever reason, I forgo that gift. The place for those memories is empty, and I think one of the things I fear most is to look at my life, both at its end and in the after-life, and find that where those riches should be, there is only emptiness.
So the question I have to ask myself is this: what do I consider riches? When I am old or gone, what will give me pleasure and pride to remember? What kinds of memories will allow me to say that I have lived a good, rich life? What memories are worth storing up? Whatever those are, that is what I have to pursue, earnestly, in the present.
Forty-year-olds are supposed to have it together and be settled in life. They are supposed to know themselves and have answers to all the big questions. I for one don’t have it together and the answers to the big questions evade me as much as they ever did. OK, maybe not as much, but neither do I have it all figured out. And in a way, I hope never to, because when you think you have all the answers, you stop asking questions. When you stop asking questions, you close yourself off to all the mysteries that remain unanswered in this wild ride called life. And this ride is one I very much am still on.
A buzz is in the air. I see, even as they go through their routines, people attending to work or school with a light touch and the gleam of warmth and turkey in their sights. It is Thanksgiving week.
Many of us will be seeing loved ones. Many of us are preparing for the holiday. Meals. Travel. The house for hosting. Something. There is an aura that surrounds people at the thought of the holidays. Busy-ness and anticipation. All most of us long for is to enjoy one another, yet these memories don’t create themselves. So as soon as Thanksgiving’s over, it’s full-on holiday frenzy. Gifts and Christmas parties and holiday greetings. I’m already drained thinking about it.
This year, I’m not in the spirit. And I know I’m not the only one. So to all the others out there who will work to put the festivities into the upcoming holidays, even though your heart’s not in it, know you’re not alone. Thank you for doing it anyway. In her book, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin quotes, “It is easy to be heavy, hard to be light.” This little nugget of wisdom has burrowed itself in my mind, and it often comes to the forefront of my thoughts these days. So take heart, fellow non-jolly people. New Year’s will arrive. And then we can let winter be winter. And then, while we wait for March, I will do my daily work, then revel, in between the scarves and warm boots, in winter’s gift of cozying up in the early dark.