Seeing the Pixels

Seeing the Pixels

I shut my ears to the voices of discord and anger. I shut my eyes, searching for the peace that the God of all things bestows. Colors flow through my mind: ruby anger and amethyst death and obsidian fear and jade destruction.

In the face of darkness, emboldened and unveiled these past months, I find myself mute.

The fact is, I’m tired of being outraged, of watching greed and narcissism use power to oppress. I’m tired of being sad, of grieving for all the senseless loss of life and love and for all the pointless, useless pain.

‘Hug your loved ones close and appreciate the good in your life.’ We’ve all heard a variation of this message in response to life’s hardship. It is important, because gratitude gives richness to our lives. But is it enough? In the face of active corruption and cruelty, is it enough?

A still Voice reminds me that there has always been and always will be darkness in the world, but that there is also light. The Pantocrator urges me to keep my own peace in the world around me. Reminds me that this life exists for how I use it to prepare for what comes next. Urges me to be the light. And so I imagine what would happen if more of us tried to be light.

What does it mean to be light? With each oversimplified meme and soundbite I encounter, I am becoming more and more convinced that it means shining light on things as they are, not as they’ve been made to look. We live in an age of spin doctors–that wasn’t just a nineties band. Shining a light means looking beyond the spin: listening to or reading actual sources, not just someone’s interpretation of them, and evaluating them on their own merits. It means analyzing leaders’ messages and then calling out their inconsistencies, because too often the stories they tell change on a weekly basis, and it takes someone reframing what has happened for us to see the truth. Be that someone.

Yes, there are some diametrically opposed beliefs about how we should proceed as a country, and there are some very, very strong feelings about them. Feelings of anger, of defensiveness, of contempt, of hurt. These feelings are valid. And I’ll be honest. Speaking for myself, I don’t always know what to do with them, other than be aware of them, examine them, and when appropriate, direct the fire they ignite into a solution.

My point is this: there are proponents for every cause and every political stripe that use the same tool to their own ends. They use a broad brush with which they paint the “other” side, dismissing it as stupid or evil (the adjectives used are harsher), or with which they paint their stance as flawless. Those strong feelings we all have are exacerbated by those with the giant paint brushes who would convince us that the other side hates us and, if left unchallenged, will take away everything we value.

Can we leave the fear mongering and diversion tactics to our current head of state and his team of trusty sidekicks? (And by that I really mean call it out.) We the people are being played, and it is time to step away from the tweets and direct our attention to what the government is and ought to be doing.

We are, as I’ve said before, a big, complicated country. Healthcare, public education, gun control, welfare, emergency and disaster management, environmental regulation, tax reform, taking a knee and the NFL, name the issue. Now read something longer than three sentences about it, or have a respectful conversation with someone who disagrees with you. It doesn’t take long to see that the issues are multifaceted and often intertwined. If they were simple, smart people would have solved all the things.

We have to start applying our minds and not only our anger to these issues. We have to zoom in and see the pixels. They are not just red, yellow, and blue; they are all the colors that emerge therefrom. And if we can’t each zoom in on everything –and none of us can–then we have to choose what we can zoom in on and let others do the same.

I love that so many people are talking about topics that in other days would have been obscure: gerrymandering and redlining, to name a couple examples. I believe very strongly that information and awareness among citizens are crucial to developing a truly democratic civilization. And I am realizing that forbearance and a willingness to listen before defending are also important–and skills I need to work on. I won’t ignore that there are those who will always hold their broad brush and only see red, refusing to see anyone on the “other” side as anything but a *#&^%#. But they are by no means the majority, and they cannot be the force driving this country. Our strength is in our many diverse experiences and voices, and we ought to allow each other the space to question, explore, and learn.

When I was in college, I attended a talk given by the outgoing president about the college’s motto: Lux Esto. He reflected that the Latin phrase actually had two translations: “be light,” the commonly used translation, and “let there be light.” In other words, shine your light and enable others to shine theirs. I don’t know why that message stuck with me, but I understand it now. I cannot think of another time in my life when it has been more important.

In the face of darkness, emboldened and unveiled these past months, lux esto.

Examining our Relationship to Washington

Examining our Relationship to Washington

What do we expect from Washington? Specifically: 1) Do we as citizens ultimately want the same things from our government? 2) What role should government play and not play, in our lives?

I saw a bumper sticker the other day: “I Vote My Values.” Well, sure, lots of people do, right? And it works when we all believe the same thing. It works just great in a country that is monolithic socially, religiously, and culturally. But how well does it work in America? Because America is not that country.

America is a country at a crossroads, where our values are testing and being tested by our traditions and history. Chief among these values is a deeply held belief in every individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; a belief in everyone’s freedom of religion; and freedom from tyranny. The beauty of this crossroads is that the true meaning of these values is being held up to the light and truly examined, for many people, for the first time.

Our traditions and history, as has happened at previous crossroads in the story of America, also need to be examined so that we can preserve what is important, and know why we are doing so. Our traditions and history tell a story of a country that has been at turns deeply xenophobic and also inherently welcoming, whose members are hard workers with big dreams and also are broken and struggling. But the traditions and history we hear most often told are the ones told by the powerful majority, as is most often the case with history. That history is of hard work leading to success, and success being defined, on a personal level, as owning a home with a white picket fence, a late-model car in the garage, 1.8 kids, closets full of clothes and recreational equipment, belonging to the Judeo-Christian tradition, having a nice big flat-screen TV in the living room, and perhaps a dog or a cat. Fit this mold and you will have lived the American Dream.

And yet. America is a country of over 318 million people. 318 million. We are not a “split screen” America or a nation of two Americas. We are a nation of dozens of Americas. Americans are urban folks, rural folks, and lots of suburban folks; religious folks, spiritual folks, and atheists; market-driven folks and values-driven folks. Americans include people who seek solitude and open spaces, and people who are spooked by any place without a data connection and a good cappuccino. Americans are married and Americans are fiercely single. Americans are every shade of human skin. Americans are rich and Americans are counting every dollar until their next paycheck.

You think all these people share the same values? Absolutely not. We make different choices and have different priorities. Regardless of how lightly or seriously those values are carried, and regardless of how much someone else may disagree with them, the beauty of this country is that we are free to live the lives we want, so long as they don’t infringe on others’ rights to do the same. We don’t have to agree with each other or support every decision our fellow citizens make–we don’t even have to like each other–but we do have to respect each others’ liberty. To tamper with that is to risk our own liberty–because what happens when your values and choices are under attack and those protections are too bruised and broken to preserve your liberty?

Is there a way for all of us to live alongside one another? Our country’s founders believed so, and they laid out a road map for it in their early writings. (Haven’t read the Constitution lately? Refresh your memory; most relevant as today’s background are the amendments, the first 10 of which are the Bill of Rights. And don’t forget the Declaration of Independence.) There is a lot packed into these relatively short documents, but the vision of the society the founders imagined has an overarching theme of freedom. I’ve never heard anyone, regardless of political stripes, disagree about the importance of preserving freedom. (Americans have, though, framed “freedom” in many ways over time, which will be a topic for a future blog post.)

Besides the desire for freedom, what do our expectations of Washington have in common? Are we voting for our leaders based on a common vision of what we want America to be? I’d argue the answer is yes, and no. Most Americans want the country to be safe and prosperous, and we want good public services (clean, well-maintained roads and public spaces, clean air and water), fair taxes, and good schools for our children. Most Americans want the country to be the fabled “land of opportunity,” free from oppression and full of big dreams. But as evidenced by the two Americas described by our main political parties, we don’t agree on how to achieve that America.

In normal political times, what we would see on C-SPAN is debate and discussion about how to achieve that America. That, I will posit, is the role that government should play. The role that government should not play is to force everyone to conform to a certain set of values (except, of course, the values that are universally held–e.g. murder is bad–and that preserve our democracy). So when we “vote our values,” are we saying that we want to send representatives to Washington to enforce our own values in government? How about if we turned that around and sent representatives to Washington who would preserve everyone’s rights to have their own values, while working on the issues government is supposed to work on?  I for one look forward to the day when the government’s work is slow, thoughtful, and focused–and, let’s face it, more boring to everyone but the policy nerds among us. I look forward to a government where foreign policy, economic policy, education policy, climate change, and the like are the topics of debate. By people who understand them because they have devoted their careers to studying these issues. And I hope that when that day comes, more of us stay tuned in.