The World Is On Fire

The World Is On Fire

I’m not going to lie. Every time I tune into any type of media these days, the world immediately looks mangled and dark. This new era in politics is unknown; between the Bannons and the DeVoses, disruption is about the only thing we can safely predict. But what I want to focus on here is that we, as Americans with opposing political views, cannot seem to have a worthwhile conversation about any of it. The emotions that any political talk seems to tap are, simply, combustible. The increase of available information, some of it valid and some of it not, and some of it relevant and constructive, some of it not, means that everyone’s sources of information are feeding them competing and contrary narratives.  So let me ask a question:  To what end?

This is America. We are diverse and we have always had “robust” national discourse about the best path for our country to move forward and prosper. But this is not national discourse. This is all-out madness. This is painting each other as demons or idiots. Most of us are not, so can we try to remember that the people we called fellow citizens a few months ago are still the well-intentioned people they were back then? (I say “most,” because, certainly, there are people who, in the pursuit of less-than-noble goals, cause harm, and we’re not all geniuses–or necessarily the best informed. But it’s not naive to say that most of us mean well.)

Need I spell out the obvious result of this madness? We all become entrenched in our opinions and vilify the other side even further. (My deepest respect for the few who are open to changing their views when presented with convincing arguments or facts.) Our government then reflects this entrenchment and refuses to work across the aisle to move our country forward. (Wait–our government’s already there. Is it possible for the malfunction to get worse?) The point is, if we continue down this path, we all lose.

Trump’s candidacy and election have emboldened the worst in America. (And in recent days, it is emboldening the best, but it is only beginning, and yet to be determined.) We see the worst not only because his election emboldened or forced extremist individuals and groups to come out of the shadows (more on that in a moment), but even more because his election, and the candidacy preceding it, have turned civil discourse into a screaming match. Half the country’s angry. Half the country’s scared. The other half is defensive. And angry. And we’re all shouting to have our opinions heard. That’s not all Trump’s fault. There were all the -isms (racism, sexism, etc.) before. There was opinion-sold-as-fact and oversimplified or misrepresenting memes before Trump came along. But he has managed to harness it to his great advantage, and we are all paying the price.

So can we not? Can we just not? Yes, the stakes are high. People are suffering real harm–most recently in the area of immigration–and will likely continue to in other areas (ACA repeal crisis, here we come). Not to mention the people who have been mocked, beaten, or otherwise suffered at the hands of emboldened extremism since November 9. But these dark forces are not what I want to focus on, because I am clinging to a faith that our laws will not take away basic protections of safety, and that police, judicial, and civil forces will continue to uphold our laws. This does not mean that peoples’ lives won’t be affected, or that our most vulnerable members won’t be attacked and hurt before law enforcement can act (which is why, by the way, so many people are genuinely and justifiably frightened for themselves and their loved ones), but it does mean that we have not lost our democracy. Yet.

If, however, we continue to allow this constant vilification of each other, then the fight is only going to get uglier. Our government will be less stable and less able to execute legislation, and our civic life will become more inflammatory. Worse yet, in the name of keeping society from all-out chaos, this government will restrict our freedoms so much that we will lose our democracy. Yes, it is possible.

In an ideal world, we would all agree on some rules of engagement. Here’s what my rules would look like:

•No ad hominem attacks: the amount of mockery, and painting people with a broad brush, is crazy. Learn to criticize someone’s ideas without criticizing who they are. Same goes with groups. I hate seeing posts about how those liberals or republicans are such hypocrites because ____. Just stop with the name-calling, m-kay? It serves no purpose.

•Use a common language. A basic premise to any fruitful conversation is to speak the same language. Because we tend to get silo-ed in our communities, I suspect half of us are using terms that are foreign to or misunderstood by listeners. I’ve learned, for example, that not everyone knows what “racism” or “hate speech” mean. Clarify when necessary.

•Take the time to fact check. As you’re talking. And if you’re not sure of something, pause and, as my old friend likes to say, consult the oracle (your phone). It’s ok. We can’t all have all the facts we’ve read readily available in our mental Roladex®.  And if it turns out you were wrong, admit it. Or at least go home and read up on the subject. Don’t dig your heels in.

•What would you add to this list?

Everything is not alright. But using our words as swords instead of building blocks is not going to make it better.

Back to My Core

Back to My Core

It took me weeks to absorb what our country did on November 8 (see my prior post, written on day 1). I say this only as a prologue; there has been enough public grieving for me to detail it again here. At some point, when no amount of the usual comforts could bring me out of my darkness, I turned for answers to the source of my worldview: to my faith.  This post is for other Christians who are struggling with the election results, and perhaps for those who don’t understand why we (anti-Trump Christians) are struggling. I hope these reflections will be helpful to others, as drafting them has been for me.

Let’s begin with this: no one can declare that God was on the side of any candidate; to do so would claim an omniscience we ought not dare to assume. Arguments can be (and have been) made on either side.¹ ² (Their credibility, mind you, needs to be carefully evaluated…but I digress.) And more importantly, the Bible, where we discern God’s message to us, is conspicuously silent on the issue of how to vote. The Bible speaks, rather, of how to live: love the Lord and love your neighbor, follow the 10 Commandments, run your race, to name just a few.

So that is what I will attend to. How tens of millions of people voted is well outside my sphere of control or influence, but what is solidly within my control is how I live my life, and the impact I have on those around me. As a Christian, I should be asking myself: am I living each day in a way that pleases God and aligns with God’s message to humanity? Am I living it with an eye towards my spiritual life, which will last far longer than the best things this world has to offer?

I’ll be frank. It’s been hard to remember that in this past month. It’s been hard not to look at the hateful acts committed and words said in the name of our president-elect and not think the end of the world is coming. Seriously. It’s been hard not to look with, um, incredulity at someone who knows less than a little about how government works and yet proclaims that he will fix everything, and who thinks he can (as do his supporters) simply because he is rich.

But yet, here’s the thing. I don’t believe that Trump made America worse. The ugliness was there all along, in the shadows. For many Americans, Trump encouraged the basest of urges, urges belonging to people who knew better than to vocalize them. They knew better because for decades now, our national civil teachings have said it is wrong to speak hatefully of, threaten, or harm members of our society for something that is part of their being (and that, even given the choice, they should not have to deny): race, religion, sex, national origin…you get the picture. These teachings, by the way, fit nicely with teachings in Christianity. Moreover, they are values that matter very, very much to me. Building bridges between cultures, working towards equality, seeing and honoring the humanity in others: this stuff is the very theme of my life. It is my mission. So yes, to see Trump, and all the hatred he embodies, elected to the presidency was devastating.

That ugliness, that darkness–in this case, the anger and fear that wants America to be one big monolith that reinforces one’s own personal views–will always be and has always been a part of our world. If we zoom out from 2016, from America, and look at the history of humanity, we see a thread. In the oldest civilizations, you find stories of struggle for power, struggle for acceptance, fear of the other, desire to lash out whenever one’s views and life choices are threatened. Fear of those unlike us, anger towards those whose actions are contrary to ours, anger or fear when we think others don’t accept us: these are all impulses that, I believe, all of us have had at some point. What we do with those impulses matters. The difference between acting on them and pausing to examine them is tremendous.

As for the question of his ineptitude, I can laugh or cry or rail, but in the end, I will remember that the universe is a big place, created by the Master Creator. Any destruction that can be wrecked by one man is…well, it’s destruction. But as a Christian, the things I value are not things. Economies will rise and fall, militaries will succeed and fail. It is the things that are unseen that endure. Not to say that there is not human suffering that happens in those falls and failures–there is terrifyingly much that does. So I have reasons to be afraid; most of the country does.

My faith teaches me to name that fear, but then to overcome it. It teaches me to recognize the darkness of this world, but not succumb to it. But what does that even mean?

Two things, I think. The first is to not let the fear or the anger darken my own soul. That’s tough. It’s tough not to get discouraged and feel despair that my fellow Americans are being intimidated and attacked, and are justifiably afraid of every-day places and activities that used to be safe. It’s tough not to feel anger that as a country, we have been conned. And make no mistake about it, we have been. But that is not something within my control. What is within my control is how I choose to react to it. Indeed, in the end, I am only responsible for my soul, as each of us is. In the end, it’s the daily choices in my world that deserve my attention.

So the second is to do what I can. I can’t fix everything, but I can shed light on some things. I cannot challenge all the hatred and misinformation out there. But I can address what I see, especially if and when I think it might make a difference. (To that end, and for anyone who cares to read, I am following this post with two others. One will concern emerging trends in our national discourse, and what discourse I believe we should be aspiring to. The third post will explore what individual Americans should expect from Washington.)

A central teaching of my faith is to love my neighbor; to love others. This isn’t a romantic or easy love; it is to look for God’s reflection in others and then to act in accordance with the conviction that those around me are just as worthy of kindness and of care as I like to think I am. So: love those around me, and be a light when I can. On both counts, I have my work cut out for me. If you pray, dear reader, please pray for me. I could use the support.


¹Sample of arguments for Clinton as the candidate for Christians:
http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2016/september/why-i-support-hillary-clinton.html
http://religionnews.com/2016/10/05/who-should-christians-vote-for-theologian-miroslav-volf-makes-a-surprising-case-for-one-candidate/
http://www.christianpost.com/news/hillary-clinton-is-the-best-choice-for-voters-against-abortion-170258/
http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/october/ron-sider-why-i-am-voting-for-hillary-clinton.html
http://thefederalist.com/2016/10/12/christians-support-trump-undermines-public-witness/

²Sample of arguments for Trump as the candidate for Christians:
http://www.dailywire.com/news/4097/jerry-falwell-explains-why-christians-should-vote-james-barrett
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/heres-why-white-evangelicals-still-support-trump-in-spite-of-everything_us_5807ce8be4b0180a36e86259
http://townhall.com/columnists/waynegrudem/2016/10/19/if-you-dont-like-either-candidate-then-vote-for-trumps-policies-n2234187
(I tried to find more sources that were well-substantiated, but couldn’t. Readers are welcome to look further.)

 

Reflections on a Dark Day

Reflections on a Dark Day

 

I am dumbstruck this morning, and I am heartbroken. As I did my daughter’s hair for school, she asked why I was shaking my head, maybe thinking it was something she’d said. “I just can’t believe we did this. I don’t know how our country will survive this person.” She looked at me questioningly, and I realized I have to, at least for the moment, talk to her and her sister of normal, immediate things. I can’t have her believing her world is physically collapsing. Because it’s not.

But it does feel like the values of my country are collapsing. I can’t dismiss what’s happened. My country has just elected, to the highest office in the land, a man whose very essence is crass, disrespectful, fear-mongering, and completely blind to the privileges he’s been handed, not earned. This is a man who thinks nothing of ignoring basic civil rules, such as paying the people you’ve hired to do work for you for an agreed-upon price, just because he can get away with it. This is a man who, when given a chance to scale down some of his most incendiary rhetoric, has instead repeated it.

Some speculate that now that the election’s over, he will tone down the crazy-talk, stop the performance, and use the advice of more experienced political supporters to take his responsibility seriously. He will act like someone who is a president for all Americans. I don’t know that this is anything more than hopeful wishing. But for all our sakes, I hope they are right.

What I see is a man who has shown only that he loves–needs, even–to be in the headlines, and will do whatever he needs to to stay there. I see a man who won’t stop the crazy-talk because that talk is who he is. But the fact is, I don’t know what’s going to happen. He is one man, he will be at the head of one branch of government. In a normal world, his impact will be limited (except of course, in areas like foreign policy, where the executive branch has a lot of power). But today, I can’t assure a normal world.

I can be assured that the many good people of this country will act to keep our system of checks and balances in place, will call out fouls when they see them, and that, among the many who are dejected and disenfranchised today, there are millions who will continue to work towards a fairer, more just society within their own spheres of influence. And that I need to more actively be one of them.

Friends have joked with me that it’s time to flee and go back to Australia. But even in Australia, as there was in Britain, in France, and in pretty much every country on earth, there is the dark underbelly. This silent group are the people who are racist, misogynist, and xenophobic enough to vote for the furthest person from Obama they could conjure up and to vote against a woman based on unverified rumors and conspiracy theories.

There is also a second group: the many, many people–people I call friends and acquaintances among them–who allowed fear and ignorance to dictate their vote. Many are intelligent people who are tired of seeing promises not fulfilled by the Washington elite and who are just busy trying to succeed in their every-day lives. But they check their Facebook newsfeeds and listen to the know-it-alls (we all have at least one in our social circles), and they hear the same half-truths and false allegations said with conviction and repeatedly. And so they believe them. And they repeat whatever they heard Susie Q say. And then they vote. To these people I say two things. First, take your responsibility to be informed seriously. Facebook articles are not “the media” and they are not all good news sources. Read a lot, and read real sources. Jo Shmo who wrote some article that he posted on some internet-only site that then posted onto Facebook about [insert theory here] should not be your only source of information. Look at who is writing what you are reading, and what their sources are. Better yet, go to their sources directly. I know you are busy, but it is your responsibility. It is the price you pay for living in this great country.

Second, I say: let’s talk in a year, or two if you prefer. Let’s see which of his promises your choice has managed to fulfill. Those promises, for the record, include most notoriously:

-building a wall on our Mexico border

-repealing Obamacare AND replacing it with another system of healthcare

-overturning Roe v. Wade through the appointment of (a) Supreme Court justice(s)

-eradicating ISIS/ISIL

-protecting existing gun laws, military-grade assault rifles and all

-rewriting our tax code and lowering taxes “for everyone”

Which of these policies, by the way, are you most excited about? And what will you do and think when he doesn’t deliver? I truly want to understand, because without understanding, we will find ourselves in the exact same place in four years.

I am heartbroken today and I am angry. And I fear the damage our president-elect will do before we realize our mistake. But I am also hopeful that out of this election will rise a country who engages, who finds common ground, and who makes decisions with eyes wide open about how we should move forward. Because, despite what happened last night, we are better than this. And if we aren’t now, we have it in us to be.

 

Cold Noses/ Shiny Brows

Cold Noses/ Shiny Brows

Fall in Ohio (or in Michigan, where I lived before) is a time of chilling weather and shortening days. I don’t appreciate these changes, because they herald even colder and darker days in the months ahead.

But fall is also traditionally a season of rituals and captured moments of time passing: attending football games, apple picking,

Apple-picking 2
Apple-picking with friends, Fall 2014

Apple-picking 1

Apple-picking 3

Apple-picking 4

and preparing for Thanksgiving.

My sisters and I at the Chicago Turkey Trot (Thanksgiving, 2014)

And these are things I deeply cherish.

But this year, it is neither fall, nor are there the usual rituals. The weather is not getting cooler; it’s getting warmer. The days are not getting shorter; they’re getting longer. Buckeye football is literally a world away (but not totally, thanks to the wonders of modern technology). I had to make a special request to the butcher to order a turkey for Thanksgiving.

It is spring in Queensland, you see, and the months ahead will bring heat and beach time and all things summer (n.b: I love summer).DSC_0192

Oh, and Christmas. Christmas will be in summer, a fact I have a hard time wrapping my snow-conditioned brain around.

Time is passing without the familiar markers. Every time I’m asked, I have to think twice about what month we are in, and where we are. It’s doing strange things to my sense of place.

Time is a strange construct indeed, friends. Never has that been as clear to me as it is right now. So if you see me pulling out the ear muffs and lighting a fire, please, someone, remind me that it’s almost summer in Queensland. And yes, that it’s November too.

Reflections on Mother’s Day

This past weekend was Mother’s Day weekend in many parts of the world, including Australia and the U.S. But something about this year was different. Whether it was the fact that both kids were old enough to know what the day was about and to express themselves in their own way, or whether it was the fact that I was experiencing it away from the usual social cues and rituals that surround it in the States, it was just…different.

Coral-filled waters off the beaches of Lady Elliot Island

And eye-opening. The day is meant to celebrate the relationship between mothers and their children, with the myriad of forms the connection can take. Over time, the day’s focus has ranged from highlighting the unique relationship every mother has with her child/children, to highlighting ways in which mothers and their efforts have made the world go ’round. (N.b: I am referring here to the many women who have actually  raised, or are raising, their children. I am not addressing those who, for any number of reasons, did not or are not.)

But as I read Facebook posts of “best Mom ever” declarations, and watched advertisements promising products that will make mothers feel as special as they deserve, I kept asking myself: since when is it not enough to celebrate that motherhood is a unique and, dare I say, mysterious bond?  Since when is it not enough, just this one designated day, for a mother to reflect on the fact that she loves her children fiercely and unconditionally, and that, despite her imperfect parenting and the mistakes she (and every mother) has made, she is trying her best? And for her children to acknowledge the same? When my children are old enough to think about these things, that’s what I want. Why all the superlatives? Is there really a prize out there for Best Mother? Doesn’t that depend on who the child is? Surely we all recognize that mothers and children can have personalities that are better or worse matched. Surely we recognize that, if we are lucky enough to have children, or a mother–or both!–that this, in and of itself, is a precious gift, imperfectly shaped, but a gift to be held and cherished nonetheless.

And why the quest to get the perfect gift for Mother’s Day? I say this hesitantly, as I love presents as much as the next person. But really: are flowers, brunch, jewelry, what-have-you, really necessary (as they seem to have become in the States, anyway)? I sometimes wonder if this drive has been prompted by an expressed desire by many women to feel appreciated. If I’m right about this, there may be many reasons for this desire (a rare opportunity in the busiest social circles to focus on relationships, recognition of a mothers’ sacrifices, etc.), but I think I know what one important one is.

You see, there are mothers that I think of as the “accidental” mothers. I’m guessing we all know (or perhaps are) someone like this: the idea of having a family is lovely, and with hope and nostalgia, it’s something these women go about making plans to have. Family movie nights, reading books at bedtime together, hilarious family vacation memories, messy food fights: bring on the swelling music and grainy photos of laughing families.

What accidental mothers are not prepared for is the sheer difficulty and sacrifice of motherhood. Somewhere along the way, for all mothers, it gets incredibly tough. And in that moment, they realize that they have accidentally stumbled into something much bigger than photos and nostalgia. That moment may be as early as pregnancy. It will almost definitely be during the first few sleepless, wail-filled months (or years). It may be when handling three kids under the age of six. It may be when trying to keep the emotions in check while responding to an angst-filled teenager. It may be sitting in a hospital room, looking at the fragile body you gave birth to hooked up to tubes and machines. The examples are endless. My point is this: motherhood is incredibly, and repeatedly, difficult. And it is my firm belief that plenty of women enter motherhood having no clue what they’re signing up for. And so perhaps Mother’s Day has become, for some among them, less about celebrating the bond they have with their child/children, no matter how accidentally it might have come about, and more about celebrating the fact that they are surviving this challenging journey.

And you’ll pardon my saying so, but I think that’s a shame, and a waste. No matter what we mothers thought we were signing up for–no matter how accidentally motherhood may have entered our lives–it can be such an inexpressibly beautiful relationship, and it is a waste if we don’t take the chances we have tending to that bond with our children. Instead, too often we end up wishing away the time, or wishing circumstances were different. And then the years have slipped by and the relationships have solidified into something far less than they could be.

What’s my point? I’ve been the mother who felt under-appreciated and, shortcomings glaring at me, like a poser. And I don’t want to be there again. I don’t want to expect flowers or presents. I want the day to be a chance to reflect on how we are doing rather than a day spent hearing and comparing who is the most this and best that. None of it matters even half as much as what kind of a story we are building within our own family. It’s there that the memories and music live. And I hope that’s a perspective I never lose.

[Now for those of you who are less interested in my musings and more in our time in Australia, this is for you: this past weekend, we took a day trip to Lady Elliot Island, over the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef. A glass-bottomed boat took us out for some amazing snorkeling. We saw every color imaginable on every shape and size of fish imaginable, and sea turtles, and even a few manta rays. My only regret is that we didn’t have a waterproof camera, but perhaps this absence allowed us to just enjoy the experience a little more.]

View of the island as we approached in our little 14-seat propeller plane.