Thanksgiving and Privilege

This afternoon building a Lego spaceship with an 8 year-old cousin after the family Thanksgiving, I couldn’t stop thinking about potential. And particularly, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way our potential can be thwarted or encouraged by our circumstances – and sometimes by the mentality our circumstances creates. I had this weird moment where I kept thinking about the ways in which this 8 year-old had a few steps ahead of some folks in the world but also of some of the ways he might be a few steps behind. I wonder how easily it would be to predict someone’s future success based entirely on demographic factors: socioeconomic factors, race, gender, religion, etc. I mean, we were just sitting there playing with Legos, and all I could think was, “Yeah! Legos! You’re gonna be an Engineer! Here we are fostering the creative! The possibilities are limitless! Or are they?”

I guess it couldn’t have been a more appropriate time to be thinking all of this. In the context of Ferguson, in the context of Thanksgiving, we’re a nation that needs to be concerned with the ways those demographic factors can either thwart or encourage a person’s potential. Sometimes, we call it “privilege,” but that’s a phrase a lot of folks (at least as I’ve experienced in the South) don’t want to use or acknowledge. But in the context of Thanksgiving, especially, a time where we look at our “plenty” and bow our heads and say grace and thanks for the “plenty” we’ve been given, being privileged is probably something we know better than we’re willing to admit.

Let me see if I can explain this on a level that’s a little more personal: I’m now in my early thirties. I’ve got a Master’s degree from a top-tier university and studied under some world-famous folks. I’m white. I’m male. I’ve got supportive family and friends, a roof over my head, and money in the bank (even if very, very little). I’m world-traveled with a lot of experience in a few fields. But I’ve struggled to find work for two years. And, usually, that’s the point where people will say, “White male privilege?! Where can I get me some of that white male privilege you’re talkin’ about?! Cause I’m struggling here and I don’t see it!” But that’s not the take-away I have at all. Instead, my take-away from this struggle, this humiliating, painful struggle it’s been, is that if it’s this hard for me, how much harder must it be for someone who didn’t enjoy some of the “plenty” I had growing up they never had? How could I ever demonize them for not working hard enough or for not having enough personal responsibility to claim their lives when my work or responsibility hasn’t turned up a whole lot? That is, if I struggle to get work with a Master’s degree and a strong group of folks supporting me – all of whom I couldn’t be more thankful for this year as they’ve advocated on my behalf left-and-right – how am I ever supposed to expect someone who has none of that to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? As another friend said, to paraphrase, how can people who never had boots be expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? What, so they can finally get that job at McDonalds or some other major corporation that pays them far below a living wage and nearly guarantees that they’ll be stuck in that cycle?

If you are grateful at all this Thanksgiving for what’s been given to you, then be thankful enough to step into the shoes of those whose opportunities weren’t as grand as yours. That’s really the heart of what people are trying to get at when they talk about “white privilege.” They’re talking about empathy and understanding. After all, for some folks opportunities might have even been nonexistent just because of their skin color or perhaps their gender or perceived sexual orientation or economic status. And if you never had to worry about those things holding you back, maybe be careful before you judge others calling them “lazy.” Because in my two years of searching, there were times where I was tempted to give up, and while I haven’t and won’t (thanks in part to the support network I’ve had that others don’t have), I can at least say that I understand why some might have said, “To hell with it. The whole system is rigged.” Because we live in a world that cries despair for some and hope for others. And that world won’t be just until there’s hope for all. If you’ve wondered why so many religious figures have moved in on doing something about Ferguson, that’s why: a just world seeks to give hope to everybody. It seeks to “un-rig” the whole rigged system. And if you aren’t willing to acknowledge that, to cry foul in the face of those kinds of injustices, then don’t be surprised when you get called racist or sexist or labeled something awful. I don’t know that we help the situation when we rush to those labels always, but those labels are a sign of a kind of righteous rage, of that very growing despair that’s been too-often dismissed or ignored. Because you will hear that despair. And the best way to not have to hear it any longer is to start advocating for hope, by acknowledging where our privileges are, where we had plenty, and by seeking to make sure others have the same advantages. And that’s something we should do often, or at the very least, every Thanksgiving.

Why I hated Interstellar, or why maybe I’m just a Debbie Downer

I’m not one to do movie reviews usually, but I’ve been churning the movie Interstellar over and over in my head ever since I saw it. Maybe that makes it a good movie. If it’s good enough to make me think this much about it, then it’s gotta be worth the dime and nickel I paid to see it. Then again, a really bad movie can be worth money if you’re just wanting to watch a really bad movie.

The truth is, for a good chunk of the movie, I felt my high school science teachers had just failed me miserably, and that was why I couldn’t wrap my mind around the depths of Christopher Nolan’s commentary on general relativity. I kept wishing Neil deGrasse Tyson would be sitting by my side going, “That’s good stuff, but it’s not really accurate! You couldn’t survive getting that close to a black hole!” …though, honestly, it’s not going to make-or-break my movie-going experience when a film defies what we know of science for the sake of creativity. At least, so long as there’s a decent explanation provided, I’ll be okay. Y’know, something like, “We’re using a special kind of metal that won’t break apart when it encounters a dense star with an event horizon!” I mean, okay, even that explanation is dumb and annoying, but I can get with the program if you show me you’re trying. (Although, one big gripe I have: if you know the gravity of a black hole is powerful enough to affect time on a planet that’s a candidate for a second Earth, you should already know the planet won’t work as a possible Earth. Duh. Just saved everybody 23 years. This one scene just about ruined the whole movie for me.)

All that is to say, something about Interstellar tried too hard. And still managed to fail. The movie was ripe with explanation after explanation to a fault. Little time was given to character development – which had to be sacrificed for the sake of making sure we were following the philosophy of science that had been set up. More so, the philosophy of science managed to be a kind of new age mythology, and I find that especially frustrating in a world where we’re (rightfully) critical of religious fundamentalism, but then we manage to trade in our criticism for another extreme of sorts, for a mythology of science and reason. It just seems laughable when we’re willing to shriek that God doesn’t exist but we’re still afraid of ghosts. We’re a species obsessed with a need for the mystical, but in the postmodern world, we sure do try hard not to admit that. And I wish we could handle that a little more honestly.

I digress. Wait, no I don’t. I’m still on this soapbox: I guess I found it silly the way religion was tossed around in the movie like a mythology from the past we finally progressed beyond only to discover that all the “ghosts” and gods were us. I found it disappointing to imagine some advanced version of us as “better,” or even godly in their ability to manipulate space and time. I certainly don’t think humans in 2014 are “better” because of technological advances than, say, humans of the past. More equipped, healthier, wealthier, longer-living, perhaps, but better off? Spend some time living among the poor in some of the poorest places, and your notion of “advanced” will be greatly challenged. I know – I sound like some crazy curmudgeon who is anti-technology, and that’s not the case at all. If we can go to the stars and colonize other planets, we should be investing in that. But not at the expense of hoping to trade in our humanity for technological advance. That is, I agree with Nolan that we can’t just be a planet of caretakers; we also have to explore; that is part of our nature. But we haven’t even gotten care-taking right yet!

To view some “us” made into gods and goddesses by the advances of technology, I don’t take to be a statement about a hopeful future. I take it to be a statement about our present narcissism. “Look at all we can do!” is a scary way of handling religion or science. Yet, I guess on some level, there’s a truth to it worth commenting on pertinent to the present. Religion today, after all, is steeped enough in idolatrous language that when Nietzsche says, “God is dead and we have killed him,” there’s the sense that what’s been killed off isn’t the Sacred “God above God,” but rather our inadequate language and theology for whatever that is. Surely some of that needs to die off! But when Nolan suggests it’s just some advanced us, when the “magic” is stripped away, the way it is by young Murphy, I don’t hear the progress of science in that. I hear desperation: we couldn’t figure out who we were as a species, so we made ourselves into gods and goddesses via technology and black holes to give some inkling of sense to our lives and save what we called humanity.

But the gods and goddesses they manage to create should scare you! Humans with the ability to manipulate space and time?! That might be the thing I liked least about Interstellar. The movie is steeped in a kind of science fiction Calvinism. “Whatever can happen will happen” is a form of predestination in a way. Pulled back into some fifth dimension where you can manipulate time, the implication that there is no past, present, or future makes us into robotic beings manipulated by some advanced us. When everything that will happen has already happened, it’s scary to think some us was overseeing all of that. And we’re supposed to leave the theater going, “Wow, what a great movie.” Cooper gets it right the first time when he sends the message, “Stay.” Care-taking isn’t all that bad. Even if it costs us everything.

I know, I know. I’m just a Debbie Downer, and you could argue I’ve missed some overarching message of the movie about love and the way love – like gravity – is the missing piece of the equation. Really? Cause, yeah, no one has ever done anything awful in the name of “love.” But yeah, all that is to say, I hated Interstellar, and now I think I finally know why.

The Power of a Song

I listen to music like I’m on a mission. It’s never been about just enjoying a song. Or even a matter of having some nice background noise while I went about whatever. I needed to find the right song for the right moment, and about the time I found it, I went looking for another. I’m not sure if there is a “perfect” song, so much as there’s just been good songs for certain moments of my life, but nevertheless I definitely operate like I’m in search of that one masterpiece.

Maybe that’s because during some of the darkest moments of my life, one song or another wasn’t just some melody that spoke to my heart. It was a person with artistic talent who (coincidentally, using a melody that spoke to my heart) had shared in a similar experience as me. It was empathy, and knowing there was another person out there who “got” me and “got” how hard whatever we were enduring was, brought about just the comfort I’d been searching for. In that sense, to me, music is relational. It connects us not only to an artist we don’t even know but to others who may also find solace in whatever that artist has offered and placed on the table for our consideration.

Nearly a decade ago, a dear friend of mine was having a rough day as she was remembering a dear friend of hers, a young man named Cory, who had driven to an empty field and shot himself ending his life while he listened to the Counting Crows “Round Here” on repeat. Over the years, I’ve played that song again and again and always think of him, this guy I never knew, sitting there in his car absorbing that song. Over the years, I’ve had my own moments where I, too, put a song on repeat and only heard despair, and it’s made me think a lot about the power of a song. I sometimes wonder how different for Cory things could’ve been had someone been there, like a ghost, to push “next” on the CD Player. Or what it must’ve been for him to have come to that one song and felt he’d heard all the music he could, that there was nothing else to hear. Wherever he is, I like to think there’s a sweeter tune on repeat, but not stuck there.

Lately, coinciding with reading some of the theologian Paul Tillich, some of which I’ve had to read again and again (not only because I didn’t understand it fully the first time but also because I wanted to make sure I had absorbed the richness of everything he was saying), I’ve been listening to the new Damien Rice album, as well. Rice’s new album is a collection of the kind of shear honesty that belts out loudly and proudly, “Here I am. Take me as I am. I know you can.” That’s also at the core of what I read in Tillich who believes, in spite of all that makes us unacceptable – to ourselves, to the world – that there’s this invitation on the table that says, “Come, no matter what, just come to the table. You are welcome.” Tillich words it much more beautifully but perhaps not as beautifully as Damien in his song, Trusty and True. I can’t share that song with Cory, who I never knew, but in one way or another, getting myself and those I love to click “next” on the MP3 player to hear something new, perhaps an invitation like the one Damien sings so heart-fully, is all I really want to do with my life. I’ll end this one with the song and the lyrics, which say much more than this blog ever could:

We’ve wanted to be trusty and true,
but feathers fell from our wings,
and we’ve wanted to be worthy of you,
but weather rained on our dreams,
and we can’t take back what is done, what is past
so fellahs lay down your fears,
cause we can’t take back what is done, what is past
so let us start from here,
cause we never wanted to be lusty or lewd,
nor tethered to prudish strings,
and we never wanted to be jealously tuned,
nor withered into ugly things,
but we can’t take back what is done, what is past
so fellahs lay down your spears,
cause we can’t take back what is done, what is past
so let us start from here,
and if all that you are is not all you desire,
then Come,
Come, come along, come with fear, come with love
Come however you are, just come,
Come alone, come with friends, come with foes,
Come however you are, just come,
Come along, come with me, and let go,
Come however you are, just come,
Come along, come so carefully close,
Come however you are, just come,
Come, come along, come with sorrows and songs,
Come however you are, just come
Come along, come let yourself be wrong,
Come however you are,
Just come.

The Problem of This or That and Nothing in Between

This morning, I went to Presbyterian church with a group of wonderful people who had worked on a local political campaign. One of them whom I really admire – the one I sat next to – is an atheist, his wife an agnostic, and in a twist of fate that was something of a tragic comedy, the sermon was on miracles. That said, most of the sermon was about having faith in spite of the lack of evidence, and that’s something I can get behind. It’s something so very true to the human condition regardless of the religious tradition you’re coming from (or whether you come from one at all). There are times in our lives where, when we have no reason to do anything but despair, we retain hope in spite of the evidence to the contrary. To believe in miracles, to me at least, isn’t really about believing in something that defies what we know from science, so much as it’s about finding hope where there seemingly is none. And that’s just something we have to do in order to survive this life we live.

As the sermon went on, though, the pastor delved into a more rigid, almost literalist approach and started quoting Charles Spurgeon, a 19th century Reformed British pastor. I won’t even try to paraphrase the quote because I’ll just butcher it, but the general sentiment was this: we should either believe in all of the Bible or believe in none of it. I won’t lie – that made me cringe. It even offended me. There are parts of the Bible that I gladly reject, and there are other parts that are important to acknowledge and hold dear. Everybody has his own “canon within a canon,” and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I caught myself thinking, “That mentality exemplifies exactly what’s wrong not only with American Christianity but even just America generally. It’s this overly simplistic worldview that trumpets either/or scenarios, and we should always be wary of that kind of thinking.”

To my surprise, though, when the sermon was over and my atheist friend greeted the pastor, he said almost cheekily, “That line about believing all of it or none of it; I liked that line. I can get on board with that line.” Of course, the cheeky part was that my friend doesn’t claim to believe any of it, but seeing the two find agreement was to recognize a real problem that, to me, explains (at least in part) the growing divisiveness across the country: American fundamentalism. To see the two extremes finding agreement about something was like watching a spectrum be curved around to make a circle and see the right-winger and the lefty were actually quite similar. Maybe it’s always been this way, been one-way-or-the-other, but it seems like there used to be a time where there wasn’t a friggin’ label for everything under the sun, and certainly not a second label that stood as the opposite to the first. Now everything seems to come in pairs, both ready for a battle of some kind: Republican or Democrat or right or wrong or pro-life or pro-choice or straight or gay. We’re steeped in construing of the world in a way that oversimplifies the complexity of, well, everything. And there’s something sick and un-empathetic to it. There’s something about dwindling us down to labels that destroys our very humanity.

There are times when I’ve gotten sucked into the labels myself. There are other times, though, where I’ve felt somehow lonely as if watching the Christian and the atheist argue and feeling unsatisfied with and disappointed in them both. Don’t get me wrong. Extremes can be important. They offer challenges we need to hear. But even though I would take Malcolm X over the KKK any day, I’m always going to prefer MLK. And I worry that we’re living in a world that no longer celebrates the radical moderate or sensibility but rather seeks to march us all into lockstep moving only in one direction or the other. I guess my challenge, if not my hope, is that we’d always be suspicious of the either/or stuff.

A Call for Friendship across Political Divides

It’s been an election season that’s fired me up. I’ve always tried to be politically-savvy, but I can’t say before this year, I’ve ever been politically-involved. Lately, though, I’ve gotten my feet wet in a local campaign that’s, honestly, gotten a little ugly. The father of one of my camp friends is running as the Democrat for District 27 here in West Tennessee, a district that was redrawn by Republicans with the hope of ensuring that more rural counties would guarantee no Democrat could get elected again. What they didn’t count on was a conservative Democrat who had either lived, worked, or gone to school in almost all of the counties that made up the District.

Perhaps because they got scared that Randy Lamb would dash their hopes of taking back District 27, the Republican Party began a series of negative ads comparing Lamb to Barack Obama and as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” One Union University student wrote into the Jackson Sun, the local paper, saying, “One pamphlet in particular I found to be reprehensible. Included in this campaign ad is a poorly Photoshopped image of Mr. Lamb depicted as a shepherd. He is herding a herd of black rams. The wording reads, ‘What Randy Lamb’s herding Tennessee doesn’t want any part of.’ This image obviously has racial allusions. It is subtle, but direct.”

That kind of thing is the kind of thing that can get me really fired up. Joining the campaign was something I probably would’ve done regardless of ads with racial overtones, but the negative campaigning made it all the more important to me to get a positive word out about Randy Lamb, his focus on public education instead of vouchers, on expanding Medicaid, and on bringing jobs to West Tennessee. While phone banking for Randy, I found myself telling voters: “Please, please, if you get anything in the mail that says something awful about Randy, ignore it. He really is a good guy.”

In the midst of negative campaigns, it’s really hard not to retort with something equally as negative, and I haven’t succeeded at it personally. It’s easy to dismiss Randy’s opponent, Ed Jackson, or the Republican Party in West Tennessee (who ran the negative ads Jackson said on Facebook he doesn’t like) as racists or as bigots. It’s hard to find the balance between the need to call out an injustice when you feel someone you believe in has been wronged while also dishing out the kind of grace that trusts most people are or want to be good and do the right thing. It seems like we too-often like to lump the injustices and those who commit them as one-in-the-same. But maybe it’s not that simple. Maybe most of us are just trying to get by, trying to do what we believe is right, and even where and when that’s misguided, there’s something to be said for our trying.

On Thursday, I stood in the sun at the polling center holding a sign for both the Lamb campaign and for “Vote No on Amendment 1,” an amendment that would give the Tennessee legislature the power to ban abortions for victims of rape, incest, or women with medical complications. Standing next to me for the nearly five hours I was there was none other than Ed Jackson himself and a few of his supporters. Naturally, we struck up friendly conversation. I talked about my time in the Peace Corps and my love for traveling. Ed and I discussed some of our favorite countries we’d visited, his son’s good work teaching English in an industrial town in China. We talked about the Boy Scouts, both of us Eagle Scouts. Turned out, Ed had been a part of a troop that was formed at my home church years ago, and we knew some of the same folks in scouting, an organization we both deeply admired given the impact it had on us growing up. There was something humanizing about standing there carrying on friendly conversation with someone whose worldview so greatly differs from my own. I offered him water. He offered sunscreen – which I later regretted not accepting – and lunch. Behind the social media anger, behind the negative television ads, behind the things we think we know that are right, even if they are right, are real people all too easily forgotten as “real” when viewed from the false veil of computer and television screens.

I don’t agree with Ed Jackson’s policies. In fact, I’d argue that a lot of Republican policies demean the poor with a lack of empathy that could hardly be considered “Christian.” In my short time working with the Lamb campaign, I’ve overheard a Republican or two say the same of us Democrats: how could those liberals be for policies that are so unchristian? But what I don’t doubt, having met him, is that – like Randy Lamb, like all of us – Ed Jackson is just trying to do what he thinks is right. And there’s hope in that. Because there’s common ground to be found there.

Last night over dinner with friends, it was said (to paraphrase) that “when compromise became viewed as a weakness in America, everybody lost.” Though I’m stuck on believing my way is the right way, I’d like to think that Ed Jackson’s encounter with me was an encounter he walked away from thinking, “Maybe we can work together,” because the way forward in a world where political differences seem to have become battlegrounds is to re-establish relationships that are cordial, civil, and most importantly, recognize and reiterate that we must trust that we’re all trying to figure it out, how to make this town, this city, this state, this country just a tiny bit better. I cast my vote for Randy Lamb, and I’d do so again and again, but if I were heading to the Tennessee State Senate and Ed Jackson happened to be there, I’d find a way to work with him. And I believe I could. But to be able to do so requires something of us all, on both sides of the aisle, and it’s going to have to start with getting out from behind the screen, meeting each other face-to-face, and being committed to friendly conversation.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Whatever: ‘and why did you sing hallelujah if it means nothing to ya?’ -damien

is it god or the devil I should thank
for my lack or fill of courage,
no matter the outcome when it is what it is,
apologetic bout of promises
from the son of a vagabond
gone looking for what to undo
and with a heavy-handed promise to fix that, too,
sometimes I think god and the devil
aren’t all that different,
two sides of the same tin coin
with more worry reserved
it’ll bend or break than
land tails up too much
for Rosencrantz or Guildenstern,
but the real funny thing about courage
is how stupid it is
when we who are about to die
will salute no one.

On the Counter Sits the Carnations: ‘how do you bust the clouds, head on the ground and feeling what you’ve seen’ – i&w

on the counter sits the carnations
from a friend to a friend
just waiting to die
though, sure,
they are enjoyed until then,
at some time,
we must judge them
too wilted, too weak,
the lavender color of their veins
run dry,
and they are tossed.
But were it up to them – I wonder
how long they’d hang on,
blood about their stems
as if to say, We Live,
or as if despite their wilted state,
they lie with hope,
knowing that
the hardest thing to depart
is themselves.