“Both Sides”

After a clash of demonstrations that turned deadly last August in Charlottesville, Virginia, the president notoriously commented that there were “good people on both sides”. Since then, whenever I hear the phrase both sides, my antenna go up.

The other day, a news reporter said that people on both sides of the immigration debate were upset by a recent decision. Senators from both sides of the aisle are contemplating impeachment, and both sides of the abortion debate are reeling from recent legislation. This language might lead us to the conclusion that many of our issues are binary — pro or con, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, black or white.

But isn’t most of life more complicated than that?

Is it even possible to break the US population, which today is 328,983,273 strong, into “both sides”? Can we neatly fit three hundred million people into two (or even three!) groups that would be able to agree on a political stance, an ideological framework, a common belief system? To me it seems unlikely — I can’t even get consensus on what to put on a pizza.

Yet spurred on by this type of rhetoric and our own human nature, we continue with this binary thinking — this either/or mentality — that puts us one against the other, fingers pointing, heels dug in, and shouting. We have assumed a posture of opposition, and in my experience, opposing forces with no intention of bending can do little less that push against one another and cause damage.

People in opposition.

Is that what we’re aiming for?

My coworkers and I were recently discussing strategies for shifting a student who is resistant to instruction. This is an important discussion where I work because most of our students have experienced failure after failure in the classroom, and we are asking them to do the thing that is most difficult for them, usually for several hours a day, five days every week. It makes sense that they start out resistant and often return to that resistant stance over and over again. It’s pretty easy to spot. Just this week I saw a little boy, lower lip hanging, eyes brimming, sitting across from an instructor, refusing to engage with the questioning that is at the core of our programs.

What’s an instructor to do?

Will yelling at this child inspire him to engage? “Tommy! You’ve got to do this instruction! You don’t know how to read! We’ve got to do this right now!” No. That just leads to more resistance.

How about guilt? “Tommy, your parents are paying a lot of money for your instruction. Right now you are wasting their money and wasting my time.” Effective? Hardly.

Begging? “Please, Tommy, please, will you read this word?” No; at best this is a short-term solution.

What I’ve noticed throughout my years of teaching, but most vividly in the environment where I currently work, is that relationship has to come first. The student needs to see that you like her, care about her, and want to have fun with her. She needs to see that you are willing to get in the trenches with her, that you care about what she has to say, that you are invested in the process, and that you are willing to be flexible.

Time and time again, I have seen students on the first day of instruction, believing that they will never improve their ability to read, sink into a chair, turn their eyes down, and prepare themselves to resist. Just as many times, I have seen a well-trained instructor start by building rapport, explaining the steps simply and carefully, then setting the climate for teamwork and fun. Slowly, the student sees that he is not alone, that he can take a chance, that he can begin to believe differently. Maybe, just maybe, he really can learn how to read!

If we can create a space for our students to step into, if we can show them the possibility of a world in which they can, with our support, learn how to read, then they will more likely be willing to shift from their position of resistance in to a position of cooperation.

What if we took that approach when speaking to people on the “other sides” of the discussions that we are having. What if we started by building rapport (which would require that we stop shouting)? What if we explained our positions simply and carefully (which might require that we think through the complexity of those positions and understand our own reasons for our beliefs)? What if we set a climate for peaceful, even fun, conversation (which might require that we refrain from blaming, oversimplifying, and name-calling)?

Could we, in this way, create a space for all of the sides to step into, where they might imagine not binary discussions that tend toward polarization, but complex discussions that are willing to wait patiently for resolution?

I’ve recently been part of a study of Ecclesiastes, a book of the Bible, that is built on the premise that Ecclesiastes, a book of wisdom literature, was specifically written to teach people to live wise lives. The study defines a “wise life” as one that makes right decisions because it’s willing to ask the right kinds of questions. If one is truly pursuing wisdom, she has to ask these questions with open ears, an open heart, and an open mind. She has to be open to the possibility that she might be wrong.

Gulp.

What would that look like?

What would it look like if all the sides were committed to making the right kinds of decisions because they considered the right kinds of questions? What would it look like if all the sides entered the conversation with open ears, open hearts, and open minds? What would it look like if all of the sides were open to the possibility that they might be wrong?

Would we approach one another with humility? Would we ask one another to help us understand the reasons behind our positions? Would we listen carefully without mentally forming rebuttal? Would we pause and think before we replied or asked for further clarification?

Would we first build rapport?

(Hi, my name is Kristin, I am happy to be having this conversation with you today. How are you?)

Would we explain our positions, after having considered our own reasons?

(I come from a Christian perspective, and my life experiences have complicated some of my earlier held positions on political matters. I am wondering if you would be willing to step into that complexity with me.)

Would we set a climate for peaceful, even fun, conversation?

(Would you join me for a cup of tea and maybe lunch. I am not expecting any solutions; I am just wanting to toss around some ideas. Maybe when we’re done being serious, we could get some ice cream or see a movie.)

What might shift if we created such spaces? if we created an environment where folks didn’t have to cling so tightly to positions that they may not even fully understand or agree with? if we could stop pointing fingers, look into the eyes of the person sitting across the table from us, and see their humanity?

It certainly wouldn’t be as simple as having two sides. That’s true.

Is it worth the time and energy to admit that we might be more complex than that? Are we brave enough to try a different way?

Are we willing to make right decisions because we have considered the right questions?

Are we willing to stop believing that we are merely both sides?

It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise

    than to hear the song of fools.”

Ecclesiastes 7:5
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My Sweet Experience, re-visit

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Yes, it’s gushy, but since I just saw Dr. Sugar yesterday, and since he rescued me when I had a significant flare while I was in Utah last week, I decided it was time to polish this post from March 2018 and share the gushing one more time, in June 2019.

As a new volunteer for Patient and Family Centered Care at the University of Michigan, I have been asked to share part of my story at Kellogg Eye Center to a group of new Kellogg employees.What has my patient experience been like? Since I am more accustomed to writing than to speaking, I thought I’d share what I plan to say here.

In the summer of 2012, while my family and I were living in St. Louis, MO, I started experiencing joint pain.I had been, up until that time, a full-time teacher, school administrator, mother of four, and…

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Can we talk?

Would you be willing to join me for some tea? (Black, green, chai, or oolong?)

Where should we meet? (Your place? mine? someplace else?)

Can we chat? (Or are you worried that I have an agenda, an ulterior motive, a covert plan?)

What would you be willing to discuss? The weather? Your family? Faith? Politics? (Even if if it’s threatening rain, divorce, doubt, or scandal?)

Do any of those topics make you uncomfortable? Why? (Is it because life is messy and fragile and broken and complicated?)

Are you willing to discuss them anyway? (Even the stuff that makes your chest tight, your eyes brim, your pits sweat?)

What are you afraid of? Aren’t we just humans sitting at a table? Aren’t we merely considering the exchange of words? Do my questions have the power to cause you to reconsider your stance, dismantle your ideology, or change your heart? (Is it possible that I might judge you or disagree with you or find even more ways to question you?)

Is that frightening to consider? (What’s the worst that could happen?)

Shall we pause so that we can both imagine the worst?

How bad could it be?

That bad?

Or is it possible that it might actually turn out well? (That we might connect, agree, learn, or grow?)

Is it it possible that I’ve been where you are or that you’ve been where I am? (Could it be that we might find communion in the sharing of our tears?)

Might we find solace, compassion, confirmation, or challenge? (Can I picture your hand on my shoulder? Our heads bowed to think? to pray?)

If I ask you to explain the way you think or what you believe, don’t I provide you an opportunity to articulate your why? Isn’t that a chance for you to find clarity? Isn’t it a way for you to speak into my thoughts? My beliefs? Isn’t it an avenue for you to draw closer to me and shape my course?

Should I be afraid? Will your words push against my words? will they stick out their elbows and struggle to find room? Or will I clear a space on the couch, reposition some pillows, and invite them to take up space? (Will I draw back? Will I lean in? Will I do both? Will I run away?)

Am I too afraid of the impact you might have on me? Am I scared I might lose my way? Do I trust enough that I invite you to walk beside me? (Or am I more comfortable walking alone, protecting myself from your questions, your statements, your judgments?)

Will we meander? Will we get off course? Will we find our way back? (Or will we discover a mountain path, a sandy beach, a patch of shade?)

Would you be willing to join me and find out?

Can you see us — you and I? As we pour our tea, take a sip, and linger? as we pause and hear our thoughts?

Who will speak first? Will you? Will I?

Will we start off safe? (How’s work going? Do you have summer plans?)

Or will we dive right in? (What should we do about the environment? How can we improve the experience of people of color in America? Are you feeling secure about your retirement planning?)

What if we discover that we disagree? (about guns or education or gay marriage or abortion or immigration?)

Is your pulse racing? Did I go to far?

Should we stick to grocery prices? favorite books? or family trips?

Or can I ask how your health is since your recent diagnosis? if the divorce is final? if your kid is still sober?

Can we go there?

Are you willing?

Can I pour you a cup of tea?

Can we come out of our corners, put down our arguments, open our hearts, and listen to one another? Can we consider our thoughts, weigh our words, and speak in ways that are kind?

Can we begin to see that even though we have differences, we are not enemies, but fellow sojourners, companions, friends?

What difference could that make?

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

Proverbs 27:27

Confessions of an English Teacher, numero uno, revisit

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I am dusting off this post from August 2014in celebration of the 1000 English teachers I’m reading with now — June 2019.

My students have helped me keep my secret for years — I’m not really the best English teacher. It’s true. They correct my grammar almost as much as I correct theirs. I misspell words, even on the board! And, to be honest, I always have to look up the correct usage of lie and lay.  

I mean I have the credentials and everything — a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English. I was even magna cum whatever both times. I love English. I love literature. I love words. I’m just not a big fan of rules. 

(I know, I know — obviously.)

What I love about language, actually, is its fluidity, its malleability. I love the way meaning changes over time and according to circumstance. I…

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Sorbet before Lunch, revisit

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This post, written in June of 2017, is being edited in June 2019, on the heels of a week away with my husband, as I sit in a hotel room I’m sharing with the roomie I met two years ago. This is a pattern I’ve enjoyed repeating.

So much is jangling around inside my head this morning. Over three weeks ago my husband and I left on a two-week vacation — we slipped away to an undisclosed location where no one recognizes us so we could begin to recognize one another again. We spent hours together, just the two of us. It was quiet; it was restful; it was lovely. At the end of the two weeks, I jetted off, instead of coming straight home, to a week of AP English Literature Exam scoring with hundreds of strangers. Inside of those three weeks, I read a couple of books and…

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How hard can it be?

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First written in February 2018, this post further examines the topic from Righting the Course. I’ve cleaned it up for you here in May 2019.

It sounds pretty easy. I mean, it’s really just one independent clause. I’ve read it, or heard it read, certainly dozens of times in my life.  In my mind, I see Jesus peacefully walking along a dirt path, probably next to the Sea of Galilee, wind blowing through his hair, gazing lovingly toward his hearers. His voice is gentle, as though he’s giving the simplest of invitations, “repent and believe the gospel.”

How hard can it be to 1) repent, and 2) believe the gospel?

Pretty darn hard it turns out.

I have spent a fair amount of time writing about repentance. It’s such an archaic sounding word, isn’t it? Kind of King James-ish, if you ask me. Why in the world would I use a word like 

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Righting the Course

Three years ago at the end of May, my husband and I retreated north, so far north that we couldn’t get a cell signal. We each brought the materials we would need to plan the courses we’d be teaching that fall. Away from the Internet and the daily routine, we found time to go for walks, take naps, eat well, and outline goals and objectives for our in-coming students.

Two years ago, we escaped south — we spent two weeks in Fort Myers and even rented a car and drove south, south, south, until we got to Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States. We didn’t plan for classes on that trip — no, we’d been particularly busy all year, so we devoted time to beach exploring, CSI Miami binge-watching, puzzling, and pleasure reading.

Last year was the year of the Great British Baking Show — the year of sitting on our couch, the year of grief, the year of remembering how to breathe. We didn’t go north or south — we were doing well to stay right where we were.

This year, in the middle of winter, we marked off this week to head north. Our bags are packed, and we’ll soon be on our way. We won’t be writing any courses this year, but we may continue ‘righting our course’.

We’ve been ‘righting our course’ since we came to this little house by the river. We weren’t really planning on that. We knew it would be a new season with our kids all moving into adulthood and us moving back to our home state, but we didn’t really know how much our lives would be under re-construction.

We knew that we were stepping into change –my husband was leaving congregational ministry and moving into a much different role at a university, our kids were moving on, and I was committing to healing. What we didn’t know was that my physical healing was just the beginning. Our move back to Michigan would be the start of a much more global transformation.

We’d been living a propped up existence — caulking leaks and mending seams with duct tape — for a long time. We’d been moving too fast to make thorough repairs in the moment, so we’d patched up what we could and just kept moving, unaware of the extent of the underlying structural damage caused by years of neglect. My health crisis was the impetus for slowing down and dealing with the repairs, and once we started looking, we kept finding more and more projects. However, since life doesn’t have a pause button so that you can do a full renovation before you move on to the next chapter, our reconstruction has been a work in progress.

In the past five years, we’ve witnessed our children move into adulthood — facing and navigating obstacles, chasing and re-defining dreams, finding and losing love, losing and finding themselves. We’ve watched, supported, and done our best to encourage, while we have at the same time found ourselves figuratively pulling down dated wallpaper, exposing water-damaged drywall, and tearing up old floor boards.

As each project has presented itself, we’ve surveyed the damage with crossed arms and furrowed brows, and have then chosen — sometimes reluctantly — to do the hard work of repair. We’ve addressed our health through different approaches to diet, exercise, physical therapy, and medication under the supervision of myriad medical professionals. We’ve examined our emotions through intentional work together, separately, and with therapists. We’ve explored our work/life balance through experimentation with different levels of responsibility and various forms recreation. We’ve invested in our spirituality by spending time with our congregation, our small group, and our own individual study. And bit by bit, little by little, things are starting to come together.

And, now that we are able to sit comfortably in this reconstructed existence, we are finding ourselves sipping tea, taking walks, and questioning our thinking — testing long-held positions on most every imaginable topic.

Every day it seems, my husband and I look at one another and say, what’s God doing here? how do we feel about that? why do we feel this way? what steps should we take? what needs to shift? how do we still need to heal? what is the root of this problem? what is our part in the solution? where are we going? what are we doing?

We don’t have the answers — just a lot of questions.

This is new.

We have been the leaders, the doers, the deciders for most of our adult lives. We have written the courses, made the plans, and mapped out the journeys for ourselves and others. We have called the shots, made snap decisions, trusted our guts, and driven the bus.

But guys, we found ourselves on a course set for collapse.

And now that we’ve taken stock and submitted to a period of reconstruction, our posture is very different. We are realizing that life is full of nuance and complexity: we couldn’t possibly know all there is to know. We have admitted that we got some stuff wrong, and, we are asking some serious questions.

And the interesting part of all this is that, now in our fifties, we aren’t scared. In fact, I would say that we are energized. We’re reaping the benefits of the changes we’ve made in these last five years, and we are on the edge of our seats, big goofy grins on our faces, waiting to see where the questions lead us.

So this trip north is going to be a little different. We’ve packed sweatshirts and flip flops, notebooks and pens, trail mix and tea, and so many questions. We’ll carry them with us — tucked in our pockets, shoved in our bags, and strapped to the roof of the car. We may take them out and look at them, we may discuss a few, and we may leave a few on the beach among the rocks, but I am picturing most of them will come back with us unanswered. And that does not discourage me, in fact, it’s a relief, because I am reminded that we are no longer in the season of having all the answers.

We have moved comfortably into the season of holding all the questions. And you, know, I’m starting to like it here.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

John 6:68

Can I ask you a question?, re-visit

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This post, written in February of this year and tweaked just a bit for you here, unpacks my journey from telling to asking –a practice which informs my most recent post, Of passing laws and changing behavior.

I have an adult student with some cognitive challenges who has been learning how to read for as long as I’ve known her; the process moves very slowly. Each word is a labor, and ‘Kelly’ is on her own time table. She will work hard for a few minutes and then take a break to sing or tell a “knock, knock” joke. When she wanders off topic, it can be challenging to recapture her attention, but I’ve found a pretty reliable way to re-engage her. I sit quietly with my hand raised, student style.

She soon sees my hand, points at me, and says, “Yes, Kristin?”

I say, “Can I ask you…

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Of passing laws and changing behavior

This year eight states have passed laws limiting access to abortion; Alabama passed a law this week directly prohibiting abortion except when the mother’s life is at risk or the baby has no chance to survive.

As the news is reported, the reactions can be heard across the nation. One camp is celebrating, believing these battles are signs they’ve won the war. Another is rallying its troops, preparing for the fight of their lives.

And I’m sitting here asking if we’re doing it all wrong.

Will passing these laws eliminate abortion in our country?

Do laws change behavior?

Does the law prohibiting alcohol consumption under the age of 21 stop underage drinking? Did it stop you? Or did it merely force you to find ways to conceal the fact that you were drinking?

I had one of my first drinks around age 15 in a friend’s basement an hour before a school dance. A dozen of us drank too much, piled ourselves into cars driven by those who shouldn’t have been driving, and, by the grace of God, made it to the dance. Things could’ve gone much differently.

Actions pressed into hiding don’t often turn out well.

Prior to Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion up to the age of viability, women got abortions illegally. No official records were kept, obviously, but researchers now estimate that approximately 800,000 illegal abortions were performed annually prior to 1973 (The Guttmacher Institute). Women snuck around corners into dark alleys, paid people who may or may not have had medical expertise, and took risks that often ended their lives or left them permanently unable to bear children. They sought out secret abortions regardless of a law that prohibited them.

Let me stop right here and say that I am not pro-abortion. Actually, I imagine very few people would say that they like abortion — even among the most liberal pro-choice advocates. However, I am questioning whether restrictive legislation will decrease the number of abortions performed in our country.

I am wondering if the answer to decreasing the number of abortions and changing the hearts and behaviors of those who would choose abortion lies instead in changing the culture in which women are pressed into desperate situations –a culture where sexual impropriety is the norm and where the words of women are often not believed.

What if we could change the culture that recently elected a president who has bragged about his sexual exploitation of women? a culture that leaves thousands of rape kits in warehouses — untested for years — while perpetrators make more women into victims? What if we could change a culture that shames women who rely on public assistance into one that provides all women (and men) with resources — for contraceptives, mental health, medical costs, and child care?

We need to look at such a cultural shift because creating bills and laws that outlaw behavior do not, in and of themselves, eliminate that behavior.

In a country where it is illegal to buy, sell, or use illicit drugs, we have one of the biggest opioid epidemics in history. In 2017, 47,600 people died from an opioid overdose in the United States alone — where heroin is illegal and prescription opioids are supposedly regulated (Centers for Disease Control). In 2017, 2.2 million Americans admitted to using cocaine monthly; 473,000 admitted to using crack monthly (Delphi Health Group). The last time I checked, both cocaine and crack were prohibited in the U.S.

Laws do not eliminate behavior, they merely push it behind closed doors.

Not only that, laws often position us one against another. They put us in camps, as though we are at war with one another. Haven’t we sorted ourselves as either pro-life or pro-choice, as if this complex issue could be boiled down to either/or?

The problems we face are more complicated than that — abortion is but a symptom of a much larger problem. One that is quite complex. In this country, which was founded on the principle that all [men] were created equal, we have not historically extended liberty to people who were not [white] men. Women (and people of color, and most especially, women of color) in our country have long felt unheard, disrespected, and undervalued. They have long been dismissed, abused, underpaid, and neglected.

Women who have found themselves in desperate situations, have sometimes chosen abortion when the alternative has been shame, condemnation, parental or spousal punishment, physical harm, an inability to provide, or having to raise a child born of assault. Deprived of other forms of agency, women have chosen the most desperate of actions — taking the life of a child.

The solution to the problem is not merely prohibiting abortion. No, if you want to value life, you have to value all life, and that starts with valuing the lives of women. Seeing women, listening to women, paying women equally, promoting women, electing women, and most important of all — caring for women.

In this country of wealth, education, and privilege, certainly we can handle complex problems such as this. Surely we have the wherewithal to consider a solution that is multi-faceted and takes into account the welfare of all — the unborn and those who are already living.

So, instead of pouring time and money into overturning Roe v. Wade, a law that has been affirmed as constitutional, what if we tried a different approach? What if we tried to change our culture by coming together, listening to one another, hearing each other’s stories, and working together to find unique and complex solutions? Right now, we are staying in our own lanes, each convinced that he is going the right way, refusing to cross paths, take detours, or share the ride. When we refuse to communicate, when we resist difficult dialogue, we lock ourselves in opposition; we prohibit change.

And don’t we want change? Don’t we all want what is best for our country and the people who live within it? Don’t we want all women, men, and children (born and unborn) to be safe and valued?

I don’t have the answers, but I do have plenty of questions.

If you stand against abortion, do you also stand with and for women and children? Do you befriend them? even if they don’t look like you? Do you encourage them? how? Do you provide for them? In what way?

If you are pro-choice, what actions are you taking to support and sustain the lives around you? to offer a variety of choices that may or may not include abortion? Are you willing to interact with those who say they are pro-life? Are you willing to sit down over a cup of coffee and have a real conversation? Are you willing to listen openly, without formulating rebuttal in your mind?

I recently had the opportunity to share the room with some recovering alcoholics. I listened carefully to their stories and their conversations, and I learned from them. Do you know what got them to stop drinking? Was it a law? Not typically. Sure some addicts dry up when they are arrested or thrown in jail, but more stop drinking and stay sober when they have, in finding the bottom, looked up to see a support system gathering around them — a bunch of fellow wanderers who are stumbling together toward a better life. They aren’t shaking their fists and pointing fingers at each other. No, they are lending a hand or sharing a ride; they are reaching out, listening, and showing up.

Wouldn’t it be great if the mere passage of laws remedied the ills of a society?

It doesn’t work that way.

We’re much more broken than that, my friends. Pointing fingers, passing judgement, heaping on shame, and throwing people in jail do not fix brokenness.

Brokenness can only be healed in community — in partnership– through love.

Rather than passing more punitive laws, I wonder if we might try a different way — a coming together, a collective sharing of lives, a genuine care for the people around us. A gathering, lifting up, supportive kind of sharing that is willing to walk with people through complex situations and even, dare I say, pass laws and policies that provide alternate paths, financial support, and an entrance ramp to a different way of life.

Are you willing to give it a try? Where do we start?

Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths.”

Psalm 25:4

Tell Me Your Story, re-visit

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This post, written in January 2018, further examines the assumptions we make about one another — assumptions that can prevent connection. I repost it here in the wake of this week’s post, Of Reality and Social Media.

I am a hypocrite.

Although I have stood on my soapbox pointing out injustices and crying out for equity, I am a prejudiced person. I’m racist. I’m classist. I’m sexist. I’ll judge a person based on one Facebook status or incriminate a whole group of people for their stance on whether they think athletes should stand for the National Anthem or not. I’ll sort you into a category so fast, it’ll make your head spin.

It’s embarrassing, actually.

I’ve lived my professional life encouraging students to write narratives – to tell their stories of defining life moments — their parents’ divorce, the death of a sibling, a betrayal of friendship, a proclamation of…

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