Come Closer

In the past weeks and months we’ve seen an escalation, it seems, of the gun violence that has been a plague on America since well before the attack at a high school in Columbine, Colorado on April 20, 1999, twenty-two years ago this week. In 2020, during a global pandemic, when many of us were under stay-at-home orders for large chunks of time, the New York Times reports that there were more than 600 shootings in which four or more people were injured or killed. In 2021, the United States has logged 147 such mass shootings and eleven mass murders (in which four or more people were killed) as of April 16th. Just a few days ago, a young man shot and killed eight at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis before turning the gun on himself. In March, a man killed ten people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. A few days earlier, a young man killed eight adults at three spas in Atlanta.

At the same time, incidents of police shooting and killing suspects seem to be increasing. Last Sunday, April 11, Daunte Wright, a 20 year old man, was shot during a traffic stop. On March 29, Adam Toledo, a male teenager, was shot after a brief middle of the night police chase. In total 213 civilians were fatally shot by police in the first three months of 2021 in the United States.

What is happening? As I watch the news from my couch, I find myself yelling: “get rid of semi-automatic weapons!” and “we need free mental health care for all,” as if more mental health care and a few gun laws would make the changes we need in America.

I really wish it were that simple, but what I’m starting to wonder is what if the shootings –these killings — aren’t the problem, but merely symptoms — and as soon as I’ve written the words, I know I’m right.

The problem is much more pervasive than the gun violence we’ve seen over the last weeks, months, and years, and rather than being isolated to some we might call ‘killers’ or ‘terrorists’, ‘thugs’ or ‘criminals’, the problem lives inside all of us. The deadly disease of ‘othering’, or dehumanization, that causes and perpetuates isolation, desperation, and violence has infected all of us, and we spread it through our actions — and our inactions — every day.

Brené Brown in her now-famous Braving the Wilderness describes this disease saying:

Dehumanizing often starts with creating an enemy image. As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.

excerpt found here

Have you seen this? Have you found yourself getting angrier and angrier, losing trust, and being unable to listen to those with whom you don’t agree? Have you found yourself listening for buzzwords that can help you categorize people into the enemy? I have!

Haven’t we even named those who are our enemies? Liberals, conservatives, libtards, Trumpsters, thugs, Karens, maskers, no-maskers, … I don’t have enough space on this page to list all the ways that we label those that we put on the other side or that we ourselves identify with.

Brené Brown explains that we dehumanize others in order to justify our mistreatment of them. If we reduce fellow humans to labels or categories through our language, we create distance between them and ourselves, and we find it easier to sling verbal grenades. Doing harm to these others seems right and appropriate if they are indeed the enemy. I want to shut down those I view as different from me so that my agenda can be furthered. I’m right, after all, and they are clearly so, so wrong.

If I call someone a “liberal”, I take away their personality, their humanity. I decide that they are less than human because they believe ‘socialist ideas’ and will certainly bring our country to ruin if they are left unchecked.

The same thing happens when I label someone a “Trumpster.” In my mind, I’ve consciously or unconsciously demoted their status to subhuman. They are no longer a child of our Creator, how could they be if they are not only ‘conservative but likely racist, homophobic, and hateful toward women’?

In my mind, I justify my ill thoughts toward these “enemies”; I view myself as more righteous, more human. However, such dehumanization not only reduces others to subhuman status, it reduces me, too. It makes me less than what I’m called to be, less than kind, less than gentle, less than compassionate, less than self-controlled. I find myself behaving as one who has no love, no hope, no wisdom, no knowledge of a God who has created and loves all of us. All of us.

Brene’ Brown says, ‘When we desecrate [others’] divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our humanity.”

So what is the remedy? Perhaps we will find our way by re-humanizing, re-connecting. And how do we do that?

I am reading a book called The Restorative Practice Handbook by Bob Costello, Joshua Wachtel, and Ted Wachtel. My principal handed me this book last fall when I started working at Detroit Leadership Academy, whose educational framework is grounded in the idea that all of our students have experienced trauma, all of them need restoration, a space into which they might step to find a different way.

And isn’t that what we need? Don’t we need some space in which we might turn around and find our way back to humanity, to compassion, to empathy for other humans whether they are similar to us or very, very different?

The main premise of the book is that when one person has caused harm to another or to the community in general, the goal should be to restore that person to his community through a very simple series of steps. Rather than immediately jumping to consequences or even punishment, Costello et al have spent the past twenty years practicing this restorative process which asks the offender to first describe what happened, what they were thinking at the time, what they’ve been thinking of since, who they think they may have offended, and what they might do to make things right. This simple questioning creates space. It allows the person, the human, to think about what happened, to process their emotions, and to realize that their actions had consequences for others.

The next step is to allow those who were impacted to share what they were thinking when the event occurred, to describe the impact it had on them, and to suggest what might need to happen to make things right. The person(s) who was harmed has a chance to process their emotions, to put their feelings into words, and to be a partner in the process of reconciliation.

These discussions take place inside a circle of those who were involved and other interested parties such as parents or community leaders. The process takes an investment of time and intentionality, but as it has been used inside school and institutional settings, the results have been remarkable. Communication in a caring and supportive environment has allowed the individual to “move past shame…and make things right and restore his relationship with the….community” (74). Crucial to the success of this process is a commitment to “‘separate the deed from the doer’ by acknowledging the intrinsic worth of the person while rejecting the unacceptable behavior” (73). This is counterintuitive. We really want to label others according to their actions, pushing them away from us into convenient boxes and imagining their ‘enemy image’, but where has that gotten us? Further and further apart.

What does this have to do with gun violence? Well, remember I said that gun violence was a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. The real disease is our habit of dehumanizing others, of hating them, of calling them names, and pitting ourselves against them.

Brené Brown says that “people are hard to hate close up,” and that might be why we push them away. If we pulled ourselves into circles and listened to one another, listened to each other’s stories, heard each other’s hearts, we might find that our preconceived notions were oh so wrong. We might discover that we are more alike than we might have ever imagined. We might find empathy and even love.

It won’t be easy to do this work. Just reading this book over the last several days has forced me to confront all the ways I have been judgmental, punitive, legalistic, and dehumanizing. That has not been fun, but as a good friend said just recently, “I’d rather realize I’ve been an asshole for the last fifty years and work to live differently than to keep being an asshole for the rest of my life and not even know it.”

I’ve been a real asshole to some people. I haven’t been able to separate the deed from the doer. I’ve pushed people away and made judgments about them, cutting off any possibility for relationship or empathy. I’m saddened by that, and I want to do better. And I’m wondering if a few of us trying to do better might make a difference, if a few of us showing love, compassion, and empathy might begin to change the world.

I’m willing to try, and I already know that I will fail in this trying, so I am counting on some of you to keep calling me back, to bring me into the circle, to ask me what happened, what I was thinking, and what needs to happen to make things right. Are you with me?

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, as Christ forgave you.”

Ephesians 4: 32

Carrying Sorrow and Finding Joy, Re-visit

I brought out this post, written in February 2018, on this weekend in July 2019 — a weekend where I simultaneously carried deep sorrow and experienced great joy.

Brené Brown says in Braving the Wilderness says we “can lean into pure joy without denying the struggle in the world” My husband says, “two realities can coexist.”

We can hold two things at the same time.

Photo Credit: Anna Rathje

This is hard for me to wrap my mind around. If I am really hurt, I want to really be sad. I want to grieve, mourn, and wail. I want to go all-out Old Testament and rend my garments, put on sackcloth, and smear my face with ashes.  I want to fully commit to my feelings.

Once in junior high, I came home at night feeling betrayed by a friend. I ran through the front door of my house, flew up the stairs to my bedroom, flung myself on my bed and wailed — audibly wailed. My mother came into my room, heard my tale of woe, rubbed my back, and commiserated with me.  She tried to get me to shake it off, I’m sure, but I would have nothing of that. I needed time and space for my grieving.

Of course, as is true of most middle school devastations, my grief was short-lived. In fact, in the words of my great grandmother, “everything looked better in the morning.” I likely laughed with my friends at the bus stop the next day.

However, life doesn’t stay as simple as middle school. Some devastations don’t right themselves overnight. Some griefs have staying power. I am thinking of the families of school shooting victims, for example. They will carry grief with them for the rest of their lives. I’m thinking of sexual assault survivors, too. That kind of devastation does not go away when the sun rises. And, I’m thinking of the kind of aches that many of us carry with us every day — the pain of childhood abuse, the darkness of abject poverty, the burden of overwhelming debt, the brokenness of divorce, and the cumulative scars from years of neglect and unintentional hurts.

What do we do with that kind of grief? How do we simultaneously hold that kind of pain and still find moments of joy?

Years ago we were very close with a family that had suffered great loss. The mother and father had had four children — their oldest child was killed in a motorcycle accident in his early adulthood and their youngest child died in an early-morning car accident during her senior year of high school. We met this family years after these devastating losses, and I can remember listening in stunned shock to the recounting of the stories. I felt the ache of our friends’ loss, yet I also noticed, as we spent more time with them, that the members of this family were often initiators of celebration, of gathering, of laughter. In fact, the patriarch of the family, the father of the four children, was known for his practical jokes and for his annual elaborate Easter egg hunts. The mother was one of the sweet grannies of the church where we belonged — she was a smiling presence in the kitchen for every function from Vacation Bible School to funeral luncheons to holiday gatherings. The remaining two sisters (mothers and grandmothers themselves) often hosted huge gatherings at their homes — hayrides, pool parties, picnics, and the like. The family embraced and even cultivated moments of joy, yet certainly they still carried the sorrow of loss.

Ann Voskamp says “There isn’t one of us not bearing the wounds from our own bloody battles.”  It’s true. I forget that sometimes, especially when I am walking around in sackcloth and ashes. I look at the people around me and I think, “look at that perfect life. Certainly they are not suffering.”  But everyone carries pain. Everyone. 

We don’t often see one another’s brokenness because we like to keep it under the thin veneer of our social media presence and the public faces that we wear.That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Pain can be paralyzing. Sometimes we have to put it away for a bit so that we can continue to live.

However, some losses seem so devastating that we are tempted to lose hope. We are tempted to stay on our beds wailing at the top of our lungs. Most of us don’t. Usually we find the wherewithal to wash our face, comb our hair, and get back to the business of life — work, school, groceries, and laundry. However, not all of us find a way, like my friends have, to simultaneously hold sorrow and experience joy — the joy of a birthday party, of a new baby, of a basketball win.

Even if we do find a way to be happy for a season, “old scars can break open like fresh wounds and your unspoken broken can start to rip you wide open and maybe the essence of all the questions is: how in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?” (Voskamp 15).

How indeed?

I’m not entirely sure. I have my own unspoken broken and the only remedy I’ve found is a moment by moment lifting of it. It’s as though I’m a small child and I’ve just fallen with my most prized treasure in my hand. It has been marred beyond recognition and I am inconsolable. I cry. I weep. I wail. And then, in exhaustion, I hold it up as high as I can as though to say, “See? Do you see what happened? Can you fix it? Can you make it better?”

When I was a little girl, I would hold broken items up to my dad. He was over six feet tall and very calm. He didn’t react in anger or disappointment when something was broken. He quietly took it from my hands and said, “Well, let’s see.” I knew if it could be fixed, my dad would find a way. He would bring the situation in close, examine it thoroughly, and determine if indeed the item could be restored. He might grab a pair of pliers or some crazy glue. He might take off his glasses to get a better view. And usually, after a few moments, he would had back my treasure and ask, “how’s that?”

I can still feel wonder at my dad’s ability to make things whole again.

But, as we’ve all learned, some broken things can not easily be made whole.

And so I’m standing here holding my unspoken broken in my hand. I’m reaching up as high as I can and I’m saying, “Do you see this? Can you fix it?” And in the moments that I calm my desperate cries, I can almost hear a still small voice:

Behold, I am making all things new. 

I cup my hand around my ear and listen:

Sorrow may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning. 

“But what about right now?” I yell.

Fear not, I am with you. 

Yes. Yes, you are.  You have never left me nor forsaken me.  I’m sitting here trying to be strong and courageous because you are with me wherever I go, but this is a pretty dark and miserable place…

I know.  I see.  I’m here.  

And for that reason, today I will try to cultivate some joy.

I can hold two things at the same time.

You keep track of all my sorrows.

    You have collected all my tears in your bottle.

    You have recorded each one in your book.”

Psalm 56:8

Brown, Brené . Braving the Wilderness. New York: Random House, 2017.

Voskamp, Ann.  The Broken Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016.

Tell Me Your Story, re-visit

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 love. These stories cross all lines of race, class, gender, political affiliation, musical preference, and lifestyle choice.

Our stories reveal our humanity; they connect us to one another.

In my classroom I have made space for students to laugh with one another, cry with one another, challenge one another, and embrace one another. I, too, have laughed, cried, challenged, and embraced. I have revealed my humanity to an audience of twenty or so students at a time. I have met and loved kids who are rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Arabic, Christian, atheist, Jewish, male, female, gay, straight, fat, thin, extroverted, introverted, funny, serious,…

It’s not hard to love someone – anyone – once you have heard his or her story. But in order to hear that story, you’ve got to risk getting close. That’s the challenge for me, because I’m prejudiced. I look at your hair, your clothing, your skin color, and your car. I see who you hang out with, what you share on Facebook, and what you retweet on Twitter. I know who you are, I think to myself.You are ‘that kind’ of person. I sort you into a clump and make assumptions about you before I even hear you speak.

I recently returned to a job after two and a half years away. Since I left, my former supervisor, who I loved, had resigned for health reasons. I had had a couple interactions with the woman who took her place, but before I had even worked with her one day, I had decided that she would be not as amazing, not as on top of things as my previous boss. I pre-judged her. Then, during the last hour of a two-day-long training, the new supervisor partnered with me for some role-playing activities, and I got my first up-close glance at her personality and heard the first few lines of her story. My prejudices were confirmed, but they were also dashed. She isn’t, actually, exactly like my previous supervisor; rather, she has her own unique personality and gifts. (Shocking, I know.) I wasn’t anticipating laughing with my new supervisor as she pretended to be a precocious nine-year old to my role of reading instructor, but there we were – giggling like close friends lost in make-believe.

People are hard to hate close up. Move in.”

Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

From a distance, even the length of my arm, I can keep you handily sorted into a category – liberal, conservative, educated, ignorant, friend, or foe. However, if I ask to hear your story, everything can change. My beliefs can be challenged, my assumptions destroyed, my heart opened.

Years ago I picked up my first Jodi Picoult book, My Sister’s Keeper. It’s the story of a girl who was conceived by her parents in the hope that she would be a donor match for her critically ill older sibling. Gasp!  One glance at that premise and I formed an opinion. How could they?  What kind of parents….? However, Picoult, I soon learned, is a master at using narrative to bring her readers in close to see issues in their complexity – issues that most of us find ourselves firmly positioned on – euthanasia, gun violence, infidelity, and abortion. She weaves her narratives, often from multiple points of view, to expose these issues as more than dichotomies. She can move me from my Gasp! How could they? to a Wow! I can’t even imagine that kind of love! in 400 pages or less!

Real-life stories are no different from fictional narratives – they are full of complexity and factors that don’t appear on the surface. If I judge someone based on her skin color, clothing, language choices, or friends, I am missing out! I am missing her story – all the characters and plot twists that have led her to today. Not only that, I am diminishing her humanity – I am relegating her to a category rather than appreciating her individuality. Most importantly, I am denying the connectedness that she and I share as members of humanity – children of the Creator.

Our pastor, Gabe Kasper, spoke recently about the necessity for genuine relationships in the church (read or listen to the full-text here). He said that genuine relationships are characterized by vulnerability, empathy, love, and the willing of good for the other person. We don’t often enter into such relationships because 1) we are afraid of getting close to people, and 2) we don’t want to take the time. However, if we are willing to risk getting just a little closer, of asking others to tell us just a little piece of their story, everything — EVERYTHING – can change. Story has the power to transform us – our understandings, our experience of life, and our relationships. Imagine the impact of a couple hundred people who have chosen to be vulnerable, empathetic, loving, and supportive of one another — intentionally and consistently. What ripple effect might that have?

Are we willing to, knowing better, do better. Are we willing to call out our prejudices and stereotypes? Are we willing to set those aside, step in close, and hear the stories of people who may not be just like us?

Consider this: Because I am a 50-something white woman who has been a teacher and a pastor’s wife, you may draw some assumptions about me – that I’m Christian, heterosexual, pro-life, Republican, and financially secure. You might believe that my family is immune from tragedies such as chronic illness, sexual assault, alcoholism, eating disorders, family conflict, depression, or anxiety.  Some of your assumptions may be right; most would certainly be wrong. How will you know which is which? You will have to lean in and listen to my story.

Some of the things you learn about me might be confusing. They might challenge you. You might not agree with me. You might choose to walk beside me anyway. And, in that walking, I might learn some things about you that confuse and challenge me. I see us taking lots of long walks together, learning about one another and growing together.

I imagine that if we are willing to take the chance to move in close and learn the stories of those who we might have previously sorted into categories, our assumptions will be destroyed, and we will never be the same again.

Are you willing to take that risk? Are you willing to tell me your story?

Romans 12:10

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.