Malaise

Standard

Time for one of those deeply introspective, self-reflective yet pastoral posts you all love so much. Or I hope you all love so much, since this is how my brain works about 86% of the time.

You might struggle with something and it might be “something everyone does” and you still struggle with it. Having people tell us, “Oh, yeah, everyone does that” may be invalidating rather than comforting, because it can minimize or trivialize what we’re trying to face.

If you can’t seem to get anything done or accomplished right now, that’s not unusual but it’s still important. That might be depression or the underlying anxiety that comes with We’re in a Pandemic and No One Knows How This Will Go. It might feel baffling. What’s wrong with me?

So you tell someone,

“I can’t seem to finish a book right now.”

It may be validating to get back,

“Oh, yeah, I can’t either.”

But it can feel very different to hear,

“Oh, that happens to everyone,” or “I never manage to finish books,” or “That’s not a big deal…”

Now say you’re a reader like me or more so. I haven’t read nearly enough in the last few months. By that, I mean I have been distracted and frittered away time where I shouldn’t (*cough* *social media* *cough*) and have not done good, spiritual reading nor educational reading nor professional development (i.e. novel) reading as I should want to and really enjoy. I’m in a rut of doomscrolling. Not every moment, but way too many moments. if you’re a bibliophile and read a book a week and constantly have 4 or 5 books going at any one time,* and you discover, “Crap, I haven’t read anything for three months,” that’s not just a bummer. That’s a symptom.

Your thing might be journaling or fixing cars or hiking or glass-blowing or gardening. It might be your actual job which you like but can feel you’re just dialing in right now (yeah, that might be a quarantine joke, and it still might also be true). If you can’t–or don’t feel up to–doing your thing, I encourage you to pay attention to that.

If you don’t feel like you, that’s understandable right now. If you’ve tried to tell someone,

“I’m not exercising enough” and they’re like “My gosh, you’re in such good shape, you should see what my scale says!”

Or “I’m not baking like I usually do” and they tell you “Well, you’re lucky, because that would just be a bigger temptation right now.”

First, I’m sorry that your friend couldn’t hear what you were really saying. Second, that’s a serious thing for you, even if your barely-functioning level is still the envy of others. Sometimes comparisons are damaging for us not because we’re comparing ourselves but because others are and we stop being honest because that isn’t fun to hear.

Most people aren’t experiencing their “normal life” right now. That can be a great thing, as it offers us a moment and a breather to evaluate whether this so-called “normal” is what we still want to choose. But this isn’t a step-away vacation. It’s a world-wide crisis. So even trying to gain perspective becomes really difficult with the uncertainty and bubbling anxiety.

Added to that, at least in my case, is a constant anger/frustration/discouragement about the current state of politics and especially how people are behaving and treating one another. Turns out, continuous anger for months on end is awful on the body. Who knew? I feel like I’m in a constant wrestling match with myself between lashing out and trying to show grace–trying to figure out how to show grace in this context and in these circumstances. If you are going through this, it is depressing you. I don’t mean “that’s a bummer” depressing, I mean medically-speaking, sustained anger over long periods of time is terrible for our bodies physically and leads to depression.

So don’t do that. Don’t be so angry.

Ha.

Obviously, it’s not that easy. But it is that important to address it.

I’ve written quite a bit about depression. If you’re prone to depression, of course this is a more difficult time because it’s harder to keep our healthy, balanced maintenance routines. You also likely know how to identify your symptoms, so it’s more a question of rebuilding these routines with the available pieces.** But if you’re not used to depression, you may find this disconcerting or even bewildering.

I think many of us are suffering malaise.

Malaise is a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify.

It’s funny, as I picture who might need to hear this, I’m like the guy who has spent his life on crutches explaining how to use them to someone who’s never had to deal with a limp before. I can’t beat a healthy person with two good legs in a sprint, but I’ve gotten pretty used to getting around on these and I’m surprisingly agile. If this is your first time having your legs not work and trying to make sense of “crutches first going upstairs or downstairs?” then it really can be a hard learning curve.

Don’t beat yourself up for not feeling normal. Feeling bad or off is challenging enough without attacking yourself for it. You can’t just take a club to your malaise to get rid of it. Don’t feel bad about feeling bad.

Pay attention to your symptoms. That means recognize what things are symptoms. A wise friend taught me that when my body is trying to tell me something, it’s counter-productive to get angry at it for sending the message (thanks, Rowena). I don’t mean freak out because you had one bad night of sleep. I mean if you’ve noticed that you have no appetite for the last three months but are drinking more…stop brushing that off. I’m not a tea-totaller. I’m saying pay attention.

Pay attention when others, especially those you love, are telling you what you’re not seeing. Some people are hypochondriacs and some are muscle-through-and-tough-it-out. This is for the latter group (the former are already researching their symptoms, believe me). If you know you’re off but just choose to ignore it, someone else may be trying to tell you what you won’t let your mind or body tell you.

I’m using “malaise” because, if you’ve never dealt with depression, this sounds much less daunting. I’m using “malaise” here because for many of us right now, everything is wrong and yet nothing is wrong for us personally and it feels like we should be fine, especially because so many people have it so. much. worse. There are big, serious crises happening all around us. This is a stupid time to feel sorry for ourselves. But self-care is not feeling sorry for ourselves (self-pity is, and that’s another topic). It may help to frame it like this: if the crises happening right now matter to you, then what do you need to do to take better care of yourself so you can help? Contribute? Do your part?

It’s okay if you aren’t doing great. Suffering malaise makes sense right now. I think we should probably have enough empathy and compassion that, even if we are personally doing wonderfully, we also feel a bit off, a bit sickened, seeing how many are suffering all around us. Compassion and empathy aren’t weakness. We need to cultivate these, not stomp them down.

Since the definition of malaise ends with “whose exact cause is difficult to identify,” I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers. I just know how to get around on crutches. Identify two or three things you can do–not would do if you had the strength and felt up to it but can do, right now, feeling like this–that you know will lift your spirits. There’s a balance between paying attention to why you feel down and doing what helps to raise you up again.

Pray. Ask God to help you pray if you can’t. Pray for help even if you only believe 1% that God hears and that might help. God doesn’t hold that against us.

BE PATIENT WITH YOURSELF. I can’t stress this enough. Feeling this way doesn’t mean you’re weak. Breathe. Breathe again. Go for a 20-minute walk (or 5 if that’s all you can manage) and breathe deeply and mindfully the whole way. Don’t expect to snap out of it. The only people who say “snap out of it” don’t get how this feels (or, you know, we say it to ourselves even though we’d never say it to someone else). If you can make yourself, cut back on the doomscrolling or whatever your version of overloading on negatives might be. Stop reading the replies. Stop arguing in your head with strangers. Stop arguing on social media with acquaintances. Stop spending your precious energy on things that can only drain you and don’t help anyone.

Take the time you saved by refraining from that and go do one of those two or three things you identified. If at all possible, make yourself do that thing you enjoy (I’m assuming these are safe things to do). This is a fine line, too, being gentle to yourself and forcing yourself to do what helps.

Two last things. First, you may realize that you are suffering depression for real. No shame in that. What we’re calling “malaise,” when you finally look at it, may be a deeper problem with more established roots. That may mean you need to change your habits or even your lifestyle. It may mean you need professional help. Hoping it isn’t a serious problem won’t make it go away Facing ourselves honestly takes courage. Doing so is also crucial to loving ourselves, as in “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Finally, you aren’t alone. That might sound cliched or false. When we get into these negative spirals, whether malaise or depression or guilt and shame, the biggest and strongest lie is that you’re alone, no one else understands or cares, and therefore you’re cut off from the rest of humanity. I really hate that lie. It is a lie. Don’t let that lie smother you. I urge you to pray or ask me or someone else to pray for you (or both). Talk to someone who has earned your trust. You are not alone.

*There are a million different ways to be a reader, but I’ve noticed that one easy classification is those who will not start the next book until theyv’e finished the current book and those (like me) who have no idea how many books they have going right now. More than one.

**I know, that makes it sound easy. “You know, just find replacement activities and structures to rebuild your healthy maintenance routine in our very constrained circumstance that will help just as much as the ones you spent years discovering.” Oh, is that all?

First-Hand Experience and Expertise

Standard

For today’s blog post, I’m sharing the words of two friends, an ICU nurse and a food economics and policy expert.

The weekend report from my hospital:

Covid cases continue to rise in our hospital.  I worked the past two days and they were tough ones.  We had 9 covid positive in ICU, 7 of them intubated (breathing tube).  We had 7 non-covid patients in ICU.  The floor is experiencing record numbers of hospitalized covid cases.  People that need to be hospitalized, but not requiring ICU care are out on the floor beds. They had 13 covid cases on Tuesday, and even more than that on Wednesday.    We were so busy that I didn’t really have time to get exact numbers, but once when I talked to the floor charge nurse, he said they were expecting 3 more admissions that were positive for covid.  Two of their patients were heading toward needing ICU if they did not improve.  They had a 25-year-old that became short of breath just sitting on the side of his bed. Although I was not there I was told that Sunday was a record day, as well.
We had multiple very sick patients and we were proning 3 of our patients.  As you can imagine it is very hot trying to work in the patient rooms with the N95, faceshield, headcover, gown and gloves.  Our nurses sweat, the masks leave red marks and indentations on their faces.  I see my coworkers getting weary.  Many are working extra; one of our nurses just worked 10 shifts in a row (12 hr).   We have had two back injuries suffered by personnel in our department from turning and proning our heaviest patients. We are again calling back the nurses with ICU experience who work in other areas now.
 One of the tendencies that I notice with some of our patients is that they make gains, look like they are getting better, then they crump and take a turn for the worse.  Sometimes this happens multiple times in the course of their illness.  It feels like one step forward, two steps back and is disheartening.   Yesterday one of our patients who had made great improvement, suddenly and inexplicably desaturated and required resuscitation.  As you can imagine, running a code situation with all code team members in full covid isolation gear is not easy. Hearing each other is challenging, the chest compressors become extremely warm doing chest compressions in all their garb.  We lost the battle, so today is difficult. Thank you for reading this, for your care, encouragement, and friendship.  I appreciate you!


Thoughts on why it’s wise to listen to recognized experts rather than politicians, mystery researchers, and game show hosts:

When I was working, I was an expert on a particular issue (food economics and policy). I obtained a graduate degree in my field in order to learn the context and history surrounding it and the rigorous statistical methods necessary to evaluate it. Then I spent 40 plus hours a week reading, thinking, studying, reviewing and discussing my area of expertise with others who were also experts in my field or closely related fields. Our days were spent consuming every relevant piece of credible scientific research that we could lay our hands on in order to develop policies that reflected actual conditions in our society. That was our job. That was our mission – to develop sound policy recommendations based on FACTS. We took our jobs very seriously. Our work was always reviewed by several layers of several colleagues within our agency to ensure that our conclusions stood up to scrutiny. Published work was sent to colleagues outside of the agency to ensure our conclusions stood up to scrutiny.

The same holds true for every Federal scientific and statistical agency in America like the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). I’ve worked with the experts at NCHS. Nothing gets published without intense professional scrutiny. No recommendation is made without first reviewing every piece of relevant, credible science. Of course, politicians frequently misused our findings, but that’s on them, not us. Yesterday a young man suggested that I review for my edification a summary of a cherry-picked collection of COVID-19 studies compiled by an unknown person or persons with unknown funding calling themselves a Swiss research organization online. For all I know, the organization could be a Russian propaganda cell or a guy in his basement in Berlin or Dallas. A few weeks ago, someone shared with me the videographed opinion of a single doctor who’s not even treating COVID-19 patients as he is now a GOP representative. A few days ago, our POTUS retweeted a post from former game show host Chuck Woolery, bashing our nation’s top infectious disease expert.*

I ask you, who can you believe about COVID-19? Game show hosts and POTUS’ “very large brain” or people and organizations whose sole purpose in life, whose mission it is to study every single credible scientific study in order to bring a concise understanding of the problem vetted by an army of experts working on the same problem? I guarantee you that game show hosts, POTUS, mystery “researchers,” and politicians who happen to be doctors have not spent a billionth of a percent of the time and effort studying COVID-19 as have the brilliant public servants at the CDC and the world’s other premier public health institutions. Don’t waste your time on the un-learned opinions of anyone who hasn’t DONE THE WORK..

I’m not adding or subtracting anything from their words. They’re both friends of mine, people I have talked and laughed with, people I trust. Rather than make an abstract argument about what people are suffering with this disease or what sources we’re listening to, I offer you this.

*A few hours after Woolery’s accusatory tweet, he tweeted that his adult son has been diagnosed with COVID and shortly thereafter deleted his Twitter account. This is his latter tweet:

“To further clarify and add perspective, Covid-19 is real and it is here. My son tested positive for the virus, and I feel for of those suffering and especially for those who have lost loved ones,” Woolery tweeted before his account disappeared

Concise Thoughts

Standard

Caution is not the same as fear.

When you cannot be an expert on everything, deciding whose expertise you trust becomes more important.

When the issues about which you cannot become an expert involve life and death, deciding whom you trust becomes exponentially more crucial.

When disagreeing with another person, it can be hard not to judge their character as well as their position.

We shouldn’t assume that ours is the only reasonable conclusion one could reach. We shouldn’t assume that those who reach other conclusions do so due to deficiencies in their character.

Even if someone holds a position with which we disagree and it stems from a flaw/weakness/deficiency in their character, they may have other tremendous strengths. We are all a mixed bag.

As we get angrier and more entrenched in our disagreements, kindness and grace become more, not less, important.

Compassion and empathy are lacking. Period.

Doing to others as we would have them do to us takes more work than most of us assume. Considering how I would want to be treated in someone else’s situation demands more from me than assuming they must want what I want.

Dwelling on others’ criticisms of us is probably not the best expenditure of our energy.

Dinosaurs are cool.

Not everyone else is in the same place in their spiritual journey as you are. Sometimes no one else is in the same place in their spiritual journey as you are.*

Assuming an insight that quakes your world is exactly what everyone else needs to hear is evidence you’ve forgotten this truth.

Finding someone else who is, in some aspect, journeying where you are is very exciting. (And having someone belittle that really hurts.)

Our spiritual journeys are neither linear nor even aiming at the same goal.** Telling someone they aren’t “as far along” or “in a different place” (i.e. not as spiritually advanced as you) is forgetting this truth.

If we believe this, if we really believe this, then envying someone else’s success is not just a waste of emotional resources, it’s missing the point.

Judging others without considering their suffering is dehumanizing them. We do this all the time. I do this all the time. God, forgive me.

I would rather be an instrument of God’s grace than prove to people that I’m right…and this gets harder to choose Every. Single. Day.


Usually you can count on me to be more long-winded. I don’t do this often, because I like to consider things in depth and go down different rabbit trails paths of thought. But today it struck me that some things need to be expressed more concisely. I am pondering all of these. I hope at least one helps you.

*Probably not literally true but you might not have any contact or exposure to anyone else who is “where you’re at.”

**Yes, I do believe we are growing into the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13), but I’ve learned that the fullness of Christ for me may look so different than the fullness of Christ for you that I can’t accurately compare these, either.

Listen

Standard

On a still morning, I can hear it.

We don’t have many still mornings. Gun shots, people begging to breathe, threats. So many threats.

Screaming and yelling, continuous arguments. I feel them echo in me even when I shut out their source.

Am I their source?

Accuse. Accuse and attack again. Why are they so threatened? Why does good news sound bad to them?

It’s so bad. It’s funny bad. It’s laughing-hysterically-“can-this-get-any-worse?” bad.

Now it’s worse.

“Forgive me.”

“All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything.”

“You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.”

It’s worse.

I can’t bring back this child. I can’t save the next child.

The screaming is so loud.

It’s worse.

How can you be arguing still? How can you pretend not to see? Are you pretending? Can you really not see this?

Seriously?

I don’t understand. I just don’t understand.

But here are some things I know.

It’s been bad for a long time.

It was never going to get better quietly.

In one sense, this isn’t first about “us versus them.” It’s about me versus me. Will I choose a pretend truce, the relief that comes from agreeing to look away again? Will I dig in harder and confront the ugliest parts of myself?

In another sense, it is about us versus them, but I can only fight that battle when I’ve taken on me.

I have to face myself and stop being what I’m trying to oppose.

I have to face myself and stop being the hatred, the indifference, and the passive beneficiary of evil I’m trying to oppose.

They don’t want to change. I know that. And make no mistake, they have to change, one way or the other. I’m not spinning some fairytale here. I’m not suggesting that if we just feel love in our hearts, their hearts will suddenly open and bloom.

But I know I–and we–have to fight them empowered by love and not hate.

Here’s the difference: if i fight driven by hate, all i want is to destroy them. If I fight powered by love, I want to confront the evil in them–as I’ve confronted the evil in me–and open the way for them to be part of us.

I’m also not pretending there are two right, roughly equal sides that just disagree over fine points. We’re not talking about taste in music or ice cream. If you refuse to see the racism and sexism that degrade and endanger people, you have chosen a side. The wrong side.

But I don’t believe we have good and evil people. We have people, people who choose good and evil, all of whom are beloved by God and need grace. If I want to destroy those people made in the image of God, hate will work just fine. If I want to offer those people grace while challenging their choices for evil, I must commit to radical love, the love Jesus offers me, the same love that calls out–and burns away–the gross, nasty, hateful ooze in me.

That’s why I had to take on me before I could take on them. I can’t offer love that I haven’t first accepted. I can’t look at hate-filled people with compassion until I’ve received compassion for being hate-filled…until I’ve stopped justifying my hatred…until I’ve decided I prefer the anguish love costs me over the (imagined) protection that hatred and bitterness offer.

But I’m describing all of this as linear and orderly. It isn’t. It won’t be. I have to make continuous choices to love. I’ll make some of those wrong. I’ll deceive myself. I’ll let hate seep in and turn my heart cold and hard while I tell myself the other person deserves it. “Deserves.” Then grace will break through again, because that’s what Jesus does, and I’ll grow a bit more in humility and empathy. Again.

Change is coming. Statues are coming down. People who have been blind to their own racism are starting to see. Some who had stayed quiet have found their voice. More will as we speak up and press forward. Do your part now. Don’t wait any longer. Choose.

Christians who have followed lies and power instead of Jesus are repenting. Not as many as I’d hope, yet, but some. Change is coming. It has to. People have to make their choices, but the moral arc of the universe is bending toward justice, a justice driven by love.

Gods’ kingdom is coming.

And I can hear it.

Can you?

Statues and Flags

Standard

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, “Cornerstone Speech” March 21, 1861

People don’t like to hear what they don’t like to hear. 

It will be hard to make a more obvious or circular statement than this.

Nonetheless, I think this explains a whole metric feces ton of what we’re seeing—and arguing about—now.

If a person in my hometown had raped and murdered my grandmother but had also started a number of businesses and helped the town prosper economically, how should I respond to the statue in his honor?

If you lived two thousand miles away from my hometown, and I had to walk past this statue at least twice every day and get reminded, over and over, how my grandmother died, why my mother lived with such trauma and pain throughout her life, would you argue for that statue to remain so we can remember the honorable history of industry in our country?

We don’t like to hear what we don’t like to hear.

What if that statue got erected not during–or even right after–the rapist-murderer-businessman’s lifetime, nor during my mother’s life, but just twenty years ago, and consciously to remind me that I can do nothing to change how I or my children still get (mis)treated in our town?

Does that change anything?

Frankly, it’s bizarre that people who have nothing to do with a town in the South argue against the removal of a statue that reminds blacks who live there that their great-grandmothers watched their husbands get lynched there. Is it really the best way to “preserve our history” to celebrate people who did evil with monuments put up generations after they died and erected for the express purpose of terrorizing black citizens during both the “Jim Crow Era” and the fight for Civil Rights?

But we don’t like to hear what we don’t like to hear.

So we change the argument. We make it about “erasing our history.” Would your history in this country be erased if that statue in that southern town, where you’ve never visited and likely never will, came down?

But it’s the idea, right? “If we start taking down statues, where does it end? The political correctness just ramps up and they start wiping out everything that doesn’t fit their politically correct agenda. Everything this country stood for, everything that helped build this country, gets erased and we give in to feeling guilty and ashamed about what should be a source of our pride.”

As Jesus followers, I think we need to look at this differently.

Does following Jesus mean standing with and advocating for the people whose grandmothers were raped and grandfathers were lynched? Or does it mean defending our country’s “history,” the story we want to believe about how we got here, however that might conflict with the historical evidence?

We don’t like to hear what we don’t like to hear.

I had more thoughts but I’m going to share an AP history teacher’s Q&A instead, because it’s better than what I had and, surprisingly, completes the argument better.

From someone who teaches AP US History: 

If you are confused as to why so many Americans are defending the confederate flag, monuments, and statues right now, I put together a quick Q&A, with questions from a hypothetical person with misconceptions and answers from my perspective as an AP U.S. History Teacher:

Q: What did the Confederacy stand for?

A: Rather than interpreting, let’s go directly to the words of the Confederacy’s Vice President, Alexander Stephens. In his “Cornerstone Speech” on March 21, 1861, he stated “The Constitution… rested upon the equality of races. This was an error. Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Q: But people keep saying heritage, not hate! They think the purpose of the flags and monuments are to honor confederate soldiers, right?

A: The vast majority of confederate flags flying over government buildings in the south were first put up in the 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement. So for the first hundred years after the Civil War ended, while relatives of those who fought in it were still alive, the confederate flag wasn’t much of a symbol at all. But when Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis were marching on Washington to get the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) passed, leaders in the south felt compelled to fly confederate flags and put up monuments to honor people who had no living family members and had fought in a war that ended a century ago. Their purpose in doing this was to exhibit their displeasure with black people fighting for basic human rights that were guaranteed to them in the 14th and 15th Amendments but being withheld by racist policies and practices.

Q: But if we take down confederate statues and monuments, how will we teach about and remember the past?

A: Monuments and statues pose little educational relevance, whereas museums, the rightful place for Confederate paraphernalia, can provide more educational opportunities for citizens to learn about our country’s history. The Civil War is important to learn about, and will always loom large in social studies curriculum. Removing monuments from public places and putting them in museums also allows us to avoid celebrating and honoring people who believed that tens of millions of black Americans should be legal property. 

Q: But what if the Confederate flag symbol means something different to me?

A: Individuals aren’t able to change the meaning of symbols that have been defined by history. When I hang a Bucs flag outside my house, to me, the Bucs might represent the best team in the NFL, but to the outside world, they represent an awful NFL team, since they haven’t won a playoff game in 18 years. I can’t change that meaning for everyone who drives by my house because it has been established for the whole world to see. If a Confederate flag stands for generic rebellion or southern pride to you, your personal interpretation forfeits any meaning once you display it publicly, as its meaning takes on the meaning it earned when a failed regime killed hundreds of thousands of Americans in an attempt to destroy America and keep black people enslaved forever. 

Q: But my uncle posted a meme that said the Civil War/Confederacy was about state’s rights and not slavery?

A: “A state’s right to what?” – John Green

Q: Everyone is offended about everything these days. Should we take everything down that offends anyone?

A: The Confederacy literally existed to go against the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the idea that black people are human beings that deserve to live freely. If that doesn’t upset or offend you, you are un-American. 

Q: Taking these down goes against the First Amendment and freedom of speech, right?

A: No. Anyone can do whatever they want on their private property, on their social media, etc. Taking these down in public, or having private corporations like NASCAR ban them on their properties, has literally nothing to do with the Bill of Rights. 

Q: How can people claim to be patriotic while supporting a flag that stood for a group of insurgent failures who tried to permanently destroy America and killed 300,000 Americans in the process? 

A: No clue.

Q: So if I made a confederate flag my profile picture, or put a confederate bumper sticker on my car, what am I declaring to my friends, family, and the world?

A: That you support the Confederacy. To recap, the Confederacy stands for: slavery, white supremacy, treason, failure, and a desire to permanently destroy Selective history as it supports white supremacy. 

It’s no accident that: 

You learned about Helen Keller instead of W.E.B, DuBois

You learned about the Watts and L.A. Riots, but not Tulsa or Wilmington. 

You learned that George Washington’s dentures were made from wood, rather than the teeth from slaves. 

You learned about black ghettos, but not about Black Wall Street. 

You learned about the New Deal, but not “red lining.”

You learned about Tommie Smith’s fist in the air at the 1968 Olympics, but not that he was sent home the next day and stripped of his medals. 

You learned about “black crime,” but white criminals were never lumped together and discussed in terms of their race. 

You learned about “states rights” as the cause of the Civil War, but not that slavery was mentioned 80 times in the articles of secession. 

Privilege is having history rewritten so that you don’t have to acknowledge uncomfortable facts. 

Racism is perpetuated by people who refuse to learn or acknowledge this reality. 

You have a choice. 

–Jim Golden

If Mr. Golden’s answers offended or upset you, please consider why. 

We don’t like to hear what we don’t like to hear, but that doesn’t mean what we’re hearing is wrong. 

If everything I don’t like hearing is therefore automatically untrue, I have more maturing to do. Maturity means learning to distinguish between “I don’t like that” and “that’s not true.” 

We all have more maturing to do, don’t we?

**I was just preparing to hit “publish” when I stumbled on this essay, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument” by Caroline Randall Williams. Again, it makes the argument I’m trying to make, but much more powerfully and personally. What I was trying to describe is her direct lineage.

I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.

If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.

Dead Confederates are honored all over this country — with cartoonish private statues, solemn public monuments and even in the names of United States Army bases. It fortifies and heartens me to witness the protests against this practice and the growing clamor from serious, nonpartisan public servants to redress it. But there are still those — like President Trump and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell — who cannot understand the difference between rewriting and reframing the past. I say it is not a matter of “airbrushing” history, but of adding a new perspective.

I am a black, Southern woman, and of my immediate white male ancestors, all of them were rapists. My very existence is a relic of slavery and Jim Crow.

Caroline Randall Williams (@caroranwill) is the author of “Lucy Negro, Redux” and “Soul Food Love,” and a writer in residence at Vanderbilt University.

Please read her whole essay and let it sink in.

We don’t like to hear what we don’t like to hear–but we need to hear it so badly. I do.

Trolling

Standard

[My favorite troll in the world, drawn by James Marshall from the book Troll Country]

To be clear, this is on how to respond to trolling, not a master class on how to be a troll.

I’m getting trolled again. I’m literally interrupting writing another post–draft saved–to write this because I can’t get my mind to stop chewing on it. So here are some thoughts on trolling. Primarily I’m referring to when people we know do this, not strangers who appear to enjoy attacking others.

If you find that participating in social media negatively impacts your emotional, physical, or spiritual health, I’m going to recommend you make a change. I have also long held that we need to remain open to dialogue, especially with those with whom we disagree. I still believe this.

However, “dialogue” is none of the following: being heckled, gaslighted, or called names.

I do not have friends in real life who pop in or call me on the phone, criticize me or my beliefs in one sentence or less, and then take off again or hang up without saying more. Certainly I don’t have friends for whom that is our sole form of interaction.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m not looking for friends like that.

I have had acquaintances, most often (for some reason) at church, who seem bent on making rude, snide, or critical comments when they see me. I have chosen, in many cases, to keep engaging, extend grace, and return kindness for rudeness. Full disclosure, in a few cases, I’ve just tried really hard to avoid the person. But as I look back at these relationships, I’d say with most of them I have seen change in the person with whom I tried to turn the other cheek. Returning kindness for rudeness will not always change the other person, but it will always impact my heart. When I lay down my “right” to avenge myself and make myself vulnerable, which creates space for God to work…God works. Especially in me.

I believe in this kind of radical, Jesus-following love. People have impacted me most by loving me when I least deserved it. I’m profoundly grateful for those friends–and my wife!–who have shown God’s love to me when I knew bloody well I had something else coming. Grace catches us most powerfully when we recognize it as grace.

And that may take time. Just because we act like jerks doesn’t mean that we know we’re acting like jerks; we are endlessly creative at rationalizing and justifying our jerky behavior.

I try to follow these same principles for loving others on social media. I try to return kindness for rudeness. I try to remain silent or offer civil discussion in return for snark or attack, explicit or implicit. But I’ve realized that this doesn’t seem to have the same impact in virtual space. When someone can type a quick attack, hit “post,” and move right on, forgetting me half a second later, my returning gentleness has no influence. If I stay silent, they may not think of me or the interaction again, or they conclude they got the last word and therefore “won.” If I try to engage politely, often they double down their attack in response. At times I have tried to engage with direct messages, and I think this has the most hope of impact–we’re not having this impersonal, drive-by-and-fling-words-at-each-other spat.

My overarching goal in life is to embrace and extend God’s shalom. I’m learning to love God and love my neighbor as myself. “Learning” is the operative word here. I’m trying to help people believe that they are beloved and that God’s grace for us is greater than our brokenness and sin. I’m always three steps forward, two steps back in living this belief for myself. I’m trying to join in seeking justice and reconciliation.

I’m painfully aware that I live all this inconsistently. I talk about grace so much because I know how much I need grace merely to live through today– grace both from Jesus and from you.

I consider all of life a dialogue and a dialogue within relationship. In certain ways, social media promote this and are perfectly suited to my personality. But social media also may be disintegrating relationship and even community.

So that’s a concern.

Back to people drastically reducing or quitting social media altogether. I have many friends who have done this. I respect and support their decisions. I’ve seriously considered doing so myself. Trolling makes this decision very appealing. I’m still hoping to have a positive, shalom presence in the virtual world–which, let’s acknowledge, is part of our real world since it impacts real people directly.

I’m hopeful. Generally speaking. That doesn’t always come easily; sometimes I have to fight for it. I like the opportunity to reach and encourage people. I mean you. I like the opportunity to exhort and challenge people. I mean you again. Thank you for the opportunity. You’re choosing. Thanks for your choice. Thanks for the mutual encouragement and support. Thank you, those who disagree with me respectfully, who can model dialogue from different perspectives that doesn’t involve personal attack, rudeness, or belittling others.

Trolling, like racism and manipulation, is in the eye of the beholder. I’m certain some of the people trolling me would be shocked and indignant to hear that I consider their behavior “trolling.” So, because this is a dialogue (you know, like all of life!), and in case it helps some of you with your boundary setting, I want to give not a definition of trolling nor an exhaustive list of possible trolling behaviors, but trolling that people might not recognize as such. All of these are real life examples. If you call me a snowflake for making this list, well…hope I don’t have to explain.

If you comment on my posts and ideas exclusively to disagree and let me know I’m wrong, you are trolling.

If you make dismissive, one-sentence comments on more than one or two posts, you are trolling.

If you use one of my posts to go off on a tirade about all that you think is wrong with how “those” people believe and act (a loosely-veiled description of me), you are trolling.

If you express your opinion as absolute fact, repeatedly, as a means of correcting me, you are trolling.

If I call you on it and you explain to me how I don’t understand or know what I’m talking about, then you are trolling and gaslighting. Congratulations on the two-fer.

Now, because I’m a positive guy who believes in building up, here are some things I don’t consider trolling:

Disagreement, per se.

Occasionally or even regularly disagreeing with me, even when you do it briefly and a bit abruptly, in the context of lots of interactions with my thoughts, ideas, and hilarious humor (much leeway if you’ve laughed at my jokes. Ever.).

Disagreeing with me expressed as your opinion, preferably substantiated with why you hold that opinion. NOTE: I may disagree with your source(s) with which you substantiate your argument, but at least we’re trying! I appreciate the effort.

Any effort to identify what you appreciate, agree with, or affirm, to balance the points with which you disagree. If you and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and you can find nothing in any of my views or posts to affirm (which is not infrequently biblical Scripture by itself or pictures of baseball players or nature), then you should be posting your views for yourself, not correcting mine, because that’s not ever going to be dialogue. But I try to be generous-hearted and I give points for even minimal effort.

I have a handful of people who like–or feel compelled–to disagree with me frequently, but they take pains to present their views as their own, communicate respectfully and even with a smidge of humility, and look for other things about which we can agree. Are they a pain in my heinie? Yes, at times they certainly are. But this is not trolling, it is dialogue, and remember, I’m the beholder here. I particularly appreciate when people are conscientious to differentiate between disagreement and accusation. “I” statements come in great handy for this.

I suspect some people feel obligated to correct me because I’m doing my Jesus-following wrong. In their opinion, of course, but that position is not regarded as “opinion”…of course. On the flip side, I’ve also had numerous people–including some of you–ask how I can put up with the: patronizing, disrespect, talking down, demeaning, scorn, arrogance…let’s see, did I forget anything? I’m pretty sure those are all direct quotes.

I’m very flawed in my judgment but I’m learning to set healthier boundaries. There are some people I have decided I need to block. I felt sad about each one, even as I felt relief. When I started trying to have a voice on social media, I decided to interact with anyone who asked and who I thought I could benefit. It took a while for me to accept I could continue to pray for a person but not continue to accept their abuse. I’m going to say this a third time because it’s that important: the beholder gets to decide when “dialogue” has crossed into “abuse.” And the beholder–okay, let’s say “I”–might be wrong, or overreact, or be oversensitive. That’s life. We’re agents of grace, not perfection.

I do not believe we should cut everyone out of our lives whom we find draining or challenging or difficult to love. That perspective of “only allow people in your life who build you up, make you laugh, and give you chocolate” is very appealing…but it’s not the Gospel. Jesus calls us to love difficult people who require much grace from us. Somehow we learn to do this while also learning to maintain our health and sanity.

Choosing when to cut off contact with someone abusive is a topic that needs a blog post–or book–of its own. But I will say this, as general counsel: cut off contact with someone who is abusing you. Allowing someone to hurt you knowingly does not help them change, be healed, or know God’s love.

Therefore, we live in this tension. We do suffer for others. We do bear others’ burdens. We do forgive, repeatedly, and we do continue to extend grace.

We do not choose to be abused. We don’t continue opening ourselves to hurt–and yes, I’m including trolling here–when the other person cannot or will not see the problem. Further, if the “relationship” with someone is limited to interaction on social media–especially if there is no shared history of relationship in person–then even I, in my hope-filled-or-clouded mindset, am learning to recognize when I am having no visible positive impact on them but they are having a measurably negative impact on me.

You have to decide what you can handle. For me, going by what I “should” be able to bear and absorb often gets me into serious trouble. Mike in his twenties felt responsible to fix everyone and equated abusive treatment with the suffering Jesus calls us to endure. I think that gives me credibility to tell you this: if you need to stop someone from trolling you, it doesn’t matter if you “should” be able to handle it. Two of the people I have blocked would absolutely reject–and argue cogently and indefatigably*–that they have done nothing wrong and I have misunderstood, misinterpreted, or been oversensitive. But you know what? My interacting with them on a daily basis was costing my family. I remember specific moments when I was so frustrated over a debate with them that I spoke unkindly to my children.

“Wait, Mike, isn’t that your problem?”

This is what I’m trying to tell you: it had become my problem, in my family, and I had to fix it. Am I too sensitive? Do I lack healthier boundaries? Do I take things too personally and need to distance myself better? What if I’m the one who’s wrong? Even if it’s all of the above, God has grace that I couldn’t take what they were dishing out and when it became clear to me that this was true and they would not change their approach, I had to set a more absolute boundary.

In the end, I decided that I am doing some people some good. Loving my children well must remain the priority. I’m okay with having shortcomings. I do live with my own limitations, including dealing with depression. I want to encourage and love people. If spending my emotional energy getting entangled in arguments prohibits or sabotages these, those argument have to–had to–go.

I offer this to you. I know there are dangers of “cancel culture” and of simply cutting off anyone who disagrees with us. That, too, is a tension in this discussion. Again, you have to discern for yourself in which direction you might err. Are you more likely to cut others off too quickly or let negative treatment go on too long?

One final thought: I might be someone else’s troll. We want to imagine that trolling is all or nothing, that horrible, abusive people come home, get on their devices, and continue their venomous behavior. There are some like that. But I might be the person irritating or harassing someone else. Like racism, trolling is not just an absolute either-or. As with racists, certain people have given themselves over to it, but most of us can also fall into the category sometimes. And someone else treating me negatively can make me more likely to mistreat someone else.

Knowing that I might inadvertently** troll others helps me to approach this with humility. I can set healthy boundaries when necessary and still remember that there might be a plank in my own eye. I can decide someone is harmful for me and remember that my need for distance isn’t some absolute measure that they are bad.

Funny Pin, Weirdo, Pinback buttons, Lapel Pin, Made in Canada ...

There’s grace in remembering this, too.

*About time I got to use that word!

**Because of course we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. I would never intentionally troll someone else…would I?

MY Problem

Standard

I’ve been reading a ton lately. I knew our country had racist roots, so much so that we say things like, “Well, that was in the past and people didn’t understand then.” I think people always understood that if you owned a slave and had sex with her, she didn’t have a choice in the matter. But if we’re saying that people didn’t understand it was wrong to force someone else to have sex, no wonder we still have such a long way to go, on both race and gender violence.

Here we go, ready?

It’s wrong to force someone else to have sex with you.

It’s wrong to own another person.

It’s wrong to own another person and force them to have sex with you.

So let’s assume that you’re still reading and haven’t shrugged me off for stating the obvious.

Racism is on the rise in the United States.* Hate crimes have increased. Teachers report more incidents of racist behavior. We’re not getting better. We’re going the wrong way. Or at the very best and most optimistic, what was previously hidden in the dark has crawled out into the light for a look around.

Here’s what I have to say, since a friend recently reminded me that I have a voice and **** well better use it.

We can’t make other people not racist. That’s a subset of “We can’t make other people anything.” We have no power to change other people’s hearts, attitudes, or morality.

However. This is a big “however.”

We can challenge people. We can confront them. We can refuse to accept racism as a given. We can speak up.

We can change laws. We can cause laws to be passed and enforced that identify, prohibit, and punish violence based on race, including by law enforcement. We can help establish better laws in our own country.

We can appeal to people’s consciences. We can speak to those who may be quiet, or passive, or uncertain, or still comfortable, and do our best to wake them up.

We can–and I believe this is the most important thing and the step we’re most tempted to skip–search our own souls and examine our attitudes and behavior to and see what still might dwell in us. “Search me, O Lord…”

The more I read, the more I grasp that we must stop acting as if racism is an all-or-nothing proposition. It isn’t. That’s like saying manipulation or verbal criticism is an all-or-nothing proposition. Have you ever manipulated anyone? Are you a Manipulator? Have you ever hurt someone with your words? Are you a Verbal Abuser? Remember that for both of these, the reality lies not primarily in what you think you’ve done or what you’ve experienced from your end, but how you’ve impacted the other person and what they’ve experienced. Manipulation is in in eye of the beholder.**

Yes, I have manipulated people before. I know I have. I’m not proud of it, but I’m honest enough to recognize it and believe God has grace for me. Does that make me a manipulator? We mean something much worse, much more severe and categorical, when we say that someone “is a manipulator,” or even “that person is manipulative.” We mean that we’ve identified a life pattern and you cannot trust that person not to attempt to manipulate you.

I am not a racist. I’m guessing you’re not, either. I have not given myself over to racist actions and attitudes, any more than I have given myself over to manipulative actions and attitudes. But just like I sometimes commit manipulative acts, sometimes I do racist things. Sometimes I say racist things.

It does not help us in our most crucial step to consider racism as an either-or, all-or-nothing category. The woman in Central Park who threatened to call the police and lie to them that a black man was threatening her when she was the one breaking the rules and he was confronting her, afterward declared, “I am not racist!”

What the what?

She believes herself not racist because she understands the term as either-or. If she “did a racism” in this situation, she must be racist.

She will not own that she DID a racism—she could not possibly have DONE a racism, because that means that she IS racist. And to her thinking, that would be an always and forever proposition. We see this a lot, often about whether someone has racist bones in their bodies. Rather than, say, “I did something that was racist and I commit to educating myself to better understand why what I did was so harmful and to make better choices in the future.” Owning harm, working to change, and, I might add, offering amends of some sort to Christian Cooper. Rather than acknowledging, e.g., that we all live in a white supremacist society & takes a lot of work to fight the messages we have all internalized. “Racist” here is something that you ARE or ARE NOT, and if you ARE, you are BAD in an unchangeable way. (Some people are racist, don’t get me wrong. And that is bad. But it’s never unchangeable for people with the will to change.)”

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, shared from Twitter

“It’s never unchangeable for people with the will to change.” We “do racisms” all the time. I do. We judge others by the color of their skin and by their culture. We stereotype. We assume negatives. We fail to question or confront stereotypes. We believe news about someone because of how we categorize them. And those are just our personal actions.

We live in a country that has some unjust laws and enforces other laws unjustly, based on race. Bryan Stevenson makes this point about our legal system’s treatment of black minors in his TED talk. If you haven’t seen or read Just Mercy, please watch and read it. We don’t want to believe we live in a country with systemic racism. We would–I would–so much prefer to believe that there are a few bad eggs, a few Klansmen and neo-Nazi White Supremacists causing these problems and if we could just put them away, we’d go back to our fair, just, and equitable society. But that isn’t true. We have many states that have stopped using the death penalty because it’s been proven that we have enforced it in a race-biased manner.

Let me say this again, because it’s a big deal: we have enforced our worst legal consequences, taking people’s lives, in a racist manner. That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of laws, but it’s also one of the most horrifying, because there is no rectifying taking a person’s life.

I want to dig in to this. We have a responsibility to change the injustice in our country. If it doesn’t touch us directly so we look the other way or “tsk” at it but do nothing, we are doing racism. Passive racism is still racism. Looking away from evil is still evil.

These protests and demonstrations throughout our country and throughout the world, they are an attempt to make people pay attention, to convict us that we have gone along with racism, actively or passively, and that is why it still exists. It still exists because it’s in us. Not just the Klansman or the woman in Central Park. Us.

It’s wrong for people to own other people and force them to have sex.

It’s also wrong to kill people who can’t defend themselves and then excuse the people who did the killing. And if we “tsk” or turn the other way, we are allowing that systemic, racist injustice to continue. If we decide it doesn’t hurt us directly so it’s not our problem, we’re passively giving it permission to thrive in our country…because it still thrives in us. That’s how we got here.

If you find yourself arguing in your head–or shouting at your screen–then I’d ask you to read. Read how black people are experiencing our laws and our law enforcement. Read our history, recent and older, and not the sterilized, we-had-the-best-intentions version. Consider why every black parent has to have “the talk” with their children to explain how they must behave with police–and I don’t mean “obeying the law”–to try to keep from getting killed. If you truly believe that the problem is black people refusing to obey the law or media that overreport violence, I ask you to research more. You may have to consider other sources. We have violence committed against people of color every day, most of which goes unreported. When Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Rayshard Brooks gets national attention, you can assume that this, too, is the tip of the iceberg.*** When a black man jogging is chased down by white men in trucks with guns and murdered, do these men go to prison or do they not even get arrested until public outcry makes it happen–months later? That isn’t how our laws and our system should work. But we have a systemic problem.

If we are Jesus followers, we have a clear commandment: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” If you were screaming that laws were being enforced unjustly and lethally against you and those who look like you, would you have others listen and respond and join in your outcry? I would. If I were on the direct receiving end of this, I would want others to speak up with me, not tell me what I’m doing wrong when I know we’re getting killed for no reason. When we’re being shot to death while sleeping in our beds, and the official report states, “no cause of death,” I would want others to join me in shaking heaven and earth to make this stop. Loving our neighbor as ourselves requires this.

But even more, as a Jesus follower I have to stop pretending this is a problem black people have for which I might offer some help. If there are bullies at school, the problem isn’t that a few kids are getting targeted and it’s really those abused kids who have a problem to solve but I might decide to lend a hand, maybe speak up and say “bullying is wrong.” The problem is with the bullies. Right? Yes, I want to support the kids who are being bullied, AND it’s a school problem, a systemic problem, not just a problem for the kids who get picked on.

But now the bullies are part of my circle at school. I’m not a bully. Of course not. But sure, sometimes when they shake kids up and steal their money I get treated to ice cream from the cafeteria. Once I got a new backpack and I didn’t ask where it came from, because that would be looking a gift horse in the mouth, right? I didn’t punch anyone.

It’s tempting to tell myself that I’m innocent, I’m not doing the bullying, I would never do that, and therefore it’s not my problem.

“I’m not racist. I don’t hate black people. I don’t own slaves or call them names or wear a white hood. It’s not my problem.”

On every level, it is my problem. I need to recognize that it is. It’s my problem because my people, the ones who look like me, are doing the bullying. It’s my problem because I’m benefiting from the bullying–and historically, have benefited inordinately from it. It’s my problem because I follow Jesus who commands me to identify with those who are abused and bullied, who suffer injustice and persecution. It’s my problem because I, too, carry these racist attitudes and do quiet little acts of racism, usually passive, that help sustain this systemic injustice.

We can’t make other people change but we can change ourselves.

I need to help change this because it’s my problem.

*Though to many this statement, too, seems patently obvious, it’s hotly debated, including how to obtain compelling evidence either way. Statistics of reported and prosecuted crimes are themselves a matter of scrutiny and debate. I’m more inclined to believe those suffering racism who report their experience.

**Yes, there are severely unhealthy, narcissistic, and boundary-violating people who would accuse you of manipulation or verbal abuse for trying to set a boundary or speaking truth they don’t want to hear. “Eye of the beholder” works for a measure until you’re dealing with someone, well, abusive and manipulative.

***If you have an explanation why each of these cases was justified–including Breonna Taylor shot in her bed when she had been sleeping–I literally beg you to look at more sources to understand what really happened.

When a Life Matters

Standard

I’m going to try to approach this from a different perspective. If you’re willing, come along and we’ll think through this together.

Do lives objectively matter, in the cosmos? Why do lives matter?

When we say that “A Life Matters,” it begs the question “To whom?”

In the big, physical-existence only picture, the answer is “no.” Not really. Go back and check the size of the universe. Then check how many people will die today. Happens everyday. More people die, more people are born, the stars shine and go supernova and black holes swallow up light and does any of it really “matter?” No. It just is. I’m describing an answer to the question if we don’t immediately ask “To whom?” Based on the best scientific evidence, we’re a blip, a blink, just passing through with no impact and no real relevance. Then we’re gone, decomposing in our physical form, switching to other forms of matter–so do we matter? Yeah, the pun is almost too strong to resist. But I will.

If I tell you that you matter, I mean you matter to someone.

The great and shocking truth of Christianity–and this is a belief not a scientific fact I can prove for you–is that bigger than the universe, greater and older and infinitely more than the universe, exists a God who answers that question, who in fact initiated that question so you would know the answer.

Genesis 1, describing the chaos that was pre-creation, addresses the ancient belief that existence is without order, ultimately threatening and either utterly indifferent or even malicious toward human existence. The writer of Genesis conveys, “No, God who created everything brought order and, from the beginning, bestowed both value and purpose on humanity.” We are all made in God’s image to share God’s value and God’s purpose–and God, we learn, is love. We matter to God. God loves us. God loves us and shows grace to all of us, meaning God doesn’t stop loving us or love us less when we hurt others or ourselves.

Now if you don’t believe in God’s existence or reject that a creator God loves us, you have to answer “To whom” differently than I have. Humanity has attempted to answer that question apart from God but I won’t recount all those various attempts; I’m taking the long way around, but not that long. I’m just pausing here to say you still have to answer the question.

Okay, from the abstract to the very personal and immediate: you live as if some people matter more than others. You might say “All people matter equally,” or ‘All people matter equally to God.” Perhaps this means all people have a right to matter equally. But none of us live as if all people matter equally because that is impossible. We talk to some people and not to others. We spend money on some people and not on others. If one person is rushed to the emergency room, we drop everything and go; if others are rushed to the emergency room, we say a prayer, or simply don’t notice at all. Remember, we’re talking about lives “mattering” to us, not whether lives have value to God. Who matters to you? I think it’s probably self-deception to say “Everyone matters equally to me but I just pay attention to certain people and not to others.” If you got the news today of someone’s death, you would not respond equally to that news regardless of who died. Neither would I.

When I lived in Nicaragua I realized that Nicaraguan lives did not matter very much to most people living in the United States. It was a bizarre experience, yet probably one shared by nearly everyone who lives abroad and comes to love the country and people of their adopted home. These lives, Bismarck and Juan Ramon and Mileydi and Exequiel, were abstractions to my friends from my native land. I had the strange honor of trying to make them real to other people I love.

But I’m not claiming I’m special, I’m just describing my experience. If a person in Burkina Faso dies tonight, that person will be an abstraction to me. I don’t know that person. If I somehow found out and it was a little girl, I would feel grief in that general, abstract way we do over the world’s pain, injustice, how children should not die before their parents. But in the past week, I learned that Manuel, who lived in our barrio–no, we lived in his–and who watched out for us as his gringo family, died. Manuel was an alcoholic. He treated his body horribly and we knew his life expectancy couldn’t be terribly long. But he was younger than I am and now he is gone and I grieve. He matters to me. Of course he didn’t matter to you as much as he matters to me if you never met him. When I told you he was an alcoholic, he may have mattered to you a little less; you might now think, just a little, he deserves what he got.

But people can not matter to us when we know them, too. Jesus tells a parable about a man living in poverty named Lazarus and a rich man named…”rich man.” Unsettlingly, Jesus doesn’t give the rich guy a name. But the rich man steps over Lazarus at his gate, ignores Lazarus’s suffering and needs, and continues on with his comfortable, pleasurable life.

We’re not like the rich man, of course. At least, I’m willing to bet we have all told ourselves that we’re not and gathered our reasons to back this up.

“But Mike, you’re being unfair! A life can matter to me even if I don’t interact directly with that person! I can value a person’s life from a distance. I can say that person matters without having to feed him or dress her wounds or clothe their children.”

Hold that thought.

My life matters. To whom? It matters to me. I value my own life. I feed myself and exercise and try to take reasonable care of my health. I also try to enjoy myself, to do things that give my life meaning by my own measures, and to be a person I can bear. I try to love others even when they don’t love me, to show kindness to those who refuse to show kindness to me.

My life matters to me because my life matters to God. I can’t say the following with certainty–I don’t have a control group to test my hypothesis–but I believe I would not be alive if I didn’t matter to God. We usually phrase this as “Because God loves me.” In the mysterious, inexplicable ways of God, not only does God love me, but Jesus has taught me that the very meaning of my life, the purpose, is to do what I can to help others know God loves them, also. You. Nicaraguan friends. Ultimate players. My kids. Strangers on the street.

Can lives matter without purpose? They can, but I think it’s harder for us to accept. We still matter to God if we feel we have no purpose at all, but part of God’s conveying to us that we matter is inviting us to join in God’s purposes. Those are big. Reconcile the world to God in love (as opposed to at gunpoint). Redeem and restore all that we’ve damaged with our hate and violence and our disfiguring of creation. Build shalom community. In fact, I would say our purpose and our love, both given by God, can’t be taken away. Even if we lose our ability to do everything, God still works through us to love and heal. That’s grace.

We live as if others matter by affirming their beloved-ness, by recognizing and calling out their reflection of God’s image, by which I mean that they are both loved and capable of loving. The more abstract this is, the less it touches people. The more specifically and truthfully we can tell and show people they are loved, that they have purpose and value and significance to us, the better chance we have of helping them to know that they matter.

Yet numbers work against us. Can you love a thousand people? A million? Can you love twenty people? Or twelve? Or only two?

Well, of course the answer is that you can love different numbers of people in different ways. For how many people would you rush to the hospital? That is one very specific expression of love. That you would not rush to the hospital for everyone does not mean you don’t love everyone, but again, you don’t love everyone equally. We have limits. We could smile at everyone we meet, but we can’t listen well to every person we meet (believe me, I’ve tried). We can share our food with some but not with everyone. We choose.

As Jesus followers, we choose and also trust that God who is infinite can and does love everyone, while we seek to love those within our reach. We who are finite do our small part and believe God uses our small part for the whole, what we call “God’s Kingdom,” God’s overall work in the world.

You know at some point I’m going to shift gears. Not yet.

Complicating these matters, I’m both sinful and broken. I love imperfectly, even when I’m crazy about the person. Some people I flat don’t like, or don’t enjoy, or don’t respect, or don’t accept. Jesus literally commands us to love everyone–including enemies– and not just abstractly, but specifically to love them as we would want to be loved.

Of course, my failures and shortcomings in loving others don’t mean they are less lovable. Nor that they matter less.

Our church has a sign above the door that says, “You matter to God, so you matter to us.” That’s our calling that we recognize from Jesus. Jesus says they matter, so they matter, and consequently we seek to help them to know that they matter, to show by what we say and do and don’t say and don’t do that we affirm their value. To God. To us.

Therefore, if we have a movement within our country insisting that certain people matter, of course we have the calling to affirm this truth. Jesus makes that clear. I have never, in my thirty-plus years of following Jesus, felt the need to convey to anyone that they matter less. Have I needed to confront some people’s pride and ego? Of course. But not their value. Not that they matter to God or to me.

Going back to abstracts and specifics, of course every person in the whole world matters. But how many people feel specifically loved or valued by my declaration that everyone matters? Notably, our sign doesn’t say “Everyone matters to God so everyone matters to us.” Of course we believe that and try to live it. But my calling, now and in each moment, is to help you know that you matter. You won’t feel that more if we tell you, “Yeah, everyone.” It is everyone. But you have to hear that it’s you. YOU matter to God. So YOU matter to us.

In Mark 5, Jesus went rushing off with Jairus, a very esteemed and powerful man in his culture, because Jairus begged Jesus, “Come, heal my daughter!” But on the way, Jesus got stalked by a woman. She came up close to him–violating her culture’s laws, by the way–and touched his clothing. Stalker. This touch healed her. You may not believe that, but I do. But the story isn’t that Jesus magic-healed her without trying; Jesus stopped and asked, “Who touched me?” Remember he was rushing to heal a dying girl, with a man who mattered very much within the hierarchy of that culture. Jairus’s daughter mattered very much to Jairus, Jairus beseeched Jesus for help, Jairus mattered to Jesus, and Jesus charged–until this. This lowly, unhealthy, impoverished woman (all strikes against her) did not believe she mattered to Jesus at all. I can just touch him, she thought, get healed, and he won’t ever have to see me or know I exist.

Jesus stopped. Jesus demanded, “Who touched me?” Peter said, “It’s a crowd. Everyone is touching you.” Yep. Everyone. Everyone matters. Jesus didn’t ask that. “Who touched me, for I felt power for healing flow out of me.” What? But the woman knew she was busted. She fell to her knees in front of him–have you ever actually dropped to your knees before another person? I don’t think we can even quite get how demeaning, how lowering this act might be. Jesus spoke with her. He raised her up. He listened. He affirmed her. He told her, “Your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”

Then, and only then, did he resume hurrying to the emergency of Jairus’ little ten-year-old girl.

I’ve heard people say, “Jesus didn’t heal everyone who was sick in his time. He didn’t help everyone who was poor.” It’s like they understand that Jesus imposed human limitations on himself yet also don’t understand. Or conveniently forget. Jesus loved and modeled loving. He didn’t come so that he could directly heal and love everyone–even though he certainly loved everyone–but so that we could learn how to love as he loves us and spread this love, person by person, throughout the world. He showed love all the way to and through his death, and to his followers’ shock, even after his death through his resurrection. He atoned for our sins in that death and imparted his life to us in that resurrection.

Yes, now we’re there. Gears shifting.

If someone tells you their life does not matter, as a Jesus follower you have one clear answer. If someone tells you, “I’m worthless, I want to die,” you may not be able to change their mind but you know with certainty that they have worth, love, meaning, value. They matter.

If someone tells you, “I feel as if I don’t matter,” you have an answer. We know our calling. We know why they matter. We can address what in their life makes them feel they don’t matter.

If Lazarus says to you, “The rich man steps over me. I don’t matter,” you must tell him, “The rich man is wrong! You do matter, God loves you, and that indifference and neglect by that nameless wealthy person cannot negate your value. You matter!”

If people feel like it’s debatable whether or not they matter, our part, always, always, is to affirm how much they matter to a loving, grace-extravagant God, and to us, imperfect and finite but loved by God and learning to love like God. If we love others as we want to be loved (i.e. the way Jesus commanded), we know we want to be reminded of and upheld in our value. We may do that poorly for others, but we know the truth; we know our calling.

As Jesus followers, we affirm to people that their lives matter. Any response that waters this down, or questions or attacks why they bring up the question–imagine answering someone who is suicidal, “Why are you even talking about that?”–works against what Jesus did with the woman he stopped for, what Jesus does when he stops for us. As Jesus followers, we can only be on one side of a discussion someone else raises about whether or not their life matters:

Yes, you are right. Yes it does. Your life matters.

Grace in a Time of Covid

Standard

[I tried to express this so that you can identify as “I,” whichever side of the division you might take. Trying to see both sides in this manner helped me.]

I know we’re all upset. I don’t know how to show grace.

I’m angry with the choices you’re making. I think you’re wrong.

How do I show you grace?

I don’t like your reasoning. It makes no sense to me. It’s so easy to ridicule and mock you.

How do I show you grace?

I suspect the motives behind your conclusions. You decide what we should do based on what you want to see, not on what facts tell us.

How do I show you grace?

I hate how you’re behaving in this. I hate how you’re expressing your disagreement. I hate how you’re treating us.

How do I show you grace?

I wish there didn’t have to be “YOU” and “US.” I’d hoped we would all pull together and come through this more united, recognizing the same concerns, working together to solve our common problems. Instead we seem more divided and I’m horribly frustrated with that, and with you.

How do I show you grace?

I know whom I follow. I know one who showed grace when hated, rejected, mocked, scorned, and scourged by “them.” One who taught grace, offered grace, lived grace. Jesus didn’t hate them. He didn’t attack or belittle them. He refused to accept “us” and “them.” He offered kindness, wisdom, and unconditional love to everyone. When they murdered him, when they knew his death proved they were right–all along, about everything–he gave himself to atone, forgive, and show grace to all. He gave himself to break down “us” and ‘them.”

Did the result show how true their condemnations, how justified their mocking, how deserved their beating?

They were wrong.

Even then, he offered grace.

Even now, when I feel these things toward you–and act so unlike him–he offers me grace.

How do I show you grace?

Shelter at Home, Grief, and Culture Shock

Standard

I started a different post and realized it was going to be too intense, so I’m writing this light and frothy one, instead. Just kidding. It’s intense, too. It’s just not intense and controversial, like the other one will be.

Two emotional states I’ve experienced in the past are severe grief and culture shock. Many of you have experienced one, some both, and some neither. Truthfully, I’ve hoped never to go through either one ever again.

I feel aspects of each right now.

As always, I offer this to relate, validate, and empathize. If it’s not you, it may be someone you love.

Not everyone experiences these states the same way, so I offer them as my experience, not the “normal” or even “average” way one goes through grief or culture shock.

In severe grief, your world stops. Everyone else’s goes on, which adds to the out-of-body, dissonant sensation. A reason for living is gone and other people didn’t blink. You are suddenly staring down a a chasm between you and those not grieving.

Grief is loss, and the brain takes time to comprehend, accept, and incorporate loss. That leaves you shocked all over again, every time the loss slips your mind and then comes back…like a brick upside the head. You don’t forget so much as your brain keeps trying to register the world the way it should be. With your loved one still here, for example. That’s the world you’ve known. It’s hard enough losing that world–the world with my little boy in it–but having to keep losing it, over and over, just seems unfair and cruel.

Grief is disorienting. You have to figure out how to live in a world that is wrong, that should not be this way. Even the most mundane things stop making sense and become wearisome, burdensome. “Who cares if do this? He’s gone.”

People, especially those who have been mercifully spared from being dropped to the bottom of this pit, will struggle to understand how wrong he world is now. They know you’re sad. They’re sad, too, sad for you and sad for the loss. But being sad and having your world ripped from you aren’t the same thing. They think you’re both going through the same thing, different only by degrees, and since they’re not behaving irrationally like you are, you really just need to sort that out.

Again, this only intensifies the isolation: People don’t get it. You’re alone in this wrong world. You’re in the Upside Down. They’re not.

I will tell you honestly, though the grief I’m recalling happened over twenty years ago, just letting my head get in that space to describe it puts me right back there again. In that sense, it never “goes away.” The loss of a child is like an amputation; you never regrow your arm, you learn to cope without it.

So here we are, in this Strange World of 2020. We’re all grieving the loss of our accustomed world. But we’re grieving it differently and we’ve lost different things. Some of us are grieving the deaths of people we love. Some are grieving loss of livelihood, vocation, financial security, graduation. So many different things. We’re stuck. Then, as an added bonus, we have the range of responses to what is happening, and I don’t want to wade into this right now, but Man, that is disorienting!

You look out the window at a spring day and the flowers are blooming, but inside you the world isn’t right. How can you even put words to that? But it takes a toll. You have to keep going, so you do, but… But. It’s incomplete. Something is missing. And the loss keeps coming back, even after you think you’ve adapted to this new (not right) “normal.”

When Isaac died, the grief was so disabling for me that I walked in the dark for six months and God disappeared (subjectively, not theologically) for three years. The most loving people didn’t try to fix it for me, or explain how I should be sorting it out. The most loving people–most of whom had also been there–simply stuck by me while I writhed and thrashed and kept praying that I would come through.

And I did. But it was hell, and I would not wish it on my worst, most wicked enemies.

Eighty thousand people in the US have died, so all those families are suffering this loss. None of my children or other family have died during this pandemic, but even so I’m experiencing certain emotions that compare more closely with that period than anything else in my life–and I would say I’m seeing others appear to experience that body-slam-after-a-horrible-fall shock and disorientation.


Culture shock works differently. You also don’t feel like yourself, but it makes less sense. No one asks, “Why don’t you feel like yourself?” after your child dies (unless they’re–never mind. Don’t get me started.) Often in culture shock, you’re functioning at a very low level but don’t fully realize or acknowledge it. I went through a long, nasty stretch of culture shock when we moved to Nicaragua. I knew there was something wrong with me, but damned if I could put a finger on it, make sense of it, or shake it off. You know you have culture shock but knowing doesn’t solve it or even clearly define it. My friend who moved there with us described it as “I’m stuck and I can’t seem to get any traction.”

This part feels very familiar as I hear people describe their current emotional state.

In culture shock, your brain is trying to adapt because the world you knew really is gone and you have to learn to navigate this new, strange one in which nothing works right (i.e. the way you’re accustomed to having things work). People suffering culture shock feel exhausted, irritated, confused, and short-tempered. Sound familiar at all? They feel like they should be getting more done. Instead, they find themselves pulling inward and seeking familiar comforts (which are suddenly in short supply).

One common strand between enduring grief and coming through culture shock is choosing to move forward and live in the world that is, not the world that should be. The person adapting to a new culture must choose to embrace difference, see the positives, and let go of the frustration that comes with experiencing this discord.

In a weird way, we’re all suffering a version of culture shock right now and, I would say, it’s a particularly unsettling one because everything mostly looks and sounds the same! I’m not suffering the headaches I had for my first year in Nicaragua, due to a combination of squinting, brains-splittting “I don’t get this” and good old dehydration. People are still speaking a language most of us understand. The driving is the same, though maybe less of it right now. The physical spaces and the faces are still the same, though maybe more confined and perhaps on screens instead of live.

BUT.

But. It’s not “the way it’s supposed to be,” certainly not the way it was from February on back.* I would posit we’re all suffering a bit of (confusing, disguised) culture shock and many of us who have never experienced this before are feeling really angry with…someone. Someone whose fault this is. Someone who caused this. Okay, some of us who have experienced culture shock are angry, too, but I’m hoping we have at least an inkling that our anger is caused by something more than just “them.”**

Common symptoms of culture shock: depression, weight gain, interpersonal conflict, and discouragement. Falling back into or even developing new addictions. Frustration that flares into rage.

Good times, right? Does any of this ring a bell right now?

I have different advice for coming through grief and culture shock, but the overall message boils down to: survive.

Do what you need to do to get through this while causing yourself and those around you as little damage as possible.

In my first year in Nicaragua, my supervisor told me, “A good day is one in which you get up, don’t hurt your children, and don’t leave.” I loved him for that. It alleviated much of my feelings of failure, which I desperately needed in order to keep on breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. I would not have spent seven years in Nicaragua if I could not have gotten through the first year and I could only get through the first year by accepting that the culture shock phase sucked and that was life and I just had to survive.

This sucks and it’s life and you just have to survive.

If you do better than that, awesome! I mean, really awesome! If you can smell the flowers or plant flowers, teach children or paint (a wall, a painting, your fingernails), write or read or keep going to work that has gotten so much harder (or stranger), freaking hooray for you! I’m serious. The bar is very low right now. I see us coming apart at the seams, turning on one another, growing hostile, looking for someone to blame. This phase, for many of us, sucks.

A good day is one in which you wake up, don’t hurt yourself or those you live with, and don’t give up.

You may not be experiencing the pandemic this way. You may be thriving and have no idea what I’m talking about. More power to you and I think you should look around and see whom you can help.

I am doing okay. As I said, I can see elements of both heavy grief and culture shock in myself and, perhaps, even more in others. I say “perhaps” because I’m interpreting what I see and of course I could be wrong. A friend suggested that some people’s apparently irrational behavior during shelter in place is in fact trauma response. That made sense of it for me. I’d started thinking along these lines already and his statement brought the dots together to make a picture.

I offer this to you. If it rings true, I encourage you to consider this lens not only for your own responses but for others’, as well. None of this is meant to excuse terrible, self-destructive choices, but if the heaviest thing you’re carrying right now is negative self-judgment, I urge you to set that down. Yes, easier said than done, but let yourself try. As I said in my satirical “I Did Better Last Pandemic,” attacking yourself for feeling awful isn’t going to make you feel less awful, but it can make things worse.

Some people can give themselves grace and others of us need to be convinced. God offers us grace all the time. We may not be so generous to ourselves. But you know what? People in grief, folks in culture shock, they deserve a break.

Including if that’s you.

*Whether or not that was “the way it’s supposed to be” is a different and much longer conversation.

**Misdirected anger caused by culture shock is one of the big reasons missionaries don’t get along and not getting along with other missionaries is the number one reason missionaries “fail” on the mission field. I’m not even certain anymore if “fail” is the right term for it, but I’ll tell you it sure doesn’t feel like succeeding.