Living Beyond Embarrassment

Living Beyond Embarrassment

My spouse, Elaine, lives with the belief that there is nothing that can’t be improved with duct tape.  She is right — about 10% of the time!  It is a running joke for us.  Examples abound: screen doors, chipped flower-pot, refrigerator shelf corners, or uneven table legs can all be “fixed” with duct tape.  Occasionally when there are efforts to repair a clock or extend a hotdog roasting stick, I confess to being embarrassed.  Mostly it is fun discovering the duct-tape-inventions of my frugal spouse.

Attachment-1Such small embarrassments are more than outweighed by my love for her and knowledge that she has many more reasons to be embarrassed by me.  My shirt may carry too many spots from spilled food from recent meals, I may greet someone by the wrong name, or ask for a comment to be repeated the seventh time, when I can’t acknowledge my hearing loss, I know I am an embarrassment for her.  Much more so than a little duct tape here and there could fix.  Elaine deserves the “most embarrassed by a spouse” award.

Embarrassment is on my mind recently.  Serious embarrassment, not the sort easily ignored, laughed away, or mended by duct tape.  We all, or most of us, know about embarrassment. I think of the big institutions in my life — my nation, my state, my church.  I was helped by Neil Gross who writes, Americans embarrassed by President Trump are experiencing vicarious embarrassment not for him but for the country. They’re embarrassed that, with Mr. Trump as president, the country’s claims to virtue, leadership and moral standing ring hollow.” (see Neil Gross, New York Times, 6-16-17, Does Trump Embarrass You?)

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It is not the shameless pettiness, the vile language, or the ill-considered tweets that are most embarrassing.  As Gross names it, it is an embarrassment related to our national standing in the world.  We are all painted by the brush of Donald’s obvious ignorance and intolerance.  He is our representative, our national voice and when he behaves like a six-year-old, each American loses something precious, something immeasurable for our nation and world.

Week after week there are multiple examples of Mr. Trump’s lack of knowledge, non-existent curiosity, or his disregard for basic decency.   I am embarrassed “early and often” as they say.  However, methinks the behavior of this seventy-one year old adolescent is not the core issue.  We have not been carried to this current sad emotional valley by Donald Trump alone.  There are multiple reasons we have arrived at this place.

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Congressman Steve Scalise was shot last week while practicing for the annual baseball game between Republicans and Democrats in Congress.  Scalise was apparently chosen because he is in the Republican leadership in Congress.  A deeply troubled man from Belleville, Illinois, is said to have shot Scalise and others out of his anger over the political direction of our nation.   What tragic madness!

Fortunately, congressional leaders responded with calls to lower the rhetoric, end the vitriol and display our national unity, despite our political differences.  Good.  This is a much-needed message.  However, our problem is not just mean-spirited language and the damage it produces.  Our nation didn’t arrive at this place suddenly.  The ugliness and embarrassment didn’t begin in 2016.  Year after year, we have lived with denials and multiple embarrassments.  We have considerable makeup work to do to regain our sense of national pride.

Sadly, the horrible scenes played out on the practice field in Alexandria, Virginia last week were the 154th mass shooting in the United States in 2017.  Over 6,800 persons have died due to gun violence in the first six months of 2017 (see: U.S. gun violence in 2017).   Might it be that we should have acknowledged this reality and our embarrassment sooner?  Might it be we should be persistent and ever more diligent in demanding change?  I do not claim that stronger gun laws would have prevented the shooting on that Virginia baseball field.  We will never know.  However, I am convinced that having restrictions on who can purchase guns, especially assault weapons, would have reduced the number of mass shootings this past year.  This is our continuing embarrassment.gun-166507_960_720

The fact that our nation did not take strong measures against gun violence following the deaths of twenty children and six adults murdered at Sandy Hook School in Newton Connecticut, just prior to Christmas in 2012, makes it clear that our problems, our embarrassments, go much deeper than the divisive actions and language of Donald Trump. 

Years ago, former Speaker of the House, Richard Gephardt, told me he believed that “politics is our best substitute for violence.”  I agree, mostly.  Still, when four out of every five adults in the nation want stronger gun laws and yet nothing is done we have a problem.  We should all be embarrassed.  Whether it is the vast sums of money now distorting our elections, the abuses of social media, the use of fake news, voter suppression, gerrymandering or all of the above, we should be embarrassed. 

What can we do?  Let me suggest four things:

  1. Take personal responsibility.  Let’s not get stuck in our embarrassment and pretend these problems will be resolved by others. This is our nation.  In large and small ways we need to stay active in seeking leaders and institutions that exemplify the best of who we are as a people.  Now is not the time to retreat into safe enclaves.
  2. Plan and act locally.  Find ways you can make a difference where you live.  For some this will mean working with civil institutions and people of good will nearby.  Others of us live in what might be called “citizenship deserts.”  In Indiana, my home state, there is a selfishness and meanness (even in our churches) that makes working on the behalf of the poor or seeking environmental holiness difficult.  In places like this our work is more basic.  We need to build new networks of courage and encourage small communities of care to thrive and expand. 
  3. Speak on the behalf of the poor, the vulnerable, the stranger.  Perhaps it is to end gun violence, perhaps to welcome the immigrant, perhaps in support of Medicaid coverage for the poor, perhaps to protect our threatened environment.
  4. Act now.  Channel that embarrassment.  Do something today.  It may be as simple as calling your congressman, your mayor or governor.  Support measures that build up rather than destroy our civil society. 

Drop the duct tape and join in helping our nation move past our many current places of embarrassment.

Hollow Promises, Real Threats

Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017. 

Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office to be president of the United States with his hand on TWO Bibles!  (More on that later). 

He is now our president, my president.  Donald Trump?  How could this happen?  How, in this nation I love, could this occur?  I understand many of the dynamics, sociologically speaking: lost jobs, lost status, lost centers of cohesion.  Religious congregations and denominations have been narrowed into enclaves for the like-minded.  Patriotism has been turned into a category that is narrowly defined by a few talk radio hosts and Fox News.  But, am I not a patriot too, one who loves and will sacrifice for the country?

It was Bill Coffin who said “Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”  Parker Palmer reminded me of this quote by Coffin in a recent interview with Krista Tippett (Parker Palmer on Patriotism and Trump).

Parker helped me better understand the emotional vertigo I was experiencing when he said, On January 20, 2017, the country I love will inaugurate a man who embodies many of our culture’s most soulless traits: adolescent impulsiveness, an unbridled drive for wealth and power, a taste for violence, nonstop narcissism, and massive arrogance. A man who has maligned women, Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and Mother Earth — a man who’d sooner deny the obvious than apologize for the outrageous — will become President of the United States.

When time for the inauguration came I couldn’t watch — not in real-time.  I believe this is a day of tragedy for our nation. Actually, I pray fervently that I am wrong.  However, as one of my wise friends says, “There is no wrong way to do the right thing.”

Instead of watching the inauguration I read passages of scripture (Isaiah 43, Luke 4, Matthew 5-7, Psalm 30)  Psalm 30:5 reminds that “Weeping may linger for the night but joy comes with the morning.”   These passages offer a much more compelling inaugural — one that better fits the shape of our hope as human beings.

And I read passages from Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.   It was here I read “And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.” 

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President Trump’s Inaugural
In the end, I did look at video clips of Mr. Trump’s inauguration address — with the sound OFF.  Then I read it.  It was watching the address in silence that I noticed something for the first time.  Where had I seen these behaviors before?  These facial expressions, the gestures, the snarls, the gesticulation?  It was familiar, and threatening, apart from any words.  If I had never seen him before, this was clearly an angry man — diffuse anger.  Expressing disgust over something.    Something deep in my psyche said “don’t get near him.”

I searched my memory.  Why was this truculent image so compelling?  Then I recalled the places it had been seen —

  • Troubled parents yelling at their children from the sidelines of a baseball game or soccer match. 
  • Crowds caught up in so-called professional wrestling matches or soccer matches.
  • A certain angry basketball coach yelling at the refs — or worse, his players.
  • School board meetings or city council meetings where angry citizens want to “protect their children” or “protect their property” from others, unlike themselves, — usually the less fortunate.

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Photo by Will Counts of Elizabeth Eckford on way to Little Rock High School, September 4, 1957
I was reminded of my own adolescence, of my anger and soul-sick past efforts to denigrate or belittle others, that I fell into.  Thankfully this mostly occurred in my preadolescent years… so I recognized the fear laden, petty impulses I saw in those images.

And, mostly, I was reminded of the famous photo taken by my friend Will Counts depicting the angry mob following Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine as she was on her way to school.  One of the persons shouting at her is Hazel Massery.  (Forty years later Hazel sought forgiveness and reconciliation with Elizabeth.)

Angry words are easily spoken, especially by the immature, but typically they result in false promises and dangerous threats.  To fulfill the promises made will require some compromises, apologies, new alliances with perceived enemies.  It is the threats that are more easily made and laced in bigotry that are real. Threats indicate an inability to think beyond binary categories of good and evil or us and them.

The scripture passages I read tell of the power of anger to destroy others — and in the process one’s own self.  The scriptures speak of a need for forgiveness (no matter whether one thinks it is needed).  The scriptures speak of a God who loves ALL and calls us to love others as we are loved.  You can swear on two, or ten, or one hundred Bibles but the real importance of the Bible is to know the stories and truths it contains… and to incorporate those into a person’s living and behaviors. 

Hand on the Bible, Mr. Trump is now caught in a web of his own making.  He will be expected by us all — including those who voted for him — to do more than merely shout insults from the sidelines.  Either/or views of the world won’t do much good when the complexities of modern life and governance confront.  Can a seventy year old grow up emotionally?  The world watches and hopes.


Dr. King, Congressman Lewis and Other Creative Extremists

Dr. King, Congressman Lewis & Other Creative Extremists

I was up in the air on the 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Flying somewhere over Iowa, between Clinton and Waterloo, our flight pattern took us over the Skunk River.  For some reason then my thoughts turned to the presidential inauguration this week.

What might Dr. King say about our nation’s current dilemma in leadership?  Only a few days ago Congressman John Lewis indicated he would not be attending the presidential inauguration of Donal Trump and said he considered the election of the president-elect to be illegitimate.  

What might Dr. King say?  Would he agree with Mr. Lewis?  No one can know for certain — however, let me respond as one who was around when Dr. King was active. If anything, Dr. King might say that John Lewis was too timid — that he should have said more about resisting the impending disregard for fair elections, truth and transparency on the part of anyone who would seek to serve as president.  

I remember well Dr. King’s courage.  I remember that at the time of his death most white folks in the United States thought he was too radical and disagreed with him.  I remember his commitment to the poor, the immigrant, the disenfranchised.  I remember his care for the U.S. Constitution and the need to stand against those who would seek to distort justice.  Dr. King, like Mr. Lewis today, was considered by many well-intentioned persons to be an extremist for justice.  

Writing from the Birmingham Jail in April 1963, Dr. King responds to eight clergymen who indicated that the activities in the struggle for civil rights in Birmingham were “unwise and untimely.”  Does this sound familiar?  Aren’t we hearing the same thing about Congressman Lewis’ comments.

Here is a passage from Dr. King’s letter to the clergy in Birmingham in 1963:

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. [From “Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963]

Prior to re-reading the text of Dr. King’s famous Letter From the Birmingham Jail while flying 32,000 feet in the air, my tendency was to think that perhaps Congressman Lewis had overstated — gone too far.  However, I now think Congressman Lewis’ statement was right, and was that of a courageous extremist.

For what might Mr. Lewis be called “an extremist?”  For asking us to “love the neighbor?”  For asking that our elections be fair and voter suppression to end?  For thinking foreign governments shouldn’t meddle in our democracy, nor be invited to do so by any candidate?  What about Donald Trump, where is he an extremist?  

Always before in my adult life, when I disagreed with the incoming president, I made the distinction between the person and the office.   However, what does it mean that most Americans today seem to respect the office of the presidency MORE than the man who was about to take the oath of office?  What does it mean that patterns of lies and deceptions have become normative?  What does it mean that this person will not be transparent with tax returns, seeks to find a dodge around potential conflicts of interest, challenges the intelligence experts of this nation, denies climate change, seeks to make alliances with known totalitarian practitioners and sees them as preferable to President Obama?

Reading an article by Ned Resnikoff in ThinkProgress (11/27/17) there was research that helped confirm my doubts and Congressmen Lewis’ concerns (see Ned Resnikoff, ThinkProgress, 11/27/16).  What we are facing is a constitutional crisis.  One that Dr. King would have recognized.  Resnikoff speaks of the coming administration’s style as “managed democracy.”  It is a perspective hostile to open, egalitarian standards of governance.  It is the preferred way suggested by Steve Bannon, now White House Chief Strategist, who famously said, “Darkness is good.  Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan.  That’s power.”  Bannon hates a government based on compromise and consensus.  Borrowing from Putin’s crony Valdimir Serkoff, it is an approach that seeks to destabilize, distort, encourage contradictions and lies — always pointing to another as the true enemy or liar.

What happens when no news is to be trusted and all news is called “fake.”  What happens when press conferences turn into diversionary attacks on others or the media?  What happens when judges are accused of bias if you disagree?

The strategy is not new to our electoral process.  Karl Rove was a master at inversion or diversion whereby one’s own candidate’s weakness is projected on to the opponent preemptively.   Okay, that is politics, and as they say “it ain’t beanbag!”  

However, what is underway now, in our current experience, is so much more pernicious and dangerous.  It has been called inverted totalitarianism: All news media are said to be fake, so trust your prejudices over facts.  Who can know the truth? There are so many distortions and points of view… Or, all politicians are crooks and liars, our guy is so much more entertaining!  He is, so to speak, “a crook, but our crook.”  Reality television comes to Washington and truth is fractioned out of our institutions.  Schools, courts, churches, scientists, the press — all civic institutions are not to be trusted. 

When there is no truth to be trusted and when the people doubt their own moral compass with so many competing and confusing points of view — then those who can continue to distort and create confusion in a post-factual world, they can claim the power to keep their machinery going to their benefit.  It is no wonder that Mr. Trump admires Mr. Putin so fully.

I believe Mr. Lewis spoke and continues to speak a courageous word.  It is a word that is uncomfortable to hear.  John Lewis still has a strong moral compass.  He is still a creative extremist.  I stand with Congressman Lewis.

Letter to my Grandchildren

Dear Ellie, Gus, Zack and Colin,
I wanted to write you for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to say that I love you and tell you how special you are to me. You are wonderful grandchildren and have great parents – they love you too.

 Secondly, I wanted to write because the election of Donald Trump as president has made me sad and has caused me to think about you so much ever since.  So here are some things I want to say to you now:

1. It’s going to be okay. There are some scary things about this election but it is going to be okay. Your parents and grandparents are going to keep working on this.

2. From all we have seen, Mr. Trump is not a very nice man. He has cheated people, told lots of lies and says things about people who are different that hurt them.  He thinks having lots of money makes him important but doesn’t use his money much to help others.

 Many years ago, long before you were born, I read a book called “All I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” It was a good book and a fun book to read. Here are some of the things that book talked about.

a. Be friendly and kind;

b. Share with others;

c. Don’t tell lies – tell the truth;

d. Don’t cheat;

e. Pay attention;

f. Learn to read and think about what you read;

g. Don’t push people down;

h. Treat others the way you want to be treated, and,

i. Laugh and have fun!

Maybe Mr. Trump didn’t graduate from kindergarten, or maybe he never learned these things if he did.  Maybe he once knew some of these things and has forgotten them now. He is an old man like me and he should know these things.  But in the way he lives, he doesn’t act like he ever learned them.

We don’t always win games, or prizes or elections. When we lose it hurts, but we keep trying. 

Just because bad people sometimes win doesn’t mean they are right. 

 And, sometimes bad people can change. Let’s hope Mr. Trump can change. But I am not going to let him trick me and I am going to watch him very closely so that he won’t trick me or others.

I am also going to work really hard to make sure other people who remember what they learned in kindergarten will be elected in the future and we get Mr. Trump out of our lives as soon as possible.

Who knows, one day one of you might be president. I already know this about you – you are smart and nice and will always remember what you learned in kindergarten.

I love you,

Papaw