Preschool Lessons in Persistence

Last week’s “Camp Grandma” with the youngest two grandchildren (five-year-old Selena and three-year-old Piper) was exhausting, mostly because they hardly ever stopped moving and asking, “What can we do now?” Dale and I planned various activities, but it’s amazing how quickly you can go through things to do with preschoolers who sometimes have the attention span of a flea. As I tried to keep up with the little girls (or, preferably, stay one step ahead), I couldn’t help thinking of the motto on my current favorite mug: “Nevertheless, she persisted” – or in this case, they persisted.

Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock the last few months probably knows where those words come from: Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s reprimand of Senator Elizabeth Warren. The words instantly took on meme status, as they encapsulated not only the eternal struggle of women to be treated with respect and fairness but also the need for the persistent pursuit of what’s right and honest and decent during what many people are experiencing as a very distressing time in the United States. Persistence feels difficult and almost futile, as undignified and nasty tweets pile upon unjust and damaging policy changes. There’s just too much to persist about, and I find myself getting really tired. However, as I watched my precious little granddaughters, I thought about the nature of persistence and tried to draw just a bit of inspiration from them.

If you want something, ask for it. Piper has a routine list of things she wants to do every time she comes to our house: watch a PBS Kids show on my iPad, have real tea with milk and sugar using the toy tea set, etc., and she’s not shy about asking for the next thing on her list. We don’t always have time for everything, and sometimes she’ll say, “What didn’t we do yet?” or” We didn’t do ___ yet.” One thing she doesn’t want to miss is getting a little “treat” from my supply of candy on top of the buffet cabinet in the dining room, and she wants to get it herself. As soon as I move toward the buffet to respond to her request, she quickly moves a chair over so she can reach the treat all by herself. She makes sure we know what she wants and takes action to make it happen.

Ask nicely for what you want. Selena doesn’t whine when she’s with us (although I’m sure she does sometimes at home – she’s a kid after all), but she is persistent about repeating her requests over and over again. When we went to Lake Tobias Wildlife Park, she was most looking forward to petting and feeding the goats. There were other animals to see on the way to the petting zoo where the goats were. She was definitely interested in all of them and enjoyed seeing and watching them, but she got impatient and would very respectfully repeat as Dale and I lingered at various venues, “I really want to feed the goats.” At home, she knew I had various craft activities for us to do together, so periodically when there was a lull in her play, she would say, “I really want to do a craft,” not in a fussy tone of voice, but a gently effective reminder of what she wanted.

Don’t hesitate to act when an opportunity presents itself. Selena and Piper’s independent play had wound down at one point, and I knew I had to come up with something else for them to do. So I said, “How about we get the little pool from the basement and you can play in the water in the backyard? You’ll have to put your swimsuits on.” The words were barely out of my mouth before Piper had her clothes off. The day before at the pool at Little Buffalo State Park when we went to the cafe for some lunch, Piper wanted ketchup for her pizza. Why wait for Grandma to get it, or give you permission to go get it, when you can dash from your seat to the other end of the cafe and get the ketchup container for yourself? (Never mind that this was a “community” container not really intended to be taken to individual tables!)

When we went to Playland at Paulus Orchards, they both immediately spied the ice cream cone sign at the entrance. I tried to deflect them from thoughts of ice cream, suggesting the food stand might not be open yet since it was still fairly early. Undeterred, Piper marched straight up to the order window to check, and of course there was someone there to ask this cute little girl what she wanted. The answer: “Ice cream.” “What kind would you like?” “Chocolate.” “Do you want it in a cone or a cup?” “I want it in a cup with a cone,” said as though this three-year-old has had years of experience ordering ice cream.

Know the way to the person’s heart you wish to influence. For Selena, I think it’s smiling – her smile is quite simply irresistible. Perhaps she doesn’t consciously know the power of her smile, but she certainly uses it well. I’m also not sure Piper consciously knows what will win my heart, but this definitely did: she was eating yet another helping of my made-from-scratch baked macaroni and cheese, and she said, “When I come again, can you make macaroni and cheese? I like yours better than the kind my mommy and daddy make.” You can be sure I’ll make it for her again, especially since it’s one of the very few non-snack things she will eat at our house!

  • If you want something, ask for it.
  • Ask nicely for what you want.
  • Don’t hesitate to act when the opportunity presents itself.
  • Know the way to the person’s heart you wish to influence.

How do I translate these lessons in persistence from the preschooler context to the larger world in which I am trying to make a difference but feel especially helpless right now? I think my biggest takeaways are that I need to continue to try to be nice and polite, and not resort to nastiness no matter how strong the temptation or the provocation, and I need to persist. I need to keep asking and working for what I want, for what I believe is in pursuit of the common good for everyone. When I’m tempted to throw up my hands in despair at the unparalleled awfulness of what is happening in Washington these days, I should remember my preschool grandchildren and simply persist. I’d like them to say about me some day, “Nevertheless, Grandma persisted” to protect the world and make it a better place for them.

White Working Class: A Personalized Book Review

Over the last two years, I have tried hard to understand how a group of people who are mostly good, decent, hard-working, and generous have come to support politicians and policy proposals that are antithetical to so much of what I believe is right. The “white working class” has become the shorthand label for this group. In many ways I feel like I have always been part of the so-called white working class: I am white, I work(ed), and I usually self-identify as being about in the middle of the middle class. And yet, it has been difficult for me to relate to the decision of so many in the the white working class to support someone like Donald Trump, and I often feel alienated from this segment of American society. Perhaps I have long since left the “white working class” and become one of the “elites,” even if I have never felt particularly elite?

Joan C. Williams’ recent book, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017) has helped me understand some of the reasons why on the one hand I still identify with the white working class, but on the other hand, feel alienated and disagree with where many have ended up politically. In this review, I want to summarize several of the issues Williams identifies and then respond personally (my personal responses appear in light italics).

Who are the white working class? Williams says that her editor and she had a “lively discussion” about terminology and agreed to call Americans who are neither rich nor poor (i.e., in the middle) the “working class,” and to refer to the people at the top as elite.” She acknowledges the confusion this creates: for example, the 2015 median income of the elite was $173, 175; the 2015 median income for Americans in the middle was $75, 144; and the term “working class” has often been used as a euphemism for “poor.” By these definitions, I am most definitely not an elite, but fairly firmly in that vast middle of Americans who are neither very rich nor very poor. And yet….

Why does the working class resent the poor? For many years, as the social safety net has expanded, those at the lower end of the working class have not benefited (because their income is just above the cut-off for benefits) and yet have struggled to make ends meet. Even when they qualify for some benefits, there is a strong tradition of self-reliance and personal responsibility that mitigates against taking advantage of those benefits. Meanwhile working class tax dollars are used in part to help the poor.

My grandparents and parents often struggled to make ends meet; I clearly remember the stress associated with my father’s difficult search for meaningful and adequate employment after our return from Africa; for some time he worked as a school janitor, a job for which he was overqualified.  In the early years of our marriage, Dale and I were often financially stressed, but we never relied on programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) even when we might have qualified. However, I was always aware that others struggled much more than we did, and I don’t remember ever resenting the fact that we struggled while others were received food assistance. While I can understand some of the resentment some working class people feel toward the poor, I can’t agree with it.

Why does the working class resent professionals but admire the rich? The professional managerial elite (PME), according to Williams, are often seen as “snobs.” They can send their kids to private schools, shop at organic food stores, eat at trendy restaurants, call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” etc., and are perceived as looking down at those who don’t. The working class hold strong traditional values, including strong family and place rootedness. Williams says, “The professional class seeks social honor by embracing the edgy; the white working class seeks social honor by embracing the traditional…. For many in the working class, becoming a member of the professional class is an ambiguous achievement – you have more money, yes, but you also have to adopt new folkways.” So “[b]rashly wealthy celebrities epitomize the fantasy of being wildly rich while losing none of your working-class cred.”

For me personally, this description of the divide between the working class and professionals feels artificial. By going to college and graduate school and choosing a career first in teaching and then in communications (writer, editor, etc.), I entered the “professional” class, and I admit to valuing the sophistication, boundary-breaking, and creativity that Williams attributes to professionals. Yet, I also fully embrace the traditional values, family rootedness, stability, and dependability she attributes to the working class. I am more put off by ostentatious displays of wealth than wishing I could be fabulously rich myself.

Why doesn’t the working class move to where the jobs are? Here the issues are those same values of stability and family rootedness that characterize the working class: “Non-privileged people, whether poor or working class, tend to be more rooted than American elites…. they rely on close networks of family and friends for many things more affluent folks purchase on the open market, from child and elder care to home improvement projects. Moving would eliminate this safety net….” On the other hand, “the rootlessness of the PME makes sense in their lives: they have friends and classmates throughout the country or the world, their job markets are national or global, their family ties are chiefly emotional rather than practical or economic.”

On this issue, I feel a little split: Having grown up with an unrooted childhood, I am now firmly planted in south-central Pennsylvania, I never wanted to move somewhere else for a better job, and most of my family and friends are relatively close by. I understand completely why people would not want to uproot themselves to find a better job. And yet, I know the world has changed, we are part of a global economy, and the internet and technology have revolutionized the way we can interact with each other to mitigate geographical isolation. If I were young and just starting out, I might be willing to move for a job I really wanted.

Why doesn’t the working class get with it and go to college? Williams documents the ways in which the American higher education system operates as “caste system,” widening class divisions. Beyond that, however, are other reasons why going to college isn’t as high a priority for many in the working class: fear of ending up with an expensive degree and massive debt and still failing to get a job, not wanting a “pencil-pushing” job, not feeling suited for intellectual work. According to Williams, college “may not be as good or as safe an investment for working class kids. They’re not ignorant and lazy. They just live in different worlds.”

I come from a family where education was highly valued, so it was somewhat shocking to read that fully two-thirds of Americans do not have college degrees. Both my parents were the first in their respective families to graduate from college, and they worked hard to pay their way through college and achieve their goal. It was a clear unwritten assumption that I would go college when the time came, and my parents supported me when I decided to enter graduate school immediately following college. I always assumed my children would go to college too. When one of them dropped out (twice, in fact), my dad said rather wistfully, “He’ll be my only grandchild not to graduate from college.” I understood where he was coming from, but I was also hurt and angered by the comment. College is not for everyone, you can make a perfectly good living without a college degree, and I agree that it is an unattractive elitist attitude to look down on people who have chosen not to go to college.

Why don’t they push their kids harder to succeed? Noting the “all-consuming nature of elite parenting” (or “concerted cultivation” with busy schedules of soccer games, music and dance lessons, play dates, etc.), Williams compares it with the “ideology of natural growth” more prevalent among working class parents, where children are primarily provided with the basics of comfort, food, and shelter. She continues: “What’s the unspoken message of helicopter parenting – that if you don’t knock everyone’s socks off, you’re a failure? What’s the better message: that the key is to be a good kid, or that every child needs to be above average?”

Sometimes I have felt guilty because we did not push our kids to be involved in all kinds of sports and music activities (although we tried to make it possible for them to follow their own interests). Now, I am glad I am not parenting young kids because the pressure to do so would be significant. We did expect our kids to do well academically, and both Dale and I spent many hours “tutoring” them and helping them with school projects. Perhaps we put too much pressure on them? On the other hand, as I said before, the world is changing, and we have to help our children and grandchildren be prepared to function in that world. Wishing things would stay the same will probably not work long-term.

Is the working class just racist? Williams makes the entirely valid point that racism is not confined to the working class; it’s just a different kind: “[s]ettled working class whites, whose claims to privilege rest on morality and hard work, stereotype black people by conflating hard living and race. Professional class whites, whose claims to privilege rest on merit, stereotype black people as less competent than whites.” She also names fear as a motivator, noting that “mass migration returned to the United States in the 1970s for the first time since 1910 – which has coincided with the white working class’s fall from blue-collar grace. It’s easy to confuse correlation with causation, and there’s some of that going on, associating the good old days with the old white days.” And she suggests that elites have just as much of a moral obligation to address injustices experienced by working class whites as those experienced by black and brown people.

I believe that, with some notable exceptions (e.g., the white supremacists whose influence seems to be surging in the current political environment), most people do not want to be racist and it is hard to acknowledge one’s racism when that is not the intent. But rather than respond with defensiveness when the charge of racism is levied, I wish we could all engage in a little more thoughtful introspection to determine to what extent the charge might be true and what we can do to change our (sometimes unrecognized) attitudes and behaviors. For me, one of the most insidious examples of racism in public life has been the delegitimization of our first African American president by promulgating the absolutely false notion that he was not born in the U.S. and demanding that he produce papers to prove he was. That the U.S. is now led by the biggest peddler of that conspiracy theory tells me racism is alive and well, even among people who probably genuinely don’t want to be racist.

Is the working class just sexist? Williams asserts that Hillary Clinton’s quest to shatter the glass ceiling by becoming the first female president and the devastation that many women felt when she lost the election did not matter to the white working class. Williams further asserts that this is not because they are sexist but because gender equality means something very different in the working class context. For example, “What working class women see is that blue-collar jobs with good pay are heavily gendered as male; men ensure they remain so through severe sexual harassment of women who try to enter.” She also posits that working class men felt threatened by Clinton in part because “they value stability and tradition, including gender traditions – rather than gender flux.” Just as racism is not confined to the working class, neither is sexism: “the average working class man is less likely to espouse egalitarian[ism] than his professional class counterpart, but he spends more time caring for his children than does his elite counterpart.”

Let me say personally that I believe that sexism and misogyny played a far larger role in the 2016 election than many people – both working class and professional elites – would like to admit. Just think back to the charge leveled at Hillary Clinton that she was playing “the woman card.” Would anyone ever tell a man that he was playing “the man card”? Of course, there are all kinds of other reasons she lost, but sexism was certainly one of them.

Why don’t the people who benefit most from government help seem to appreciate it?  Williams cites a 2008 survey asking Americans whether they had ever used a government social program. More than 56% said they never had, when in fact 91.6% had. Williams believes that showing working class Americans “how they benefit from government programs needs to be a major priority…. We need a bipartisan campaign to educate the American public about the positive roles that government plays in their lives,” especially in two major areas: public safety and economic stability.

I have never understood the antipathy toward government that many people seem to feel. Yes, rules and regulations can sometimes be onerous, and the wheels of government often run very slowly and/or inefficiently, but I receive and appreciate many benefits from government: timely snow removal by my local township government, roads and highways maintained by the state, my health insurance provided by the federal government (Medicare), safety standards for cars, neighborhood firefighters, national parks, to name just a few.  

Conclusion: Williams ends by saying that her “book describes a relationship gone bad: that between the white working class and the PME.” While empathy is a good place to start, she continues, more is required. She accuses the PME of leaving “the two-thirds of Americans without college degrees out of your vision of the good life” and of committing to equality for everyone else while dismissing the white working class, thus alienating them.

Williams’ analysis pricked my conscience about the negative and even condescending attitudes I’ve had toward the white working class, especially regarding their political leanings, perhaps proving that I have in fact become one of the elites even though I don’t feel like one. I also gained a new understanding of some of the challenges faced by the white working class and the reasons many felt that someone like Donald Trump could help them. 

And yet, and yet…. While I understand some things better, I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that so many people were and still are able to overlook, ignore, or deny character traits and behavior in Trump that are not in keeping with their traditional values (honesty and personal responsibility, to name just two). I also fear that they have been sold a false bill of goods: already, the promises to cover everybody with much better and cheaper health insurance and not to cut Medicare or Medicaid are in danger of being blatantly broken. Maybe I’m still missing something?

 

 

Three More Birthday Wishes

Last year, on primary election day in Pennsylvania, I listed three wishes for my 68th birthday: a fair electoral system, a world where my grandchildren and their children and grandchildren can survive and thrive, and the ability to age well. I won’t comment on the progress on those three wishes except to say that at least two of them appear to be “wishes deferred” for now. Today, on my 69th birthday, I’m adding three more birthday wishes.

I wish for more success in following the advice of the psalmist to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46: 10). In a topsy-turvy world that often feels unstable and unpredictable and where a lot of wrong seems to be prevailing (or, in the language of Psalm 46, a world where “the mountains shake in the heart of the sea” and “nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter”), it’s difficult for me to be still. There is so much going on that disturbs me: consumer, environmental, and health protections being undone or in serious danger; ongoing assaults on the foundations of democracy, like a free press and voting rights; threats of draconian budget cuts to important programs that meet needs and contribute to quality of life; the normalization of unselfconscious and jaw-dropping hypocrisy and blatant dishonesty (several degrees worse than the kind of spin we’ve come to expect from most politicians ); the threat of potentially devastating military interventions rather than an unwavering commitment to peacebuilding and ever more serious diplomacy; lingering and serious questions about Russian connections and political conflicts of interest; and the list goes on.

With things happening almost every day that trouble me, I find it really hard to rest in the first words of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear….” My activist and impatient self wants to do something to make it all stop, to make a difference, to speak out and act on behalf of those who are most vulnerable right now. I have a difficult time taking the long view of history, trusting not only in God as my refuge, but also in the ability of the world’s oldest democracy to survive what feels like an existential threat. As I’ve said before, it’s not an either/or thing (that is, either I become politically active, or I serenely rest in God’s providence to work it all out while I plunge myself into local and family endeavors); it’s definitely both/and. But still the balance is difficult and my soul needs the rest that comes from “being still” and trusting in a God who cares about the world, individual people, and me.

A typical scene from my current life: Sophie the cat and a mug of tea sustaining me while I edit yet another article.

I wish for a continued (relatively) sharp mind so I can keep doing the things I enjoy and that give meaning to my life: editorial and writing projects, knitting, reading and writing, conversations with friends, travel with my husband, time with my children and grandchildren, volunteer work. Along with a sharp mind, I wish for good eyesight. I’m headed toward cataract surgery in the not-too-distant future, proof that the aging process moves inexorably forward. So much of what I enjoy doing requires not only a sharp mind but good eyesight as well.

Last year in my birthday post I mentioned my annual wellness visit and the three words I had to remember briefly to prove that my short-term memory is intact: apple, table, penny. At this year’s wellness visit, I pre-empted the test by repeating those same three words to the nurse before she had a chance to give them to me – proof, I thought, that my mind is still sharp! I don’t feel like my cognitive skills are slipping, but it’s hard not to have a moment of panic when I can’t remember something I think I should be able to remember (like someone’s name or a phone number I used to know really well or where I put something). Most of the time I tell myself that such memory lapses are normal for anyone who has filed away a lot of detail in her brain over 69 years – it’s not always easy to access the correct file of information from that brain! I also remember something my son said when he was six years old and half-listening to someone dispel some myths about aging. When he heard the speaker talk about “forgetfulness” as a stereotypical characteristic of old people and give the example of going upstairs and then not remembering why, Derek turned to me and said, “I do that sometimes.” Even six-year-olds can be forgetful, so I should give myself a break!

I wish for an attitude of gratitude for all the privileges, blessings, and opportunities that have come my way throughout my life. I don’t want to take anything for granted or assume any sense of entitlement, knowing that many people have not had access to the same privileges and opportunities. I want to be grateful and not bitter or envious about things I sometimes wish I had but don’t. I recognize the fragility of much of what I have and know it could easily be taken away. I also want to be grateful at some level even for the hard things that have been part of my life, not because I enjoyed them, didn’t wish them away at the time, or wouldn’t be just as happy if they had never happened, but because they have become part of who I am – part of my story – and have taught me valuable lessons. Many times, gratitude is not my first instinct, but I would like to be able to get there more quickly than I sometimes do.

The ability to “be still,” a sharp mind, and an attitude of gratitude: three more birthday wishes as I head into the final year of my 60s. Are they too much to ask?

Adventures in Advocacy

In January, I wrote about my “existential crisis,” and mused about several things causing that crisis, including the tension between choosing to speak out on public policy matters and choosing to “go about the ordinary routines of my life, committed even more to being kind and compassionate.” It’s a choice between two different kinds of advocacy: speaking truth to power and asking the powerful to act in ways that help rather than hurt people who are the most vulnerable, or acting in more personal and direct ways. In some ways, the more personal acts of kindness, compassion, and generosity are easier, more satisfying, and might produce quicker results, but the systemic nature of injustice (racism, inequality, sexism, etc.) seems to require something different to create structural and lasting change. I believe both kinds of advocacy are needed, and that it is important to act out my beliefs both personally and publicly.

At the beginning of a presidency that I find disturbing on many levels (no news to anyone who has been reading this blog for the past year and a half), I’ve been engaging in more public advocacy than has been my custom. This past week, that took three forms: I wrote letters/emails; I visited Scott Perry, my U. S. representative, in his local office; and I attended his town hall meeting.

The office visit: Dale and I went with four other people to meet with Scott Perry. We were scheduled for 30 minutes, and ended up having about 40 minutes with him. Our main goal was to introduce ourselves and hear a little about what he considered his legislative priorities, in the hope of beginning to establish a relationship with him for future meetings on more substantive issues. Time went went by VERY quickly, the conversation was congenial and nonconfrontational, and I hope we laid the foundation for future conversations.

The town hall: When Dale and I learned that Perry had scheduled a town hall meeting, we immediately registered, and took a friend with us. To get in to the meeting, we had to show our tickets and a photo ID to make sure that only residents of his district attended. At least 400 people came, but the venue was not full, even though all the tickets were reportedly gone in three hours and there was a wait-list of about 500. Apparently some who had registered were not able or chose not to come after all (there were some weather concerns). Neither Dale nor I had ever attended a town hall before, so this was a new experience, and probably not at all like town halls in the past when 20-40 people would show up, if that many. Clearly, there is a lot more energy for these things right now!

Some observations from the office visit and the town hall:

  • We’re glad we went, and we’ll probably go again.
  • I was very conscious once again of my “minority” status in our congressional district. Only about 33 percent voted as I did in the last election; Perry was re-elected in 2016 by a 2-1 margin. Given this reality, my question is: how can I know that my concerns are represented, or do I have to simply resign myself to the fact that I “lost,” shut up, and just get over it? (Online comments on the news report on the town hall said as much.)
  • Related to the town hall specifically:
    • Perry deserves much credit for holding the town hall – apparently he’s the first Pennsylvania congressman to hold one. While he got impatient occasionally, he handled himself well. He said the right things about this being part of what a representative democracy is about, and he promised to hold future town halls. I appreciate that!
    • A lot of the attendees were members of organized groups and had met to prepare ahead of time. We were simply concerned citizens attending on our own to observe and be counted.
    • The format was different than I expected. Instead of people being invited to a microphone to ask a question, everyone was invited to submit a written question, along with a name, mailing address, and email address. Then someone read the questions, one at a time, until time ran out. It seemed like the questions were read randomly, rather than pre-selected. Perry promised that his office would respond to every question, even if it was not featured at the town hall; it will be interesting to see whether he really addresses the question I asked or responds with one of his generic answers.
    • There were four major themes in most of the questions: 1) the president’s proposed budget and the draconian cuts to important programs that help address very real needs (like Meals on Wheels, low-income energy assistance, etc.); 2) opposition to the wall and the recent immigration raids (for example, one elementary school principal noted that immigrant parents are afraid to come to school for their citizen children’s PTO meetings; 3) the president’s behavior (lies, assaults on the free press, refusal to release tax returns, possible ties with Russia, etc.); and 4) the Affordable Care Act and its proposed replacement, the American Health Care Act, which according to the Congressional Budget Office will result in millions of people losing their health insurance.
    • We did not enter into the “raucousness” of the event. There was a lot of shouting and booing and interrupting, although not as much as I expected there might be given what I had seen on TV from town halls in other parts of the country. While I may have agreed with the reasons for the boos and interruptions, I am personally not comfortable participating in that kind of behavior. I applauded when I agreed, but kept mostly silent when I disagreed (well, except for muttering under my breath or to Dale or my friend!).
    • A town hall like this one is simply not a good forum for genuine dialogue, and I doubt whether anything different will happen as a result. Probably the most important thing is that it let Perry know that the 33 percent in his district who did not vote for him (and perhaps some who did but are now upset by what’s happening) would like to be heard and represented too. It also helped me see with my own eyes that we are not alone in many of our concerns, even though in our district we are in the minority.
    • The audience was very white, even though the district includes the cities of York and Harrisburg, both of which have significant African American populations. We thought about the importance of helping to ensure that those communities are better represented at future meetings. And we couldn’t help thinking about the effects of gerrymandering right here in our own backyard: the district includes much of York and Adams Counties, a little piece of Cumberland County (including us), and the city of Harrisburg, effectively negating the city’s influence.
    • Perry often did not answer questions directly, but went back to his talking points, obfuscated (in my opinion), or simply avoided the question entirely. Of course, he’s not the only politician who does that!

Ultimately, both the office visit and the town hall contributed to my feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. During the meeting in his office, Perry talked a lot about the strictures that are placed on House members and how they often have to tow the party line regardless of their own opinions and preferences. I couldn’t help wondering how, given the realities he described, constituents can ever feel like their concerns will be taken seriously. He kept mentioning that he has 720,000 people in his district, the clear implication being that the majority rules, and we were in the minority. He doesn’t really have to listen to people like me to be re-elected.

On the other hand, I think it’s important to continue speaking out. I’m reminded of that quote attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” There are obviously many ways to change the world – including practicing our values and beliefs (in my case Christian) in our everyday lives at home, in our neighborhoods, at work, in and through our churches, and elsewhere – but I believe that speaking out publicly as a “thoughtful, committed citizen” (which I hope I am) is one of them.

 

God Bless the Whole World, No Exceptions

worldFrom the moment of my birth, I have been inextricably linked to three nations – the United States, the land of my mother’s birth; Canada, where my father was born; and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where I was born. Even though I carry a U.S. passport and have now lived in the U.S. for more than 55 years, I’ve never forgotten my deep roots in and ties to Canada and Zimbabwe (and Zambia, where I also lived as a child). So there’s something in me that instinctively recoils when I hear the words, “America first.” It’s not the association of that phrase with the 1940s and anti-Semitism (disturbing as it is) that makes me recoil; rather, I dislike the idea because it seems to suggest that America is more important than other countries, that we should always be self-interested at the expense of other people in other places.

My own experience and understanding of Christian faith doesn’t fit well with the idea of “America first.” My missionary kid birth and upbringing conditioned me from the beginning to think about other countries besides the U.S. Even after returning to the States, my parents kept in touch with people in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and they were deeply interested in what happened in those countries. As former missionaries, they also maintained their connections with Brethren in Christ Missions in other countries, such as India, Japan, and Cuba.

Except for Canada, I didn’t travel outside the U. S. after we returned from Africa in 1961 until 30 years later in 1991. By then, I was an at-large member of the board of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. I served on the board for 19 years, including nine years as chair. While serving on the board of MCC, which works in approximately 50 countries, I had the opportunity to travel to Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mexico, Zimbabwe , Zambia, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, and Indonesia. These visits always affirmed the fundamental value of individual people of all races and colors and creeds. I have wonderful memories of the people I met, and when I think of these countries, I often think of specific people, especially women, who worked hard and cared for their families just like I do, often under very difficult circumstances.

[Aside: I’ve written before about how my international travel taught me much: “Stories from Around the World, Part 1 and Part 2.” I’ve also written about “Books to Expand My World” highlighting books that remind me there is a world out there beyond the United States. Here’s Part 2 of the post about books.]

From a Christian point of view, caring more about one’s own country and its people seems to be at odds with the concept of being citizens of heaven and the kingdom of God, rather than earthly kingdoms. Jesus didn’t say, “God so loved the United States” (or Palestine, where he lived); he said “God so loved the world.” God created everyone in God’s image, not just Americans, and if we truly believe that, then we should care about the welfare of all people, not just those who live in the United States. John’s vision of a huge choir composed of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation (a multi-ethnic and multi-national kingdom of God) points to a much less ethnocentric and nationalistic view of the world than what is currently being promoted in many places.

All of this is not to say that I’m not patriotic and don’t appreciate the kind of life I enjoy in the United States. I confess to feeling a fairly high degree of patriotism during the Olympics, as just one example, and I can’t help breathing a little sigh of relief when I set foot on familiar American soil again after traveling internationally. I also don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t integrity in taking care of our own people; there is a bit of hypocrisy in railing against poverty, inequality, oppression, and discrimination in other places when we aren’t working hard enough on those issues here at home. Self-interest is a good thing (as Jesus himself suggested when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself”), although not when it ends up always putting personal interests ahead of the needs of others, or hogging the lion’s share of resources when others are suffering.

As Christians, we are connected to a global fellowship, a worldwide church; we care about the welfare of everyone, regardless of where they live. But beyond that, as human beings,  we are all connected to people all over the world. The contemporary world is inextricably interconnected and interdependent, more so than at any time in history, given the relative ease of travel, increased technology, and the ubiquity of the Internet. What we do here affects people in other places, and what other people do affects us; this is especially true when it comes to the use of limited natural resources. Globalism seems to have become a dirty word, but that doesn’t make sense to me. The “America first” mentality seems to operate out of a zero-sum philosophy: we have to be first, which means that no one else can be first; we can’t contribute to the well-being of others in other places because that means we can’t take care of ourselves. Why does it have to be either-or; why can’t it be both-and?

The time-honored ending to every presidential speech is “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.” I understand and respect that, knowing and appreciating that presidents speak as the chief representative and promoter of and advocate for one specific country. But sometimes I also can’t help wishing they would add, “And God bless the whole world, no exceptions.”

 

From Writing What I Didn’t Know to Reading to Know Better

In 1964, for my senior English class, I wrote a short story called “Created Equal.” More than 50 years later, I still have the original (slightly yellowed) handwritten copy, complete with an A grade and the comments “Excellent” and “Powerful theme.” The story is written in the third person omniscient point of view about an African-American family forced out of their home because of white protests and the family’s struggle to find another home.

By choosing that topic, I violated one of the fundamental principles of writing: write what you know (or research thoroughly so you learn to know). I didn’t have any personal experience with the topic, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t do any research. At the time, I was living in a lily-white neighborhood, attending a white school and church, did not personally know any African Americans, and just two years earlier had returned from living in racially segregated colonial Africa (albeit on mission stations surrounded by black people). What in the world motivated me to write such a story in the first place, and what made me think I could do it with any integrity?

To answer that, I think you have to put my story in context. We did not have a television in our home, but we did listen to the radio and my parents subscribed to Time magazine, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was the Man of the Year for 1963 and appeared on the cover on January 3, 1964. My social studies class during my senior year in high school was called “Problems of Democracy,” and while I don’t remember much of anything from that class, we probably discussed current events, and 1963 and 1964 were tumultuous years in the civil rights movement. For example: April 1963, King was arrested during protests in Birmingham and wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”; June 1963, Medger Evers was murdered; August 1963, March on Washington; September 1963, four young black girls were killed when a church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. I’m thinking all that was in my mind when I chose the topic for my story.

I am impressed in retrospect that I cared enough about racial injustice when I was 16 to write about it, but I wish I had been able to write out of some base of knowledge gleaned from what people like Drew Hart call “those on the margins.” My church just finished a month-long series on racial reconciliation, using Drew’s book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, as a resource. (Drew is an African American assistant professor of theology at Messiah College.)  In the final chapter of the book, Drew lists seven “Jesus-shaped practices for the antiracist church.” The third item on his list is to “see the world from below,” which includes his suggestion “that Christians from dominant culture change their reading habits so that those on the margins become the main stage.”

When I was 16, “those on the margins” were definitely not the main stage of my reading habits. In the years since, my reading habits have broadened, and I have enjoyed reading books by non-white authors, including African Americans and writers from other countries, especially Africa. Two of those authors, whose memoirs I read recently, are John Lewis, the congressman from Georgia, and Margo Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of writing at Columbia University.

march

John Lewis’ three-part graphic memoir of his leadership in the civil rights movement, March (co-written by Andrew Aydin, Lewis’ communications director, and illustrated by Nate Powell), taught me so much more about the events that must have inspired and shaped my short story than I ever knew at the time. I already had a great deal of respect for Lewis based on his current role as a congressman from Georgia; reading these books increased my esteem for him. He is often referred to as a “civil rights icon,” and his three-part memoir firmly establishes why that label is not an exaggeration.

He is the only surviving member of the “Big Six,” the heads of six prominent civil rights organizations who collaborated on many of the big events of the 1960s and fought for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (the other five were Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young). He writes honestly about the conflicts between the leaders and their organizations regarding the methodology and philosophy of the movement despite their common goals. Lewis participated in the Freedom Rides, marches, and numerous sit-ins and protests to desegregate restaurants and other establishments and to secure voting rights for African Americans in the south. He is the only surviving speaker from the August 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. He was arrested more than 40 times, jailed repeatedly, and beaten viciously (fractured skull) by white police in Selma on Bloody Sunday in March 1965. Despite all that, he maintained an unwavering commitment to nonviolence as the instrument of change.

The three parts of March describe how and why Lewis joined the civil rights movement, and then cover his participation in and leadership of the movement until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Interspersed throughout the three books are flash-forwards to the inauguration of Barack Obama as president on January 20, 2009, a continual reminder of what a seminal event that was in black history in the United States. Near the end of Book 3, before the account of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Lewis describes meeting Obama after the inauguration and receiving an autographed copy of the inauguration program on which Obama wrote, “Because of you, John.” (Tears ran down my cheeks as I read that, by the way.)

Most people who came of age where and when I did remember the tumult of the 1960s – not just the civil rights movement but also the Vietnam War. I often characterize myself as a child of the 60s, explaining some of my current bent toward activism and social justice as having been honed during those years. The news was full of protests, and you had to have been living under a rock not to be at least somewhat aware of what was going on. I suspect, however, that a steady diet of news about civil rights protests ended up distorting my views of black America. While I commend myself for having lamented in my story that “[u]ntil things were better, Rosie and Caleb [the mother and father in the story] would have to live as two of the many that were ‘created equal,’ but not treated equal,” I also cringe at the stereotypes I perpetuated of poor desperate blacks who worried that all the protests were not going to help them (yes, I actually had Rosie expressing her frustration about how the protests were going to hurt more than they helped, words that were more likely to have emanated from all the white people I knew than from many African Americans).

negrolandThose stereotypes were again shattered by the second memoir I read recently – Negroland, by Margo Jefferson. Jefferson was born a year before me, and thus came of age during the same time I did, in the 1960s. Her story, however, is worlds away from mine, or that of John Lewis. She was born into an upper class black family in Chicago, and lived a life of relative privilege. Absent from her memoir is much mention at all of the marches and protests going on in the southern United States. Her struggles were different, although certainly very real, and she did not actively participate in the civil rights movement as we usually think of it, but her story nonetheless illustrates the racialized nature of American life. Consider this comment about the nature of privilege: “Caucasians with materially less than us were given license by Caucasians with more than them to subvert and attack our privilege….Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident but not obliging; dignified, not intrusive” (p. 91).

The book as a whole is an interesting exploration of the intersection of class, gender, and race, as Jefferson figures out how to negotiate the world as an upper class woman where race seems more important than either gender or class in determining one’s status in the U.S. And just as Lewis interspersed his civil rights memoir with scenes from the Obama inauguration, Jefferson intersperses her own story with some of the history of upper class and wealthy blacks, dating from before the Civil War. To my shame, I knew practically nothing of this history.

Who knows how that high school short story would have been different if I had written about what I knew. Perhaps it wouldn’t have tackled the issue of race at all, or maybe it would have been about a white teenager just beginning to learn about issues of race in the country she had been living in for only two years. I can’t go back and change the story (or stop cringing in embarrassment every time I reread it!), but I can continue to enlarge my reading habits so that I am better able to see the world from a point of view that is different from that of my dominant white culture.

 

Postscript: Other recommended books by African American authors I’ve read during the past year:

Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson; about racial disparities and discrimination in the criminal justice system and Stevenson’s legal efforts with the Equal Justice Initiative

Between the World and Me, by Ta-nehisi Coates; a series of essays, written as a letter to his son, confronting race in America and how it has shaped American history

The Known World, by Edward P. Jones; a novel about a black slave-owner in Virginia before the Civil War

The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore; the true story of two black men by the same name who both grew up in Baltimore but ended up in very different places

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson; a memoir in poetry of her childhood in South Carolina and New York City

And of course, Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, parts of which I re-read recently.

 

 

An Existential Crisis

If you’ve read this blog over the last year, you know that I was deeply troubled by the presidential campaign and did not vote for or support the man who is now the president of the United States. As I’ve tried to process my feelings since the election, and come to terms with an outcome I don’t like but at least at some level must accept, I’ve experienced far more of an internal struggle than I expected or ever have before following an election that didn’t turn out the way I had hoped. I have been shaken to my core, and I don’t quite know how to deal with the ongoing existential crisis I feel. Maybe it’s a bit of hyperbole to call it an existential crisis, but let me explain.

On caring more about politics than I should as a Christian: In his inaugural address, Donald Trump said, “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America.” That sentence really bothers me as a Christian and should bother everyone who calls themselves Christian. Total allegiance to my country, above all else? Really? And yet, in the depression and anxiety I have felt over the future of the United States under politicians whose positions seem in direct conflict with values I hold as a Christian, I recognize the possibility that my allegiance is more divided than I want it to be, that perhaps I am putting more faith in democracy and political systems than in God. I really do believe that the kingdom of God does not depend on who is or is not elected president or the policies we enact, but I also believe that some of the very foundations of our democracy are in danger right now. How do I navigate that tension without compromising my primary allegiance to God’s kingdom? And somewhat relatedly, how do I interact with fellow Christians who see things so differently than I do – some of them within my own church, family, and circle of friends?

On truth and facts: I feel like I am living in some kind of alternate crazy-making universe, where people speak in all seriousness about “alternative facts,” as though there is no such thing as objective truth. As I said a couple weeks ago, “I feel like I can’t function in a world where facts aren’t facts, where you can just make up stuff and present it as true and real, dismiss a story based on facts that don’t suit your particular bias by calling it ‘fake news,’ or demean and dismiss journalists and newspapers that have dedicated themselves for decades to telling the truth.” The “gas-lighting of America,” including the deliberate efforts to undermine reputable news organizations that have been doing credible reporting and investigative journalism for many years, is dangerous and smacks of authoritarianism, and it has continued into this first week since the inauguration. Truth matters!

On speaking out/protesting publicly vs. living and acting according to my values in my own little corner of the world: I do think this is a false dichotomy; both are needed, not one or the other. However, I feel this tension very personally. I am not a protester kind of person; I’ve never literally marched for or against anything, even though I have often agreed with the reason for the protests or marches. On the other hand, back in the 1980s, my husband and I resisted paying the portion of our federal income taxes used for military purposes because of our commitment to nonviolence. That was a form of protest. I have visited congressional offices (admittedly not often) to advocate for something I believe in, and I’ve written letters and made phone calls to my senators and representatives. Those are forms of speaking out. Right now, I think I could spend my whole day writing letters or making phone calls, joining one protest or another, signing this or that petition to speak out against or in favor of some action on issues I care deeply about. But is that how I should spend my time? Perhaps it is more important to go about the ordinary routines of my life, committed even more to being kind and compassionate, welcoming to people who are different than I am, generous, etc., and leave the speaking out and protesting to others for whom it might come more naturally?

One reason why this is not a simple choice is that systemic issues are at play that I’m not sure can be resolved by acts of kindness and generosity, important as those are. For example, how will my individual acts of treating everyone the way I want to be treated ensure that voting rights are respected and not restricted, or ensure that people who are in danger of losing their health insurance will be able to get the health care they need and deserve?

On practicing empathy when I don’t feel it: I believe it is important to put myself in the shoes of those who are pleased with the new president. While I’m convinced that some people voted for Donald Trump for not-very-noble reasons (his appeal among white supremacists being one notable example), I also know that many people genuinely believe that certain moral values were being lost and now hope they will be restored, or felt abandoned economically and now hope for recovery. I may not agree or be convinced that this presidency will solve those problems, but I understand that there are legitimate reasons why many people wanted a stark change in direction. I confess this is difficult for me because I am repulsed and offended by so many of the words, behaviors, and policy proposals of the new president, but I still must try to understand .

On choosing the right battles: Two articles I read recently have helped me begin to choose my battles. The articles suggested not spending too much time on issues that are “part of the normal ebb and flow of government and changes in party control,” but paying attention instead to issues and policy proposals that have moral (or theological) implications or are assaults on democracy itself. Admittedly, it’s not always easy to make this distinction, because they are often intertwined, but it could help me focus my attention and action on a few things when it feels like every day there is something new to address.

For example, I am opposed to the recent executive order suspending the Syrian refugee program and restricting immigration from certain mostly-Muslim countries; the Bible tells me not to be afraid, to welcome strangers as if they were Jesus himself and to care for the alien and the oppressed; plus there are the words on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”) articulating the traditional aspirations of this country. I am also concerned about the not-so-veiled threats against the press when it dares to report the truth or critique the president (see above item about truth and facts), and I am worried that discrimination on the basis of religion is being normalized. These are threats to American democracy.

On not wanting to be guilty of the same thing I hated during the Obama presidency: The day he was inaugurated, Republicans deliberately planned to obstruct anything President Obama proposed. Even though they didn’t succeed in preventing his re-election, and he left office more popular than many outgoing presidents (certainly than his predecessor, a Republican), the obstructionism generally worked and now we have undivided government. So the obvious temptation is for the opposition to respond to the new president the same way – to obstruct and resist everything. I have been told to “give the new president a chance,” which seems fair and certainly within the spirit of not returning evil for evil. But what am I to do when already what I consider immoral/unChristian actions are being taken, people have been nominated for positions for which they are not qualified or in which they could do great harm (to public education or the environment, for example), and untruths and blatant falsehoods are being perpetuated by the new administration? How do I “give him a chance” while also speaking out and resisting?

Other aspects of my existential crisis: 1) I have a hard time spiritualizing the election, taking comfort that God’s will is being done or God’s sovereignty is at work. I am especially put off by arguments that somehow God intervened to elect Donald Trump for some spiritual reason. I do take comfort from Psalm 46, “Be still, and know that I am God,” preferring to believe that God is still God no matter what happens and cares about and understands my feelings. 2) I want to love my enemies; speak the truth in love and not let “unwholesome” talk come out of my mouth (or pen or typing fingers); and bear evidence of the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control). But it’s sure not coming easily these days! 3) I don’t want to live in a constant state of outrage. It’s not healthy, nor is it particularly productive. How do I channel my outrage into something more productive and less stress-producing?

I wish I had sure-fire strategies to ratchet down my levels of frustration and concern over what seems to be happening that is antithetical to so much of what I believe is right and just. I realize that there are many who don’t share my angst, either because they support the direction being charted by the new administration or because they’ve found strategies for coping that work for them. I suspect, however, that there are others like me who are struggling. Maybe articulating some of the sources of my current “existential crisis” will not only be therapeutic for me but also encourage others who are on this same journey.