The Summer of My Discontent

For three months ten years ago during the summer of 2007, I held a position with a title that sounds sort of prestigious: acting director of the Pennsylvania CASSP* Training and Technical Assistance Institute. The reality, however, is that it was one of the hardest jobs I ever had.

Backtracking to March 2007: Shortly before Dale and I left for vacation, a friend and colleague at the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (OMHSAS), the entity that provided the grant to fund the training institute, informed me confidentially that there was a plan in the works to close the institute and use the funding to begin a new statewide training initiative. She further told me that while everyone else would lose their jobs, I would be able to retain a position with OMHSAS. So I left for vacation with this difficult reality hanging over my head. While I was gone, the rest of the staff was informed.

From March until June, we carried on with our regular duties, trying to remain professional even though we were all strenuously opposed to the decision to close the institute and tried to plead our case with various higher authorities. I even remember having a brief conversation at a restaurant with my state representative, who happened to be a high school classmate of mine from way back. As staff, we were particularly upset that we had no input prior to the decision, and no one had given us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves and meet the desire for a new kind of training. We continued to offer statewide continuing education to children’ mental health professionals, and in April we conducted a highly successful conference (celebrating the conference’s 20th anniversary) for about 1,000 mental health professionals, child-serving system partners, youth, and family members. We also amused ourselves and relieved our stress with gallows humor that was probably not always fair to those we felt were responsible for our demise.

We were scheduled to close as of September 30, 2007, but by the end of June, our small staff of seven had shrunk to five, as two people found new jobs. One of those who left was our director, meaning that we needed someone in charge to oversee all the details associated with closing down shop after 14 years. That someone was me, likely chosen because I was continuing with OMHSAS after September 30 and I had been at institute longer than anyone else. Being acting director meant I was responsible for the following:

  • Functioning as “supervisor” for colleagues whose jobs were ending with no new prospects in sight. Not surprisingly, one or two of them took advantage of unused sick days even when they likely weren’t really sick. I asked them to let me know when they wouldn’t be coming to work, but that didn’t always happen. Being put in a quasi-supervisory role while also wanting us all to continue as equal partners at the Institute created significant internal tension for me.
  • Making decisions about how to dispose of everything we had produced: curriculum on a wide variety of topics (youth suicide prevention, writing effective treatment plans, writing psychological evaluations, working with children with autism, mental health and juvenile justice, etc.), a set of core competencies for children’s mental health professionals, and so on. All of a sudden all these products into which we had poured so much professional skill and emotional energy in a desire to help improve the system of care for children and adolescents and their families seemed devalued. Throwing stuff away often felt like throwing parts of ourselves away.
  • Keeping track of the institute’s financial status and making sure that there would be enough money to pay all our expenses. This included staying in touch with people at Penn State’s University Park campus, which administered the grant from OMHSAS that funded the institute. (Technically, we were all Penn State employees.) Not being a finance person, my head often spun as I examined financial reports and tried to make sense of them.
  • Being a member of the committee that reviewed the applications for the grant for the training institute that was going to replace us. This was perhaps one of the more bizarre duties I had. On the one hand, it made sense since I was continuing with OMHSAS and would likely be working with the new entity and I already had experience with one training institute. On the other hand, it felt like some kind of cruel and tone-deaf joke to be asked to participate in the cause of our demise. To make matters worse, one of the meetings of the committee was even held in our conference room. I pre-warned the rest of the staff so they could plan to take one of their sick days on the day of the meeting!
  • Packing up a suite of offices (seven staff offices, a conference room, common areas and work space, etc.) and figuring out what to do with all our stuff. Think conference tables and chairs, multiple office desks and filing cabinets, computer equipment, book shelves and books, a significant stash of office supplies (boxes of binders, copy paper, etc.). There were only five of us to do all this packing, and we were on the third floor of an office building on Front Street in Harrisburg with a tiny and slow elevator. Besides, we continued throughout the summer with regular work in keeping with our mission. Everything ultimately belonged to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and we were bound by our lease to be out of the office suite by September 30. But how and where to move everything? I kept asking OMHSAS for direction, and I kept being put off along with vague assurances that it would all be cared for in the end. Well into September, I still didn’t know who was going to do the moving, where the stuff was going, or any specifics for how we should prepare for the move. Eventually, and just in the nick of time, arrangements were made with the PA Department of General Services to move everything to an unused building on the grounds of the former Harrisburg State Hospital.

I have no idea what ultimately happened to all that stuff. Later, after the institute closed, I went with some staff from OMHSAS to help retrieve some things for their use, and saw how the movers had just dumped everything with no attempt at any semblance of organization. At the time, I felt somewhat responsible for not having made sure the unloading happened in a more systematic way, but also frustrated because I felt like we had so little support from the powers-that-be for what seemed like an impossible task.

My anxiety level was extremely high that summer. Those three months were awful in the ways I’ve described above, plus even though I was keeping my job (unlike the other four remaining staff who would be unemployed and thus were dealing with their own stress), the contract arrangements moved slowly and I wasn’t sure until the last minute that my employment status would be uninterrupted – something critical to maintaining my health benefits. I felt like I had a lot of responsibility but very little control – a sure recipe for psychological distress. That May, I had joined Weight Watchers and managed to stay on target with my weight loss goals throughout this very stressful time. Many mornings during the summer I took a break and went for a walk alone along Front Street, mostly for the exercise that was part of my weight loss regimen but also as a stress reliever. By the end of 2007, I had achieved my weight loss goal, and I credit at least part of my success to the fact that weight loss was something I could control when I had very little control over what was happening at work.

Ten years later, I can acknowledge that there have been good developments in Pennsylvania children’s behavioral health system of care as a result of the training institute that took our place. I can also honestly say that the final eight years (five full-time, and three more in semi-retirement part-time mode) of my work with OMHSAS were good ones during which I learned much and enjoyed new professional challenges and opportunities. Yet I still remember clearly the difficulty of that summer, and I believe that the institute’s closing resulted in losses to the system and there could have been a healthier process by which the fate of the institute was decided. And I never ever want to be an acting director again.

 

*CASSP is an acronym for the Child and Adolescent Service System Program, envisioned in 1982 as a comprehensive system of care for children and adolescents with mental health needs and their families.

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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.

Post-Election Angst

I’ve been trying to collect my thoughts and get out from under the oppressive cloud of disillusionment, sadness, anger, and grief that has been hanging over me ever since the night Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. I admire those who were able to eloquently write and speak words of wisdom almost immediately, but I haven’t been able to do so myself, and I’m not sure that what I’m writing now is particularly wise. Perhaps it’s more of a cathartic exercise and a personal reminder of what I want my priorities to be.

momandme

Me after voting in honor of my mother, who was born before women were allowed to vote. I wore a white sweater she knit for herself many years and which I inherited.

On Election Day, I proudly cast my vote for Hillary Clinton, feeling optimistic that after 240 years, we would finally elect our first female president. That was not by any means my only reason for voting for Hillary, but it was an especially meaningful one. As I said in my pre-election post, it was not a perfect vote (it never is), but I generally felt good about voting for Hillary and very good about voting against a man who I believe is unqualified and unfit for the presidency. He is the antithesis of pretty much everything I stand for, with his vengeful, bellicose, torture-promoting, dishonest, fear-mongering, demeaning, insulting, bullying, sexist, misogynist, racist, and xenophobic behavior and/or speech both before and during the campaign. But today, that man is the president-elect, and how do I respond? Everything in me wants to rant and say I will never be able to support him, but that isn’t either right or productive.

Mental health therapists I have known would say that it’s important to allow oneself to feel what one feels – no matter how negative and unpleasant the feelings. I’ve been surprised at how deeply disappointed I am that so many Americans chose Donald Trump as their president. For the first 24 hours after the results came in, I felt almost physically ill and like I was sinking into another pit of depression and anxiety. I’m better now, but I’m still sitting with my feelings of anger, sadness, disillusionment, and grief.

  • I grieve over the racism directed at President Obama from the beginning and perpetuated by the president-elect, crystallized in the absurd and patently untrue conspiracy theory that he was not born in the United States and thus was not really our president. It feels wrong on so many levels that the same person who deliberately and repeatedly delegitimized the first African American president should now be the one to take over from him.
  • I grieve for the many immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, and other marginalized people who are afraid of what is going to happen to them. I grieve for all the expressions of hatred toward these people already in the wake of the election. I grieve for my granddaughter’s friend who is worried that his Mexican father is going to be taken away.
  • I grieve that someone who openly brags about committing sexual assault can be elected president.
  • I grieve because whether he intended it or not, whether he denounces it or not, Donald Trump has emboldened white supremacists like the KKK and given renewed permission to some white people to express their racism openly and proudly. This is so not okay!

I could go on, but I have to get past all this anger. I won’t be participating in any “not my president” protests. Instead, I have to figure out how to channel my disappointment, anger, sadness, disillusionment, and grief into positive action. I have to find hope in things like the graciousness with which Hillary conceded defeat and President Obama welcomed the president-elect to the White House to begin a peaceful transition of power, and the more conciliatory tone Trump seems to be striking at the moment. I have to remind myself what I have written over the past year as I’ve been trying to process this most difficult election campaign:

From December 9, 2015, commenting on the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”: I really need the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem during this particular Advent and Christmas season, which does not leave us in despair but resoundingly reminds us of the long view of history and of our faith that somehow, the wrong will fail, the right will prevail, and there will be peace on earth:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth He sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

I realize that my own attitude toward those who are espousing ideas, beliefs, and practices that are antithetical to what I believe is right and good is not always as loving and kind as it should be. I don’t think that means I should not speak out and confront that which is so wrong, hateful and unChristian, but it does mean I always need to do so in a way that reflects this core value of my faith and my church: “We value all human life, and promote understanding, forgiveness, reconciliation, and nonviolent resolution of conflict.”

From February 15, 2016: At its best, political correctness reminds us of the real people who are at the other end of our words. It makes us think before we speak. It helps keep our discourse, whether spoken or written, less inflammatory and more civil. It includes rather than excludes, and it should make us think about how we might be using our personal power and privilege to demean and minimize the feelings of others.

From April 26, 2016: I will work at overcoming my fear of speaking out and not be silent in the face of great wrong, and I will remind myself repeatedly that this election will not usher in either the end of the world or the kingdom of God!

From July 20, 2016: Donald Trump is a human being; he is made in the image of God, just as I am. He is someone’s son, husband, brother, father, grandfather, and friend…. He feels like an enemy to so much of what I believe is right, but Jesus said I am to love my enemies….

One of favorite Bible verses is “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18)…. Simultaneously comforting and convicting, the verse challenges me to pursue peace when it feels difficult or even impossible. With such extreme division, polarization, violence, and hateful speech these days, the challenge to live at peace with everyone feels greater than ever. I constantly ask myself: do I truly value all human life? Am I choosing to value those who seem unlovable, who commit unspeakably cruel and evil acts, who don’t value life themselves? What difference might it make if I do?”

From September 20, 2016:  I long for political discourse that is honest, that doesn’t throw truth to the wind and repeat lies upon lies upon lies. I don’t want to live in a post-truth world. I also believe that speaking the truth is important when we believe that great wrong is being done. And that’s where I am frequently confronted with the tension between forthrightly denouncing unacceptable and despicable attitudes and behaviors (speaking the truth) and still affirming the essential worth and dignity of the person. Words matter.

From November 7, 2016: One good thing that might come out of this election is some soul-searching and thoughtful re-examination of what “being a Christian in a post-Christian world” (the subtitle of my pastor’s excellent current sermon series) should mean. Perhaps many Christians will come to a renewed understanding that the kingdom of God does not depend on who is elected president of the United States, and acknowledge that perhaps we’ve expected the government to help us be like Jesus and too closely married our faith with our politics.

I have a magnet in my kitchen that says, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” To do that, I have to help heal the wounds and be a reconciling force in the world; I have to be kind, empathetic, compassionate, generous, civil, understanding, forgiving; I have to listen to those who disagree with me and see things very differently. I want to echo Hillary’s scriptural admonition to her supporters in her concession speech: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). I’m not completely there yet, but I want to get there.

 

 

Seeking Relief for Election Stress Disorder

“Election stress disorder” is a real thing – almost a diagnosable mental health condition! Last month, a Harris Poll, conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association, showed that more than half of Americans say that the 2016 election campaign is a very or somewhat significant source of stress in their lives. I didn’t participate in the poll, but if I had, I would have been counted among those who have experienced some significant stress this election season.

Where does my stress come from? Let me count the sources!

  • The polarization feels worse than anything I’ve ever experienced, and is reflected every day on my Facebook feed. I feel almost schizophrenic sometimes, with dualing posts from friends on both sides of the political spectrum. I experience ongoing bafflement that intelligent and nice people can look at the same situations and interpret them so differently.
  • There has been so much that is sordid about this campaign (“sordid” defined as “arousing moral distaste and contempt,” with such synonyms as “sleazy, dirty, seedy, seamy, unsavory, tawdry, cheap, debased, degenerate, dishonorable, disreputable, discreditable, contemptible, ignominious, shameful, abhorrent” – all of which seem to fit!). But it’s like a train wreck or car accident that you can’t look away from. Every time I think I can’t watch another news program, listen to another radio broadcast, or read another online article, I get sucked into trying to learn more about some new revelation or change in poll numbers.
  • The rhetoric of “you can’t be a Christian and vote for ___” or “you can’t be a Christian and vote at all” frustrates me. Christians on both sides have written thoughtful analyses and made cases I can respect, even if I don’t always agree. But Christians have also engaged in fear-mongering in apocalyptic language, along with guilt-tripping and downright nastiness toward other Christians who come to the issues with different suppositions and assumptions.
  • It feels like we’re living in a post-truth era, where it’s okay to spread conspiracy theories and falsehoods that have been repeatedly debunked. I hate living in a world where facts don’t seem to matter, pants-on-fire lies are told every five minutes, and people seem to get away with it!
  • Unlike some people I know and like, I am not a single-issue voter, and prefer a more holistic approach. I don’t like the judgment I feel from those who think that one issue is more important than all the others combined. Issues are complex, intertwined, and rarely black-and-white, and a single-issue approach seems like it fails to recognize that complexity and ambiguity.
  • I often wonder how we got to this place. Where are the candidates I can embrace wholeheartedly, whose personal and public lives have been above reproach, and who will inspire the nation to live up to its highest ideals? Why does it have to take TWO WHOLE YEARS to elect a president? After the election is over, can the news media PLEASE take a break and not immediately start speculating on the 2020 election? And after the election can every elected official PLEASE make a pact to “play nicely with others” and not continue to obstruct?

Finally, and perhaps most personal for me is the stress I have felt over my own response. The phrase “vote your conscience” has been invoked a lot, with good reason, but I wonder what that really means: should I not vote at all, register a protest vote (for a third party candidate or a write-in who has no chance of winning), vote against the person I consider a threat to all that is right and decent and honorable, or vote for the one I “like” the most? What is the “conscience vote” that will have the most integrity for me? In some ways, it has been an easy choice, but I’m well aware of the compromises my choice entails. I also sometimes feel like I have become too caught up in the drama of this election, too worried about the outcome, and have lost perspective and made too much of one presidential election.

One good thing that might come out of this election is some soul-searching and thoughtful re-examination of what “being a Christian in a post-Christian world” (the subtitle of my pastor’s excellent current sermon series) should mean. Perhaps many Christians will come to a renewed understanding that the kingdom of God does not depend on who is elected president of the United States, acknowledge that perhaps we’ve expected the government to help us be like Jesus and too closely married our faith with our politics.

My vote on Election Day will not be the perfect vote. It will involve compromise and will not be cast with the belief that if the person I vote for wins, all will be well. I’m not that naive, nor do I think it’s wise put that much trust in a single person. The values that affect my choice include a desire for justice and fairness, compassion, generosity of spirit, care for the marginalized (all the “least of these,” in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25), respect for the essential worth and dignity of every human being wherever they live, a desire for all people to flourish. I believe that one candidate more closely embodies these values in actions and attitudes, but I am under no illusion that this person will always govern accordingly.

14650062_1293456324006921_4994076222190052526_nTo remind myself that I am first of all a citizen of God’s kingdom, and that God is in control and God’s kingdom is not threatened by the outcome of a U.S. presidential election, I’ll be attending Election Day Communion tomorrow evening at my church (Grantham Brethren in Christ Church, Mechanicsburg, PA). Participating in this ritual with my sisters and brothers in the church will be a good stress reliever and a soul- and mind-cleansing time at the end of this difficult election season.

 

A Defense of Political Correctness

In the most recent Republican Presidential Debate, the moderator prefaced a question to a particular candidate with a comment that he had made political incorrectness a hallmark of his candidacy, and then asked the candidate directly what he would like to say at that moment that was not politically correct. He didn’t really answer the question, but he also didn’t object to the premise.

In fact, during this election season, several candidates are wearing their political incorrectness like a badge of honor, and they are being praised and supported for saying out loud what many people are thinking but feel like they can’t say because it’s not politically correct. Their political incorrectness is often wildly popular, and nothing seems to be off limits to say, even when it’s insulting, mean-spirited, sexist, racist, xenophobic, or profane.

“Telling it like it is” is not a bad thing; saying what you’re honestly thinking even when it goes against the grain of what’s generally considered appropriate in polite society is also not necessarily a bad thing. Honesty, truthfulness, and forthrightness are important for genuine conversation and dialogue, especially on controversial and difficult topics. But the question is whether it is possible to be honest and forthright without offending someone’s sensibilities or demeaning others. Which gets at the heart of “political correctness.”

Merriam-Webster defines being politically correct as “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people,” and “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” Wikipedia’s definition acknowledges that sometimes it feels like avoiding offense is taken too far: political correctness is “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”

I agree that sometimes political correctness can be taken to extremes and sometimes seem ridiculous. I also believe that at the heart of political correctness is caring about what our words can do to hurt people and recognizing how our language sometimes does not respect and honor their dignity as individuals. When we stop to think about whether what we are about to say in all honesty and forthrightness might hurt someone, is that giving in to the gods of political correctness, or is it kindness, simple decency, and respect? Is it possible that this kind of self-editing might actually help make us more sensitive to the needs and feelings of other people?

Here’s a relatively minor example from my own life.

People First is the title of the newsletter for adults with mental illness that used to be published in partnership with the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health and Substance Services where I worked before retiring last year. I used to unthinkingly and without intending any offense write or say “mentally ill person,” or “handicapped child.” Then I learned about the importance of “people first” language. As part of my job, I listened to people with mental illness and the parents of children with disabilities talk about their value as human beings first apart from their disability, and I changed not only the way I talk and write but also how I think and what I believe. People are more than their disability; they are people first who happen to have a disability.

In a nutshell, that’s the point. People are important and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and our language should reflect that. When I hear some in the current crop of presidential candidates and their supporters proudly state their disdain for political correctness and their desire to “tell it like it is,” without regard for who might be offended, hurt, excluded, or defined in a way that diminishes them, I wonder if the candidates have ever thought about why so-called political correctness might sometimes be a good thing.

It also occurs to me that often it’s the people with the power who are the first to criticize political correctness. A local example illustrates this. Late last year, some students demanded that administrators rename “Lynch Memorial Hall” on the campus of Lebanon Valley College because of the racist connotations of the word “lynch.” The building was named for a former president of the college, and had nothing to do with the horrible practice of lynching African Americans. When I first heard this piece of news, my instinctive reaction was to agree with many others that this was taking political correctness too far. After all, the word has absolutely nothing to do with the practice of lynching; it’s a family name. It seems like there are much more important things to be upset about than the name of a building that just happens to be the same as an abominable practice. BUT, and this is a big but, I am not African American; I don’t have ancestors who on a daily basis feared being lynched, and the word does not conjure up horrifying and painful mental images that I’d rather not be reminded of every time I see the name of the building. (I believe the issue was resolved by using the former president’s whole name, rather than just his last name.)

At its best, political correctness reminds us of the real people who are at the other end of our words. It makes us think before we speak. It helps keep our discourse, whether spoken or written, less inflammatory and more civil. It includes rather than excludes, and it should make us think about how we might be using our personal power and privilege to demean and minimize the feelings of others.

P. S. After I started writing this blog post but before I finished it, an article called “Why I’m a Politically Correct Christian (And You Should Be Too)” from Sojourners popped up in my Facebook newsfeed, and adds an important perspective to what I’ve been trying to say.

 

On Not Giving In to Fear

Fear is an ugly thing. A couple days ago I wrote about how my own fears about potential responses to opinions I might express on social media sometimes keep me from standing up for what I believe is right – in this case, how we think about Syrian refugees. I could go on about other fears I’ve had or still have that sometimes cause me significant anxiety: cancer or other serious illness, something bad happening to a member of my family, financial concerns, interpersonal and organizational conflict, violence directed at me or someone I love, and so on. While these are fears I’ve faced personally, there are other more “global” fears that afflict many people to a greater or lesser extent: economic collapse and financial disaster, crime, loss of freedom and our way of life, persecution, death, catastrophic illness, and of course the big one right now, terrorism.

Fear of terrorism, specifically as perpetrated by extremist groups like ISIS or Al-Quaeda, is making many Americans irrational and/or mean-spirited, if you ask me. Witness the following:

  • one presidential candidate didn’t completely disavow the idea of registering Muslims in the U.S. in some kind of database, and said that it might also be a good idea to close mosques;
  • another made the unfortunate (and perhaps unintentional – I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt) comparison of Syrian refugees with rabid dogs;
  • others suggest allowing only refugees who can verify they are Christian to enter the country;
  • national polls show that a majority of Americans want to stop the flow (however small it has been so far) of Syrian refugees into the U.S.;
  • the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill prohibiting Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entry into the United States until security and background protocols are strengthened (never mind that security for incoming refugees is already pretty strict) and the Senate is working on similar legislation;
  • more than half of the nation’s governors have stated they will not accept refugees into their states;
  • the comments sections after many online news stories about refugees are filled with hate, with truly vile sentiments being expressed by people, including some purporting to be Christians.

And we could go on. Presidential candidates and others are playing to our worst fears, and many people are allowing themselves to succumb to those fears against all reason.

This all makes me very sad and disheartened. While parallels to U.S. hysteria about Germans during World Wars I and II and about Japanese during World War II are not exact, they are close enough that they should give us pause. The same attitudes and fears that drove our response then seem prevalent today. Do we really want to repeat what we did when we rounded up Japanese people and sent them to internment camps, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? Have we learned nothing from history? And then there is the hypocrisy and blindness of being so concerned about the relatively small threat of being killed by terrorism here in the U.S. that we close our borders to refugees who are fleeing actual terrorism, while at the same time not having the national will to do much of anything about preventing the daily toll of death by gun violence in our streets, schools, and homes.

Fear is a powerful motivator, and I confess that it has motivated me far more often than I care to admit to think and act in ways that I wish I hadn’t. I really do understand the fear. But I don’t want to be ruled by it. Fear is not emotionally healthy and I don’t think it’s particularly helpful either, especially when it turns me into something other than my best self. Plus, for Christians, the Bible repeatedly tells us not to be afraid. During a particularly stressful time of my life a number of years ago, when I couldn’t sleep at night, I would quote Psalm 23 to myself, including these words: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” More often than not, I would soon fall asleep – not because the psalm was some magic potion, or because the fear was gone, but perhaps because I had focused on something other than the fear and been reminded of something/someone greater than myself and my fears.

Fortunately, there are rays of hope, decency, and compassion; not everyone is giving in to fear. Many religious organizations (such as Mennonite Central CommitteeNational Association of Evangelicals, and Sojourners) have categorically stated the need to reach out to Syrian refugees and remain faithful to the clear call of Scripture. My own Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania has indicated that we will accept refugees into our state, despite the political backlash he is receiving. Many individual Christians are speaking out about the need to follow the biblical mandate to “welcome the stranger,” reminding us that Jesus himself was a refugee; many are making valiant efforts to counteract misinformation with facts, about what it actually takes to be able to enter the country as a refugee, for example. And many are trying to inject the toxic conversation with kindness, compassion, and common sense, often at the risk of being ridiculed and called horrible names. All of these things give me hope that we will all  come to our senses and live up to the values not only of our faith but also of our country.

I want to have the courage to stand up for what I believe is right and not give in to fear, to be compassionate and welcoming to people in great need, including refugees from Syria.

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). 

 

 

 

 

Blessed Are the Merciful

I’ve been following the case of a young woman who in an episode of severe postpartum depression stabbed her toddler son and then herself in January 2014. (Her son survived.) She has been in prison awaiting trial for the past year. Just this morning she pled guilty but mentally ill to aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child, and was sentenced to 5-10 years in prison plus 20 years of probation and no contact with her son. I know her personally, although not well, and have been writing to her for almost a year. Before this happened, when we were participating together in the same activity, I never would have guessed that she suffered from postpartum depression. She always seemed like a highly intelligent and articulate young woman who spoke lovingly about her young son. Since she has been in prison, her letters to me have confirmed my initial impressions – she writes about books she’s reading, poems and stories she’s writing for her son, Bible studies she attends, classes she’s taking at the prison, and the progress of her case.

Her situation reminds me of a case from 2001 that was even worse, when Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub. She too was suffering from postpartum depression. Then there is the local woman who repeatedly attempted to abandon her baby recently, but was finally caught by an observant passerby. Fortunately, the baby was not harmed. This mother also suffered from mental illness.

I am not condoning the actions of these mothers. When innocent children are involved, I understand the instinct to condemn, and I agree that children must be protected. But I don’t condone the attitudes of some who have responded to news articles about these and other mothers. This morning, when a local news station reported on its Facebook page that the young woman I know and have been writing to had pled guilty but mentally ill, there were some who were understanding and compassionate in their comments, but others were hateful and nasty, calling her evil and saying she should rot in a cell by herself for the rest of her life. I almost cried as I read the comments (and I’m grateful she probably doesn’t have access to stuff like this in prison). Andrea Yates, who is serving a life sentence in a mental hospital, has requested permission to leave the grounds for supervised events with other patients. However, because of pressure from the public, judges have never granted permission, and she remains the only person at the mental hospital who has never been allowed to leave the grounds.

The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 are familiar to most people. The one that comes to my mind in this context is “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” There is a certain quid pro quo going on there – if we want to receive mercy ourselves, we need to show it to others. The prophet Micah named three things that God requires: doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. When Jesus was attacked by the Pharisees for eating with tax collectors and sinners, he quoted the Old Testament, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” thus critiquing the Pharisees for putting the letter of the law above showing mercy to people, even undesirables. Mercy, lest we forget, means “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.”

Sometimes it is hard to balance the kind of justice required by the criminal justice system (or the kind of justice that requires people to take responsibility and accept consequences) with mercy that understands the possibility of mitigating circumstances and takes them into account. When mental illness is clearly involved, however, it seems like it is even more important for the balance to tilt toward mercy. Recovery from mental illnesses like depression is possible; people do get better, and they can receive treatment and stay well with good medications and talk therapy. Despite this, however, the stigma against mental illness remains, making it difficult for people to ask for help when they need it.

So often these days it seems like there are many who don’t want to show mercy; instead, they want revenge, retaliation, retribution, and ongoing judgment. In our rush to judgment and condemnation, do we forget that sometime we ourselves might need to rely on the mercy of others? Do we forget the simple truth of the Golden Rule: Do to others what you would have them do to you (or to paraphrase it a little: treat others the way you would like to be treated).

Ever since I received a letter a few weeks ago from my acquaintance in prison telling me that her hearing was scheduled for today, she would be found “guilty but mentally ill,” and there were those in her family who thought she should be sentenced to life in prison, I’ve been mulling over the meaning and implications of “blessed are the merciful.” I’ve thought about what it means to show mercy in everyday situations as well as larger more difficult circumstances. Never having been the victim of a violent crime myself perhaps makes it easier for me to suggest that mercy is a better response to her and others like her than retribution and revenge. I can’t know for sure how I would actually respond if one of my family members were physically harmed or killed, but I can prepare my mind and heart to be more likely to want to be merciful and kind, to try to understand what happened and why, to be able to forgive, to look for restorative justice possibilities rather than retributive justice that feels like it simply perpetuates the cycle of violence and hatred. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.