Says Who??

Verstehen, through shared perspectives


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COLLEGE STUDENTS GIVE MY LIFE MEANING

bare tree

The university academic year begins for me this week, and—not for the first time—my thoughts are heavy with the implications of the grave responsibility of educating the young. This year, though, seems to weigh heavy on my heart more than any such year in the past, with the possible exception of the years in South Africa during the end of apartheid and the first years of democracy. It could even be because of those years, and the comparisons that can be made between South Africa then, and the United States now, that my concern is great.

Of course, no comparative study would find a perfect correlation between the two countries. But there are many similarities, especially when observing the issues of race, intolerance, social injustice, disenfranchisement, rule of a power elite—I could go on, but already it become obvious that there are points to be made, as well as huge differences in the two situations. Can anything be learned from the past in another country, that would shed light on a way forward for us in the present?

My course load this semester consists of Intro to Cultural Anthropology, Social Theory, and Political Anthropology. All three courses contain a great deal of material that directly relates to August 2016 in the United States. Some of these situations, like the failed war on drugs and its ongoing, devastating aftermath, do not appear to be related to anything that occurred in South Africa. But when you look deeper at the combinations of political misinformation, low intensity violence incited deliberately by the government, and antipathy between police and the often innocent subjects of their brutality, a shared trend appears.

In fact, one can see that the troubles in both nations were not caused by failed societal structures so much as by a shared failed personal accountability for human actions. I always try to find an opportunity to explain to my students why it is true that to the extent we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves. And the more often that we do that, the less human we become. At some point, it no longer matters who we hurt, or how much we hurt them. Having reached that point, nothing is sacred—we can lie to each other, cheat in personal and public relationships, and shame our religious traditions by turning them inside out and using them against each other, rather than in enjoyment of the sacredness of our existence. Some people blame this on the capitalist profit motive; I blame it on unrestrained greed grown to inhumane size, however you want to rationalize it.

Our inhumane behavior is seen in social media pages, day after day. Many posts are deliberate lies, some are propagated by people and organizations who make a great deal of money developing the ways and means of destroying political opponents, or spreading ideas in order to challenge inconvenient truths about how we should live. Our youth often do not trust our government, our news media, or our religious leaders. We have an entire generation of youth who have grown up in the midst of uncontrolled verbal and media bile, day after day. Yet many parents and teachers are still able to reflect the values of integrity and community to their children; too many others have failed.

I don’t want to be one of those who fail those precious young people. It would be safe for me to just present the information in the texts as is, and avoid controversy. Unfortunately, sociology and anthropology are not calculus. They exist to provide a learning situation whereby we may study, compare, theorize, and determine the state of our world, and consider possible ways to improve our situation and that of others. If we learn anything at all from these disciplines, it is that humans are not meant to live just for themselves. We are psychologically and mentally geared to living in community, from whence we learn our sameness as well as our beautiful uniqueness; where we learn to share, to care for others, and to be cared for. It is where we discover the meaning of our lives, as Victor Frankl explains so beautifully.

On the surface, our country is in what Durkheim would call a state of anomie; of “normlessness.” There are too many who live by disregarding the norms of human interactions, of human responsibility. The rest of us are not free of responsibility for this state of affairs. The rapidity of progress has allowed us all to enjoy an unprecedented mobility, separation from family and old friends, from the norms that defined our lives when we were young people. The sense of normlessness that has grown has produced political and religious apathy, as our values as a nation have withered into weapons for some groups to hurl at others in hatred.

It could appear that all is lost. It is not. We can, and must, regain our humanity by treating others as the precious human beings they were meant to be. We cannot separate ourselves from community, especially from communities of meaning. We can look to the examples of those around us who are good people, who live honestly and compassionately. We can seek justice for those whose lives have been broken by injustice.

…..We can demand from our government leaders the same values that we hold for ourselves, and make sure not to repeat errors in judgement on that score.

….. We can bring family life back into vogue, securing the early years of our children with the nuts and bolts of honesty, responsibility, and community.

….. We can demand improvements in our education systems so that our children learn to think, not just to memorize.

And we can treat the people we run into each and every day as though they were human beings like ourselves: imperfect, yet full of potential; sacred to their Creator and therefore sacred to ourselves. Deserving of respect—enough so as to inspire those who have none for themselves to strive for improvement.

 

……Yes, this is indeed a heavy responsibility to owe to the students in my classroom. But why else would I even want to be there? The intergenerational discussions and learning that will take place give my life meaning. My students, who are also my teachers, are the joy of my life. When I meet with them again, that “heavy responsibility” will be rediscovered as a great privilege. So begins another year.

classroom


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PONDERINGS ON THE FIRST YEAR OF MY SECOND CHANCE AT LIFE

justinhighrockGlancing over the titles of the posts in this blog site since it began just over a year ago, I am once again amazed at where my journey has taken me. Before it began, when I no longer had the will to keep fighting the illness and pain, I thought my life was (finally) over. Pain/medical management, along with an ever-expanding group of loving friends and the patience of an understanding God, restored not only my will but also my ability to rejoin the human race. I am not the same person I was before, but then who of us can claim to be the same as our younger selves?

First of all, for example, I had to adjust to the “new normal.” It was important to regain my ability to take care of myself, while also accepting that I was still somewhat limited, physically and mentally. I read an article recently about chronic pain resulting in a loss of gray matter in the brain on an annual basis, exceeding by at least 3 times the average for a healthy aging person. Sometimes I am actually aware of my thought processes searching for a new route to the data stored in my brain–data on what I used to know, and on how to accomplish certain activities. Some data seems lost to me for good. Some activities remain beyond the scope of my physical and/or mental ability. I often think in terms of “before the end of my pain and illness” and “after I began my new life.”

Then there is the issue of anger. I don’t remember when it began, but by late adolescence/early adulthood I frequently found myself swallowing what grew from a lot of diffuse anger to a frightening amount of rage. I soon realized that my words that were intended to convey merely a little displeasure were interpreted by others as threateningly angry. I began to be afraid of letting my anger out, fearing the results for both myself and others. Not knowing what to do with the bottled up anger, which only increased at a rate positively correlated to my growing sense of powerlessness, I truly believed myself to be a terrible person.

I divorced, believing that getting out of the world to which my husband had introduced me would allow for room within which I could regain some control of my life. My only response to those with whom I had been raised and who, with me, believed divorce to be a sin, was “God and I have agreed that murder and suicide are not viable alternatives.” However, what I found was that gaining control of my life meant two important things: 1) I could no longer blame my now ex-husband for the problems in my life; and 2) the anger was still there, still threatening to me.

So I still felt like a terrible person. A very angry, terrible person. But, given the chance, the human psyche can be a wonderful thing….

One hot summer night in South Carolina, as I tried to fall asleep after coming home from an adrenaline-filled 2nd shift as the nurse in the county jail, I had a waking dream that remains as real and memorable today as it was that night 33 years ago. I was in a dark, dank underground passageway, listening to the bone-chilling maniacal laughter that seemed to be coming from everywhere. The ghostly faces of demons faded in and out of sight against the walls of the passage. I was already panicked when a strong voice announced “Follow me. I am going to show you who you really are.” My degree of panic accelerated, as I replied “Thanks, but no thanks! I already know who I am, I don’t like it, and I don’t need you to show it to me.” Despite my strong resistance, however, I found myself moving relentlessly toward the end of the passage, accompanied by the mind-bending laughter. The Voice said nothing. I dug in my heels, trying in vain to avoid the forward motion toward what appeared to be a castle-type wooden door (you know, the kind with a rounded peak on top instead of a straight edge). As I came nearer, the door began to swing open inwardly, and at first all I could see was a soft, embracing light. It was quiet and peaceful in that room—powerfully so. Still against my will, however, I crossed the threshold.

There, in the room, sat a lovely and graceful woman on a vanity bench, dressed in a floor-length layered white dress, brushing her long and lustrous hair while looking into the mirror. “Who…..” I began, and she turned to me just as the Voice returned to say “She is you.” “Impossible!” I replied. “That cannot be!”   “It can, and is.” The Voice said.

And I returned to full consciousness, in my own room, stunned. Now I know that Freudians will look one way at this story, and Christians (whether or not schooled in psychology) will have their own interpretation. Just for the record, I personally prefer the latter, with a compelling use of Jungian archetypes.

dreamer

That being said, although it did not all happen overnight, I began to take control of my life and incredibly wonderful things happened to me. Though without funds and resources, I was able to return to college and move on to earn my PhD fully funded by grants and scholarships. I did my research in South Africa, where I returned to teach for a total of seven years. What a privilege all that was, supplied for me almost through no effort of my own but because of my goals, rather than as an enticement to follow the wishes of my donors and mentors. It was incredible—unbelievable. How could I ever repay this huge debt?

I was truly a changed person in many ways. What remained with me was the anger. During the college years I could cover and ignore it because I was so blissfully happy. In South Africa, I recognized the sources of my adult anger: injustice, inequality, abuse of power, violence against the powerless–these all fueled my rage. Only now I had learned how to take the energy from that rage and use it, as an advocate and activist. I could do that whether the victim was me, or entire groups of disenfranchised people. I used the anger, but I could not use it up. It remained with me. Where could I find an antidote?

Nelson Mandela suggested an idea that stays with me. mandelaAfter being released from prison and being in the public eye for some weeks, he was asked how he could possibly not be bitter about his unjust 27 years in prison. His simple reply was “If I bring the bitterness and anger out of the prison with me, then I am still in the prison.” My problem, however, is that acting on that statement must be much more difficult than he made it seem. After living for seven years in the middle of a revolution, death all around me and immanently possible, my anger had fueled a lot of action but was still very much with me. (Along with something like a veteran’s PTSD, later). But Mandela became my first black President (I was a permanent resident of South Africa, because I did not expect to return to the States) and I realized that with the influx of well-educated exiles returning home, my role was no longer necessary. Fourteen months later I returned to my own home.

It was home, but not the home I expected. I have written elsewhere how very much like South Africa during apartheid the attitudes of my country had become. It has become even more so since that post. As I write, I am still grieving over the Charleston massacre, and what it means about my beloved country. I find that the anger I feel is appropriate to the situation, and not overwhelmed by the old, built-up rage.

It is here that I finally come to the point of this article.

I have learned that managing built-up rage as well as new anger is a skill that can be learned and must be practiced. I have my own meditation and calming exercises, others will choose what works for them. But the anger must be met first of all with my decision not to be ruled by it, followed by a plan of appropriate ways to either use it or let it go. I’m not a psychologist so I will not attempt a therapeutic explanation—it is only my need to order my thoughts by sharing them that drives me to write this article.

Letting go of the anger is not enough. The empty place that is left must be filled with something strong enough to help protect against the anger when it wants to return. Again, I had begun to see the answer in South Africa.

One day I was talking to an African lady, in one of the townships which was engaged in an uproar (euphemistically referred to as “unrest” by the S.A. media) and not really a safe place for a strange white woman to be. Our conversation, however, went something like this:

Woman: Why don’t you come in the house and stay with us? You will be safe here.

               Me: Why would you offer me safety, when my presence could endanger you and your family? Why do you even trust me in your home?

Woman: Because first you are a human being, and we only survive if we look out for each other. But mostly it is because I can see that you love us so much that you suffer because we suffer.

The woman’s ability to offer unconditional love, and to accept it unconditionally, was the antidote I sought and one that I had spent many years trying to keep from controlling my life by banishing it. I could love, on condition that it be understood as a feeling and not a commitment. I had long stopped believing I was loveable because I was unable to believe the words of those who said they loved me. Therefore I could not be in control of my life if I depended on love, right? People can hurt you. I thought I did not need love. Yet in the words and actions of the woman described above, I saw what was important both to me as a person, and to me as a social advocate. I had to learn a lot about my emotions.

I have been home from South Africa for 19 years now, 17 of those years having been spent working 60-80 hour weeks and not making much headway with the deliberation and meditation required to learn things about love and anger that would have made my life much easier. About love, I have learned that it, too can be a deliberate decision and commitment, and that it also must be practiced faithfully and responsibly. The really difficult part of love has been learning to accept it, and learning to accept caring help when I need it. A friend once described me as being “rabidly independent,” which is not really so funny, when I think about it.

It took the overwhelming pain of my arthritis and disc disease, along with several other physical problems, to make me retire two years ago. The following year was a nightmare of pain and near helplessness. It was only after the successful efforts of my physicians to restore me to functionality that I realized the gift I had been given in meeting–and surviving–my greatest fear. Thanks to the loving care of special friends, including physicians,  I know it is safe to accept help from people who care. I am slowly accepting that I am loved by people that I love. I still have a long way to go.

It is important to me, however, to acknowledge something else of great importance that I have learned. That is, in working to try to make a difference in my reachable world, I need to try to confine my anger to my own energy needs and use my love to guide my work with others. And to let the anger go afterwards, and to hold to the love unconditionally. Too much of my anger has spilled into my words and actions in advocacy, and not enough of the love that sparked my need to respond.  There is already too much anger in our nation.  I don’t need to add mine.

None of that means that I believe I should not be angry with the world that spawned a young man who would be proud to kill people at prayer. None of that means that I will just forget about it. But I am going to have to love my country an awful lot, unconditionally, to keep my anger from depriving me of seeing all of its citizens as equally deserving of my efforts to respect the spark of humanity I do not see because of my anger, even if I cannot love what they have done. My words must reflect both my anger at the injustice and my concern for all the players.

Charleston Post

It’s hard. I am not very good at it yet. But I have made the commitment to try.


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THE SKY IS FALLING

The expressions of a pervasive sense of impending doom are on the increase, whether you read/listen to the armchair experts on social media, or the professional experts in science, economics, philosophy, or religion. Yet as I look around me in the “real-life” portion of my world, people seem to be pretty much absorbed by the joys and/or challenges of daily living rather than wondering whether the world is going to end in a financial meltdown, climate change disasters, the extremes of social anarchy, or World War III. Then, of course, there are others who only argue about who is to blame for any of these terminal disasters, as opposed to those who fatalistically refuse to think about it: “Whatever will be, will be.” Finally we have those who are totally unaware, perhaps desensitized by a lifetime of failed threats of the immanent End of Time.

-Remember the back yard bomb shelters of the Cold War era, complete with supplies to support a family until it was safe to return to the earth’s surface (however long that would be)?

-Remember the End Times and the Space Ship arrival cults? (True, these are not entirely gone).

-Remember Y2K, and the Mayan Calendar date of December 2012?

Or, just pick up the New Testament and read the words of the prophets who followed Jesus, claiming the Rapture would occur just any day, despite the words of Jesus himself, who stressed that the date could not be known. Yet the Second Coming of Christ has been predicted many times in the past 2000 years. It seems that when we are not fearing the end of the world, we are happily anticipating it.

Widespread dissatisfaction with and/or fear of the world as it is, however, have always been accompanied by cries that “the sky is falling.” And sometimes, it does – though not even close to earth-wide since the destruction of the dinosaurs. It happens to us as individuals, too. When everything goes wrong in our lives – economically, health-wise, or in relationships – the suicide rates go up, while others still consider ending it all or pray to die, because their situation is intolerable. The reasons for coming disaster mount up, while our ability to think rationally enough to take action for positive change in our own lives rapidly disappears. If that is our individual coping mode, how can we expect to fare any better in large groups, or as a nation?

Where is the leadership that can put aside their personal fears and aspirations, and show us the way to work together to solve the problems that have solutions, and learn how to prepare for the “new normal” when change is inevitable?

Where are the families and the communities that can help each other to get through the bad times, and show their children how to deal with disaster and failure as well as with success and wealth? I know for a fact that these exist, but perhaps there simply are not enough of them. Or maybe they have forgotten.

Where are the teachers who used to show us how to apply theory and practice to real life situations, and how to think critically in order to separate truth from fiction when possible? I do know of some.

Finally, we can’t blame all these people for our individual and collective feelings of impending doom. I believe that our lives will improve when we stop rushing head-long and helter-skelter into the end of time and stop to get our common sense back.

Yes, indeed, there are threats to our safety and well-being. There are major changes coming to life as we know it. (In fact, there always have been – they just come faster now). We can’t afford either denial or complaisance, and we never could. We have, however, succeeded grandly as a human race when we have cooperatively put our mental and physical resources together to figure out how to meet the challenges of the day, how to be good stewards of our resources, and how to live together in relative peace. This works for nations, for communities, for families, and for individuals.

The sky is not falling yet. It may never fall. But there are definitely some threats. While those who can, work together to see that the potential for damage is lessened as much as possible, the rest of us need to be cooperating – with those who are knowledgeable, as well as with each other — and not giving in to fears of the future or to total denial.

The way to get through a challenge is to work it out, and work it through. Life has always been like that.


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CONFESSIONS OF A BIGOT, UPDATED

July 21, 2016

Two years ago I posted the article below. At the time, I was just beginning treatment for the chronic pain and other illnesses that had required my retirement the year before. But I was also sick from, and sick of, my ongoing anger at how inhumanely we so-called humans treat one another, and just beginning to fully realize that I was in peril of joining the ranks of the haters. I hated intolerance, poverty, unjust legal systems—you name it. I hated those who were intolerant.

I would be reminded by those wanting to help me, of all the people who gave money and time to charities, and how we as a nation spent so much money on welfare, Medicaid, and help for people in other countries. Knowing that I was both activist and teacher, people would say they were agreeing with me by quoting the old saying: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. To which black South Africans replied in the years prior to 1994: Yes, but what if the pond is closed to him?

When I returned home from South Africa at the end of 1995, I was devastated to find that the country of my birth was not the one to which I had returned. It seemed that I had somehow found myself back in apartheid South Africa. I have listed the reasons in another post at about the same time as this one:  https://maryleejames.com/2014/08/01/the-election-is-hanging-in-the-balance/ .  Now I must stress that we are steadily closing the pond for more and more members of our nation’s citizens. Worse, large numbers of our countrymen simply do not care. Life is cheap in America today, just as it was in South Africa in the days of apartheid.

In a post pondering the first year of my new life written one year ago, I have also elaborated on my struggles with anger and the increasing movement of this country toward the actual conditions of apartheid, but now in new clothing. https://maryleejames.com/2015/06/20/ponderings-on-the-first-year-of-my-second-chance-at-life/.

Now it has been two years, and I am not sure just how successful I have been at conquering my anger—or my inability to cope with other’s intolerance. But I do still believe all that I have said in the post below, and the others mentioned. I know I am not the only person in America struggling with this anger. About half of us, however, are on the opposite side of the ones we believe are creating our anger.

But the truth is that we are all the same. We have different ideas and different beliefs in our heads, but since we hate the mere sight of those who differ in any way, we can’t talk about and either resolve or respect those differences. As a result, our nation is in chaos. Our legislators wonder why this is the case, when they have stubbornly failed to do their jobs, and to show leadership with integrity by putting the needs of our country before their own. I could cite specifics, but it is not necessary. We all know what they are, we just can’t agree on which acts were right and which were detrimental to the nation.

Civic Responsibility. Civil Rights. Civil discourse. All based on the same root word, all meaning being accountable to, and for, other members of our country. They are requirements for a democratic process to succeed. And they all rule out acting on our hatreds and require putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes, even if only for the time it takes to work out a common problem.

Otherwise, we become responsible for wiping out hundreds of years of human progress, and become the savages that Hobbes once claimed we were.

 God, bless America,

by returning to us the love we once had for You,

and for your Image in all human beings.

 

June 20, 2015

bare tree

I am of an age where I sometimes remember things that happened years ago better than I remember what I had for breakfast, or even what I intended to do when I walked into this room.   Today, I am recalling a conversation with a fellow college student, when I exclaimed impatiently that I “just cannot stand intolerant people!” I was, in a word, furious.

As I recall the day in question, the other students and I were discussing a “typically racist” response to a situation in our city. In memory, I clearly see the bemused expression on the face of the co-ed, and the hesitation in her voice, when following my outburst she inquired: “is that not just another form of bigotry?” She was pretty brave to venture such a profound observation, considering both the twenty-plus years of difference in our ages, and the potentially negative reaction that bigots may exhibit when being called out. For the record, she remained unharmed and we remained friends. Nevertheless, it was an enlightening and humbling moment for me.

I do have to admit that did not mean that I was cured of my ability to intensely dislike and resent certain people or groups of people whose behavior results in harm to others. I was just no longer able to demonstrate my dislike free of the knowledge that my own behavior could place me on the playing field alongside my adversaries. I am getting better at saying “I hate your behavior, but I do not hate you,” and really meaning it. But usually that can only happen if I am able to swallow the anger that rises up whenever I see people being hurt or deprived of their rights; of their humanity. Sometimes, still, it does not happen until the sentiment is no longer relevant to the target of my ire, but at least I can resolve the bitterness that otherwise would cripple me.

I have never been able to understand hating others because of skin color, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or religion. That is probably why my first academic choice was anthropology, until circumstances placed me in a trajectory towards a degree in sociology. Today, it occurs to me that as a sociologist by profession and a social activist by nature, I am forever dealing with the ambiguity that exists at the point of intersection where I need to speak out in an attempt to rectify the harmful actions that take place in our society, while at the same time—as one who deeply wishes to acknowledge that we are all made in the image of the God we profess to be our own creator—at the same time honoring that Image in the very ones with whom I am at odds. All too often, the realization that I am less than human in the eyes of those same people makes it even more difficult to deal with my own prejudices.

Worse, I begin to stereotype entire groups of people based on their membership in the same category as the people who are creating my problem….it may be

politicians.

lobbyists.

 media.

insurance companies and by implication, insurance agents, or

CEOs of all corporations, for example.

The list goes on, and long after the situation is ended the prejudice tends to remain. So I must deal with myself before, during and after each campaign to right a wrong if I am to honestly claim the title of Christian as well as living as a social activist. In fact, by now I would venture to say that I must do this if I am to have any integrity as a human being. But in practice, this tends only to add to the ambiguities of the situation.

For example, if I work to expose the wrongdoing of a person or group, what credibility will I have if I fail to express my anger at the results of the wrongdoing? At what point do I cross the line between hating the behavior, and hating the person? In a situation within a group where the contenders know each other and acknowledge some important values in common, it is much easier to respect the humanity of the opposing faction. In the broader context, however, it becomes nearly impossible to see that threatening party—almost always a stranger–as a member of one’s own species, let alone as another who is also made in God’s image.

In such cases, the battle can only escalate until one side or the other is thoroughly defeated. They may be relatively harmlessly defeated by being ousted from power, but failing that, they may be only defeated by death. In the case of our country, if we carried this scenario to its extreme, democracy would have been defeated as well.  Anarchy will have won, for it is not possible to live in harmony without trust in a system and in the people who empower that process, when we have failed to protect the vital essence of the humanity of each and every person who inhabits the system.

The good news is that despite the ongoing need for corrections within our society, we are a people who daily live with their neighbors and friends in a peaceful and productive manner. We are people who love our families, our vocations, our churches and our cities. We are proud Americans, and we still enjoy some of the freedoms of a democracy. Our nation is NOT broken! But even the most tolerant of us is still capable of bigotry, and most of us don’t recognize our own role in it. I know, from long experience, that I am most susceptible to this kind of bigotry when I am suffering from the most justifiable (in my eyes, at least), most righteous, anger.

I will never be free of the need to take a deep breath, and with deliberation and truthfulness remind myself that He who made me also created my enemy. He created my enemy, who in some instances may also be praying to that same God for victory in this particular situation.

I sometimes imagine that God could be wondering when His creatures will stop hating each other in His name, and honor that Name by working out our problems with each other instead of asking Him to take sides.

Admittedly, that is a utopian wish. Such ongoing peace is rarely achieved in families, much less in nations.  I am enough of an historian to know that ours is not a story of prolonged periods of living in peace with one another as a nation, yet we share the common value of our unity and in the past have achieved significant results by putting aside our differences in order to protect our common values.

We know how to do this. Our differences are not insurmountable as long as we stop reinforcing the walls that separate us to the point that we can no longer see what we have in common. Perhaps also, as I have constantly to do, we will have to tame the bigot within ourselves before we can work together again as fellow humans.

“One nation……” Like all relationships, it takes work and commitment.  Right now, I have that commitment still.

But I am very angry.

butterfly - Maya Angelou