Buckets Full of Distraction: Connecting the Dots Between Race Bias and The Myth of a Benevolent Economy

If you were awake and on the internet last week, you probably saw at least twelve stories on each of the following three topics:

1) The death of USAmerican comedian Robin Williams

2) The death of unarmed, black youth, Michael Brown in Ferguson (and subsequent shooting of Kajieme Powell, again, clearly unarmed)

and finally,

3) everybody and their brother (well, honestly, mostly just white folks) dumping ice water on their own heads to raise money for medical research of the neurodegenerative disease ALS


There have been plenty of words spilled about mental health, police militarization, and the slashing of public funds for medical research. But I’ve yet to see a useful analysis of the co-location of these issues in our society. For this reason, I’m compelled to nudge the conversation along with a bit of speculative dot-connecting.

I think we’re easily distracted and, for that reason, we tend to miss the deeper currents underneath the choppy waves that surface in our national conversations. But if we zoom back, there’s a sort of Pacific Gyre pressing together some of the worst of our collective toxic social pollutants. 


There’s a pattern language we’ve created around celebrity suicides and mass shootings. Some people want answers. Some people want blame. Some people want to make a teachable moment to talk about the seriousness of mental health care. 

And then the next story pops up in our news feed.

Another unarmed black man or boy (guilty until proven innocent, just for breathing while black) is shot to death by aggressive police officers who would rather murder someone than take two steps backwards and use their words (a skill many five-year-olds have mastered), while groups of (mostly) white men carry loaded guns through shopping centers and restaurants full of families and (mostly white, male) legislative bodies bend over backwards to ensure that these hoodlums’ “rights are protected.”

And then the next story pops up in our news feed.

A wickedly wealthy celebrity or three and twenty dozen of your neighbors are dumping buckets of ice on their heads, or wearing colorful wristbands, or racing for some kind of cure for a disease that doesn’t have enough medical research funding. Here we see people who already pay too much to private companies for healthcare are expected to turn out their pockets to pay for something that should be a part of a public system of research and accessible health care, because we can’t publicly pay for medical services due to overfunding the war industry and giving tax breaks to corporations.

And then the next story pops up in our news feed.

And we care. So we feel bad. Then we get angry. We click to add our e-signature to a poorly worded demand that won’t be taken seriously by a legislator who’s being visited by lobbyists who happen to be the legislator’s future/past employer. We feel guilty or flooded by racism and get defensively entrenched or overwhelmed. And we dump ice, buy the wrist band, and run the race, because we are compassionate people trying to do whatever we can do to stop what’s awful in the world.

And then the next story pops up in our news feed.

Ad nauseam. 


And it’s not like we don’t know that racism is alive and well. We know there are problems with the prison industrial complex, fueled by private corporations, arrest quotas, and militarized police waging a drug war selectively in Black and Latina/o neighborhoods, fueled by un-confronted internal racial bias. The stats tell us this clearly. Black and Latina/o communities tell us this clearly. The blood of dead black men, whose murders by police are available to watch on youtube, tell us this clearly.

And it’s not like we don’t know that there’s a huge problem with affordable access to mental health care. We know there’s a huge problem with guns in this country. Mass shootings happen because people can get ahold of deadly weapons and because they don’t have adequate mental health care. Suicides are tragic because they are social failures to provide appropriate care so that people can face trauma, anguish, and grief. We know these are problems.

And it’s not like we don’t know that public health systems can work, or that significant public funding of medical research provides stable predictable funding for research that benefits all of society with ongoing improvements in healthcare that lead to a healthier populace that is more able to work, keep people out of medical bankruptcy, and out of the kind of desperate situations where they require charity which depends on the popularity of a fundraising campaign or religious/political agreement between benevolent donors and those who are ill (see AIDS research, birth control, etc.). 

And then the next story pops up in our news feeds.


We’re so hurried to find a fix. Patch’n’go. The page will refresh and a new symptom of a broken system is going to flood our news feeds and we’re going to feel overwhelmed and want to DO SOMETHING. But the moment that it’s on our collective (white dominated) consciousness is ever-so-brief. 

We’re so distracted with crisis-caring that we end up microwaving our organic frozen dinners instead of planting gardens and we never taste the toxic irony.


But what is the deeper current? The Pacific Gyre carrying our refuse? The original sin behind our social ills?

I can’t say for sure. It’s going to take a lot of us working on it slowly, over time to read the waters, and longer to build the collective capacity to do something different.

Right now, my hunch is that these symptoms point to our pervading social myths of individual gain, good, responsibility, and ownership. These notions make for an American nightmare that we’ve been sold as a “dream.” When we come to believe (enough to orient our economy, tax systems, health systems, etc.) that what is best for us as individuals is actually wrapped up in what is best for each member of our social community–explicitly inclusive of those who differ from us in religion, political party, race, class, gender, age, citizenship status, ability, language, etc., then we will begin to be able to really address the underlying condition that leads to so many distracting symptoms. 

The idea that an individual can “work hard” and buy their way to private health, security, freedom, and happiness is, to borrow a religious word, satanic. It is an idea predicated on structures that require harming others for the sake of ourselves–it is a shortsighted gain with such a short shelf-life that it’s practically spoiled before the privileged few ever even get a taste of it. We feel miserable when we see others suffering. It’s called compassion. It’s meant to move us to care for those around us who need caring for. Throwing money, or e-signatures, or “likes” at unneccessary suffering won’t eliminate it. Dismantling our social and economic structures of self-preservation and selfishness–now that might have some promise.


Alright, Daniel, that’s all well and good rhetoric. But what can I do differently?

Here’s the list I’m working on:

-Voting in every election. Writing letters, making phone calls, and voting for systems that move us towards collective public good over/against private, capitalist, individual ownership models.

-Educating myself on my own privilege and staying aware of how I have internal biases that drive me to prioritize my own life, health, safety, and comfort over other human beings.

-Pressing for change in systems and on the individual level: talking to people I know in law enforcement and military service and pushing them to do their own critical work around internalized bias around race. Raising critical questions about capital investment, individual retirement, and personal security strategies among people of faith. Pushing myself to re-evaluate my own valuation system around what is good for me from an individualist framework to a collective good framework.

-Pursuing training in active non-violence/ non-violent intervention. Deciding when and where I am willing to get arrested for civil disobedience. Actively intervening when I see violence happening–particularly racialized violence. Staying and watching every time I see the police interacting with anyone–especially people of color. Video recording whenever I see police interacting with a person of color, homeless person, person with mental illness, transgender person, or person perceived as an immigrant. Following up with local civil rights and governmental bodies when I witness racial injustice from police or government employees.

-Contributing to charitable causes, because we live in a broke-down system, but for each donation, educating myself about why private funding has become necessary and pursuing ways to develop healthier systems for collective care so that the charity/non-profit no longer has need to exist.

-Practicing hospitality and Sabbath. Renewing my imagination for interdependence, rest, and community rather than personal gain, security, or leisure. Being generous with my own time, talent, resources, and love, and asking for and trusting the time, talent, resources, and love of my community. Seeking to understand my community as every person who lives around me, rather than just the ones I like because they are like me, and thus make me comfortable.

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Ultimately, I’m suggesting that we are toxically addicted to a system of desperate fundraising and advocating, because we have not yet seriously questioned the social and monetary economies structured on individual gain. We are left trying to cajole, guilt, and beg for resources to fix our social ills, because we have ceded our collective resources to a myth of the right to individual wealth. And, incidentally, this is the very DNA of our nation that led to racial exploitation of Native Americans, Black slaves, Latina/o citizens and immigrants, Asian immigrants (and even the development of these generalized categories that erase the specificity of the particular lives of the people lumped into each of these racialized groups). 

Yes, I’m saying that USAmerican capitalism and racism are intimately connected in the kind of sordid bedroom affair that would make a sexologist blush. I’m saying our police abuse and our mental healthcare crisis are connected. I’m saying our charities are, like our government, driven by the special interests of wealthy white men who control the purse strings, and as a result, they can’t serve the public good in anything like an equitable way, because they are not publicly accountable. They are millionaire, popularity, and corporate-foundation-grant accountable. So how could they possibly afford to listen to and respond to the needs of the individuals and communities most in need of their help?


As a Christian, I am called to follow what Jesus described as the two greatest commandments: To love God–the God who created this world and everything in it. And to love my neighbor as myself–not to love myself and out my own personal wealth, security, and happiness, give as I see fit to those that I happen to think are deserving this week. 

This is, quite simply, a difficult task in a USAmerican economy where we have been sold on and function in a system predicated on the USAmerican dream/nightmare. It demands creativity, disruption of system, and working to surrender to a bigger imagination for goodness beyond personal gain. Will you imagine it with me?

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The Self-ish Question around Compassion Fatigue

I’ve been wrestling a question for a while now. In a lot of ways, it has become the question.

The question is also the reason for a bit of radio silence around here lately.

In July, I began my journey towards getting a doctoral degree. It started with ten days of intensive classes and has continued with reading, writing, and unpacking the questions I want to wrestle with in the coming few years—and what I want to explore in this educational journey is a question for all who are trying to vocationally create a more just, compassionate, and sustainable world; it is the question that I have come to wrestle with in the last year:

Can I have the kind of life I am working to see that others get to have?

Or, the question behind the question: Can I really offer others “the good life” if I am operating from a place of over-expenditure? Implicit in this second question is a resounding “NO.” Perhaps I can do some good for some people for some amount of time, but eventually I will implode or explode and I’ll end up doing more harm than good.

And so, the question behind the question behind the question: What kind of practices do I need to develop for myself to be rooted in a life of wholeness, from which I can offer assistance to others who are growing in wholeness for themselves?

This is the only way I can see to be able to make a sustained and substantial difference in the world, and it is a way in which I am not well versed.


 

Given the religious context that I grew up in, there’s an internal script that plays in my head, emotions, and body, that tells me to try to rescue everybody else and think of myself as merely instrumental in that crusade. It’s the equivalent of running around the depressurized airplane assisting others with their oxygen masks until, blue in the face, you collapse.

For me, there was a shitstorm of popular theological concepts gone awry, meets family dynamics that set me up to have a tiny something of a savior complex.

First, you have a lousy notion about kenosis—the idea of self-emptying—that comes from a scripture that is actually about how Jesus isn’t just human but also divine, talking about how God moves towards humanity. In some places, this idea gets twisted up (in most worship music, for instance) and the messaging becomes that God wants humans to empty ourselves of self for the sake of carrying out God’s work in the world. It’s kind of like we forget that Jesus already did the whole Jesus thing, so we don’t have to do that.

Then, when you lay the whole rid-yourself-of-a-self fiasco on top of a version of Christianity that believes God’s not capable of loving us enough to really forgive us, so he has to let his son/self be murdered to satisfy something (honoring God’s sense of justice, paying off the devil, protecting God’s incredibly fragile purity. . .—take your pick), and even then, God still doesn’t really forgive us, and needs to burn most of us in hell or annihilate us—well, it’s easy to see how growing up in that environment, it might be easy to get the impression that your only purpose in the world is to selflessly rescue others from the hell, to which your capriciously angry God who loves them so much, just has to send them.

[Yes, I know that sentence was impossible to read, but it’s okay to skip it and move along. You got the general idea.]

And so—if you can’t tell from my snark—while I no longer believe this mishmash of doctrines makes any sense, and I have other ways of interpreting and thinking about these concepts, the years of feelings, anxiety, and practiced, moralistic self-abasement live in me.

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When I open up Facebook or the news and see horrors, social injustices, and pain, from Ferguson to Fallujah, I sorrow. I see heartache and pain and harm and I want to do something to bring healing into the world. I see my privilege and how insulated I am from so much suffering, and I feel the weight of guilt. This injustice has to stop–so, obviously, it must be my responsibility to stop it all.

And in my day to day life, at work, with random acquaintances, I feel moved to help others. I feel compassion. I want to be responsible and steward my own life well for the sake of the community of which I am a part. I hear other people’s problems and stories, and I swallow down my own feelings to listen to them–because that’s what I’m supposed to do, right?

[If you happen to be privy to hearing me process aloud things from my internal world, you should take that as a sign that you are one of a few who are deeply loved and who get to experience the baby-steps of my practicing different ways of being that honor my self. I’m grateful, and I probably owe you dinner.]

But if I just keep trying to give without having a deep rooted source from which to draw, I will run dry. And being resourceful, I can make shit up. I can intuit and instinctually get pretty far—whether it’s working to address serious social problems or showing up relationally with people around me. But at some point along the way, I find myself burning out, getting beyond my normal level of introvert-needing-to-recharge tired, and getting to the point where I feel overwhelmed by all of the sorrow of which I am a witness in the world.

It’s in these moments of compassion fatigue where I begin to have great understanding for the many ways I choose to dissociate, self-soothe, and escape.

Some of this is an ethical problem that is a direct result of technological access to information. I am regularly exposed to acute horrors and insidious, systemic injustices that extend far beyond my own community. More, my community is stretched beyond a number of people that I can truly care for, and yet, I do care about each and every person I come in contact with. Without an off-switch or a Sabbath, it is nearly impossible to say no to the persistent litany of trauma that demands to be grieved–and if not grieved, lodged in our bodies and souls until it overtakes us.

A crucial part of having a self is having a “no.” When children learn that they are separate persons from their primary caregiving parent, it is usually connected with the idea of “no.” No is a way of resisting and declaring the boundaries of my self in the world. When I am flooded with messages that having a no is not okay, I eventually shut myself down or I rebel against those messages.


In my case, I also grew up with the sense that my sexuality, my orientation, and my core desire for connection with other people was deeply flawed. The religious context I grew up in told me that my developing self was certainly not okay—not okay for God, not okay for society, and not okay to bring into relationship with my family or friends. And, believing my self was deeply unsafe, it seemed reasonable to believe I should lose my self and beg God to take over my life to be a hollow instrument for bringing about something good in the world.

But the big flaw with this notion is that suggests God doesn’t really loves anybody for who God created us to be. This God just cares about us as pawns in a cosmic pyramid scheme where as a prospective target we are deeply desirable, but the second we are on the hook, we are meaningless, except as a means to the end of the next person to be recruited.

This, as opposed the God of the Bible who moves towards all creation with delight, calling us all good. And in Jesus, God continues moving towards us for relationship, to stop us from harming one another, and to offer us blessing so that we can flourish and have full and complete lives.


And here I am now. Staring down my 30th birthday in a couple of months and realizing that there are places in my body, in my mind, and in my emotional landscape, where I am still trying to save the world from an angry God who doesn’t care about me, and doesn’t particularly like some really important aspects of my humanity. To the extent that I live by those scripts, I am trying to please that God (and really, lets be honest, my parents and childhood pastors) who can never be pleased, by annihilating myself for the sake of rescuing others. And those scripts also keep me from the kind of compassion that might be useful in bearing wit(h)ness to the actual lives of other people.

When I don’t get to have a self; don’t get a “no;” don’t get a way to step back from legitimate compassion fatigue, because I am fused to pleasing a capricious God and rescuing others, then I will inevitably miss seeing the personhood of those I am trying to help. Because I think of myself as an agent of God, part of God’s Missio Dei, then I set myself up as the one best able to help another with whatever is happening in their life. I refuse others the dignity of their own agency and humanity—I deface them, and in so doing, I also deny the God who gives us all selfhood. In doing this, I set my own, hollow, self-annihilating self in the driver’s seat, like a tantrum throwing two-year-old who MUST keep wailing because they don’t know if their unpredictable mother will come back into the room.

When I don’t have a self, I collapse others and God into my vacuum and try to control everything else, because I have no central self to know or love.


And this is why I breathe.

This is why I pay attention to my breath.

This is why, when I am putting a restless six year old down for bed, I lay down on the floor next to his bed and breathe deeply.

I can only offer a stable presence in the world if I receive the gifts of my breath and my body and the life I have been given. I can only help my small friend find his own center in his own body, by first locating myself and practicing what I hope to offer him.

This is my question. The question at the heart of my questions: How do I practice having a self and enjoying the one life I have been given?

Because, in the end, we are not so different from trees. I can chop an apple tree down to make a table from which to serve people food, or I can tend the tree—prune it, protect it, feed it—and it can produce fruit for years to come; fruit to feed people and seeds enough to grow a forest.