Truth and Meaning: Not Only Once a Year

Let’s be honest — America has a problem with sex. On one hand, we prudishly dance around the subject and never really share our innermost feelings and desires with our partners. We freak out over public breast feeding. We blame rape victims for provoking their attackers because of what they wore or how much they drank. Bold men are considered forceful and strong. Bold women are seen as pushy and brash.

On the other hand, we surround ourselves with objectified images of women. The media defines feminine beauty as being young and thin, submissive yet sexy, revealing just enough to titillate, but hiding reality under make-up, hair products, tight clothes and high heels. From winged Victoria Secret models to breast-enhanced pseudo celebrities on so-called reality shows, women get identified as angel or whore and not as human beings.

The common thread among all of these attributes is a fundamental disrespect of women. Our society routinely discriminates against women by paying them less than men, constantly attacking their rights and access to medical care, and minimizing their personhood. Almost a century after earning the right to vote, women still struggle for equal treatment in the workplace, the halls of government, the media and our schools.

In a few days, we celebrate the national holiday of women’s oppression in this country — Valentine’s Day. For too many people, this becomes the day that reveals our worth as a partner, as a spouse, as a lover. We reduce our emotions to the amount of cash spent on commodities — products conveniently highlighted in our stores just for the occasion. Candy and card makers give us a wide variety of inexpensive ways to display our affection. Florists tell us that only roses will show her that we really love her. Jewelers tell us that only diamonds demonstrate a true sense of commitment. Girls are conditioned to believe that buying such gifts is how boys should show affection. Boys are conditioned to believe that girls want these things as proof of their devotion.

How did we allow ourselves to become so manipulated? History reveals millennia of repression of women. From Eve to Mary Magdalene, women have been reduced to weaker versions of men incapable of anything but betrayal, fickleness and irrationality. History writers routinely ignore the accomplishments of women, often writing women’s names from the narrative entirely.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in our religious history. Women still cannot be priests despite the fact that the Christian church in Rome was founded by a woman. Unless you are a midwife, prostitute or property of a man, women are hard pressed to find their way into our sacred texts. Even in the essential unique role as child bearer and nurturer, women have been methodically reduced from the Goddess from whom all life derives to something to be feared and controlled by men. Over the years, men have converted the deities of fertility, peace and love to the supporting cast of male dominance and violence.

We have made much progress in recent centuries, but we still have a long way to go. Going further will require than men take up the responsibility of being strong allies for women’s equality. A simple first opportunity is Valentine’s Day.

Don’t measure your love for someone by how much money you spend. Don’t try to purchase affection or sexual gratification through chocolate, flowers or bracelets. Ask the women in your lives what they want. Many women don’t want sparkly trinkets — they want real commitment to their dreams and well being. They want to be heard. They want their accomplishments acknowledged. They want to know that you consider them special and important in your life.

You won’t find love at the mall. Give the person you love a long message. Cook their favorite meal and watch their favorite movie. Write them a letter and bare your soul. Look deep into their eyes and say “I love you.”

That simple “I love you” means more than any store-bought present. And you don’t need the excuse of a manufactured holiday to share that gift. You can give that gift every single day of the year.

Truth and Meaning: Christmas Spirit

When my father was a boy, he considered an orange a special Christmas present. And while he grew up in relative poverty, he never considered his family poor. My grandfather was always able to find work that paid a fair wage. My grandmother was a stay-at-home mother. And my father was able to work during the summer and save up enough for college.

http://www.educatingwomen.org/poverty-in-the-us/But, times have changed. People like my grandfather – unskilled or skilled in outdated technologies – have few full-time job opportunities that pay enough to support a family. Fathers and mothers often work several jobs and then have to pay for child care. And young people today routinely graduate from college with massive student loan debt.

Like most of you that read David DeForest’s letter to the editor in the December 12 issue of the Midland Daily News (“No Reason to Work”), I was deeply saddened that such attitudes still exist in our community. Especially now, as we celebrate the birth of a man who loved all people and cared about the well being of everyone, the public expression of such sentiments reminds us of the pain that many feel in this country. The pain of hunger and homelessness; the pain of hate and discrimination; the pain of hopelessness that nothing we do can improve our lives.

My grandfather came to this country penniless, skilled in a trade that no longer existed. And yet, his children grew up healthy and went on to successful lives. Such is no longer the case for many of today’s immigrants. The path to citizenship is prohibitively expensive and takes as long as 10 years to complete. In the meantime, they perform the menial tasks beneath most Americans, living in constant fear that federal agents will burst into their homes and ship family members to undisclosed locations for uncertain deportation.

Especially painful was reading Mr. DeForest’s depiction of Americans living in poverty today. Jesus never asked for any justification when helping the poor or the sick. He simply helped them. Jesus never asked a hungry person, “Why don’t you just get a job?” He simply fed them. And Jesus did not tower over the poor in judgment, condemning them for their need. He simply gave them hope.

Mr. DeForest’s misplaced anger should be directed at the true parasites in this country – privileged rich people who contribute little and consume much; corporate CEO’s who are paid more in one day than a minimum wage employee can earn in a year; bankers who gamble with this nation’s economy with impunity. These leeches cost America billions of dollars each year. Every social welfare program combined does not come close to any such amount.

So, to Mr. DeForest, and to anyone who shares his sentiments, now is the time to re-examine your attitudes. Now is the time to walk among the poor and show them the respect they deserve by learning about the ravages of racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and institutionalized poverty. At Christmas time, let us all walk the path of Jesus – the path of sympathy, compassion, understanding and love.

Address Opposing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

At the request of students from Adrian College, I was asked to speak at a protest on the Capitol steps in Lansing in opposition to the proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act (HB 5958) on December 16, 2014 during the waning days of the lame duck session of the Michigan legislature.  The following are my comments (you may also see a video here, or listen to an mp3 version here).
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Everywhere we turn today, politicians seek to justify the unjustifiable. “Corporations are people,” they tell us. “We need more bombs and so we must cut school lunch programs.” “The best way to fix our faltering economy is to double down our investment into the banks that got us here in the first place.”

And now we hear a new claim. With House Bill 5958, our legislators tell us, “Government must not burden people and businesses when choosing to exercise their religious beliefs, regardless of the consequences of that action on others.” Convincing us of the sincerity of such statements, especially given their inherent contradictions and the tremendous potential for and mischief by those taking advantage of such claims as these, presents a daunting challenge.

And because the task raises such difficulties, they must call on the greatest authorities to lend credence to their arguments. So, you hear many politicians today referring to the founders of this great nation. They quote Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and others as proof of the righteousness of their cause.

They carefully sift through mountains of books to find just the right quote – even if they must take that quote completely out of context. When the founders stood mute on a subject, they tell us what the founders were really thinking. When those tactics fall short, they shout words like “Freedom!” and “Liberty!” confident that they can rely on our patriotism and our trust in the democratic process that they act in our best interests.

And when all else fails, they wait until the dead of night. They skulk in the shadows of the halls of government until after the electorate has spoken. They wait until the time when everyone looks forward to family gatherings and singing joyous praises.

Then, they slink from behind their desks. They quietly announce a hearing – or bypass the process of a public hearing altogether – and pass whatever laws please them. They do this because they know, were it not for the distractions of the holidays and our everyday lives, we might hold up our hands and say, “Wait a minute…I don’t understand what purpose this proposed bill serves.” After months of hibernation, they race through the lame duck session because they are afraid that we might have the time to read proposed bills and share our opinions. They feverishly plunge through this window because it is too late for us to voice our discontent at the ballot box with politicians whose terms will end shortly.

Perhaps the legislatures populated by our founders operated with a similar lack of transparency. But, I doubt it. It was Thomas Paine, who wrote in his landmark work Common Sense that the faithfulness of those elected to serve in public office “will be secured by the prudent reflection of not making a rod for themselves.” In other words, our elected officials should not rule over us like tyrants, but should engage with us in dialogue and informed debate.

Later, Paine specifically talks about the nature of America. “This new world,” he writes, “hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster…” So clearly, Paine would not have dreamed of a legislature using the tactics of a tyrant to pass laws abridging the rights of those who fear religious persecution.

Our ancestors came to this land because people used religious beliefs to hurt, to imprison, and even to kill them. I understand the corruption of religion by those who wield it as a rod to punish others. My grandmother Theresa fled her home in Europe for committing the sin of divorcing her abusive husband. For this act of self-preservation, the church deemed her unworthy and excommunicated her – a punishment that meant death; for she was now shunned by employers, shop owners, and landlords. Staying meant homelessness and starvation because she believed in her right to live free.

My grandmother met the man who became my grandfather here in America. He, too, had fled Europe because the Serbian army would routinely cross the river into his hometown and conscript young men to fight the never-ending religious conflict in the Balkans. No matter how many times the military dragged him to kill people who believed in God differently, he defected and returned home.

A century later, people still die in that region because of their religious beliefs. Governments that claim to fight for independence, for self-rule, for self-determination, use that fight as an excuse to rape and murder those who are different. A simple carpenter, my grandfather understood the corruption of freedom by those wielding it as a rod to kill others. So, he made the perilous journey here to America, where he could believe freely.

After years of struggle, my grandparents raised a family. My father honored his parents and cared for them in their later years. After my grandmother died, my grandfather’s life became simple again. He would sit at the kitchen table drinking coffee and playing solitaire all day. He believed he would soon rejoin his beloved Theresa in Heaven and was content to await his death patiently.

One night, my parents hosted a prayer meeting. The minister of our church spoke about the evils of card playing. Finally, my father asked our minister if he believed that my grandfather would spend eternity in Hell for the sin of playing solitaire. When our minister answered “yes,” my father threw him out of the house and we never returned to that church.

My father, an engineer, had designed our church building. He literally helped build that congregation. He raised his children in its Sunday School. I remember singing “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” during Sunday night services. But that same church used its religious belief to damn my grandfather.  So my father understood the corruption of restoration. He saw firsthand how a church could roll back the clock to a time when religion was routinely used as a rod to condemn others to perpetual flames and torment.

By the time I became a dad, I chose not to believe in the God of my father or my grandfather. My children went unbaptized. And I raised them in a Unitarian Universalist church, where they learned to respect all religious beliefs and to honor the spiritual path they would choose for themselves.

As a Sunday School teacher, I learned the history and heritage of famous Unitarians, like John Adams, who once wrote to his friend Thomas Jefferson:

We have…a National Bible Society, to propagate King James’s Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better to apply these pious Subscriptions, to purify Christendom from the Corruptions of Christianity…[Some say] I have renounced the Christian religion…Far from it. I see in every Page, Something to recommend Christianity in its Purity and Something to discredit its Corruptions…The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my Religion.

Don’t kill. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t envy your neighbor. In fact, love your neighbor. Love your neighbor as you would have your neighbor love you. Nearly every religion preaches this basic golden rule. Love everyone. Do not love only those who believe as you do. Do not withhold love from those who do not meet your approval. Everyone. No exceptions.

So I understand the corruption of laws that claim to restore religious freedom. Laws like HB 5958 are not an act of religion, bringing us together in common purpose and principle, but an act of division. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is not an act of freedom, relieving us of governmental intrusion into our souls, but an act of invasion. This proposed travesty of a law is not an act of restoration, renewing hope for a people suffering daily oppression, but an act of destruction.  This so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a corruption of religious freedom; a corruption of our democratic principles; a corruption of the core tenets of our human community; and a corruption of the very soul of our state.

I have the great good fortune to be married to a wonderful woman. Jody serves as advocate for victims of sexual assault at the Underground Railroad, a women’s shelter in Saginaw. She wanted to be here with me today. But her commitment to serving others, and my commitment to support her work, superseded our personal desires. John Adams, my Unitarian ancestor, spent many years apart from his love. To our great good fortune, they left behind a collection of correspondence exhibiting not only their devotion to each other, but also their shared commitment to justice, equality, and freedom.

Abigail and John wrote often of this new nation and of the true meaning of words like “freedom.” In one letter, Abigail wrote:

How difficult the task to quench the fire and the pride of private ambition, and to sacrifice ourselves and all our hopes and expectations to the public [welfare]! How few have souls capable of so noble an undertaking! How often are the laurels worn by those who have had no share in earning them! But there is a future… reward, to which the upright [person] looks, and which will most assuredly be obtained, provided [that person] perseveres unto the end.

You here today know about sacrifice. You have given up your time and energy to be here and to have your voices heard by your elected officials. You here today understand working toward the common good and the noble undertaking of guaranteeing freedom to all people. You here today see too clearly how those charged with guaranteeing our freedoms wear the shriveled laurels earned by catering to special interests, by pursuing power over others, and through the self-righteous delusion that they know the one truth.

Because Abigail Adams was right – there is a future reward. Moreover, we need not wait patiently until we die to receive that reward. We can unite as one people. White or black – whatever our skin color – we can unite. Woman or man – whatever our sexual orientation or gender identity – we can unite; Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox…Muslim, Jew, or Sikh…Buddhist, Hindu, or Jain…Agnostic or Atheist – whatever our religious beliefs – we can unite; Americans all, regardless of our documentation or ethnic heritage – we can unite.

We can unite to fight for equal justice under the law. We can unite to provide affordable access to health care for all. We can unite to protect our decisions on when to have children, when not to have children, and how to parent the children we have in safe and healthy communities. We can unite to ensure that every person has equal access to a quality education and a job paying a fair and living wage. We can unite to protect our planet from those who would plunder its resources and from practices that threaten our existence as a species through global climate change.

And by standing united against the corruption of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, we guard our right to believe or not to believe what we want in regards to religion. We oppose the sanctioning of discrimination against people on the basis of religious beliefs. We support the freedom of religious practice, so long as that practice does not harm others.

And we stand united to defend the wall of separation between Church and State described by Thomas Jefferson. For he acknowledged that the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience was that no legislature should pass laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Jefferson wrote that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions,” and that depriving people of their civil rights on the basis of religious beliefs will “corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage.”

A people united will never be divided.

Guide to Holiday Conversations


You find yourself at a family gathering. On your right sits Uncle Harold, who voted twice for Nixon, Reagan and Bush (senior and junior). On your left sits your Cousin Gloria, the Prius-driving, recycling, public school teacher. You uncomfortably count the seconds before someone raises a contentious topic. In anticipation of that moment, here is your holiday guide to surviving inevitable conflicts, and to build bridges of love and understanding.

Immigration
Uncle Harold starts. “We need to ship those illegals back where they came from. Emperor Obama should wait for Congress to protect American jobs and keep our borders safe from terrorists, drug dealers and freeloaders.”
Cousin Gloria retorts. “Our ancestors were undocumented aliens who came here and slaughtered the indigenous peoples. No one made them go through years of red tape and expenses. No one broke up our families and deported people without due process.”
You: “We are a nation of immigrants, and people around the world have long viewed America as a land of freedom and opportunity. We can find a way to provide a more efficient path to citizenship while still providing reasonable security at our nation’s borders.

Abortion
Cousin Gloria: “This is my body and the government has no business invading my privacy and interfering with my health care. My body, my choice.”
Uncle Harold: “You are murdering tens of thousands of babies every year and I don’t want my tax dollars supporting godless groups like Planned Parenthood.”
You: “Everyone wants to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. But being pro-life also means educating our children about sex, and providing them with contraception. We should care about every child by supporting loving families that need help. Every child should receive an equal shot at the American Dream.”

Gay and transgender equality
Harold: “God condemns these abominations. I love the person, but homosexuality and the choices people make to tamper with God’s creation are sins.”
Gloria: “You hate LGBT people. You have no right legislating our bedrooms. Your bigotry just encourages bullying and violence against gays.”
You: “As Americans, we believe in freedom and equality. The research seems to show that sexual orientation is determined at birth. So while I respect people’s religious beliefs, I also support equal rights for all people on the basis of differences that we cannot control.”

Health care
Gloria: “Insurance companies are heartless and greedy. Because of them, thousands of people die from lack of adequate insurance. And now you want to take away the safety net of the Affordable Care Act.”
Harold: “Obamacare is fiscally irresponsible and forces people to pay more for their insurance, and to change doctors with which they have developed long relationships. We should let the free market do its job.”
You: “I know families who cannot afford medical insurance. If we can’t fix Obamacare, then we need to come up with a program that serves everyone, because all Americans deserve access to quality health care.”

Religious freedom
Harold: “America is a Christian nation and no one should be forced to do anything that violates their beliefs.”
Gloria: “Employers have no business discriminating against people who don’t share their religious beliefs. These so-called ‘religious freedom’ bills are nothing but legalized bigotry.”
You: “No one has the right to infringe on another’s religious beliefs. But government determines who needs protection from unlawful discrimination. Religious freedom should be a protective shield, not be a sword used to hurt others.”

Gun control
Gloria: “How many more children need to die to support your right to buy machine guns and to carry rifles into my grocery store?”
Harold: “The founders wrote the Second Amendment to protect us from tyranny and it is my duty to protect our nation, as well as to protect my family from harm, whatever the cost.”
You: “Everyone has a right to defend themselves from harm. Everyone also has the right to walk the streets free from the fear that some deranged gunman won’t open fire on them. We need to sit down and find common sense solutions to protect all Americans’ rights and to reduce the gun violence in our country.”

Gloria: “Fascist!”
Harold: “Communist!”
You: “Both of you stop it! Name calling will get you nowhere. Jesus taught us to love our neighbors, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and free the prisoners. Can’t we set aside our partisan differences and agree on these noble goals — not just as Christian goals, but goals that all Americans can agree upon?”

I hope this helps you survive the holidays, as well as what is sure to be another new year of social, economic and political turmoil that will not end until the great mass of centrist thinkers takes back the moral middle of America.

Truth and Meaning: Frivolous Waste

During the last week of the recent campaign for District 98 State Representative, Midlanders received a barrage of lurid and sensationalist ads predicting all manner of doom and gloom that would befall Michigan should Democrat Joan Brausch be elected. Republican candidate Gary Glenn worked hard to separate himself from these disgusting tracts of fear funded from groups supporting his candidacy. But it must give one pause that if a candidate cannot control his backers before he is elected, what chance has he to be objective of lobbyists and special interest groups after he is elected.

Now, in his first public pronouncement since his underwhelming victory, our new representative has unveiled his first call to action. Nothing about roads or gas taxes. Nothing about job creation. Nothing about saving our retirees from unfair taxes. Nothing about school funding. And nothing about saving Michigan’s traditional families from the scourge of homosexuality and the “gay agenda” he fears so strongly.

No, his first call to action is to request an investigation into the money paid to a consultant by the state. No investigation into the allegations of fraud and nepotism by Gov. Rick Snyder. No investigation into the blatant misconduct of many of the emergency managers given dictatorial power over their cities by this administration. No investigation into the outrageous gerrymandering occurring in recent years. Our new representative’s first request is to investigate how the state spent .0002 percent of its revenues two years ago because he doesn’t like the reason the government spent the money.

What possible purpose could this investigation serve? The state paid a consultant to do a job, which he did. This same consultant was hired by other states to do exactly the same job. Michigan paid him $481,000 while Vermont — a state with 94 percent fewer people than Michigan — paid him $400,000. The consultant did his job and the state chose not to use his recommendations — much to the detriment of the poor and uninsured. So now Glenn wants to throw more tax dollars away investigating an expenditure already made for a job the state legally contracted, and which was completed.

The only purpose of such a call is not to exhibit any concern for the Michigan taxpayer. The only purpose is to discredit a medical insurance program that Michigan conservatives rejected in spite of the fact that many of our citizens have no access to affordable health care. The only purpose is to attack a program that has provided many millions of Americans with medical insurance for the first time. The only purpose is to bring the Washington brand of Tea Party obstructionism full force to Lansing and grind our government to a standstill wasting time on pointing fingers at nonexistent scandals, while at the same time providing no solutions to the problems that serve the interests of the people of this state.

It doesn’t matter that this same consultant also worked on a similar project many years ago. This same consultant was paid by then Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts to design that state’s health insurance program — the exact program that served as the primary model for the Affordable Care Act. So it would seem that Glenn and his conservative backers had no objection to the consultant’s fees charged to create a system for a Republican governor that has worked splendidly. But when a similar program was passed after a year-long debate and signed into law by a Democratic president, all of a sudden Glenn takes issue with that same consultant working for Michigan to implement a similar program.

And let us remember that the Affordable Care Act has been a spectacular success. Health care spending by consumers is at its lowest rate in 10 years. More than 10 million previously uninsured Americans now have affordable insurance, driving the number of uninsured citizens down 25 percent in just one year. The second year sign-up period has already seen one million people visit the healthcare.gov web page. And the overall price tag of implementation has come in at $100 billion less than predicted.

So, I offer a counter proposal to Mr. Glenn’s call to examine the out-of-context statements of an advisor to the project. Let’s take the money that this fruitless display of grandstanding will cost the taxpayers and buy a few tens of thousands of free school lunches; or replace some laid off public school teachers; or fill all of the potholes on I-75; or give a tax credit to a small business owner who will bring 100 new jobs to our region. Let us take the money the state will waste investigating this contract, and put it toward something that will help our citizens, like joining other states that have successfully implemented their own exchanges.

Truth and Meaning: Occupy 2.0?

 
Sept. 17 was the three-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Whatever you thought of the movement’s strategies or success, its wondrous and flawed idealism, ask yourself this question: Has anything Occupiers protested improved in the past three years?
  • The bankers, lawyers and other white collar criminals responsible for our economic collapse have not been charged, let alone convicted of crimes. 
  • Income disparity continues to rise, with the average corporate head earning hundreds, even thousands times more than their average worker. 
  • Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other oppressions continue unabated and largely unregulated. 
  • Our diet has become more genetically modified and our environment more polluted. 
  • Labor unions continue to be assaulted, no living wage is in sight and health insurance remains a target of the “haves.” 
  • Jobs remain scarce, and students continue to graduate from college with decreasing hope and increasing debt. 
  • Corporations are being treated more like people, and people are being treated more like disposable commodities.
  • Our reckless policies regarding campaign financing have created a government owned by the tiny elite they are supposed to be regulating. 
  • Our blind pursuit of war abroad has now expanded onto our city streets as paramilitary police gun down unarmed, innocent civilians. 
  • It has become increasingly easier to buy a gun than to vote in some states.
As the original statement of the Occupy Wall Street movement said, we as one people united must acknowledge that the future of humanity requires that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to us to protect our own rights; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We continue to live in a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.
 
The embers of the Occupy movement still glow. Perhaps the time has come to reignite the flame. While we wordsmith and squabble over pennies to aid the poor, the wealth of this great nation is being drained by a new monarchy as trickle down economics has become flood upwards economics. A people united cannot be divided. North Carolina is showing us the way with its Moral Monday movement. Perhaps the time has come for every state and for all people to unite and exercise their rights and responsibilities as Americans to reclaim the moral center of our country.
 

Truth and Meaning: Normal

Normal. I am hard pressed to think of a word I dislike more in the English language. Whatever definition one uses, I believe the word creates confusion and prevents us from engaging in useful and productive dialogue.

For instance, one may say that a society is “normal,” because it functions by the laws or norms that it has established. Should we consider normal the fact that nearly 50 million people in the richest country in the world live in poverty? Should we consider normal that there are as many guns as people in this country — and we have the gun death rates to back it up? Should it ever be normal that most of our elected officials could not pass the simplest tests on women’s anatomy, the environment, or our national banking system?

One may also say that something is normal if it is the “usual” state or condition. But tens of millions of Americans have untreated physical and mental illnesses. For them, the “usual” state consists of pain and anxiety, disability and depression. Tens of millions of people of color in America are “usually” treated as inferior by so-called white people. Should that situation ever be accepted as normal? On the average, 430 young people injure themselves and 13 succeed in committing suicide every day. How could a society ever consider such a “usual” state to be normal?

We routinely say that someone is “normal” if they are free from illness or sickness. Well, if that is the case, then there are no normal people on the face of the earth. We learn more each day about the nature of physical and mental disease, about neuroscience and addiction, about the impact of stereotypes on our levels of stress, and about the long-term impacts of trauma and abuse. Normal health does not exist and we delude ourselves believing that it does.

The word “normal” always carries with it an inherent stigma. When a teacher calls Johnny a normal student, the implication is that he does not really excel at anything but fits some arbitrary average. He may be the next Rembrandt or Albert Einstein, but we might never know because he is dyslexic. When friends call Katrina a normal-looking girl, the implication is that she is not beautiful. She may be the next Amelia Earhart or Sally Ride, but we might never know because she suffers from bulimia. And when we say that the Smiths are a normal family, we imply that the Smiths are heterosexual, have children, and pursue goals that match those of their neighbors. We don’t notice the bruises on Mrs. Smith’s arms, or the way the children flinch from the slightest touch. And the “abnormal” Joneses next door may be an amazing gay couple who could revitalize the neighborhood, but they just got evicted from their apartment and fired from their jobs for being gay.

“Normal” should be an aspiration — not the average or worse yet, the least common denominator. Wouldn’t it be nice if a normal day consisted of the United States not bombing some other country in the name of democracy and freedom? Wouldn’t it be nice if a normal day consisted of not one gay teenager being beaten and bullied, and not one woman assaulted or raped? Wouldn’t it be nice if a normal day consisted of not one single instance of wanton police brutality against unarmed and innocent civilians? Wouldn’t it be nice if a normal day consisted of every person in the world being fed, clothed, sheltered, safe, and happy?

Unfortunately, we live in the real world, and our leaders insist that those aspirations are currently beyond our reach. So, in the meantime, I will revel in being abnormal. Because the only way we can make those aspiration real is if we all excel in whatever makes us not normal — that is what makes us who we are.

Truth and Meaning: Pain

When I was in college, I commuted every day by bus. One day, I stood on a narrow island on Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh as the bus approached. I moved backwards slightly and accidentally stepped on the foot of the man behind me. I turned and said, “I’m sorry,” boarded the bus and sat down. The man followed me, stood directly in front of me, and then shouted at me for the next 15 minutes. I said I was sorry again, but he was intent on venting his rage at me. I kept my head down reading my newspaper until he finally got off at his destination.

I got off a few stops later — grateful that he had gotten off first. The bus driver said to me, “Yeah, I know that guy. He’s always angry.” Needless to say, the incident shook me. I had no idea at any point during the trip whether he would lash out and grab me, punch me, or worse. For a long time, I relived that moment, trying to think of what I could have done to avoid the situation, but came up empty.

The reason I came up empty is that there was nothing I could have done to avoid the situation. I just happened to be the person at that time and that place when that man’s pain erupted. Partly out of fear, and partly out of my desire to not escalate the event, I managed to escape with only 15 minutes of verbal abuse. At least I was left only emotionally shaken, and with the knowledge that the likelihood that I would ever encounter that man again was very small.

Now, over 35 years later, I was reminded of that incident with the release of the video of Ray Rice beating his wife. Like many men who would never dream of hitting a woman, I have long wondered why women in abusive situations stay with their abusers. There is much research on this topic and I now know many of the reasons why a woman would stay with an abusive husband or boyfriend. For those interested in learning more about this, search Twitter for #whyistayed and read the hundreds of stories of women caught in this nightmare of pain.

And that is largely the answer. Pain. Pain is, of course, a part of life. Pain is something we all must learn to deal with. Perhaps we all have different thresholds of pain. Perhaps some of us are better able to endure pain because we value more highly our children, our marriage, and the hope that someone will live up to their promises to stop abusing us. I thought of the man on the bus again and imagined what kind of pain could allow anyone to think that venting such extreme anger at a stranger was acceptable.
And while I was finally able to forgive him and forgive myself for my inability to defuse the situation, what about his wife and children? Were they enduring such outbursts regularly? Did he express his fury with only words, or did his abuse go further into physical violence? I will never know, but I do know that the answer lies in our need as a society for a paradigm shift regarding pain.

1.  We must stop tolerating racism, sexism, homophobia, and other hatreds and fears that victimize those unlike ourselves, and only increase our own pain.

2.  We must increase our awareness of the pain being felt by others and reach out when we think the pain is becoming unbearable. Our religious communities can play a huge role in this work.

3.  We must stop blaming the victims of abuse, rape, assault, and brutality for the anger of perpetrators. We must take responsibility for our anger and find constructive, or at least harmless, ways to release the frustration and hurt. This means building a much larger support system for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and much more support for counseling and therapy.

4.  We must acknowledge the interconnection of oppression, mental illness, systemic poverty, addiction, unemployment, and abuse and build an adequate safety net for everyone victimized by pain.

5.  When someone, in spite of all of the safeguards put into place, insists on venting their pain on others, then the criminal justice system must punish abusers harshly. That means that police must start believing victims and act on their behalf.

And perhaps most important, women and male allies MUST make it clear to everyone that abuse — whether emotional, verbal, coercive, or violent — is always wrong. Every girl should grow up knowing that being abused by a partner must not be tolerated. And every boy should grow up learning that violence against women is never acceptable.

Truth and Meaning: What is Racist?

Regular readers of this blog know that I have several enthusiastic contributors to the comments section. One of them openly supports the Ku Klux Klan and some Midland residents may remember his 2008 demonstration in full Klan regalia at the corner of Eastman Avenue and Saginaw Road here in Midland Michigan. Sometimes, people advise me to ignore his postings because of their extremist slant. I believe, however, that people of faith must try to engage anyone, at anytime, and at any place where the opportunity for spiritual growth presents itself.

I was rewarded for my diligence when, in response to my blog posting last week, this individual asked me several important questions on the subject of race. He posted the questions as they were written in an article titled “The Answer to Crime Among Young Black Males” by Tim Wildmon. I will quote Mr. Wildmon’s words exactly and then provide answers to each. Perhaps you will hear your own voice somewhere in the text.

He began by asking, “For example, without knowing skin color, when someone tells me they saw an awesome basketball player I immediately think he is Black. Why is that? Because most awesome basketball players in America are indeed Black. Does that make me a racist?”

Yes, it does! Most basketball players in high school are White and there are awesome White high school basketball players. At the college level, according to the latest NCAA Student-Athlete ethnicity report, there are still more White players than any other racial/ethnic group, and there are awesome White college basketball players. Only at the NBA level does one see a marked dominance of African-American players. And of the NBA’s 49 majority owners, only Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Bobcats is a person of color. And that is because of PRIVILEGE. Predominately White public schools generally get more funding than predominately Black schools. White families can usually afford college more easily than Black families. Blacks have far fewer opportunities than Whites to escape systemic poverty. And Blacks have far fewer opportunities open to them in other occupational sectors. So, yes, assuming that an awesome basketball player is Black is a racist observation.

He continued, “In the same way, when I hear of a convenience store robbery, without knowing the skin color, I immediately think it was a young Black male who committed the crime. Why is that? Because night after night I see the faces of young Black males on the news arrested for crimes. Does that make me a racist?”

Yes, it does! In 2010, the National Institutes of Health published a definitive article on the portrayal of lawbreakers and victims in crime news (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2904566/). In their conclusion they wrote, “Starting with the results for portrayals of offenders, we would expect Whites to have a higher likelihood of being reported on if reporting reflects offending incidents, because they are the most populous group. We did not find evidence of a significant difference in the number of portrayals of White perpetrators relative to Blacks in our base models. To us, this suggests a relative over-reporting of Blacks compared to Whites. We also found under-reporting of Hispanic perpetrators relative to Whites. We interpret the results for Blacks as consistent with power structure, racial threat and racial privileging arguments.” People are led to believe that Blacks commit more crimes because our media highlight the race of suspects far more frequently when he/she is a person of color. When that presentation is not challenged, we cooperate with the racist portrayals in our media. In 2011, White people committed nearly 250,000 violent crimes in this country, but just because the news shows more Black suspects than White does not make them more prone to violent crimes. So, yes, immediately assuming that a criminal is Black is racist.

He concluded with this question. “Which begs another question: does a stereotype only become racist when it is negative? Or can one have a positive stereotype based on race? What about the idea that “White men can’t jump”? Is that racist?”

Yes, it is! Saying that “all Asians are good at math” is a negative stereotype of what a racist would consider a positive observation. Research shows that perceived positive stereotypes, when brought into the forefront of an individual’s mind, can actually make them do worse at the thing they are supposed to be able to do better. One such study discovered that when Asian-American women were made explicitly aware of their ethnicity (and the expectations attached to it) right before testing their math skills, they were more likely to collapse under the pressure and do poorly in the test (http://pss.sagepub.com/content/11/5/399.short). ANY stereotype reduces the complex humanity of individuals, making it easier to dismiss each person’s inherent worth and dignity. And ‘White men can’t jump’ derives from an evil and ignorant stereotype that somehow Blacks are more closely tied to jungle animals than Whites. So, yes, attempts to compliment a group of people through stereotyping of any kind is racist.

The comments and questions posted by this individual represent classic examples of privilege — of how White, or straight, or male, or American-born people are often oblivious to their privilege and in complete denial of their prejudice. Systemic racism oppresses people of color, just as systemic sexism oppresses women, systemic hated of LGBT folk oppresses gays and lesbians, and systemic anti-immigration laws and opinions oppress undocumented immigrants. And those with privilege benefit ONLY by accident of birth. Those who possess privilege did absolutely nothing on their own to earn that privilege. Therefore, those who choose to take advantage of their privilege and do nothing to level the playing field, ARE racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or xenophobic.

But, here is the most important point. HAVING privilege is nothing to be ashamed of. No one is trying to lay a guilt trip on you for being White, or straight, or male, or a native-born American citizen. But those who accept the advantages of privilege do so at a cost to those who do not have privilege. Thus, those who accept the benefits — and do not work toward eliminating privilege — do so from the suffering of others. I am a White, straight, male, American, too. But I fight to eliminate privilege. I defend the poor, the hopeless, the oppressed, the exiled. As long as privilege exists, there will be oppression. And so long as the oppressors do nothing to stop it, then they are complicit in the resulting discrimination and suffering.

 

Truth and Meaning: What Can We Do About Depression?

We are all struggling to understand the apparent suicide of actor/comedian Robin Williams. How could someone with his talents and resources fail to cope with depression so much that he would take his own life? What can we do to fight this terrible illness before it takes the life of someone we know? The fact is that people who suffer from depression kill themselves every day. According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Statistics estimate that around 30,000 Americans commit suicide each year, or roughly one person every 15 minutes.
How is this possible? It is possible because those of us lucky enough to not suffer from this terrible disease do not understand it. According to Mental Health America, clinical depression is one of the most common mental illnesses, affecting more than 19 million Americans each year. Depression can complicate other medical conditions, and can even be serious enough to lead to suicide. Depression can occur to anyone, at any age, and to people of any race or ethnic group. Depression is never a “normal” part of life, no matter what your age, gender or health situation.
Unfortunately, although about 70 percent of individuals with depression have a full remission of the disorder with effective treatment, fewer than half of those suffering from this illness seek treatment. Too many people resist treatment because they believe depression isn’t serious, that they can treat it themselves or that it is a personal weakness rather than a serious medical illness.
Symptoms of Clinical Depression:
  • Persistent sad, anxious or “empty” mood
  • Sleeping too much or too little, middle of the night or early morning waking
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss, or increased appetite and weight gain
  • Loss of pleasure and interest in activities once enjoyed, including sex
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment (such as chronic pain or digestive disorders)
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feeling guilty, hopeless or worthless
  • Thoughts of suicide or death
If you have five or more of these symptoms for two weeks or more, you could have clinical depression and should see your doctor or a qualified mental health professional for help.
 
Many things can contribute to clinical depression.
 
Biological: People with depression typically have too little or too much of certain brain chemicals, called “neurotransmitters.” Changes in these brain chemicals may cause or contribute to clinical depression.
 
Cognitive: People with negative thinking patterns and low self-esteem are more likely to develop clinical depression.
 
Gender: Women experience clinical depression at a rate that is nearly twice that of men. While the reasons for this are still unclear, they may include the hormonal changes women go through during menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause. Other reasons may include the stress caused by the multiple responsibilities that women have.
 
Co-occurrence: Clinical depression is more likely to occur along with certain illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and hormonal disorders.
 
Medications: Side effects of some medications can bring about depression.
 
Genetic: A family history of clinical depression increases the risk for developing the illness.
 
Situational: Difficult life events, including divorce, financial problems or the death of a loved one can contribute to clinical depression.
 
If you or someone you know is hurting, there is help. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255), the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7. Anyone can also reach them online at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Talk to someone — it can save a life. We MUST conquer the stigma that society places on all those who suffer from mental illness. So don’t wait — do it now.