Latest from the Jesuit Post
Does lacking imagination get in the way of recognizing God’s unexpected goodness in our world? Take a minute and check out this week’s 60 Second Homily with Fr. Michael Rossmann S.J., based on the Sunday readings for October 22, 2017: http://bit.ly/2wWKL0h.
When children are bullied – repeatedly taunted and teased both physically and verbally – they begin to feel less and less valuable as a person. This can happen over night or over the course of many incidents. Occasionally this leads to suicide attempts, as the opening scenes of the new movie A Silent Voice demonstrates.
Just opened in the US today, the film follows two high school students, a young boy Shoya Ishida and Shoko Nishimiya, a young girl with a hearing disability. In grade school, Shoya bullied Shoko, making fun of her disability and stealing her hearing aids. When the class is accused of bullying Shoko, Shoya is blamed, and even the others who used to bully Shoko turn on him.
In an ironic twist, the child who bullied becomes bullied. This reversal has a tremendously negative effect on Shoya. He cannot look anybody outside his family in the eyes. He prepares to commit suicide but decides against it at the last moment. Perhaps changed by his aborted attempt, Shoya goes to Shoko’s school to return a notebook she had used for conversations with other students. In sign language, he asks her if they can become friends.
Much of the rest of the film centers on their relationship. Shoya is awkward and tries to make amends for his past behavior. Slowly, the other members of their grade-school class join them, and it seems that Shoko has a decent-sized group of friends for the first time in her life. Shoya’s earnestness in trying to be friends with Shoko and make up for his past inspires changes in the others, however slowly.
But both Shoya and Shoko are still broken characters. Shoya cannot look people in the eyes and does not know how to deal with his newfound friends. In one particularly vulnerable moment with Shoko, Shoya yells at all of his other friends, driving them away, one by one. Desperate for some friendship, he latches onto Shoko and doesn’t let go.
Despite Shoya’s apologies and attempts to spend time with her, Shoko remains very apologetic. If anything goes wrong around her, she immediately assumes that it is her fault and apologizes. She and Shoko clearly have a chemistry, but even their time together does not change her perspective. Failing to see her self-worth, she attempts to commit suicide by jumping off the terrace of her family’s apartment.
Shoya attempts to save her and catches her hand after she jumps. He pulls her up but ends up falling over the ledge. In the process, she is saved and he is hospitalized (though he later recovers). Only through this sacrifice does Shoko see that her life has value to others, and she begins to change at a deeper level.
Very real to human experience, the film reminds us that our actions, no matter what they are, have consequences. Shoya suffers for his sins of bullying Shoko as a child through being bullied in return. His attempts to make amends with her and with others are slow and painful. People do not forgive nor forget so quickly. These relationships take time to heal past hurts, and none of them is perfect.
Each character is flawed. Despite the fact that Shoya and Shoko both had people around them who cared for them, neither of them could see or accept that love at first. For Shoya it was easier to disengage and simply exist. For Shoko, she felt responsible for the reactions she received as a result of her hearing disability: in her eyes, everything was her fault.
By the film’s end, Shoya is able to accept the care of his friends and begin to fully engage with the world once again. His transformation is slow but the promise he shows is incredible. His actions have demonstrated to others that he is a decent human being, and he will no longer let his past sins define him.
And this reality extends far beyond the plot on screen. Each of us can struggle in our own ways to feel acceptable, to feel loved. Some of us have felt isolated, ostracized, and even worthless as people due to how others have treated us because of who we are. We can relate to the emptiness Shoko and Shoya demonstrate.
We have all done things we’re not proud of. In one way or another, we have pushed people down because we wanted to fit in or because we needed some way to feel powerful. We have pushed friends away because we were not ready to accept their love.
We all have our limits and imperfections, and they can make us feel so small and unlovable. It becomes easy to feel like we burden others with our limits, that they are only around us out of a sense of duty or obligation.
What is important is to remember that none of these realities has the final word.
While Shoko may not have seen her deafness as a gift, she certainly saw that she was no longer alone. Even if only after a suicide attempt, she saw people look at her and see not a disability but a person. And Shoya shows us that there is a light present in the depths of a despair that cripples our self-esteem, so long as we try.
Each of us has at least someone who cares for us, someone who truly loves us. It is only by sharing our own broken reality with others that we begin to feel healed and that we truly begin to grow as people. Like in the examples of Shoya and Shoko, the experience can be painful and often is, but in good time, it bears good fruit.
The cover photo is featured courtesy of Melissa Hillier of the Flickr Creative Commons.
A few years ago, my buddy had decided – he didn’t have the energy to make any more friends. He was married and thinking about kids, he had a busy job, he had football Saturdays, and he had enough people in his life already.
I didn’t agree. I had roommates who stayed up late, drank wine, and cooked Costco ravioli with freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese. I stood outside bars smoking cigarettes, chatting with strangers about how I ended up in Omaha. I daydreamed with my students about their futures as doctors, lawyers, social workers, world travelers.
But now, I think I understand.
Every morning I wake up hard, the sound of my alarms infiltrating my dreams. Thick creases zigzag across my face, the aftermath of rumpled pillowcases and sheets coming up from the corners of the bed.
It’s not depression. It’s exhaustion.
A few months ago, I was at the front-end of my first Chicago summer. I told my friend that the only real thing on my bucket list was playing beach volleyball. I wasn’t concerned about rooftop bars or Cubs games, craft beer street festivals or concerts in parks. Just a little sweat, sand, and the sting of a good dig.
I took a few days off over the fourth of July, but I was swamped with a challenging work issue. I made phone calls during tapas dinners. I ignored my niece while responding to work email. I took another few days off in mid-August, but they were quickly filled with meetings, a doctor’s appointment, cleaning my room, laundry. There was no unstructured time.
I didn’t play beach volleyball until mid-September. I wasn’t even in Chicago when it happened – I was in Michigan at some good friends’ wedding. Summer was all but over.
It’s not overwhelmed. It’s overworked.
A few weeks ago, I went to a funeral for the stepfather of one of my students. He was young, 37, and he left four generations of his family behind – his kids and wife, siblings, mother, and grandmother all remain. The church was old, a little Baptist congregation on Chicago’s South Side. The crowd was understandably docile. There wasn’t a choir, just a few kind women singing a cappella. The pastor stood to preach, and he looked tired. Trying to spread gospel love these days can do that to a person.
But he spoke with vigor, his volume grew, his cadence became more rhythmic, and sweat started forming at his brow. This good man – just because he died, he said, doesn’t mean that we can die too. We have work to do. He told us to grab the hands of the people around us and shake them awake – to shake them alive. I felt alive – I was ready.
But, I got on the bus and rode it 65 blocks north through boarded-up windows and broken streets. That time to sit and watch the world pass by slowed me down a bit. I remembered everything we face. A laundry list of ‘isms.’ Threats that I have little control over. In spite of the good message of that pastor, in spite of my energy to respond, I didn’t know what to do. People are dying, and the world is spinning wildly. I walked home a little less alive, caught between wanting to change the world and wanting to lie down.
It’s not unwillingness. It’s uncertainty.
A few days ago, I was on my way to a training on investigating Title IX reports – sexual assault, abuse, harassment, stalking, dating and domestic violence – things we hope never happen, but are far too common.
I left the house early, face still creased with lines from my pillow, and drove a car north along the lakeshore. I had plenty of time. I pulled off the road and parked close to the water. I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pant legs, and walked out onto the beach. Sand filled in the spaces between my puffy morning toes, and soon I stood ankle-deep in the cool water. Gentle waves sent playful chills up my legs. It was the first sunny morning in over a week, and it finally felt like fall – golden sunrise, crisp, fresh air.
I stared out, and in that moment of quiet, said the simplest, most ardent prayer I had uttered in days, weeks, months, maybe years. Lord – help me carry on. Then I stood quietly, forgetting for a moment that I was on a schedule, that I had a job, that I had a long week ahead. I closed my eyes and felt the sun warm my face.
Not long after, I was back in the car, driving barefoot and running through a list of things to do that day. I didn’t feel exhausted or overworked or uncertain. I was alive and ready.
It won’t end in burnout. It will all be blessed.
It need not require any advanced meditation to recognize the dysfunctional and downright calamitous reality of our present national discourse. Contemporary political debate is organized less around competing preferences and political principles and more around the competition between various in-groups and out-groups. Shared antipathy provides the grist for an ever more overheated political mill. Thus, the controversies of the moment are used not to advance the legitimate redress of grievances (of which there truly are legion) but to power the battle engines of our competing political tribes and to line the pockets of an ever-growing train of grifters, hacks, and opportunists.
That this does not serve the mutual seeking of the common good through the process of political debate, organization, and legislation is not terribly surprising. However, the effects are worse than that: rather than encouraging us to draw out the potential best in us, such as our compassion, empathy, patience, wisdom, and understanding, it encourages us to indulge in the worst aspects of our personalities, which is the feeding of our personal hatreds, fears, and desires to dominate. Not only do we fail to produce meaningful solutions but our souls are harmed in the process of seeking out and aiming to destroy perceived enemies of our group. Unsurprisingly, people’s polled positions are drifting further and further apart.
In the midst of this eye-brow singeing heat of political news and current events, we might be tempted to step back and seek ways to mind our own business. That temptation, strong as it is, we ought to act against. The challenge is how. The answer begins with how we treat each other, and specifically, how the most marginalized are both treated and regarded in American society.
In short, the defining organizational principle of our present moment is intense, mutual hatred. It seems that each half of the country exists for the other half to comfortably detest. How can the basic civic relationships, so inflamed at the moment, move towards the healing necessary for a more humane and less vindictive politics?
Loving the Poor
To regenerate our politics and move away from hate and divisiveness towards a genuine seeking of the common good, we have to begin somewhere. After admitting we have a problem (see above), the next part of any path of recovery is to take concrete steps in the right direction.
Let’s begin by loving the poor.
Do not take me to be glib. Do not take me to be endorsing anyone’s particular program. I’m not talking about policy; those sort of things that can be done ought to be done. I’m speaking more of a fundamental shift of disposition than happens before any particular policy shift can happen. To clear the rot from American politics we must learn (perhaps again, perhaps for the first time) how to choose love of neighbor, especially those neighbors most excluded from the comfortable couches of American life.
We must remember that it is not a crime to be poor, though we seem to make that mistake. Researchers have noted that many of our policies regard the homeless in particular at the local and state level are motivated by feelings of disgust and a desire to be as far as possible from the poor. In this way, poverty becomes an error to be corrected, not actual people to be embraced and cherished. Instead, we must notice how when we separate ourselves from the poor, when we create an us and them, we develop a habit of dividing the world into “others” whom we can discard with ease.
This matters greatly because what we do to the poor we increasingly do to each other. The “othering” we have done to the poor has been the unconscious playbook for mapping out our political divisions. The tendency to criminalize, pathologize, or simply regard as lesser those with whom we differ politically has already played out in how society views the poor. If we hope to undo the toxic relationships at the heart of our political conflict, we can begin by healing yet another toxic relationship, that of the poor and the not-poor, by embracing true love of the neighbor we tend to not acknowledge.
We should be careful not to instrumentalize the poor in service for a cheap political end. But if we are to move away from a vindictive politics towards a revolution of tenderness based upon the Gospel, can we begin anyway better than committing ourselves to love more deeply the poor?
Image courtesy FlickrCC user michael_swan.
This week’s readings speak of the great generosity of God. How do we respond to this generosity? Check out this week’s powerful, yet brief reflection based on the Sunday Mass readings for October 15, 2017.
Blade Runner 2049 begins like the original: a silent black screen, upon which the stage is set via text. In both movies, the text’s quiet appearance tells a brief, nearly identical backstory: Humanity’s expansion to other worlds built upon the slave labor of bioengineered, “replicant” humans. Some models of these replicants have rebelled, leading not only to the prohibition of these replicants but of a special type of police officer: a blade runner. The blade runners seek out rogue replicants to “retire”—which we soon realize is a violent act, often involving a gun.
Unlike some mysteries, what lies central to the Blade Runners is not simply the search for a suspect or criminal but deeper questions of ethics such as:
Is it killing to destroy a machine?
Is there a difference between replicant and human?
What does it mean to be human?
Why does it matter?
This unfolds concretely as Deckard, Harrison Ford—the detective in the first movie, is asked at one point: “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” He answers “no,” but he visibly agonizes after killing replicants.
Every time ‘humanity’ appears defined, the films problematize it. A special test appears in the first movie in which a replicant’s pupils are measured during questioning—yet, already, this testing of emotional response fails. The more advanced replicants are implanted with memories which offer them emotional intelligence and depth. In Blade Runner 2049 this appears even further problematized, as the only characters who shed tears are the replicants. In fact, while the replicants of the new movie demonstrate remorse and sadness and love, most humans in the new film receive a cold, calculated, and mechanical portrayal.
If emotions don’t offer a clear indication of humanity, a second option might be love, but this possible qualification of humanity also fails quickly. Two replicants who are villains in the first movie are deeply in love with one another; it’s their desire to preserve the life of their loved one that sparks their mission. And, we find a familial love deep enough to motivate the entire plot of the second movie.
Blade Runner 2049 problematizes the idea love as a possible definition even further with the appearance of a holographic character. Ryan Gosling, a replicant, loves this hologram and she loves him in return.
The holographic woman’s last words—said as she tries to save Ryan Gosling’s character—are that she loves him. Even without a body, she can love… which leaves us questioning.
We have no solid, immutable definition of humanity. Through ambiguity, omission, or contrary example—the movies problematize any clear answer to the questions. We spend half of the recent movie wondering whether Gosling is “born” or manufactured. And, we still never learn for certain whether Harrison Ford’s Deckard is a replicant or a human. In many ways, we cannot even be clear on the villains or heroes—replicants and humans alike seem capable of both love and of terrible cruelty.
Those unanswered questions ruminate, offering two insights into the nature of humanity and life itself. They remind us that humanity is multifaceted and complicated—a mystery more akin to a miracle than to scientific criteria. Life, the miracle by which humans and the world are made, is something more than a list of checked boxes: it’s more than the presence of the biological, more than emotions or love, perhaps even more than we can explain.
At the start of Blade Runner 2049, one replicant accuses Gosling’s blade runner, “You’ve never seen a miracle.” Unlike Gosling, the replicant has witnessed a birth and is left in unadulterated awe. Replicants and humans alike search for this mysterious child who was born demonstrating a shared commonality between them: a search for the meaning of life and our very human nature.
Their search for a miracle motivates their action and sacrifice—it gives their lives meaning, yet it is never resolved or answered. Despite humanity and life never receiving a neat definition, something firm appears within the words of the replicant: “a miracle.” Perhaps, that is the key to understanding life and humanity within the Blade Runners: life itself is a mystery, a miracle to be held in awe.
The cover photo is featured courtesy of Ron Frazier of the Flickr Creative Commons.
Over the last two years, I’ve taught a high school class called “Christian Discipleship.” The course description states: “This course is intended to help student reflect on the meaning and implications of justice in their faith lives.” Accordingly, we spend a great deal of time unpacking the different injustices in our world. Classes include discussion on arrest rates by race, communities affected by environmental degradation, and the language we use to describe sex and sexuality. We tackle each of these from personal, cultural, community, and structural lenses in light of the Gospels and Catholic Social Doctrine.
For many of the students, this is their first foray into examining social sin. It is the first time they have lengthy discussions about privilege, wealth, fragility, and oppression. When I propose that we are responsible for challenging these historic structures, I get a similar response: “I shouldn’t have to feel guilty for…” These responses match the comments I’ve seen across various blogs, including comments on The Jesuit Post.
I’m left wondering: why shouldn’t we feel guilty?
In our fourth unit on human dignity, we spend several classes tracing the history of legalized racism and discrimination – from slavery, to Jim Crow laws, and segregation. Most of my white students contend that official racism ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When I propose that structural racism continues today, they begin getting agitated. I state that while they may not try to actively oppress anyone, those historical acts have ramifications today. Moreover, modern legislation enforces that structural racism. To my white students, I tell them clearly that they benefit from white privilege based on this history. They reply that it’s not their fault, that they’re not responsible.
Here are some examples of the most common responses:
I shouldn’t have to feel guilty for what my great-grandparents did. I’m not the one who did those things – it’s not my fault.
Just because America used to be racist doesn’t mean they should take away my rights.
My family worked hard for where they got, I shouldn’t have to throw that away because somebody else used to be oppressed.
It might have been that way back then, but today it’s because their communities are broken.
Our discussions of structural racism and white privilege provoke these defensive responses and a resistance to feelings of guilt. But I wonder: why do we always treat guilt like a bad thing? Doesn’t guilt imply a tug on our conscience? Can’t guilt say that we want to care, but we are afraid? The Catechism states, “Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults…” When our guilt leads to resentment, it might be the shortcoming of our education. But guilt doesn’t have to function that way.
The guilt associated with social sins like racism and poverty threatens the privilege that I enjoy. I personally have found it very difficult at times to forgo that privilege, and sometimes fail to do so either out of ignorance or self-righteousness. The American Dream is built upon notions of hard work and self-sufficiency, that we deserve every luxury and privilege that we have worked to earn. But what if that dream is not the reality we believed?
It can be frightening to suddenly discover that the lives we built are not totally the results of our own hard work. It would be imprudent to say they are not at least partially a result of that effort, but to say my success is completely my own work would be equally imprudent. The guilt that accompanies a broken self-image can lead to resentment, anger, and mistrust. For many, this is where the guilt of social sin stops. But guilt doesn’t have to lead to resentment; it doesn’t have to stop there.
Guilt can go a step further and call us back into a just, righteous relationship. I have found great healing in admitting that I do benefit from social sin. Guilt moves from fear and resentment to reconciliation and collaborating for justice. Guilt does not have to be about negating the value of hard work. Rather, we can work hard together to break down oppression and ensure mutual freedom.
Perhaps the reason that guilt can so often lead to resentment and selfishness stems from complacency. We can easily become accustomed to privilege. When someone reminds us of the problems with the status quo, we can become defensive and frustrated. One might even reply, “I shouldn’t have to feel guilty!”
The feeling of guilt is not the fault of another: it is the response of our own conscience. It will continue to nag and agitate us unless we act. Complacency prevents change, and resentment will push us further into antagonism. The cure for guilt is not to shove it away and stagnate in our own indignation. The best way to fight guilt is to embrace it, explore its roots, and seek reconciliation. Through this process of learning, reflecting, and taking action, guilt recedes and opens to true healing and builds healthier communities.
Photo courtesy FlickrCC user durera_toujours.
Autumn in South Dakota is beautiful because it is precarious: summer is beastly hot and winter is brutally cold. Just between is a thin ledge that we and this year’s weather walk. I heard that three years ago, summer ended with a blizzard that killed whole herds of cattle; frosted, frozen and toppled green-leaved trees.
Not this year, we hoped; we headed to the hills.
Fly rods, reels, climbing shoes on carabiners and hammock-ready books tossed out into the gravel parking lot, we ate lunch out of the back of the car: cold chili, saltines and last weekend’s potatoes. Breezes rustled the sunlit, yellow-gold leaves; the colors of the tall white birch popped among the evergreens. I couldn’t imagine what could possibly ruin such a day. Leftovers never tasted so good until they were gone and we went three ways to climb rocks, catch trout and read books.
And we did all three, but I mostly fell off rocks.
No cares, no service, no rally point and no meeting time, we somehow found one another again with fish stories, blisters and chapters to show for it. Halfway through it, we’d already agreed: this was the perfect day. Sore, wet, smelly or well-read, we all shared happy in common, the special kind you get from an afternoon with no internet, good people, and fresh air. Nothing could stop us now.
But because of blissfully poor planning, we were running late for Oktoberfest the next town up, so we drove north.
Lederhosen, down vests, and knit caps tossed out into the packed parking lot, we ate dinner out of the back of the car – more cold chili, crackers and a smashed PB&J we forgot about. The sun dove behind one of the mountain town’s two framing cliffs as we pulled into town, so we tore the car apart for our warm clothes. The city was a far cry from the forest’s open lots, so we tore the car apart to somehow pay for parking, still ending up two minutes short. While John put on his lederhosen, I put on my city clothes, tremendous delight in pulling on a crisp clean white v-neck tee, a sweater and knit cap over my re-tied mess of hair, my watch, wallet and ring back on over throbbing fingers, one by one, next the… wait-
I lost it. Where is it?
I tore open every bag I brought, emptying and re-emptying, pausing and re-re-emptying. I lost it. Where is it? My gut dropped. I felt the cold. I felt the fatigue, the raw blisters hurting and dirtcakes drying between my toes and on my neck. I lost it. Where is it?
“Garrett – Garrett? What’s up?”
Just a couple of minutes… I lost it. Where is it?
The perfect day tottered all of a sudden on make-or-break until some silly idea broke into my cluttered head, from some sane and simple and graceful place: It’s not that big of a deal. But then, I lost it. Where is it? Then again, It’s not that big of a deal. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s not that big of a deal. Some dozens of mantras later, I realized that maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal, but some mental magnetism sure as steel still thought it was. Caught between a voice of sabotage and a voice of sanity, I needed an out, any out, grasping for anything, for the first thing I heard, desperately reemerging from my submerged searching state-
“…no, the thing is that you have to eat all six saltines in one minute, no water, it’s way harder than you’d think…”
“No way, it can’t be that hard – hey, get that phone, time me…”
“Well if you’re going to do it, I’m going to do it, too…”
“Okay, then get six and then gimme six…”
Me, too! and I got in just in time, finishing all six as the timer hit 0:46:23 and autumn clicked back into place, silhouettes of mountains above brick buildings, dry-mouthed friends laughing out crumbs of remaining saltines, accusing me of cheating while cold stars popped through a black sky, Oktoberfest to be had and October to be welcomed, hopefully for a few more weeks of fall. Hopefully, but at least we had today. We slept very well that night, one Oktoberfest later.
And yes, I did lose it. But I found it the next weekend back at the same place. And between, I just made another.
I’d like to think that the perfect days are immune even to my left-field anxieties, my petty attachments and perpetual distractedness, but I guess not. I’d also like to think that when these take over, a moment of prayer can become a moment of clarity and save the day, but I guess not. Sometimes just a distraction from a distraction will have to do… especially when the perfect day is on the line … especially when it’s with friends and very especially when I win big – after all, the last time I tried the saltine challenge, I lost so bad I got sick.
Maybe there was grace in it, after all: someone packed too many saltines.
Two different stories this past week told the same narrative: men abusing their power to use women.
The first: Harvey Weinstein, a famous Hollywood mogul brought down by accusations of decades of sexual harassment.
The second: Tim Murphy, a Republican pro-life congressman who seems to have urged his mistress to have an abortion.
The Weinstein story will hopefully sound the alarm for Hollywood’s terrible culture of sexual harassment. But what lesson should we draw from Murphy’s fate?
To state the obvious: Murphy should have applied his “pro-life” record to his own life, supporting in every way he could the upbringing of his new child. Instead, he chose his political career over the good of both his lover and their child. In other words, he chose his pro-life credentials over the good of the very people that pro-life people are supposed to be fighting for.
Now clearly Murphy’s disregard for the life of the child is a huge part of this story. Perhaps his pro-life politics were strategic postures to garner votes, not meaningful expressions of his convictions.
I fear, however, that the situation is far worse: Tim Murphy never really knew what it meant to be pro-life, and thus just how deeply he was betraying pro-life principles. Being pro-life is not just about the cultural and political struggle to protect children, after all. Being pro-life is also about respecting women.
And yet somehow the woman who Murphy was texting has almost disappeared from this story.
In so many aspects of life, men manipulate women for male pleasure. Abortion is often no different. When Murphy tried to persuade his mistress to procure an abortion, he was putting his needs ahead of hers. He wanted sex from her without any consequences, even if that meant that she had to bear those consequences. Did he not recognize that this abortion was ultimately about reducing her to a sex object? But why would he? Men treating women like sex objects is hardly out of the ordinary.
And so here’s the second, subtle lesson from the Murphy affair. Abortion has frequently been presented as a form of women’s liberation. But how often is it just another form of male control over women? If misogyny and sexual violence against women are common, then how can situations like this not also be common?
Episodes like this remind us that feminists and pro-life activists need to be in deeper conversation. Feminists need to be reminded that they can and should be pro-life on the issue of abortion: just like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Many in the pro-life would I hope welcome the reminder that they cannot be pro-life if they do not struggle for the sanctity of all lives, including those of women.
And so I wonder: when people excoriate Murphy for his hypocrisy, do they see just how deep that hypocrisy runs?
A few nights ago, a young man was arrested in Chicago for defacing a statue. No, it wasn’t the statue of a Confederate general, or some 19th century Imperialist; it was an Italian sailor.
So, it must be Columbus Day, or depending on your state of residence, Indigenous Peoples Day. A day when thousands of Americans will either be protesting the inhumane and fundamentally racist treatment of indigenous peoples at the hands of European settlers, or celebrating the intrepid explorer who established the first European settlement in the Americas, and whose name has been lent to such institutions as Columbia University, and such places as our nation’s Capital.
Of course, even this holiday has become divorced from its original symbolism. The extent to which we are consciously celebrating a 15th-century Genoese navigator who ran into a series of islands 800 miles south of Florida, some 300 years prior to the founding of the United States, and some 500 years after the first Europeans set foot in North America, seems unclear. The extent to which we are concretely honoring ‘indigenous peoples’ on this day is even less clear.
Rather, like many symbols, this holiday has been increasingly co-opted as a political litmus test for our deepest convictions concerning race, power, and privilege.
Recent protests calling for the removal of statues deemed inappropriate from town squares and college campuses have become flashpoints for deep seated ideological divisions. And while the tragic effects of Charlottesville are still being processed by many who were shocked to see scenes reminiscent of 1963 Birmingham, I can’t help but wonder if we shouldn’t ask ourselves whether statues are worth it.
To rephrase the question: In what way, concretely, does the removal of a statue aid those who suffer the consequences of systemic racism? Are we, perhaps, in danger of turning these statues into ideological sideshows which have a powerful symbolic effect, but result in little or no change in the daily lives of the people for whom these statues are offensive?
As a boy, the civil rights movements of the 1960’s were presented as an over-and-done accomplishment. Images like Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. composing letters from jail were powerful symbolic images suggesting a battle between good and evil which culminated in the passage of civil rights legislation, and the end of our nation’s racist past. Although events like Charlottesville should be more than enough to disabuse us of this naïve narrative, it is easy to see how battles over symbolism can obscure concrete change, forcing the question: If the Civil Rights Act didn’t solve systemic racism, what will the removal of some statues accomplish?
But symbols are powerful. They focus our deepest convictions in the form of something concrete. Statues, in fact, serve this purpose exclusively; they have no other use. We erect statues to demonstrate values like courage, intellectual achievement, and faith. In short, things we value. This being the case, it seems reasonable to remove public symbols which no longer represent our collective values, such as Civil War soldiers who, whatever their personal beliefs, fought against emancipation.
But it is the very importance and flashiness of a symbol which can obscure or distract from what it actually stands for. It is a form of idolatry to see the symbol as the whole issue. For example: That a few bankers became symbolic of the 2008 housing collapse and subsequent recession completely obscured the fact that these men were merely part of a much larger and dysfunctional system. The bankers were jailed, the system remains.
My weariness over the power of symbolism ultimately accounts for my reticence over focusing our desire for change on statues. Collective community organizing focused on mass incarceration, the redlining of financial services, and labor exploitation are movements which seek an immediate effect on people’s lives. The removal of Christopher Columbus from a park, at least to me, seems a less obvious solution to any problem.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user David Berkowitz.
Why work for and with God? This week’s (extremely) brief One-Minute Reflection explores the many ways we are called to collaborate in cultivating the Kingdom of God. Based on the Sunday Mass Readings for October 8, 2017.
The life of a theatre major. Late nights. Long rehearsals. One evening, I hung around the theatre to walk the stage and run through lines, review my character, read my notes – the practices of a student actor. Eventually, I headed back to my dorm room. As I approached I saw something on my door. A mean slur in large handwriting. A pejorative about my sexual orientation, in red marker, with an exclamation mark. Who ever came up with the phrase “sticks and stones” had probably never been violently scorned.
This was the first time I had seen this word, live and in real time. Sure, in documentaries and movies about the past, but never in real life. It’s the spring of 2001, and I’m 22.
Apart from the word itself, I was made aware in that moment that I was hated. An uncomfortable knowledge, walking around campus, conscious that someone or some people, quite literally, despised me. My friends were great though. One friend published an article in the school newspaper condemning the hate crime. Another sat with me as I made a police report. Even my parents, whom I had just come out to, wrote a letter to the president expressing their anger.
But that word. That one word – it really did a number on me. Sure, I tried to save face by putting up a front, but it hurt. It hurt because that word attempted to sum me up. It dismissed me. It packaged me into a box and sent me on my way as that one thing. And I believed it.
Recently, the Theological College of the National Seminary at the Catholic University of America withdrew an invitation for James Martin, S.J., to speak at a symposium during their Alumni Days. According to their statement, the Theological College had been receiving negative feedback about their invitation from social media sites. To avoid distraction and controversy, they decided that retracting the invite was the best course of action.
My frustration about this decision stems from the vitriolic, hateful comments made to the Theological College in light of Martin’s book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. Those comments – just words – backed the institution into a corner. Never mind the fact that Martin’s symposium topic was encountering Jesus, and not his recent publication.
I know how hard some decisions are to make, and I wish the decision would have been different. Even John Garvey, the president of Catholic University of America, openly disagreed with the Theological College’s decision. With that said, I respect people who, with love and good intentions, seek to understand Church teachings in concert with contemporary thought. I welcome the dialogue. It is, however, another thing altogether to continue giving weight to voices which seek only to tear down, to shame, and to reject the truth of Gospel love.
Disparaging voices force invitations of understanding and compassion off the table. Those voices say ‘no’ to the possibility of love. ‘No’ has the power to prevent a good and kind voice from being heard. Any response that begins with a ‘no’ robs us of an opportunity for dialogue. We will never have productive conversations about how to love LGBT+ persons if we don’t begin with ‘yes’ – a ‘yes’ rooted in our common call to love. Without caveats, without conjunctions – only love.
And this love is not same-sex love. It is God’s love – the first love there ever was. And, it’s about our capacity to respond to that love by simply loving each other. Person to person.
This love is the true topic of Martin’s book. On the inside jacket of Building a Bridge, he invites “Catholic leaders to relate to their LGBT flock…characterized by compassion and openness.” Going further, the book is filled with meditations, reflections, and tools to build a bridge.
Meeting, encounter and inclusion are one set of tools he offers. These are the foundation of community-building, which Martin reminds us was so integral to Jesus’s ministry. In my reading, I began to imagine what those bridges might look like with other communities – immigrants, divorced persons, people of color. Regardless of the community, bridge construction requires respect, compassion, sensitivity, mutuality, and invitations.
Not too long ago I received an email. And it began with this:
“Why does it seem that you Jesuits just love to reject church teaching on all things sexual…promoting homosexuality when the Bible and catechism are extremely clear in condemning what you are promoting….Do you honestly think St. Ignatius would promote homosexual actions which are condemned in God’s infallible Word?”
When words like these are directed toward me, it feels like I’m back in college, facing the vitriol scrawled out in red on my door. I read the email as an aggression and it makes me defensive. Maybe even a little scared. Perhaps I should’ve ignored the email. But I responded. I thought I could offer insight to what I felt were judgements. I’m sure similar ideas motivated the writer to reach out to me in the first place.
The thing about Gospel love is that it must go both ways. Much like the bridge Martin is promoting in his book. It requires both sides to begin with love. Then we can build and cross the bridge to meet each other as human persons. It is hard to lead with love. I replied to the email from a place of pain and hurt, carrying that broken twenty-something with a damaged heart like cumbersome luggage.
A difficulty of bridge building is the healing that must occur simultaneously. When it comes to the LGBT+ community and the Catholic church, I have wounds, raw and unbandaged. And sometimes it takes a moment for me to enter into a space of dialogue when there is a history of hateful and hurtful speech.
So, when I read about Martin and his revoked invitation, my blood boiled. Despite the level of support he was given by the Society of Jesus and Cardinal Blase Cupich, it seemed like hate was winning. I allowed upsetting voices to instigate feelings of resentment. And I became blind to God’s love.
Christ is my example. Even though I know Good Friday points to the Resurrection, when emails and letters and verbal dissonance are so loud, I still have to take a minute to remind myself that Christ is there too.
And then, I remember love. The love James Martin writes about, the love I share with my friends and brothers, and the love of God forever written on my heart.
I met my maternal grandfather for the first time when I was 10 years old. He was recently widowed and had come from Mexico to spend some time with my family. I wasn’t sure what to make of this quiet old man at first, and I think my father must have sensed this when he pulled me aside and told me, “He’s your grandfather. You must look at him with respect and gratitude because without him, you wouldn’t have your mother.” This was a novel thought for me because, until this moment, I had grown up without any of my grandparents in my life. I still remember my dad’s words of powerful simplicity: look to those who you came from with gratitude and with respect. But if I’m honest, I must confess this didn’t always come so easily. Growing up undocumented in this country tainted the view I had of myself and those who I came from.
My family came to the United States just before I turned two years old. Since then, this country has been home, for it is where I made my earliest memories, the happy moments of my childhood.
From early on, my undocumented status was something which I was both aware of and unfazed by. My parents were good at keeping from me any major fears and anxieties they might have had. In fact, my greatest concern in elementary school regarding the matter was that I was unable to go to SeaWorld in San Diego because of the immigration checkpoints on the way back to LA.
This sense of limitation grew, however, as I got older. Seeing the airplanes that fly so low over my hometown of Inglewood filled me with a longing to visit the country of my birth to see the sights, hear the sounds, smell the smells, and imagine what my life might have been like had we stayed. As high school approached, I began to think about the things that any American teenager thinks about at that age: a driver’s license, a part-time job, and college, knowing that my undocumented status presented an obstacle and that these things might not be a reality for me.
I was incredibly fortunate to have received my legal permanent residence in high school, just before any of that became a problem. A few years later, I would become a naturalized U.S. citizen. Though I now enjoyed the full rights of any American, there are some things a piece of paper can’t change. Through the years I had experienced the attitudes of hostility and discrimination that exist toward migrants, and the stigma of coming from an undocumented family still haunted me when I heard words like “illegals,” “criminals,” or “law-breakers,” used to refer to us.
Even well-intentioned comments could pose a problem. In the recent debates over DACA, many who favor the policy have argued that those who would benefit from it came to this country through no fault of their own, implying that those at fault are, in fact, our parents. When something as sacred as family is labeled as guilty or blameworthy, it leaves one feeling conflicted, ashamed, and voiceless.
Several years ago, I came across something that radically countered the negative messages that abound regarding immigration. I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw an immigration poster that read: “I am here because my parents are responsible, courageous, and hardworking individuals.” The message spoke to a truth within my heart that was often drowned out by the harmful sound of criticism and judgment. Never had I seen a positive message stated so plainly and directly. There’s honestly not enough of that out there.
While an instance like this offered a glimmer of hope, it has been my faith which has helped me to break the bonds of fear and shame that often shackle me. Before entering the Jesuits, I went on an eight-day silent retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which is to this day the best time of my life. In the sacred silence, I got to know myself and God’s love for me in a way I never thought possible. Simply put, it was a very real, very deep, and very personal encounter with the Risen Christ. I remember coming to Jesus with all my anxieties and fears of rejection, and in the Resurrection meditation, hearing him say to me, in my native Spanish, no less, “Se acabó el miedo.” “Your fears are over.”
I understood then, that my sense of worth was not dependent on the approval of others, but rather on the human dignity that Christ unconditionally restored through his Resurrection. Much in the same way that Christ affirmed the goodness from which we came, I have learned to affirm the goodness from which I come, to look upon my parents with respect, gratitude, and love, just like my father asked.
In spite of having such a powerful experience, it’s not as if my struggles have forever disappeared. Christ’s words are something I have to remind myself of every day. The Christian life is a relationship that merely begins with encountering the Risen one, but is ultimately fulfilled in following Christ daily on his mission of healing us and reconciling us to the Father and to one another.
I am grateful to the Church, which has consistently affirmed the inherent human goodness and dignity of the migrant, the same Church, which, like a loving mother, has embraced my family in this country and nurtured my vocation to the Society of Jesus.
Most recently, Pope Francis launched a global campaign on migration called “Share the Journey,” aimed at promoting a culture of encounter between migrants and non-migrants. As part of this movement, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is kicking off its Week of Prayer and Action on October 7th, inviting us to get to know one another and thus grow in community and solidarity. We each have fears, we each have wounds, we each need a Savior. Why not share the journey together?
The house I grew up in is full of broken things. Our appliances live on a cycle of breaking one after the other, the basement is usually damp, and the furniture has holes in it. Our cars almost always have a cracked bumper, the furnace breaks not infrequently during the Minnesota winters, and because of my siblings and I playing ball in the house, the dozens of saint statues are missing their heads. When I was younger this messy, broken house embarrassed me. Now, I cherish it.
I recently read The World Will be Saved by Beauty, Kate Hennessy’s biography of her grandmother, Dorothy Day and her own mother, Tamar Hennessy. She recalls going through her mother’s things after her death. Everything was broken. Hennessy reflects, “maybe she was drawn to all things broken…maybe she saw beauty in the cracked, chipped, and repaired. This is the paradox we all live with–this flawed vessel called to holiness.”
I thought of my family’s home and I welled up with joy. It is a house full of love and hospitality and dust and community and brokenness. I wouldn’t say my parents are attracted to broken things or love the mess. I would say they are wonderfully content with it all. The acceptance of our broken home has made us freer to fully live in it, to welcome the world into it, and to see its capacity for beauty, no matter its state.
My parents’ home was not the only broken house I grew up in. The Catholic Church is broken as well.
Perhaps the clearest admission of our brokenness came in 2000 from St. John Paul II who called for a “purification of memory” and began asking pardon for some of the Church’s great transgressions. He said, “Let us confess, even more, our responsibilities as Christians for the evils of today.” Pope Benedict XVI said in 2010, “The sufferings of the Church come precisely from within the Church, from the sin existing within the Church.”
The Church has been tarnished by the crisis of clergy sex abuse. We have ignored and hurt the LGBT community, been held back by sexism, and cowered in the fight against racism. We have given up beautiful traditions in the pursuit of being relevant. We are plagued by the acceptance of luxury and have caused scandal by our petty fights. We are broken.
Dorothy Day once wrote, “As to the Church, where else shall we go, except to the Bride of Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.”
I and people I love have been hurt by the Church. The sadness that follows is valid, but the Church will always be my Mother. It isn’t flawless furniture and a functioning furnace that make a house a home. It isn’t even family members who always understand and affirm you. It is the grace to look at a messy and frustrating situation with honesty and recall that where we put love, we can find love, even when it’s hard. I have given up a fantasy that the Church will ever be without flaws and I’ve given up the idea that she needs to be in order for me to love her.
So it goes with us and God. When God thought us up, He knew we would mess up. He foresaw the ways we would hurt Him and allow our brokenness to overcome our goodness. God created us anyway because God loves us anyway.
Even in my own racism and sexism, my insecurities, my laziness and apathy, all of my sin and shortcomings, God still calls me, wants me, uses me.
I think God, like Tamar Hennessy, is attracted to broken things.
From the bumbling fisherman Jesus first called, to the podunk town of Galilee he decided to grow up in, or to the tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers he was always walking towards, Jesus shows us God’s attraction to the broken.
When Jesus first called Simon Peter, Peter got on his knees and said, “depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man. I am not worthy.” Jesus pays little attention to that truth and simply says, “Do not be afraid. I will make you a fisher of men.” Taken, blessed, broken, and still called to be shared. For God, we are enough.
We are flawed vessels called to holiness. Sister Ruth Burrows writes, “holiness means that a human being has so affirmed, stood by, embraced their essential meaning of being a capacity for God, an emptiness for him to fill, that God can indeed fill them with the fullness of himself.”
God’s promise to abide with me was never contingent upon my performance. I am trying to be a capacity for God, and my brokenness and emptiness are precisely what allow me to receive Him. I know with my whole heart that the same is true of the Catholic Church. This is to say nothing of why I find the Church to be beautiful, true, and key to my pursuit of holiness.
Nevertheless, we can say to the Church what God says to us: The brokenness of this house need not stop me from calling it home.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair … ” – A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
The segregation in Chicago (and many other cities) would be fascinating if it weren’t so tragic.1 For example, when Chicago’s Red Line enters the infamous South side, the ridership almost magically becomes all black. In many cities in-fact, most urbanites somehow seem to know where the “sketchy neighborhoods,” “Latino neighborhoods,” “up-and-coming areas” etc. are and act accordingly.
But why do such damaging divisions still exist in our cities, especially in the world’s richest country and with legislation explicitly making such divisions illegal? Why is there so often a good part of town and another, harsher part of town?
“Us” and “Them”
The obvious reason is that there are structural inequalities that continue to widen the gaps in our cities. These are a result of many factors like the legacy of “redlining” and the prison-industrial complex, to name a few.
More basic than that though, I think another big reason why we can make frustratingly little progress in closing these gaps is because we’re often prevented from moving beyond an “us” and “them” stance. When we adopt this stance, we close ourselves off to learning deeper realities from the people who actually live them. In this way, we can subconsciously start to believe that we’re truly different than “them” and that their fight isn’t ours. This is how segregation thrives.
In Chicago today, the condition of the city’s rougher parts is typically only known abstractly or from a distance as disembodied facts. The stories of the people who live in those parts are seldom heard, or if they are, rarely from their perspective.. But when we seek these stories out and listen to them, we’ll find they have a lot to teach us. Such stories showus that, despite key differences, there’s much we can relate to in each others’ experiences. And when we let these stories touch us deeply, we can better fight for social progress and end the separation in this and other cities.
Here are some of those stories.
Tales of Jail
I’ve been meeting with one young man regularly at the county juvenile detention center. He has been there for over two years, awaiting trial. In one sense, I know his background: I’m familiar with all the important prison statistics as well as poverty and violence rates in Chicago. But in a truer sense, I know close to nothing. In his poetry, which he has generally allowed me to share, he lets me begin to learn his story, his way.
“Every month or two I throw out my old notebook …
My body’s filled with 100 different feelings 200 different thoughts ….
I love life but sometimes I wish I could skip days like a skipped line” – “My Composition
“I’m so sick of people saying they understand me, without taking the time to look and read the guidelines of my story” – “Jail”
“I made the biggest mistake of my life
And sold my soul to the devil
Before I knew what it was actually worth” – “My LIfe”
This is just one voice of the many young men who inhabit our country’s correctional facilities.
Tales of Hope
Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation (PBMR) is the group the lets me join their visits to the jail. It’s a ministry of presence. Outside of the jail, they work with the same population of young people in the jail hoping to offer new ways of reconciliation to end the cycle of violence in Chicago.
They also meet with multiple groups like police officers, families of incarcerated people as well as victims, concerned community-members, and interested people from all over the city. Stories are shared and divisions are narrowed. Through helping people listen to each others’ stories, they are helping to solve some of Chicago’s problems.
Last Sunday night, PBMR’s Sister Donna, Father Kelly and a group of mothers flew to New York City to go on the Today Show with Megyn Kelly. They wanted to tell America some of their story. In their interview, they talked about violence, losing their young people, and how they hope to move forward.
Likewise, the upcoming website “Connected Chicago” seeks to let people from around the city upload videos as well as organize and invite each other to events around town. By sharing and accessing these first-hand stories, the goal is, we can learn about one another, break the imaginary (yet real) lines that divide Chicago, and actually connect. When this happens, maybe this city will be able to equitably move forward. But first, I think, we have to listen and learn.
Keep Learning the Tales
Listening to another and being able to connect with them is powerful stuff. There’s a lot of potential in this not only for Chicago, but anywhere people stop being people and become statistics. This isn’t the work of reconciliation or systemic change just yet, but it’s an important start.
My prayer for myself is that that I use my two ears and one mouth proportionally, keep learning deeply, and that this learning sticks. But I hope that this piece encouraged your deeper learning, too, and that, at the right time, we each do something with this learning.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Roman Boed.
“I wish somebody would have told me that some day,
these will be the good old days.”
Macklemore just released “Good Old Days,” a single with comeback Kesha. They certainly weren’t the first to tap into nostalgia this summer. TLC released new music for the first time in fifteen years. Their summer hit, “Way Back,” is an epic throwback to R&B roots that makes me want to pull out my copy of Totally Hits, vol. 1 and Now That’s What I Call Music, vol. 4.
I used to do exactly that when I lived in New York. My friends and I frequently went to 90s night, a giant dance party of everything from Juicy to Semi-Charmed Life to Wannabe. It was a 400-person karaoke party, everyone going hoarse from singing and dancing. Other college campuses are hosting similar parties this year with good reason. Consequently, I’ve been asking why we ever said Bye, Bye, Bye to those times.
But more deeply, what is compelling young adults like me to long for music of the past? What makes us hungry for nostalgia? And what might be hiding behind it?
Nostalgia emerges in more than just pop music. When I was a kid, my family regularly went to Florida during the summer. Grandma had a condo in Sarasota that the whole family would pack into. Near by, there was a touristy series of beach-front shopping and restaurants.
My favorite place here was the ice cream parlor. I loved it for the obvious reason of ice cream, but also because the walls were decorated with 1950s paraphernalia, Elvis posters, and classic chromed-out Cadillacs. I got my first CD player here, designed to look like a retro family-room radio. I adored the classic feel, imagining what it would be like to go swing dancing and rock leather jackets. Based on how well the shop did, many others felt similarly. Here, we could imagine it was like if we could have those “good old days” back again.
We regularly return to both our own and the collective memories from our communities and institutions. Memory, particularly in the form of nostalgia, can easily be a place of safety, preservation, and solid identity. Therein lies my love of 90s dance parties and The Nanny: a familiarity that offers brief reprieve from my constant engagement in what’s going on in our world.
Nostalgia is nothing new. Throughout history, it’s given us religious revivals, industry, film, and arts that simultaneously harken back while adding something new. It can absolutely be a positive appreciation for what once was. Indeed, it can hold that institutional memory of common experience and value.
Yet this love of memory, particularly institutional, can also be incredibly dangerous. It gives rise to phrases like “Make America Great Again.” It easily focuses in on the good old days, purposefully and accidentally forgetting the pain and sorrow that accompanied them. When we dream of the 50s ice cream shop, we picture high wages, manufacturing jobs, and clean parks with friendly neighbors. Yet we forget about the Korean War, redlining ghettos, and rampant racism. We ignore our history of preventing others from enjoying that ice cream parlor and locking people of color and immigrants out of strong union jobs.
This nostalgia and cultural amnesia leads to present day blinders. Our focus on what used to be idyllic easily distracts us from how that history created our present. The greatness of America’s past is in part what created the pain of present day. Too much nostalgia allows us to forget this.
Given the hurt and pain in our world, it is not surprising for us to want something different. We can easily turn to a world that once was, our imaginations slipping into a trance – stunting us. But this incomplete picture holds us back. As Macklemore and Kesha state, “I ain’t worried about the wrinkles around my smile, (I’ve got some scars).” We cannot ignore our scars and only look at the joys.
As John Paul II says, “Truth is the basis, foundation, and mother of justice.” Said another way, we need truth – including in our memories – to have a just society. The problem with nostalgia is that it easily whitewashes history, particularly our cultural and institutional memories. As we throwback, it’s important to remember the whole story. When we remember those times of joy and flourishing, it is imperative we also acknowledge how that joy was achieved, at whose expense, and what challenges it created for us today.
The cover photo is featured courtesy of Max Pixel.
The attention in the room turned to me and to my outstretched hand—in it, a dry-erase marker acted as a pointer towards the board. Neatly underlined, a word-pairing: “Conflict ← → Setting.”
The learning outcome for the class meeting: to understand the connection between conflict and settings in storytelling. The students and I had carefully walked through the conceptual connections. We were nearly there.
We reviewed examples: Spider-Man, Hatchet, Wonder Woman… Kendrick Lamar and Deadpool appeared, though not by my instigation. Then, the students were given a brief period to create a setting and—within that setting—to create a list of potential conflicts.
Marker in hand, I ask, “So who can give me a potential setting?”
Almost immediately, a couple of voices chimed, “Saint Louis.”
“OK. Perfect,” and I wrote it on the board. I was ready for this. A notepad of my carefully written script lay on the podium just within sight. Listed neatly in a corner, St. Louis. Beneath it, a bulleted list of potential conflicts.
“Saint Louis as our setting… What could be a list of conflicts which might occur here?” The list in my notepad held the imagined innocence of childhood: What if the animals escaped the zoo? What if aliens landed in Forest Park? What if robots attacked the school?
“Huh. Ok.” I wrote it on the board.
“Ok.” I drew an arrow from drugs, adding drug deals. “What else?”
“Drug violence.” I nodded and added violence with another arrow. “What about something besides drugs? What other conflicts could arise?”
“Stealing! Like a robbery. Maybe someone is stealing drugs.”
“Huh. Ok. ‘stealing/robbery.’ What else though, besides drugs? What other conflicts could be related to our setting?”
I turn from the board, confused. “Cops?”
The student responded, “Yeah. Like cops fighting and shooting people.”
Another voice chimed in, “Yeah. Cops killing black people. You know what I mean?”
I nodded following the conversation. I’ve read news stories, court cases, personal narratives, blogs, twitter, etc… I’ve been in St. Louis long enough to have visited many of the sites and people involved. I know the scarring and pain of the city, but I don’t know it personally or experientially. But my students, these children, do.
They stared at me for a moment as the marker slowly fell from the whiteboard to my side. My eyes flitted between the students intently listening, and my notes neatly planned and waiting. But, I hadn’t planned for this.
The answers from my students scared me: they had realities—experiences so far removed from those of childhood. They held their pens in their hands, staring at me. Kids—just kids in middle school. Yet, I was acutely aware as we stared at each other that I was the one who was naïve… I was out of my depth.
I nodded, realizing that they were not nearly as sheltered as I was at their age. I thought of the unfair realities in the news and the city, realizing that these realities were not separate from the children sitting before me. I capped my marker and held it tightly in my hand. I leaned carefully, half-sitting, on the edge of the desk at the front of the room. “What else?” And, I listened.
For a fleeting moment, we switched roles. They told me about a different side to the city—one which I’ve read about and heard about, but one very different from my personal experience.
I came to teach them creative writing and effective storytelling, and here they were giving me faces, fears, and memories of their own struggles. Moments which were so far from my own experience that they might have been fiction… all became real in their telling.
As often happens with middle school boys, our conversation moved off topic… and the moment passed. Eventually, we turned back to the lesson plan. They worked quietly, choosing to create stories as fake as robots and aliens attacking St. Louis—far safer stories than the ones they had just shared.
As they escaped into fantasy and fiction, I thought about the realities they had shared with me. In teaching them about the world of stories, they gave me a privileged glimpse into their own world—settings full of conflicts, which no child should have to experience.
News stories, blogs, and tweets capture momentary glimpses into an unjust system, but the stories of children—affected, but often forgotten by the coverage—do something different. My students, in a brief moment, exhibited the most effective storytelling that I’ve ever witnessed. There was something within their stories which no newspaper or reporter or novelist can capture—an element of unfiltered truth which broke my heart. While the realities I’ve read and seen have moved me, those stories from my students—with all their horror, fear, and pain—have made it impossible for me to stomach such systems and injustices.
Where is Jesuit higher education in 2017?
As Saint Louis University (SLU) begins its year-long celebration of its bicentennial with this past Saturday’s Mass under the Gateway Arch, it can contemplate with gratitude its first 200 years. Yet as the SLU community looks toward its future, an obvious question arises: what is it to be a Jesuit university in the 21st century? What is the purpose of an institution like SLU today?
The history of the Land O’ Lakes Statement has answers to such questions.
The Statement, written in 1967 by a group mostly composed of Catholic university leaders, called for Catholic universities to rise to the academic standards of other universities. There is no question that Catholic schools have embraced that call for the better, in many cases becoming premier institutions of higher learning.
But as one surveys the landscape of higher education in 2017, one has to wonder: do Catholic universities still want to be like other universities? Do we welcome escalating tuition costs, hostile relations between faculty and administration, or the commodification of education as a “product” to be sold to “consumers”? Should we embrace an unhealthy preoccupation with college sports that are increasingly professionalized, battles over trigger warnings and safe spaces, polemics concerning academic freedom and free speech, controversies about just labor practices and adjunct salaries, or struggles with campus sexual assault and hate speech? Today’s university is all too often a place of division and exclusion. Is that who we want to be?
What a shock, then, to read this: “A university is an intellectual community.”
Yet that was indeed the assertion of Father John Jenkins, C.S.C, president of Notre Dame. Father Jenkins, who spoke with SLU President Dr. Fred Pestello at the opening night of the conference, recently wrote a judicious evaluation of the Statement in America Magazine.
As Jenkins notes, the Statement is remarkably confident in its message. Reading the Statement, for instance, one is bowled over by the boldness with which it treats the university as a community: a place where theologians foster “a constant discussion within the university community in which theology confronts all the rest of modern culture and all the areas of intellectual study which it includes”; where scholars in other disciplines engage with “interdisciplinary problems and relationships” that help elucidate the “philosophical and theological dimension to most intellectual subjects”; and where “students will individually and in small groups carry on a warm personal dialogue with themselves and with faculty.”
The result will be a “creative dialogue [that] will involve the entire university community,” fostering“a community of learners or a community of scholars, in which Catholicism is perceptibly present and effectively operative.”
This language sounds a bit grand. But it helps show us where we are. The university as an “intellectual community”? Sure, universities are intellectual. But are they communities? We hardly have any communities in our time. Why should universities be any different?
Yet universities as communities are precisely what we need. In his homily beneath the Gateway Arch, Father Ron Mercier, SJ extolled the history of SLU. He also pointed out the obvious: “But the promise of the harvest remains unfilled at this point for so many.”
In a world with so much hurt and violence, and in such need of healing and reconciliation, clearly our mission as a country and as a society is not done. And we need universities more than ever to take seriously the challenges that obstruct that reconciliation. Perhaps universities renewing their mission to society would help them see how they themselves can become communities again. Indeed, would anything else?
At the risk of sounding pompous, I think a 2017 Land O’ Lakes Statement would urge Catholic universities to be a prophetic witness for other higher education institutions: a prophetic witness for community and reconciliation. It would seek not to replicate the success of other schools, but rather urge them to labor with us toward deeper and more meaningful forms of success. To quote Father Mercier again: “With all the great work already done, the call still comes out for us – and those who will come after us – to labor in the vineyard so that its promise – God’s desire – may be fulfilled.” We need to bring more laborers into that vineyard.
To take this task of reconciliation seriously, however, would require universities to discover more deeply what it means to be for and with others – including the “others” on our very campuses. That cannot be something we do as a side project. It has to be deeply ingrained in everything we do. Inspired by the Jesuits’ General Congregation 36, that effort would embrace the intellectual and practical task of reconciliation at all levels: reconciliation with God, with other humans, and with creation.
That effort, moreover, cannot involve a false choice between social justice and the life of the mind: the desire to be positive agents of political and social change should not lessen our commitment to academic excellence. To the contrary, a focus on the real and pressing needs of our society ought to draw out the best in all of us as an intellectual community.
This is my wish for SLU on its 200th birthday: that it accept the present challenges posed by its noble mission, inspiring others to imitate its witness. And daunting though the task may be, Father Mercier reminds us that we are not alone: “Yet, we are indeed laborers of the midday in all our capacities; many have labored before us and many will follow…”
Images courtesy Saint Louis University.
Full disclosure: I was not an ideal teenager. In retrospect (and perhaps even at the time), I followed the example of one of my favorite saints, who once prayed: “Grant me chastity… but not yet.”
While I did a lot of things I later came to regret, I also learned a lot and was formed into the person I am today by my activities. Many of these activities would be classified as “adult activities” by a recent study which shows that today’s teenagers are drinking less, dating less, driving less, working less, going out less and having less sex.
Some have chalked this up to today’s teens (iGen) being more boring or developmentally years behind prior generations, but most commentators have avoided passing judgment – good or bad – on the trends. At first glance, it seems like a mixed bag. Drinking and sex are best delayed until the proper situations in adulthood, so there is good news there. But the decline in activities like dating, driving and going out seems to point to a lack of social development.
So what exactly are teens doing with their free time? The main author of the study, Jean Twenge, recently answered that question: They are at home on their phones. She linked this phenomenon to rising teen depression and suicide rates, and called it “the worst mental-health crisis in decades”. As Twenge observes, it’s not that adolescents are spending their time on homework or extracurriculars. Rather, whereas previous generations had to go out and spend time physically together, youths today interact socially through their phones or tablets. Twenge notes that screen-time has dramatically increased over recent years despite being empirically linked to greater unhappiness.
This leads me to a simple observation: BODIES ARE IMPORTANT! With the ease of texting and Snapchatting, we can all have more social interactions from the comfort of our own homes. But these can never be a legitimate substitute for real-life interactions which require our physical presence. We were made to interact bodily with each other.
In this vein, the original study points out that despite the delays in social and mental development, adolescents are developing earlier physically, i.e. hitting puberty at a younger age. This leads to a strange situation: “Adolescents today thus look like adults when they are chronologically younger but act like adults when they are chronologically older.” Our bodies ought not dictate when we choose to engage in adult activities but physiological development is a valuable point of guidance for social and mental development.1
The advent of the internet/smartphone world is not solely to blame for the delayed development of recent generations. Twenge and her co-author Heejung Park point to two important factors in the home: affluence and parental investment. As families become richer, there is less need (or opportunity) for a kid to fend on their own or seek stability in independence. Furthermore, as parents have fewer children, the investment in each child is higher or there is, “in the parlance of our times, more ‘helicopter parenting.’”
Looking back at my own adolescence, I am grateful for the freedom and sense of responsibility my parents bestowed on me. I value greatly my time working as a pizza delivery driver or a beach scummer.2 I am at least comfortable handling a car and I hope I am reasonably well-adjusted socially (my brother Jesuits can beg to differ in the comments). Despite my mistakes and misdeeds, I can’t imagine my teenaged years without the “adult activities”.
Photo courtesy FlickrCC user Skinny Casual Lover.
And when I think upon that night
My eyes are dim with tears.
From William Wordsworth
“Strange fits of passion I have known”
The death of Princess Diana was the first sad memory of my life. I saw my mother’s eyes dim with tears as we reclined to watch the Sunday evening news on August 31, 1997. A week later on September 6, we turned on the funeral march. The procession moved forward, but the eyes of Diana’s sons remained downcast, fixed on the ground below. The fairy tale life of the Princess of Wales had a decidedly unhappy ending.
Twenty years after the death of the the princess, the world is still grappling with the meaning of her death. ABC, National Geographic, HBO, and BBC have put out moving documentaries to commemorate Diana. Their presence and popularity tell us that her life and death have resonated profoundly with ours.
Before contemplating why the princess has touched our hearts in such a powerful way, let’s review her story. Born in 1961, Diana Spencer rapidly rose into the spotlight when she became engaged to Prince Charles of Wales, the oldest son of Queen Elizabeth II and apparent heir to the royal crown of the United Kingdom. Diana commanded public attention from the beginning of the marital announcement. She “showed an intrinsic talent for connection” and “won the people’s love even as she evolved into a global superstar.”
However, the marriage had its leaks and cracks resulting in a separation in 1992 and a divorce in 1996. Her split from the royal line had the strange effect of increasing her fame. She came to be seen as her own person, capable of shining independently. She did shine–until the abrupt car accident on that tragic summer night in Paris. A mere year after her divorce, she was dead at the age of 36. Thirty-two million people watched her funeral a week later. Then it was over.
Diana’s story is gut wrenching. It elicited an emotive response from millions in 1997, and the spectre of this milieu of feelings has resurfaced this year. It’s kind of strange. Our communal experience of the princess has conjured a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” in the words of the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth. Her charming warmth, regal discontent, and tragic end resonate with our romantic hearts. When we contemplate the life and death of Diana, we return to the basic fact that we humans are intensely emotional beings. So it was with the princess, and so it is with us.
Charm is an indescribably subtle force of emotional attraction, and Diana had it. National Geographic puts it well: “To the 750 million viewers who watched her 1981 wedding on television, Diana was a charming, down-to-earth princess.” Her smile was warm and knowable. Hers was a provincial beauty more than that of an actress or a model. At first, people wondered if she didn’t quite know what to do with herself. Her life had changed so dramatically, so quickly. In the typecast of Cinderella, she wasn’t stuffy or conceited. Rather, Diana used her newfound power to raise awareness and money for charities, becoming patroness of more than one hundred before her divorce.
Above all, the public loved her giggles. Her son Harry recalls, “All I can hear is her laughter in my head.” He steals the words from Wordsworth: “Her laughter light/Is ringing in my ears.” Remembering someone’s laughter is an emotional thing. Behind its sweet sound we perceive an individual soul overflowing with joy.
The princess bore both a charming smile and a pensive frown. Beneath her cheerful beauty dwelt the melancholic duo of anxiety and sadness. Time would reveal that there were flaws in the seemingly perfect narrative. She would speak publicly of “her troubled marriage, her struggle with bulimia, and her difficulty handling life in the public eye.” Depressing lows followed her romantic highs. Perfection was as unattainable for her as it is for us. The verse of the post-romantic poet Rubén Darío captures something of the heartrending, cryptic sorrow that haunted Diana:
The princess is sad. What is troubling the princess?
Sighs escape her strawberry mouth
That has lost its laughter, that has lost its hue.
The princess is pale in her chair of gold.
Whether a product of infidelity or not, bitterness and despondency entered her life. She had given herself over to the fairy tale, but it left her disillusioned. This emotion is all-too-human. Love and life involve risk. We occasionally experience heights that seem as marvellous as Diana’s princely wedding, but we know it is folly to cling to such a moment as if they were eternal. The princess was open about her struggles throughout her separation and divorce, and people could resonate. Through her, we see a glimpse of our own reality: there is no such thing as heaven on earth — even for royals.
Shortly after the painful divorce came the tragic car accident. It is incredibly agonizing to live through the death of a person taken before her time. Half of the world felt that it had come to know Diana in the sixteen years spanning her marriage and her funeral. The grieving process was universal. Diana’s death left everything in a state of chilling quiet that all our hearts can feel but only romantic poets can sound:
Thus Nature spake–The work was done–
How soon my Lucy’s race was run!
She died, and left to me
This heath, this calm, and quiet scene;
The memory of what has been,
And never more will be
For those of us who’ve reflected on these twenty years without Diana, the memories reopen our wounds. Emotions pour forth as we watch videos, gaze at photos, and read her story anew. It’s a distinctly human phenomenon. Her charming giggles have made us smile, her weighty tears have mingled with ours, and her tragic death has put us face-to-face with our own. She opened her heart to us with all of its feelings, and her memory invites us to do the same. May we listen to our hearts and share them with others in imitation of Diana, Princess of Wales, who in our memory rests yet nevermore shall be.