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The call arrived at 7:12am, two minutes after morning Mass ended. Sister Barb got it first; her 90’s throwback Nokia ringtone echoed in the church vestibule. Then Father Edmund’s, the ubiquitous iPhone ringtone. My pulse quickened, excited, as they both put it on speakerphone: snow day. Before the automated schoolwide recording finished, though, my gut had already turned and tumbled and I was shaking my head, mumbling. Not another one. Sister Barb smilingly said, “Have a great day!” Bah humbug, I thought.
South Dakota can’t be accused of being unprepared. We’re allotted six snow days a year without having to rob any moments from sweet, sweet June. But by Valentine’s Day this year, we used ‘em all. So you’d think that with all this practice I’d have mastered the art of the snow day, but six times I tried and six times I failed.
The first snow day: I slept in, and then ate too many pancakes, and then felt like congealed frypan grease the rest of the day. The second: my self-inflicted punishment, I rewrote my course’s vocabulary list, wrote three letters, twelve e-mails, finished two books and went back to school the next day even worse off than the day after the pancake day. Snow days three through six: utterly lost to memory, unspectacular in every sense of the word, and not even unspectacular in a refreshing sort of way.
At the twilight of day six, though, something happened. Twilight, the time of day when I’m unfailingly either prefecting a basketball game, driving a bus or going for a run- since all of these were summarily cancelled, I read the news.
Well, reading the news wasn’t new — I teach a course in Faith, Service and Justice, so the news is every lesson’s springboard. But, embarrassingly, before that snow day, I had never let the news sink in, preferring to keep it at mind’s length: Read, discuss, move on. But, dangerously, on that snow day, I let the news sink in. I couldn’t help it.
Reading the news this time, I felt it all. My heartbeat accelerated. My palms started sweating. A giant weight flung from somewhere-out-there landing squarely on my shoulders. A few articles later, I sighed, clapped shut the laptop, and walked to the chapel.
It was a snow day: I had nowhere to hide, nowhere else to be, nowhere else to go, no other work I could do. A teacher and minister, with all my children out throwing snow.
December, January and February were very, very dark for me. At first I felt a sort of darkness: inexplicable illnesses, fatigue, etc… Then I could name it, and it is less about my political views than it is about my fear. I am afraid for my family friends, my friends, and my friends’ families. Each executive order or presidential threat–despite being unsurprising–seemed powerfully surreal and crushingly violent. From friends’ faces in Syria or Chicago, my mind flicked home to the Pine Ridge Reservation and the faces of the students who themselves vocalized these fears. With two swipes of a pen, the Dakota Access Pipeline- formerly halted for an environmental review- is now promised. A giant drill is parked beside the Mníšoše, the Missouri River, poised to lay perilous pipe through the heart of life for thousands. When I think about it, I think of my students’ faces, their families’, all whose lives would be deeply threatened by a future leak.
But, it was a snow day: I had nowhere to hide, nowhere else to be, nowhere else to go, no other work I could do. Up until that snow day, my response to all of this darkness had just been work… and by that, I mean overwork: Overwork that doubled as an excuse to not read deeper. Overwork to not let it all sink in.
A clash of warm and cool air in the atmosphere took that away from me. A blizzard shut down the campus, halted my momentum of avoidance and stopped me in my fleeing tracks. The weather marooned me on a quiet campus with just the news, its anxieties, and my insecurities. So it all sank in.
I don’t remember anything about going to the chapel except that I did and that I left something there and brought something out: with this simple call to prayer, I at once confronted my fears and found the strength to keep working despite them. The next day of school was a great one. I saw the classroom anew, with its little hopes surging, its gritty conversations purging, and its collective voice proving that these fears are only part of the story… I wonder now if that energy was already there two days before, and I was just the last one on board, needing that snow day to see it.
My Bah Humbug missed something. These snow days were, in fact, gifts. But I had to learn their lessons–and I’m not just talking about the pancake situation. Now, I’m ready to forge boldly forward. God, give me another if you think I have more to learn. But not too many – I don’t want to go to school in June!
I hadn’t been listening to her translation. Like all good undergraduate Latin students, I was busy looking over the following paragraph in mortal dread of being called on next to translate in front of the class. But I finished just in time to hear her complete the sentence from Ovid.
“…nam hominium sententia fallax; for the opinions of human beings are deceptive.”
The professor, without a moment’s hesitation, replied: “Use ‘men’; ‘For the opinions of men are deceptive’. Shakespeare wouldn’t use the word ‘humans’.”
At the time, this struck many in the class as odd, if not insensitive. Hominium, from Homo, means human being; it is not gender exclusive.
When questioned on this point the professor simply replied: “Well…you know what I mean.”
Although that was nearly ten years ago, the battle for inclusivity in higher education no longer focuses solely upon language, but increasingly upon the content of the curricula itself. Students across the nation, as well as overseas, are increasingly calling for the decolonization of what has been traditionally referred to as the Western Canon; or as one student at Seattle University recently stated: “The only thing they’re teaching us is dead white dudes.”
The Western literary tradition, the hallmark of a liberal arts education, typically follows the literary and philosophical endeavors of ancient Greece and Rome and the subsequent 1,500 years of European development. As such, the vast majority of the authors in the Western Canon are, from our perspective, both white and male; a pedagogical dominance largely unquestioned in the West until the mid-twentieth century following the emergence of civil rights activism, large scale European decolonization, and successive feminist movements.
Reforming the Euro-centric curriculum to remedy the highly selective narrative of traditional academia – which frames the West as sole producers of universal knowledge – by integrating subjugated and local epistemologies. This will create a more intellectually rigorous, complete academy.
Even as someone particularly attached to the Western literary tradition, it is hard for me to ignore the glaring discrepancies of diversity in our intellectual heritage, built it would seem, upon the dual phenomena of both white privilege and male privilege. But the case against dead white dudes begs several questions which immediately complicate the otherwise stark narrative created by these student movements.
To begin with, we must ask ourselves in what sense many of these authors were “white”. White privilege, the inherent and unwritten advantages experienced by white people in contrast to people of color, depends largely upon socio-economic and political segregation which goes back no more than 500 years.
Would Plato or Aristophanes have considered themselves white? In what way does the work of Chaucer or Dante reflect white privilege in a world which claims little or no variation in skin color? For much of Roman Imperial history, it was the Northern European skin tones which represented the “barbarians,” and during the height of 5th century B.C.E. Athens, there remained a feeling of inferiority among the Greeks towards the yet dominant, and darker skinned, Persian empire. While the emphasis here is undoubtedly Western or European, it is less clear to me that it is specifically “white” in the modern sense of the term.
The paucity of women authors in the Western Canon is, sadly, the result of minimal educational resources at the disposal of most women throughout most of human history. It is notable that this is not merely a Western problem. But here again the problem does not seem to be that our educational establishment has privileged male authors over women by deliberately excluding scores of women intellectuals; but rather that for indefensible historical reasons there are simply more male authors than there are women authors.
It is clear, at least to me, that the Western literary tradition is indicative of a problem, but perhaps it’s more of an historical problem than anything else. The dominance of dead white dudes in our curricula reminds us that for most of Western history a large portion of the human experience went unrecorded. But this says nothing about the value of the Western Canon itself.
British historian Lawrence James, a living white dude, found it striking that all the principal leaders in the Indian Independence Movement had been the products of a liberal arts education in England.1 In fact, it’s hard to understand people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. without a knowledge of Tolstoy, Thoreau, or the Bible. It’s hard to understand many modern theories of social justice, universal human rights, and international law without Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Locke, or even Dickens.
It is true that Shakespeare was a white dude, but would we not lose something of the human experience which transcends his white dude-ness if he were removed from our curricula? It is interesting to note that nobody is calling for the removal of Darwin, Einstein, or Tesla from science curricula on similar grounds. Might there be something of value here which is accidental to these authors’ gender and race?
And while I remain skeptical towards some of the more superficial arguments for any wholesale destruction of the traditional liberal arts curricula, the dominance of a narrow Western male experience is a difficult fact to whitewash (forgive the pun). But this difficulty might be one point in its favor. War monuments serve a twofold purpose; to honor the dead and to remind us of what doesn’t bear repeating. For better and for worse, the Western intellectual tradition is the deposit of our collective intellectual memory, which would seem dangerous to neglect.
So in the words of some dead white dude: “That which thy fathers have bequeathed to thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it.”2
And mothers… Anyway, you know what I mean.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Marco Poggiaroni.
We’ve all been waiting for it, and now it’s here: new music from Lorde. The artist behind “Royals” and “Team” is back, and her return comes with a dramatic shift in sub-genre and theme. Melodrama is the name of the fresh album, with tracks “Green Light” and “Liability” released so far. If “Royals” once provided a craftily poetic yet affectively stoic commentary on the enthralment of fame, Melodrama now serves as a counterbalance, issuing a riveting and intimate expressionism that moves listeners through an honest mix of triumph and tears. It’s quite the transition. Let’s break down what’s happened.
every time i see “@Pontifex” i think it’s some super hyped new metal band or something
— Lorde (@lorde) September 25, 2015
“Royals”1 was part of Lorde’s first album Pure Heroine, the opus of a teenager on the edge of glory.2 She openly shuns the superficial materialism and petty Darwinism of popular culture even as she catapults into it. “We’ll never be royals,” she sings with blissful conviction, hinting at her stage name’s play on a fascination with lords, kings, and princesses. Her pre-album peasant status relegates her to living out her royal “fantasy” by seeking “a different kind of buzz.” She finds this alt-high in the pure zenith of life with ordinary friends who travel to parties by public “train,” the transport of the hoi polloi. Other VIPs roll up to the club in pristine Corvettes and stretch limos while Lorde and crew laughingly stumble off the subway. The irony is evident, for soon her career will propel her into the exclusive “love club” of the world’s finest musicians. Singing, “Glory and gore go hand in hand,” she wonders how she will leave the barbarous Coliseum of celebrity with her integrity unscathed.
“Royals” and “Team” were the hits of Pure Heroine3 that first shot4 Lorde into the arena, but true innovation came in the clashing agitation of “Glory and Gore” and the surreal euphoria of “Love Club,” two other standouts from the album. Similar to “Royals” in lyrical content, “Glory and Gore” is a cold, sarcastic critique of high society. Back-up singers crown an assortment of lines with under-the-breath raps against hollow revelry. It’s dark and intense, morbid and frigid. By the third set of verses, the instrumentation breaks apart, and a pitted dud of mis-struck percussion emphatically builds the ambience of uneasiness. Casually, in the midst of this chaos, the singer’s persona asserts, “I don’t ever think about death.” Fame gives the illusive impression of immortality. It creates a distance from what is real. Though many revel as if they were to never die, the sarcasm of “Glory and Gore” tells us Lorde understands “it’s not forever.”5
— Lorde (@lorde) June 6, 2015
After a couple-year hiatus (apart from some smaller projects), Lorde has returned to take a second look inside. Now, instead of treating the sweet disease of fame, she has turned to examine the fresh wounds of jaded love and tattered friendships.
In “Green Light,” the first release from Melodrama, Lorde’s voice has the same scratchy rawness and youthful intensity, but the tune is much more danceable than anything on Pure Heroine. Shockingly, the track opens with a somber piano coupled with an equally sombre lyric: “I do my makeup in somebody else’s car.” She is disillusioned, embittered. It all sounds so depressing, but it doesn’t stay so for very long. The beat picks up, the score diversifies, and Lorde lifts herself from the asheap of heartbrokenness. The static ballad transforms into a dynamic dance against despair.
The music video is an incarnation of this inner dynamism. The camera initially confronts an image of Lorde’s face. She looks older, and her features betray a sense of anguish. As if holding back a wince, her eyes close for several seconds. It’s emotionally hard to watch. Soon, however, piano quickens, and Lorde emerges from her isolated state, walking confidently out into the street. The walls of her inconsolable emotions no longer enclose her. Pain remains, but she won’t be defined by it. Rather, she dances even as she throws an elaborately choreographed fit atop a black SUV. She basks in red fluorescence, a tribute to her recent past. The whole thing is rather theatrical, but there is a mysterious truth about it that cuts through the drama.
In a very candid interview with Zane Lowe of Apple’s Beats 1, Lorde claims that the song is the product of many months of processing what she “wanted to say next.”6 Green Light, therefore, is not a one-off but rather a crucial part of the coordinated statement she wishes to make with Melodrama. The album title and the track hint at what’s likely to come: a rollercoaster of emotions displayed in music that embraces the climactic rifts and drops of dance pop. However, instead of producing songs that match the market, Lorde hopes to remain “a bit of a weirdo.” She affirms, “I had to tell the truth….”
The song’s brilliance is its intricate and personal transformation. It evokes hope in a rise after a fall. The pain of a broken heart is real. Its unrelenting bite traps us. It feels like our despair is inescapable. We’re shattered to pieces, yet something somehow tells us that time heals. Tomorrow is only a day away. The best of us learn from our misfortunes while retaining confidence that our vulnerability won’t always leave us hurt. Such hope takes faith. To explain, Lorde gives us an interesting, down-to-earth analogy. The song is like the journey of a drunken fraternity girl. On night one of a breakup, she is an absolute mess. She’s bawling at a party. She’s inconsolable. However, when she wakes up the next morning (or afternoon), she starts to rebuild, even if she doesn’t notice it’s happening. What’s so convincing about the narrative of the song is its reality. Lorde has had this experience. It comes from her life.
it’s the first chapter of a story i’m gonna tell you, the story of the last 2 wild, fluorescent years of my life. this is where we begin
— Lorde (@lorde) March 1, 2017
Evidently, the betrayal of love is not the sole emotional experience that Lorde enshrines in the album. The second track release is “Liability,” a song so affectively penetrating that it has taken her somewhere “she had never been before.” It opens with the same slow piano, but now there is no pivot, no joyful transformation. As if in rebellion, she stays true to herself by prolonging her state of grief. Here we find the artist’s pure expression. The world tells her to be consoled, but she is inconsolable. The world tells her not to produce such a sad and bitter song, but she does anyways. In doing so, she unearths a social pressure that often goes unnoticed: the pressure to say, “I’m okay.” The song reveals a glimpse of the meaning of the album’s title. We’ve been taught to hide our vulnerability. We’ve been instructed to paper over our feelings. We’re asked to have “our s— together,” but what if it’s not? The moment we start to be “dramatic,” people run away. They say, “What a drama queen!” Confronted with such rejection, Lorde doubles down on her emotions. She reclaims the image of the drama queen. She reclaims melodrama because melodrama is the truth of her life, and we can’t hide from the truth of what we feel.
The truth! The world is tired of lies and virtual realities just as much as it is tired of celebrity culture’s “jet planes, islands, [and] tigers on a gold leash.” There is a restlessness for reality in Lorde’s music that speaks of humanity’s restlessness for true expression. Our hearts are moonlit theaters of war–battles pitting lies and comfort against truth and love. That’s why we like Lorde’s work. It is conflictive, like we are. It is melodramatic, like we are. Amidst the soulful sounds of the young idealist, Eros and Thanatos gladiate. An impulse to life struggles against an impulse to self-destruction. There is ecstasy, and there is withdrawal. The two fight each other. The battle springs from a divided and all-too-human heart, and I’m glad this sort of heart is on display in Melodrama.
The ‘D’ subway car is packed today, which requires me to lean ever so slightly to make space for the two women who slide into the seats next to me. My eyes are focused on the book I’m reading, but my ears perk when I hear one speaking Portuguese to the other. I quickly glance down to check if I’m wearing my Brazilian soccer jacket. Nope. Relief. I can stay hidden away in my book and pretend that I don’t understand their conversation.
The irony of this moment is that I’m headed to the Brazilian parish in New York I’ve been attending since 2015. I am about to speak a lot of halting Portuguese, but the parishioners are used to my accent and the grammatical errors I know I make. Not so with these strangers.
Save it for Marisa, I think. She’s my dear friend who has been in New York for decades and loves to spoil me with food and affection. In the familiar environment of her home, my heart patters much more controllably than it does when I’m caught off-guard by unfamiliar compatriots of my first nationality.
My family’s move to Iowa from Brazil when I was 9 years old naturally brought on all kinds of uncertainties. My worries were less substantial than those of my older, teenage sisters – being a middle or high school transfer student from thousands of miles away can be brutal. My worries were easily pacified, too.
My neighbors also like to ride bikes?! The library has Roald Dahl books?!
Then there was the benefit of being an anomaly in a small-town classroom.
“He’s from Brazil?! Cool! I bet he can teach us cuss words in Spanish…or Portuguese or whatever!”
And so a new identity formed: the Brazilian soccer star. As those first years progressed, I stabilized myself in that identity while the physical and emotional chaos of my family’s big move slowly settled down.
Imagine my confusion, seven years later, upon my first visit back to São Paulo. My older sister’s friends had to look to her for a translation of the Portuguese I was speaking. Then there was the shock of being just an ordinary player of the game that had fueled so many of my vocational dreams! The caliber of competition in my brother in-law’s recreational soccer league was better than I had faced in years. “Someday you’ll have to choose whether you’re going to represent Brazil or the US in the World Cup,” my dad had playfully remarked on a couple occasions. The playfulness of that remark was sinking in.
Feeling destabilized in my identity, I retreated from superfluous interaction and plowed through the first three Harry Potter novels – in English – until I boarded my return flight. Iowa was home. Iowa was where I could be the stud Brazilian soccer player. Iowa was where I could debate with myself about which jersey I should be wearing when I notched the winning goal of a future World Cup final.
Busy in her kitchen, Marisa humors my desire to pitch in by letting me chop vegetables as we catch up. Normally, it’s just the two of us, but today she sets the table for four. My heart clenches reflexively as I realize I’ll have to converse with unfamiliar people in Portuguese.
Chill out, man, I think to myself. Nobody is going to question your “Brazilian-ness.”
And I’m right. Sort of. The evening unfolds. Conversation is engaging, company is lovely. I ask one of the guests – who has raised children here – how well her daughters speak Portuguese. I don’t remember her answer because the conversation quickly turns to my Portuguese. Damn. I asked for that.
“I don’t think he has an accent,” Marisa states. “He just doesn’t necessarily speak correctly.”
One guest responds, “Hmmmm, the accent is there. Unique, but it’s there.”
I smirk at the unfolding conversation because, surprisingly, I don’t feel insecure. The reason behind my desire to speak flawless Portuguese is to seem more Brazilian than I actually am. I want to fit a category I’ve created in my mind about what it means to be Brazilian. That confusing experience from my first return trip to Brazil as a teenager left its mark.
Around this table I sense a fragmentary freedom from the echoes of early destabilization. Who I am is what brought me to this table, not a particular nationality. Kinship with Marisa is what brought me to this table, not how correctly I can use the subjunctive tense. Deaf to that insecure voice, I palpably experience gratitude. As we break bread together, strangers become friends. Around this table I feel known, even to these two women I just met. Around this table I am not hidden away in a book but am embraced and celebrated for all that I am.
Clicks and bright flashes. Hop off the bus, take some photos, hop back on, and head to the next stop. My students saw these beautiful but sad creatures in their natural habitat. Poor Ecuadorians invited us into their homes, showing us their dirt floors, cardboard walls, and grime-covered belongings. My students took selfies.
I stood outside, appalled that my students treated these families like exotic animals, appalled at myself for not better forming my students prior to our service trip.
Last summer, I chaperoned a high school service trip for the first time, although I had experiences from college of going on and leading trips. My experience leading the Ecuador trip has made me stop and consider – Are service trips actually worth doing?
Spring break is right around the corner, so I can’t help but wonder: Can these short-term service trips be done well? Do they contradict their own aims and goals? Should we even be doing them at all?1
My trip to Ecuador mixed both a service component and an immersion component: we performed tasks to help around the community, as well as learn about the history and identity of Quito.
On the service side, we primarily completed manual labor, such as painting classrooms, preparing meals, and digging holes for new septic tanks. When students were not working on manual tasks, they would play soccer, offer piggyback rides, and read to the smaller children.
On the immersion side, students also got to learn a great deal about the culture, history, and social challenges of Quito and the surrounding region. They engaged questions of urban and rural poverty, economic division, and colonial history. They saw great works of Late Baroque architecture, indigenous arts, and incredible natural beauty.
And they took pictures. They took hundreds of pictures of all of these activities.
While selfies of piggyback rides and group shots of a completed house are by no means bad, they are incredibly incomplete. These pictures can create a mirage of superior white Americans helping to fix places and solve people’s problems. The photos often show either the brokenness of the community, or how the service trip saved them from their need. Photos might show a freshly painted community center, but they can’t capture the underlying social and economic injustices.
Photos allow us to disconnect from realities. They allow us to see people and communities at a distance, as an other. Cameras prevent us from truly engaging and dialoguing. Indeed, there is a danger that our service trip ends up being more about the images we take than the stories that communities offer. The photos become the focus, dominate the memory and treat people, culture, and places as a backdrop to the student’s experience.
These photos fail to tell stories of resilience, hope, hurt, or liberation. They tell a story of poverty tourism. Furthermore, they aren’t the only danger of short-term service trips.
Short-term service trips can easily affirm us in our comfort and privilege. We can congratulate ourselves for doing a good deed, for making a difference. We are able to brush over the long-term struggles of living in poverty and focus instead on the smiles and laughter of our brief interactions.
Even on our service trips, we bask in our comfort rather than diving into the challenging realities of poverty, sexism, racism, and oppression. But why not dive in? Why not make students incredibly uncomfortable? Why not make them squeamish, sad, heartbroken, and distraught? I and many of my students benefit from structural racism, sexism, and economic injustice. This benefit is true of a plethora of students across Jesuit education. Our service trips, however, frequently mask those benefits and our participation in systematic injustice. These trips fail when they allow students to assuage whatever white guilt they have with pictures of pick-up basketball games and house painting, without ever going any deeper.
Though there are challenges and often pitfalls, service trips can be incredibly impactful and vital in facilitating solidarity – a sense of kinship and commitment to each other’s well-being. During my freshmen year at Creighton University, I went on a spring break service trip to ShadowBrook Farm. Our group dug fence post holes in the still-frozen Nebraska soil, and I overslept my 4:30AM turn for milking the goats. Our group also spent time learning about questions of sustainable agriculture and ecological justice. This felt like a service trip done right. The communities shared stories, helped us learn about injustice, and taught us how to stay engaged beyond our week at the farm.
Sophomore year, I went on a service trip to Parmelee, SD, on the Rosebud Reservation. While we performed some service – cooking, cleaning, repairing – we spent much of our time learning about the local history and culture. What created the poverty of the reservation? Who was responsible? How did they maintain rich cultural identities? How and why do we continue trying to hide genocide? The community shared their stories and cultural practices.
In both of these trips, our coordinators deemphasized the work we were completing. Rather, the communities themselves were at the center of the trips. We realized that our work was not world-changing. It would not radically alter the lives of the people we met. The communities, however, would radically alter our lives.
I am still unsure of the value of service trips. They run the risk of merely assuaging feelings of white guilt, of patting ourselves on the back for completing nominal tasks. More sinisterly, service trips can be a way of taking advantage of the poor to gratify our need for giving back. They can be a way of making brief contact with the oppressed, a quick-fix for an otherwise privileged life.
Service trips can be wonderful if we enter with hearts open to what communities offer, rather than what we give. They introduce us to our neighbors. Service trips can make us uncomfortable, challenging our privilege and helping us question systems of injustice.
While I remain undecided on their value, I pray for the communities and students participating in service trips over spring break. I pray that their trips cause discomfort, challenge their perceptions, and offer new experiences. But most of all, I pray that students do not focus on taking the best photos to post and share, but on taking to heart the stories and reality that communities share with them.
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together…” – Lila Watson, Australian Aboriginal woman, in response to mission workers
I am living the American dream, but it’s only while people who look like Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, are living the American nightmare.
You probably already know the story about my American dream. My parents grew up in working-class and poor families. They worked hard, went to college, and made a wonderful life for my sisters and me. My parents’ dream was passed on to us. We have always had a choice: what to study, what city to live in, what friends to make, what we want our life to be about.
As white people, what we don’t know is the American nightmare. We know about it, true. We know that around midnight on a Tuesday, Sterling was selling CDs in a parking lot when police shot and killed him. We know that the very next evening, police pulled over Castile for a broken taillight and killed him while he was reaching for his driver’s license. We know Sterling and Castile were African-American men. We know the officers who shot them were white.
I actively participate in structures that are designed to keep people like me in power. What kinds of structures, you ask? Schools, for one. Research has consistently shown that the single most important factor for student learning is the socioeconomic status of other students in the classroom. As a student in primarily white, upper middle class schools – I am on the path to success while my African-American and Latino neighbors are stuck.
Jobs, for another. A 2004 study at the University of Chicago showed that candidates with stereotypically white names like “Brendan” were 50% more likely to receive a call back than those with stereotypically African-American names like “Jamal,” even when they submitted the exact same resume.
So, yes, I benefit from racism. And the police and military protect the status quo of white privilege.
Did I purposefully create this situation? No, but I absolutely benefit from the racism that recurringly generates this scenario. I don’t holler slurs, write nasty Facebook posts, or try to avoid people of color. But that’s not racism. That’s prejudice. Racism, rather,
“is the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics…that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color. It is a system of hierarchy and inequity, primarily characterized by white supremacy – the preferential treatment, privilege and power for white people at the expense of Black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, Arab and other racially oppressed people.”1
Some say that Philando Castile and Alton Sterling died because of a tragic misinterpretation, or, at worst, a couple of rogue police officers. I see it differently.
I think these two men died for the same reason that the American dream succeeds: the power structure that perpetuates both my success and their suffering. My dream is built off of the American Nightmare created for people of color. Theirs is a nightmare of poverty, mass incarceration, inadequate education, faulty healthcare, collapsed housing, and oppression. Too often, their nightmare ends in death.
In the United States, the wealth gap between whites and people of color continues to grow. In 2011, “the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings, compared to just $7,113 for the median Black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household.”2
Rampant inequality like this is violence. While many white people like me have the resources to college, Alton Sterling is selling CDs in a parking lot. Once I was pulled over for having a taillight out: the policeman was kind and the problem was easily fixed. In fact, when I showed up to court, I had my ticket waived. We saw what happened to Philando Castile.
I’m pissed about this unjust power structure. I’m sad in a way that I can barely articulate. But my emotions can hardly compare to those who have actually suffered this violence. As Michael Dyson said in the New York Times, whiteness is blindness and I can never truly understand.
If this is my American dream, I want to wake up. Waking up, however, can be startling, scary, and uncomfortable. Thinking about and praying about this reality forces me to realize that communities of color often live a constant Good Friday so that I can live Easter Sunday. But I must wake up and take action.
I refuse to live at the expense of my sisters and brothers of color. I refuse to let others live at their expense. I want to stand with the crucified.
I could tell you to write letters to politicians, march in rallies, and join activist organizations. You and I already know to do those things. But perhaps more importantly, I should get to know persons of color. It’s time for me to honestly ask myself, “When is the last time I had a conversation with a Black man? With a Latina woman? A woman of Native American descent?”
Maybe the best way to do this is to pray together. We’ve recently heard, “We don’t want your thoughts and prayers, we want your action.” But pray. Perhaps as part of Lent, pray with people of color. Pope Francis states, “Lent is the favorable season for renewing our encounter with Christ, living in his word, in the sacraments and in our neighbor.” Go worship with communities of color. Visit the communities we abandon and leave behind. Pray with those communities. Know and love people of color so to know and love Christ.
#BlackLivesMatter #PhilandoCastile #AltonSterling #SayTheirNames
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Johnny Silvercloud.
When Moonlight won Best Picture at Sunday’s Academy Awards, it was an upset: La La Land was predicted to sweep the night away – including a win for Best Picture – and for a split second, America thought it did.
Now, I think Moonlight was the Best Picture this year, and was proud that the Academy thought so, too. But La La Land received fourteen Oscar nominations and six wins. Said simply, America loved La La Land because of its charm. It managed to romanticize traffic-filled freeways, smoggy views from Griffith Observatory, and young actors and musicians trying to make it in a city overflowing with talent.
But that description suggests La La Land is a superficial feel-good movie. Is there anything in the film that draws us from entertainment to deeper reflection? Does the film have more depth to be explored? I want to suggest its charm and nostalgia point us towards gratitude.
For much of the film, we think that La La Land will follow the standard Rom-Com:
- Boy meets Girl.
- Boy and Girl fall in love.
- Life appears like it will be happily-ever-after. But it’s an unsustainable, wild dream.
- Drama ensues and Boy and Girl break up.
- But, in a moment of serendipity, fate brings Boy and Girl back together.
- And thank God, Boy and Girl live happily-ever-after. The end.
This is something different. Beyond the charm of a typical rom-com, La La Land evokes a longing for a nostalgic past. Sebastian wants to bring back the lost art of jazz by opening a jazz club. Mia aspires to be a Hollywood actress. Mia and Sebastian meet and fall in love. Typical. After they struggle together to fulfill their dreams, they have a fight. Believing her acting career is over, Mia returns to her parent’s home. We see her bedroom – covered in middle school and high school awards. We watch her ache for a time when she felt like a successful actress. Sebastian drives to Nevada to tell her she’s received an offer to make her first feature film in Paris. They’re back together. So far, so good.
They look out onto that glamorous city of stars from a vista at Griffith Park. Standing above their city of stars, they nostalgically remember the good times they had together, and then say goodbye.
They realize that perhaps, though they love each other, their dreams are propelling them in different directions. It is time for Mia to go to Paris to fulfill her acting dream. They must choose between careers and love, and they choose careers.
But this is a superficial feel-good movie, right? As their farewell scene ends, we just know that somehow they’ll get back together.
The film fasts forward. It’s five years later, and Mia is a successful actress. Sebastian has opened his long-hoped for jazz club – named Seb’s, the name Mia suggested for him. We’re waiting to see them together.
The scene shifts to Mia’s elegant home. She comes home from work to greet her child and nanny. We’re waiting for Sebastian to give her a welcome-home kiss. And then we see Mia, poignantly, has married someone else.
* * *
What makes the film memorable isn’t the charm. It’s the nostalgia scattered throughout the film, but culminating in the final scene. Mia and her husband David, out for their dinner date, end up in Seb’s by chance. She realizes it’s his club. Sebastian gets on stage and their eyes meet. And we all experience together – that moment when they wonder, what might have been.
In a beautifully shot ten-minute musical number, we see a glimpse of what could have been – if everything would have worked out as a perfect romantic comedy. But it’s a dream of another time, of what could have happened, of nostalgia for a love lost and a different path taken.
As David and Mia walk out of the club, she and Sebastian make eye contact one last time. Without speaking to one another, they say a final goodbye. Like that final moment between Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, their goodbye is more sweet than bitter. Whether or not they’ll always love each other is unclear. Perhaps, they’ll hold onto the fondest moments, often seeing one another in their wildest dreams.
Both Mia and Sebastian are better people today because of each other. And it’s clear they both know it and are grateful: Mia smiles slightly and walks out. Sebastian recognizes he’s grateful too, and begins to play the next song.
Whether it makes it worthy of a Best Picture or not, that’s the deeper meaning of La La Land. It doesn’t tackle racial inequity, sexual difference, or psychological trauma. But it does invite us to find gratitude in the path we’re on, especially when we’re confronted again with a lost someone or something. We can re-remember those moments with fondness and not sadness, with gratitude and not avarice. We can see that our lives have unfolded the way they have and there’s no other road. What we have is good enough.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Jazzuality dot com.
It’s Lent. Again. And again I think about what it is I’ll give up.
My Lenten sacrifices are almost always connected to food. At 288 pounds, it’s safe to say I’m an eater. In fact, as I’m writing this I’m eating a cheese, mayo, and Doritos on rye. And I’m having a Coke. I shouldn’t be having a Coke. I shouldn’t be having a sandwich. I’m diabetic. And it’s 1:25 in the morning.
Food has always been a struggle in my life. And so too, food is part of my Lent. My Lenten history includes giving up chocolate, soda, candy. Two Lents in a row I gave up whole meals like breakfast or lunch. Not long ago I chose to fast one day a week. And there was that one time I went paleo – nuts, fruits, red meat – stuff cavemen would eat. I took on Lent as a diet, which is not what Lent is for.
And yet, food has never failed me. It always shows up when I need it the most or when I don’t need it at all. It’s like the friend I’ve never had and yet the worst kind of friend I’d never want. Tomorrow I will wake up, check my blood sugar levels, and I will see how good this friend actually is.
It’s a Wednesday in January, 2015. I’m required to eat dinner in my community on Wednesday nights. But today I’m not feeling it. Today I’m too upset. I buried my mom a few weeks ago and I’m not adjusting well. So I’ve decided to leave.
I live on the third floor of an early 20th century walk-up in Chicago. Behind the building is the wooden fire escape I use to avoid everyone. I walk down the alley and up the street to a pizza parlor. I’ve been there before but on happier occasions.
I walk into the restaurant. Immediately I order three slices of cheese and pepperoni and the largest Coke they sell. Before I pay I snag a double chocolate chip brownie sitting in a red plastic basket near the register. I take my receipt, claim my tray, and find a table.
I proceed to inhale everything.
My reflection is in the glass of the window ahead of me. I see myself eating among the cars passing by on the other side. I look a lot like my mom. And so I see my mom eating. Tears are falling down my face. I’m experiencing the unspoken lessons of my mother playing out in my life in real time. I am eating my feelings, trying to rest in the comforting familiarity of food. But it’s not working. Food was the accomplice to my mother’s demise.
I will turn 39 in July. The same age my mom was when she married my dad 30 years ago. Glancing back on memories I notice how much I am actually like my mother. The other day I was watching TV. My right hand rested under my chin and my left hand found a place under my thigh. My legs were extended out in front of me, and my feet were rocking back and forth. I was sitting exactly like my mom. Then there’s the way I smile and laugh and wipe tears from my eyes. And that’s not even the half of it. My mother’s imprint runs deep.
My mom used food as an escape, and so do I. She may not have readily admitted this fact about herself, and I don’t want to either. But like she always said: “Actions speak louder than words.” When she was in pain the food would go in, and my mom was a woman who hurt. But don’t get me wrong, she also knew how to celebrate, and food was there to punctuate the joy. And like my mom, I hurt too. And I celebrate, just like my mom. And food is at the center of it all. I am my mother’s son.
I love how I was raised. I love who I have become and am becoming, and all of this is due partly to my mom. She laid solid foundations for me to be me. But not everything she taught me I want to keep. I want food to be the thing that sustains life, not what diminishes it.
This desire to change my relationship with food isn’t about the typical Lenten sacrifice – taking something good away for the sake of an experience of discomfort. I want to take the discomfort away so I can live better. Perhaps even longer than my mom did. Or if anything, live healthier than she did. But I’m still trying to figure that out, how to unlearn and let go, and even though it can be difficult, to not be so much like my mom.
There is a lot of bad news going around these days. From trucks driving into parades to beheadings of kidnapping victims, one’s stomach can be easily turned at the sheer badness of things. Yet in the midst of all this evil, something particularly heinous caught my eye recently: about 100 gravestones at a Jewish cemetery had been vandalized.
The photos show the stones lying supine, seemingly crying out like the blood of Abel. This truly wrenched my insides. I had heard about the similar incident in St. Louis which prompted a visit from Vice President Pence, but I admit I had not seen the photos or read an article. After my initial reaction of shock and disgust, I reflected about why this, among all the violence and gruesomeness in the news, affected me in such a way. No one was physically injured and the damage seems easily repaired, but I venture to guess that I am not the only one so offended by this act of clear hatred.
Perhaps the purity of the hatred is why it strikes me as so evil. There is no other reasonable explanation for the act or benefit to those who committed it: no money stolen to feed poor children, no personal revenge or righteous anger. It seems to have been done only to cause emotional and spiritual harm.
These despicable acts are even more heartbreaking when seen as evidence of the re-emergence of that ancient and perduring evil of anti-Semitism. The Holocaust rightly serves as a collective reminder of the danger of ignoring this current of hatred toward the Jewish people.
I think another reason I was so moved by this story is that it offended my Catholic sensibilities. The dead hold a special place in the Catholic worldview and in the cultural milieu of my upbringing. Thinking of the dead and visiting graves are treasured traditions and tasks of the Church on earth. Praying for the dead is a spiritual work of mercy and we even set aside a whole month, November, to do it.
So when I learn of such a heinous act that dishonors the dead as well as attacks our Jewish brothers and sisters, I am moved to pray for the living and the dead. I am also moved from indignation to hope by stories of the response of some folks such as the Muslims who are responding by raising money for the cemeteries. Let us stand in solidarity.. If you are interested in donating for the repair of the cemetery also, I encourage you to visit the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia website. May the souls of all the dead rest in peace.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user MJM_999.
I loved La La Land.
Yet among other better-written and more powerful films like Manchester by the Sea, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight, I never for one thought it deserved to win the Academy Award for Best Picture this year. Still, I knew that La La Land was the overwhelming favorite1 going into tonight.
And – for a moment, what America expected came true. My heart dropped with disappointment as the La La Land cast walked up the stage. While I adored the nostalgic portrayal of Los Angeles, the romanticization of highway traffic, and the musical numbers that delighted my heart, the film couldn’t communicate the deep struggles people face because of race and sexual difference. It charmed my heart, but couldn’t pierce it.
My heart lay with Moonlight. That film documents the intersection of race, class, and sexuality in emergent Miami boy Chiron. Growing up with a single-parent, drug-addicted mother, Chiron realizes early on something is different about him. So do the other kids whose treatment of him lead him down a path he couldn’t have dreamed for himself. The movie reflects life, being at the same time painful and hopeful.
The film deserved to win best picture this year.
Regardless of your film preference, the next moment was literally horrifying. Some backstage producer2 emerges on stage. Was he really collecting Oscar awards from the La La Land group?
And in a frantic moment, Moonlight was declared the real Best Picture this year.
While it was good to see a movie more important to me win the big prize, it still hurt that Moonlight’s win was literally overshadowed by a controversy of someone else’s making. This seemed a cruel irony. A movie makes (beautifully) visible the struggle of someone who has been invisible to Hollywood and its moment in the sun is stolen.
* * *
Earlier in the evening, when accepting the award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Barry Jenkins said the film seeks to speak for “all you people who feel like there’s no mirror for you” especially during these troubled days in our democracy.
Tarell Alvin McCraney whose semi-autobiographical play3 became the screenplay stood with Jenkins and proclaimed the film to be for “all those black and brown boys and girls and nongender conforming who don’t see themselves, we’re trying to show you, you, and us.”
And so, in Faye Dunaway’s Steve Harvey moment,4 the story of someone who is already nearly invisible — a black boy growing up poor trying his best to make sense of his emergent sexuality — was made less visible still. And this is a story that needs telling: how our demonizing of some traumatizes and stunts the humanity of others.
But, more importantly, Chiron’s story needs telling because it is a story of hope. It calls us to imagine that there is another world possible — one where we can break out of those early traumas to find redemption and healing. One where people can break out of categories aimed to limit, constrict, and marginalize.
That message is fragile and elusive. When we lose our focus on those whose lives are marginalized in any way, they disappear. It is so easy to allow our own insecurities, prejudices, and selfishness to propel us into ignoring people who we don’t understand. And we can lose sight of the humanity in people who we do not see. I hope this doesn’t get lost in the mix up.
It’s hard not to notice the theme of the other in recent news: executive orders, refugees and migrants, protests, racial tension within our country, and the countless occurrences of violence. Even if it doesn’t paint an overt struggle, it creates a separation between us and the other.
Thankfully, I’m Cajun. So when my faith challenges me to mercy—to encounter and love the other—I’m good. At least that’s what I thought until recently.
What is a Cajun, you ask? Think Southern Louisiana, swamps, crawfish boils, good food, hospitality, kindness, and a sort of revelry in joy including boucheries, zydeco, fais do dos, and Mardi Gras—Laissez les bon temps rouler! Hospitality and kindness are hardwired cultural values. Many times I’ve walked into a house for a short visit, been offered food, declined the offer, and yet somehow ended up with a bowl of gumbo in my hand anyway. I have had extensive experience in receiving kindness and hospitality, and I’d like to think that I’ve a fair bit of experience offering it as well.
I brought that experience to my work last year with men and women struggling with addiction and homelessness. Before I began, I could meticulously describe the economic policies and occurrences which might render someone homeless. I had studied enough of addiction to list off the failed structures in a person’s life which might force them onto the street. I knew the statistics, figures, and trends, but not the other.
My work at the center began with a somewhat awkward start. I wanted to do something to help these people, but that wasn’t where their need was. I thought in doing, that I could fix them and fix their problems. I tried defaulting to my Cajun roots—offering hospitality and kindness. It was a man named Chris who messed up my plan:
“Chris, how is your day going?” I’d politely ask. He’d respond, “Fine.”
Another day, I’d ask, “Chris is there anything I can get you? Need anything?” He’d reply, “Nah man, I’m OK.”
A week or two later, I asked, “Do you need anything from the center? Can I point you in some direction?” He looked at me and replied, “No, I’m fine.”
Nothing was working. Nothing I could do seemed appropriate or helpful. Nothing.
After weeks of not getting anywhere with him, I finally asked, “Chris, can I sit with you?” He looked at me and smiled somewhat suspiciously, “OK.”
When I sat down, I met a man who was exactly my age. He has two children he loves desperately. He had a hard time with work and family, which led to his dependence on substances and ended with him on the street. What I found, though, was not a failure of coping mechanisms or systems. I found a man who truly, deeply loved his children. He wanted more than anything—more than being clean or stable again—just to provide for them and to show them his love.
Kindness and hospitality were not what Chris wanted or needed. He wanted to talk about his children and his story. He wanted someone to spend time with his humanity and suffering… he wanted to spend time with our sameness.
Eventually, my work at the center transitioned into pastoral counseling. While often I worked on coping skills and evaluating systems of support, most of my work entailed simply listening to others’ stories and acknowledging their humanity.
What Chris and others needed was not stuff I could ‘do’ for them, but they wanted to be reminded that they were loved and still human after all they had been through. I needed to listen to their joys and sufferings… and, in response, offer mercy: genuine encounter and love. And here is my quick confession: mercy was a lot harder than kindness and hospitality.
What I knew of economics, addiction, or the laws didn’t mean that I understood mercy. I needed to let a face, an individual, break my heart. Chris’s life and story were much messier than just facts, and at times it was difficult just to hear some of his struggles.
I’m Cajun. I have good food, celebration, and joie de vivre flowing in my veins. I’m hardwired to be polite, kind, and hospitable—but that’s not quite mercy. Being Cajun is not enough. I am Christian, and so I’m called to more than hospitality or kindness. I have to encounter and love the other. If Christian is truly part of my identity, I should be hardwired for mercy. To sit with the other, to meet Chris and others and listen to their stories. I am called to mercy: to encounter and to love the other.
TJP sat down with Laura Field and Austin Hart, founders of Real News Revival, to learn about how they are working to promote good journalism despite the proliferation of “fake news,” and how they “trust that even a small effort will make a difference.”
What is Real News Revival?
Laura Field [LF]: The Real News Revival is a new organization, devoted primarily to getting more people out of their media bubbles, reading (relatively) reliable sources of news.
Austin Hart [AH]: We want to spark a lasting civic commitment to journalists and journalism in a healthy democracy. If we honor and respect their work, then we have to do whatever it takes to keep them afloat.
What does Real News Revival do?
[AH] Our goal is to celebrate and support quality journalism. First, we ask anyone who values investigative work to support it actively through subscriptions. At a time when even major news organizations are in layoffs, we have an obligation to pay for the news we depend on. We advocate a buy-one-give-one approach: treat yourself to a subscription and give one away. Real News Revival is happy to help you at both stages. We maintain a list of “Real News Outlets,” and we donate newspaper and news magazine subscriptions to shelters, schools, hospital waiting rooms, etc. (learn more about our New Year Revival campaign).
Second, we promote philanthropic support for investigative journalism. In the same way that donors fund endowed chairs at universities, we want to help committed citizens create endowed research positions or investigative teams in newsrooms throughout the country.
Why did you start it?
[AH] We didn’t like the focus of the conversation after the election about fake news: how can we make it so everyone knows fake news is fake? Trying to ban fake news or label stories fake just seemed like the wrong approach. It’s too easy to shout “fake news” at information we don’t like, and that just amplifies the problem (as we’ve seen in the last month). So we wanted to do something positive instead. Let’s celebrate real news. Let’s support the work we depend on to understand the world beyond our daily experience.
[LF] Our aims are nonpartisan, but there’s no getting around the fact that Donald Trump’s election is a sign of increased polarization and political uncertainty among the American public. We are worried about the state of civic discourse in the country. There is a lot of anger and frustration on all sides, and not enough listening, thinking, and talking to one another. We think good journalism can work as a sort of compass for the broader discussions that we need to be taking on.
What is “fake news”? Is it a new phenomenon?
[AH] Fake news is a story that aims to deceive the reader. It isn’t just that the information, or some of it, is incorrect. What distinguishes fake news from simple misreporting is that fake news is incorrect on purpose. Purveyors of fake news want to blur the lines between truth and fiction, to make us distrustful of information (true or not) that doesn’t fit our prior understanding of the world. In essence, it overwhelms our capacity to make sense of the world around us.
Fake news isn’t unique to one presidential candidate, political party, or era. Our second president, John Adams, faced a fake news crisis that prompted the Sedition Act. The yellow journalists of the late 1800s waged what we might consider a fake news campaign in the lead up to the Spanish-American War.
[LF]We know that the motives of the authors are not always political. Sometimes these people just want to write something that will get a lot of clicks so that they can make money off the advertising. To get a lot of clicks, stories have to appeal to people, and the trouble is that people aren’t always attracted to pleasant, true things. Kittens seem to be the exception here. History tells us – and Plato, too – that human beings tend to love scandal and intrigue and drama and extreme emotional upset – not to mention affirmation of their most dearly held beliefs and prejudices. People love scandal, especially when it involves the ‘other’ side.
Second, for fake news to ‘work’ and get the most clicks, it can’t just be scandalous tabloid, and it can’t just be satire: it has to look real. So, the real art of creating fake news involves, I would assume, finding that sweet mix of salaciousness and believability that both entices and persuades. They are exploiting a weakness of human nature.
What has been the role of fake news in recent months?
[LF] This is a loaded question, and it’s impossible to know exactly the effect that fake news has had. But throughout the election a lot of false stories were put out that got a lot of attention, and they seem to have been written with the intention of misinforming the public and ultimately influencing their vote choice. There are some alarming statistics about how widely read some of the stories were, and lots of concern too about where the stories were originating.
[AH] We don’t see much value in searching out and shouting down stories as “fake news.” We’d rather celebrate the good and important work that real journalists still do every day around the world.
What made you think that you could make a difference?
[LF] Well, it’s more that we felt we had to try. There are plenty of examples of individuals making a big difference in the world, but we won’t flatter ourselves yet. We want to see if we can make this take off, and if it doesn’t work out, then we’ll learn from it and be in a better position to be more effective next time. Also, the press has seen major shifts and fluctuations in the past, so we think it’s worth trying to revive the industry even though it seems to be faltering.
How has the effort gone so far?
[AH] It’s been exhilarating, and slow and difficult, and pretty rewarding. We’ve been surprised how hard it is to reach people in meaningful ways and to get noticed.
[LF] We are committed to working on this incrementally over the course of the next year and seeing where it goes.
Who are y’all?
[AH] Expert revivalists! Actually we’re college professors, though neither of us teach journalism, or revivalism. We’re just really committed to finding simple ways to promote a thriving press in this country.
[LF] We both have PhDs in political science, but approach politics from very different perspectives. For all our differences, we both think reason is really important and that you can actually make a lot of progress in understanding – including political understanding – by reading, and thinking, and talking things through in a spirit of openness. The key thing though is that you have to be open to changing your mind.
Can ordinary individual citizens make a difference? What advice would you give someone passionate about an issue but who feels powerless to effect change?
[LF]I would advise them to try not to wallow in that feeling of powerlessness but instead to trust that even a small effort will make a difference. I think we are seeing a civic awakening across the political spectrum, and this is one great outcome of the election. Take heart in the actions of those around you, try to be good to your fellows, spend time reading and listening, and put your energy where your passions and talents meet.
Where can we go to find out more?
Do I love Trump?
As we celebrate Presidents’ Day, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about our new President, and this is a question I am honestly struggling with. Do I love him? What does it mean for me to love him?
Surely I am called to love him, just as I am called to love my brother and my sister, the homeless beggar by my school, the driver that cut me off, the undocumented immigrant, the unborn child, a convicted felon, an investment banker, my out-of-the-closet friend, and the Jesuit in my community that gives homilies that run too long.1
Admittedly, some of the people on that list are harder for me to love than others. And sure, I find myself wondering what it even means to “love” them. But I don’t question the fact that I’m called to love them all.
Do I love Trump?
Very few people, it seems to me, are just lukewarm about our President. Partisanship and polarization in our country have reached new heights. People have taken to the streets en masse to advocate for women’s rights and protest Trump’s executive orders. Meanwhile, participants in the March for Life expressed a sense of hopefulness with the start of the new administration and the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Fury in many, hopefulness in others. And a monstrous gap between them.
It is this polarization that provokes such strong reactions to a comment like…
“I love Trump.”
What does it mean: to “love” Trump? Despite the abundance of words in the English language, we apply the word “love” in such different contexts that its meaning can be tough to decipher.2 In this article, I am focusing on the Christian sense of “love” from the Gospel call of Jesus.3
The prolific Christian author C.S. Lewis wrote that in the Christian sense, “love is not an affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” By Lewis’s understanding, “to love someone” according to the Gospel call is not the same as “to like someone” in affectionate terms. Nor is it the same as to agree with them, or follow them, or support them, or vote for them. It leaves room for disagreement and even dislike.
To love Trump, then, does not mean “he’s my ideal president” nor “I agree with all of his policies.” Instead, it could be re-phrased as, “to wish the best for him.” That seems to be an easier question for me to answer. I do wish the best for him and for his Presidency. I wish the best for our country in his care. I wish the best for the world during the duration of his time in office. In that sense, I feel comfortable saying it: yes, I love Trump.
What does loving Trump look like?
Loving Trump means celebrating his victories and any progress that comes during his presidency: whether that involves protecting the lives of the unborn, investment in infrastructure, job creation or a rising stock market. Loving Trump means not sinisterly wishing that everything goes wrong during his time in office to prove he was unfit or a poor choice.
Loving Trump means looking for common ground as a starting point. If we want to break down the barriers of divisive partisanship and polarization, we have to be able to work together in relationships rooted in love even when we disagree on important topics. Today we can recall the efforts of the great American President Abraham Lincoln to bring together a diverse cabinet of advisors from different political parties. It wasn’t always pretty, but it helped create compromise. What a far cry from the echo-chambers we now tend to occupy and the one-side cabinets our political leaders construct.
Loving Trump means praying for him. For this, I find inspiration in the early Jesuits. St. Ignatius, the founder of the order, wrote letters of instruction to early Jesuits about befriending nobles in order to advocate for justice, and he encouraged fervent prayers for royalty and political leaders, including and especially those that opposed the Church. With the great influence leaders have in the lives of so many, they need our prayers that God’s love might manifest itself in their leadership.
What does “loving Trump” not mean?
Loving Trump does not mean I have to be indifferent or approving in regard to all his actions as President. I wish the best for him, but I also have my uncertainties and fears. From executive orders banning many immigrants and refugees to the threat to repeal expanded health care, many of Trump’s policies have set off alarm bells for me, as well as many leaders in the Catholic Church.
Loving Trump doesn’t mean I have to abandon my principles or passively accept his policy choices. Rather, loving him should be guided by my faith-rooted principles. Loving him should include raising my voice in objection to actions he might take against the common good, against the poor and marginalized, and against the care for our common home.
When we talk about leaders (political, corporate, or otherwise), we have to recognize the ways their actions have implications beyond themselves. A president’s decisions affect millions of other lives. Our call to love an individual does not supersede our call to love all people, with particular concern for the most marginalized (also a Gospel call).
How then do we advocate for the marginalized? Resistance and protest are essential on issues of justice, but it’s important to remember that they are most effective when grounded in nonviolence and love. A combination of violence (in language or action) and hatred undermines the core values which form the basis of such resistance.
In Pope Francis’s message on the World Day of Peace last month, he wrote about this very theme. “Active nonviolence is a way of showing that unity is truly more powerful and more fruitful than conflict…Certainly differences can cause frictions. But let us face them constructively and nonviolently, so that ‘tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity,’ preserving ‘what is valid and useful on both sides.’” Active resistance should involve unity, not polarization; nonviolence, not conflict; love, not hate.
“Love Trumps Hate” has been a popular slogan for anti-Trump protesters. We all need to take that message seriously and confront the hatred that we carry, regardless of our political ideology. Protesters risk falling into the very trap they are protesting against and harboring hatred: for Trump and his supporters. The truth is that people on all parts of the political spectrum have been guilty of inciting hate and exclusivity. We are all sinners; we all need to grow in love. Because ultimately love – a love oriented towards justice and truth – really does trump hate.
We are called to love one another. We cannot too easily dismiss this call. It is challenging and outright exhausting at times. But it can also be world-changing. It is radical: we are called to go so far as to love our enemies. Like or dislike Trump, friend or foe, we are called to love him. To wish the best for him. To oppose any injustices, yes. But also to celebrate when he brings justice. To pray for him. Yes, to love him.
It might not be easy, but then, who said it would be?
I have made up my mind: I will love Trump. Will you?
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Gage Skidmore.
It’s been a thirty-minute grading break, and here I am now: furious, sad, exhausted, confused, and deeply torn… I felt obliged to read the comments on an article about the attempt to sell off federal lands. But, it left me wondering… Why do I hesitate to read comments on a news article? Why am I stuck wondering what sparked someone’s Facebook discussion? Why do I linger on infuriating Tweets? Why do I walk away from social media at times, feeling exhausted, angry, or less myself? Is this even good for me? … It sure hasn’t felt like a break.
Social media seems to be bursting at the seams with opinions on recent stories ranging from fights over vaccines to #NoDAPL to SNL’s recent work, and the tenor of the conversation often carries a bitter edge.
I try to engage the conversation when I read news, blogs, and commentaries (especially TJP). But, it doesn’t take long on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or any other feed for me to begin to question: What am I doing? Should I have liked that? Should I have made that comment? Am I making things better or worse? Why do I feel so stressed, exhausted, and despairing?
These are difficult questions, but thankfully I know some old wisdom to help answer modern questions: the Examen Prayer.1 The prayer reviews a person’s day, or a portion of their day, seeking to look at “movements,” meaning growth towards God or away from God. Ignatius encourages people to look at these movements within their lives without judgement, and to use that awareness to help them continue moving towards being better and towards God.
The Examen is a helpful tool for evaluating my engagement with social media. Praying more closely with the way I read, the way I respond, and the way I engage the discussion will offer some guidance. Perhaps, I can work towards growing closer to others, to being more myself, and to moving more towards God.
Navigating Social Media, with God
I. Begin, in Gratitude:
- Take a moment to dwell on one genuine encounter on social media: a conversation with a friend or loved one, a laugh or inside joke, a moment of joy and/or grace, a good memory …
- Dwell with that moment, savoring it as a moment of gift and grace from God.
II. Review, with God: (Here are some questions to help.)
- Ask are my actions, likes, and comments on social media making me more… me?
a) Do my actions show my true self? Do they hide behind a keyboard, or do they match what I would say or do in real life?
b) If I read my comments or actions aloud, or out of context, would they seem angry or kind?
c) Does my activity on social media reflect my values? Does my use of social media contribute to my growth as a person or hinder it?
- Ask do my actions, likes, and comments on social media bring me closer to others?
a) Does my presence on social media contribute positively or negatively to the tone of the internet? Do I acknowledge the good intentions of others, or do I assume the worst in their comments?
b) When I comment or like something, is it an attempt to continue a discussion or to force my opinion into the conversation? Do I seek understanding and encounter, or am I seeking to preach?
c) Do I see people as people on social media, or does my use encourage me to objectify their opinions, bodies, or humanity? Does my activity on social media acknowledge the humanity of the other person or do treat others as “less than” with my actions?
- Reflect, does my use of social media bring me closer to God?
a) Does my activity on social media help my grow in faith, hope, and love? Do my actions on social media make me a holier person? Do I seek out images or messages which undermine my faith or values?
b) Do I seek out opinions which upset me? Do I filter out all messages except for those I agree with? Does social media make me more cynical or sarcastic?
c) Do I read or respond in ways which I would be proud to acknowledge before God? Do I invite God’s guidance and input into my actions on social media? Do I activity seek God’s work on social media?
III. Process the review with God.
- Take a few moments to sit with the reactions to the questions and the probing of your activity on social media. Are there moments or actions or emotions which you notice?
- Without judging those moments as good or bad, simply invite God’s presence and guidance into your reflection. How is God calling you to respond? Is there something God wants you to celebrate? Is there something God may be calling you to change in the future?
IV. Move Forward, in Gratitude.
- Briefly close your prayer in thanks to God for allowing you this time to review your social media activity. Also, ask for God’s guidance moving forward.
- Take a moment to resolve, with God’s help, to move forward more graciously, prayerfully, and lovingly in your activity and time on social media.
- Perhaps, you can close with a short prayer such as…
God, You have given me gifts and opportunities to grow. Continue to work with my heart to allow these opportunities on social media, to become moments which draw me closer to You… closer to others… and closer to the person You have called me to be. Guide me so that I can responsibly use these opportunities and gifts for Your greater glory. Amen.
A special thanks to our TJP Contributors, Ken Homan, SJ, & Colten Biro, SJ, for compiling the reflection and Examen. Previous writings and biographical information of either author can be found on their author pages by clicking their names.
It’s easy to think of love on Valentine’s Day. It is, after all, a day we dedicate entirely to the saccharine, stuffed teddy bears gripping stuffed hearts, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, and in Chicago, heart-shaped deep dish pizza. There are, for one day, endless romantic professions. I cannot survive without you, they say to each other. My heart is yours. I will never leave you. My gift to you is my whole self, the very blood pumping through my body more quickly when you’re around.
My love isn’t exactly directed that way. I spend my days with college students. I teach and tutor and advise and support and plan and plan and plan. It never ends. It is totally unbridled and exhausting. Some days, I’m not sure I’m going to make it. And so on Valentine’s Day I, as I do on every other day, carry on wondering where the fullness of my love will be drawn.
My church is a humble black parish in the West Haven neighborhood, just a few blocks from where the Bulls play. The church has a primary school attached to it, and last week, a group of students were slated to take the lead in providing voices for the service. They would offer the readings, the prayer intentions, and when they finished they would return to the choir and sing. They were all girls, young and bright and bouncing, happy to have a place in front.
One of them wore pink-stemmed glasses and had a pile of thick braids on top of her head. She approached the altar and bowed awkwardly, a deep and robotic gesture she was clearly coached into making. She went to the book of scripture, loudly adjusted the microphone, and slowly began: “A reading…from the book…of the prophet…”
And then, a gaping pause – she looked to the priest, and then to a white lady in the congregation, her teacher maybe – she didn’t know how to say Sirach. Old women in the pews leaned forward, gripping the stained wood, sensing her hesitation. They called out to her – “Speak, little sister! Proclaim that word!”
“Sigh-RACK,” she said, unafraid and unashamed, encouraged by those around her to keep going. She finished, “the word of the Lord,” and returned to her seat beaming, legs kicking above the floor too far away for her feet.
Then the choir kicked in. They were, with the exception of one girl who’s good with a tambourine, a timid group. They barely moved their mouths, and while the piano, drums, organ and trombone stomped out a joyful noise, these girls’ voices were nearly drowned out by sound bouncing around the vast interior of the worship space.
As the service continued, the priest took to the altar and began offering ancient prayers that have the power to change bread and wine into body and blood. As he prayed, I noticed all these girls in their school uniforms. They were mouthing the words of these prayers in unison with the priest. Through the priest, God consecrated that moment, but these girls confirmed it.
And I realized – I wanted these girls to have everything – long, happy lives, feasts with family on Sunday afternoons, a city street they can stroll down free of fear. I wanted to give them my whole heart, all my love, all my energy, all my time. The Mass ended with a gospel song. The words are clear and true, and became my prayer: You are important to me – I need you to survive.
My love rests with these girls who face tremendous adversity in their lives. And more broadly, with all people who have been subjected to the very worst things our world is offering – poverty and racism and needless death. When they sing and read and pray, they bring vitality and joy. They show me their worth and show me my own. They draw me out of myself and into a realm of community and compassion that reminds me of what it means to live for the other. Not just one other, but many. To say to them that I cannot survive without them, that all my heart is theirs, that I will never leave them, that my gift to them is my whole self, the very blood pumping through my body more quickly when they’re around.
My life may be unbridled and exhausting at times, and so is my love. But, it will never go away. It is relentless. And so are they. And so, I must be.
If I were lost in the woods, I would probably die after a few hours. I know nothing about wilderness survival.
Fortunately, I know someone who does. Well, kinda know. I’ve never met him. He lives in Australia. I live in Boston. But I watch his incredible skills on YouTube! He is The Man. (Seriously, commentators just call him “The Man” because he never reveals his name.)
The premise of the Primitive Technology channel on YouTube is rather simple. The Man makes items like charcoal, a bow and arrow, or a forge blower.1 He uses no modern tools or materials. His resourcefulness puts MacGyver to shame:
“Primitive” should be in scare quotes. Though The Man creates things with the simplest of materials, he uses great film equipment to produce sleek videos. He also learns many of his skills on the internet.
Primitive Technology is different from almost everything else on YouTube. The Man never speaks. The only sounds one hears are the rustling of leaves, the chirping of birds, or the chopping of wood.
I first learned about Primitive Technology from a relatively “primitive” form of communication – the essay. Jennifer Kahn in the New York Times writes:
Fans often describe the videos as meditative, or even therapeutic. (“Your videos are the most beautiful thing I have seen on the internet,” one person writes. “They make me feel serene. No talking and no rubbish — just plain, simple work.”) Watching them, especially amid the clamor of YouTube, can feel like leaving a crowded party and stepping out into the cool night air.
Kahn’s description fits my own experience of watching Primitive Technology. It also reminds me of one of Pope Benedict XVI’s messages for World Communications Day. He wrote:
Attention should be paid to the various types of websites, applications and social networks which can help people today to find time for reflection and authentic questioning, as well as making space for silence and occasions for prayer, meditation or sharing of the word of God.
The Man does not overtly share the word of God in his videos; he’s busy acting like David and throwing rocks with a handcrafted sling. Still, unlike so much of what bombards my eyes and ears online, Primitive Technology makes me feel at peace.
Of course, Primitive Technology is sort of absurd. Rather than getting off my butt, going to the woods, and building something, I sit in the comfort of my home watching a carefully edited YouTube video of someone else doing work.
Perhaps even worse, I may feel like I have accomplished something when I’ve done jack squat.
Still, while technology often disconnects us from nature and from silence, The Man reminds us that it can also be used to reconnect us with God’s creation and a little more peace and quiet.
And Primitive Technology is not the only example of how we can find a peaceful place online. Apps like Calm have helped many of us get in the habit of meditation or centering prayer. Fr. James Martin and others have offered one-minute retreats that simply show off God’s handiwork:
Of course, actually spending time in our common home is far better than watching The Man build a tiled roof hut.2 Still, online sources that help me pause and rest a while can be part of a healthy digital diet.
And who knows, they may motivate me to turn off my computer and spend some time outside. They may even help me to pray.
– // –
For an excellent but more negative take on our technology habits, check out Four Reasons NOT to Read This Article by Joe Simmons, SJ.
“Four Reasons NOT to Read This Article” sounds like a title meant to provoke your interest.
It is. Internet-1, You-0.
But aside from that, not reading another article online is probably good advice.
Let me explain.
One recent weekend morning, I spent five hours consuming articles and video clips online. Like many idle cyber flaneurs, I glutted myself with an uneven mix of brain vegetables and empty-carb junk food. Longer think pieces on politics, shorter news articles, a few SNL skits to lighten the tone, snippets from bumbled press conferences…whatever shiny things crackled and popped on Youtube, the New York Times, Twitter, and the Atlantic.
As I sat in pajamas, watching the sun climb then disappear over my house, I found myself growing…numb. I was not enjoying this lounge-fest, but I couldn’t summon the energy to pull out of my Internet Sloth Spiral either. My phone, with its brand new battery, was flagging – it had quickly gone from 100% to Power Save Mode — and it let me know of this depressing fact. My soul was hovering around 20%, as well.
“Good grief…look at your life!” I thought — and forced myself outside for an afternoon run.
* * *
I submit, for your consideration, some facts about our collective internet consumption:
- 2.9 billion Google searches are made every day.
- There are 966 million unique websites in existence.
- 37,000 of those sites are hacked daily.
- 2.7 million blog entries – like this one – are posted every day.
- WordPress alone hosts 76.5 million blogs, including The Jesuit Post.
- 75.1% of online Americans access the internet and social media through mobile devices. The internet is with us wherever we go.
- 56% of internet traffic comes from robots and spammers; only 44 percent comes from humans.
And perhaps most alarming for me: a 2016 Nielsen Company audience report found that adults in the United States now spend an average of 10 hours and 39 minutes in front of their screen(s) each day. This included tablets, smartphones, home computers, multimedia devices, work laptops, video games, radios, DVDs, TVs, DVRs…
Just let that number sink in a for a hot minute. 10 hours, 39 minutes, every day.
“Not me!” you protest, rather quickly. Well, me neither, I say. I would never spend that much time in front of a screen! Me, a lover of books, poetry, art, and face time with interesting people. Me, a physically active adult. -ish. Me, a man studying for the priesthood, who — per St. Ignatius’ over-laundered wisdom — aspire to a “discerned use of all created things…”
And yet, there I sat: frittering away five consecutive hours on a pleasant morning, just because I had no commitment pressing me to engage the non-pajamaed world outside.
* * *
10 hours, 39 minutes? Phhh…not me. Could it be? I submit four moments1 when screen time sneaks up on us each day. It begins when I…
1. Wake Up! Let’s review a typical start to my day:
- Wake up to a smartphone alarm, which opens unto the Magical World of Internet.™
- Check for new texts, the day’s weather, refresh emails.
- Skim news pushed to the phone from around the world.
- Re-watch videos of diapered nephew toddling and speaking adorably, growing wistful.
I’ve already sacrificed 30-45 minutes to this glassy demigod, before I’ve even gotten out of bed. Yes, but what about when you’re out of bed and working early? Certainly that means less time spent in front of a screen! We turn then to…
2. Daylight Screenings Time. Even on days when I have graduate classes and reading, most of it is planted in front of my laptop:
- A few hours of distracted PDF reading and Canvas posts for class; followed by
- Three hours of classroom screen time; plus
- Two-to-three hours spent emailing throughout the day…flitting between this or that site…iMessaging friends and family…writing a homily, or a blog post, or dragging my feet to pen a short essay.
This Blended Screen Time (hereafter “BS Time”) offers neither focused productivity, nor restorative leisure. Rather, BS Time leaves us feeling distracted, unproductive, and pulled in different directions. Which is compounded by…
3. Me, Myself and iPhone. None of this screen time takes account of the dozens of unconscious phone checks throughout the day (yes, dozens). Who hasn’t felt the endorphin rush from an incoming text message? Who doesn’t “refresh” their inbox every half hour, like a slot machine junkie hoping for a big haul? We wait with muted panic for some email – any email – to come in, marked bold! Bold with newness!
And when there are no new texts or emails (criminy, not even work emails?) — we wonder, just for a moment, if anyone remembers we exist.
Isn’t all this technology supposed to make us feel more connected? Why do we feel, to borrow a term from MIT professor Sherry Turkle, alone together? Oh well. Let’s check Facebook and Instagram to see if we can get an emotional contact-high from someone else’s well-curated life. What’s this? Up-to-the-minute political soapboxing? Someone skiing in Denver with kittens? An ad for Dollar Shave Club? Why do I do this, again?
4. Nighttime and Netflix. After a long day of distracted, semi-productive BS Time, it’s nice to have a measurable physical task before bed, like folding the laundry, or cleaning the bedroom. But gosh, it sure is quiet! Why don’t I turn on an old 30 Rock, or see if a new episode of Young Pope or Veep is online yet? An hour or two later, the amped up rods and cones of my retinas finally unplug from my iPad. But that odd blue light, which has oversaturated the retinas, keeps the mind spinning in its hoary afterglow. I find my addled brain wondering,
Is it possible that I just spent 10 hours in front of screens today?
And if I didn’t, doesn’t an average of 10+ hours mean that a lot of other Americans spend more than 10+ hours every day in front of screens?
* * *
You might scoff at all this, or shake your head in pitying silence, or turn away in knowing horror. But…I’d venture to say that these Pavlovian pings and sad trifles texture the daily life of many American young adults. Is this really life? Am I just being an ornery Troglodyte, the likes of whom I challenged just last year here?
I don’t know for sure, but I find it telling that Steve Jobs strictly limited his kids’ screen time. This is telling, but not surprising. I doubt McDonald’s execs encourage their kids to eat a lot of fast food, either.
I could expend a lot more time here suggestion habits for you and me to get off the internet, and go outside. To not start our day with a smartphone. To ditch Facebook. I could probably write an irresistibly clickable “5 Ways to Enjoy Your Life More…[Alec Baldwin could NOT believe #3!].”
But, the internet can not solve your problems for you, which might be the best reason not to read this article. I submit that the root of our collective problem is that we have been conditioned to turn to the crowd-sourced wisdom of the internet to tell us how to live our life away from the internet. There is a cruel irony here: like McDonald’s ads that remind us to be active between fattening bites, our smartphones deliver addictive content with one hand, and pesky reminders to “Sit Less. Move More. Get some exercise!” with the other. Like a cruel parent or a manipulative spouse, the internet giveth — and the internet taketh away. The internet, and the snake oil vendors who capitalize on its seductive sway, have little reason for you and me to unplug.
* * *
I trust you see where I’m going here. What would spending a full day — how about this Saturday? — totally unplugged be like? What desires spontaneously emerge through the dissipating mental fog? I submit that you and I already know what we really want to do, if we didn’t have Apple-sponsored Stockholm Syndrome ten hours a day. So…
What will you do? Discuss ideas over coffee with a friend? Pen a note to your sister? Take a long stroll with a neighbor? Purge your basement or attic? Perhaps — gasp — spend an afternoon enjoying the pleasure of your own company?
“All of humanity’s problems,” Blaise Pascal writes, “stem from our inability to sit quietly alone in a room.” If he’s right, then the problem is not seductive screens, or the internet’s siren song; those are just modern-day symptoms of humanity’s eternal issue: a deep-seated fear of solitude.
And that, dear reader, is some good food for thought.
Tomorrow, your friend and mine Michael Rossmann, SJ offers a counterpoint to my assessment of screen time.
Title image by Flickr user afromztoa is available online here.
Image of Apple products by Flickr user Jesús G. Flores is available online here.
The Recording Academy has yet again lost my ballot for the Grammy Awards in the mail. Thankfully, I’m willing to share some of my notes on several of the nominations for the 59th Annual Grammy Awards. Perhaps, some Jesuit guidance will help the voting members.
Record of the Year Nominations:
“Hello” by: Adele
“Formation” by: Beyoncé
“7 Years” by: Lukas Graham
“Work” by: Rihanna, featuring Drake.
“Stressed Out” by: Twenty One Pilots.
And … My Winner Is: “Hello” by: Adele
Who doesn’t love to belt your heart out with Adele? Certainly, her song “Hello” deserves recognition for its ability to be sung at high volumes in the privacy of your car on the way to and from work. Yet, besides its shower-anthem quality, the song hits a theme worth recognizing: reconciliation.
The song begins with a double acknowledgement: that there is “a difference between us,” and that even if “time’s supposed to heal ya … I ain’t done much healing.” In that tension, Adele belts out a “hello from the other side,” demonstrating her desire to reach across their differences. She acknowledges that it’s hard, “but at least [she] can say that [she’s] tried.” The peace and reconciliation Adele seeks is not some sentimental recreation of the past, but rather a resolution of the remaining tension between them. It’s healing, not denial.
Adele’s desire for reconciliation, conversation, and healing seem so apt for our current national and international tenor. Adele’s “Hello” calls us towards a spirit of reconciliation and healing, and that should earn her Record of the Year.
Album of the Year Nominations:
25 by: Adele
Lemonade by: Beyoncé
Purpose by: Justin Bieber
Views by: Drake
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by: Sturgill Simpson
And… My Winner Is: Lemonade by: Beyoncé
Revolution occur within hearts before it occurs in cultures and societal structures, so I am struck by the power within Beyoncé’s album Lemonade which seeks both kinds of revolution. It’s an album in the true sense: a cohesive and directed whole, rather than a random accumulation of songs. Each song on the album has a music video and these piece together to form a feature-length narrative. The combined power of the lyrics, imagery and symbolism aim forcefully at empowerment over racial and gender injustices.
There is a raw power present in the lyrics, and often a raw content, wherein Beyoncé repurposes the language of oppressive structures and prejudices into a new expression of power.
In her music video for “All Night,” Beyoncé claims that “with every tear came redemption, and my torturer became my remedy.” Certainly, there is an honest suffering acknowledged, but somehow she finds strength; even more, she finds a “remedy” by recycling the pain into power. We see this turn in “Formation,” where she takes negative self-images caused by racial prejudice and re-owns them: “I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” What was an insult by the dominant culture, she owns as a preference. The linkage between the nose and the Jackson Five also hints towards commercial and cultural success. It all points towards a revolution of hearts.
I’m not usually a fan of Beyoncé’s music, and Lemonade is a bit more explicit in language and content than I am terribly comfortable with. Yet, her statements towards justice—particularly in liberating women and black America—represent a battle cry for revolution within hearts and minds. For that, her album merits recognition.
Song of the Year Nominations:
“Formation” by: Beyoncé
“Hello” by: Adele
“I Took a Pill In Ibiza” by: Mike Posner
“Love Yourself” by: Justin Bieber
“7 Years” by: Lukas Graham
And… My Winner Is: “7 Years”—Lukas Graham
In Lukas Graham’s “7 years,” the sing‐along–friendly meter and rhythm can hide the deep struggle to capture and hold gratitude for people in our lives. The song retraces a life that has past and the hope of what the future holds. The song does this, not simply recounting events or even struggles, but by capturing the voices and advice of his parents: to find good people to hold onto in life—friends and lovers. At different ages and different challenges within the song, it’s those people who help him along. They help him make life worthwhile, and they help him make the world warmer.
There is a gratitude for those people and moments which define his life. At times it’s a bittersweet gratitude for those he’s “had to leave behind,” and for that he sings, “My brother I’m still sorry.” Yet, even the pain holds a bit of fondness, as it reminds him of those people who supported him along the way. It’s a beautiful struggle: to move on and to still hold our past relationships as treasures. The song’s rhythm invites us to sing, but also invites us to remember the progression of time, our own progression through life. Reflecting with him on these stories—and our stories—we continue “learning about life,” remembering our past gifts and eagerly anticipating the gifts still to come.
Graham beautifully intertwines the gratitude for our past with a renewed hope for our futures. For inviting us to participate in the joy of this insight, “7 Years” warrants Song of the Year.
When Jon Stewart announced that Trevor Noah was going to take over The Daily Show in fall of 2015, my first reaction was “who the heck is Trevor Noah?” He wasn’t a regular correspondent so I wasn’t too familiar with him. And, not being too eager to overdo my election news intake, I haven’t really been a regular viewer of the show. This past November, however, I heard that he had released a memoir, “Born a Crime”, and I love a good memoir by a comedian.1 So, I went to library and got on the waiting list for the e-book without knowing much about the book or Trevor Noah’s life.
The Daily Show has relied on humor and sarcasm to make a point, mainly about our political system. As Stewart pointed out on his last day of host, the show is primarily a war on bulls—,2 and Noah emphatically vowed to continue3 that war on his first day as host. Would this book, I wondered, continue that fight with the same sense of humor that helped The Daily Show’s cultural impact?
Yes. But about the politics of another country. “Born a Crime” is an authentic look at his life growing up in South Africa during the waning days of apartheid and the years following its fall. The title of the book comes from the fact that his mother had a child with a white man, which was illegal in South Africa.4 Trevor Noah’s life is the result of a crime, even though it was between two consenting adults. Sounds like bulls— to me.
From the moment of his conception, Noah’s life has been affected by apartheid, the system of laws in South Africa that repressed the much-larger black population in order to keep the minority whites in power. Noah does an admirable job conveying his lived experience, as well as the experience of his family, living under this oppressive system. Some stories are gut-wrenching and unforgettable. In one, when Noah was five or six and being watched by his grandmother he was not allowed to go outside and play with his cousins. When he pleaded to go outside she firmly said “No! They’re going to take you!” Noah explains:
For the longest time I thought she meant that the other kids were going to steal me, but she was talking about the police. Children could be taken. Children were taken. The wrong color kid in the wrong color area, and the government could come in, strip your parents of custody, haul you off to an orphanage.
His, and South Africa’s, history comes alive through stories, and Noah’s tragicomic stories have a special power to explain history and move hearts. The reader comes to understand what it was like growing up at the end of apartheid not through facts and figures, but through the experience of a young boy and his family. This is an effective way to fight the war on bulls—.5
Besides unpacking apartheid, Noah probes his relationship with his mother and his mother’s experiences. His mother is presented as strong, independent, smart, and deeply religious. Noah tells a great anecdote of her mother finding a career:
True to her nature, she found an option that was not among the ones presented to her: She took a secretarial course, a typing class. At the time, a black woman learning to type was like a blind person learning how to drive. It’s an admirable effort, but you’re unlikely to ever be called upon to execute the task.
She does end up using this skill and with some success, including managing her husband’s business.
It is through this relationship with his mother that we really get to know who Trevor Noah is. He presents it with authenticity, humor, and a deep love for all she did for him, raising him right as a single mother. This is so important because his mother, did not have the right to have him … literally. Not only did she have him, but raised him on her own for the first few years of his life in a time when at any moment she could have ended up in jail for being a mother. For Noah, who’s been an act of protest from the moment he was born, his current gig feels like an extension of the efforts of his mother to raise him.
It is obvious throughout the book that the example of his mother’s life has made Noah who he is today. She has a dynamic and strong personality which Noah inherited. Her faith and her understanding the ridiculousness of Apartheid, and unwavering resilience are the three main examples. If not for the example of his mother’s fight against a system of oppression, would Noah be able to do nightly to a national audience?6
The Daily Show, with Noah as its host, insightful uses humor to point out absurd and hopefully fight back. In “Born a Crime” Noah is allowed to tell a story, his story, his mom’s story, his nation’s story in a way that points out the absurdities but also draws the reader into a relationship. That is how history, not only comes alive, but also remains a part of our lives. And so moved, we are enlisted to join the war on bulls—.
I found a letter in my mailbox, my friend’s characteristic handwriting looping out our names in their appropriate places. I looked for all the “G”s; I always love to see how people write them, and she’s someone who has to write them as much as I do. To: GG, From: GG. I flip the envelope over and smile: she’s still a third-grade teacher. Stickers seal the back flap.
We’re not exactly what you would call frequent pen-pals. We never drop the correspondence, but letters tend to rest before their replies. Maybe even a month. I keep hers in my top-left desk drawer; I don’t know where she keeps mine in the meantimes.
We’ve stopped apologizing for delays—we’re both teachers, and we know that there’s a lot of life happening in between each postmarked date. And in its time, a full report will arrive.
I remember unfolding her last letter around Christmastime, sitting at a hotel lobby table next to a Christmas tree and fireplace. Snows blew outside. Her friendly tone traced the loops of her writing, neatly fitting the thickly dashed lines of the thin brown paper we both learned to write on. Another artifact of her teaching. I remember being amazed by her clarity, honesty, and depth of reflection—at the end of the long haul of the fall semester, her letter paired with the weather to bring me deep pause: Where am I right now?
I tried to reply in-kind, but before I could match her depth I had to match her stationery. I leafed through my folders and found just the thing. I flipped it over and started writing, stopping only to look into the fire or out at the snow. An hour later, licking the envelope’s flap and smoothing it flat, I reflected again—this was a heck of a semester.
And last week, about a month after I had responded to her last letter, here came the response, perfectly timed—again—at the end of a long day as I shuffled through the front door and past our community mailroom. Even before I took off my backpack, I tore open the end of the envelope and gently extracted the letter so not to hurt the fox and snowman stickers. Standing in the doorway to my room, I unceremoniously read the letter, start to finish, before setting it on my desk while I unpacked the day’s things. “i always delight in receiving your letters. i particularly enjoyed seeing how you wrote your last letter on the back of your bus driver certificate.”
My non-stop mind was stopped in its tracks. The compulsive activity of a January teacher retrying to build momentum after a long break: halted. I exhaled.
I used to have lots of ways to call time-out on life—to shepherd a month’s worth of experience into one flock for accounting, inspection, and appreciation. While I was in Minnesota, we had communal silent prayer on Sunday nights. While I was in graduate school, I took long runs on Sundays. Last year, I took walks through the nearby hills with a fellow teacher.
This year, it’s the letters.
And I love it. The handwriting, the envelopes, the surprising stationery, the silly stamps, the poems on the envelopes and the long delays. I love all of it. But, I think I especially enjoy the long delays, the pauses postmarked clear as day, the date askew in the top corner of each envelope. Inside I will find the latest exchange in a conversation delightfully out of date but also delightfully still relevant: I wrote and she listened. And she started her letter with her responses, her responses of understanding or disbelief, of congratulation or condolence, of affirmation or advice.
In this way, our letters are more than just updates; they’re reminders to the other of where they were when they last wrote. When Gretchen writes, I know not only how she is but how I was. I used to overlook this or take it as an awkward reminder of our sporadic writing, but now… now, I count this as a great gift.
Yes, I could go just back to my journals to remember how I was. I could read about the anxieties of last November and the needed recoup of December. I could peruse my entries over the New Year and then count the unexpected blessings of early January.
But, letters offer me something more.
There is a deep grace in hearing it all again, my victories and challenges not written in a journal but by the hand of a friend. A month removed, and too late to troubleshoot. A simple and compassionate naming of what it is that I lived without too much fuss. I sit content in the calm of this reminder then turn with her artful transition to where she’s been, our lives always seeming to somehow overlap.
And so it goes—she wrote and now I listen: soon it will be my turn to respond in-kind. But not just yet. I finish the letter, say a little prayer for her, and slide it into my top-left desk drawer for another day.
That day will come, perhaps a quiet Saturday or an emptied evening. I will sit down at my desk chair and open her letter beside the paper and pencil I chose.
My letter starts itself, with encouragement and affirmation springing to her tales of victory, gentle care to her honesty about the hardest things. And so it goes…