Hello from the Acre, sitting yet again in front of the computer,
It has been a beautiful week, enticing us to believe Spring is here, but it is mid-March, and my past experience, from a variety of places, has taught me to avoid the enticement. Take pleasure in the days offered, get outside and manage to enjoy, but know too well that Winter is still on the calendar, and it is around any unsuspecting corner. In fact, to illustrate that reality, the weather outlook on my phone has a snow flake option for two different days next week. St. Patrick’s Day blizzards are part of my history.
One of the things age does (and perhaps requires of us) is to create an awareness of what happens around us as well as (at least for me) consider my part in or responsibility for it. That is not always an easy or enjoyable thing, but I find it necessary. Perhaps an example of what I am positing is a simple thing (or at least what I thought was a simple thing growing up) like voting. This past election, and I guess for many a number of elections, the process has never been simple. I think of the first scenes in the movie Selma, and the struggle black Americans had to go through to vote. In my naiveté, in my basic middle class white upbringing, I would have never imagined such a thing. Even in my own town in NW Iowa, I am now aware that there were struggles for black, brown, and native peoples that occurred regularly but I had no idea. As I have noted in previous writing, too often we see the world through our own version of rose-colored glasses, believing our experiences are typical of those our age, of those who are contemporaries, of those who are perhaps American, but I believe we push that even further to anyone we believe we know. As I have traveled, moving much beyond my NW Iowa cocoon, I have been required to come to terms with all the things I take for granted. Even in the past year, in spite of so many people I know who have been furloughed, laid off, lost a business, it is too easy for me to simply go about my life because beyond some inconvenience I have not been hurt or even really much affected. Certainly, my teaching requires more time, more work, more careful consideration, but there is little about which I can honestly complain. I did get the first to stimulus payments, and I will not receive a third, but that indicates that financially, as a single male, I am doing quite well. That is not to brag, but rather to say I am incredibly fortunate. Things could be much different.
What astounds me, and it seems to occur almost daily, is the rather schizophrenic postering that goes on with so many people. I understand we are not nearly as consistent as we want to believe, but dang. Senator Ron Johnson, someone who seems more unhinged by the week, stated that he felt no angst or fear when the United States Capitol was overrun earlier this year, but then goes on to say if it had been Black Lives Matter or Antifa, he would have been concerned. Really? Incredible . . . preposterous . . . embarrassing . . . or maybe, you need to go . . . go back to Wisconsin and disappear. You are an affront to anything a United States Senator should be or how they should act. The racist, white nationalistic, inappropriateness of that goes beyond the pale. A more simple, but equally as problematic instance happened in my town over the last couple weeks. A middle-aged male stated with the dictional accuracy of a Marine Corps Drill Instructor what he felt about wearing a mask in public. Suffice it to say, he was not supportive an any mask mandate. Within barely a minute, he proceeded to note how he believed they needed to get vaccinations out and available to people more readily. Most certainly, I can look at those two statements (sentiments) from a number of angles, but it seems he dislikes the mask mandate because it is inconvenient, but I think it is probably fair to say he dislikes it because it is a mandate . . . it imposes on his individual freedom, and by extension the government has no right to tell him what to do. Simultaneously, he demands that this same government make sure to protect him through vaccination. Then, of course, there seems to be no realization that you are asking the same entity to do two completely different things or allow him both freedom and support (when both things are meant to protect or provide safety to him). This is what my title is implying. We seem to be divided in a manner that is not just from person to person, but even within ourselves.
I think the reality is that too often we do not see our inconsistencies, and therein lies the crux of the problem. I have spent the last few days doing some introspection and trying to see where might have these inconsistent behaviors. And I know I have them. We all do. One of the things apparent for me is in spite of how hard I think or work to be inclusive, to be understanding of the other, to speak or engage with someone where there is some significant disagreement, the biases I have come along with me, but I seldom realize the degree to which those differences, those biases, those inabilities to see beyond affect my attitudes or my conversations. I think my work as a professor has pushed me to see beyond my simple, but rather basic WASP background. This is, in no way, disparaging my Midwest upbringing, but it is my attempt to be honest with the unrealized acceptance of many things I have been compelled to reconsider. I would also know my own time in seminary was the beginning of that. When I was a seminary student, feminism and the importance of inclusive language was a central element of many discussions. It falls into the sort of intersection of what many would call second and third wave feminism. While I had little idea of what that was in the late 1980s, I was aware of how important this conversation was. And yet, in spite of that awareness, I must be honest that my understanding beyond language issues was limited at best. My behavior was nowhere near where it needed to be.
This is my own personal experience with the idea of a “notional nation.” While I work hard to get beyond that, the only way that individual transformation can occur is when we are honest with ourselves. When you ask that of 330,000,000 souls, the equation is a bit more complex. When we are built on, seeming dependent on our foundational belief of individual freedom, the likelihood of people being introspective is a bit (ironically) hypothetical. Some of you will get that irony immediately, others it might take a bit more consideration. The reason I find this so consequential is because of our current global health crisis, which some argue is no crisis at all. I am fortunate enough (again, and some will disagree) to get both of my vaccinations at this point. As many, I am reflecting upon the last year and the changes we have made, either because we were mandated to do so, or because we choose to continue to do so. I fall into the category of both/and. There are moments I detest these masks, and I have purchased some to offer me some levity in the wearing requirement. I have people, even some for whom I have deep appreciation, who are adamantly opposed to following any guidelines that “infringe” upon their supposed individual freedoms. I can write an entire blog on that misguided notion, but that is for another time. I will leave it to this idea “social contract.” It is incredibly difficult to admit selfishness, particularly when it pushes us to re-examine our core values or identity, and yet that is exactly what I have been pushed (and in someways pushed myself) to do. Again, let me put into a different realm, and one that struck me deeply when I heard it the other evening. As that privileged white male, if someone questions whether or not I am being racist, why might I get so defensive? Would it not be better or more productive to understand racism versus merely get defensive? I think most of us answer in the affirmative, and yet few of us could hear that without getting defensive (and I know this because of an amazingly intelligent and intuitive former student who questioned my understanding of privilege once upon a time in my office). I have noted this before. There is so many ways we want to believe our innate sense of right and wrong will guide us, but that buys into an inadequate, simplistic impression or stance that we are correct in our assumptions; we are omniscient in our limited understanding of the complexities of our world; or that we have some moral superiority, which is ultimately based on our own incredible asinine arrogance.
All of this comes from where? I think that is the most difficult thing for me to figure out. It is the opposite of most everything we are taught in terms of how we should treat another person as a small child. We are taught to be polite; we are instructed to treat others with respect. We have all heard of the Golden Rule, and taught about its significance in terms of how we should interact with other human beings. As a former pastor, I am well acquainted with the idea of our falling short, of our innate connection to the Greek word hamartia (the word for sin). And yet, where we seem to be now as a society is a great deal beyond the idea of falling short; for those old enough, it falls far beyond the Flip Wilson adage of “the devil made me do it.” For me it falls back to a quad-fecta of the seven deadly sins: the four are greed, envy, wrath, and pride. Pride, according to some is the most problematic. In fact, C.S. Lewis, in his book, Mere Christianity, asserts that pridefulness is an “anti-God” state where we are in direct conflict with the creator. Lewis goes on to say it is the basis for every other sin. It seems pretty self-evident to me . . . because of our pride, we believe we are entitled. It leads to a sense of greediness, which is a cause of envy, and that envy leads to our wrath toward others, which leads to hate, anger and rage. I do not think we need to ponder very hard to find an infinite number of examples of that in our present world. It is easy to merely write it off to human sinfulness and call it a day, but that is the easy way out. For me it is also indicative to Paul’s question in Roman’s when he asks in his diatribal formula, “What are we to say to this? Should we sin all the more that grace may abound?” His answer to that question is a forceful, “Certainly not!” As an imperative. Another way to say that is “Are you frickin’ crazy?” I am saddened by where we are, as a country and beyond. And it would be easy to say, “I quit; there is nothing we can do,” but I refuse to do so. I want to believe, in whatever faint breath of idealism I still have that we can do better. I can do better. I cannot impose that requirement upon another, but I can impose it on myself. I want to live a life that shows others matters, and beyond immediate family. I want to be remembered as someone who thought about others as well as himself. I want to be a person who makes my small corner of the world a better place. So I keep on keeping’ on to return to my 70s roots. If someone else decides to take such a path for themselves, the writing of this blog served a purpose. I have used this song before, but it is where I am on this Ides of March.
Thank you as always for reading.
One thought on “Our Notional Nation”
I find it interesting, and frankly a bit concerning, that nobody has commented or engaged with this particular post of yours, Dr. Martin. This is a valuable reflection you’ve shared, and one that many could benefit from. I find these ideas to be of amplified significance in a time where we exist in echo chambers, often unwilling to witness our shortcomings as inhumane humans in this polarized society. You mention the tendency for human beings to grow defensive in response to any questioning of being racist. I would add any sort of discriminatory behavior to that, whether it be racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and beyond.
Understanding and listening has taken a backseat to defensiveness. Being called out seems to evoke a sense of shame that many can’t handle facing. And yet, the ability to receive criticism is precisely the remedy to our polarization and misunderstanding. Accepting ourselves as flawed and taking action to make the necessary changes in our thinking, could bridge so many gaps in our world, though I recognize that may be a simplistic way of perceiving the problem of discrimination. Why is it so challenging to get someone to listen the perspectives of the other, without rebutting or arguing in favor of themself? Why is it that when I speak to my own family about racism or misogyny or homophobia, they turn the issues into a matter of how THEY feel disrespected by the mere idea of being “bad people”? It angers me, it hurts me and confuses me. How can people, seemingly decent people in fact, be so blind and unwilling to change, despite being told explicitly, that their words and actions are negatively affecting others?
Defensiveness acts as a hiding place, a way to protect and reject the idea that we could possibly be flawed. Many people fear the very idea of facing the feelings of shame, that any shortcoming of their character is both definitive and defining, rather than seeing the self as malleable, plastic. How many people claim to be godly, yet adhere to racist ideologies and judge another for the color of their skin? How can one claim to be morally righteous and yet, say atrocious things without attempting to understand anyone different from themself? How can one assert they are a good person, when their ideals and beliefs result in something as appalling as an insurrection, as disturbing as the overturning of Roe v. Wade, as hideous as the implementing of “don’t say gay”? I ask myself these questions frequently, and I don’t know that I will ever find a reasonable answer to the incessant hatred in this country. There are members of my own family who have said homophobic things, despite myself and my brother both being queer. There are people in my family who have made racist remarks, despite knowing my partner is a person of color. It baffles me. And when they are challenged for their words, defensiveness ensues.
We undoubtedly dislike the idea of being wrong, though I believe the uncovering of our flaws allows an opportunity to become better versions of ourselves. I believe we exist in a time where accountability and integrity are sadly perceived as weakness. But I find accountability to be a sign of emotional intelligence. I wonder, often, if the emotional capacity of much of our world is so ill-nurtured, that we’ve ended up with vacant, barbaric minds, people only interested in their own gain and angered by the idea that their behaviors or words or beliefs have negative implications on those around them. It is a refusal to believe reality, it is an illusion we entertain in order to keep ourselves comfortable and complacent. If we accept the impact of our behaviors and beliefs and never step outside of our own cultural rhetoric, how can we even begin to recognize the consequences of our actions as individuals? We would have to take responsibility, and that seems too threatening to our fragile egos. We live in a world where money is more valuable than integrity, where hatred is a headline and love and kindness are perceived as weak, frailties.
I absolutely love this particular thought you shared, as it captures precisely how I feel about all of this:
“There is so many ways we want to believe our innate sense of right and wrong will guide us, but that buys into an inadequate, simplistic impression or stance that we are correct in our assumptions; we are omniscient in our limited understanding of the complexities of our world; or that we have some moral superiority, which is ultimately based on our own incredible asinine arrogance.”
Like you, I hope to grow and evolve and learn and unlearn the things that have been injected into me like a poison. I refuse to exist in a state of blindness, unwilling to ever change or face the things which may be unfair or destructive to others in society. One of the most incredible things about human beings is our ability to change and shed layers. We can grow into new, more cognizant versions of self and find new ways of thinking and engaging with the world around us that are more inclusive, kind, fair, equitable. I wish to always be an open heart, where others can teach me and inform me of my flaws, and where I choose to take the initiative to be a better and more compassionate, understanding being. I am committed to a life in which I never assume my innate sense of right and wrong is infallible.