Getting to Justice: stories to heal me, heal America Pt 2

Justice must be hard-won over and over again. In these chaotic times, our centuries-old dueling narratives are shaped by identity politics and intersectional disputes.  The heart of each narrative is how we identify with our social groups  – and the biases, assumptions, and expectations that hide within the cultural stories we inhabit.

There is both personal work and collective work to be done to establish that every single story bears seeds of truths, that no single story is The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth.  To the degree that we fail to understand this, we will continue to duke it out, trying to make the world over in our small image of justice.

 

Here’s my cultural story

I’m an aging Jewish woman. That’s how I think of myself. “Aging” has to do with the seventy-three+  years I’ve been traveling around the sun in this body, which is both slowing down and holding up. “Jewish” has to do with my tribe and a world-view that feels like home. How I see myself: as a wanderer, question-asker, wrestler with God, inheritor/innovator of tradition, admired/envied/despised Other, repairer of breaches, restorer of justice, story-teller, lover of wordless melody, cycler through a liturgical year, devoted learner.

Please note, however, that both “aging” and “Jewish” are merely adjectives that modify my primary identity: “woman.” And my particular story about woman: strong, container, crafty survivor, undervalued, physically and economically vulnerable, home to mystery, darkness of all kinds, holder of the keys to life. My particular family lineage story about women also conveys an implicit story about men: not trustworthy, and mostly, not necessary, albeit they are in (undeserved) positions of power and authority.

If you ask for more, I’ll tell you I am “a post-war baby.” That’s World War II.  Only from within the viewpoint of my generation is World War II understood. Otherwise it’s a natural question to ask, post-war? Post which war? My generational view elaborates on the aging self: we keep our troubles to ourselves. And underpins my Jewish self: highly assimilated, rising middle class, infected with a post-war surge of optimism that masked the extermination of six million Jews – a trauma so fresh it could not be talked about.

Rising middle class doesn’t get the explicit role in my story it deserves relative to its influence: the unearned gifts – and limitations – it has showered on my life. My 1950s neighborhood was well-segregated from despair, penury, and violence. I regularly rode the Rapid Transit downtown with my mother. And I regularly asked her about poor people as we traveled through trash-strewn gullies and neighborhoods of shabby, grey, tilted homes. I have yet to recall, or reconstruct, her answer.

If you are wondering about the limitations of my secure middle-class upbringing, here are I few I can speak to: the primacy of appearances, caution or paralysis in violating norms, condescension to the less fortunate, expectations of safety and happiness, reverence for the intellect, and low emotional intelligence.

 

Here’s how I haven’t consistently thought of myself until recently: white. 

I have only selectively thought of myself as white  – not as a key part of my identity. I noticed my whiteness and its significance as my working life opened up to include relationships with many black people. When I worked in Baltimore City for a mission-driven non-profit founded and fueled by black churches. When I came to head that non-profit and set out to make it look more like the city itself. When I then had to figure out how to address expectations, assumptions and biases about “professional behaviors,”  and foster respect, cooperation, even friendship across employee racial divides. When we chose how to challenge public policies that enshrined institutional racism. Immersion in black culture was humbling. I stumbled. I had many patient guides and teachers.

Through those years, and others, when I team-taught diversity work to business, nonprofit and business leaders, I often took my work home with me. Still, I went home to my white neighborhood, prayed with my white progressive Jewish fellowship, and thoughtlessly enjoyed the comforts of being on the white side of privilege. 

 

These days, I am uncomfortably white most of the time 

I am pricked by my whiteness as I follow the daily news, pray for justice, sign petitions, join a march, read the black press or black-authored fiction, shake and wake myself and my white world,  indulge in mourning either my lost innocence or my “guilt,” and go about my still-protected white-charmed life.

I still move freely through my days with vastly confirmed expectations that wherever and however I show up 1) I am not in immanent physical or psychological danger and 2) I feel I actually “belong.” It requires thought, effort, a willingness to be vulnerable. To choose to show up where I am in danger of being called out on my cultural story and ignorance. To stumble as the ideal ally I wish to be!

And that implicit family story about men that figures so prominently, the untrustworthy men in (undeserved) positions of power and authority? Those are white men. I am married to a white man, which affords me numerous comforts and protections beyond those of my own white skin. More discomfort, as close to home as you can get.

 

Yet, I am not uncomfortably Jewish enough.

Meaning I am aware of how much more attuned, and motivated I am, when it comes to racial justice than anti-semitism. The trauma of the Holocaust that could not be talked about in my childhood is much more difficult for me to be uncomfortable with, read about, wrestle with, than racism.

Anti-semitism is not something Jews will ever “solve.” It takes non-Jews, whether motivated as religious believers or secular moralists.

Just as it takes legions of white people to dismantle ways of doing business that perpetuate racism, to hold space for the personal and societal telling of stories, for reconciliation and healing, for policy and procedural changes, for changes of heart.

And I am still left with my own bias: it’s white women I depend on. White men are my “Other,” and late to the party. “They” have a lot to lose: “their” unchallenged narrative of reality, based on an individual’s hard work and unbridled capacity to pull oneself up by the bootstraps. That’s my cultural narrative speaking.

 

These are a few broad strokes of my cultural story, what’s yours?

Understanding that the biases and expectations I have expressed live in my cultural stories brings me to a vital and wakeful noticing, and changes how I see myself, and even how I see the white men I Other, including the one I am married to. I hope it helps me to be a more intelligent, self-questioning and awake ally.

If I am ever going to really live in this body, the only one I have, I have no choice but to continue my personal work here, that includes engaging with you in the collective work of dismantling barriers, reconciling hearts, and pursuing a just world.

Together we must both bend with and shape that arc of the moral universe whose end remains beyond our sight.


Banner photo taken at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Read Part 1: Stories to heal what ails me, what ails America

 

Anger, fear, a broken heart: healing self, healing society

Beneath the anger, fear. Beneath the threats, broken hearts. Start there and we might get somewhere.

Parker Palmer,  On Being, Nov 12*


IN PRACTICE: Beneath my anger, fear

Sometimes life comes at me as an arrow, pierces me. It cuts right through anger and fear. It cuts right through who I think I am, who I think the Other is. The wound is clean and oddly bloodless. The pain is sudden, sharp, grace-filled. Sorrow and tears arise soon after.  Then an actual or a virtual embrace, an ocean of tenderness, words offered and received. Intimacy with, or without, agreement on anything except one single essential: relationship.

 

IN PRACTICE: Beneath my threats, a broken heart

Someone fails to meet me, hear me, see me, even be willing to take the time to understand me. I feel erased in some fundamental way.

My first response is strongly physiological: heat rises. Then – depending on my relationship with my partner-of-the-moment – my fear will 1) push my anger up into my throat and out my mouth in words aimed at an enemy 2) go right to my kidneys, where I turn cold and uncommunicative or 3) turn me colder yet, so cold that I freeze altogether. Fight, flight, freeze.

It takes effort not to go the way of habit.

It takes effort to follow my broken heart, to let it break open further.

When I am awake and courageous enough to meet myself, hear myself, see myself, feel myself vividly and fully in my body, to study myself – sorrow, grief, anger, pride, remorse, self-righteousness, shame, wild joy, triumph, emptiness, confusion. Even numbness. And yes, numbness paradoxically is full of sensation.

When I know I am both armed to kill and the Great Reconciler, I trust I have opened to my own heartbreak.  I can begin to sort things out within myself. I am willing and able to withstand the alchemical heat of these questions, and when I take action it has a power beyond my puny ego:

– Am I in danger here? Physically? Emotionally or psychologically? Spiritually? What help do I need to call on?

– Are other people in danger? Who needs to be warned, and how?

– Did my partner-of-the-moment cross a boundary? Is my response in proportion? Or am I trying to correct for all the times anyone has ever crossed this boundary with me?

– Was I clear?  Was I hoping my partner-of-the-moment would accurately read my mind or between the lines? Was I acting out some other frustration that has nothing to do with this partner-of-the-moment? Have I withheld information, emotion, criticism only to have it leak out, as it does, into the interaction?

Wrestling with these moments, I let in a great deal more information, information I have been fending off or suppressing. I free myself to take action that is in relationship to, intimate with a bigger reality.  I can take action without certainty that it is the “correct” action to take, without certainty that it will bring about the result I desire. Yet my action is sane, even wise, because I am relationship with life.

 

A SOCIETY IN PRACTICE: Start with broken hearts and we might get somewhere.

Our nation is in great pain. It was built on even greater injury. Appropriation of land. Enslavement of fellow-humans. Two hundred and forty years of  legal precedents and not fully scrutinized beliefs, policies, institutions. Our history continues to unfold from these origins, played out in city streets, rural ghost towns, and edgy communities. In and out of view of mainstream news. In and out of view of social media. Much of the story has yet to be told, much has been forgotten, and much remains suppressed and bound in our national consciousness.

None of us are free agents until we walk this territory together.

Many of us have tasted the personal freedom that comes from diving courageously and deeply into our personal histories and imperfect humanity.

It is time now to figure out how to hack our considerable practical, psychological, and spiritual  skills and apply them for the healing of our country. To acknowledge and dive deep together into our shared difficult and violent history. 

What if we could help one another out, help one another to heal from the socially-inflicted wounds of a soup bowl of “isms” just as we help one another out, help one another to heal in our personal, family, workplace lives?

What if we could bring such whole-making skills to the civic body of our neighborhoods, cities, suburbs. rural areas?

What if we can become the arrow that pierces through anger and fear, cuts right through who we think we are, who we think the Other is, and lays bare our broken hearts?

What if we could collectively bear that sharp, sudden pain of recognition and sorrow, and cry together?

What if we could tenderly embrace without agreement on anything except one single essential: relationship, not more perfect, more human?

What do you need to become the arrow?

What breaks your heart open to an “Other”?

The grace and opportunity are with each of us,

and call us to this collective

and collaborative work.

Here. Now.


Parker Palmer,  On Being, Nov 12