Beyond Categorical Terrorism

Kudos to Rachel Maddow for blurring out the face, and refusing to repeat the name, of the young man suspected of joining a prayer service in South Carolina for the purpose of killing the leadership of a congregation with two centuries of leadership on behalf of equality for Africans and African-Americans in this country (USA). When I say I hope other media will repeat this technique,  my hope rests not in personal repugnance, but in the deepest roots of my religious tradition.

Several decades ago, the Unitarian Universalist Association introduced a program called “Beyond Categorical Thinking,” with the intention of teaching us adherents to look beyond the superficials of race, gender, age, economic status, cultural heritage, gender identity, sexual orientation — anything you can see on the surface — in order to open ourselves to a deeper kind of listening. Heart to heart. Dream to dream. Pain to Pain. Idea to idea. Fact to fact.

Twenty years later, or whatever it has been, neuroscience underscores the role of such aspirations when it comes to social choices. Instinctively, we feel more defensive in proximity to someone who looks or sounds different from ourselves. Despite our best intentions, when someone restates a known lie in order to rebut its truth, our ears reinforce the lie and tune out the negation. And reflexively, before our rational mind can flick its switch, the dominant parts of our brain light up — these being our temperaments, our primary intelligences — whenever we engage a situation, actively or passively. “You always say that!” pouts our teenage offspring. “Why do you pull back?” inquire our therapists. So it does take work — constant self-monitoring and recommitment — to get outside our comfort zone, and, just as crucial, to shut down inner messages which say, “Here, and here only, is where you belong.”

Happily, the same neuroscience that seems to doom us to autopilot has discovered that the brain itself is plastic. That doesn’t mean it leaves nasty little fish-killing beads in our waterways, but the other kind of plastic, the one that means “constantly open to reshaping.” Researchers looking into “cures” for stroke — not unlike educators trying to help young people become the first member of their family to graduate from high school — have discovered that constant repetition of necessary practices can teach the brain to work differently. At first, the necessary practice must be guided externally. Even young people nowadays might find themselves in closely-monitored physical therapy for a month or two, pushing an ankle to point a different direction, sweeping our arms in strange directions to strengthen our rotator cuffs. Meanwhile, what’s really happening is that up in our heads, our basal ganglia are telling other parts of the brain to set up new functional arrangements. (This even works with my wife’s Stage Four Huntington’s Disease, which is why this blog has suffered from neglect: she’s had to learn to walk again after a serious fall in October. But walk she can.)

But I digress. Back to Rachel Maddow’s commendable media leadership. The first step in making room for new habits is to get out of old ones. She used her media space to deny this man the fame he sought among a particular population.

The first step we must take as a society is to remove all content labels from extremist acts. To deny them the theological, racial, cultural stature they seek is the first step in undercutting their attractiveness to a generation raised on selfies and Instagram. Whether they commit their crimes in the Middle East or Midwest, in the name of Anglo-Saxon purity or theological puritanism, let their message and faces vanish. Assign them numbers and dates, the way we mark our wedding anniversaries and birthdays. Put them on a map, yes — but say no more than “another murder in Texas” or “another suicide bomber in Ramadi.” Name their weapons and other tools — but only so peaceseekers can more clearly see a “how” that we can manage.

For most of the six decades of my life, I’ve found some kind of pleasure in studying English history. The first thing we have to learn is that the so-called English Civil War included religion-based beheadings and burnings, massive destruction of sacred artworks, and send generations of Roman Catholics into underground worship (from which they fled to Maryland). Yet at the same time, over in Africa, some tribal leaders were waging wars whose purpose was capturing prisoners to sell to English merchants anchored in ancient port cities from which scholars and monarchs had once sailed in grandeur that Europeans hoped to appropriate. Extremism finds most of its victims among its own kind.

So let us remove the faces, the theologies, the ideologies of extremism. White folks do it and white folks fight it. Members of other races and ideologies do it, and in those same communities are tireless opponents of those miscreants.

It’s time for Unitarian Universalism — a religion of the Enlightenment tools of research and reason — to step into wider frameworks with that old theme of getting “beyond categorical thinking.” Yes, we need to combat misdeeds with information about the how, the where, the what. But let our “who” be blandly demographic and our “why” couched not in terms of  theology — that most misused of sciences — but neurological and sociological verities.

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A Death in Summer

Last week a colleague I knew in seminary took her own life. She was younger than I, ministering steadily in stable congregations, but beyond that, I knew nothing of her life since graduation. Mostly, those who knew her are declining to speculate what might have happened, draping her death in the dignity it deserves.

My new wife and I are having a blissful first month of marriage (one month today), but my colleague’s death prompted me to reflect on what July has been at different stages of my life. As an elementary school child, I remember looking forward to summer vacation because school had not provided me with the hoped-for playmates. My family’s intellectual focus meant we did not — and do not — play well with others. We ask too many questions, most of them being, “Why?” But during long summers on our little foothill in Colorado we could indulge in all manner of history-based fantasies. We reenacted novels and movies, sang along with our mother at the rickety old basement piano. It is this epoch of life that my current newlywed July brings most to mind; it goes far to explain why Vermont felt so instantly like home.

Around ten years of age something inside flipped this formula of program-year agony, summer bliss. School got better that year, fourth grade, thanks to a caring teacher and a solid friend. When classes ended, my parents consented to my first self-initiated foray into the outside world: Vacation Bible School at a nearby Methodist church. Then we moved to a more congenial neighborhood and I began making friendships that sustained themselves twelve months a year.

After two years of this came magnet school. Once again, social isolation cloaked summers in pain and dread. Until I could drive (I hated bicycling, and it would not have supported my careful fashion statements anyway), the days dragged in hours of reading, listening to records. My father took us on long camping trips in places I treasure, but “roughing it” was never my style. Mostly I counted the days until I could reconnect with friends. It is instructive that on our camping trips,I would be looking as much at the other campers as at the scenery. What I remember most from those years is a night some strangers invited me to join them at their bonfire, and we laughed into the night.

The news of my colleague’s death, at the height of a beautiful summer, thrust me back into the longing, the dread, the agony of the decades when the waning of school and church opened into a dark season of loneliness. Through the 1980s and 1990s, I did my part in a strident group of UU Christian leaders who insisted on holding worship every Sunday in summer. We couched our commitment in theological terms, insisting that God does not take summers off. Many UUs heard it as liturgical arrogance, and on some occasions, I’m sure that’s what I intended. But the underlying purpose was pastoral. All summer long, there are people whose personal lives deplete rather than restore their hearts and souls. Economic and social dislocations often erupt in summer, as northern hemisphere families use the long, warm days to move house. Many of those moves are unhappy ones: divorces, job loss, house loss. These things might actually feel worse when flooded with sunshine, surrounded by flowers and green leaves.

In that long-ago Vacation Bible School, I learned to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” at a moment I needed a friend. For decades, that conviction was enough to console me in hours of loneliness, not because of the song, but because I could open one of my Bibles to the Sermon on the Mount and recover that blissful personal presence. The volunteer ladies who taught us, fed us, played piano to our scraggly singing. The minister whose own kids probably wished they were on a camping trip like the ones my father arranged. These are the sacrifices of faith that brought a real Jesus into my life.

Where were we, these emissaries of that Jesus and his community of healers, prophets, teachers, when our colleague needed someone for a summertime vacation? Where were we, these friends and classmates, when her soul hit its long, dark night on a bright summer day? My Facebook feed reminds me that UU clergy treasure our summers as “time away.” We need tp recharge our batteries and our families need our undivided attention. But with the oversupply of trained and credentialed clergy, with the difficulties of our downwardly mobile, planet-grieving social milieu, may her death call us outward, a second, deeper layer, ready to steady those whose pain increases when regular — rhythmic — life subsides.

(I notice I cannot bring myself yet to say her name; it is too painful to shift her identity away from the bright young woman I knew to the one she must have become. RIP.)

Deepening Into Caregiving: Summer

Over the last few weeks, Politywonk has gotten married, for the first time, at age sixty, to a wife who lives with Huntington’s Disease. Caregiving has become my life, in part because it lets me keep writing and reading and reveling in the arts. 

But for many years, as the sun crested through its Summer Solstice and began receding toward Autumn, I have fought off the urge to just be home. To rest and eat lightly, watch lots of baseball, and choose languid audiobook performances that fill the house with landscapes and cultures we’d be visiting if we could travel.

I fought off these impulses, as relics of earlier career paths, as the curse of being raised by educators. But no more. My wife and I have beautiful flowers and trees, not many, but enough, right here in our own yard, and this is their one brief window of opportunity. From now on, we’re reverting to the agricultural rhythm, even if we only support a few bees. 

And what does that mean we are moving to other months? Not writing, not even cooking — which simply moves to overnight hours, when cooler temperatures and quiet offices make it both more comfortable and more ecological. No, it’s the barrage of annual medical appointments. They wound up here because we’re here, and medical schedulers need to find people who don’t need the busy seasons of autumn and spring (in Vermont, winter is not a reliable scheduling option).

But from now on, we’re just saying no. I’m gonna quit waking up and gazing with sorrow at the roses as I leap in the car for some upkeep of something else. No, it’s time for the roses. It’s time for the lilies, the annuals, lifting bulbs, and slicing out bindweed. Cleaning out the garage, where wind-scattered leaves from last autumn are turning into compost and mold.

Look out, vacationers! We might not have money, we might have a dread disease, but that doesn’t mean we can’t vacation. Vacation is a state of mind, and my mind has just adopted it.

After (Another) Fall

Our routine of meds, meals, recreation, respite care — it’s all been on a roll for the past few weeks — and Saturday night had us all set to return to worship after the cold spells and schedule adjustments. (The Weather Channel still points us out as a cold spot, but after the part of the Polar Vortex that we got in December, it’s all good now!)

Anyway, I settled in at the computer with my tea, waiting for her to wake up.

Then came the THUNK from the bedroom: she had fallen.

I found her on the floor. Prone. Face down, fully elongated, breathing deeply. She did not respond to her name or to touch, but she was breathing. She’s usually a responsive sleeper, so this puzzled me.

So what did I do? I figured her REM sleep was unusually deep, that her Huntington’s Disease sleep chorea had propelled her over the side of the bed, and she would wake up when her dream finished.

Sure enough, about fifteen minutes later, she wandered into the living room (yay! walking normally!) asking, “What happened?”

And I STILL didn’t get it!

When she was more wobbly, nauseous and confused after two more hours, I called the Replenishment Relative, who said I should take my beloved up to the hospital to be evaluated for concussion.

How did I not think of that?

It took another hour to obtain permission from my beloved to call an ambulance (note to social activists: mental health issues impair decision-making capacities), but when she stood up again and toppled like a cut tree, the fight was done.

And here’s the amazing party: After the EMT’s strapped her into the ambulance, they did a routine Carbon Monoxide test, and her levels were extraordinarily elevated! They came back in and checked the house (which was fine) and the alarms (which were serviced three weeks ago and worked perfectly).

The CT scan of her brain was negative for internal bleeding or concussion symptoms. A long day at the hospital brought down her Carbon Monoxide levels, and we slept in the living room, where she has a safe accommodation, until her niece and nephew can obtain and install the half-guardrail on our beloved heirloom family bed.

I write this 24 hours later. She’s got a few bruises, including one on her head, but she’s basically fine. Clear head, eating, resting as she does during each day. PBS Nature is focusing on wolves, and when I turned on one we saw earlier this week, she immediately complained that “we saw this one before.”

So now, the issue is me. The doctor said to watch her closely for two full days, and that’s not something I can delegate. But after missing Christmas, New Year’s, everything since Thanksgiving, what I’d really love is to believe that when those 48 hours are over, I am meeting someone special at a spa up in Stowe, to relax, to chat, to haunt the fitness center, the pools, and the massage tables.

But it’s more likely that I’ll be lucky if I can let myself take an hour or two around Burlington. However, I DO plan to spend those hours joining and using a gym.

Why Can’t My Mind Seize This Opportunity?

Here in Burlington, Vermont, it is cold, damn cold. It has been so for a couple of days and and gonna be so for quite some time. I have carefully looked ahead in the weather forecast to see when we’ll cross back up towards twenty (Fahrenheit) so I can get more groceries. That is thirty degrees and several days away — not counting wind chill.

Why should a caregiver care? Most days, I don’t go anywhere anyway; staying home with my sweetie and her disease keeps me busy and happy. But too often, since her greatest ambition revolves around listening to news shows (ranging from C-Span to MSNBC), my butt gravitates to my chair, so close to the sparkle of those blue eyes peaking out from under her fleece cover.

I’ve made a list of things to do, and most of them are really important. It feels like something inside is shifting in their direction. But mostly, I’m just playing on the computer, while MSNBC plays in the background. There’s some pride in having taken out the recycling this morning (most people didn’t) and brought in the bins this afternoon (apparently unique, even for those who got them out in the first place), but that’s a pathetic level of accomplishment.

Do other caregivers have this problem? I wish I knew…

When Math Was a Capital Crime

It’s impossible to remember all the books I’ve read, all the stories they contained, but I do try to combine my memory of stories with the books and authors who brought them to my attention. Alas, that does not apply to this story. But the truth of it has been borne out many times.

The Sharecropper Era was a terrible time in United States history. Not all sharecroppers were former slaves, many were also former smallholders who could not compete economically against the large landowners who undersold them by exploiting the sharecropper system. “Exploit” here does not mean “they employed that system;” it means, “they controlled it, manipulated it, and violated every safeguard by which the sharecroppers ostensibly had the right and power to earn their way off the land.” Some of their tricks could be readily spotted: the false weight scale, the healthy product discarded for imaginary imperfections.

But then, there was also “the tab.” Miners would have had the same problem. If you couldn’t add up what you spent in the company store and subtract what you paid back, with a record verifiable by outside impartial witnesses, your chances of earning your way out of bondage went way down. When The Freedmen’s Schools went up, “writing” did not mean poetry, it meant “record-keeping.” “Arithmetic” did not mean equations, it meant household financial transactions. And lynch “mobs” knew who the really outstanding students were.

This was the story that stuck with me. My father had lived in the south for much of his adolescence, and believed the myth that lynch campaigns (we now know there was no “mob” — “impassioned lack of discipline” — about them) devoted their attention to those who disturbed the public peace with violence: housebreaking and such. But no, it was those who disturbed the ancien regime by helping their friends and family keep proper records about weights turned in, money paid (or, in the case of wages, not paid), and then, what was charged and paid back in the stores.

Other than actually picking cotton and tobacco, this doesn’t strike me as very different from how the powers-that-be run our nation today. Do we really know the terms and exclusions of our credit card bills, our health insurance, our mortgages? Do we know who we owe, how much we owe them — and what we are paying back? For many of us, the answer to that, is “no.”

So when Americans fall behind the rest of the world in math, the most important problem is not that employers are forced to accept less effective employees. The most important problem is that the average American, as a householder, as a voter, as a public watchdog, has no idea who owes what to whom. No idea how it was accrued, and, above all else, when it will be paid back.

I take this to be some of the frustration behind Tea Party anger. Most of them appear to have grown up with an expectation of controlling all these numbers, these budgets, these decisions. Beyond the issues of racism, of sexism, of skill levels, I share with them this simple pain: we have absolutely no power to put this back into simple, solvable math.

 

Pastoral Care for Obamacare

Now that the Affordable Care Act has provoked the unavoidable controversies, I find myself missing true religious leadership during this process.

You might be liberal or conservative, in either your theology or your politics, but as a clergy-person, you are taught to stand with your people during times of change, and reassure them that, “Yes, change is hard. Yes, change is scary. When familiar things get rearranged, it feels like you’re under attack.”

Depending on your theology, you then say, “You’ve been through stuff like this before. You know people who have been through stuff like this before. Change is hard. Change is scary. You feel like you’re being attacked. Let’s see if you are really being attacked, or whether God is working in your life to make things better.”

This is where some facts come in. Not big picture government facts, but personal information: “Do you have health insurance right now? What is the best part of it? What is the worst part of it? Think about your own family. What do you know from coworkers and neighbors with the same coverage?”

Then you stay personal, not political. The religious path is to stay away from the blame game. “How did you feel when that happened? What were people telling you? Did anyone step up to help you with the other stuff at that time? Who was that ? What did they do for you?”

Depending on your theology, this is a chance to call on God, with a prayer of thanksgiving for everything that worked. The family members that loaned money. The neighbor who cut your lawn without being asked (this really happened to me). The coworker who kept your desk up-to-date while you were out. The Meal Train that brought food while your family lacked a cook. Community. Connections. The things health insurance never offered, and never will.

And then, back to health care. Not the law, your life.

“How much of what worked for you in that situation is affected by the Affordable Health Care Act, either for good or ill? Do you even know?”

“So if you don’t know the answer to this, can we just say a prayer for courage and God’s love while you work to figure this out?”

If liberal religious groups really want to make this law happen, their first step is to quit talking about policy and start setting up small groups to work together on the scariness of this adjustment.  To set up prayers for everyone making this adjustment, even just as part of worship. Name it as a stress sweeping through our nation, just as much as immigration injustice (however you define THAT!) or an unexpected wave of water.

Politicians are going to be reworking this thing for a long time. Meanwhile, we, in religion, we’ve got people we ought to be caring for. And the more strength we can bring to their souls in this stage, the more strength they will bring to the stages of correction and adjustment that come next.