It was just under a year ago when I asked myself whether I was a writer or not. The only clear way to answer this was, “Do you write?” The answer to that point was a qualified, “yes.” I write for my job, I write as a part of life, I write little disjointed bits in my journal. But a friend challenged me to start writing about the things I was interested in; to insist on making space for this type of writing.
As it turned out, something was gnawing on me. It was the way people were talking about violence. So I brushed up this site a bit, sat down, and wrote a piece on violence (its below). It helped me crystalize my thoughts, and people seemed helped by it. (The initial publication on social media was an accident, but, after that, I thought, Why not?)
A little thought by Flannery O’Connor has served as a motto for me in this,
I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.
So it is that I’ve written now for an entire year: over 60 posts gaining nearly 3000 views. I’ve had times when it has come easily, and times when it’s come with difficulty. I’m happy with some pieces, less so with others. Some seemed to hit an unexpected nerve with readers, other unexpectedly didn’t. Either way, I’ve found myself very grateful to those who have read and affirmed the value of my writing!
Where will this take me? I’m not certain. But I do think I can answer the question, “Am I a writer?” in the affirmative. I do, after all, write!
I wanted to end this year by sharing excerpts of my 5 most read pieces from 2017. You can click on their headings to read the entire essay.
Enjoy! And thanks for reading!
THE BILLY GRAHAM RULE (April 2017)
“There is a telling episode from the life of Billy Graham; one which seems to have factored into the BGR pathos. Evidently, after one of his large events, Graham returned to his hotel room to find a naked woman awaiting him. He exited the situation swiftly (at this point the woman fades from the vignette) determined to redouble his resolve toward sexual fidelity.
It is hard to fully put one’s self into the shoes of a handsome, dynamic and world-renowned Christian figure like Graham. As with most global celebrity, it is an existence sui generis. This is part of why we shouldn’t rush to overlay his parameters onto disparate contexts. We need to be more personally in-tune. But, for Graham, this was his chosen safeguard.
Still I’m grieved by how this naked woman becomes a placeholder for women in general. Equally, I’m grieved by how she herself becomes only a placeholder and not a complicated, real human presence in the story. This in not a critique of Graham per se, but of the myopic evangelical reception of this anecdote. Who was this woman—every bit as valuable as our beloved protagonist? How unlike Jesus!
It was Jesus who was constantly making space for such women, even one who was literally thrust before him half-nude. His open posture toward women was endlessly perplexing within his own social context, where women existed on a lower plane than men. (Not unlike our own!) Read through the gospels and you’ll lose count of Jesus’ tender moments with women of all varieties. (“Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman.”)
Jesus once told a group of morally fastidious male leaders, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”
For Jesus, women—really humans in general—were never placeholders! This was the spellbinding feature of his life! Kids, foreigners, women, crippled, diseased, prostitutes, publicans, even self-righteous religious conservatives were only always treasured human individuals to him. This tends to be where we get off track. Unlike Jesus, we search for paragons to mimic. In so doing, we become once-removed from the actual people among whom we find ourselves.”
POLITICS (February 2017)
“When Facebook first came into existence we were—each of us—required to create a profile. As I recollect, it was displayed fairly prominently. We entered data like: name, birthday, religion and political beliefs.
I remember thinking about that last one a lot (probably too much). Initially, I opted for the term apolitical, because I wasn’t keen on needlessly pegging myself to a political ideology.
Hypothetical, political, lyrical, miracle whip
And here, all these years later, I think I made the right choice.
There is no doubt that our word politic originates from the Greek word polis (πόλις) or “city”. More abstruse is whether the term polis originates from the the Greek word polys (πολύς) meaning “many” or from the Greek word polemos (πόλεμος) meaning “war” or “fighting” (from which we get our word polemic).
And yet what is abundantly clear in our day is that politics can serve as a synonym for againstness. In the Manichean world of politics there is no such thing as different, only right or wrong. And there are not real people, only allies or foes.
And this is a matter of deep human concern, especially if one’s political identity becomes primary.”
VIOLENCE (January 2017)
“We’re talking about violence. But we’re talking about it as though it exists in some vacuum. It does not. And we are also talking as though guns are the only weaponry out there. They are not.
I’m a Christian, and so the Scriptural narrative informs my thinking on this. There we see humankind beset by something called “shame”; a self-hatred or insecurity. This gives rise to finger-pointing, self-preservation and murder. Eventually we find the statement “the earth was filled with violence.” God is said to grieve this.
Regardless of your faith-background, I’d invite you to accept how this narrative frames the topic of violence:
My life at the expense of yours
This self-preservational inclination is violent, and its artillery defies category.
Gossip as violence. Lying as violence. Greed as violence. Shooting as violence. Indifference as violence. Silence as violence.”
DEPRESSION (August 2017)
“In this way the world at large often fumbles with depression as well. It is stigmatized as a flaw or liability; not something you’d offer voluntarily at a job interview or on a first date! It feels like the proverbial thread from which a whole garment is bound to unravel. But it isn’t. Depression is normal season in the normal human emotional climate. It is brought about by an eclectic convergence of internal and external forces. It may be enigmatic and is certainly inconvenient, but should not occasion caustic shame nor ashamedness.
I vividly recall a 1990 SNL skit starring Rob Lowe called Helmet Head. It featured a World War II veteran whose helmet had affixed permanently to his head during combat. The comedic hook is that in every social setting this man is accosted with advice by well-meaning acquaintances. (“Have you tried soapy water?”) This poor soul remains comically isolated from the world around him on account of this peculiarity, and this is exacerbated by the outlandish oblivion of others.
Those of us prone to depression can feel like Helmet Head. I remember sharing about a struggle I was having with depression during my college days among a group of friends. For the next 20 minutes each one offered a bit of helpful advice in turn. “Have you tried soapy water?” Depression is better observed than interpreted; better accepted than solved.
Depression is not monolithic either: not resultant of too little faith nor too little dopamine. It comes about in ways that are far from straightforward or tidy or singular. If we’re to find our way through its bramble (or help others do so) we must eschew the formulaic and dogmatic. It isn’t that medication or exercise, sleep or prayer, therapy or Scripture aren’t all restorative components. But offered glibly, without a deep and personal empathic involvedness (or as panacea) to self or others, only denies the multifaceted nature of this human ailment.”
WHY WRITE ON RACE? (May 2017)
“A fascinating sequence of innovations took place between the late 1800s and the early 1900s, leading to poignant moment of repurposing in our nation.
In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed The Homestead Act, granting free parcels of land to Americans willing move west to farm them—270 million acres in total. During this time, the agronomics of cattle-driving cowboys gave way to fence-enclosed grazing and crop farming. And the middle of our country was divvied up by a new invention; barbed wire—dubbed “the devil’s rope.” Hundreds of miles of this durable, menacing fencing material were unfurled across the Great Plains, partitioning and protecting property and possession. Sturdy and pain-inflicting enough to hold back the strongest of livestock, it would eventually be deployed as a tool of trench-warfare and human incarceration.
Its grim efficacy would eventually be compounded by supplying a jolting electric current!
But clues would be found in this iteration that would accomplish an alchemy of sorts. It was at this same time, you see, when Alexander Graham Bell was refining his research in the technology of of harmonic telegraphy; viz., the telephone. By 1886 over 150,000 people were communicating by telephone. However, there was no telephone infrastructure over the vast expanse of the west, until it was realized that there was indeed an extensive network of wires webbing out across the middle of our country. You guessed it: the devil’s rope!
Farmers and ranchers began attaching mail-order phone kits to the top line of their barbed-wire fences, and a makeshift communication system came into existence.
A 99% Invisible segment observed,
Barbed wire’s history has mostly been about control, possession and separation but there is one instance where barbed wire was used not to separate us, but to connect us.
The signal was crackly and poor and deteriorated altogether in inclement weather. Also, it was virtually impossible to prevent neighbors from eavesdropping on conversations. But it was a start.
This seems to me a fitting analogy for the topic of race and racism.
As I’ve written in my two previous pieces, the very notion of race is also a human innovation aimed at dividing. Like barbed wire, it was engineered to divide and inflict pain. It is, like barbed wire, the devil’s rope—constantly conducting a high-voltage shock. And so we recoil from the topic altogether. And we remain divided.
Why write on race? I hope our society might repurpose this instrument of division into an instrument of dialogue; or at least some of us. It will be a staticky, sub-standard alternative of the ideal, but may need to suffice for now.
My previous posts on this topic have sought to address the simple incongruence between the intended meaning of the word “racism” within the white and non-white communities. This is actually a fairly straightforward semantic exercise. But when one aligns with one definition or another, things become barbed. When the historical and societal foundations undergirding each preferred definition are introduced, they pack a strong jolt. Sacrosanct values of justice, responsibility, patriotism, honesty and inequality generate powerful currents (as well they should); so too, pain, loss, humiliation and despair. It is a live wire!
But one must simply find another who prefers dialogue over diatribe, harmony over discord, hopeful vulnerability over stubborn entrenchment. These can be parties of one or many. The tacit invitation is, of course, to be or become such people. Hiding under this invitation are questions of what we value most and how those values will shape our behaviors and relationships.”