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Map the World

After college, this small-town Southern girl moved to New York City to start my first “real” job; a job that offered a salary, health insurance, and a handful of vacation days. Those were pre-smartphone days. There were no car navigation systems or MapQuest websites to direct me to my destination before traveling. What I had back then, which I actually studied every time I ventured out, was a map of NYC posted on my bedroom wall. I had memorized my most common routes, including possible detours. My biggest fear, having grown up in a two stop-light town, was getting lost in the big city and ending up with a gun to my head, the most likely outcome of getting lost, right?

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Eleven months after I moved there, my parents and sister drove up, and I had planned some fun things for us to do. I drove us from my apartment in Queens to Manhattan (I drove everywhere, even though I knew how to ride the subways in Manhattan). While looking for a parking spot in a safe-enough area to leave my car for the day, I turned down an unfamiliar street. Realizing my mistake, I immediately made a U-Turn, to my screaming family’s horror. “It’s ok!” I reassured them, “That’s not as bad as getting lost here!” (My queasy passengers were NOT reassured.)

We make mental maps wherever we live, even with Siri now easily accessible. Mine tend to have fuzzy edges. I know my usual routes well, but the areas I don’t frequent are blank spaces in my mind. I might have a vague idea of a main thoroughfare, but basically, it’s just a blank space where the lines drop off. I’d like to look beyond my fuzzy borders to find out what I’m missing.

I recently read a book called “Hillbilly Elegy”, by J.D. Vance. The book challenged my notions of poverty and the solutions I’ve long believed would best address it. Mr. Vance, a Yale Law School graduate, was an unlikely Ivy Leaguer, having come from a poor family. In his memoir, he describes the culture surrounding his family, the decline of jobs where he grew up, and the unseen networks and systems that wealthier kids utilize to navigate their way into successful adulthood. While Mr. Vance doesn’t offer a neatly packaged solution to our national wealth disparity, he does paint a picture around one of the blank spaces where the edges of my mental map begin to blur.

I think the road to deeper understanding begins with identifying our fuzzy map edges. Taken literally, I can drive to a section of town I’ve never explored and have a look around. Even this small act can serve to reorient my little corner of the world. I’ll gain a different perspective of something I think of as familiar. Metaphorically, I can pick up another book to gain a view into someone else’s experience. Their experience will inform my own experience, and I can grow in understanding and compassion. Only through understanding and compassion will we ever connect and recognize our shared humanity in each other. Then we can rise above the din of angry voices surrounding us and work together to make our country and our world a better, more heartfelt place to live.

Build a Bridge

With Thanksgiving just a few days away and a deep national divide splitting even close families, folks might be worried about upcoming awkward moments. Some might be feeling reluctant to share a meal together with those who didn’t vote the same way. Sadly, at least one friend I know even changed holiday plans this year to avoid contentious conversations.

I have heard many bewildered people, both Democrats and Republicans, wonder aloud how a man who publicly insults nearly everyone could get elected president? It’s a big question. It seems to be all anyone has talked about since the election. But contrary to the blame cast by some in the media, it doesn’t make your best friend or your aunt racist or xenophobic just because they might have voted for the new president.  Such assumptions cut both ways. Judging a person based on which of the (only) two major party candidates they selected opens the door to judgment on the kind of person you are based on how you voted. It only deepens divisions and misunderstanding.  If we are ever going to heal the wounds in our country, we must first start healing our relationships.

I took this election as a wake-up call. Though not the most popular presidential candidate, Mr. Trump received enough strategic votes to secure the top seat in our government. So what happened? What did I, and so many others miss?

We can read the news reports, we can read books, we can analyze and criticize the Electoral College. While these things have their place, the key to better understanding can be done one-on-one: by asking questions.

I called a friend who I knew voted differently from me to ask some questions. I was genuinely curious to hear what she thought, and I promised at the beginning of the phone call that I would not comment on any of her answers. I did not have a script, and I have never done this before. In fact, I really, really, dislike uncomfortable discussions and feel like it isn’t my best skill. But this person is a dear friend, and I thought she might be able to show me my blind spot.

Our conversation began uneasily. Her first answer was short and maybe a little suspicious of my motives. Then I asked a follow up question instead of arguing with her, and she answered again, and pretty soon my friend was speaking openly and easily with me. I’m not going to lie, it was difficult to stay quiet at times. But listening really worked, because I heard some things I did not know, that I never would have heard, if I had barged in with my own opinions.

If you’d like to come to a deeper understanding about what is going on in our country, perhaps you could try this, too. Here’s what I recommend:

1- Identify a person.  Think of the person you love the most who voted differently than you voted and remember why that person is so special to you. Meditate on this for as long as it takes for you to feel calm – even if it takes days.

2- Schedule a call.  Pick up the phone and call this person to ask if he or she would be game for this kind of discussion. It might even be better to schedule it into two separate conversations: one where the other person speaks (first), then one where you get to speak.

3- Practice humility.  Put yourself in a calm state of mind before you call for your listening appointment. Take a walk, cuddle with your dog, pray. Remember why you love the person you’re calling. Remind yourself that you do not have all the answers; YOU have something to learn from this person.

4- Ask and Listen.  Promise from the start to honor what the other person is saying, even and especially if you disagree with what you hear. Then ask questions and listen. You might have to sit on your hands or physically cover your mouth in order to remain in your listening mode. Do it. You’re not trying to fix the problems with the media or correct all the fake news stories from Facebook with this conversation. You’re only listening.

5- Say thank you and take a breather before it is your turn to speak. You really may need two separate days to do this exercise, because it can really be hard to keep quiet. But do it. It’s worth it.

One conversation isn’t going to change the world. But collectively, each conversation removes one more stone from the wall that separates us, allowing us to use those stones to build a bridge instead.

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Thank You Notes

When my son was three years old, he sat on the potty one day, legs dangling, and called to me in the next room, “Mommy, do you have a penis?”

“No,” I answered.

“Do you want to get one from Penis Lowe’s?” he offered.

At a very young age, my son was noticing our differences and trying to make us the same. After I stopped giggling I told him no, thank you; that I was fine without a penis.

We humans do have different characteristics, but we all share the most important trait: we all have souls. We are all created with dignity, as our forefathers recognized when they wrote the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I am grateful that our early leaders recognized the equality of (white) men. I am grateful for those who fought for the rights of black men to be recognized, and I am grateful for the women who fought for equality and the right to vote.

America hasn’t had an easy road to acceptance; indeed we see latent prejudices surface at times (including now). It’s important that we constantly remind ourselves and each other of our inherent dignity. We can do this with both words and actions, and we can do it with a spirit of love.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

With deep gratitude I’d like to write some thank you notes to certain groups of people who’ve taught me about our shared humanity. These groups have suffered discrimination and have stood strong to declare their dignity despite being labelled “Other” at some point in our history.

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Thank you, African Americans, for teaching me that I’m more than the color of my skin.

Thank you, immigrants and refugees, for teaching me that I’m more than where I was born.

Thank you, gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons, for teaching me that I’m more than who I am attracted to.

Thank you, persons who are transgendered, for teaching me that I’m more than my sexual anatomy and gender identity.

Thank you, persons with disabilities, for teaching me that I’m more than what I can do and think.

Thank you feminists, for teaching me that as a woman I’m more than my ability to bear children and help men reach their potential.

Thank you Jewish people, Muslim people, and others who don’t practice Christianity, for teaching me that I’m more than where I worship.

And while I’m thanking people, I’d like to add a couple more:

Thank you, Democrats and Republicans, for teaching me that I’m more than who I vote for.

And thank you, unnamed man who carded me at the grocery store recently, for teaching me that I’m more than a forty-something lady with graying hair.

There is no them. There is only we. And we are human. Embrace a fellow human today; especially someone who seems “other” in some way.

Exploding Trees

Many years ago I was driving down the highway listening to my favorite station: NPR. It was a segment about how maple trees in New England were exploding at unprecedented rates because they had not been tapped. Pressure mounted in the trees, and maple tree farmers were doing all they could to tap the trees, even though maple syrup sales were at an all-time low due to the low-carb diet fad. Native Americans previously tapped the trees often to prevent the explosions. Robert Siegel interviewed maple tree farmers and gave statistics on how many injuries and deaths there had been due to the exploding trees. In the background were the sounds of footsteps hiking through snow, tree tapping, and a couple of distant explosions.

I arrived at my destination before the end of the story, but for years I thought about exploding maple trees whenever we made pancakes and put out the maple syrup.

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One day the story popped into my head andI told my husband about it. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” he laughed.

“No, it’s true!” I exclaimed. “I heard it on NPR!”

“Shannon, that doesn’t happen. Maple trees don’t explode.”

Determined to prove him wrong and to show how much I (a Southerner) knew about maple trees in New England, I ran to the computer and asked Google. To my utter embarrassment, the story that came up was “April Fool’s: New England Suffers Maple Woes: NPR.”

“What? April Fool’s Day?”

Stephen laughed and laughed, and eventually I did, too. I played the story for him, “See?” I asked. “Doesn’t that sound real?”

I admit this embarrassing story to illustrate the amount of trust we put into our news sources. One thing the months (and even years) leading up to the election has clarified is that there are a LOT of fake news stories out there. They pop up on social media and they appear in some more extreme media outlets. The most difficult stories to spot are the ones that contain some truth or appear in sources that are a mixture of true and fake stories. It is a new age of propaganda that taps into a mood and exploits that mood for the sake of an agenda. It’s been around forever, but it is increasing the divide in America.

Conversations I’ve attempted over the past year have sometimes left me baffled because it feels like we have no common culture anymore, no common storyline. This is an illusion of course; we are all inhabiting the same planet, we are just listening to different, often opposing, voices. Major media outlets have been under scrutiny as well, criticized for being too far left or too far right. But should we throw the baby out with the bathwater?

I’ve been teaching my middle schooler about media, since he now researches his papers online and cites his sources. “How do I know what is a good source?” he asks me.

I explain that first of all, if it sounds too good to be true, it might be false. I tell him he can look for the same story in other well-known news sources, and if he finds it in more than one or two places, it is more likely to be true. I’ve given him well-known sources: big newspapers that have a long history, National Geographic for his science papers, our local paper for community stories, and the Student News show he watches at school.

Another way to assess credibility in stories is to read the tone. Is it level-headed or does it include strong emotion from the author/reporter?  Are commentators yelling at each other or calling each other names? Does it lump people into groups like “Liberals” or “Conservatives” or use these words as insults? If so, this should be a red flag that the media outlet’s opinion is seeping through.  If you’d really like to make up your own mind about things, determine the sources that are toxic, and try out some new ones.  Name-calling only reinforces stereotypes, which breaks down critical thinking. Ideas need not be placed in boxes and labeled by party or viewpoint. Ideas are ideas; the good ones will withstand serious questions.

I think as we move forward from this election, we, as well-informed citizens, have a duty to regularly assess our news sources. If we lock ourselves into our own bubbles, our own customized news feeds, we are only viewing a small slice of the world, and it’s probably the slice that’s just like us. We risk further alienation from one another. We might, for instance, not recognize that middle-class America strongly feels it’s needs have been ignored, resulting in an election result that no one on the left saw coming.

Or we might just as likely walk around for years believing in exploding maple trees.