Finding Myself and Losing the World

 Confessions of an Altruistic Asshole

Finding a sense of purpose is a powerful thing. It’s a feeling some people spend their whole lives searching for. The sense that what you were meant to do – or that what you are doing – is not just important but necessary can be life-changing. Overwhelming. Exhilarating. Terrifying. Fulfilling. Even euphoric. Some find that purpose in their faith, others in service to the community around them. Some, like I did, find it in times of crisis. Others find it in standing up and fighting for what they believe in.

Many recently have found it in protest, and the solidarity that protest creates in the pursuit of something better. No matter where we find this greater purpose for ourselves, at it’s best it’s a high better than any drug – a positive force with the collaborative power to change the world. At it’s worst, it’s the pavement on the road to hell – a force hateful and destructive enough to fuel genocides. And telling the difference – especially within ourselves – is much harder that you might think.

When the twin towers fell in Manhattan, I began to glimpse the direction my life would take. And for a little while, despite all the good work I was able to do, it turned me into a total asshole. I’ve written so much about the beauty that existed in Ground Zero among the 1st Responders and our work there. It was an extraordinary time. But there is also something else worth talking about that’s a little more personal. And of all the things I’ve written about that time, this is the hardest. I have a laptop full of half-finished essays trying to sort through it.

But this year, in the midst of what often feels increasingly like apocalyptic division – where the stakes seem so high and so many people are finding their own purpose in the struggle – I want to speak to this piece of my own personal darkness. This relentless old ghost. What’s the use of writing if you’re not willing to attempt to explain what you’ve learned from so much time spent being an idiot.

Running Backwards, Towards a Cliff

On the 13th of September 2011, standing in the gas station that used to be on the corner of Canal and the West Side Highway, surrounded by volunteers and supplies, I reminded myself to breathe. I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I had arrived with a truck full of sandwiches and water, which I had expected to deliver and then be sent on my way. But they didn’t send me away. So I stayed, because no one stopped me. I organized. I made myself busy. I slept in the back of a pickup truck because I knew I’d never get back in if I went home.

I kept working, and I met my team of six others just like me. We were unprepared and unqualified – and totally unwilling to leave. Through the smoke and smell of burning steel our lives slowly disappeared behind us. Our only goal was to be helpful – to be of use. For the first time in my young life, everything seemed clear.

So we worked. As hard as we could for as long as we could stand up, we worked. Through a series of events either explained by luck, divinity or destiny – depending on your persuasion – we were given the credentials to keep working. And somewhere in that work, fear, adrenaline, and exhausted laughter, I discovered who I was and what I was meant for. I knew it in my bones.

In the context of Ground Zero I also began to feel that my work was necessary, that the skills I was building were – in my own small way – required as a cog in the progress being made there. I mattered. I was important. I was completely addicted to the way that felt, and I was headed for a crash greater than anything I’d ever experienced. I never saw it coming.

Anatomy of a Purpose Bully

Somewhere in what I was learning, in the extraordinary things I was experiencing, I forgot how lucky I was. It might seem strange to think of being in Ground Zero as lucky, but that’s absolutely what it was. Within a city that felt paralyzed, where many lined up at the Red Cross or outside the barricades to try to volunteer, the chance to be there was an honor. In the beginning, I knew that. I knew I was lucky to be able to help, but as time went on those words took on an emptiness. They were empty because I began to feel that my work was necessary. Emphasis on “my” work. And because I was so unaware of what was happening to me, and so high on my new purpose, I crossed the line between understanding that my work was important, and believing I was more important than those not there working with me. I began to foster in myself the ‘others don’t understand what we’re seeing here’ mentality, to secretly encourage the idea that my work and my pain and my struggle was more valid somehow than anyone who was further away. 

Because I was spending all of my time with my relief team, I didn’t see the shift in myself. I only knew how simple everything seemed. How amazing. How clear my life was in what seemed like a time of such chaos and pain. I should have been far more concerned about the fact that I was starting to see the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Not even the deeply misguided idea of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, but the separation between those of us working downtown and the ‘civilians’ outside of Ground Zero. I was no longer a civilian.

I began to feel sorry for people who couldn’t do what I was doing. I also began to resent them for it. To make assumptions and judgments about their lives and what I felt they were or were not doing. I began to feel alienated from my friends and family, but I rationalized it as the cost of this clarity of purpose that I had found – that they clearly lacked. I was awake and they were still asleep. I claimed I wanted them to understand even as I convinced myself that the growing distance between us was a sign of my own enlightenment. Even though I had only ever wanted to help, I had absolutely no idea what an arrogant, self-righteous asshole I had become.

Tequila and Tough Love

Luckily, I had the kind of friends willing to point it out to me. I’m sure that many close to me were sick of me and didn’t quite know how to tell me. It’s complicated when someone you see doing meaningful work is also turning into a jerk. It was my friend Mike who sat me down one night in late October. By then, my hardhat and respirator had become like safety blankets, and I would often stop at the bar on my way home still carrying them. My red security clearance tag was literally my red badge of courage. Often lost in trying to process whatever had happened on-site that day, I also wanted other people to see these things. To see who I was and what I was doing.

On this particular night, we were sitting on the couches that used to be behind the pool table at Loki in Brooklyn. It was late, and we were talking about volunteering. We talked about the donations they’d collected at Chelsea Piers, and I remember expressing frustration with how territorial I felt the Red Cross was being. Then we started talking about what different people were doing to help. I don’t remember exactly what I said that set him off, but it was something to the effect of how, even though not everyone could be in Ground Zero, everyone should be doing something to help. And if they weren’t, they were ‘useless’. If you weren’t giving in some way then you had no value. I remember expressing my frustration with New Yorkers who were ‘just returning to their normal lives like nothing had happened’. I genuinely couldn’t understand how everyone couldn’t be focused on joining the recovery effort and I was absolutely judging them for it.

While my rant had started as a conversation, the more I talked the quieter Mike got. Finally (I must’ve stopped to take a breath), he leaned in, and in words that are now a vitriolic blur in my memory, he ripped into me. He asked me if I felt his grandmother was useless. That she wasn’t volunteering and so how did she fit into my new worldview. That she was fully occupied with what needed to be done to live her own life while trying to deal with what had happened, as many people were, and who the fuck did I think I was? Did I really think that everyone forcing their way downtown would actually be helpful? How delusional and spoiled did I need to be to believe that most people could drop everything in their lives to spend time in Ground Zero?

I remember being genuinely surprised that he was so mad at me. He tore through my rationalizations and arrogance with such heartfelt venom that I burst into tears right there in the bar. 

For the record, I have never made a habit of crying in bars. In fact, at that point I hadn’t cried at all since September 11th. I left clinging to my denial and my hardhat, and cried uncontrollably all the way home and for hours afterwards until I passed out. I fell asleep that night, as I often did, on a mattress in my living room watching CNN. I told myself he didn’t understand, he had misunderstood. Of course his grandmother was not what I meant and he was being unfair. I was one of the good guys.

But he’d rattled me in a way that only a good friend can rattle you. And there are few things more inwardly painful than being torn down off your high horse to realize that you are, in fact, the asshole.

Denial Fights Back

I wish that I could tell you that in one magical moment of conflict that I was cured. But that night was really just the first time I saw myself clearly for what I had become – and that it wasn’t all destiny and roses. In reality, it took months – maybe years – to separate the genuinely meaningful work that I’d done from the presumptions of others that I had made along the way. It took me a very long time to understand that there is a razor thin line between a sense of purpose and a sense of self-righteousness. It’s very hard to see, and it’s dangerous because it takes no conscious decision to cross it. But the moment I did, the world became ‘us’ and ‘them’, and the further I went, the more I valued one above the other.  The further I went, the easier it became to rationalize the separation between who I was and who I was better than. 

It got much worse for me when the work in Ground Zero ended, and all of a sudden I was pushed back into a world I thought I didn’t belong in. I had no idea that my behavior had become so destructive long before it actually destroyed me. I was doing something good. How could there possibly be danger in that?  But I had spent four months carving out a new identity for myself that, however well-intentioned, however valuable the work, revolved around separating myself from others.

Having to go home when it was over turned that identity to dust. I was lost. For a very long time. For years, it felt like nothing fit, nothing made sense, and nothing was real. I had become the wrong size and shape to fit into my own life. Even now, I sometimes still feel that. Even though there was nothing to be won, it felt like enormous failure. I felt like I’d died from the inside out. For the first few years, I think maybe I did. I wondered often if I was going to spend the rest of my life wishing I could go back to Ground Zero, and the worst part was that I couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong.

I’d like to tell you I found my way back, but all these years later I’m still sorting it out. I imagine I always will be. At some point I stopped trying to rail against a world that still feels all wrong to me, and started trying to build the one I wanted. I continue to seek out the opportunities that speak to my bones.

Our collective search for meaning is not a competition – that was harder for me to learn than it should have been, and I know I’m not the only one. I’ve seen it so many times over the years. Even when trying to do good, we obsess over who we are in relation to others. But no matter where you draw your “us” vs. “them” lines – on a map, around an ideology or in a call to action – you will always be wrong. 

And eventually, you’ll be the asshole. 

Advertisements
Posted in Current Events | 1 Comment

I Heard You

photo by Andrei Niemimäki on FLICKR

I heard you
Above the screech
of talking heads
Above the suffocating silence
from inside the vacuum of political spin
Above the clacking
of millions of fingers on keyboards
Somehow typing and pointing
at the same time

I heard you
as you gasped for the air
that the news had just punched out of your gut
I heard you when you whispered
“Not again”
Some of you
for the millionth time
“why are our bodies your battlefield?”
Some of you
under your breath
with eyes closed
in relentlessly familiar prayer
“please don’t let the shooter be Muslim”
Over and over
Over and over
And the answer came
like a tsunami
that has not quite arrived
but you know
just past the horizon
It is on it’s way
to swallow you whole

I heard you
And I’m whispering back
That I love you
And I know that I cannot unbreak those bodies
But I will learn their names
I cannot yet crack the walls of this misplaced fear
with my love
But I’m trying
And I’m whispering back
That no matter how big the wave
swelling from that narrow fearful place
of weaponized American fear
A fear of you
Will never find its way
into my heart
Because my heart
is already full of you
You are not alone
We are not alone
And love will raise these whispers
into a roar
That fear cannot survive.

Posted in Current Events, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

On Being A Not-Racist White American

The most destructive lie that we were taught as liberal white kids in America was not that racism was over, it was that we were not racist. No matter how polite we are, or how many times we sang along to ‘We Are The World,’ what we have not done betrays us. 

 

photo by Katie Tegtmeyer on Flickr

I spent the first thirteen years of my life in the American midwest, in neighborhoods that were predominately, but not entirely, white. And because I was a white kid, I didn’t notice. We were taught in school that all people are equal, but were raised outside the classroom on a million micro-messages and subtly reinforced assumptions about what skin color “usually means” – in ways as simple as driving through predominately black neighborhoods and registering how they differed from our own, or as obvious as the Hollywood stereotypes we brought home from the movies. We talked about racism, but never as anything other than past tense or somewhere else. It was a mistake that other people made. I was taught that “all races are beautiful,” but all my friends and all my heroes looked like me. The lessons of equality were abstract, but the lessons implied by the hue of my childhood experience were not. Looking back, or maybe looking inward, the worst part, the most destructive part of a liberal American childhood, is that we were actively taught to believe that we couldn’t be racist.

We were raised to understand how lucky we were, and to believe that we were already on the winning side of history. We were the heroes of the Civil War. Our side won. We were the good guys. And I clearly remember learning about Martin Luther King, Jr and the civil rights movement as something those crazy people in the South were doing. We didn’t have confusing things like segregated schools or parents who used the “n word”. It was totally 100% clear that we were the not-racists, if for no other reason than we had such clear examples of what racism was – and we didn’t do any of that awful stuff. And besides, there were like ten black kids in our school. I imagined their lives in Cosby-show clarity.  So clearly, we were the not-racists. The good guys.

Unfortunately, that’s completely insane. Racism isn’t graded on a bell curve, and we’re not off the hook just because we can point south at confederate flags and white robes and Dylan Roofs.

It’s true that internalized and structural racism can be difficult to identify when you’re on the privileged side of it, and when not seeing it is much, much easier. But we don’t stand a chance at addressing the inequalities of our nation if we can’t even see the bias we carry around in ourselves, or how devastating that willful blindness is to those we claim to see as equals. It is hypocritical to say that we reject acts of violence and race-based terrorism like those that continue to play out across our country when we do nothing beyond sending our prayers and waiving our fingers. It exposes us to everyone, it seems, but ourselves.

It’s ugly. But any progress requires looking that ugly in the eyes. Our eyes. We have to consider that we are not all that we thought we were. We’re not the good guys, and we need to see that our inaction, our non-involvement, and our we-don’t-have-to-get-involved-because-we-haven’t-done-anything-wrong, is racism’s support system. Not as flashy as confederate flags, but every bit as destructive.

In a recent article, Clare Bayard said:

“For those of us white people living in this time and place, who think that in apartheid South Africa we would have actively opposed white supremacist rule, who think that if we’d been alive during the civil rights era we’d have been Freedom Riders or at least supported the sit-ins, if you would have actively condemned the Birmingham church bombing as a terrorist act… don’t sleep on this moment we live in now in which you too are being called to take a stand.” 

So many of us have thought exactly that – have looked backwards in time at the heroes we imagine we would have been. But somehow right now, in this moment in time, are doing nothing. So if you have not yet found a way to engage in this struggle, perhaps the question to ask yourself is “Who am I, truly, if I do nothing?”

The answer, by the way, is racist. Doing nothing is racist. And absolutely no one will look back fondly on all those really clever, not-racist opinions you have.

What we fail to do kills people every day. Kills our fellow Americans. If you really want to fight a war on terror, take a good long look in the mirror.

There is an important distinction to be made between blame and accountability. Blame is pointed outward. It’s what we mark people with before we condemn them. We can blame Dylan Roof. We can blame his parents or his community. We can blame “The South” or the confederate flag. There’s always plenty of it to go around. But accountability is something different. Accountability is an acknowledgement of responsibility. And for these acts of violence where we are so quick to shift the blame away from ourselves, or to force the narrative toward forgiveness, we must first recognize that we are all accountable. We are all accountable for Dylan Roof. For the silence that is our tacit permission for these things to continue. For the apathy that rationalizes that silence. And for the inaction that allows this shit to continue happening.

Not-being-racist is not just being nice to everyone. It’s certainly not a geographical birthright or a lucky coincidence. We were born into a country with a long, inescapable history of white supremacy. We’re not the good guys. The problem is us, and we’re the ones that have to do better. Start right now.

Start here:
http://mic.com/articles/97900/10-simple-rules-for-being-a-non-racist-white-person

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

We Have a Lot of Work To Do

A reflection, this year, seems grossly inadequate. Even though every year my view of Ground Zero changes. I know I’m not the only one overwhelmed and exhausted by the world right now. Watching as we insult each other on social media until our fingers bleed about things that cannot be changed in this forum of self-aggrandizing water buckets and public shaming. I am also guilty. Grumbling to myself self-righteously as I watch more and more protesters whose anger – while justified – has not yet evolved into meaningful organization. Watching those who scream and rage about the need for community instead of setting about to build it (both them and me). This year my frustration is leaking through my respectful gratitude. So this year, no waxing nostalgic about the miracles of hell. Our world is broken. And the xenophobic gas released in the wake of 9/11 has only spread and deepened. Stronger than ever. Because we haven’t done enough to stop it. You haven’t done enough. And neither have I.

I don’t want to live in this anger. I don’t want it to cloud my love of this life and the potential for extraordinary action that I know we each possess. So it is the equality of that potential that I will focus on this year. I will double down on my commitment to craft the world I want in spite of the assholes and arsenals that stand in my way.

This is my 9/11.

I promise to stand up.
I promise to laugh.
I promise to build my community.
I promise to work my ass off.
I promise to organize.
I promise to use my fear to drive me forward.

And finally, I promise not to divide. I will not buy in to the manufacturing of enemies. I will not blame “Islam” or “the immigrants” or “the republicans” or “the men” or “the cops” or “the 1%” or any other such horseshit. I will not play that game. I will remain open to any allies willing to work toward the same unity. I will work for unity as opposed to the defeat of enemies. I will remember that it was our work in Ground Zero that united us then – and it is the work we do every day that can unite us now.

We have a lot of work to do.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Night Osama Died

photo by herval on FLICKR

photo by herval on FLICKR

I was in bed when my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I picked up thinking that good news never comes at night. It took me a moment to recognize the voice. Instead of hello, he said “We got him.”

I already knew. I’d been watching the news anchors speculate as they waited for Obama’s press conference before I’d gone to bed. The voice on the other end of my phone was Chris, a fellow worker from New York’s Ground Zero of so many years before.  Despite the family that such tragedies fuse together, he and I had never been particularly close. But he wanted to make sure I knew. He said that. “We got him. I’m calling everyone. We did it. We finally got him. I just wanted to make sure you knew.” There was triumph in his voice – if not outright joy, then giddy, satisfied resolve. Celebration. The air of long-awaited justice, finally served. Cold but still delicious.

I thanked him for calling. I wasn’t sure what else to say as I pulled myself away from sleep. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. As I hung up, my husband yawned “what was that about?”

“That was Chris,” I replied, “part of my team at Ground Zero. He wanted me to know that Osama Bin Laden was dead. It’s been confirmed.”

“Really? He called just to tell you?”

My husband is from Montreal, and wasn’t a part of those years in my life.  He understood, of course, why people would be relieved that Osama Bin Laden was dead. It was the immediacy and the enthusiasm that surprised him.

It was the completion of a promise. A promise our country had waited a decade to see fulfilled. We’d killed so many to get there. We built an empire of anger and color-coded fear. A web of self-restriction so we could sleep again at night. In those first moments after I hung up the phone, I searched for that happiness I’d heard in Chris’s voice. I closed my eyes and took myself back to those days, as I have done so many times. Into the smoke that smelled of death and burning steel. Into the fear that turns your city to glass, so easily broken. Through the chants of “USA! USA!” that punctuated the president’s visit and every attempt to pull us collectively from our despair and into our rage. I tried to dive back into that pain that threatens to break you from within. The discovery of every body part. The hands holding on to each other but attached to nothing else. The hero’s escort of each recovered firefighter back up the West Side Highway. We stood at attention for every single one. We lost count of the funerals. I searched through those memories for the closure, the relief I knew I should be feeling.

But somehow Osama’s death still offered me nothing.

My mind wandered instead to the years since. The grainy broadcasts of rockets fired off into darkness, searching there for our justice. Each explosion, we were assured, brought us one step closer. It was the war on our terror. But my mind always got stuck in the death. Maybe because I knew what explosions looked like, after. And I never quite figured out how specializing in the export of Ground Zeros would fix the hole in our hearts.

I wandered further, imagining the celebrations that had likely taken place while our own dead still burned. Those strange and terrifying far away monsters that the news had warned us about, who danced at the thought of our dead. They must be monsters, because what creature other than monsters could celebrate the death of those we loved? What creature indeed.

I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling, searching for an answer to the question that was rising from that place in my stomach that knows about terrible things. But I knew the answer before the question had even taken its shape. When does it end? It clearly doesn’t end with the death of Osama. And certainly no one expected that with his death, ten years of xenophobia, military action and the Patriot Act would simply evaporate. That life would reset itself as if some balance had suddenly been restored.

It doesn’t. It doesn’t end. That’s what I realized that night. It doesn’t end because it can’t end. Because every death we celebrate is a martyr for someone else to avenge. In the same way that we’ve sought so much blood for those who died in our towers. If pain and loss give a person the right to kill, there will simply be no one left. And if inflicting pain and death on others is something to be celebrated, as we clearly did through every network broadcast that night, who had we become? As Chris had said that night, “we did it.” But what had we done?

And here we are, years later, and there will still never be enough blood to avenge those already lost, and we will never drop enough bombs to ensure the peace we claim to seek. It cannot be done. The people we are attacking are people. And in my own very limited, personal way, I know what Ground Zeros do to people. They do not bring peace, or encourage submission or silence. When we were attacked, our rage demanded blood. Why would it be any different for anyone else? If there are 20, or even 2000 ‘terrorists’ we are attempting to kill, I assure you that with every drone strike there will be many, many more.

Don’t misunderstand this – I am not a pacifist. My struggle is not with the necessity of violence as means of protection, but rather as a marker of achievement. It’s the end game I don’t see.

Dr. King wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

For me, the night Osama Bin Laden died was not an ending. It was the first night I truly started to understand what Dr. King meant and with that came the realization of just how radical that statement was. Not just because we’re still willing to believe, however reluctantly, that peace sits waiting for us on the far side of anyone’s patriotic retribution, but because it means that the love he speaks of cannot be passive if it is going to drive anything out of anywhere. And if we are part of that love, then neither can we be passive. 

The love he’s talking about is not timid or frivolous or weak. His life, and every life he touched, demonstrates that the love he spoke of was deeply powerful – and unrelenting and strategic. Always learning, organizing and growing. Always open. Not silent. Larger with every new ally. Always working. Always reevaluating the playing field – the systems of power. Always aware of the connection we have to each other. And the responsibility that connection demands.

That connection does not know skin or border. It is stronger than the divisions we manufacture with our fear. It laughs at every new line we draw in the sand. It runs through all of us. All. of. us. It isn’t ours to award. We only get to choose whether or not we will accept our responsibility to each other. Whether we will stand in that light or that darkness.

It is also a hard road forward. Accepting that responsibility means that regardless of where someone is standing, we recognize the humanity we all share. It means that we can honor loss and grief (ours and theirs) – but we cannot honor the hatred that is a product of that pain. And we cannot use pain to justify death. This path is much harder than simply continuing to believe that our violence is righteous violence. But in so honoring each other, there is both hope and power. There is, at the very least, a space for the possibility of understanding. A crack in the wall.

That is how love drives out hate. By working and organizing and connecting at every moment to be unrelentingly unified. Not in our beliefs. Not in our identities. Only in the recognition of our equal value. There are no roads to resolution that do not start from that place. It is possible.

I just wanted to make sure you knew.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Conversations We Keep

The rage.

The heels-dug-into-cement vitriolic polarization. Unrestrained hostility. Endless personal attacks and accusations choking every conversation. It’s what happens when hate marinates over generations. The endless heartbreaking pictures. It’s overwhelming, and we’re making it worse.

When we decide to post and share the articles about the Israeli member of parliament who believes that Israel must murder Palestinian mothers, or the one about the Israeli scholar who sees rape as a reasonable tactic of deterrence, or the video of Palestinian daycare workers abusing their own children, we are making a dangerous choice. Yes, those things exist. Darkness and extremism exist everywhere in the world. And yes, we should be horrified by these things. But what is it that makes us share the worst and most extreme cases of ignorance and depravity instead of focusing on signs of the common ground we so desperately need? Those signs are out there. Is it truly just “human nature”? Why do we allow ourselves to steep in such overwhelming pain when there is clearly so much work to be done? The conversations we have matter more than we think.

When we share stories like the ones above, we are making a choice about the conversations we want to have. We are deciding to spend our time standing in judgement – basking in the comforting glow of moral superiority – instead of spending our energy pursuing avenues of common ground that might actually help put an end to the violence and to the circumstances that create such extremism. I understand the impulse to highlight such clear injustice, but choosing to focus on what dehumanizes us to each other moves us in the wrong direction. Right now, on social media, we are complaining about the impossibility of rational discussion while we participate in making it worse. We cannot shame our way to peace.

It’s easy to rationalize that sharing things we find shocking, that seem to reinforce a belief we already hold, can potentially shock others into sympathizing with our cause. But most of the time  it has the opposite effect. By and large, instead of inciting people to action in support of our cause, these posts betray our own bigotry, our own impulse to dehumanize, and incite uselessly aggressive comment wars that ultimately deepen the divide. We lament the horrors of the conflict while driving people further away from each other. We are doing this to ourselves.

For many who do not hold positions on one extreme or the other, the easiest course in response to this trend has become silence. In the face of such hostility, the space for rational conversation and debate has been completely suffocated. But this is exactly the time that prying open that space is most important – that silence is the most destructive. Families continue to die. And around the world we feel paralyzed to stop it.  We are not paralyzed, and what we talk about (and how we talk about it) effects how we view the possibilities for change. We have a choice.

These conversations matter. Yes, we need action. We need to pressure those in government who claim to represent us when they clearly do not. Yes, we need to organize ourselves and strategize ways to end this violence. But in the midst of these necessary actions, we cannot forget that our conversations, our narratives, and the stories we tell are what create the space for those changes to take place. They serve not only as a space for working toward reconciliation, but also to remind us that the reconciliation we seek is truly possible – even in the midst of what seems like pure madness.

Violence porn doesn’t solve conflicts – the photos of Gaza have proven this to us beyond all shadow of doubt. Neither does holding up the extremist views of others as proof of our own moral high ground. But building community and focusing on what can move us forward does. If we continue to focus on what we despise, we pave the way for the rationalization of further violence. If we are truly seeking resolution, then it’s time to ask ourselves which conversation we want to be having.

Posted in Current Events, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Peace We Seek

What if we stopped believing that peace and conflict are mutually exclusive?

photo by momo on FLICKR

photo by momo on FLICKR

 

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare understood that we are, all of us, hypocrites – a series of contradictions. My newsfeed confirms that no amount of evidence can stand up against our ability to rationalize. We form most of our beliefs by working backwards – by first holding a belief and then fitting the facts to suit whatever our conviction might be.

Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance revolves around the idea that humans will seek to eliminate dissonance in their lives. This dissonance would be defined as any set of conflicting beliefs. He hypothesized that this dissonance creates distress that people will seek to reduce. While I believe this to be true, I would argue that we do not typically seek to reduce the contradictions in our beliefs by carefully and openly evaluating them to determine what holds the most truth and value for us. 

Instead, in a modern world driven by polarizations, we more often reduce intellectual contradictions through acrobatic rationalization – by redefining our realities and shaving off the edges of the puzzle pieces to make them fit together. Known by many names, including “confirmation bias” and “selective perception,” this well-documented process of rationalization has been the subject of decades of study in psychology. 

And these days, it’s an epidemic.

A Rationalized World

Take, as an example, the American demonization of Mexican immigrants. Defying all logic, they are stereotyped and dehumanized as both ‘lazy’ (a burden on the American social welfare system) and ‘stealing jobs from Americans’ simultaneously. Even if one is willing to entertain such ridiculous generalizations, one should logically conclude those two traits are mutually exclusive. Clearly both are false, but it doesn’t matter. When it’s ‘us’ vs. ‘them,’ the truth doesn’t matter at all. That’s the point. Logic doesn’t matter. As the saying goes, the first casualty of war is truth – and the same can be said not just in war, but in any construction of the ‘other’.

So let’s push this idea further. It isn’t just indicative of our disastrous ability to rationalize, but also of the way that rationalization effects how we relate to each other on every level. By always needing to frame disagreements and conflict through an us vs. them lens, there is no space for critical thought. Through that familiar frame, the goal in conflict is never to listen or learn – but only to win. And if the goal is only ever to win, then empathy, or worse – changing your mind – becomes the definition of defeat.

Defined this way, conflict was never about reason, never about dialogue, or our right to communicate our ideas – it was about power, about winning (and, of course, about the other guy losing). Because within the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ frame, it is winning that makes you right. So then what need is there to listen or address the concerns of the ‘losers’? There is none, because the battle has been won. Only the “winner” in this could possibly believe that this system isn’t completely discordant to peace. And so here we are.

The Wrong Questions

Our ideas about what conflict is (and what winning means) are woven into everything we do. Through this ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ frame, conflict is bad and inherently threatening. It is something to be ‘won’ as opposed to understood or addressed. But creativity and art are both the product of conflict, as is progress. Resolution exists on the other side of conflict, and our insistence on this destructively oversimplified frame clouds our basic understanding of what conflict really is. And if our understanding of conflict is wrong, what hope is there for resolution?

Many of our attempts at defining peace incorporate an absence of conflict. But what if peace isn’t an absence of conflict? What if peace looks more like meaningful conflict? What if we need to understand conflict before we can understand what this elusive peace would look like? What if all this theorizing is useless when we run from or react violently to any actual conflict presented to us?

Stepping Back to Move Forward

Our current notions of peace are not peace at all – much in the same way that Orwell defined each ministry in 1984 by giving it a name opposite to it’s function. In many ways – from terrorism to COIN (counter-insurgency) – it seems our own governments have followed Orwell’s example. The things we do in the name of ‘peace’, much like ‘democracy’ and ‘liberation’, look remarkably unlike the ideals these words are suggestive of. Whose peace? Whose liberation? Our ability to rationalize appears limitless.

If we are ever going to overcome the hypocrisy built in to the narratives that surround us (and the narratives we tell ourselves), we need to realize that we have everything to learn from each other – that what we see as an ‘other’ is really just a ‘different us.’ We need to look at what conflict consists of, not simply what it’s outcomes are. We need to acknowledge that peace is neither silent nor passive. It’s active and authentic – just as anger and fear and discord are also authentic and part of the same system. Maybe somewhere in this radical reflection we’ll realize that peace and conflict are not separate things at all.

What if we actually did seek to reduce the contradictions in our beliefs by carefully and openly evaluating them to determine what holds the most truth and value for all of us?  It would teach us that peace IS conflict – conflict entered into with coherency and empathy. They are part of the same broken process – and separating them from each other is actually what broke that process in the first place.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment