Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Reach across the chasm.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. I am passionate about mental health and alleviating the suffering of people, sitting shiva with them to mourn life's losses, offering presence in the midst of pain, and pressing into the awfulness before trying to explain it away. I hurt for the people who cannot bring themselves to dare to experience the inherent pain of hoping, for it forces us to acknowledge that the world is not how we wish it would be. I care about people who are hurting so badly that they inflict pain on themselves in search of some sort of congruence, some sort of release, some sort of escape, some sort of way to quiet everything that unceasingly intrudes.

I feel a bit conflicted today, though, as I post articles and comments about suicide awareness. I also care deeply about people who hurt others, and know that this, too, is within the realm of mental health awareness. There's not a world awareness day for people who commit acts of violence against others. We don't circle around these people in the same way, we don't have empathy and compassion for people once they have crossed that line. And there are many reasons that this is true. But here's the thing, found in an old, simplistic saying: "Hurt people hurt people." There are studies that suggest that hurting others can be just as psychologically traumatizing as being hurt by others. And it is this that makes me think that maybe people who hurt themselves and people who hurt others aren't so different. We're all hurt, and we all do our fair share of hurting.

I don't have answers or profound thoughts or startling insights to contribute, and I don't want to invalidate the pain of any person who has suffered and struggled to find a place of hope and health. I can't fix anything, and I am not any better at grieving and facing pain head on than anyone else in our numb society. But on days like today when we are all a bit more willing to consider the pain of others, I have to wonder what would happen if we took the risk of truly connecting with others - across racial/cultural/economic/mental health/educational/political lines and with the desire to truly unite in our humanity, in our shared pain, in a place of grief and hope. Maybe today, on World Suicide Prevention Day, we can reach across the chasms that separate us in order to grasp the hand of another human being who loves and hurts just like we do.

"Whether you are red, brown, yellow, black, or white
Man with a husband, or a woman with a wife
We can debate until the end of time who is wrong or right
Or we can see ourselves as one
Cause it all comes down to love."
~ India Arie, One

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Being the best just might be the worst.

I am beginning to think that being held up as an example of what a person should be is the worst thing you could ask for in your life.

Top-of-their-class students check in to hospitals with anxiety disorders because they are afraid to fail. The "good" kids are known for going "wild" after years of repression and perfect behavior. Poster people for sobriety feel they have to hide in shame when they relapse. The Biggest Loser may or may not have engaged in behaviors of disordered eating. Pastors do all the worst things they tell us not to do. Olympians and professional football players have heart wrenching stories of depression and self-destruction after they are no longer the best in the world. Justin threw eggs at someone's house and abused a flight attendant. When you're held up as the "best" of something, who are you supposed to ask for help? When you're always the example, who can you let see you fall?

I won something recently, and I didn't want anyone to know. I didn't want to have to live up to myself or the expectations that would be placed on me for being a "winner." I didn't want anyone else to feel like they should have done something "better" to win. Is that what we are all killing ourselves for day after day? So that someone will put nice words around our names in front of other people? I think maybe that's all winning is. It doesn't feel worth it.

I've never liked competition. It has always felt like people-ranking and worth-assigning to me. I know that healthier people can do it and do it well, in ways that are about the achievement of objective greatness not tied to self-worth. They are stronger people than I am. I know the darkness in myself wants to have people say nice things and give me prizes so that I can believe in a better version of me. I'm not being falsely humble, here. I'm saying that people are excited to put the things they win out for the world to see, but that those are only a part of ourselves. My shadow sides are just as much a part of me as whatever I win.

We try and try and try to live up to an unrealistic version of ourselves, and then at some point, we just have to explode. Do you ever feel like one of those models who talks about how she is always trying to look as good as the version of herself that's on the magazine covers? We are presenting ourselves in ways that are photoshopped, and it's impossible to live up to that.

I want people to love me when I lose or forget a deadline or eat a whole frozen pizza every bit as much as they love me when I win or turn in great work on time or go to the gym in cute workout clothes. Maybe they would, but who's brave enough to put all that out there and see what happens?

I want a world where we can be loved for all the worst things about us right alongside all the best things about us. I want to stop having to hide all the things I'm bad at. What's even worse is when you have to give politically correct answers for areas in which you need to grow, all the while knowing that you have to list a fault that is appropriately negative without being downright horrible. Too horrible and you've blown it. Too positive, and you look arrogant and unteachable. We're aiming for that sweet spot of invulnerable disclosures and trite humility.

Maybe if we lived in a world where mistakes and full range of self were allowed, Justin could have just told people to leave him alone years ago. Maybe people would be allowed to make mistakes and get grace in the midst of them instead of having to hide in shame. Maybe more people would seek mental health treatment when they need it instead of hiding from the pain of stigma and judgment.

And maybe if we all stopped pretending to be perfect, we would all find the love and acceptance we're truly longing for in the first place.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Learning to speak.

I am terrified at the idea of speaking up and speaking out. I am afraid of the wounding woundedness that comes out of people when their defenses are triggered. I believe in speaking truth even when it is difficult. I believe in being gentle but honest, even with difficult feedback. But I don’t know how to strike that balance. I am afraid of the relational ruptures that may ensue - even with people with whom I have no relationships, and even though I hold the belief that relationships are stronger if rupture and repair has taken place. I don’t know how to navigate “truth in love” when there is little (or no) love. And when there is love, the fear of repercussions is doubled. I don’t know how to do this. So I guess at some point, I just just have to start trying.
That is what this season has been. I am stumblingly and falteringly speaking about the injustices that I encounter in this world, and I am reminding myself that the pain I feel when I screw up is not nearly as much as the pain felt by those who have inspired the words that are written on my heart. I try to remember that causing another person pain isn’t the worst possible thing I could do, and that people are capable of forgiveness and love even when you cause them pain. I don’t believe that yet. Not believing that makes everything else harder.
I have posted controversial things that I believe in passionately without trying to think through how all who see it might or might not be offended if they read it. I have calmly and un-emotionally been ready to give my defense of these postings, hoping to have rational conversations without triggering people’s defenses. It hasn’t really worked. Why is it so much harder to do this in real life than it is to do it as a therapist? If anyone can talk about something and make it palatable enough to not trigger the listener’s defense mechanisms, shouldn’t it be a therapist? I have publicly jumped in on threads to defend my friends who are being told to “stop playing the race card” and that “all is equal,” taking huge risks and being called a racist who is using my “advanced intelligence” to try and cover up my racist beliefs. And I want to quit talking. I want to quit jumping in. And I want to hold my beliefs folded under my hands and next to my heart, protected where no one can see them unless I trust them enough to take down my hands. But instead, I tell my friends the hurtful words and I ask if I am being blind to my own racism or if I am using intellectualization as a defense, and I try to listen and hear their words of grace to me. And then I try again.
In some recovery programs, they consider relapse to actually be a necessary part of recovery. What if in falling and failing, I am still moving forward? And what if this is true of all of us who look at our faults in the mirror and stubbornly work to address them and be better versions of our forever imperfect selves?
It may be failing, but it is movement. After all, the goal wasn’t to succeed or even to win anyone over. The goal was to speak boldly and authentically out of the passionate places in my heart, to speak my tears loudly and to recognize that they are not mine to withhold. My mistakes may be mistakes, but they are movement. And maybe that is enough for now.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

An Update on this Vulnerability Journey.

I really like being alone. I'm the kind of introvert that comes with social anxiety and shyness, even if you can't see it. After a long day, I can't wait to get home to be alone in my own space. It's like a deep breath out.

Maybe this is why I like to do things on my own. Maybe it's some deeper reaction against a fear of being dependent or needing someone (and the terror that they wouldn't come through or that I would be too much for them). Regardless, I have always kept the most difficult parts of my life to myself. I don't share when I need help. I don't say the things I think would put my weakness and neediness on display. I go home and sit alone. I think about all the people that I could call, who would probably feel honored for me to trust them with my tears. And then I cry alone anyway. This has always been my default, and I have always secretly believed that this was the right choice.

The people in my life that have been honest about their shortcomings are some of my favorite people in the world. I prize authenticity above almost everything else. And yet, I hold myself short of it out of fear. Fear of what, I'm still not sure. But I know it has something to do with the way I want others to see me, and what I want to believe about myself.

Why in the world am I writing this? Many of you have been with me since this journey of vulnerability started a few Lent seasons ago, on this blog. I've been experimenting since then with measured risks and honesty (even the kind that doesn't paint the version of myself that I want to believe is true).

Recently, some difficult things have happened in my life. In the grand scheme of things, probably not a big deal. But they were big enough that I literally couldn't handle them alone. I was forced with the choice of asking for help or facing consequences that might ruin my life. And this is what it took.

Honestly, I probably still wouldn't have had the guts to do it if a friend hadn't pulled it out of me. But that moment changed things. I began to take real risks with real people and be truly authentic in a way that scared the hell out of me. I was desperate and in a place of pain, and I didn't shield it for fear of what would happen. I was sure that I was going to sink, and I just needed to make sure I'd checked everywhere for a life raft.

And then the most amazing thing happened. People started helping me. Not in that "I'll pray for you and never talk to you about this again" way. But in the, "I'm going to call you every single day even if you get sick of me" way. In the "I can do something about this problem, and I'm going to" way. In the "You are not okay. Stop lying to yourself and to me" way. In the "I am going to take care of you for the next few moments and make you a bowl of soup" way. In the "Go ahead and talk about whatever you fear is annoying for the next 16 hours and I will still ask you follow up questions" way.

Suddenly, the world seems a little bit different to me. I'm trusting a little bit more. I'm feeling a little bit better about who I am. I'm a little less concerned about how much I might be annoying the people in my world.

I have long believed in the idea of community. But I guess I didn't really believe in it. This post is just to thank you, the people who have loved me, wooed me out of my fear-corners, unceasingly told me that I am worthy of space. My vulnerability journey is giving way to life lived in real community.

If you have loved me, thank you. If you share my fears, I can relate to your desire to just be Superperson and do it all alone. But if for a moment we can consider together that we might be missing out on something better - messier, but better - then can I tell you this? I've only just dipped my toe in, but the water isn't that bad. In fact, it feels pretty refreshing.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Why Alice in Wonderland Really Pissed Me Off.

Over the summer, I listened to an audio book of the old classic story, Alice in Wonderland.  Instead of being magically transformed into a childhood version of myself and caught up in the delight of the characters, I was startled by my reaction to the stories. I was disgusted. I felt a familiar feeling of nausea mixed with anger that usually means my “justice sensors” have been tripped. Confused, I began the process of asking myself why a children’s story would trigger such a strong reaction in me.
Then, I realized. Alice had been dropped into a world with different rules, norms, and cultures than those to which she was accustomed. The characters didn’t look the way that people in her world looked. The world didn’t operate according to the principles and values that she had been socialized to hold dear. Because of the nature of the fictional story, I kept expecting Alice to become fascinated with this other world and learn the customs and practices from those who were different than her. I expected her to be intrigued by those who had new insights and engaging cultural practices. I waited for her to ask questions and begin the process of understanding this new context.
But she didn’t. Instead, Alice chose to rigidly hold to her own framework and judge the creatures and worlds she encountered according to her own belief system. Only a child herself, she harshly judged a mother’s parenting. Dumbfounded and unwilling to consider the impact on the recipient of her words, she insisted to a mouse that he should not be offended that she prized her cat on her ability to catch rats. She hurt creatures when she was larger than life without the tiniest bit of regret for her actions. She yelled and disrupted a court process because it did not work within her expectations of the justice system.
Alice was a cross-cultural traveler who chose to hold everyone she met against her own cultural standards, despite the fact that they lived in a completely different world than she did. She was judgmental, disdainful, and unwilling to consider her own biases and blind spots. Sadly, not only did Alice cause harm by entering this other world, but she grievously missed out on all the magic, beauty, and experience that it had to offer. Alice is everything that I do not want to be, and everything that I fear that I am.
Without self-awareness and humble curiosity, we are all like Alice. Those of us who have lived comfortably in a broader culture that matches our individual culture (white, heterosexual, middle class, etc.) have especially strong Alice-like tendencies, for we have never been forced to consider the fact that “the way things are” could possibly be just “the way things are in our world.” Things have always worked a certain way for us, just like they had for little Alice, and we have a choice to make when we encounter something different. Shall I hold tightly to my views, lest my picture of the universal nature of my world be challenged? Or shall I acknowledge my views and open my hands to explore and experience the broader world around me?
Let us not be paternalistic, ethnocentric travelers like Alice. Let us live and love well, without demanding that others adjust to our way of doing things. Let us be flexible and willing to adapt, rather than demanding that others adapt to us. If we do not, we will miss out on the magic and wonder that these other worlds have to offer.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"Understanding the Dynamics of Whiteness" as Quoted from Sue & Sue.

What is written below is a direct quote from the book Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice by Sue and Sue. I wanted to post it mostly because I frequently want to quote it (especially lately), and I have misplaced my book. So as long as I'm writing it down from the copy on Google Books, I thought I would share it with anyone who will read. It is deeply thought provoking, and I simply ask that you read it with an open mind. Some of it is targeted specifically at counselors and other helping professionals, but I believe it is fully relevant to all of us, including those who go on mission trips, volunteer, and serve in multicultural communities. It has had a profound effect on me and captures much of my own process in the development of my cultural identity. All italics have been added (by me) for emphasis.

Feel free to comment, but please keep in mind the feelings of those who may happen to read your words.

"Our analysis of the responses from both Whites and persons of color leads us to the inevitable conclusion that part of the problem of race relations (and by inference multicultural counseling and therapy) lies in the different worldviews of both groups. It goes without saying that the racial reality of Whites is radically different from that of people of color (D. W. Sue, 2010). Which group, however, has the more accurate assessment related to this topic? The answer seems to be contained in the following series of questions: If you want to understand oppression, should you ask the oppressor or the oppressed? If you want to learn about sexism, do you ask men or women? If you want to understand homophobia, do you ask straights or gays? If you want to learn about racism, do you ask Whites or persons of color? It appears that the most accurate assessment of bias comes not from those who enjoy the privilege of power, but from those who are most disempowered (Hanna, Talley, & Guindon, 2000; Neville, Worthington, & Spanierman, 2001). Taking this position, the following assumptions are made about the dynamics of Whiteness.

"First, it is clear that most Whites perceive themselves as unbiased individuals who do not harbor racist thoughts and feelings; they see themselves as working toward social justice and possessing a conscious desire to better the life circumstances of those less fortunate than they. Although admirable qualities, this self-image serves as a major barrier to recognizing and taking responsibility for admitting and dealing with one's own prejudices and biases. To admit to being racist, sexist, or homophobic requires people to recognize that the self-images they hold so dear are based on false notions of the self.

"Second, being a White person in this society means chronic exposure to ethnocentric monoculturalism as manifested in White supremacy (Zetzer, 2011). It is difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to avoid inheriting the racial biases, prejudices, misinformation, deficit portrayals, and stereotypes of their forebears (Cokley, 2006). To believe that one is somehow immune from inheriting such aspects of White supremacy is to be naive or to engage in self-deception. Such a statement is not intended to assail the integrity of Whites but to suggest that they also have been victimized. It is clear to us that no one was born wanting to be racist, sexist, or homophobic. Misinformation is not acquired by free choice but is imposed upon White people through a painful process of cultural conditioning. In general, lacking awareness of their biases and preconceived notions, counselors may function in a therapeutically ineffective manner.

"Third, if White helping professionals are ever able to become effective multicultural counselors or therapists, they must free themselves from the cultural conditioning of their past and move toward the development of a nonracist White identity. Unfortunately, many White Euro-Americans seldom consider what it means to be White in our society. Such a question is vexing to them because they seldom think of race as belonging to them - nor of the privileges that come their way by virtue of their white skin (Foster, 2011; Furman, 2011). Katz (1985) points out a major barrier blocking the process of White Euro-Americans investigating their own cultural identity and worldview:
     Because White culture is the dominant cultural norm in the United States, it acts as an invisible veil that limits many people from seeing it as a cultural system.... Often, it is easier for many Whites to identify and acknowledge the different cultures of minorities than accept their own racial identity.... The difficulty of accepting such a view is that White culture is omnipresent. It is so interwoven in the fabric of everyday living that Whites cannot step outside and see their beliefs, values, and behaviors as creating a distinct cultural group. (pp. 616-617)
As we witnessed in Chapter 6, the invisible veil allows for racial, gender, and sexual orientation microaggressions to be delivered outside the level of awareness of perpetrators (D. W. Sue, 2010). Ridley (1995) asserts that this invisible veil can be unintentionally manifested in therapy with harmful consequences to minortiy clients:
     Unintentional behavior is perhaps the most insidious form of racism. Unintentional racists are unaware of the harmful consequences of their behavior. They may be well-intentioned, and on the surface, their behavior may appear to be responsible. Because individuals, groups, or institutions that engage in unintentional racism do not wish to do harm, it is difficult to get them to see themselves as racists. They are more likely to deny their racism. (p. 38)

"The conclusion drawn from this understanding is that White counselors and therapists may be unintentional racists: (a) They are unaware of their biases, prejudices, and discriminatory behaviors; (b) they often perceive themselves as moral, good, and decent human beings and find it difficult to see themselves as racist; (c) they do not have a sense of what their Whiteness means to them; and (d) their therapeutic approaches to multicultural populations are likely to be more harmful (unintentionally) than helpful. These conclusions are often difficult for White helping professionals to accept because of the defensiveness and feelings of blame they are likely to engender. Nonetheless, we ask that White therapists and students not be turned off by the message and lessons of this chapter. We ask that you continue your multicultural journey in this chapter as we explore the question, 'What does it mean to be White?'" (p. 239-241).

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Dear Trayvon Martin: A Letter of Apology for My Role in Your Death.

Dear Trayvon Martin,

I have wept so many tears over your tragic death, and I know they cannot begin to compare to the tears shed by those who knew and loved you for your 17 brief years. They knew what music you liked, what made you laugh, what you were passionate about, who you loved, and a million other things that made you uniquely you. I am heartbroken at the end of your young life. And I want to write this letter to apologize to you for my role in your death.

Yes, I had a role in your death. I am part of the problem.

I am part of the majority culture. I get called ma'am, am treated respectfully, and get warnings instead of tickets when policemen pull me over (which isn't often). People don't cross the sidewalk when I'm walking toward them. In fact, people look me in the eyes and smile at me because they don't see me as a threat. I'm assumed to be the most educated or most experienced candidate for most jobs for which I apply. I get the jobs for which I apply. I choose whether or not to examine my cultural identity. I choose whether to learn about other cultures or remain immersed in my own. Sometimes they don't take my ticket on the train because I look just like everyone else. I blend in, and when people notice me, they presume that I am kind and innocent. Part of being a minority in the United States, and especially being a young Black man, means that none of those things were true for you. And some of those privileges I have, if you had them, would have saved your life.

I have sat silently and watched my country belittle your humanity as a young Black man. I have listened to people label you as a problem child without considering a) whether or not it is true and b) whether or not the problems our society has created for you may have contributed to any of your alleged behaviors. They dismiss your humanity, and they dismiss your context. They do not understand the fear you must have felt when you were targeted as a criminal, whether or not you were one (which I whole-heartedly do not believe you were). They don't understand the necessity of fighting to save your life, which you knew was in danger, whether or not the man who killed you had yet brandished his gun. They don't think about the impact of being told by an entire society - explicitly and implicitly - that you are a criminal.

They minimize your experience by saying that everything is equal now and that racism no longer exists, demanding that you swallow the party line or be branded a criminal. If you do swallow the party line, you are considered an "exception" to your culture, which simultaneously robs you of your cultural heritage and demonizes everyone that looks like you. But somehow, that's not considered racist. After all, some of their best friends are Black. And everyone knows that if you have a Black friend, you can't be called a racist. Just like a misogynistic man can't hate women if he has a female friend. Oh wait...

But let me come back to the way that I have failed you, my brother in human dignity. My role is perhaps the worst of all, because I have remained silent. I know the truth. I know tiny pieces of the massive racism that still undergirds our country's policies and politics. I feel the bile in the back of my throat and the heat in my face and chest when people spurt out words about an entire group of people that "aren't racist" even though they would have at least thought twice about saying them if my skin weren't the same color as theirs. I hate when they make me a co-conspirator with their statements of hatred, assuming that I agree because I look like them.

But I have done nothing. I stew silently. Sometimes I literally run away from it. And this, this is why I must apologize to you. You deserved more than my dumb and fearful silence.

For whatever reason, God has chosen to make me White. When I asked friends in South Africa what I should do to even begin to address the atrocities that my people have committed, generational sins whose weight rests also upon my shoulders, they said that I must use my voice. My voice will reach ears that would not listen to their voices, who would brand them as "reverse racists." I have unmerited and undeserved privilege as a result of being born from English and Irish families in middle class America. I have failed to use that privilege to fight for you and the millions like you, Trayvon.

My good intentions don't matter. Yours didn't, either.

I have used my words too sparsely and too carefully. I am ashamed, and I am sorry. Can you ever forgive me? I didn't pull the trigger, but I function within a system that allows the trigger to be pulled every. single. day. against young men who don't deserve to die. If I am not working to change it, I am supporting it.

I will fight for you, Trayvon, and the beautiful faces of so many others like you, who have suffered the loss of their dignity and humanity. You bear the image of God just like I do. You are not the face of crime. You are the face of innocence. And I will fight for you.

Your sister in Christ,