Category Archives: Inhumanity

All The Things You Can Think In 8 Minutes & 46 Seconds

“When honor and the Law no longer stand on the same side of the line, how do we choose?” –Anne Bishop, Heir To The Shadows

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” –Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

Hello friend,

I just finished watching the video of George Floyd’s murder again. Now that a couple of weeks have passed and the edge has come off of my initial burst of rage and sorrow, I wanted to see if the footage would somehow make any bit of sense to me this time, that maybe I would uncover some clue that would make it seem less like pure Evil and Corruption. It didn’t.

8:46

That is the number that has haunted me from the beginning of this nightmare. Eight minutes, 46 seconds: the length of time Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck of a handcuffed and subdued George Floyd. How can that be explained???

Last weekend, I went with my wife and kids to a local, student-led protest of racial injustice and police brutality. It was peaceful in nature, with the many young speakers sharing authentic words of pain, anger, advice, and inspiration. It reminded me of the Good in the world and of the immense value of every human being, but especially of those whose lives and freedoms are in danger each day they attempt to simply live.

We had had the discussion in our home in the preceding days about the importance of protest and of using your voice to bring positive change to the world, so my children were eager to experience the event. The night before, I cut up some cardboard boxes and got out markers, crayons, and construction paper so we could all make our own signs. My 9-year-old son wrote “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on his. My 11-year-old daughter made a creative version of “kNOw JUSTICE, kNOw PEACE.” My wife wrote “JUSTICE FOR GEORGE.” As for me, after much deliberation, I finally wrote exactly what had been hanging like a dark cloud over me for days: “8:46.”

A little over halfway through the two-hour rally, one of the leaders asked that we all stand, raise our signs or a fist, and take a moment of silence in honor of George Floyd. But not just a typical 30ish-seconds “moment” of silence. The moment she called for was to be exactly 8 minutes and 46 seconds long.

I had been at work and missed Mr. Floyd’s funeral service on TV earlier in the week, but my wife had told me that Reverend Al Sharpton had led a similar moment during his eulogy and that she had been deeply moved. I believed her, but her story didn’t prepare me for what I was about to experience. Along with the couple hundred other people spaced widely in the crowd, I raised my arms and my “8:46” sign and fell silent. And I thought.

I thought SO MANY THINGS.

First, I thought about all the Black people I have had in my life, the ones I have loved or that have been special to my family. As I considered each one, I sent them the best energy I could muster, wishing them strength to live in a world that has never been as kind to them as it has to me. I started with my wife and kids, of course. Then I thought of my mother-in-law and (deceased) father-in-law, who grew up in the Deep South in times worse than these. I thought of my sister-in-law and two brothers-in-law, who all grew up Black in a town almost completely White. Next I thought of my nieces and nephew, our family’s future. I thought of all of my wife’s cousins and aunts and uncles around the country. I thought of the two young women, Nicole from Ghana and Peré from Kenya, whom we have hosted during their years at a nearby college. I thought of colleagues from the past. I thought of Joi, who presided over my wedding, and all the other dear friends my wife has brought into our home and family over the years, including Myra, Ramon, Maddie, Sedric, Demetrius, Suzanne, Harry, and Joan, to name a few. I thought of her sorority sisters. I thought of all the young people and families in the children’s group my kids belong to that is centered around their Blackness. I thought of my kids’ Black teammates and school friends and their families. I thought of all the Black kids I interact with in the school where I work and the light that they bring to my life.

I thought of all of those people. It was quite a process to conjure those faces and really feel their energy and give them mine. And at the end of that long exercise, I was painfully aware that I still had a ton of time left on that 8:46.

I thought about George Floyd and the countless other unarmed Black people who have been killed by White police officers, lynch mobs, slave patrols, and other vigilantes throughout America’s sordid history. And I thought about their families. I still had time.

I thought about how tired my arms were getting holding up that sign–that little, flimsy piece of cardboard–and peeked around to see other people clearly struggling to keep a fist or a sign raised. Then I thought of how minuscule our pain and struggle were compared to what George Floyd felt with those three officers pinning him to the dirty pavement and a knee driving hard into his neck. I did some crying.

Next, I thought about the world I want my kids to grow up in and the improvements I hoped we could make (no small list).

A few different times I also caught my mind drifting, and in my moment of reminding myself to stay present and focused on the topic at hand, I also thought, “Dang, this is a LONG TIME!” And it was. But I still had more time.

And as I was thinking of those hopes for a more just and equitable future, the speaker called an end to the time. The first thing I thought was, “Wow, my mind covered A LOT of territory in 8 minutes and 46 seconds! Emotions were fully felt and processed, tears were shed, and I got to think hard and clearly on some important topics.”

That’s when I began to think about Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao, the four police officers who took part in George Floyd’s murder. Long after he was in their custody, when he was already handcuffed and lying facedown in the street, with no other dangers and the situation totally under their control, the clock began to tick on their 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

They had all that time to think.

They had the opportunity to consider the worth of George Floyd’s existence and, even if they considered it and deemed it of no value, the opportunity to decide whether or not they could get away with killing him in broad daylight, with cameras on and other humans begging them to stop the killing. Because when you sit with the scene in your mind for a full 526 seconds, you realize that this was no heat-of-the-moment, knee-jerk reaction–no “He surprised me and before I knew it I had pulled the trigger” or “I feared for my life” situation–in which they had no time to consider their actions and what it all meant. They had 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

It is so much time! Time for clarity, time for certainty, time to ensure an absence of remorse or regret.

What was happening in that time, you ask, that might have stirred the conscience of these four men, three of whom were kneeling on him (one on his neck), the other standing idly by? Well, in one five-minute stretch of the 8:46, an agonizing George Floyd said he couldn’t breathe sixteen times. Sixteen. He called out for his dead mother: “MAMA!!!” Bystanders pleaded with the officers: “Get off of his neck!” “The man ain’t moved yet, bro.” “Check his pulse!” “Get off of him!” “What is wrong with y’all?” “Do you think that is okay?” Even after the officers had called in for medical assistance because George Floyd’s mouth was bleeding, they kept him pinned down for seven more minutes, some of those minutes after he was completely unresponsive. Even after the EMTs arrived and checked George’s pulse, Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George’s neck for another minute until the EMTs asked him to remove it.

The fact that they took the full 526 seconds so casually, so nonchalantly–Chauvin sliding a hand into his pocket like he was just hanging out on a holiday–and landed on the conclusions that 1) George Floyd’s life was expendable, and 2) we can get away with this, is just bone-chilling.

On the personal, psychological level, the conclusion that someone else’s life–someone you don’t know and whose alleged crime is passing a phony $20 bill–has no value, and that you are worthy of making that determination and also of ending the worthless life, is revealing of some seriously dark stuff inside. (Never mind that four out of the four officers working that stop came to the same conclusion seemingly without a word of debate passing between them. Is that not frightening?)

On the sociological and systemic level, the belief–again, apparently by 100% of the officers on the scene–that you can easily get by without consequences for killing an unarmed, subdued Black man on the street in front of witnesses and cameras in broad daylight is evidence of severe dysfunction in our police and “justice” system, as well as in society as a whole (because our history proves that they were justified in believing this).

But those were plainly the conclusions drawn by Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao in the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that they kneeled quietly on George Floyd and listened to him beg for his life as it left his limp body.

Dear God, that makes me sick.

How about you? What are your main takeaways from the murder of George Floyd and its aftermath? Open up your journal and your heart and explore the elements that have stayed with you in recent weeks. For me, it was obviously this issue of Time and the inexplicability of doing something so awful given all of the other options at their disposal and the extended opportunity the officers had to make a better choice. What is it for you? Have you been more hung up on the protests and violence? The other examples of police violence (e.g. tear-gassing and shooting rubber bullets at random and innocent bystanders, slashing tires, etc.)? The unprecedented momentum in the desire to make changes in society to diminish systemic racism and improve policing? The President’s combativeness throughout and his absence of any meaningful mention of race and racism in America or words of comfort to a demoralized country? What issue(s) do you keep coming back to in your mind? Why do you think that sticks with you? Do you need to dig a little deeper? Or is it just more personal to you? I invite you now to a moment of silence and reflection in honor of George Floyd. Choose your own way to do it: kneel or stand with a raised fist or sit or do something uncomfortable, but do it for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. You can choose to think about George Floyd, or you can just sit mindfully and watch all of the different thoughts your mind tumbles through and all that it has the chance to consider in that duration. Set your timer and begin…….. What did you think about? How much did you think about? A lot, right? Given your experience with it, how does it change your reflections about the thoughts those four officers might have been thinking and the conclusions they reached as they ended George Floyd’s life? Can you imagine it? How disturbing is it to even try? How easily could even one of them have changed that entire situation for the better? Isn’t that all the more heartbreaking? Do the moments that George Floyd will never have make yours all the more important and impactful? Leave me a reply and let me know: What will you choose to make of your moments of opportunity?

Always rise,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it with your community. Consciousness-raising is a group activity!

P.P.S. If this type of self-reflection appeals to you, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.

“But I’m Not A Racist!” And Other Things We White Folks Need To Do Better

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” –Benjamin Franklin

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hello friend,

What a week to have skin in America! In the wake of the tragic and wholly unnecessary killing of George Floyd by a police officer to start the week, Minneapolis, a city with a long history of racial injustice and inequity, has been consumed by protests and destruction as its residents process their understandable grief and frustration. I live a safe distance away in a suburb of the city but have felt the waves of emotion reaching my doorstep in a way that is deeper and more personal than the other seemingly countless and regular newsworthy occurrences of racial injustice in America.

Just in the last few weeks, we have been dealing with new revelations in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man who, while out jogging, was tracked down in a truck by two white men who had decided that he was a burglar and shot him dead in the street. Also in the news has been the killing of EMT Breonna Taylor, a young black woman, by police who broke into her home–the wrong home, as it turned out–unannounced while she was sleeping and shot her multiple times while her boyfriend tried to defend her from what he believed to be a home invasion.

With the sadness and anger from those two tragedies hovering in the American air, joining the long list of unjustifiable killings of black people–Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, and Terrence Crutcher, to name just a few off the top of my head–we woke up Tuesday morning to viral video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling for several minutes on the neck of a handcuffed George Floyd as Floyd repeatedly says he cannot breathe. We already knew from the headline that, of course, George Floyd had been killed.

So began this week, a week that has continued like a dark cloud hovering over my home and, a little further up the freeway, my city. The mood in the house–which has white me, my black wife, and my two biracial children, ages 11 and 9, one who looks more black and one who could pass as white–has been at times outraged, depressed, furious, disappointed, appalled, apprehensive, curious, irritated, and thoroughly exhausted. Predicting it from hour to hour or nailing it down is impossible (though the exhaustion permeates). It’s like when I read the news articles about it on Facebook, and I have to choose the emoji to react with for the person posting. I tend to sway between angry and sad. I’m fully both.

Sadly, one thing I am not–and neither are my kids, which is truly horrifying–is surprised.

I have lived in this country long enough and done enough personal work to educate myself to both the historical facts and to the flesh-and-blood people and their stories that I feel like I somewhat know the score. It is plain to me that we live in a society based on white supremacy. We, especially we white folks, dare not to speak of it and deny it at every mention, which is how it has retained its power over centuries. But it is plain to an objective eye, if such a thing exists.

White lives are valued more highly than black lives. When doing the same job, white people get paid more. When convicted of the same crime, black people receive more severe punishments. A white person is believed in favor of a black person when their stories conflict. (And yes, I know there are other colors in this silly invention called race, but I trust that you understand the argument and the expediency of sticking with black and white for the moment. Thank you for your grace.) When fashion or language or housing or hair is compared between the groups, we work from the assumption that the white whatever is “just normal,” the standard, without distinguishing characteristics to judge it, whereas “black” things have ways that are different and can be judged (like when white kids do badly in school or break rules, they are considered individually–Timmy has anger issues or a lower IQ–or are “just being kids,” but when black kids behave badly it is taken as a reflection of their race, not of their individual difference). I could go on and on, but you get it.

Thus, it was not at all surprising to me to hear on Tuesday morning from a co-worker that an unarmed black man was killed by a police officer. She said that there was a bystander video that she couldn’t bring herself to watch. I knew it was about to be a challenging week.

So, when I arrived back at home later in the day, I immediately went to one of my news apps to learn more. While I was there gleaning information about the killing of George Floyd, a different article caught my eye. You have possibly seen the viral video recorded by bird enthusiast Christian Cooper, a black man, after he asked a white woman, Amy Cooper (not related), to leash her dog in an area of Central Park in New York City where leashes are required. This caused her to become very upset. A tense exchange ensued, during which he asked her not to come close to him and she then threatened, “I’m calling the cops. I’m gonna tell them that there’s an African-American man threatening my life!” She repeated that claim to the 911 operator multiple times in the video.

I could taste the bile coming up and could feel my blood boil. It wasn’t that I was any more surprised by this video that did not, fortunately, lead to more unnecessary violence, than I was by the video of George Floyd’s killing by Derek Chauvin. Rather, it was that this ordinary, everyday argument in New York City between Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper symbolized the entire culture of white supremacy–a culture that we are so deeply woven into that we don’t even recognize it or acknowledge it–that flows so seamlessly and inevitably to the death of George Floyd (or Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice or….).

The fact that people of color are seen as less than, worse than, not to be believed, of little consequence, and dangerous sets the stage for George Floyd’s tragic death and the deaths of untold millions of people of color throughout the sordid history of this country. Whiteness has a power that people of color can do nothing about. Amy Cooper knew that in the park that day, whether she had ever consciously formulated the thought. She laid bare America’s essence and gave away our secret in those few short words: “I’m gonna tell them that there’s an African-American man threatening my life!” Translation: “I can end your life right now. I’m the one everyone will believe. I own you.”

As I said, the video didn’t surprise me at all. After all, in the age of smartphones, we have become accustomed to seeing the kind of “threats” that white people call the police about regarding black people just trying to live (grilling in the park, having a lemonade stand, using the gym, etc.). Much like with the police killings of unarmed black people, we see them more often now not because they occur more often, but because there are cameras.

Outside of the video’s encapsulation of America’s signature theme and its perfect timing with the killing of George Floyd, I was, in fact, not so interested in it. What caught my attention more from the story was Amy Cooper’s apology. After all, her blatant racism had gone viral and her employer had suspended (and later fired) her in its wake. So, of course, she said she was sorry. No surprise there. The kicker, though, was her use of the now-standard line for anyone who is caught doing or saying something patently racist: “I’m not a racist.” It’s a classic.

Believe it or not, I don’t care whether Amy Cooper is a racist. My point today is not to make a case for what makes someone a certified racist and what makes someone else a good-hearted person who, in a moment of weakness, committed an obviously racist action (or how many of those racist actions it would take for that person to slide into the genuinely racist category). No, I mostly want to offer my fellow white people a suggestion or two about our racism (which is inevitable given the culture in which we live and our privileged position in it).

In your apology for your racist action, please don’t include, “But I’m not a racist.” And definitely don’t lead with it. It sounds so disingenuous after what you have just said or done to get yourself in hot water (I don’t want to list examples). Even if you believe that in your heart and even if you have a long list of examples to “prove” it, saying that is not the way to be heard. Maybe something more like, “That was a horribly racist thing I said. I didn’t even know I had something so vile in me, but clearly I do. I am sorry.” Or this: “Even though I was raised in a racist family, I thought I had moved beyond that. My racist action today showed me I still have work to do. I am so sorry.” If you still really, really want to say you aren’t a racist, the furthest leash you might stretch could be, “I truly don’t feel anything negative against black people, so I didn’t think I could do something like that. But I can see that it was a racist act, and I take responsibility. I am so sorry, and I promise to do better.” All of these apologies, of course, work better if you actually mean it and change your behavior. It is one small thing.

My other small suggestion today, my white friend, is to raise your voice and take a stand for people of color and against white supremacy. As I said before, people of color have no real say in whether the American culture of white supremacy (and therefore inequality, abuse of power, injustice, protest, riots, etc. in roughly that order) gets to continue. Black and brown people have been calling us on our abuses since we showed up on the land centuries ago, dragging some of them with us and slaying others in our wake. That has not changed us. It is unfair and phony of us to keep asking people of color to explain injustice and inequity to us, to tell us their experience so we can understand our own. They are tired of explaining (not to mention tired of the rest). The whole thing is exhausting for them, and it is simply not their job. People of color have borne the burden of white people’s culture of racism for centuries and been powerless to change it. Not because they are weak or stupid or unorganized, and certainly not because they are less than white people. They haven’t changed white supremacy because white supremacy is white people’s responsibility. It is our burden. It was created by us, and it must be undone by us.

So take a stand. Use your white voice, which is way more powerful than you understand it to be. This week I have been so moved to see a couple of my white friends on social media, whom I have never seen say anything about injustice or the need for anti-racism, actually speak up on their feed, with either a shared article or a heartfelt paragraph or two about how George Floyd’s death was wrong and how we must work to root out racism. I thought of these normally-silent white people’s respective spheres of influence–some small, others quite large–and the impact their voice might have to free up other silent-but-pained folks to speak their own truth about these matters. I thought, “What if everyone who was bothered by George Floyd’s death actually spoke up in a public forum?” That could be in conversation with others at a church or social event where they had never previously dared talk about such things, or it could be a social media site where they typically just watch silently or post only about “non-political” things. What if they raised their virtual hand and simply said, “This is wrong, and we need to change.”?

We are such a culture of people who need permission–from celebrities, trendsetters, the cool people in our social circle, our peers–to say what we really feel and what is hard. My goodness, we could change so much if a critical mass of white people would just speak up on behalf of people of color and the injustices brought to bear on them by our system of white supremacy. Equality would become cool. Anti-racism would be trending. Imagine that! Congress members would have to listen to their justice-minded constituents because there were just so many of them. The tide would turn.

It could happen. It really could. But it won’t happen just because black and brown people have had enough of our racism, just because they are sick and tired of being held back and held down and brutalized by the police and by unfair housing practices or racist bosses or neighbors. It won’t happen because they protest peacefully or because they riot or loot or burn buildings. We have already proven that none of those methods are effective. The only way our system is going to change is if we white folks take on the challenge ourselves, if we take responsibility for the job that should have been ours all along.

There are a million ways available to help the cause, and I hope you will take advantage of many of them. But even if you can just take one small step today, I hope it is by raising your voice in a way or in a space that you have not before. I guarantee you the world will be better for it. If you take my virtual hand, I promise to take that step with you. I’m here and ready.

How about you? What role have you been playing in the racial dynamic? Open up your journal and explore your relationships with the other humans on the planet and the systems and decisions that have placed you there. On a scale of 1 to 10, if one is an avid anti-racist and ally to people of color and 10 is an unabashed bigot, where do you land when it comes to your level of racism? If we asked the ten people closest to you about your level, do you think they would rate you higher or lower? How would you rate them? Do they exhibit more or fewer ignorant attitudes and behaviors than you? Are you aware of your specific weaknesses and failings, such as which groups you are particularly biased against and how those biases present themselves in the world? Are you ever shocked at how narrow-minded, even vile, a thought you have is? How about a comment or action? Have you ever apologized to someone regarding a racist comment or action? If you haven’t, should you have? Do you feel embarrassed now at some of the racist things you did or said in your past? In what ways have you changed? Can you point to incidents or reasons why you have changed? Are you now more open-minded and accepting (even celebratory) of other races, or have you views become more narrow and bigoted with age? How have the people in your friend group influenced your perspective on matters of race, equity, and justice? How have you influenced them? Are you able to speak freely with your friends on these matters? Do you? How about your family? What percentage of your loved ones would you consider to be a true ally to people of color? If you had to name percentages for the people in your circle, how many would you say are generally 1) racist, 2) not racist, or 3) anti-racist? In which category are you? How big of a stretch would it be for you to become anti-racist, to be an intentional ally to people of color and speak out against racist actions and systems? What would it cost you? Discomfort? Friends? What could it gain you? Greater self-respect? A richer life? Friends? What is your typical reaction when an injustice occurs, such as the murder of George Floyd? Do you ignore it? Do you shake your head and move on? Do you get a bit upset but not say anything? Do you talk about it with a loved one? Do you speak out on social media or in other large groups, such as church or social gatherings? Is it clear to the people around you what your position is regarding people of color and the injustices they deal with in our society? If not, why not? Are you trying to protect them–your people–or protect yourself by not raising an uncomfortable topic? Are you being brave or cowardly? Overall, how uncomfortable addressing this whole topic are you? Does the term “white supremacy” as a normal term for America’s culture make you cringe? Does it feel wrong to admit you are the beneficiary of white supremacy and a part of the group that keeps other groups down? How does it feel when someone says that doing nothing, staying silent, and staying “neutral” on these matters only aids the oppressor and does untold damage to people of color every day? Is there really no neutral? Do you think the discomfort around this topic is all the more evidence that we hide from it in our everyday discourse? Do you agree that keeping white supremacy out of conversation and out of our heads has only made it more difficult to root out? Why don’t you speak about it more often? If you have people of color in your life, do you think it comes across to them as a betrayal when you say nothing about these regular acts of gross injustice? Can you be a true friend to them and not say something? How much of an idea do you think you have about what it is to live in their skin every day? How can you do better for them? What will it take to get you to start on that? Is there something you can do today? I dare you. Leave me a reply and let me know: What will you do to bring more equity and justice into the world?

Be the light,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your community. This task will require all of us!

P.P.S. If this way of questioning yourself appeals to you, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.

Spoiled, Selfish, & Stupid: Why We Are Not To Be Trusted

“Living as I do with human beings, the more that I observe them, the more I am forced to conclude that they are selfish.” –Natsume Söseki, I Am A Cat

“Pride and folly, they go together like two tightly grasping hands.” –Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear

Hello friend,

Open the floodgates! The Americans have left their homes and their senses!

We gave it a good run. We–well, most of us–did the decent thing for a solid month or so. We sacrificed. We listened to scientists who told us that the best way we could help was to stay home and keep our distance from one another. We actually considered how our behavior affects others. We showed a conscience. We were selfless, altruistic. It was like a weird, totally surreal, alternate universe. But we made it cool! Social distancing and masks became the darlings of social media, inspiring all sorts of clever memes, GIFs, and videos. It was this quaint little throwback thing we were doing together–like having a 1980s Day at school or pretending we were re-enacting “Little House On The Prairie”–all with a collective ‘wink-wink’ knowing we were way too cool to actually live like this. We were playing along until we got the first signal that we could call off the charade.

Apparently, the signal was not a vaccine to prevent anyone else from getting Covid-19. It was not a medicine to help alleviate the symptoms. It was not the steady decline of new cases over a 14-day period, as the experts had told us from the start would be best indicator. The signal wasn’t even any sort of decline. As it turned out, all it took for Americans to assume permission to return to regular social living was the mere mention by folks on TV of the possibility of a slow, measured re-opening of the economy.

And with that, social distancing (and sense) is a thing of the past.

Exhibit A: Last weekend, my wife, kids, and I took a bike ride around our neighborhood. The first park we passed had a full parking lot, people playing volleyball and other sports, grilling, playing on the playground, and hanging at the beach. I could feel my sensible wife fuming behind me as we passed from the road. She had already made clear before we left that we would not be entering that park, as the nice day would draw too many people. But this was another level. This was Summer-day-level crowding. I sped up my pedaling to get past it, and we soon arrived at the next park, where we would be circling the more remote path that surrounds the hub of the park. Of course, we immediately spotted in that center a large gathering of what appeared to be friends, some playing full 6-on-6 volleyball and many others gathered around the court lounging and socializing in very close proximity. Again, it looked like an ordinary-times Sunday afternoon at the park.

Keep in mind that at that point, where I live in Minnesota, there had been no new guidelines for removal or even decrease in social distancing or gathering size suggested by the governor or other top scientists in the state, just talk about some upcoming small measures to get a few more businesses operating.

My wife, who may be accused of being cautious and germaphobic–qualities I have finally come to appreciate with a killer virus in town–but also has a track record of wisdom and sense, was livid. She could not wrap her head around what these people were thinking–or, perhaps more accurately, not thinking–to be in each other’s space and touching the same things willingly. I admit, I was outraged at their behavior as well, but I was less shocked. I had felt it increasing the entire week leading up to that day. And immediately prior to our bike ride, I had witnessed Exhibit B.

I was in my kitchen and happened to look out my window to see some neighbor kids and their friends from a few blocks away right up on the front patio of a different neighbor, where that neighbor (a middle-aged man) was sitting with his girlfriend. (You may recall that I mentioned in my last letter my anger with my neighbors that have kept up frequent play dates and social gatherings throughout the pandemic. Well, these were the kids and friends.) I was immediately shocked and angered at their proximity to one another, of course, but its lack of appropriateness also captivated me. I kept watching. The kids proceeded to circle this guy’s house over and over again, stopping by the man and woman as they went. Then, when they seemed to tire, he gave them a drink from his cup, which they proceeded to pass around to everyone in the group.

As someone who has taken the scientists very seriously regarding the necessity of social distancing and mask-wearing during this global pandemic, my jaw was practically on the floor. Why worry about the spit droplets traveling randomly through the air and only maybe reaching someone else when you can just pass those little guys directly via a cup? Brilliant! These same folks were part of a several-family, no-distancing yard party just a couple days earlier that I also got to witness in horror from my window. All that is to say that by the time we got to that park last Sunday, my sense of disgust was still strong but my ability to be shocked by foolishness had been dulled dramatically. Mostly, my neck was getting tired from shaking my head so often.

Though I have no satisfactory justification for anyone willfully breaking the simple social distancing guidelines that have been in the public forum for several weeks now, I have thought a lot about the mindset behind it. As always, I spend a lot of time considering how we humans think and the impulses behind our actions. It starts with myself, of course, in my daily journal entries that have been helping me understand my shenanigans for decades. But I am equally fascinated by others, both individually and collectively. I am a fan of all studies sociological and psychological. And obviously, immersed as I am in American culture, I am particularly fascinated by attitudes and behaviors that seem uniquely American.

This recent abandonment of conscience and the corresponding moral free-for-all regarding social distancing and our obligation to care about the health of people we don’t know seems to fit the bill as something thoroughly American.

For the sake of today’s discussion, I am separating the people gathering at my neighbor’s house and in the park to celebrate and play socially from the maskless hordes storming state capitols and shouting in people’s exposed faces in protest. Although there is some relation between the two groups, I think the arguments get much more complex when you bring in the economic aspects of stay-at-home orders, which I like to think are motivating the protesters. People simply craving human contact and unfettered hanging out occupy a different spot on the spectrum. It is these people who are just over social distancing and are moving on despite the potential consequences that are the ones I am pondering today.

When I think of my wife’s shrill, panicked, “WHAT IS HAPPENING????” when she first witnessed up-close these blatant acts of disregard for established guidelines for protection against a deadly virus, the first thing that came to my mind to sum up my theory was “spoiled Americans.”

Sacrifice is not something we are accustomed to at this point in our history. For those of us in the middle class and higher, anyway, we haven’t spent much thought on how our lives affect others or ever had to “take one for the team” and make do with less so others could live. The term “first-world problems” has caught on in the common vernacular precisely because for many of us, we simply aren’t very inconvenienced by the world. But now this coronavirus has kept us away from the blowouts, hangouts, and make-outs that we have come to see as our birthright.

So sure, we played along at first (at least most of us). We stayed at home. We stayed apart. We wore our masks and acted like this virus was real. We posted on social media about the blessings and bummers of staying at home, the heroes on the frontline, and the plethora of new memes on this fresh topic. It was a quaint little game we were playing together. For fun, sort of. Something to tell the grandkids about one day, anyway.

But then it became dull. It was no longer enough that we all had computers, phones, FaceTime, ZOOM, Google Hangouts, Facebook, Twitter, InstaGram, TikTok, and a million other ways to connect with friends and family in real time. The world had denied us of one thing–proximity–and we aren’t people who suffer denial well. So, over the past couple of weeks, the bat signal somehow went out. Every time I took a walk or rode my bike around the neighborhood, I saw more and more gatherings with less and less space between the gatherers. Before I knew it, neighbors were passing cups around to share. Americans had revealed themselves. Spoiled, self-absorbed, foolish.

Now I know, of course, that it isn’t everyone. Obviously, I am writing this letter as someone who has not changed his behavior recently, and I have seen other shows of dismay and disgust in both conventional and social media (including a column in the Tampa Bay Times called, appropriately, “I Will Not Die of Stupid”). So plainly, I am not saying all Americans are selfish brats, but I definitely believe that streak runs through our culture. And, as so many people are showing us in the last couple of weeks, there is a critical mass of people in this country who are proving that this aspect of our collective personality cannot be held at bay no matter how dire the outcome. We are that petulant, arrogant toddler whose behavior embarrasses the parent when it comes out in public, so ashamed that they let the child get this obnoxious in its egotism.

Fortunately, I think (I hope) that we are also the parent, or even the onlookers who are appalled at the toddler spouting demands that his every whim be met immediately. I am confident that I am not alone in my astonishment and outrage at the foolishness of my neighbors. I know there are others who feel both hurt and confused by the collective lapse in morality by people who they have respected. I am aware of others speaking up, if only to people who share their dismay.

My question is, what is the score? How many people are on each side? Are there enough people with me to make a positive difference, or am I shouting into a vacuum? As I said, I have seen other people voice their anger and disgust over this flouting of science and disregard for the health of others, but every time I walk past the park or look out my window and see a big gathering of people ignoring the rules, all of those articles and social media posts seem like a whisper no longer heard over the shouting. I want to think that the bigger mass of people still has a conscience and integrity, but those volleyball players and cup-sharers make it hard for me to see things clearly.

We have a very long way to go with this virus, and at this rate, I know I am in for a lot of future outrage. However, I really, really want to think the best of people. I want to believe that they will look to their better angels and find the mental strength and the moral courage to do the right thing, no matter how dull and inconvenient it is. I just hope that when they are at their weakest moment, when they are lonely and cranky and bored, that they can look to the people around them and find positive role models, people who care about all of the people in their community and about getting through this pandemic as quickly and safely as possible. Together, but separately. I will be over here in my yard with just my wife and kids if anyone is looking.

How about you? Are you more likely to be hanging out with friends these days or watching the crowds in horror from a safe distance? Open up your journal and your conscience and lay bare your inclinations and your justifications? How annoyed and inconvenienced do you feel by all of the coronavirus-related restrictions? Were you annoyed and pent-up all along, or did you play along willingly at first but have gradually slid your standards of acceptability? If all of the restrictions and dangers magically went away today, what would you do to feel “normal” again? How closely have your actions approximated that lately? Do you do “meet-ups” with friends (e.g. for coffee), respecting social distance or not? If you have kids, do you allow them to play with other children who don’t live with you? Do you play sports with people from outside your household? Take walks with them? Have you had gatherings of extended family or friends? If you answered “YES” to any or all of those, how do you justify your behavior to yourself? Is it easy to do? Can you come up with sound, intelligent arguments to explain yourself? Can you reasonably claim the moral high ground? Does anyone call you on your questionable actions? Do you get defensive, or do you feel fully justified and unapologetic? On a scale of 1 to 10 and being as honest as possible, how much do you care how your behaviors affect other people? Do you feel like you deserve to do whatever you want? Does your conscience bother you at all when you skirt the guidelines of safety? How likely do you believe you are to become infected by the coronavirus? Does that percentage affect your behavior one way or the other? If you do get it, would you say it was worth it to act in whatever ways you are currently acting around distancing and mask-wearing? Would an impartial scientist say that the way you are behaving is on the risky side of the spectrum or the safe side of the spectrum? Would a wise person say you are being wise or foolish? Would I say you are acting like responsible, altruistic human of integrity or a spoiled fool who is in moral decay? Would you care what any of us had to say? Are there such things as character qualities that can be ascribed to nations or social groups? Do enough Americans act in spoiled, self-centered ways that we can declare those to be characteristically American? Thought experiment: if you were going into a theoretical battle and were choosing your teammates, would you want to get in the foxhole with “America”? Would you trust her? For individual teammates, would you more likely choose one of the people at the park playing basketball and having drinks with their friends these days or someone who is strictly conforming to social distancing guidelines? Would you choose you? Leave me a reply and let me know: What type of citizen are you behaving like these days?

Be big,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you, please share it with your community. Let’s raise our consciousness together!

P.P.S. If you are stirred by this kind of introspection, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.

Misguided Saints or Friendly Villains? Assessing Loved Ones In The Age Of Trump

“The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept.” –George Carlin

“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.” –Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance

“That’s what people do who love you. They put their arms around you and love you when you’re not so lovable.” –Deb Caletti

Hello friend,

If you and I meet up any time in the next year–or maybe forever–and I don’t seem to remember how to act, it’s because I don’t. Truly, I don’t. I’ve forgotten. I may be dying to interrogate you, rip into you, gloss over you, or lavish you with empathy and good will–or all of the above simultaneously. What you get? I don’t know! Never in my life have I felt so torn about how to interact with people in general, but especially the people I have always known and loved. Ninety percent of my interactions are a form of torture. And I blame it all on Donald Trump!

Just kidding. Not about the torture, but about the Trump. (I am not here to litigate the President, really. We all know where we stand on him already, and I don’t expect to change that. My question today, as always, is ultimately about YOU.) I know he is only a symptom of a deeper disease–and I generally don’t even mention his name–but he makes the arguments stand out in bold, cartoon-like form, making it easier to highlight our differences of morality. So let’s go with it for the moment.

I suppose I have been tortured by a version of this syndrome all my life–a liberal, “bleeding heart” kind of soul born into a family, community, and region of the country that oozes conservatism–though most of my years were spent in happy denial of it. At some level, I could always say that I felt “different,” as though I didn’t quite belong, but I didn’t ever really do the work to crystallize what it was. I was blissfully unaware of politics and the ramifications of political beliefs on the lives of the people around us and the people of the world. I casually accepted the idea that all of those politicians in Washington were pretty much the same: White men who agreed on the problems but just had slightly different views on the solutions. I suppose I figured the rest of us were pretty much the same: it wasn’t our politics that separated us or showed some to be “good” and others “bad,” but rather our day-to-day actions and our morals. Politics seemed to be a separate thing and far less important.

And then I opened my eyes and started paying attention. It all changed pretty fast from there. Me, I mean. I changed. Not me, as in, who I was. But me in how I understood the world and its workings. The curtain got pulled back for me, and I couldn’t un-see what I had seen, though it would have saved me a lot of torment in the ensuing years.

Politics is morals put into policy form.

The policies–and, by extension, the politicians that espouse them–that you support tell so much about your character and your moral compass. At bottom, your politics reveal exactly what (and whom) you value. Simultaneously, they tell about what you are willing to swallow in order to make your values win. It is a crystallization of your priorities.

So, why do so many of the people from my past–people I have liked or loved, people I played with or share blood with, people who raised me–support a brand of morals that makes my skin crawl? How could we come from the same home and seemingly be moral opposites? And should that make us, if not enemies, then at least cordially not-friends? Are we deluding ourselves by thinking that the bonds of old friendship or family should endure even though we realize we are thoroughly incompatible morally? Should I be cutting ties, or do I have to just shine it on at reunions for the rest of my life, keeping my conversations agonizingly superficial in the service of tolerating each other? Or is there something more, some level of wisdom or grace that I can reach that allows me to fully embrace them again, the way it was before I could see these things clearly?

I want to know how to interact! Maybe more so, I want to be able to think better of the people I have been feeling hurt by and angry with, people who have been a big disappointment to me since I opened my eyes to the stark differences in our beliefs. I want that, but at the moment, I admit that it’s hard to see a path to the bridge.

This may seem random, but I think we need to talk about Jesus. As I have shared with you before, I am not a Christian but am a huge fan of the man. His example and his teachings are wonderful. In this era, though, I feel as though I have to defend Jesus from his followers. It truly makes my blood boil to listen to certain high-profile religious leaders as they not only cover for the despicable acts and policies of our current President but celebrate him and lean on their congregations to do the same.

But, as I said, I do not want to make this seem like it’s about Donald Trump. As easy of a target as he is in any discussion of morals, I would rather pull it back to a party level, but still stick with my guy Jesus. My pet theory–perhaps incorrect, but still mine and sure to offend even more people, but hey, I’m already in the deep end on this one–is that the “Christian coalition” (or “Evangelicals” or once upon a time the “Moral Majority” or however you would like to name the right-wing Christian movement) was willing to hitch their wagon to whichever political party was going to side with them on the issue of abortion. The Republicans signed on and have happily won a ton of easy elections out of the deal (hence the “Bible Belt” also being called the “Solid South” to signify that it votes solidly Republican).

But what policies did the Christians–and just so we are clear, I am not suggesting this applies to every Christian but rather to the movement and leaders (e.g. Franklin Graham) that try to speak for the religion–wed themselves to for the sake of abortion? How do they look after this deal? And, more importantly, how do you imagine Jesus would see it?

I have studied this guy Jesus fairly seriously, both as a kid and as an adult, and these are some of the traits and principles that stand out to me about him: generous, nonviolent, empathetic, welcoming, charitable, open-hearted, peaceful, forgiving, an ally to the outcast, opposition to greed, caring for the poor and the sick. When I look at the issues of the modern world that our political parties disagree on, I always shudder to think how he would feel about the side taken by the leaders and followers of the religion that bares his name.

Tax breaks for the wealthiest, leading to greater income inequality and a greater number of people suffering and impoverished. LGBTQ discrimination. Separating immigrant families who are fleeing war or cruelty at home–hey, like Jesus!–and caging children at the border. Gun laws. Expansion of the prison-industrial complex and military-industrial complex. Civil rights and righting past wrongs to African-Americans and other minority communities. Guaranteeing health care for all. Protecting the environment. From what I can tell about Jesus, he would land on the exact opposite end of the political (i.e. moral) spectrum than the people who are supposedly carrying his banner.

Whenever one of these issues comes up and I ask myself that famous question, “What would Jesus do?” the answer inevitably turns out to be so different than the Republican/”Christian” response. That is deeply disturbing to me. I wish it were to them, but judging by the election results at all levels, it plainly is not.

Just look at the President. We will pull him into the discussion for a moment. I have no need to write the laundry list of his moral failings, but suffice it to say that in both his policies and his social (e.g. Twitter) messages to the world, he would seem to me to be a glaring embarrassment to not just his country, religion or political party, but to humanity. Horrifying things are said and done, and yet who in his party–whether a politician or an ordinary citizen–ever says, “Yikes! This time he crossed the line. That is unacceptable.”? As my wife is fond of exclaiming when at her wits’ end about these silent enablers, “How do they look themselves in the mirror? How can they live with themselves?” I would like to know.

Because I have Republican family members who practically spat in disgust when Donald Trump was a candidate for President. Until he became their nominee, that is. Ever since, I don’t hear a single negative thing about him from them, no matter how egregious the latest lie or slander or tantrum. All is well in their world. I would like an explanation for that.

But what I also want from them–and I know this sounds extreme and self-absorbed at first blush, but it is my truth–is an apology. I have been highly sensitive to racism my whole life, even growing up White in a thoroughly White community. And now I have a Black wife and two biracial children, as well as dear friends of color. Any neutral account of this President’s history before and in office show him to be plainly racist. You, as a supporter, can say all day long, “I am not a racist. I am not a racist. I am not a racist.” But if you pledge your support to a racist, what does that make you?

And I get it, there are more things about a politician than whether they are racist or not . So maybe you love your politician’s foreign relations philosophy or immigration policy or health care plan so much that you are willing to overlook their racist statements and actions, but does that mean you should not even acknowledge that aspect of it to someone who is hurt by your vote? Especially if you love them? Something along the lines of, “You know how I voted, and I know that must feel like a punch in the gut to your family because his racism is truly ugly and harmful. But the other issues are ones I couldn’t compromise on, so I felt compelled to vote for him despite serious misgivings about his character. I really do apologize for the damage his racism causes; I can only hope I am right about the rest and that our relationship survives it.” From my own experience, I will say that the votes of my family and friends for Trump have deeply hurt my feelings on this issue of racism. The possibility that they are blind to their hurtfulness doesn’t do much to salve the wound. It mostly makes me feel the moral divide between us is that much greater.

That divide tends to feel like a gulf, because, as I said, this is not just about Donald Trump, and I am sure it won’t disappear when he leaves office. This is about political issues that are shows of our moral character and thus our priorities. After all, conservative media spent decades portraying Hillary Clinton as, alternately, morally weak for sticking with a cheating husband, then frigid, calculating, ruthless, and finally, as corrupt and untruthful as Trump himself. But in the end, whether any of those cartoon-villain descriptions were accurate or not, she still stood for policies that revealed a morality far, far different than the policies of her opponent, never mind his well-chronicled character flaws.

So let’s be clear, I don’t think anyone in Washington is a saint. They play in an ugly game, and to rise to the top, they have probably done things that they don’t want to tell their mothers about. But you and I aren’t playing an ugly game. We are living this one life, and I, perhaps naïvely, presume that means we are trying to be good people and leave the world better than we found it. In this one life, we get to choose how we come down on every issue, and we get to step privately into that voting booth in every election and vote with our moral compass as guide.

But that’s the problem I am having and why old relationships have become so awkward and challenging. I get to see the election results and know the values and priorities of the people in my community. In the case of family members and some friends, I already know the way they vote, so there becomes no way for me to deny their moral positions. When I do the old, “What would Jesus do?” test and their votes come out on the opposite side of me and Jesus, it creates a crisis of conscience for me. Not because I doubt my political positions, but because I doubt my relationships.

I begin to wonder whether, in staying loyal to the person, I am betraying myself. Am I taking the high road with them but low-balling myself? Their presence in my life–at least on some level–feels like a violation of my principles.

But then they go and muck up my righteous indignation by doing what they have been doing all my life: being kind to me and my family or doing other good works for their neighbors or the world. They tell me funny jokes. They enjoy a walk on the beach or in the woods with me. We play sports together. Our kids are best friends. We take each other’s suggestions on great books and movies. We have an intellectually stimulating conversation or commiserate about our children, all of whom we love and want the best for. They act like friends and family are supposed to act. In effect, they make it complicated.

Humans are so darn messy! The so-called Good and the so-called Bad. It turns out neither is exactly what we call them. None of us are. We are all grey, all wearing one angel’s wing and one devil’s horn, showing them off alternately depending upon which angle someone is looking from. You are this to me, but you are also that. I can therefore not put you in a box. Knowing you requires nuance and perhaps a sacrifice, some boundaries, or even some cleverly placed blinders. That is frustrating because it is a lot more work. It’s so darn much work!

But what is the alternative? Solitude? That is tempting to me on many days, believe me, but I have mostly made peace with my decision to be a (somewhat) social animal. I know that I will have people in my life, and that means I must accept some degree of compromise of my many principles (I do like to have things my way!). It doesn’t mean I will accept just anyone into my life or that my current relationships have not changed from my end. As I said at the top, now that my eyes have been opened to the ramifications of political positions, everything has changed, but most especially my boundaries. But it is a murky task. I thought maybe in the course of this letter, I would come to a hard and fast conclusion on this. Like, “I can no longer commune with these people, even in our superficial way! The moral gulf between us is too wide.” But my heart does not seem ready for that extreme lockdown, even if it has narrowed the pathway in. I guess I have to learn to be okay with a little more messiness, a little more grey than I would like. I have to learn Grace. Grace is hard. But I suppose that is Life, isn’t it? It is not easy, and it isn’t clean. It resists boxes and absolutes.

The entrance of politics into my life has done so much more to muddy the waters. It is no wonder that new studies show that the more people pay attention to politics, the more stressed they are. But I cannot go back to denial. The cat is out of the bag. I have allowed the complexity into my life, and I want to be responsible with its ramifications. So, if you see me on the street and I seem a little wary, forgive me. In all of my balancing between assessment, acceptance, rejection, and practice of Grace, I no longer seem to know how to behave in public. It turns out I am a work in progress.

How about you? How well do you balance your natural feelings for the people in your life with the new information you gather about their character as time goes by? Open up your journal and take a deep dive on this enormous and so-very-pregnant topic. How open and honest are your communications with family and friends on sensitive topics such as politics and religion? Are you able to really say how you feel and challenge them on their beliefs and your differences, or do you remain silent on these topics and pretend your differences don’t exist in order to keep the peace? Whether or not you talk about them, are you aware of the political differences you have with your loved ones? Do you know where they stand on the various issues and how they vote in elections? How much do you think about that? In what ways does it shape your relationship with them? Do your differences, even if unspoken, cause you to keep them at more of a distance than you might otherwise? Do your political similarities bind you together more tightly? Perhaps the dictating factor in all of this discussion regards how much weight these issues–and politics in general–carry in your life? Are you like me and feel very passionately about things like health care, the environment, or gun control, or do you not think much about any of these issues and not care to allow them to shape your relationships one way or another? If you are in the latter camp of not caring, does this idea of politics making or breaking relationships seem silly? Do you believe that politics are really just our moral values put into policy form? If not, then how do you see politics? But if so, why aren’t more people more invested in them? Whatever your level of investment, how do you deal with people you care about who have very different politics/morals than you do? Do you try to change their mind? Does it affect the quality of your time together, or the amount of it? Have you cut anyone out of your life for their political/moral beliefs? If these moral issues are as important as I think they are, shouldn’t they cause more relationships to break up? Do you feel weak or somehow in betrayal of your principles when you allow people with starkly different beliefs into your life and/or the lives of your children, especially if you take their positions to be detestable and their influence a negative one? How do you deal with a racist in your family? What other moral/political characteristics are hot triggers for you and cause you much tension at family reunions or other gatherings? Does a lot of this depend on how long someone has been in your life and how late in the game you learned of their moral shortcomings? For example, if your father is severely racist or your sister nasty to the poor, but you didn’t fully grasp this and gain footing in your own convictions until more recently, do you feel as though it is impossible to change your relationship dynamic with them because they have been with you–and good to you–for so long? Are you able to merge the new information you have with the old and manage the good and the bad, or do you tend to keep focused on only the good or only the bad? How about with new people in your life, like a co-worker whom you have become “work friends” with but then, upon getting closer, learned you were politically opposite? Now put specific political parties or politicians to all of those questions. How do you react to someone when you learn how they voted in the last presidential election? What if you were planning to meet a friend or family member somewhere socially and they showed up wearing a red “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hat (or an Obama T-shirt)? Would your blood curdle? Would you say something? Would it instantly change your relationship? Think of the loved one who is farthest from you politically but that you still allow close to your heart. How do you pull that off? How much of it is denial? How much is it that you have witnessed them doing so many other good things interpersonally–being kind, generous, or compassionate–that you let the bad stuff slide? How much is that you are wise enough to see everyone as complicated and messy and that you have learned to just see through to the good and be more accepting of everyone? How do you think this whole issue varies between liberals and conservatives? I once wrote you a letter about my theory that conservatives tend to see liberals more as foolish and overly idealistic–but not morally lacking–whereas liberals tend to see conservatives as morally corrupt. What do you think? Are liberal-minded people more likely to keep the conservative at arms’ length and/or break off the relationship entirely because of perceived moral failings, or the other way around? Or equally likely? Is your tendency to see your politically opposite loved ones as good people who are just misguided, or do you tend toward seeing them as bad people who have done good things for you? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do your relationships change when politics are revealed?

Do your best,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you today, please share it with your community. Let us try to better understand ourselves and each other so we can beautify the world!

P.P.S. If this way of questioning yourself is appealing to you, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.

Can You Love Your Country But Not Your Countrymen? IT’S COMPLICATED!

“Asgard is not a place; it’s a people.” –from Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok 

“A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” –Edward Abbey

Hello friend,

Last month we passed the 18th anniversary of 9/11. When I woke up that ordinary day those weeks ago and started thinking about that extraordinarily awful day those years ago, I was transported instantly. I remembered it all so vividly: getting out of the shower to a phone call from my girlfriend, sitting transfixed in front of the little television in my office for hours, the emptiness inside me, the surreal feeling of actually going to a graduate school seminar that night and trying to have a discussion about something other than our completely changed world. The entire day was mind-bending and soul-wrenching. Nothing could ever be the same again.

Still, when last month’s anniversary came around, I struggled to fathom that 18 years had passed since that fateful day. So much water has flowed under the bridge in that time, and my country has revealed so much of its complicated nature.

I get nostalgic each September, first with those awful visions but then much more with thoughts of the beauty that followed. On this September the 11th, my attention was particularly drawn to the memes on social media about the way we, the people of America, came together in its immediate aftermath, with gestures big and small to show that we cared about each other and this country that we share. One example was a poster with imagery reminiscent of an American flag and these words: “I MISS 9/12. I would never ever want another 9/11, but I miss the America of 9/12. Stores ran out of flags to sell because they were being flown everywhere. People were Americans before they were upper or lower class, Jewish or Christian, Republican or Democrat. We hugged people without caring if they ate at Chick-Fil-A or wore Nikes. ON 9/12, WHAT MATTERED MORE WAS WHAT UNITED US, THAN WHAT DIVIDED US.”

It reminded me of a book I read recently, an autobiography called A Dream About Lightning Bugs by the musician Ben Folds, who is several years older than I am but basically of my generation. He had made the difficult choice to keep touring in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, feeling that people needed the music and the release it provided in that devastating time. Of those months, he wrote, “Anyone who was in the United Sates in the wake of 9/11 might recall that, rising from the ashes of the tragedy, something magical was also happening. People suddenly acknowledged one another in the streets, smiled, opened doors, and helped with groceries. Everywhere. I think this is often overlooked. As I toured the country, I saw a sense of community and humanity expressed that I hadn’t seen in my lifetime.”

How sad is it that I miss what only a tragedy could incite?

We are one year away from a major election, so divisiveness is about to get extreme. Well, let’s face it: division and antagonism have been extreme for several years now. But I have no doubt that with the stink-stirrers who are going to be the central players in the coming show, America’s internal hatred is going to reach an all-time high. There will be tons of glorifying “us” and vilifying “them” for reasons real and imagined, despite the fact that we all belong here.

I know in advance–because I know how I feel here most days–that I will really detest the lows that we will have sunk to and the new “normal” we will have established in all this pettiness. “We” are America. As we enter the 2020s, the we I see in our collective mirror isn’t what I used to imagine we were. I say “imagine,” because maybe we were always this shallow and antagonistic. Maybe the modern age of cameras everywhere and social media and other perversions of media (hello, Fox News!) have not so much produced our lesser angels but rather simply revealed who we have always been. It was easier to imagine our country–the people and movements who make up our country and its character–as better, brighter, higher. You know, like the America that showed up on September 12, 2001.

Wrap your mind around this: the children who were conceived in those unified, harmonious months in America post-9/11 will be able to vote in their first election next year.

They wouldn’t even recognize the America that they were conceived into. That is really sad. As they are now beginning to raise their awareness of politics and our country’s position in the world, knowing only what they witness in these times, how lacking they must be in both hope and the confidence in our leaders–and our people–to do what is right and just.

There are just too many examples on all levels of our country doing things that we ought to be ashamed of. Why can’t we get some of this stuff figured out? Decent health care for all of us. Assault rifles that are unavailable to those of us not conducting military campaigns. Not caging children. Treating our politicians like public servants with whom we can agree or disagree on a policy-by-policy, action-by-action basis rather than like celebrities or deities to whom we offer our blind devotion simply because they belong to a designated political party. Acknowledging our role in the escalation of climate change and then taking actual steps to reverse our impact and to help make Earth habitable for our great-grandchildren. Ensuring fair elections. Simple stuff.

And it’s too easy to blame the government or the President or whichever political party is not yours. We–the citizens–are bad at this stuff, too. We create the toxicity. We tolerate the empty promises and shady dealings. We tolerate people getting rolled over by the system. We numb ourselves to the school shootings and the scandals and the record temperatures. We spout our own ignorance or hate or empty “thoughts and prayers.” We deny, deny, deny. We simply aren’t very good to each other.

That realization really, really aches to absorb. We are a hollow country right now.

How long can we last on just the founding ideals when we don’t actually act on them? Can we still be the shining city on the hill if we have dug ourselves a pit–or a “swamp,” as the lingo du jour goes–and dimmed our brightest lights? How do we become admirable, whether or not you think we ever were before? Short of our government suddenly making a bunch of wise, beneficent moves that might draw positive attention from the press and the rest of the world, how do we–the people–get back to that kindness and decency of September 12th? How do we get back to seeing ourselves, collectively, as occupants under the same tent, each responsible for all of our well-being, and believing that the person in front of or behind you in line deserves the very best of you?

I don’t want to have to wish for a “9/11 Version 2.0” just to get a 9/12 America. I feel like that is the weak way out of this and would only lead to a quicker and steeper return to our current shallow meanness. I believe we are better than that and should prove it the hard way: act by act, day by day, person by person. I have faith that we could pull this off. After all, we have done this before. That feeling that many of us remember, that sentiment that inspires the memes, those acts of simple decency that Ben Folds witnessed as he toured the country: all of that is evidence that we are capable of making each other’s lives–and by turn America itself–a better, more just, and more inspiring place to live. We just need to rise.

We need to. Because I am tired. I am tired of despising people who wear red hats, tired of feeling embarrassed by the actions of my representatives, tired of feeling isolated from my neighbors or family members based on which signs they put in their yard during election season, tired of the distance that we have allowed our screens and our busy-ness to create between us, tired of justifying my absence from the public square, tired of being disappointed in others but not doing anything to be a better example to them, tired of missing opportunities to take the first step to bridge these gaps, and, most importantly, tired of the shame I feel at allowing all of this to take place in my precious America. I am tired of being low. It must surely be time for me to rise.

How about you? Are you ready to rise up and be the kind of citizen and country that we can be proud of? Open up your journal and consider the best and worst of your country and what role you play in each. How do you characterize your country at this point in its history? Is it riding a good wave and showing off its best colors, or has it sunk to a place where all of its warts are showing? From your vantage point, are you more likely to notice and dwell upon the shortcomings of your government or of the citizenry? Does one group seem to rise and fall as a result of the other one, or do the people seem to operate independently of their leadership apparatus? Are you proud of your country? When you give your answer to that one, what does it actually mean to you? Do you mean that you are proud (or not) of the actions your government takes toward its people or toward other countries around the world–e.g. providing health care or good education to its citizens, joining a coalition military campaign to fight an evil dictator, providing humanitarian aid to war-torn or famine-stricken countries, etc.–or, rather, that you are proud of the way the people in your country act toward each other and proud of the causes that they stand up for at the polls and with their pocket-books? Do you believe it is important to examine the distinction between the two angles and flesh out your thoughts on each? How different are your answers on your pride for your government and pride for your people? Do we need to also add the layer of being proud of what your country theoretically stands for–things like Liberty, Equality, Justice–versus what it shows that it stands for in practice? How would you rank what you are most proud of in order from least to most: the people of your country, the government and leaders of your country as it currently stands, and the theoretical values that your country stands for? How disparate are these three categories in your country? Is that okay? At what point in your country’s history do you think the three categories were most in step with one another? How do all of these answers form your concept of patriotism and what it means to be a patriot? How patriotic can you be if you don’t have faith in the people of your country? Might it be of some benefit to your country to have a crisis–like a 9/11–to shake it out of the error of its ways? Does it require a tragedy to bring out the best in people and reveal our common humanity? What are some ways that you could be a better citizen? Are any of those things that you could begin to apply today? If everyone took on that challenge, how much better could things get? How do you imagine your country at its very best? What would the government be doing differently, and what would the ordinary people be doing differently? How would all of that affect your lifestyle and your outlook on the future? How can you rise to meet that challenge of creating a better place to live? Do you tend to look at the big stuff–government level–or the stuff that you can do interpersonally to make that difference? If we do the small, will the big begin to take care of itself? Can you start with the person across the street whose sign is different than yours? If not there, then where? Leave me a reply and let me know: Can you love your country but not the people in it, and what good is the first without the second?

Reach out,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it with the world. Reach out and rise up!

P.P.S. If this way of questioning yourself appeals to you, consider purchasing my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

Beyond the Limits of Empathy: A Pain Too Great To Comprehend

“I did not know how to reach him, how to catch up with him… The land of tears is so mysterious.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

“You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Hello friend,

I have had a double whammy of friends in anguish lately. There are moments that their pains weigh so heavily on my heart that it seems I can hardly stand it.

The first came last week when I was sitting outside in the cold watching my son’s track practice with his good buddy’s mom, a dynamic, beautiful-hearted woman who has become my friend this year. As we sat shivering in our respective blankets, she shared with me that she was quite sure that her cancer–that I knew had been a recurring nightmare in her life over the course of several years–had just made a comeback. She had recently felt the physical changes that were its telltale signs and was waiting for her upcoming appointments and the scans that would make it official and thereby commence the fight for her life (again).

The news flattened me. The more it sank in, the more deflated I became. I tried to imagine the heartbreaking scenarios that must have been thrashing around nonstop in her mind as she waited: the empty helplessness of leaving her two young boys without a Mom, the guilt of leaving her husband alone to do the work they dreamed of doing only together, the milestones, and the million ordinary, extraordinary moments that come with loving your people wholeheartedly. I couldn’t bear these thoughts even in my imagination, so it baffled me how she could even be functioning with those cards in her hand.

After being enveloped the rest of the week in the cloud of her situation and prospects, ruminating every day in my journal on how she could handle it, I was hit with a second blast via a Facebook post. One of my oldest friends had lost his vivacious younger brother suddenly. At the age of 42, he was simply ripped from his joyous life and from his close-knit family.

My heart burst for them, especially my old friend. I just wanted to wrap my arms around him and absorb some of his anguish, to lighten his new life sentence in Grief. I felt like I had been kicked in the gut, imagining the wrenching pain and unanswered questions left by such a loss, amplified by its suddenness and his relative youth. How does one go on in the face of something that feels so wrong, so unfair? How blah does food taste? How pointless the television? In the ensuing days, I have often become aware of myself shaking my head, realizing that I was thinking about it again and going through that agonizing cycle of hurt and questioning. I think of my own brothers–who are not even as close to me as my friend was to his–and I shudder at the thought of losing either of them, ever, much less at an age so young. It is devastating.

Then I surface from my despair and realize that, as bad as it seems in my heart, these are not even technically my problems. I can even escape them with some denial or distraction. My friends are the ones who are truly carrying the burden. They are the ones with no fresh air when they wake up at night or sit alone in their car. No matter how heavy my weight of sadness is, no matter how much I feel for them, I see now that I can’t feel like them. I can’t reach that level. It is just not the same, no matter how empathetic I am.

My reaction to that realization, as my heart translates now, feels a lot like guilt. I feel bad–weak, like a poor friend–that I can’t fully feel their pain with them, like I am letting them down somehow by not being as deep in the trenches of struggle as they are. I guess it is because my idealistic self wants to believe if I could put myself exactly in their emotional shoes, that I could somehow take their pain away, at least some of it, by sharing the load. But I can’t.

I think that is one of my “middle age realizations,” something I didn’t register when I was younger: we don’t really know anyone else’s struggle. We can’t fully know their pain because we aren’t in their skin. And even if we have experienced “the same thing” (e.g. each having endured the death of a sibling), we had different relationships and different pasts and different natural abilities to cope with Life’s inevitable tragedies and hardships.

I used to be sure that I was a true empath, that my ability to feel other people’s pain and understand them completely was almost supernatural. I don’t believe that anymore. I know I feel horribly for so many people who have been wronged by Life in any number of ways and want badly to ease their burdens, but at this age I am finally coming to grips with the fact that that doesn’t count for having walked a mile–much less a lifetime–in their shoes. It isn’t much at all, actually.

It illuminates another of my later realizations: compassion doesn’t count for much unless you are willing to act on it. It is all well and good to feel horribly for a friend with cancer or a sibling going through divorce or a family in your community who just lost their home or a whole race of people who were enslaved or robbed of their land, but if you aren’t willing to reach out and do something for them–a kind word, an apology, a meal, reparations, a hug, your time, your attention, your labor, your teaching of others–then your compassion is just wasted potential. You have to do something.

Maybe I am just getting old and this is what “wisdom of the elders” looks like, but it sure hurts my heart to know that as badly as I feel for my loved ones, I can’t even scratch the surface when it comes to their pools of personal pain. That is a hard lesson. Sometimes learning is no fun. But what is the alternative?

How about you? How much do you feel the pain of others, and how does that play out in your life? Open up your journal and explore your experiences with hardships and tragedies? Start with your own. What are the most difficult, most painful experiences that you have gone through in your life? Whose deaths have you had to face? Which relationships have ended or been severely damaged? Have you faced a health crisis? Have you been abused? Have you lost jobs painfully or wrongfully? Have you had to move away from loved ones or had them move away from you? Have you been the victim of a damaging crime, such as a sexual assault? Have you experienced war? Natural disasters? Have you lost your home or been in financial ruin? What else has left you traumatized? How alone did you feel when facing these crises? Did it seem that there was much that your loved ones could do for you emotionally, no matter how much they cared? Did it feel as though the burden was yours alone to carry, or could the compassion of others lighten your load? How would you rate the empathy of the people in your life at the time of your hardships? Could they understand your pain? Did you try to help them to understand? Was it worth the effort? Now turn it around. What are the biggest tragedies and crises that your nearest and dearest have had to face? Go back through the list of the questions above? Which ones have they gone through? Which are happening now, or at least most recently? How have you reacted to their situations? How badly do you feel when bad things happen to other people, whether you know them or not? Do you consider yourself highly empathetic, moderately, or not very? Does that vary widely depending upon your relationships and similarities with the afflicted (e.g. I have people in my life who are deeply caring and compassionate within their families but cannot seem to summon the slightest bit of empathy when it comes to different ethnic groups or religions or social classes; it is very disturbing.)? Have you been good about expressing your compassion (i.e. is it clear to others that you feel them?)? Have you found that your empathy has helped people in their times of tragedy? Does it make them feel better that you feel bad for them? How do you show it? Words? Simple presence? Hugs? Meals? Donations? Errands or other conveniences? Prayers or positive vibes? Do you sense that there is a line in each case that, despite your best intentions and best efforts, you simply cannot get a full sense of the pain someone is feeling, that there is a level of darkness that your light can never reach? How does that make you feel? Helpless? Frustrated? Relieved? When do you feel most alone? In that moment, is there anything that anyone can do? At the end, does each of us have our own final say in our recovery from tragedy and hardship, a point when others have done all they can and we have to shoulder the load of our survival and our happiness? Even if you believe that to be the case, is there ever an excuse to bail out and become less compassionate to the struggles and burdens of others? Leave me a reply and let me know: How deeply do you feel the pain of other people?

Give your heart,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it as you see fit. Let’s awaken our hearts to the pains of other people and then do the work to ease those pains.

P.P.S. If this type of self-examination appeals to you or someone you care about, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

How Badly Do We Stink At Being Human?

“Inhumanity, n. One of the signal and characteristic qualities of humanity.” –Ambrose Bierce, The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary

Hello friend,

I got in the car the other night to pick up my kids from swimming, and the radio was on to NPR. Within a few seconds, I was fully engrossed in the special segment they were doing on sexual harassment in Japan. I suppose it was because I was caught off-guard due to my thinking that norms in Japan–what I have always thought of as a modern, forward-thinking country–for something like sexual harassment would probably be about the same as they are in America, perhaps better. I was immediately informed that I had been dead wrong.

The report detailed one woman’s struggle against a culture and a legal system that treats harassment as normal, accepted, and benign. She had fought hard to bring her tormentor to justice in the workplace and the court system, something completely unheard of in Japan until very recently. Late in the story, they were talking about resistance to change in attitudes, and they interviewed a woman who supposedly represented a common view in that culture. She basically said that it is right that men should be in charge and have their way, because women aren’t calm and logical and their menstruation makes them irrational and such.

I was absolutely floored. Appalled would probably be more accurate. I simply could not believe what I was hearing. It sounded like a cartoon from the Dark Ages!

It is Japan, what I was thinking as a leading-edge type of country, and here they are in 2018 with these archaic social constructs that are terribly damaging to women (and thus society in general). What the heck???

After picking up the scattered pieces of my psyche from this bomb’s detonation, I was left with a sick, ominous void in my center. This hollow darkness was, of course, the realization that sexual harassment in Japan is just the tip of the mammoth iceberg that is the depravity of the human experience as we have constructed it to this point in history.

We really are horrible to each other. I am not so much speaking in individual, one-to-one relationship terms–though I know we all have our fair share of regrets in that department, too–but rather in the countless and varied ways that we systematically denigrate and deprive massive sections of the population. And I am not only referring to the ways that these many mistreatments directly affect their targeted population, but even more so how they contribute to the more general shortcoming and disease of humankind as a whole, oppressed and oppressors alike. So even as I admit that, relatively speaking, there are obvious winners and losers in this game of stigmatization and oppression, I would just as sternly argue that in the realm of the absolute, nobody is getting away clean here.

We are, all of humankind, losing the race against our potential.

When I think of all the ways that humans keep humanity down–racism, sexism, environmental destruction, war, colonialism, education deprivation, starvation, religious persecution, denial of health care, and slavery, to name just a few–I can’t help but beg for answers. WHY??? Are there common themes that run through all of these things? I want to know if there are a few things we could address, values or ideas that we might interject at crucial spots in our global and societal dialogue that might help us right the ship and steer us clear the next time we were tempted to veer into depravity. Where do we keep going wrong when, if only we would choose right, we would see us all lifted the way a rising tide lifts all boats?

I think that a big part of it is that we seem to enter just about every pursuit from a position of scarcity rather than abundance. We think there is not enough for everyone. So we must horde and wrestle for every scrap of anything we value, even if we plainly have enough already. Food, land, water, money, power, salvation. And when we get in a position to control these things, we set up systems–monetary systems, infrastructure systems, legal systems, systems of thought and culture–that ensure we continue to get more and more while others get less and less. I can’t help but look at the amazing natural gifts that the Earth provides us–truly an embarrassment of riches–and wonder how it is we ever came to this mentality of scarcity. But here we are.

Because humans have chosen to operate from a place of scarcity rather than abundance, we have been forced to justify why some should have more (or enough) and others should have less (or not enough). We have been very clever in our social constructions throughout history. We have taken the other humans–the ones with religions, skin colors, genders, homelands, modes of dress, levels of income, and customs that are different than ours–and defined them as less worthy than us.

Typically, in order to justify our self-serving and “inhumane” behavior toward them, we have had to create the most convincing stories about them, with lots of cartoonish images. The others have been labeled, at various turns: barbarians, savages, devils, heathens, criminals, animals, lazy, stupid, drunk, childlike, greedy, thieving, subhuman, immoral, irrational, overemotional, naturally servile, only good for reproducing, or mistakes of God. You just can’t steal someone’s land, or hold them as a slave, or rape them, or ignore their starvation, or commit genocide against their people without a good story as to why you are justified in doing so. Humans have never stopped committing atrocities in which the perpetrators believed themselves to be righteous in their cause. The Crusades. Manifest Destiny. The Final Solution. Jihad.

The list could–and does–go on.

Maybe in the end, it comes down to operating out of Fear rather than out of Love. Coming from a place of scarcity basically means living in fear that there isn’t enough and that we will go without. When we live in Fear, we get greedy and defensive. We become short-sighted and irrational. We lose our compassion and generosity. We act desperate.

Yes, that’s it! Desperate. That word resonates with me now as I think about human history. We seem to be a desperate species.

But does it have to be this way? I realize that, in terms of the age of the planet, humans are a relatively recent occurrence. And I realize that we had to learn it by failing, trial and error. We were on our own, so to speak, with no other species quite like us to learn from (although the more time I spend in Nature, the more lessons I learn about how to live well). And we weren’t always as technologically advanced as we are today, so it was much more of an eking out of our existence. Maybe we started our scarcity trip then and just never let it go. Perhaps evolution hard-wired this fear and lack into our system after so many bouts with plagues and famines, feudal lords and slave traders. I can see the plausibility in that explanation.

But I am an optimist, so I want to believe there is more in store for the human race than a continuing story of pettiness, lack of compassion, and ruthless greed. So, I look to the examples in history of people–sometimes individually and sometimes collectively–choosing to rise above the Fear, to act better. To act out of Love. I think of the American Indians and their willingness to share their land with new arrivals, secure in the knowledge that no one could truly own it. I think of the many women and men who have risked everything to speak up and resist oppressive movements, such as slavery, Nazism, colonialism, and patriarchy. I think of scientists sharing their positive findings with the world. I think of the vast majority of modern countries providing health care for all who need it (which is everyone) without first determining their ability to pay. I think of the many countries today who accept refugees from war-torn nations, not because it is convenient but because it is right. These humans give me hope for humankind.

I need it, too, because WOW, the scales are overloaded on the other side! I am often found shaking my head in frustration and disgust over the awful performance of the collective humanity in my America. It can feel like we are the Land of Oppression. We try it on almost anything and anyone: women, anyone with a brownish complexion, the LGBTQ community, the poor, non-Christians, Mother Nature, and on and on and on. Sometimes it seems overwhelming and like it could hardly be worse.

That is why that NPR story on sexual harassment in Japan was such a jolt to my psyche. It reminded me that, in spite of America’s disgusting history of inhumanity–a history that continues today in such glaring areas as mass incarceration, income inequality, neglect of the poor, health care denial, and civil rights abuses–we are actually doing better than other countries in some of these areas. That is sobering.

I often wonder what the fate of the human species will be. You know, like, will we still be around in another 1,000 years or 10, 000 or 100,000? And what will we have done to each other in that time? I sure hope that we will have risen above the Fear and the scarcity mentality. I hope that we will have learned that none of us really wins when we define winning as holding everyone else down. I hope that by then, Love is the high tide that lifts us all. But right now, all I have is an unfounded hope. Because if I am just going on human history, I can’t see how this goes well or ends well.

How about you? What is your evaluation of the human race relative to its potential? Open up your journal and free your mind to explore this enormous topic. On first blush–before diving deep–what kind of score are you inclined to give us humans? How do you think your score compares to the judgment of the other seven billion people on the planet today? Are you higher or lower than average? How much do you think your score–or anyone’s, really–is a function of the country or culture they live in (i.e. people from prosperous or progressive countries are more likely to say that humans have done well as a species than people from poor or oppressive cultures)? How much do you think a person’s score reflects that person’s position within her own culture (e.g., a wealthy, straight, White, American man scoring humanity high versus a poor, queer, Black, American woman scoring humanity low)? What score do you think an impartial outside observer (e.g, someone from another planet, or perhaps God) would give us? Okay, back to your assessment. What is humankind’s potential? If you took all of our qualities and capabilities, what would the best version of our species look like? How different is our story (history) relative to that best story? In what areas has humanity done best? Are we near to our potential in any aspect of our existence? In what areas have we done worst? What are some of the most “inhumane” chapters in our history? Would you say we are getting better or worse as the centuries pass? How do you envision our species in the year 3000? How about the year 30000? Will Fear, greed, and a scarcity mentality remain the norm, or will we ever move toward Love and abundance? Will we reach our potential? Do you agree that it can be pretty depressing to read History books or watch the news and see how systematically we bring each other down? Are we destined to remain this way? Leave me a reply and let me know: How badly are we doing at being human?

Rise,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it on social media. Let’s evolve to Love!

P.P.S. If you enjoy introspection, check out my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

How Well Is YOUR Country Doing?

“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” –Alexis de Tocqueville

Hello friend,

I need to tell you about an old friend of mine. He has been so much on my mind lately, and I need to know what to make of him. You see, I have been watching this old friend–let’s call him Tom–not only the types of successes he has been enjoying financially and in his career, but also the decisions he has been making and the way he has been treating the people in his life. I have been taking it all in, and my gut is screaming out one way, but I would like your read on him. So, please indulge me and thank you in advance for your wisdom.

Tom lives in a big, beautiful house in an upscale neighborhood. He owns a very successful business–employs a lot of people and makes a lot of money–and also has made a killing in the stock market in the decade since the recession. Financially, he is sitting pretty. The rest of his life is less pretty. Tom has had some alcohol-related incidents lately, including a DUI and an assault and disorderly conduct charge stemming from an incident at a local bar. Also, after a back surgery last year, he became addicted to prescription pain medication and has not been able to kick the habit. It has had enormous ramifications in his relationships. He has become physically abusive with his wife, to the point where she has had to be treated at the hospital. After the latest episode–just last week–in which her collarbone was broken, she filed for divorce and moved out of the house with their two middle-grade children. He has not harmed either of the kids physically, but his emotional abuse has been quite traumatic for them both and they were deeply relieved when their mother moved them to the hotel. He has given up his long-held spiritual beliefs and alienated nearly all of his family and friends (though he claims his dealer is a “real, true friend”). He has been able to maintain his thriving business and financial well-being through it all–and he claims that that is the only proof anyone needs that he is “doing just fine, thank you”–but from my angle, it seems like that is just about all he has going for him right now. He seems adrift, bitter, and depressed. A lost soul. If I didn’t know anything about his finances, I would say he is at rock bottom.

What would you say? How is it going inside his world right now? Rate his life for me on a scale of 1 to 10.

I am going to pretend, until I hear otherwise, that you see life in a way that is somewhat similar to the way I see it, okay? So, I am saying that you gave him a low score. Somewhere between 1 and 3. Definitely not above 5. Right? That seems like the rational human answer. When your soul is lost, money isn’t enough to make it found.

I thought of this guy a lot last week as I followed the big news stories of the day on NPR, CNN, and Facebook. Two comments struck me the deepest and got me in my Pondering Mode (which usually leads to a letter to you). The first one came when I was watching CNN in the immediate aftermath of the first vote for the Supreme Court nomination, which happened to coincide with the day that America’s unemployment numbers were released, revealing our lowest rate in 49 years. One of the guests on the show was a Republican strategist–seemingly a clear-minded guy–and after opining on a few different issues, his summary, as it related to the President, was essentially this (I am paraphrasing): “Even if you are like me and find his personality and comments distasteful, based on delivering two conservative Supreme Court justices and the stock market and unemployment numbers, you would have to say that as a President, he has been a resounding success. The country is doing great.”

I am fairly sure that I drooled a large puddle onto my shirt as my jaw dropped onto my chest. He was being completely serious, and my eyes were bugging out of my head, in the same way they might if I had gone to my doctor for a check on a persistent cough and she told me that the diagnosis was simple: I had monkeys flying out of my butt.

I had to pause and collect my mind. After all, I had just written to you in my last letter about how little we know what is in each other’s minds. This pundit forced me to confront the possibility that his read on our President and the state of the union, though preposterous to me, could be a common one. I just hadn’t ever thought of it before, as everything I read and watch seems to be indicate that we are in a historically bad place in our country, led by a man that is historically unpopular.

Anyway, it was in that pondering state that I was looking at Facebook the next day and came across a post from my friend who is notorious for stirring the pot by putting out probing or controversial questions that draw dozens of comments and debates from her large and vociferous Facebook community. She asked something about the Supreme Court fiasco. Amidst all of these folks bashing the Republicans in the Comments section, there was this one woman who stood up for the conservative cause by saying, essentially, “Look how great the country is doing financially, so all is well. (And go Trump.)”  

Again I was staggered for a moment, but there it was, that same sentiment: If the money stuff is good, then we are definitely a healthy and successful country. We should just keep doing what we are doing. If you want to know if you live in a good country with good leaders, look no further than the stock market and unemployment numbers.

As I gave this idea a fresh spin around my brain to see the many ways it would strike me, a memory from my childhood came up. One of the very few things I can recall about politics or elections from that time was a candidate–it must have been Reagan–saying, essentially, “If you are in as good or better shape financially than you were four years ago, then the only logical vote is for me.” I understood where he was coming from and didn’t question his rationale, as I didn’t give politics a second thought at that age (my parents were big Reagan fans, and Republicans were winning, so I just figured they were cheering for the right guys).

But I give it a second thought now. And a third and fourth, too. I am quite interested, actually. (Sometimes I think I should even go into politics, but I wouldn’t survive, as I take the arguments too personally.) So, when I read that woman’s Facebook comment and listened to the pundit, both saying essentially that our strong economic indicators mean that the country is in great shape and our elected officials are doing a swell job, I was stunned initially. Honestly, after the initial shock of each, I was waiting for the, “Alright alright, just messing with you!” type of follow-up. When I realized that they were completely serious, I had to gather my wits about me, realizing that I have been out of touch with a perhaps-commonly held idea.

Of course, I know that the President has his roughly 33% of ardent supporters who are sure he is making us great again. But do people really think that the country is in good shape? Does a good DOW score and low unemployment mean we are a healthy country?

Don’t get me wrong: I like a strong economy. I like more people having jobs and people earning on their investments. But what about our collective soul? The soul of the nation? Does that not count for anything?

The historians that I read and listen to–old guys like Dan Rather and David Gergen, veterans of many administrations and wars and movements and eras–say the country hasn’t been so divided and faith in our representatives so low in their entire lifetimes. Our standing in the world, from the polls I have seen, has never been lower. Speaking just for myself, I have never felt less “at home” here. And, just by the feel of the energy in the air–not very scientific, I admit–it just seems like dark times in America.

I would argue that that stuff counts, too.

So, I guess what I am saying is I don’t buy the glossy, “Look no further than your bank account,” standard when I assess how well my country is doing. And I resent it when someone offers up the obvious moral decay and corruption in our elected representatives in Washington, the damage to the environment and human rights abuses brought on by the policies of the current administration, and the rise in the level of acrimony amongst ordinary citizens as proof of a country whose very soul is in trouble, the response is basically, “Shut up and cash your check.” That attitude and method of assessment is just too shallow.

It’s too shallow to judge a nation this way, the same way it is too shallow to judge a person this way.

It reminds me of talking to my Mom after she has been to some kind of family reunion or had lunch with old friends.

Mom: I had a nice talk with your Uncle So-And-So.

Me: How is he doing?

Mom: He looks good. And I sat with your Cousin Such-And-Such at dinner.

Me: What is happening in her life?

Mom: She looks great! Her hair is so cute. And her kids are adorable!

Me in my head: Who are my real parents???

When I think about my friend Tom–yes, he probably looks good, too–I see his big bank account and want to think he is doing okay, but I can’t get through ten seconds of the thought without my heart feeling overwhelmingly sad for him and the state his life is in. If I had a vote to live in Tom’s life or the life of someone with less money but more kindness and happiness, I would go with the latter every time.

Similarly, I would love to say that America is in great shape and our elected representatives are doing a swell job just because stocks are up and unemployment is down. But I live here and am neither blind nor stone-hearted. I see what is happening in Washington and in my Facebook feed. The level of acrimony is disturbingly high. So many of our recent policy changes strike me as morally repugnant. When I hear from people across the globe that we have become more of a laughingstock than a leader, I can find no fault in their arguments. I love my country dearly, but I am horribly embarrassed and disheartened about its condition right now, no matter what the NASDAQ says.

Like I said about Tom, when your soul is lost, money isn’t enough to make it found. I feel like the America I live in today is as far gone as my old friend, maybe more. And that makes me sad.

How about you? How do you rate your country’s condition right now, and what do you base that upon? Open up your journal and make an honest assessment of the land you call home? I think it is important to be clear about what factors you include in your assessment. Do you stick to hard numbers, like statistics a politician might tout as proof of success? Do you mostly use economic indicators, like the unemployment rate or the DOW? Do you factor in our current reputation in the global community? How much of your assessment of our nation’s condition is based on what you hear or read from friends or your social media community, especially in gathering your read on the level of acrimony between people with different views? How much is based on the overall vibe that you feel with your gut or sixth sense? How do you think your view of our situation is affected by whether you are a supporter of the political party currently in power? Specifically, if you are conservative, did you rate the country’s health as GOOD in 2008 when President Bush was in charge, despite the fact that we were embroiled in war and our economy was in a free-fall, then rated it as BAD during the Obama years, and now GOOD again with your party in charge of everything? Does a country have a soul, at least in a figurative sense? That is to say, is a country bigger than a sum of its statistics? Is it fair to assess a country in a way similar to a human: as more than just their job, age, marital status, and income? If it is, do you agree with my reading that America is in a bad spot right now–its soul is struggling–despite some promising economic indicators? How adrift are we? Way gone or just a slight shift in our course? Leave me a reply and let me know: How well is YOUR country doing?

Live open-hearted,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please pass it on. Let’s raise our consciousness.

P.P.S. If this type of self-inquiry appeals to you, I encourage you to take a deeper dive with my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, available at your favorite online retailers.

Child Cages, Moral Decay, and Appalling Silence

“I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.” –Martin Luther King Jr.

Hello friend,

What has been happening at America’s southern border these last couple of months–the separation of immigrant children from their parents and the warehousing/caging of these children–is morally reprehensible. If you don’t think so, I am not sure what I can even say to you. So I am just going to assume that if you are reading this, you have a conscience and at least a shred of decency. Fair enough?

I know that, like every other topic that involves our current President or even anything remotely political, there is likely to be an immediate raising of your walls and a strong desire to withdraw completely from the discussion. I get that. We have developed a poisonous atmosphere when it comes to political dialogue in this country. People look forward to a political debate the way they look forward to a root canal.

With that said, I would like to submit to you that this particular discussion is NOT a political one but is instead a moral one (though I admit that I look at politics as an expression of one’s morals). I mean, we are talking about human rights violations. Do you really want to belong to the group that says, “Sure, we approve of caging babies!” No matter how conservative you are, I don’t believe that is who you are. So let’s take the Republican and the Democrat out of the topic. Let’s just make it about your moral compass, your sense of decency. Okay? So, engage! Just engage as a human. Please.

The thing about this topic of child separation that–like so many other topics–I find so fascinating is not so much its rightness or wrongness (that seems obvious) but rather how much people are willing to stand up against something that runs counter to their professed morals. That is, who says out loud and in public, “This is wrong! We can’t allow this!” and who sits by in silence and allows the wrong to continue?

Maybe I am so enthralled by this concept because I enjoy studying History and, in particular, the many atrocities people have committed against each other, things that seem unspeakable to us from the distance of a textbook and a different era. I like thought experiments such as, “What would I have done if I were a German citizen during the Holocaust?” or “How engaged would I have been if I lived during the Civil Rights Movement?”

I think we all like to imagine ourselves as stepping up and doing something noble in these types of circumstances, speaking in the town square or aiding an escape or marching for justice. But would we really? We can’t know for sure, of course, but something tells me that the best indicator of how we would have acted then is how we act now when our core morality is publicly assaulted. Do we rise to speak and act, or do we swallow our tongues and sit on our hands?

It has been argued that we are in the midst of one of these public assaults daily in this era in America–when lies and threats to civil liberties from the highest offices in our government have become the norm–and that it is our obligation to step up every single time and say, in some manner, “That is simply not true,” or, “No, that is unjust.” There is honor and integrity in that. Of course, that becomes exhausting, and most of us begin to become more selective in our battles (which is why a constant barrage of untruths and incivilities has turned out to be an effective tactic for those employing it). For the sake of our personal sanity, we tend to tackle only the most egregious.

In my eyes, at least, we had one of these egregious public assaults last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, with the large and violent rally of white supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis. Many otherwise-silent people felt compelled to speak up and say something to the effect of, “This is disgusting. This is un-American. I oppose this.” Many, but not all. Maybe not even most.

In recent weeks, we have had our latest example of an egregious public assault on our morals with the current administration’s enforcement of the “zero tolerance” policy and ensuing separation of children of all ages from their families and caging them in warehouses and tent cities. Stories of the traumas of these children–and their parents–have been out there for weeks and have multiplied recently as public outrage has grown.

I was heartened to see, after a long silence on the matter, some prominent members on both sides of the political spectrum finally speak out on the matter, naming it out loud, as I did above, as a moral matter, not a political one. Laura Bush, Franklin Graham, and the Pope definitely stood out on my radar, voices I might have otherwise not expected to hear on an ordinary “political” issue. To me, that was essentially the signal to open the floodgates for all decent people to speak out against this cruelty. Some did. But so many still didn’t.

What gives?

I fully admit that I sometimes get angry when I read a post–whether written by someone in my social media community or just shared by them–that I deem to be callous and/or ignorant. But as awful as I might find someone else’s opinion to be, I actually appreciate that they are speaking up about something that matters to them.

I understand that everyone is not on social media and not everything we do shows up there (though most days it feels like it!). Some people have these important conversations with their friends and family. Some people call their representatives and ask them to vote one way or the other. I love this and encourage everyone to do the same.

But let’s be real. Most people share a lot of their ongoing life stories with their social media “family.” I see their meals, their outfits, their product reviews, their new haircuts, their pets, their kids and everything their kids do, their awards, their Go Fund Me appeals, their date nights, their injuries, their friends, their concerts, their businesses, their pleas for extra prayers, their favorite shows, their families, their religious celebrations, their break-ups, the deaths of their loved ones, and just about everything else I can imagine. They expose themselves to me. They reveal to me who they really are (or at least who they want me to believe they are). And I love that they do. It is nice to feel like I have gotten to know new people and reconnected with so many others that I had lost contact with before I joined the Facebook and Twitter world.

But it is exactly this vast volume of information running the gamut of the human experience that I get from so many people on social media that makes it all the more disturbing to me when we have a moral crisis such as Charlottesville or the caged children at the border and I don’t hear a peep from them.

Not a small personal note expressing some disgust or outrage. Not a share of an informative article. Nothing from their spiritual leader. Just nothing.

It’s very disheartening to me. It makes me question myself about whom I have allowed into my life. It forces me to wonder whether the silence is due to callousness, cluelessness, or fear. Or something else?

And I’ll take anything, really. I even willingly accept the “This is not who we are,” statement (even though, unfortunately, it is who we are. Selling slave children away from their mothers. Removing Native American children from their families and sending them to “boarding schools,” often never to see their families again. Japanese internment camps during World War II. Historically speaking, America is clearly not above caging children.), because I think people mean it aspirationally. That is, as, “This is not who I wish for us to be, now or in the future.” I’ll take it. It’s something.

I think part of why so many don’t speak up against injustice is that it opens up a conversation that they probably don’t want to have. Most of us are so uncomfortable bringing up issues of race, class, and religion (and politics, of course). I think that part of that is simply insecurity from being out of practice (because we just don’t talk about it in America), but I also think there is a part of it (possibly unconscious) that is about our guilt from either ourselves or our ancestors being complicit in the worst kinds of atrocities in our history, such as the ones I just mentioned. We avoid conversations about current unpleasantness to avoid conversations about past unpleasantness. We just don’t dare.

But I am here to say that it is time to speak up. You don’t have to get “political.” You don’t have to name names. You just have to, when something is happening in your world that is so morally repulsive that it makes you want to cry or scream or reach a hand out to help, say something.

Just say something. Account for yourself as a moral being. That’s all.

I will.

How about you? Are you willing to speak up when something in your country goes beyond the limits of your moral compass? Open up your journal and explore your responses in times of moral crisis, including our current catastrophe with children at the border. Historically–prior to this current issue–have you found yourself compelled to speak up and/or take action in the face of a policy or action that you found to be unconscionable? What compelled you? An unjust war? A policy regarding civil rights issues? A particular debate or Supreme Court decision, such as abortion or same-sex marriage? The cumulative effect of a particular politician’s character (e.g. racist and misogynistic) and policy positions (e.g. doesn’t believe in climate change)? Police brutality? The Women’s March? The Charlottesville white supremacists? Something else? If none of those things moved the needle far enough for you to rise up and speak, is there anything that you can imagine pushing you to that point? Okay, how about this recent issue of forcibly taking children from their parents and holding them in detention centers? How egregious is this according to your moral code? Enough to say something? Have you shared anything on social media about it? Have you communicated your outrage–if you have it–to friends and family members? To members of Congress? If not, why exactly not? If you belong to a religion or spiritual community, what do your leaders have to say about this matter? Have they spoken up and condemned the policy during services? Did they speak out against racism during Charlottesville? If they did not, what do you think it says about your spiritual community in terms of its role in your moral life? What do you think about people who don’t stand up in the face of what is plainly wrong? Would you trust them to stand up for you if you were being bullied? What does that say about the level of trust you ought to give them with your heart? Whether or not you are one to speak out against injustice, what do you think are the biggest reasons people–even “good people”–choose silence in times when silence only emboldens the oppressor and the bully? In the end, are any of those reasons good enough? At what point is silence simply spinelessness? Have you been there? How recently? Did you regret it later? When it comes to the human rights violations occurring with the traumatized children at the border, how do you suppose History will judge people who responded like you did to the situation? Are you content with that? Leave me a reply and let me know: What does it take to get you to speak up?

Make your heart feel big,

William

P.S. If you know anyone who might be well served to consider these questions, please share this letter with them. All rise!

P.P.S. If you enjoy the challenge of exploring your inner world, I think you would appreciate my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That is Your Truth. It’s available at most online retailers.

Resisting Reality: When You Can’t Accept The Facts of Life

“…and the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” –Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Hello friend,

Did you see the news of the 60 protesters killed in Gaza this week? How about the story of the new outbreak of the Ebola virus? It has been hard to miss the stories of potential nuclear war with North Korea and Iran. And what about those deadly storms? I also checked out an episode of David Letterman’s new interview series “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” featuring Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, in which she told of being shot in the head at age 17 for speaking out in support of allowing girls to be educated after her home region in Pakistan was taken over by the Taliban.

All of that was just Tuesday for me!

I know those types of stories come cascading down upon us every day of every week, threatening to drown us in shock, outrage, or despair (depending upon what the last thing was and the readiness of our defense systems). But some days, I just seem to have more nerves exposed and a weaker power of Denial, and all of this stuff storms my fortress and seeps in from all sides. It is then that I am forced face-to-face with the simple truth of human life that I work so hard to keep out: that it is uncertain and unfair, often violent and painful, and so much out of our control.

I hate that truth. I really do. All my life I have been fighting against it, resisting, denying.

I think most of us have one or more of those Realities or Truths About Life that we are–whether consciously or not–in denial of or don’t believe that they apply to us (and only us). Mine is definitely the one about the brutal and uncertain nature of our individual lives.

And I tell myself–occasionally, anyway–that it is childish and foolish to resist this truth so vehemently. After all, the evidence is everywhere. Bombs are exploding all over the world and destroying homes, businesses, sometimes entire families in an instant. Natural disasters are doing the same. Cars are crashing and taking limbs and lives. Viruses like Ebola are spreading to the unsuspecting of all ages. And kids are still getting cancer.

So, clearly, an individual human’s existence is precarious at best. More honestly, it is harsh and uncertain, often lonely and cut short. That is the practical reality.

Yet I resist that reality. I somehow refuse to accept it.

Every time I become aware of something harrowing happening in the world, I take it in and feel it. I try to meet it honestly. I don’t deny the event. I allow it to play its notes upon my heart and mind. There is sadness, sometimes disillusionment, often frustration–occasionally all three. As my system goes through all of those thoughts and feelings and the process runs its course, I deal with what is. That is a reality that I can face.

Simultaneously, however, there is a parallel reality that I cannot face (and even here in this lucid moment I will not fully accept). It is the idea that these frequent harrowing events and this uncertain and unsafe existence are a human’s natural and inevitable state of being. Something in me will not surrender to this idea, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary.

Upon reflection, I suppose that it is the idealist in me that continues to put up the fight. You see, I truly believe that we humans are capable of magnificence, both individually and collectively. I believe that our potential is so vast, almost to the point of being limitless. There is so much that is possible for us intellectually and emotionally. My vision of us acting at peak capacity is truly beautiful.

The smear on that beautiful vision, however, is our persistent and extreme failure to live up to our potential as a species. From my angle, humans are the epitome of wasted potential. Despite many wonderful examples of individual greatness, as a group, we fail at nearly opportunity to rise and make our existence safer, happier, and healthier. Almost every one of those violent uncertainties is something that we could improve or eliminate were we to use our resources wisely.

Think about the amount of money, time, brain power, muscle, and emotional resources that we devote toward attacking and defending ourselves from one another. What if all of those resources were instead devoted to making each other safer, happier, and healthier? You know, what if those trillions of dollars and all of those brilliant minds were spent on waging Peace, curing cancer, and making advances in renewable energy, education, sustainable communities, quality health care for all, clean water, healthy food, living wages, mental health, scientific research, and restorative justice? What if the humans of the planet got together and committed to doing right by each other and by the planet?

I absolutely believe that the evolution of our species would take a quantum leap forward. With that leap, I think we would eliminate nearly all of the things that make our individual lives so fraught with the terrors and pains that I have been speaking of. Cure diseases. Solve problems diplomatically. Understand the workings of our planet and how to spread our abundant resources equitably so that all can thrive and excel. Devise our buildings, transportation systems, and devices to be ultra-safe and eco-friendly.

We could do this stuff. I know we could.

But we don’t. Over and over and over we don’t. We consistently choose to operate out of Fear instead of Love and set up our perpetuating systems accordingly. Because of this Fear, we consistently act foolishly instead of wisely. Our systems further greed and corruption rather than empathy and kindness. The modus operandi that our ancestors chose and that we continue to choose works in the opposite direction of our potential.

Basically, our way is to underachieve our potential. We choose to fail ourselves. It’s a tragedy and a shame.

And in the end, what it means is that we continue to live these individual lives in perpetual danger. So many of the perils that make human life so scary–wars, diseases, food and water issues, crime, climate events, terrorism, isolation–are things that we have the resources and the ability to solve if only we were to choose our priorities wisely and act collectively out of Love. But instead, we choose to be less. That choice has us living in darkness.

Reading back over those last few paragraphs, you might not believe that I am a passionate optimist. It’s true, though. I deeply believe not only in my idealistic image of what we are capable of, but also that we will get there. I believe it is in written into the code of our species and our planet.

So sure, if you look at what we have been up to historically and what we are up to now, I agree that you could call me a fool for continuing to resist and deny the idea that human life is cruel and dangerous, uncertain and uncontrollable. And I am quite sure there will always be some element that we can strive to make more predictable and survivable–natural disaster preparation or cures for new diseases, for example. But I think I will hold onto my idealism about Who We Really Are and therefore Who We Will Become. And while one arm clings to that precious ideal, I will use the other arm to fend off any Reality or Truth About Life that says otherwise.

How about you? Is there an idea that most people accept as fact that you either deny or need to come to peace with? Open up your journal and explore your resistance to commonly accepted truths about Life. Which one do you fight against the most? What is it about that reality/truth that just doesn’t sit right with your heart or mind? Is it based on a personal experience that contradicts it, or is it more of a gut feeling or intuition that you trust? Do you think the rest of the world should awaken and adopt your stance on the subject, or is it fine as your personal belief? How would the world be different if everyone stopped accepting this idea as Reality? Okay, now to my specific resistance. Do you have any sympathy with my belief that it is not the natural and inevitable fate of humans to live amidst constant danger and uncertainty, or do you think this peril is a simple fact of Life? Are there any facets of this constant danger–disease, war, crime, natural disaster, climate events, pollution–that you believe we have the power to be free of or at least better protected from? What percentage of the usual danger and uncertainty that we face is it possible to be relieved of through measures we can take? Can you envision us taking those measures in your lifetime? How close are we as a species to achieving our potential? What actions can we take to evolve to that higher order? Am I fooling myself by expecting so much of us? Do you think it’s okay for me to carry on with this idealistic belief, or would I be better served to “face reality?” Leave me a reply and let me know: Are we right about all the things we accept as “Facts of Life,” or are there “truths” that are actually false?

Be your own standard,

William

P.S. If this topic resonated with you today, please share it on your social media channels. Perhaps we can make connections that will ultimately shift our reality for the better.

P.S.S. If this type of questioning and search for your own Truth is appealing to you, I recommend you checking out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering the Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online bookseller.