It’s Political

On a recent boring evening, I turned to social media for a bit of entertainment. I scrolled through my friends’ posts: rows of elegant masks crafted by creative folks, pictures of my sons’ trip to Michigan’s Upper peninsula, a few requisite cats, and a tiny knitted Joe Biden. Still bored, I checked in on page for moms who are physician assistants. I feel old here, as far more people are discussing pregnancy and the toddler years than menopause and college COVID plans, but I need community right now, and these nearly 7K women are at a safe social distance, so I started reading the newest post.

Disclosure: I’m not just a PA tasked with coaxing people to reach for more celery than chocolate; convincing patients who don’t want a flu shot that, for the love of Grandma, they should get one; and clarifying that that cocaine in their urine drug screen probably means they actually used cocaine. I also teach composition, argumentation, and rhetoric to gifted middle- and high school kids. I could count the ways that supporting these two populations require similar skills so support and manage, but let’s save that for another essay.

The original post was a mixture, I believe, of honest angst coated in Trumpist rhetoric about COVID 19. It was a version of a meme-like list of questions about the pandemic, some that we all ask: When and how will this end, should we worry so much? It was sigh-worthy, especially coming from a medical professional. It started with this line: Please keep politics out of it.

So, as I was bored and looking for a bit of excitement, I replied. I waxed about We versus I attitudes and the tendency of the US to value individualism over community. We went back and forth, others joined in, and it took up more hours over several days than I like to admit. (I told myself and my husband that, as part of my new rhetoric class that starts this week, I needed to examine the rhetoric of others and practice my own. Did I also mention I was bored?) It went on for days.

All this is mundane, of course, this social media storm. So is is this line, found early in her screed: “Please leave politics out of it.”

I’ll not bore you with the minutiae of the back-and-forth, nor the devolution of her rhetoric, or even the very minimal support she received. There was a bit of sadness in that. I like a good argument (not the yelling kind, as I tell my students).

But that line stuck with me: Please leave politics out of it.

I couldn’t get through my first response without noting that omitting politics when discussing this pandemic is impossible. She was concerned about people losing their small businesses, something that’s happening all over the nation and is definitely troublesome for the business and their owner as well as the community, but that’s political. Small business loans were diverted to large companies, leaving less for those who owned those small business loans. Politics was central from the start — our government’s denial that <gasp!> Americans would (in droves) fall sick and even die of COVID-19 was the major driver of the pandemic’s strength. Doing nothing isn’t benign, after all. It’s lack of action that got us to this place: disease deniers and charlatans, inadequate PPE, lack of leadership, poor testing protocol, a dismantled government pandemic plan, income inequity, and so much more.

And it’s all political.

It’s political when Congress can’t manage to settle on an supplemental unemployment package that gives a hoot about the poorest of those unemployed. It’s political when we don’t have the PPE for anyone who needs it to be safe at work. It’s political when governors are making (or not making) the calls for masks and lockdowns while the president sits silent. (And it’s political when blue states act more prudently than red states). It’s political when people reject masks for “free will,” a phrase that has been so abused that we should retire it for at least a few generations..

It’s political when people of color die at a higher rate than white folks. It’s political when insurance is attached to employment and that only some of us can pay the COBRA bill or manage the deductible and premiums for an ACA policy. Iit’s political when we keep a worker’s hours under the full-time threshold just to save money on those benefits. And it’s of course political that, as the wealthiest nation in the world, that we still don’t have healthcare for all.

It’s political when we count on schools to feed our children. It’s political when we damn those same children to underfunded schools staffed by overworked, underpaid teachers. It’s political when our Secretary of Education is undermining our underfunded public education program, and it’s certainly political when that Secretary of Education holds schools financially hostage and threatens cutting funding if those schools plan to teach remotely rather than in person. (Walking that back doesn’t make it less political.)

It’s political when the person in the highest office of the land spouts nonsense about a not-cure. It’s political when that same person refuses to wear a mask, thus encouraging millions to do the same. (And it’s political when we can tell someone’s politics by their willingness to wear a mask correctly or at all.)

COVID-19 itself is just a virus doing what viruses do: trying to stay alive. It’s unconcerned about your healthcare insurance, socioeconomic inequity, immigration status, race, ethnicity, education level, or shoe size. It has no compunction about the wake it creates and the havoc it wreaks. And yet, it’s political. We shouldn’t be surprised that a virus can be political. AIDS was political, and highly so. But most diseases are. Political bodies, local and national, make choices that are, at their root, based on the politics surrounding the disease. Who gets the disease? What is their race, their gender, their power? What price does the disease carry? Could any of us suffer or die, or is it those on the margin who have the most to lose? Is it a disease that starts from “other” — China, Africa, the gay community, the poor, the immigrant? What chance is there that the white and wealthy will suffer? These are the questions of people, policies, and politics, not of the disease.

It is, therefore, the task of the people, by the people, and for the people, to find a path forward through this pandemic. That path includes political, there is no doubt. Politics brought us to this disastrous point, as we have a president who is reckless, foolish, and incompetent and a Senate majority that uses that leadership vacuum and associated chaos for their own personal financial and political gain. This tragic reality is literally killing us. If we decide, as a nation, that our health and wellness and wholeness depend on smart, clear-headed, logical and compassionate leadership working with cooperative community members, all accompanied by science and expert analysis, we just might find our way out a bit sooner, and with politics that value “We the People.”

So what can you do? Start with the personal: Wear a mask, and if you can’t, stay home. Wash your hands. Keep your distance. Skip the crowds. Have coffee outside with friends or online with your favorite meeting platform. If you’re exposed, quarantine. If you’re an employer, make your workplace as safe as possible by following CDC recommendations and allowing sick leave.

But also be political. This isn’t a time to sit out on election day or delay submitting that mail-in ballot. Our only way through this pandemic is through strong, sane, and compassionate leadership that is focused on the We. So vote. Exhort others to vote. Help them register. Talk about the hard issues — racism, classism, and sexism. Ponder parties and power together. Support the rights of those whose voice isn’t heard. Amplify voices of power and privilege who are working for a more equitable nation. And use the word We. It’s a powerful first-person plural pronoun that we should all use more often. And together, as political people, we CAN make change.

This Liberal Isn’t Sitting Down and Shutting Up

Perhaps I should have bailed out after the first sentence: “I know many liberals, and two of them really are my best friends.”  This is how Gerard Alexander, professor of political science at the University of Virginia begins his call for liberals to shut up and sit down (my words) in his Sunday Review New York Times opinion piece “Liberals, You’re Not as Smart as You Think You Are.”

This isn’t a new drumbeat for Alexander. He’s complained before about liberals painting conservatives with a broad brush, claiming all conservatives are racist and has called liberals out for being “so condescending” to conservatives. This essay appears to be a continuation of those themes, and Alexander is hardly the only conservative to make those charges.  In this most recent essay, he takes the broad brush into his own hands, labeling liberals (as a whole) as “self-righteous” while requesting that they stop talking, essentially, about human rights in absolute terms. And, he states clearly, that the price for liberals saying too much will be another Trump term. As he notes, “People often vote against things instead of voting for them: against ideas, candidates, and parties.” So, to Alexander, the solution is simple: Liberals need to quiet down so conservatives will listen. He’s short on evidence for that claim, but he spends a good amount of time working through the sins of liberals and how their insistence on justice for more than Christian, straight, white men is hurting America.

There’s so much about Alexander’s essay that’s objectionable, but I’ll start with where I agree with him. Yes, there are insufferable liberals. There is nothing about being liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between that makes one delightful company and unerring in judgment.  Humans from all walks of life can be jerks, and one only has to spend a few minutes on social media to see that play out. Yes, liberals (and conservatives) can shut down thought and conversation with a slur, and that action can lead to a negative perception of the other and that ideology. And, yes, there are conservatives who aren’t bigots.  I know them, and some are good friends, to borrow a phrase from Alexander.

Alexander ruminates about free speech, and he and I certainly share the value of that on the whole (although asking liberals to tuck theirs in seems a bit incongruent with that concept), and I agree with him that college campuses should be places where ideas other than the ones held tightly before college can be heard and explored.  I realize that by writing that statement, some liberal friends of mine might find themselves on edge. But, as someone who has taught argumentation to young teens for several years, someone who asks young people to explore the arguments of others and to think critically and ask questions, I bristle at the idea of these same children going to a college that tells them they can’t ask the simple questions: “Why do you think that?” and “How do you know?” Part of owning your beliefs (and then living them out) is understanding more completely and applying critical thinking skills along the way. Part of settling into an ethic of one’s own should be listening (or at least reading) to those whose ideas appall you, not so you can nod and agree or modify your belief that all humans have dignity and worth because they are human but so you can formulate arguments in return. One can’t form a counterargument without understanding the conflict at hand or the arguments made on the other side.

There is, however, an important caveat: Oppressed people have no obligation to listen to the musings of their oppressors. Women needn’t listen to rapists and abusers explain and defend their actions. Immigrants have no obligation to hear how and why they should “go back where they came from,”  and any person of color has no need to stand one minute of nonsense about how they are less because they are not white. And, no, I’m not advocating finding a KKK member or neo-Nazi for coffee and hate conversation, although I’m sure doing so could be informative. ( I’m also not advocating Milo’s presence on anyone’s campus, as provocateurs spouting for attention, not actually forming arguments.)  I am, however, arguing that taking a stance without understanding what others think and why is damaging to progress, and progress is what progressives are all about.

My main complaint with Alexander is with his dangerous, illogical, and damaging stance: He asks liberals to, essentially, stop speaking up and out, at least outside of the ways they have wielded “their cultural prominence in recent years,” specifically in the news and film. “Racist,” he then notes, “is pretty much the most damning label that can be slapped on anyone in America today.”

I don’t disagree that naming entire groups of people with any name, true or not, with the object of shaming, scolding, or slamming them is unproductive even if it is accurate. I don’t find my eyes opened when I’m called a libtard, Marxist, socialist, commie, feminist (oh, please, you can do better than that), feminazi (there you go!), SJW (wasn’t Jesus one?), snowflake (I’ve not melted yet), baby killer, idiot, and (wait for it) liberal. Slinging slurs don’t win anyone a friend, although slurs may influence people to break off friendships or stop conversations. No, calling names isn’t useful.

But racism is alive and well in this nation. It has been for a long time, of course, but Trump has made a sport out of spouting and spreading that hate and racism during the campaign in 2016 as well expressing his own racist tendencies in his business practices in the decades before that campaign. Who can forget his frenzied “Build The Wall!” chants at almost every rally? His base ate it up, and wall talk continues to this day. Sprinkle in a few immigration bans against people from Muslim countries, some highly disparaging remarks about people in Haiti and several African countries, absolution of alt-right tiki-torch carriers in Charlottesville, silence when black people die at the hands of angry white people, and chummy relationships with known racists, and, well, you have the picture. Trump built a campaign on hate and fear, and it bought him the presidency. And his base still eats it up and spouts it back while his beloved Fox News strokes his ego, spouts his nonsense, and otherwise fans the flames of his that base. Alexander may be uncertain about bigotry underlying Trump’s win, but I am not. Trump won on what he campaigned on: hate and fear. We, as a nation, got what was promised, and that was bigotry at the helm in order to maintain the status quo, which is straight, white, largely male, and Christian.

Calling names doesn’t solve anything, and it does build divides. But Alexander’s request that liberals quiet down and stop being divisive is eerily familiar when a system is fighting to hold back others to maintain power.  Women have long been told to quiet down so people will like them more. Women have been asked to smile and nod when what is appropriate is yelling and fighting back. Women (and LGBTQ, brown, black, Jewish, Muslim, disabled, and other marginalized people subject to oppression) know what it is to be shamed and then ignored when using their voice.

So we, as progressives, as liberals, must break the silence when others are ignored in the public sphere, torn from their families, shot in our streets, denigrated for their biology, violated by those in power, herded to inferior schools, confined to neighborhoods by de facto redlining, hated for how they pray, despised because of the color of their skin, and mocked because of their dress or language. It’s about damn time, too. Silence is complacent, and, when we make the choice of silence in the face of injustice, all for the sake of politeness, manners, and maybe winning over a Trump voter in 2020, it makes us complicit in the hate and oppression itself.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it this way, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice, who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.

That’s what Alexander is asking liberals to be: The white moderate. Make no mistake. There are still plenty of those to go around. But, as King notes, the absence of tension in the face of injustice does not lead to peace or equity, equality, or fairness. It does not lead to the right running to the left, ready to vote for justice. It does not lead us away from populist, racist politicians bent on maintaining their comfortable status quo. Yes, people vote against things, as Alexander notes. Voters for Trump voted against brown immigrants, against women, against their own financial interests (coal is not returning), against their own health care, and against the roots of their own religion.

It is not “self-righteous” to speak up for and about those who are marginalized in this world. It is, in Christian terms and values, the moral and good thing to do, and Jesus reminds people of this endlessly. (Now there was a social justice warrior!) It’s simply the right thing to do, religion aside (and in politics, we should be setting it aside).  It is part of the long and hard path to King’s “positive peace, which is the presence of justice.”

And that’s what progressives, overall, want. They want positive peace. They want justice for all. They want a better nation and a better world, one where we work together for the good of all people. Many say that 155 years after slavery is a blink of an eye in the arc of human time, but, by many measures, it is lifetimes. Too often, “But this takes time” is the mantra of the moderate, used to assure that, with enough patience, justice will come. It is indeed a mark of privilege to make that claim. King told us this, 65 years ago, from that Birmingham jail:

More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

By requesting that liberals muffle their voices, Alexander is encouraging stagnation in a nation that supposedly strives towards progress. He conflates name calling with calling foul on injustice. Yes, there is room for civility in our conversations with others about the hardest issues in this nation, but civility is the luxury of those in power. Civility has never been the sole mechanism of true progress. It is instead loud voices, strong convictions, and unyielding insistence on justice that has always brought us further along as a nation.


March for Our Lives, Detroit

2018-03-23 17-54 page 1Tomorrow I’ll take to the streets of downtown Detroit to spend an hour or so walking a few miles with thousands of young people and not-so-young people in Metro Detroit’s March for Our Lives event. I’ll listen to speakers, many of whom will be students, as they explain their worries and hopes; some who are politicians, who will say the right words, at least; and a few other folks who have made gun violence reduction a life’s work. I’ll march for the students from Parkland and Sandy Hook and Columbine and Great Mills. I’ll march to be heard, to be counted, to be hopeful, to be part of the solution, to be a human who cares and cries and mourns when children from Parkland and Sandy Hook and Columbine and Great Mills are killed with weapons much of the world finds unacceptable for civilians to own. And, I admit, I’ll march as a talisman of sorts, a way to protect my sons in their classrooms.

I’ll also march for young people who fear their own city streets every day, where school can be a safer spot than the route leading to school. I’ll march for those in Chicago, Baltimore, Philidelphia, and Detroit, where I grew up, for those whose lives are treated as disposable because their skin is dark and their pockets, too often empty. I’ll march for all the young people who are shot and killed and mourned for by their families, friends, and immediate community, but who are ignored, scorned, and deserted by those whose skin is not dark and whose pockets hold wealth and power and privilege.

And I’ll march for Melody. Melody Rucker, who was shot and killed at age sixteen on August 17, 1986. Shot outside at a party — a chaperoned party — by a young person just a year older than herself. A child killed by another child who, more than thirty years later, remains in prison, by many accounts a changed man, and who may be paroled this year. Shot for, well, being in the way of anger. Shot randomly, by another child who was, by account, upset that he wasn’t welcome at the party and wanted to make a point. Angry and young and armed — a lethal and all-too-common combination in this country.

I lived in Detroit from age five to age twenty-five. Detroit was, on and off, referred to as the murder capital of the United States. I called it home. Gunfire wasn’t an unusual sound while growing up, but I can’t recall particularly worrying about being shot. I often refer to my childhood neighborhood as a black, urban professional neighborhood with a moderate number of white folks, like my family,  a perception that I can’t back up with anything but memories filtered through time. We weren’t rich. We weren’t poor. And more of our neighbors were better off than us than not. As a child, I worried about being abducted because every meal brought the pictures of missing children via our milk cartons. I worried about fire because the house across the street burned nearly to the ground when I was seven. And I worried about break-ins because that did happen with some regularity.  I didn’t, however, worry about being shot.

I don’t know if Melody Rucker worried about being shot, as we never talked about that. I met Melody through the Episcopal Church’s Youth Task Force, a group I joined as a Catholic child with Methodist upbringing after being exposed to the group at my Episcopal summer camp. It was a group of preachers’ kids and other young people whose families were active in the Episcopal church, with a splash of others who, like me, had found the group through the camp. We met several times a year across Michigan’s lower peninsula to plan gatherings for young people. It was a chance to shape programs based on our concerns and perceived needs as much as a time to just hang out with friends. I could no longer tell you just what we planned and how well those plans were executed, but I can tell you we felt both valued and valuable, two primary needs of any teen.

I do know that at sixteen, I had no template for what to do when a friend was shot. I did what kids do when they meet tragedy as a group: I cried, I worried, I ranted, I pondered, and I reached out to friends who knew her. When the shock wore off, or at least a bit, we talked about Melody and about gun violence, specifically in Detroit. We were geographically scattered and few of us drove, and this was, of course, decades before social media allowed quick and easy contact. It was when calls out of your immediate area were expensive during the weekdays and only cheaper on weekend nights, often after parents said “no” to phone calls.  So, no. We didn’t organize. We didn’t speak our truth to power. We didn’t march. Too many months later, I wrote my first letter to the editor, which was too long and too late to be published but was also my first attempt at writing for change, albeit a failed attempt.

Melody’s mother, Vera Rucker, however, acted. In the wake of her daughter’s death, she joined with other grieving parents to form and grow SOSAD — Save Our Sons and Daughters.  SOSAD both offered support to families who had lost children to gun violence and worked to curb that violence. All this was done decades before social media allowed a swift path to many eyeballs and helping hands. SOSAD made a difference by caring for the families of those experiencing violent loss and in serving as an anti-violence movement.  SOSAD changed lives for the better.

But tomorrow I’ll just march. That won’t change lives, I know. Changing lives take more than two miles of walking on a cold Detroit morning. It takes more than speakers with heart and hope and good intentions. Change takes more than signs and slogans, chants and cheers. Marches and speakers and gathering with one voice does make a difference, yes, as they let us know that others also want a more peaceful nation. That matters.

What changes lives comes next. What changes lives is whom we vote into positions of power and who we back with time and money. It happens when we refuse to be quiet and accept a new ‘normal’ of armed teachers and police where our children learn and grow. It happens when we stop confusing our personal wants for firepower and might with our nation’s needs to protect people from that firepower. It happens when we, as a society, decide that people matter more than things. It happens when we worry just as much about kids who don’t make the national news when they die from gunfire, the ones whose skin is darker and pockets are emptier.

It can happen. It has to happen. It cannot continue to not happen. Change must happen, but it’s in our hands.

But tomorrow I’m marching for Melody. Yes, also for the tens of thousands murdered after you, and for the ones yet to die. But, for tomorrow, it will be Melody on my mind and in my heart. May there never be a loss of another Melody.



The Small Stuff

It’s a few weeks after #Metoo left social media feeds full of accounts of sexual harassment and assault, but accounts about those harassed and assaulted by men in positions of power continue to dot the news and remind all of the pervasive nature of these wrongs. My sharings here are some of the small offenses in the bigger picture of my life as a woman, yet they carry a weight of their own to this day.

“Hey, are you wearing a bra?!”

Warmth crept to my cheeks, and my mouth dried. The voice repeated the question.

“Are you wearing a bra?! It looks like you are! Sarah’s wearing a BRA!!” whispered the fourth-grader behind me in gym class, where we sat in evenly spaced rows. We were an arm’s length away from our neighbors, allowing plenty of room for jumping jacks but apparently not enough room for the boy behind me to ogle (hopefully?) at the outline thin straps of my undershirt, which was –as the name indicates — under my shirt.

I was nine. While there were girls in my class with bras and the budding breasts that go in them, I was all of seventy pounds and flat as the gym floor upon which I was seated. I wore children’s shoe sizes, although others around me had crossed into women’s sizes already. I was a child in a child’s body. Bras and breasts were not on my mind. Neither was discussing underwear with classmates.

“NO!!” I whispered hotly as I twisted around (tricky in the full lotus we were in). “NO!! I am NOT wearing a bra!”

“Sarah’s wearing a bra,” sang the voice behind me.

I’ve never been so grateful for a demoralizing game of dodgeball to start.

I’d not thought about that day in gym class for decades. The boy who taunted me was, otherwise, a nice kid, a generally shy kid who even cried when teased. He wasn’t exactly a friend, but he wasn’t someone who’d ever been unkind. And I don’t recall thinking of him as unkind much after that day. I simply awoke to the unpleasant reality that my personal underclothing and what they contained was going to be a matter of public scrutiny and comment all too soon.

I started to think about bras looking like undershirt straps, and so returned to undershirts with sleeves, the kind that without straps that could be mistaken for bra straps. It was two years before I actually wore a bra, giving me plenty of time to put that gym-class event behind me. And, in ways, I did. And, in other ways, I didn’t. From that gym day forward, hiding undergarment status became part of the task of getting dressed.

Fast forward a few years to junior high. I’ve moved from public school to Catholic school, and my clothing choices shrunk thanks to school uniforms. Blue uniform pants or the uniform skirt? A short-sleeved, lightweight white button-up blouse or the long sleeved, Oxford cloth shirt? Navy cardigan or not? The pants/skirt issue was easy. I didn’t like skirts, as they required a responsible way of sitting and just were more restrictive. But the shirt…oh, the shirt. See, the long-sleeved shirt was too warm for our unairconditioned school, but the short-sleeved shirt, well, through it — in just the right light — one could almost see bra straps. So it was back and forth, trying all three (identical) short-sleeved shirts, looking for the one that might be thicker, that might not bring a snicker or comment. I sometimes settled for a t-shirt under my shirt, which certainly didn’t keep me cooler but did minimize my concerns and hide that marker of the presence of my breasts, if not entirely deny their existence.

Jump another few years to high school, sophomore year. My first kiss and first break up were in the past (and just days apart), and uniforms have given way to dress codes. White shirts aren’t required, and layering is in, leaving the bra strap issue as a non-issue. Bras are still issues, and no one with any authority seems to care if boys snap a girl’s bra, or perhaps no one wants to acknowledge that good Catholic boys snap bras with the apparent hope that they’ll open, leaving the wearer embarrassed and the forbidden breasts free.  Either way, bras, hidden or not, still matter, but mine isn’t visible.

My breasts, however, are quite visible, or at least they were in a particular dark green, wool pullover that, on reflection, I might have outgrown in ninth grade yet continued to wear in tenth. The boy who’d kissed me and dumped me, now a platonic friend, noticed my breasts, which were enclosed in a padded bra (so nipples don’t show) which was then covered with the requisite shirt with a collar and the aforementioned green sweater.  

“Whoa! When did you get those, Sarah? You sure didn’t have those freshman year!” he proclaimed in a classroom devoid of a teacher but half-full of students. He didn’t mean the sweater and shirt combo.

I don’t know what I said. No one had ever commented on my breasts or any other part of my body, not that I could recall. I had no template for this sort of pronouncement, which I’m sure was intended as a compliment. I’d not the presence or words (or nerve, had I thought of words) to note that he was sporting more under his fly lately, and I’m guessing my response was simply a flushed face and downward glance. 

Uneventful as these events may seem, I remembered them. And both of these events, the fourth-grade taunt and the tenth-grade harassment-disguised-as-complement, left their marks. Breasts were something powerful, obviously, as were whatever contained them. Breasts mattered to men, sometimes more than to the person who owned them. And, oddly, bras were public property, there for the snapping and snagging, and breasts, therefore, were also communal property of sorts. I wish I’d wondered then why the same wasn’t true for jock straps and their contents.  

Nipples held a strange place in the female body parts melee. They seemed to be the tattletale part of the breast, indicating to all if one was cold or, possibly (hopefully?!) sexually aroused. I’ve never confused those two conditions myself, nor have I ever thought differentiating those states cause for discussion, but apparently, to the teen boy, this is worthy of great debate. So, to be safe, I kept them under a layer of padding, safely in a bra thick enough to give away nothing, and then under clothing that covered any hint of the bra. And forty years later, even after breastfeeding two boys (often in public), I still do the same. I can’t explain it.

This is, to be sure, the small stuff. This is not rape. This is not assault. But this seemingly small stuff matters. Girls experience their bodies as public property from an early age. Comments from boys are part of that, but so are dress codes that focus on covering girls so boys aren’t tempted, stripping boys of personal responsibility along the way. We end up raising our girls to expect, dodge, and ignore these small slights, and we too often fail to remember that blaming victims is never the path to justice or change.

Yes, this is the small stuff. It’s the polyp before the cancer. It’s the smoke before the fire. It’s the fever before the plague. The small stuff, it turns out, matters.

Thoughts and Prayers

Harvey, Irma, Maria.

Thoughts and prayers.

Orlando, Plano, Las Vegas.

Thoughts and prayers.

Trayvon, Philando, Tamir. 

Thoughts and prayers.

Travel bans, hate crimes, DACA.

Thoughts and prayers.

Thoughts and prayers. Those words fill my Facebook feed,  but they are meager offerings in the face of yet another tragedy at the hands of a man with a gun. They leave the mouths of our elected leaders, yet those words don’t finance rebuilding a distant and brown part of the United States or bring back black boys and men who died because of the color of their skin. They are what we offer when we are scared and sad and overwhelmed. Thoughts and prayers are what we say when we don’t know what to do and when we want to be seen (even by ourselves) as doing something. They are what we say when we wash our hands of problems and throw the troubles of others to the divine.

Thoughts and prayers. I have thousands of the former. Sad and pleading thoughts. Angry and outraged thoughts. Hopeless and helpless thoughts. Even, occasionally, a hopeful thought, which always surprises me, blooming among the ash and debris of a nation exploded. I have thousands of thoughts. Not one has held back a hurricane, blocked a bullet, raised the dead, protected the innocent, or brought any good out of evil. Thoughts can’t do that. Thoughts are, well, just what our head does when we’re not otherwise occupied. Our thoughts can consume us, and it is easy to mistake thoughts for action.

But prayers. Of these I have none. In the saddest and most desperate moments, I’ve found myself pleading to the universe, perhaps invoking a God whom I no longer believe in, but prayer? Prayers, like thoughts, have yet to hold back a hurricane, block a bullet, raise the dead, protect the innocent, or bring good out of evil. Prayer can soothe us, as it, like thought, can feel like action. But prayer — an act of faith in the divine — is an escape hatch I no longer have.

I left my faith behind over a decade ago. I didn’t lose it. It wasn’t misplaced, nor was it neglected and thus somehow tattered beyond all recognition. It was, after much thought and no small amount of distress, set aside somewhat reluctantly and with a sense of loss that kicks back in times like this.  This was not unlike the fate of my wedding ring, reluctantly yet resolutely removed post-separation, returned to its velvet box of origin, now a casket for the ring and a marriage, and tucked deep in a rarely-used dresser drawer. Not lost. No. Intentionally left behind.


Faith. Religious faith is a slippery commodity. It is the currency of religious belief, which is both gifted and cultivated. Faith is considered a gift, given by the one who is then the recipient of the belief (God, by whatever name or names) that comes from the gift. This circular and seemingly self-serving system seems to benefit mostly the divine, but to say the mortal receives no benefit would be dishonest. Faith is a refuge, a sure shelter when the world seems rocky and riotous. To have faith — to believe in what cannot be seen and cannot be empirically known — is said to be a virtue. It is good to have that faith, to take that gift, to believe. It’s good for the belief system overall and, from personal experience, it can be good for the believer. 

It was good for me. First, I had a sort of blind faith, one that moved from a child’s faith that what my parents and church said must be true: that a divine being, which we called God, was somewhere or everywhere, doing something generally beneficial for someone or maybe everyone or perhaps just some people. It was fuzzy, the faith of my childhood, and in many ways, I’m grateful for that. The God of my youth was distant but apparently cared that we thanked Him (and the God of my youth was male) before meals. Jesus did the hands-on stuff — curing lepers, raising the dead, and turning water to wine. God took the credit and quietly cared for us.

During my teen years, Catholic school and a rather conservative (for the 1980s)  Catholic youth group brought some complexity to faith. It was in those years that faith became part of my vocabulary, truly an entity that could be protected, abandoned, lost, squandered, sought, or gifted by the divine. Faith shared some traits with virginity — given to one without request but lost if not careful and virtuous, and, perhaps, returned if one repented for losing it and promised not to do so again. Thus faith can be a word that could be used somewhat threateningly: “Don’t you have faith?!” “You just have to have faith!” And, perhaps most ironically, “You just need to pray for faith.”

So I had faith. And I was careful not to question it, to hold it up to the light. I had faith because I needed God to keep me, to love me, to approve of me. I wasn’t afraid of hell (having not been raised with a heaven). I was afraid of being alone, with only myself to keep, love, and approve of me. Faith was somewhere between talisman and weapon, like a rabbit’s foot with a sharpened claw.

Yet faith served me. It kept my life in order, and it warded off the worst of evil. Faith, after all, allowed me to lean on a god who loved me no matter what and who wouldn’t let humans destroy one another. It kept me in the safety of the Catholicism I’d chosen at the start of my adolescence, a Jesuit Catholicism, steeped in justice, simmered in the Gospels, and garnished with Jesus’ messages about how we should love and care for one another. It was faith that allowed me to see hope where there was little, as the God to whom I pledged my faith was a God of redemption and unconditional love, and God clearly would make all okay.

Well, that was until I thought it about it. It was thoughts about prayer that undid my relationship with faith. It was a slow undoing, a reluctant and gradual process of unwinding the first-whispering and then-shouting doubts that prayer was not going to save the world or even me. Doubts whispered at first, buzzing in the words of priests whose praise only was for those who believed in a Catholic God (which I knew was not a thing). It then roared as 9/11 made my world bigger and darker and scarier. Holding my newborn son in my arms, nursing him during the night, watching the flashes of light from the TV, bombs falling on moms and nursing babies who were dying in Afghanistan after so many people died here, deaths not canceling one another out but simply amplifying suffering and fanning the flames of hate. I spent many nights, my son at my breast, drowning in the tears of sorrow for those I’d never met or even considered. I prayed, but still I drowned, and still moms and babies died.

It was then that I loosened my grip on faith.  Still, it took years for me to fully examine the heart of my religious life: prayer. Mine wasn’t a unique crisis. It was new to me, but it is as old as ideas of a divine who — if s/he chooses — can interfere with human lives. How can a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God listen to some prayers and intervene for good while letting moms and babies die in horrific ways? That was the first question, one that sat stewing for some time, but it was quickly joined with both a logical undoing of a system not designed for logical analysis but rather counts on, ironically, faith.

So I set down faith. I didn’t throw it out. I didn’t lose it. I set it aside, holding it from time to time, occasionally praying, again ironically, for that faith to somehow work again. I changed belief systems, but moving to an Episcopal church brought me only time to work through the grief. I stuck at it for a bit, needing the ritual and rhythm of the service and wanting the option to pray to a God I was increasingly sure wasn’t there, just in case he was. But I could no longer make it work. I could no longer see the divine in a god. I could see love in Jesus and compassion in the Buddha and the power of community in action working for the common good, but I had set down my faith, as I could not see God.

A year or two later, I was doing the same with my wedding ring, reeling at a reality that was only the stuff of books and movies. Marriages take a faith of sorts along with hard work, patience, dedication, honesty, and love beyond measure. The faith in a marriage can similarly be undone by logic and reason, as well as by violence and injustice. I held onto the messy remains of a marriage torn asunder like I’d held onto my fraying and failing faith. It HAD to work, you see. This is how it is to be.

But it didn’t, and so I let go. I did not let go with the quiet grace I that accompanied leaving my faith in God. I was not simply resigned and saddened, or simply empty. I was instead furious, gripping tight and throwing off all in the same breath, deprived of choice and agency. But I let go and put the ring — and my marriage — away.

A decade later, I’ve found love again, but this time I have also found faith in my ability to care for myself and still let someone else care for me. A decade later, my religious faith remains packed away, a sometimes tempting treasure of the past that I still occasionally mourn, as faith and prayer and the comfort of a God who was looking out for me is, at points, appealing in its complex simplicity and ancient promise. 

That setting down of faith leaves me without prayer, and when others offer both, I offer only the thought half of the duo. Thoughts — free and wild and sometimes hot and angry and sad — remain with me. But thoughts of any kind do not touch the violence of our world. They never have. And they never will.  But, by my calculus, prayer doesn’t change the world either, or at least it doesn’t seem to have done so yet. Prayers have been offered for millennia, and to what end? Humans still suffer from disease and from one another. We pray to countless gods, and yet we still remain a predictably violent species how are markedly vulnerable to pain and suffering. I won’t deny that the chief benefit I see in prayer is a respite from hopelessness and helplessness for the one offering the prayer. It is precisely those benefits I miss. But prayer as an antidote to the inanity of humanity? No. It doesn’t work.

So much for thoughts and prayers.

Thoughts are silent and impotent in themselves. Prayers are, by my accounting, not actually feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, rebuilding Puerto Rico, or bringing back the life, health, and hope of those who found themselves in an impromptu war zone instead of a concert. Thoughts and prayers may comfort us when nothing else does, and that is indeed good. But what thought and prayers cannot do is save the world from the harms humans wreak upon it.

Those jobs are up to us. It’s up to us to create a society that screams ENOUGH with violence. It’s up to us to push our representatives in government to act in ways that serve people, not big business. It’s up to us to have the hard conversations with those who regard any human as less. It is up to us to work for justice at home and abroad. It’s up to us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and demand that we rebuild Puerto Rico, Houston, and Orlando. It is up to us to never let another Trayvon, Tamir, or Philando be killed because of the color of his skin. It is up to us to speak, to act, to act up, to act out, and to live fully what we think and for what we pray. We cannot rely on thoughts and prayers to heal our world.

So I pick up faith. Not faith in the divine, but rather faith in the ability of humans to make change in the world. I have faith in the strength and power of human beings dedicated to justice and love. I have faith because good people do feed the hungry, speak up for the oppressed, care for the sick, and fight for rights for all human beings. This faith, I can keep. This faith, I can share. With this faith, you and I can change the world.

The Believing Game

This is the text of my April 2, 2017, sermon/presentation to the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington. The audio version is on YouTube, starting at about the 25 minute mark. I began by presenting an inkblot and asking what people saw in the inkblot and requesting they explain how they see it to the congregation. My conversation with the children begins around the 16 minute mark. Their image was from the cover of this book.  

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So why are we talking about ducks, rabbits, and inkblots?  Today, I’ll posit that the way we talk about pictures of duck/rabbits and inkblots can hold the key to how we save the world, or at least make it a bit better.

These images provide us an excellent opportunity to practice the easy version of  what Peter Elbow, Professor Emeritus in English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, calls The Believing Game. The Believing Game is a thought exercise that focuses on a temporary belief in another person’s stance or an argument rather than focusing only on doubt.

I first came across Elbow’s Believing Game when I began teaching argumentative writing and critical thinking to gifted young teens. This phase of life is often marked by stubborn adherence opinions and ideas. At this age, most kids are still their parents’ thought shadows, voicing opinions held dear by the family. A few, the born doubters and disbelievers,  have found their way to the direct opposites of those family opinions, making dinner conversation lively and, most likely, heartburn inducing. Either way, these bright young people are sure about life. They also generally believe what those they trust tell them is true. They often have a loyalty to the stances of those who protect and care for them. Before the November election, I’d have said these kids were at a unique stage of life with this level of entrenchment in opinion, but, as I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice, it seems this is how most of us operate most of the time: We know our position, and we stand our ground firmly. But perhaps, sometimes, we are all are doing it wrong.

Where entrenched adults excell that young teens do not is what Elbow refers to as the Doubting Game. The Doubting Game embraces skepticism and critical thinking as the primary ways of meeting any stance other than our own. It is the game we play when our Uncle Matt pounds his fist on the table at a family dinner and proclaims that he doesn’t think this Obamacare is any good, and then launches into a lecture about limits on government and people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and the importance of making one’s own way. If Uncle Matt is amicable, we might play the game aloud, asking him how he expects the poor who don’t qualify for Medicaid to cover their medical bills. We might shoot down his premise of bootstrap-lifting by discussing Medicare, which provided coverage for both of his parents, including Mom, who stayed home with children (including Uncle Matt) and was never the paid workforce, all while volunteering in her community for decades. We pick away at his every point with wild abandon. We barrage him with facts, because that should work, right? Mostly, we just play verbal defense. He says it, and we doubt it. Nothing changes.

If Uncle Matt is a less-congenial sort of guy, we might just cast sideways glances at each other while passing the wine around the table until someone extolls the virtues of Cousin Chris’s fabulous green bean casserole. This time, the critical thinking and doubting is done in silence, each person obliterating Uncle Matt’s points, one by one, until it’s time for pie. When Uncle Matt falls asleep in the recliner, the doubters whisper while divvying up leftovers and washing the dishes. Regardless of Uncle Matt’s mood, we’ve doubted all he says, soup to nuts.

Let me be clear. Doubting and critical thinking are necessary.  By critical thinking, I mean the sort of thinking that looks for errors in logic and reason as well as in fact or source. Critical thinking isn’t a matter of just thinking or shouting “He’s wrong!” It’s a matter of knowing what makes a sound argument and being able to question what is true and what is, as some now say, an “alternative fact.” When we think critically, we are using those tools in a scrupulously responsible manner, without resorting to the very logical errors we pompously point out in others. The Doubting Game is a serious manner, and it should be played with scruples in place.

The Doubting Game is what causes us to discredit and denounce the latest white supremacist, misogynist rant on Breitbart, eschew the newest miracle diet, and refuse to send money to that Nigerian prince . It is also what drives scientific progress. As Elbow notes, “Methodological doubting is central to the classical definition of (the) scientific method”. Science demands we continually wonder about what causes what, and it demands we ignore our tendency to mistake correlation — two events occurring together — with causation — one event causing another event. Without skepticism and doubt, we would likely still be applying leeches to those with fevers while believing that the Sun goes around the Earth. Science is a doubting game, and doubt and skepticism do us well both as individuals and as a society.

Except when they don’t. It’s easy to doubt what we don’t like or agree with or what is from what we see as an unreliable source. It’s harder to be a skeptic when we trust a source or it agrees with our well-considered and tightly-held opinion. Uncle Matt’s proclamations are easy to doubt because so often he holds a stance opposite our own. He speaks. We doubt. Wash, rinse, repeat.

So what? First, doubting out of habit and bias can cause us to miss legitimate issues we’ve overlooked . Naysayers — those who hold opposing positions to our own — offer us much to consider, if we’re willing to listen to them and ponder another point of view. If we simply doubt, we miss things. We miss not only the thread of their argument but also the values and understandings of the world that sit under that argument. We miss, essentially, the person behind the opinion as well as miss the arguments from the other side. We should value both, but we can’t do that when we simply doubt.

The second problem with habitual doubting is that we tend to only doubt those who disagree with us. We struggle to doubt those who hold the same stances and biases as we do, as it just feels bad. We really struggle to doubt ourselves and the sources we rely upon. It is distinctly uncomfortable to contemplate being wrong or just uninformed. However, doubting our own point of view and understanding of the situation is not optional. It’s painful and uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing, but it is entirely necessary. As fallible humans in an ever-changing world, we must doubt ourselves with the same veracity as we doubt others.

When we share our musings about inkblots or images in the clouds, we play the Believing Game, albeit on Level 1 difficulty. Whether or not you can see what another person sees in the inkblot or the clouds isn’t that important, in the bigger scheme of things. We might be mystified by what another sees, but we’re likely not sizing up the other’s intelligence or integrity or sanity based on what they see. We may be able, with their assistance, to see what they see, if we’re willing to squinch up our eyes, turn our heads, and try really hard. Or maybe we can’t see what they see, even with their explanation. At least we are trying.

By honestly trying to understand another’s point of view — what another sees and why they see it — we are playing Peter Elbow’s Believing Game, which, according to Elbow, can help us in more ways than in understanding the inkblot interpretations. No one’s pride or values or sense of worth is on the line with an inkblot or a cloud in the sky. Neither are votes and policy or human lives. When I have my students play the Believing Game, I move beyond inkblots and other images. I ask them to consider a tightly-held belief. I make a few suggestions — gun control, meat consumption, or voting age — and send them to a few websites that explore — with sources — both sides of many contentious issues. And then I have them write a paragraph arguing the stance opposite their own.

The rules are simple but challenging: You must explore the other point of view thoroughly. You must write your paragraph as if you really believe what you’re writing.   Sarcasm or blatant simplification of the other view is not allowed. Neither is repeating simplistic rhetoric. You have to sit deeply with that point of view and create a paragraph that represents it credibly.

I tell them it will be hard.

I tell them it will be very hard.

And then, I ask them to write a paragraph reflecting on the process of doing the assignment.

I ask “How hard was it?” (“Really hard.”  “Harder than I thought.” “I didn’t think I could do it initially.” “I tried, but I don’t think I did it well. It was too hard.”)

I ask if they learned anything new. (“Some countries don’t allow citizens to own guns.” “Meat production uses more resources than I thought.” And perhaps most informative and insightful of all: “It’s hard to write about another point of view without being sarcastic or mean.”)

And, the big question: Did you find yourself changing your mind about anything?

Most say no. Their overall viewpoint remains the same. Gun control laws should remain in place. Meat production may harm the environment, but it’s a personal preference, and meat is full of protein, and, well, yummy, so they’ll keep eating it. Many will tell me they learned about the opposition to their point of view, and several students note that they have a better understanding about the complexity of the issue. They now understand why there is so much dissention. That’s a big leap. When someone can move from the sense that “all people who think X are crazy and stupid” to understanding WHY some people think X, while you think Y, progress has been made.

And every semester, a few students say yes to my biggest question. They do change their mind about something. They never knew that violence rates rise in states that adopt conceal and carry — they were sure it was the other way, and now they wonder just what’s right.  Maybe guns should be more tightly controlled.  Those who now realize that there are environmental concerns about raising farm animals for food sometimes plan to have a few meatless days a week.

As I noted earlier, the goal of the Believing Game isn’t changing minds or giving up your well-considered opinions or values. While that can happen when you listen or read carefully about a position different than your own, changing your mind is not the point. It is understanding the other point of view so you can appreciate the arguments of others and see the holes or even flaws in your own thinking. Peter Elbow articulates it this way:

The flaws in our own thinking usually come from our assumptions — our ways of thinking that we accept without noticing. But it’s hard to doubt what we can’t see because we unconsciously take it for granted. The believing game comes to the rescue here. Our best hope in finding invisible flaws in what we can’t see in our own thinking is to enter into different ideas or points of view — ideas that carry different assumptions. Only after we’ve managed to inhabit a different way of thinking will our currently invisible assumptions become visible to us.

The Believing Game has a role not just in the classroom but in our workplaces It also has a place at our family dinner tables, in our churches, and even in our social media. By allowing us to sit in the argument of another, it brings us understanding of the issues another has and the language they use to talk about it. As we sit in that argument, we are more likely to question our own thinking than if we simply ignored the other or talked over them.  

When we believe before doubting, we might see that we  have missed a valid concern. We might find that we’ve trusted a poor source. We might even turn over in our minds a long-held value or belief and consider if it needs a bit of tweaking or a more extensive adjustment. All of those processes are painful, but they are essential to honing arguments with the integrity that comes from an open and free search for meaning and truth. Here’s the comfort: By enduring this discomfort, we will argue more effectively, and we’ll even likely come up with better policy that has messaging that reaches beyond our own echo chamber while better supporting our fellow citizens.

While doubting is the tool of science and, at least lately, responsible citizenship, the Believing Game plays an essential role as we work to hold the nation — and the world — together. We cannot, in our well-meaning and often-deserved skeptic state of mind, forget that we only come to a better place in the long run if we can work to understand the point of view of others. Take Uncle Matt. Instead of countering his every point, arguing about statistics, and having indigestion before dessert, what if we just listened to him for a moment? What if we even asked him some neutral questions of clarification? What if then we, in the silence of our heads, pretended we share Uncle Matt’s beliefs.  It might go like this:

“I don’t like Obamacare because my premiums are now really high, and it’s hard for me to find a doctor who will take my insurance. My buddies, who also are now piecing together part-time jobs, are in the same boat, and some of them are really sick. Their deductibles are so high, however, that they won’t go and get checked out. Also, I really work hard for my money, and now with more people getting Medicaid, I am working to pay for their care — and they don’t pay anything! Why do they get free healthcare and I don’t? I’m hardly rich. This really feels unfair to me.”

Did you learn something new by looking at this attempt at believing? Do Uncle Matt’s concerns expose a different point of view? If you were aware of these sorts of concerns — high costs of products with high deductibles and trouble finding care — great. If this is news to you, you might find yourself initially doubting rather than believing as you try to articulate his stance. That’s okay. The goal is to make that attempt to verbalize another point of view without dissecting it at the same time. That’s not easy, and you’ll likely have to remind yourself of that task often at first. Try to sit in the stance. What is it like to see this issue from Uncle Matt’s point of view?  As Elbow says, the Believing Game asks you to sit with an idea, not marry it. So sit.

If you’re without a living counterargument generator in your life, you can play this game effectively on your own. Simply start reading from sources outside of your comfort zone. Most of us live in a filter bubble, especially if we consort mostly with like-minded people and find our news via our social media feed. Filter bubbles feel good, but they don’t often broaden our understanding of other points of view, and sitting in a filter bubble is a sure way to forgetting that there are more ways of seeing an issue than your own way. Instead of sticking to The Washington Post, The New York Times, and NPR (which are all excellent news outlets), reach a bit right and read The Hill, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and even The National Review. (If you are read The Huffington Post, then do due diligence and read The National Review as well.)  This sort of reading allows you to practice your Believing Game skills without an Uncle Matt. It also allows you to verify facts and separate them from noise and opinion.

All of us in this room are likely struggling with feelings of anger, panic, frustration, hopelessness, and helplessness these last few months. Some of us are taking activist roles for the first time. (That’s me.)  Others are picking up where they left off in the early 1970s, when they were protesting the Vietnam war. Some have been fighting for justice since they could shake an angry fist and speak. And some of us aren’t sure how to use or even find our voices. Whatever your experience and wherever you sit, I ask you to try believing where you have only previously doubted. Listen to your Uncle Matt. Hear behind the rage of the once-was friend. Step into the shoes of those who voted in a way that makes you crazy. Do this with integrity. Do it to learn. Do it to question your own tightly-help opinions, values, assumptions, and truths. Do it even though it hurts and feels like a betrayal of yourself. It’s not.

Believing alone won’t save the world, but it can help us hone our own arguments and clarify the complexity of opposing viewpoints. It can help us see our own blind spots and force us to dig deeper than our favorite, cognitively comfortable source. It can even repair some of the hurts we’ve all experienced and inflicted over the last several months. And doubting? Keep doing that. Skepticism is not just the tool of the scientist. It is also the tool of the savvy citizen. Doubt is ever more required in our “post truth” world, so continue to refine your critical thinking skills.  But also take time, at least now and then, to believe.

To Know and To Believe

(Sermon given at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington on April 3, 2016.)

DSCN0296Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to [have] knowledge. It is a bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, against religion misapplied to where it has no business being. If we’re true to its values, it can tell us when we’re being lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes. (Carl Sagan)

Knowing and belief. Science and religion. As Unitarian Universalists, we hold religion and science far from one another. We say that religion doesn’t belong in science, and, if we’re true to our dedication that everyone has the right to their own search for meaning, we don’t impose our science onto someone else’s religious beliefs. For example, we hold, arms outstretched, our understanding of how humans evolved from earlier primates in one hand, while our beliefs about whether a god cares about our existence in the other.

Just as we hold those domains to be separate, insisting that the realm of science be clear of the realm of religion, we often confuse our ways of knowing in science with our ways of believing religiously. We cup those ways together, mixing them and using them indiscriminately, undoing that separation out of carelessness and simple human nature.

Today, I’ll explore understanding in two realms — science and religion. I’ll tease out belief, which loves to pose as knowledge but isn’t. It may be a way of understanding, but it should never be confused with knowing and knowledge. I’ll explore knowing of a particular kind – the scientific kind of knowing. I’ll also sit with uncertainty and its relationship to science and to religion, as it drives both.

Let’s start with what science is. Science is, according to Dr. Bruce Railsback of the Geology Dept of the University of Georgia,…the concerted human effort to understand, or to understand better, the history of the natural world and how the natural world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding. It is done through observation of natural phenomena, and/or through experimentation that tries to simulate natural processes under controlled conditions.”

Let’s start in the middle of that definition. Science involves the observation of natural phenomena. It’s using the senses to attend to the details of the universe. The twinkling stars above. The scurrying ants below. The breeze on our face. The evidence of the passage of time and the aging of our bodies. Science involves observation of both the untouched, natural world and of the manipulated world (experimentation), but the starting place is unadulterated observation.

So science is watching the chickadee eat, noticing their preference for one thistle feeder over the other. It’s about observing many chickadees over many days. It’s about noticing that the sun appears in the same direction every morning, but depending on your latitude, not at the same time each morning. It’s about watching person after person succumb to smallpox, as Edward Jenner did in the late 1700s, hearing from others and noticing himself over many years, that milkmaids, who often developed the mild disease of cowpox, rarely suffered the deadly smallpox.

There is a level of knowing that occurs with observation. I know that the chickadees in my yard prefer the feeder in the front yard because the thistle seed vanishes far faster from that feeder with its perches than it does from the mesh feeder in the backyard. I know the sun appears in the same direction every day, at least for my lifetime, because I’ve seen it do so for the well-over forty years of my life. And Jenner knew that, in the population he observed, milkmaids rarely contracted smallpox.

So observation leads to some level of knowing — a conditional knowing, a descriptive kind of knowing limited by what has been seen. Alone, an observation tells us very little, or at least often less than we think it does:

Three people were traveling by train through Scotland when they saw a black sheep through the window of the train.

“Aha,” said the first with a smile, “I see that Scottish sheep are black.”

“Hmm,” said the second, “You mean that some Scottish sheep are black.”

“No,” said the third, a scientist, glumly, “All we know is that there is at least one sheep in Scotland, and that at least one side of that one sheep is black.”

Science, however, doesn’t end with the observation of one side of one sheep or the position of the sun from one spot on the Earth, but observation is at the heart of all science. It is, as Dr. Railsback notes, the basis of understanding, but it is not alone science. Faced with data from observations, we start to ask questions. Why do these chickadees prefer one feeder over the other? Why do we see the sun in the same place each morning? Does the mild disease of cowpox, common to milkmaids, somehow really protect them against the deadly smallpox?

It’s these questions that lead to more thought, more observations, and, perhaps, an eventual hypothesis. A hypothesis is often defined as an educated guess, but that sells short the work that goes into creating a hypothesis. Rather a hypothesis is based on multiple observations paired with previous scientific knowledge. It’s a proposed answer to a question about what’s been observed. We have to be careful when we hypothesize, for it’s tempting to become attached to these so-called educated guesses. When we hypothesize, we aren’t stating knowledge. We’re stating possible connections that need to be tested and very well may not hold up to testing. That’s tricky, because as humans, we want our guesses to be right, as it just feels good to be right.

The chickadees like the feeder in the front yard because it has perches, allowing them a more secure stance when eating. Something about having cowpox makes smallpox a milder disease, so giving someone cowpox might be a way to prevent smallpox deaths.

Hypotheses are small steps. They are testable steps. They lead to experimentation which, per Railsback, “…tries to simulate natural processes under controlled conditions”. Experimentation yields more observations and more data. And it yields more questions. A hypothesis that proves false is just as valuable to science as the one that is proven true. The feeders’ positions are switched, and the chickadees continue to dine from the front yard feeder, the one with metal mesh and no perches. The hypothesis is unsupported — location of the feeder seems to matter more than the form of the feeder. Jenner innoculates a 9-year-old boy with cowpox from a milkmaid’s pustule, resulting in a mild illness with no rash, and, a few months later, he innoculates the boy with smallpox. The child remains healthy. The hypothesis is supported– infection from cowpox did seem to protect the child from smallpox.. Either way, hypothesis supported or not, the next step is another hypothesis and more experimentation.

Now, not everything is easily testable by experimentation. Some systems are beyond our ability to control conditions, leaving us with finding ever-more sophisticated ways to observe. Our understandings about the universe and its laws and age unfold because we learn to observe differently while developing new ways to observe. We smash particles together and watch the fallout, for example. Our knowledge about how life began and diversified on Earth is also observational, relying on fossil-hunters and increasingly sophisticated methods of determining the age of those fossils.

When does that cycle of observing and often experimenting stop? It doesn’t. After many experiments and accumulation of data from many sources, we start talking about knowing in a scientific way.  We are the best scientists when we keep in mind that we still don’t know much, and that our current knowledge is limited by the accuracy of its mode of discovery, the tools and technology of our time, the integrity of this scientific process, and the creativity and insight of those observing and asking questions.  The scientific method of observing, questioning, hypothesizing, and experimenting is not flawed, but we are. We are prone to bias. We prefer not to be wrong. We see correlation and assume it is causation. We see patterns when none exist and miss patterns where they are present. We reach, seeing what’s not there, because we are so desperate to know. We make mistakes.

So, then, if we make mistakes, what is knowing in science? Knowing starts with observation and is furthered by repeated experimentation. It’s driven by data collected by those looking for fact and truth. (Hope and conjecture have no role in science. Anecdotes aren’t science either, for as the adage goes, the plural of anecdote is not data.) Knowing in science can mean understanding a theory, one of the big, broad theories such as those about evolution or gravity or germs. It can also mean understanding, as well as current research allows, the mechanisms behind the disorders and diseases that cause us to suffer and, at some point, to die.

Aside from the big theories and the basic mechanisms of action in biology, chemistry, the Earth science, and physics, knowing in science is tenuous and subject to change. We are perhaps most aware of this in medicine. Here’s an example from routine women’s  health care:

Recommendations for calcium supplementation, self-breast exams, and pap smears have changed drastically in the twenty-two years I’ve been practicing medicine. When I started working as  PA in family practice, we urged women to take 1200 mg of calcium daily to prevent osteoporosis, examine their own breasts monthly to check for suspicious masses, and get a pap smear annually to check for cervical cancer, starting at age eighteen. Observational studies followed by experimentation drove those recommendations, so most health care providers followed them. That is how medicine works. Large studies, preferably verified by other large studies produce reams of data that lead, after much discussion and dissention, to recommendations for practice.

Today, those recommendations have changed. Calcium supplementation is no longer routinely recommended for osteoporosis prevention, as it has a dubious role in preventing fractures while having a clear role in increasing kidney stones. While some women do find their own breast cancers, monthly self-breast exams did not save lives. Annual pap smears started very young led to over diagnosis of benign conditions and a corresponding unnecessary increase of the not-always-benign treatment for those conditions.

Was the science that drove those recommendations wrong? Yes and no. Yes, calcium plays a starring role in bone metabolism. Yes, women who notice a breast lump should see a doctor promptly. Yes, pap smears reduce the rate of death from cervical cancer. But because science is an ongoing process, and because doctors and scientists continue to question and continue to experiment, the book didn’t close on those issues in women’s healthcare. It stayed open, because that’s what science does. It remains open.

And that’s where uncertainty enters the room. No matter how much we know about the natural world, what we don’t know dwarfs that knowledge. The universe is vastly big, and our smallest bits of ourselves are so very, very small. We know so much. And so little. Science embraces uncertainty because without that uncertainty, without that examination of what is known, we would have no need to keep questioning and wondering.

Uncertainty in science is good. It is necessary. It is what brought science to be and drives science on. Without uncertainty, we remain frozen, without impetus to look again, without reason to wonder. We need uncertainty to move forward scientifically. But uncertainty can also drive us away from science, especially when science doesn’t yet have answers to our questions. The earliest people were uncertain when the moon eclipsed the sun, when stars changed position in the sky, when rains and winds brought death and destruction. They were uncertain why people died and how new life came to be. In that uncertainty, they built beliefs and rituals and stories. Before science had a codified process, uncertainty brought us religion, a way of understanding what we did not know and couldn’t explain.

I think we’d agree that the Jewish primary texts, the Torah and rest of the Old Testament, and the Christian primary texts, the Gospels and remainder of the New Testament, don’t explain the true origins of the world or explore the root causes of plagues, floods, or other natural disasters and wonders. Similarly, we don’t take as true the stories of the Hindu gods, with Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer as actual forces in the natural world. We read these texts as history and literature, and while we may take those metaphors of creator, preserver, and destroyer to be meaningful representations of the process of our own birth, life, and death, we don’t confuse these with the actual forces of our natural world. We know those stories are stories, explanations from a time before the knowing of science.

But what about the god or gods or goddesses behind those pieces of historical literature? What are we saying when we say we believe in a god or goddess or an assortment of them? Belief is a trust, a confidence in something or some idea that is untestable and perhaps not even observable without generous interpretation. Some may believe in a deity who knows their name, who breathed life into them. Some may believe that an unseen deity protects them from harms, known and unknown. Some may believe that deity brings them trials and tribulations as tests of faith and devotion, or simply as ways to make them better people. And some believe that their loving, omniscient deity, giver of life, then calls them away from that life to something better — something unknown, unseen by anyone on Earth, somewhere where pain and suffering vanish and life never ends.

Whatever the narrative of the human life within that belief structure about the divine, it is a narrative designed bring comfort, order, purpose, meaning, and security. We all want those in our uncertain, unpredictable, sometimes chaotic and always finite lives. Belief in a divine force, something beyond ourselves and beyond the ever-evolving scientific knowledge of the world, can bring a sense of certainty to the uncertainty of our lives. Belief in a set of religious precepts ordained by an omnipotent God or beliefs in a single uniting force, connecting us all and giving us some power beyond our mortal limits, can help us manage the uncertainty of being human. Belief in forces outside our natural world can be amazingly soothing and helpful.

That’s where belief belongs. Belief is the language of religion. In that realm, it’s valid and sound, allowing one to hold close and valuable something untestable and ephemeral. While belief may lead a person to make seemingly scientific connections (the cancer vanished, so God exists), it should never — ever — be confused with the knowledge, however mutable, that science provides.

But, as I mention, we are uncertain, and we, as humans, are not so good at accepting that uncertainty. That’s what drives good science inquiry and, eventually, knowledge. It’s also what drives us to belief, the way understanding in religion when we should be in the realm of science.

Belief is a way of understanding the world, but it’s not appropriate to science or applications of science, like medicine. Uncertainty in the scientific  realm — and especially the medical realm — can drive us to claiming knowledge in ways other than scientific ways. When medicine doesn’t provide clear relief from symptoms, we may turn to those anecdotes from a friend or the friend of a friend or some guru on TV. In our uncertainty and often our fear, we may become prone to follow fads and  accept pseudoscience, sure that doing something — anything — is better than doing nothing. We cling to answers that go directly against the scientific process proven to be effective for over 400 years — simple answers, such as a specific diet or oil that cures everything. We read lists of symptoms from vertigo to fatigue, impotence to rashes, all linked to a single substance either used in excess or in deficit. Gluten and lyme disease and even vaccines get named villains for all that ails — while vitamin D and coconut oil become the new fountains of youth. (And, yes, gluten can be deadly to some and troublesome for others, and lyme disease is a real entity requiring medical intervention, but neither cause all medical woes, nor does Vitamin D or a fad diet fix all that ails us. And vaccines save lives. The World Health Organization attributes the measles vaccine alone to saving 17.1 million lives just since the year 2000 while not contributing at all to autism rates, according to numerous studies.) In the face of no clear answer or no easy answer, it’s easy to cling to what is not knowledge — It’s easy to cling to belief.

But we shouldn’t.  Belief isn’t the language of science. It’s not how we know what is under our feet, over our heads, or in our own bodies. And if we’re serious about holding science and religion as far apart as we can, if we’re committed to understanding that knowing in science can never be preempted by the beliefs associated with religion, we cannot mingle these ways of understanding the world.  

We hold science and religion apart because they are different domains in our post-enlightenment age. Science is built on observation, questioning, and experimentation. It requires constant uncertainty and scrutiny, testing and retesting, looking forward and backwards at the same time. It is a continuous process of uncovering knowledge that leads to more questions. It is about objective truths and the building of knowledge as understanding.

Religion also fills the void of uncertainty, but it fills it with belief. Untestable and often unobservable, beliefs may change across a lifespan due to experiences or new ideas or just need. Beliefs carry no burden of proof and offer comfort that, for some, lasts a lifetime unchanged. Belief is about that which touches our metaphorical hearts. Belief is personal, subjective, and entirely non-scientific. It can be what brings us comfort when nothing material, science or otherwise, can, but it should never be confused with the knowing that comes from science.

So here they sit, science on the one hand and religion on the other, arms stretched wide. 

And here’s our ways of understanding, knowledge paired with science, belief sitting with religion.

May uncertainty be with you as you hold those realms apart.

It’s Complicated

This is the first essay I’ve written in almost a year, and I seem to have a backlog of words. Bear with me.

IMG_2113I teach a facinating group of young teens and preteens how to write using resources other than their own opinions and previous knowledge.  Together, we wrangle with essays written by the pros and debate the credibility and reliability of sources online and in print, and they write essays using those sources to support their well-considered thesis statements. However, teens and preteens glue themselves to an opinion tighter than Thomas the Tank Engine stickers adhere to oak book shelves, and this tenacity to ideas interferes with anything close to critical thinking or clear-headed writing. They seek for what confirms their bias and often discard what seems to be against it.

So I’ve challenged this group of young, intelligent idealists with blinders with an assignment I’ve called “It’s Complicated.” Rather than starting with their stance on an issue, they start with the thesis that a particular idea is just that — complicated. Technology’s effect on learning. The ethics of driverless cars. Animal testing. The voting age. Nuclear power. Their task is to present the complexity with an open mind while grappling with ideas on both sides. After that, and only after that, they can discuss — briefly — their opinion.

Why bother? Because our world is complicated. Painfully, heart-searingly complicated. That seems to hardly be a contentious statement to anyone reading or listening to reliable news sources. Take Syria, for example. Tease out who started what and when, and whose actions affect whom, and just who is called good or bad or somewhere in between. Reach back five years. Then reach back further – a decade, five decades, a century, five centuries. When did all this really start?

Then take a single possible outcome — one way this situation could turn out (good luck with that step) —  and look forward five years. Don’t just look at ISIS and Syria when you slide your eyes along that mental timeline. Look at Turkey. And Russia. And just about all of the Middle East. Don’t leave out Nigeria. Oh, and peek in on Europe. Plus the US. What do you see?

Now look at your social media feed. Perhaps you have a rather homogenous feed that serves as an echo chamber of your thoughts. If your feed is like mine (and mine is embarrassingly politically one-sided), you’ll rarely see complexity as an issue. Last week, you might have seen maps of the states in different colors, red usually pointing its finger at states declaring they’ll take no Syrian refugees because the timeline they mentally drew leads to political risks for them and perhaps some honest fear of other as well. You might have seen debate about attention to Paris when the Beirut massacre just days earlier failed to fill the New York Times front page — and most social media feeds — for a week and counting. And the  pictures you saw were likely those of Syrian refugees, women and children in most, afraid for their lives and willing to risk possible death in escape rather than what likely seems certain death in staying.

Your social media feed may be more balanced than mine, still filled with maps of red states, but this time with lines of applause about protecting America by refusing those same Syrian refugees. Debate may have centered around how to protect the U.S. and which candidate takes the strongest stance on immigration. Those feeds, too had pictures of refugees, but more perhaps of armed young men, willing to lie and coerce just to take the lives of Americans, with captions reading, “It only takes one.”

What you likely won’t see is anyone saying this: “It’s complicated.” And that’s too bad for all of us.

It is complicated. It’s complicated because it involves people — with all their fears and passions and desires and needs — and people are messy. We have irrational thoughts, faulty memories, and little tolerance for what we can’t quickly categorize and judge. We struggle to sit with the tangled knot of ISIS, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Russia, France, and so forth, teasing out each thread while realizing that each tug pulls the knot tighter while fraying our understanding. We sit with the moment only — in a theater in France or in a plane out of Egypt — and then cling to the emotion it brings. We miss, in our fear, in our hate, and even in our love, the complexity when we are quick to label and judge.

Don’t get me wrong. ISIS is a horrific entity, and killing civilians to prove your might and morals is abhorrent no matter what your aim. And, at least in my understanding of compassion, caring for the orphan and stranger, is right. In my Catholic years, that was what Jesus said to do. As a Unitarian Universalist, it’s treating humans with dignity. But the work of dismantling terror organizations so new ones don’t pop up in their absence is complicated. And bringing in those running from terror into a population riddled with those who fear them because of race, religion, and the obscene acts of their oppressors is also complicated. We’re foolish to think it isn’t.

Life in any sort of community — from the smallest community of family, to life in a country full of refugees and immigrants, to a planet with over seven billion other beings — is complicated. Even when we feel completely in step with the most familiar of “other,” we can quickly run into conflicts that come from two different minds thinking different thoughts, fears and hopes and desires and passions discordantly clanging to the floor. Sometimes we manage these with grace and perspective, but often we clash.

Life with other human beings is complicated. When we embrace that, we’re partway through to a solution. Simply saying together, “It’s complicated,” we start down the road to cooperation and progress, even if only in our agreement that complicated problems don’t have simple solutions. When we look at ISIS and Syria and all that and say, “That’s a mess. It scares me,” or look our estranged loved one and say, “This is complicated, and I’m afraid,” we’ve made a crucial step to not only solving the complicated problem but healing our deepest divides.

Why does admitting and appreciating complexity matter? First, it acknowledges that few problems are solved by a single-step algorithm, like the “You cut, I choose” rule for two siblings sharing one donut. Our relationship problems are almost always multifactoral, and if relationships between two people bonded by love and blood can stumble over as seemingly little stuff as dirty socks or curfews, then it stands to reason that all the big stuff is exponentially more prone to problems taking more than rock, paper, scissors to solve. It reminds us that yelling “yes!” and “no!” across the internet or the Thanksgiving dinner table is worse than futile — it divides us when we most need to think together.

Admitting complexity also means acceding that the other side has valid points. Ouch. Aren’t they just generally wrong? Many problems are not simple and thus not simply solved — multiple perspectives can help. Many problems are like that knot, fraying yet bound, and teasing out a thread on one side may tighten the opposite edge of the knot. When we’re willing to see that tugging our sacred thread may make part of the knot more unwieldy, we’re starting to appreciate that complex problems aren’t solved with a single tug without exacerbating other problems. We may then see that, as bound to peace as we may be, there may be times when military action costs the world fewer lives than waiting for change. We may also see that refusing refugees based on the human-created boundaries circumscribing their birthplace makes as much sense as assuming everyone living in the hometown of a mass shooter should be refused entry to neighboring towns, because they might, you see, be future killers themselves.

The minute we scream “It’s simple, stupid!” we’re missing something and losing more. To be certain, listening to the the opposition should not mean letting go of our own values — not at all. It should mean that we hold them up to the light carefully to examine them, making sure that we’ve not battered those values of peace, compassion, love, equality, freedom, and human dignity. Are we loving everyone, even those voting to keep those assault rifles? Does our compassion extend to those who look different than us and those who fear those who look different from us? Does our freedom to believe or not to believe trample the freedom of those who pick the opposite? Without care and frequent inspection, our values become parodies of themselves, active only when we feel that another is worthy of them.

So let it be complicated. Read broadly, listen carefully, ask questions designed to understand opposing positions, and quiet defenses enough to listen to those positions. Drop the rhetoric and see where your words and actions betray your tightly-held values. Talk about what you truly value and not what others don’t. And keep seeking to understand.

It’s a complicated world, both within the walls of your own home and underneath our shared atmosphere. Start with the small stuff, just as my students are — driverless cars, technology and learning, the voting age. When you’re ready, move up to the harder stuff — religious freedom boundaries, the U.S. role in the Middle East, and how to parent your teens. It’s all complicated, and that’s okay.

Idealism, Existential Depression, and Unitarian Universalism

IMG_1582(Somewhat edited text from my sermon given on Sunday, April 26, 2015, at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington. This piece was inspired by a book by James T Webb, Ph.D.: Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope)

“Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.”

Sylvia Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath

It starts something like this:

I read something in the New York Times or hear something on NPR about some aspect of health care. Perhaps it’s about affordability: sky-high deductibles on top of high premiums that keep people from seeking health care despite having insurance. Or maybe it’s about lack of access to dental care for low-income adults. Teeth are, of course, part of our bodies, and they are a part that can be damaged or diseased. Dental care isn’t a luxury, and teeth aren’t expendable, like an appendix (whose removal is generally covered, after that sky-high deductible). Yet for the poor, affordable and timely dental care can be near impossible to find.

Or maybe I go to work, to my job as a PA in a family practice that serves mostly the poor, addicted, and disenfranchised. Maybe I’ve spent too much time that day (time that causes other patients to wait for ages) searching for the doctor or medical center that will take a patient’s particular flavor of Medicaid, frustrated because this patient has something rare, something only a few surgeons in a large metropolitan area can manage well, and the best of those aren’t in her network. Or perhaps I’ve cared for a woman who lost her housing and is living out of her car. She has Medicaid as well, thus she has healthcare coverage (well, aside from dental care), but she can’t afford a place to live and has exhausted the meager resources of her friends. Her skin infection on her foot is getting worse, and her blood sugars are rising, which isn’t helping her infection. And why isn’t she taking her insulin? Because without a house, she has no refrigerator in which to keep it, and it’s terribly hot outside. Besides, if she takes it, she has to eat, and access to food isn’t predictable.

Whether via the news or the through the lives of my patients or the experience of a friend, I find myself in some mix of anger and despair over a myriad of healthcare wrongs in this nation and across the world. My husband is a fine conversational partner when I’m in this state, and he’s willing to nod and shake his head in turn, listening to the verse of the day: “Why don’t teeth matter? Why is it so hard to find quality mental health care for people of need? Couldn’t we take better care of patients if we had more time? What if the Affordable Care Act, despite all its limitations, disappears in the next election cycle?”

He’s patient through the chorus as well: “Why is it like this? Why don’t we care for people — really care?! Why do we focus on war and wealth and not on people?!”

It’s hard being an idealist.

I can’t recall a time in at least the past twenty years when I didn’t see the world in two painfully conflicting ways:  One way is filled with sunshine, hope, and clarity that what should be will be. That what is right and good and best will happen. It’s optimistic, in a way, brimming with faith in humanity and hope for the future. Optimistic, but not giddily or mindlessly so. Maybe it’s more high-minded, but not, at least mostly, haughty. It is a view finds solace and hope in morals and values and virtues, the sorts that seem universal. Justice. Equity. Compassion, Respect for human dignity. Equality. Fairness. Kindness. Goodness. Love. Patience. When I wake with this view of the world, I’m certain that I’ll parent a bit better than the day before, sure I’ll be a more loyal friend, a more compassionate partner, and at least a bit more dedicated to getting some exercise. It’s the same part that trusts that after this election, we’ll have healthcare for all, equal pay for women, solutions for poverty, and justice for the immigrant. I even believe that someday, dental care will count as medical care. It’s the side that can find the way out of the bed even on the darkest morning because the sun will always rise. It is my idealist who wakes most mornings.

Idealism, the tendency to see the world in terms of how things should be, is often touted as a virtue. It can be that. For the individual, idealism can provide energy, fuel hope, and inspire action. It’s exhilarating to think about what could be if only. It’s hopeful to consider the vast amount of human potential this world holds. It’s inspiring to consider what one set of hands, one pair of  ears, one mouth, and one pair of feet can to when combined with a compassionate heart, and an outward-thinking mind.

Idealists are catalysts for change: they see the mismatch between what is and what should be. Some idealists act on the distress borne out of seeing that mismatch: they feed the hungry, clothe the naked, march for the oppressed, fight for the downtrodden, and otherwise work to see the world move closer to their ideals, all for the betterment of humanity and the planet. Idealism in community can do even more. When people with similar “shoulds” and “could bes” work together, powerful change can happen. Idealists working together  is what brought emancipation to the slaves, the vote to women, civil rights to Blacks, and, slowly and steadily, marriage rights to gays and lesbians.

Sounds just peachy, doesn’t it? Some days, and often at the end of other days, I see the world differently. I see what is and despair about whatever could be. In real life, the kind with limitations and failures and human beings and differing ideas of what should and could be, idealism is both a source of motivation as well as a source of stress and sadness. It’s just hard to watch the world and those humans, including oneself, not BE what one thinks SHOULD be. The world and its inhabitants just don’t always do what’s better for the world and those inhabitants. Add a fairly sharp mind to an idealist mindset (and many a bright person is idealistic), and it’s not hard to quickly think oneself from hopeful to existential funk. After all, the poor aren’t fed, not even in our own neighborhoods and schools. Dental care is an extra. Racism lives, and young black men continue to be on the losing end of justice, economic equity, and, too often, hope. Those with the privilege to protect use their power to harm those who can take no more harm. Gays and lesbians have the right to marry given and taken away in the same day. And I still lose my temper at my kids. Let the funk begin.

According to James T. Webb, PhD, expert in gifted education, and author of Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, “Bright, intense, caring, idealistic people are more likely to be disillusioned than many others, and along with disillusionment can come depression.” Does that list of characteristics remind of any people you know, perhaps, even, any people around you at this very moment?  Bright? Intense? Caring? Idealistic? And at least a bit discouraged or anxious about the state of the world? Does that statement resonate with you? You — and I — are not alone.

While clinical depression doesn’t strike every idealist, few idealists I’ve known escape disappointment punctuated by occasional outright despair when viewing the human condition. We learn our idealism from many places, but the first source is often our families of origin. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with my father that begin with concerns about something political and social, equitable health care, and ends up with both of us with our brows crinkled, shaking our heads, feeling more than a bit disappointed in our society if not our world. We’re not depressed, but we are discouraged. But what lies behind that discouragement? It’s not just the unmet ideals of our nation or the ones we personally fail to meet. It’s something more.

As humans, we look for meaning in our lives. When I teach biology class, I tell my students that the purpose of all living things is to procreate. It’s true, biologically speaking. The job of life is to preserve the species via reproduction.  As humans, of course, we find our meaning in more than just replacing ourselves. What we find meaning in varies from person to person and from one time in our lives to another time. Meaning can be found in our relationships with self, family, friends, and even the stranger. Meaning may be rooted in personal accomplishments, appearance, or possessions. It may be found in God, goddess, the pantheon of deities, or the assuredness that there is no divine being on whom to call. Some find meaning in money and jobs. And those same may find it in acts of charity performed with that money or within that job. We may find meaning in the intangible and immeasurable: love, honesty, compassion, hard work, pain, suffering, birth, and even death. We may find it in the silence between the measurables and immeasurables, the places where only the breath resides.

Wherever we find it, however we name it at this moment, what gives us meaning is inextricably linked to the existential questions: Who am I? What is important? What is my purpose? Why do I exist? What is there beyond the self? These questions are at the very heart of our search for meaning, and as we look for meaning in our lives, we are actually grappling with these big existential concerns — we are wrestling with the meaning of life overall.

These concerns aren’t products of a modern society, although modern conveniences and generally ample thinking time give us more opportunities to ponder over them. The ancients wondered about the meaning of life and other existential concerns, and our world’s religions exist out of the desire human beings have to explain not only the natural wonders that delight and terrify us but also to explain the human condition in all its glory and suffering.  But gaining scientific understanding of plagues, floods, and the Northern Lights does little to assuage our need to understand our place in the world under the firmament.

The external signs of our grappling for meaning are our shifting focus, our shuffling priorities, our ever-changing ways of being in the world. If I’m convinced (or at least hoping) that status or admiration by others is important to life, I’m likely to find meaning in my job, my income, my home, my possessions, and what is said about me at the water cooler or in the papers. If I’m wed to meaning in human relationships, I’m likely to seek to deepen my bonds to those around me. Our sense of meaning in the world points us towards ideals while driving our behaviors.

In the midst of these ideals, grappling, and even depression, there is hope. There is hope that doesn’t require abandoning ideals, although it does require understanding that many ideals are subjective. There is hope that does not depend on dogmatic beliefs in unseen forces. Hope that accepts that life is messy even when it’s working fairly well. Hope that isn’t escapism via work, media, social networks, material possessions, travel to far-away lands, or food and other chemical substances.  Hope. Not withdrawal into ourselves or collapse into the abyss of detachment or even anger.

Hope. The real McCoy. It is the antidote to this existential funk that so many idealists experience. After all, we can no more shake off our idealism than shed a decade from our lives. And, despite the pain it can cause, the pain of watching ideals go unmet, of seeing a world that seems to continually fight becoming better, I doubt many of us would give up our idealism even if we could. Idealism is, for many of us, what brought us to Unitarian Universalism. We were not content with an “easy God,” a guy in the sky with all the answers, pulling the strings, or, if we waited and listened, telling us which strings to pull. Or, perhaps, we’ve never had an easy God to ask, to blame, to beg, to cajole. Perhaps we’ve just come here because our ponderings of ideals and existential issues were rattling around in our heads, seeking the company of other idealists feeling thwarted by life. Or perhaps we’ve found this place for our children, desiring that their existential questions would find patient ears in this community of thinkers, lovers, and doers. Many of us came to this religion, Unitarian Universalism, with hope, the antidote to existential angst.

Unitarian Universalism offers, among other things, hope. It also encourages idealism and actively ponders the big questions. It encourages knowing ourselves. Our fourth principle (one of seven suggested as common thinking points by the UUA — not creed or dogma but rather a place to start) points us to this responsibility: We affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

This is first a statement encouraging acceptance of ourselves as human beings — it is part of our natural, human self to wonder and search and to grapple with the big questions. Naming this part of ourselves, whether we consider our idealism and existential wonderings friend or foe, is exceptionally hard, as the mirror it requires to examine one’s self and one’s beliefs throws back images that we may interpret negatively. We do too little. We surf the net too much. We listen with too little attention. We act on our ideals too seldom and on our momentary drives too much. We worry about the small stuff too much. The list goes on. We fall short, and it hurts.

But to manage the recurring disillusionment all idealists face, it’s essential to start with the basic truth that you are who you are — an idealistic, flawed, and sometimes disappointed person who wants a better world. Embrace it. Your idealism is part of you. Embrace also that desire to search for meaning. That’s part of being human, as is the stumbling and bumbling we find ourselves doing as we sort through meaning and ideals. View this existential work as necessary human tasks taken on by fallible human beings in a messy world, and it’s not quite as daunting.

So what now? Now we turn to principle three: We affirm and promote the acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. We don’t need to search for meaning and manage our ideals by ourselves. We’re here to help each other through both the pain of ideals unrealized and the search for meaning in our lives. We are also here to accept ourselves and each other as imperfect and unfinished beings, and, most importantly, not lesser people for it.

So we’ve accepted our idealism and that of our fellow travelers. What’s next? The rest of our Unitarian Universalists principles guide us there as well. They mention supporting democracy, working for justice, valuing our fellow travelers, caring for our planet and all the life it supports, treating all humans with compassion and dignity. These concepts (ideals in themselves, really) provide a route out of some of our pain, as they affirm the ideals we hold so true while nudging us to not just agree with them but to actively promote them in our world. The words that begin all are these: We affirm and promote. Affirming is the armchair, or perhaps pew, response. Promoting requires action, even if that action is speaking your mind to spread the word or signing a letter to your congressperson. We’re to do to the work that helps these ideals become actualized in the world. This work, even if it is small, helps us feel effectual in our world, and, as we work to serve others, we tend to set aside some of the noise in our head.

Idealism and its often accompanying existential angst and questioning can be abated by techniques that extend beyond Unitarian Universalism, of course.  Relationships can quiet the questioning voices, allowing us to find meaning in those human contact points as we give and receive. Just talking about the despair can help, as knowing one isn’t alone can often be an antidote to pain (recall sharing our sorrows?). But we needn’t just cry together. Laughter helps, too. Laughing at ourselves, at the absurdity of the world, laughing at the absurdity life often presents to us. Laughing requires stepping out of our heads enough to see that situations pass.

And all things pass, from obstinate congresses to “religious freedom” acts. Even wars and epidemics eventually end. If there is anything a look through history can tell us, it is that nations and our world changes. It’s not always for the better, but it’s not also always for the worse. Taking the long view can help the idealist. Not only can that look let us know how that problems — even the most dire ones — have been solved in peaceful ways before but that it is often idealists with persistence who make that happen. As I look out over this room, guess who I see? Idealists with persistence.

So go ahead. Hold onto your ideals.  Dream of a day when affordable health care (including dental care) for all is reality; a day when marriage is between two consenting adults who love each other, regardless of gender; a day when the color of your skin doesn’t affect the level o dignity and justice you receive; a day when caring for our planet is a top national agenda; or even a day when there isn’t a war to send our children to fight. Continue to grapple with the big questions, as it is only by questioning meaning that we shape our ideals and relate our existence to those ideals.  And as you go, hold onto hope, and help others hold onto hope as well.

Anne Frank:

It’s really a wonder I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because some of them seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them because, in spite of everything I still believe that people are truly good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being transformed into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.

In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.

– July 15, 1944

Evolution (but not Religion) in the Biology Classroom


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“Now that I’m homeschooling, I’ll be teaching the boys creationism, of course.”

The chuckle I’d expected from my father didn’t come. He paused, unsure what to say. My decision to homeschool my older had somewhat unnerved him, as it wasn’t the typical path, but he was never one to meddle in my life. I’d rarely even seen him pause like that, processing thoughts that were likely previously thought unthinkable. Creationism? How could that be?

“I’m kidding, Dad,” I reassured him, a bit surprised he’d even thought it was possible.  He exhaled but still looked a bit shaken. He was then a Biology professor at a state university and is still today a liberal Presbyterian. He is committed to science while believing in God, and he finds no conflict between science and his religion. I was raised with both science and religion, so I grew up understanding evolution and believing in God, never seeing a conflict between them. And while I left my belief behind about a decade ago, it wasn’t because of science.

What does it mean to understand biology through the lens of science? It means to understand that from the simplest species to the most complicated, natural selection drives the changes to that species. Genes copy with errors, and errors can wreak havoc with life or increase the chance of an individual surviving to reproduce. And that’s what life (in the biological sense) is all about — making more of a species. From antibiotic resistance in bacteria to the form and function of the mammalian eye to the modern human today, evolution is the driver. It’s wily driver, without direction or purpose. Every slip of DNA’s copying mechanism is random, with ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ relative to where the alteration occurred, what (if any) effect it has on the organism, and even the environment in which that organism lives.IMG_0986

To teach biology without this understanding is to miss much of what biology is. To limit evolution to that bacteria’s antibiotic resistance or the finch’s beak is to mangle the very mechanism of change in the living world. It’s akin to teaching composition without discussing grammar. Evolution is how change happens, and biology can only be fully understood by appreciating that overarching truth in science.

So a few weeks back, when I tucked into evolutionary biologist’s David Barash’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times, God, Darwin, and My College Biology Class, I found myself nodding along. Barash begins his undergraduate animal behavior class with what he calls “The Talk.” This lecture affirms that this class is a look at all of biology through the lens of evolution, which is the sentiment of a statement I make on my biology syllabus for the classes I’ve taught my sons and their friends and that other families have used as well. I admittedly have an advantage, as my students are known to me and from families where creationism isn’t part of the curriculum. And so evolution simply permeates the class, with religion rarely brought up. It is, after all, biology class.

Barash’s classes are more diverse than my tiny home classroom, and I imagine my father’s classes were similarly diverse. College biology may be the first place conservative Christians rooted in creationism or, its euphemism, Young Earth creationism, may first experience biology through that lens of evolution in a way that affirms the process rather than denies its validity. That could easily put a student on guard, worried about the veracity of the rest of the course or, perhaps, thinking hard about at least part of his or her faith. I’d agree it seems wise to warn — or at least inform — the class of the lens in place. That should be sufficient.

IMG_0538I can’t recall any reference to religion in any of my biology courses in either my Catholic high school or Catholic university. Religion wasn’t mentioned, and no one ever asked, as far as I recall, if it should or shouldn’t be discussed in the science classroom.  Barash takes the offensive, as he starts with a lecture about religion and science. He doesn’t stop at stating that evolution is the underpinning of biology, and that all will be discussed through that lens. He does not hold, as I do (and as does Stephen Gould) that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” meaning they have separate domains and are, therefore, simply different ways of understanding the world and our place in it. Instead, Barash tells his students that religion and science do overlap in domain, and that accepting evolution demands deconstruction of any belief in “an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.”

After discussion of the complexity created by natural selection and the illusion of humans as central in the living world, Barash settles into theodicy, an issue far afield of the evolution he sets out to explain. Problems with theodicy (the attempt to reconcile suffering in the world occurring in the presence of an omnipotent, caring deity) contribute to many a person of faith’s loss of that faith. Veering from science, Barash steps broadly into religion, confronting students with the news that if they buy evolution, their faith will likely fall, provided they’re thinking deeply enough:

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator. (Barash)

As an agnostic who sees science through the lens of evolution and the universe as a mystery we ever so slowly unwrap, its origin somewhat understood, but only with the most tenacious grasp, I find myself irritated with Barash. Like other militant atheists (and I’m assuming he is an atheist), he forces a narrow lens on what God must be to the believer: God, it seems, must be creator of all, simple and complex, pulling each string and guiding each change. God must create humans as separate, with some of God’s supernaturalness in humans but not other creatures. God must be absent given suffering in the world.DSCN0653

About a decade ago, I left my faith behind. But I didn’t lose it because I taught science, and I didn’t lose it because I understood that the complexity of life is due to evolution, the roll of the genetic dice paired with environmental pressures. Simply put, I didn’t lose my faith because I understood the long arc of evolution that brought humans into being. I lost it in part to the theodicy question and in part to a good deal of thought about what made sense to me. Science wasn’t part of my musing when letting faith go. 

My father, a biologist who understands and teaches science through the lens of evolution, a man of faith who is dedicated to helping others of faith, understands that science and faith need not be in conflict. He hasn’t lost his belief, despite decades of scientific exploration as a researcher, professor, and interested human being. He, like Barash and I, understand the complexity produced by evolution’s often slow hand, and he is unbothered by the lack of supernatural gene in humans. And the theodicy question? He’s obviously found a way through that one, all while appreciating the science of evolution. And at what cost to his science classes? None.

Barash’s mistakes, in my opinion, are two-fold. First, his view of what God is to a believer is myopic and simplistic. Views of God, gods, goddesses, and divine forces in the universe are as diverse as there are people who believe. Second, his approach is arrogant and presumptive. To tell people who believe just how their faith will be undone is an act of assumed superiority and completely without regard to the personal nature of an individual’s faith. Will some conservative believers, steeped in the absoluteness of a seven-day creation myth struggle as they take biology in a college classroom where evolution is the common currency? Probably. But many believers of all flavors won’t struggle one bit, content with their separation of science and religion.

DragonflyBarash wants to warn his students that, should they retain their faith, they will do so only with “some challenging mental gymnastic routines.” How a nonbeliever can begin to step into the mind of a believer and predict whether the wonders of evolution will deepen or destroy the faith of another is beyond me. Yes, science can challenge faith, especially a conservative faith resting on a supreme being pulling the strings and putting humans above all else. But faith, in many forms, can sit comfortably with the scientist, causing no sacrifice to the scientist’s understanding of the universe and the living things inhabiting it. Barash’s talk forwards his own atheist agenda, and that, in the classroom, is going too far.

I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but when at the front of the classroom, I believe you have a responsibility that includes knowing your boundaries. If you’re a biology teacher, teach science. Unabashedly teach evolution and say that you’ll do so. Talk about complexity. Ignore creationism, as it’s not science. And ignore God, whether you believe or not, as faith isn’t part of science. Encourage students struggling with the concepts to discuss their struggle with classmates, their religious leader, their God, or anyone who will listen and let them sort through. But stay out of the wonderings and wanderings of their faith.