Do What’s Right, and Risk the Consequences

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All those with agency are confronted by a choice. We can use that agency to secure for ourselves a safe and comfortable existence. We can use our life, that one unrepeatable product of four billion years of serendipity and evolution, to earn a little more, to save a little more, to win the approval of our bosses and the envy of our neighbors….We can, quite rationally, subordinate our desire for liberty to our desire for security. Or we can use our agency to change the world, and, in changing it, to change ourselves. We will die and be forgotten with no less certainty than those who sought to fend off death by enhancing their material presence on earth, but we will live before we die through the extremes of feeling which comfort would deny us.

– George Monbiot

The above quote is from a book called The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order (2003). It’s posted on my cubicle wall at work; it makes my mind tingle every time I read it. It is, quite simply, magnificent. And at the moment, quite apropos.

Everyone says original thinkers are those who “think outside the box.” That’s not enough for me. I want to take the box outside, smash it to pieces, set it on fire, and forget there was ever a box in the first place. I want to start fresh. Every. Single. Time.

We have reached a point in our evolution as a planet at which this sort of thinking is the only way forward. Postmodernism paved the way, pointing out the moral potency of language and reminding us that individual perception is at least as important as collective interpretation to understanding the world we live in. But I would argue that we’ve moved past even that: it’s time now for the rise of a new metanarrative. We must reassemble what we’ve so assiduously deconstructed. The individual must once again become part of a whole.

That whole is the global community. Not a new world order, necessarily; that’s a loaded term that conjures for many the abandonment of identity. Perhaps instead a “new world understanding.” Not the rejection, but the redefinition, of identity. Now that we have come to appreciate the value of the one, how do we build something bigger, better, and stronger on that foundation? How do we reconstruct?

Here in the United States, the first step toward this new understanding involves a reassessment of who we are as a nation. The “superpower” paradigm is no longer viable. The world doesn’t need watchdogs; the world needs good global citizens. We need to embrace the global community that, in large part, we created, by way of corporations like Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, and McDonald’s.

This means reining in those very corporate actors, the ones who give us such a bad name around the world. The ones that go into developing nations in the name of solidarity, use up all the local resources, enrich the local despots, and then move on to greener pastures once the well’s been sucked dry.

This means actually being a member of the United Nations: not just drafting resolutions, but adopting them in good faith, and living by them instead of just forcing everyone else to. Addressing climate change and the global economy as more than simply electoral leverage, and recognizing the multitude of ways in which our actions affect strangers on the other side of the planet.

It means thinking past national security and “peace in our time.” Not thinking in terms of our problems and their problems. Their problems are our problems; there is no parsing that away anymore. If that weren’t the case, the attacks in Paris wouldn’t be making us so nervous right now. We know how easily troubles move about the globe these days. The next step is to accept our responsibility for helping to solve them. Which includes taking in the refugee.

It means rethinking the idea of nationality itself. I’m not saying we should do away with our shared identity as American citizens. But we should not allow our definition of the United States to stand in the way of a united planet. We can be American citizens, and global citizens, at the same time. We simply have to find the will to do it.

I would wager that most people are familiar enough with the cultural meme of the Good Samaritan, so I won’t take the time to explain the whole thing. I’ll just leave you with this thought:

Who is my neighbor? Everyone, everywhere.

As my good friend Russell commented on my previous post, we need to have the courage to do what is right, together, and risk the consequences. It’s the only way to survive the future.

Spread the word:
Open the doors!!!

Being Here

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If there is a light you can’t always see
And there is a world we can’t always be
If there is a dark within and without
And there is a light, don’t let it go out

– U2

In 1985, two displaced Romanian families came to Marshfield, Missouri, having defected from the Soviet bloc. At the time, my dad (the guy in the back row with the stripey tie) was minister of music and youth at First Baptist Marshfield. All the teenagers you see crammed into the picture were members of his youth group. Scattered throughout are the Borza family–mother Maria in the back center, son Audie in the second row, and daughter Diana beside me and my Smurf.

That Christmas (which is when this photo was taken), First Baptist decided to pull together gifts and supplies for the newly arrived families, to help them feel more connected to our community. And I had an idea: I raided my toy box. There was this Transformers car (or Go-Bots–I don’t remember which), a little blue convertible number, that I absolutely loved, and I seized on that as the perfect gift. I don’t remember if Mom wrapped it or not; I just remember the feeling of happiness that came with handing it over to my new friend. Strong enough that today, almost thirty years after the fact, it’s still clear as a bell in my mind.

The world is full of so many lonely souls. That moment of connection with the Borza boy was an eight-year-old’s first inkling of the truth of that statement. At the time, I didn’t know from communism or dictatorship or political repression. It would be years before I could formulate a decent definition of the Soviet Union, and by the time I could it didn’t even exist anymore. But here was this kid, not so different from me, a kid who enjoyed Christmas presents and little toy cars every bit as much as I did. A kid who, given other circumstances, might have been me, and I him. And for the briefest of spaces, our lives intertwined, became one. And I learned, albeit unconsciously. As I told my friend upon relating the story, I couldn’t even remember the family’s name, not until I read it off the back of the photo. Couldn’t remember the year. Just the faces. And the feeling. Of connection. Of camaraderie. Of compassion.

Perhaps this explains the fervor with which I approach the ongoing confrontation between fear and human decency that is the Syrian refugee crisis. I have been there and done that. And I would gladly do it again. In a heartbeat. My friendship with the Borza kids (there was even some teasing about a young crush I might or might not have had on Diana) is a foundational memory, one of the basic building blocks of who I am today.

Lest I be misunderstood, this is not about religion or spirituality. The part played in this story by my dad’s church is purely incidental, the conduit whereby I was connected with the Other, who turned out to be not quite as Other as we sometimes expect. Really, this is about recognition: staring into the face of a stranger only to discover it’s your own face in disguise. A refugee by any other name…is Me.

The events of the last few days have yanked this memory back into the forefront of my brain. I’m glad for that: it keeps my humanity alive, in the face of overwhelming odds. It reminds me of the blood that runs, and the hearts that beat alike, in their chests and mine. We are brothers, sisters, prójimos. We are One.

I understand the fear; I understand the hatred, the instinct that begs for the immediate release of violent and fiery retaliation. These voices whisper to me as much as to anyone else. Which is why this is so important: freedom is meaningless until we willingly set it aside for the sake of others. Courage is just a word until we face a threat, and act anyway.

The Borzas call to me from the past, and the Syrians call to me in the present. What is my answer? I am here.

I can’t just urge my governor to reverse his stance on this issue unless I’m willing to step up and reach out. I am here.

These people need friends, shelter, guidance, hands extended in welcome. I am here.

Governor Abbott: Need a sponsor?

I am Here.

Freshly (De)Pressed

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Once upon a time,
long ago, in a galaxy far, far away,
I was a simple blogger
going about his business

happily.

Typing away in relative obscurity
unaware of the dangers lurking
just around the corner.

And then…

I was Freshly Pressed!!!!!!!!

Now,
after sitting on my laurels
after my fifteen
after being inundated with the drive-by praise of random strangers,
I’m a nervous wreck.

‘Cause now,
I’m chasing the dragon…

Welcome to WordPress–
where you are one voice among millions
and the loudest scream barely clears a whisper

where your chances of being noticed
are about as good
as the guy’s who parks cars at the White House are
of inheriting the presidency…
How many would have to go down
for anything to land on us?

Dear WordPress…
dear, dear WordPress…
Thank you for amplifying our sense of
worthlessness
by introducing us to the fleeting nature of fame.

Isn’t it enough to create a space
and then let it be filled
with the variegated voices of valuable people?
We don’t need adulation;
we need registration…and then
freedom to move about our
worldviews
without the pressure of competition
of proving ourselves to strangers
instead of sharing ourselves with friends

Your voice; my voice:
they all count, whether we’ve been noticed or not.
Is this community?
Then let it be a community
of the few and the caring.

Silence is only golden when you know someone is there.

Here’s an award for you:
The Still, Small Voice Award.
Try that one on for size.

If you’ve spoken, you’ve won.
You are nominated; you are vindicated;
you are recognized

if only by those others of us
who share your cloak of
invisibility

Refugee

SYRIA-CONFLICT

(Photo from BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Rationalize me; patronize me;
pat me on the head–here’s a cookie go to bed–
proffer a tent from someone’s garage. I
am not a mirage: this tide never ebbs,
infinite spider, intricate web.

Security councils peddling dreams
become nightmares, garnering blank stares,
raising the hairs on the back of God’s neck.
I am the dreck, the flotsam and jetsam of
a race overrun.

Are you quite done?
Have you even begun?

Stateless, displaced, limbic, replaced–
not a trace of a life vetoed by men
and women of peace after a piece of mine.
Peel the onion; perhaps you will find that
your peace of mind is sight that’s gone blind
to itself. United you stand, dividing us all
into those who may live and those who must crawl:

I am the tired; I am the poor; I
am the huddled mass cast up on your shore.
Before dimming the light and bolting the door,
take just one more moment–an arduous chore–
to look in my face and witness a war
that rages time without end:
the war between neighbors, family, and friends

this globe is never
quite what it pretends

Poor Little Pooped On

Sulking_BoyNobody loves me;
Everybody hates me.
I’m gonna go eat worms…

So runneth the ditty my mother sang to me as a child anytime I gave in to sulking and/or personal pity parties.

It has been runneth-ing through my mind pretty much all weekend.

In case you missed it, last June the Supreme Court handed down a ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, striking down bans on same-sex marriage in all fifty states. And, rather than celebrating with our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community, many of us have spent the last ten months bemoaning what this is really all about:

Ourselves.

One of the major objections to the Court’s decision is this: equal marriage rights for same-sex couples will infringe upon my religious freedom. For months I have heard this from presidential hopefuls (turning rhetorical somersaults to fit the phrases “created equal” and “no gay marriage” into the same sentence without exploding in a cloud of cognitive dust-onance), pundits, and others, over and over again. And I’m left with the question:

Your religious freedom to what?

Your religious freedom to condemn others? To marginalize whole sectors of society on a theological whim? To institutionalize your own beliefs (and rights) at the expense of everyone else’s?

Both President Obama, in his speech following the ruling, and Justice Kennedy, in the majority opinion of the Court, explicitly addressed the fact that some citizens of our Union(?) hold very dear convictions on the issue, and advised the rest of us to “go easy on them.” The whole “pastors who refuse to perform same-sex weddings will lose their licenses” thing isn’t actually happening. (You understand that, right?)

From where I stand, your religious freedom is right where it was before: plastered on church signs and Facebook pages, nestled in the bosom of your 501(c)3s, and coming out of your mouths any time a TV camera is pointed in your general direction. So, you’re good.

At the end of the day, the problems this country faces are not because of homosexuality or abortion or the economy or politics, or anything so headline friendly as any of that. The real problem is:

Selfishness.

You heard me. ME. MY rights. MY life. ME. ME. ME. ME. ME.

As a sizeable portion of our fellow citizens celebrates new-found freedom, another sizeable portion cries over freedoms they haven’t even lost. And have the gall to claim that beloved symbols of LGBTQ community like the rainbow are really symbols of anti-Christian bigotry. We’ve never been big on self-awareness here in the United States of Take-a-Hike. But we’re certainly good at looking out for No. 1.

Because we’re more than willing to poop on others…so long as nobody ever poops on us.

Calling My Shot

19365_717013806513_9223634_39963040_868241_nThe earth starts to rumble
World powers fall
A’warring for the heavens
A peaceful man stands tall

– Megadeth

We have a set of very simple choices in front of us:

We can be part of someone’s bad day, or we can be that which makes it better.

We can be silent partners in a world in decline, or we can take responsibility for the shares we hold and work toward recovery.

We can take hold of what we have and hold on for dear life, or we can let go and share the wealth, precisely because life is so dear.

One of my favorite quotes, from George Monbiot’s Age of Consent:

All those with agency are confronted by a choice. We can use that agency to secure for ourselves a safe and comfortable existence. We can use our life, that one unrepeatable product of four billion years of serendipity and evolution, to earn a little more, to save a little more, to win the approval of our bosses and the envy of our neighbours. We can place upon our walls those tombstones which the living erect to themselves: the framed certificates of their acceptance into what Erich Fromm has called the ‘necrophiliac’ world of wealth and power. We can, quite rationally, subordinate our desire for liberty to our desire for security. Or we can use our agency to change the world, and, in changing it, to change ourselves. We will die and be forgotten with no less certainty than those who sought to fend off death by enhancing their material presence on the earth, but we will live before we die through the extremes of feeling which comfort would deny us.

Simple decisions? Yes: simple decisions with fearfully complex implications. Once I decide to step up, once I call my shot, life becomes a whole new ballgame. I said in an earlier post that this isn’t about me, and on one hand that is true. On the other, though, it’s all about me. It’s about who I decide to be in relation to the world around me. Which shouldn’t be about me. Who I decide to be, expressed in the actions I take and the decisions I make. Which, again, shouldn’t be about me. Never about me. The world has to come first, starting with my family (spouse, children, etc.) and spiraling ever outward. Because it’s not about me, it’s all about who I decide to be.

Small exercise: Pinpoint one aspect of “you” that might be conceived of as the weakest link. At its most basic, what sort of work does it need? For me, it’s all about patience (impatience, really). So I look to the traffic light. At its most basic, my impatience stems from a belief that my time, my affairs, are the most important consideration in the world, and when I find myself fuming at a red light, it can be boiled down, pretty much, to that selfish impulse. It’s all about me, and this stupid light is getting in the way.

My first step, then, toward moving myself out of the way and living a world-centered life is, oddly enough, about learning to let stoplights be, and recognizing the importance of others’ lives. When I manage even this insignificant little feat, then it’s not about me anymore. Stress levels drop, frustration falls away, and I’m free to love a world my selfish side demands that I hate. And once that first, baby step is taken, I’m ready for the next: I’m ready to cultivate patience in all situations. Waiting for a table at a restaurant, standing in line at the grocery store–am I really the only person in the world who needs to eat? Much as I’d like to think so, probably not… :0)

Impatience lies at the root of my egocentric world; remove the cornerstone, and the whole structure begins to weaken, and will eventually collapse. And that’s the goal. Therein lie the seeds of the new world order: it’s not about political systems, or religion, or economics; it’s all about who I decide to be.

Choose to be a peaceful person in a world of chaos. It just might be contagious.

Snot about Me

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Started a landslide in my ego
Looked from the outside to the world I left behind.

– U2

Fire burns brightest when the darkness comes from within.

Last weekend, I was sprawled at the epicenter of the perfect storm. I was sick–couldn’t breathe, nose running several marathons at once, head pounding like Grond at the gates of Minas Tirith. I was also feeling quite sorry for myself. Had there been any worms on hand, I would have been popping them like Skittles. All in all, it was a fairly lousy few days, headspace-wise.

And then, the little metaphorical light bulb went on, and I had a moment of blinding (and in no way Benadryl-related) clarity:

It’s not about me.

Four words. Simple as that. It’s. Not. About. ME.

Over the past week, this has become for me a mantra of sorts. I have never felt more free. Free of myself; free of everything that sets me apart from others and builds walls between us. I can see clearly and to great distances. Once we realize that the horizon is only really the shadow of Self, there is no limit to the power of sight.

This is not to say I’ll never again stumble into the Slough of Despond, or that reciting those words will always keep a smile plastered across my face. I will be depressed, from time to time; I will allow my own pettiness to cloud my awareness of the claims of others to my time and attention. Sometimes, there will be tantrums; other times, there will be inaction lost in the fog of self-pity and doubt. Rajas and tamas go hand in hand.

But if I am to accomplish anything, I have to let go of the Vance-centric state of mind. You may not have noticed, but the word “advancement” has me built right into it. It’s too easy to let that thought dominate my thinking, to become all I am about. Ad-VANCE-ment.

The world is pain individualized. But only because we accept the false premise of individuality. We are not many. We are one. Humankind: a word defined by what kind of humans we choose to be.

I can only make something meaningful of this life I’ve stumbled upon if “I” am no longer involved.

It’s not about me.