Victor Frankl’s Meaning in the Moment

The world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best. – Victor Frankl

Victor Frankl was a twentieth century Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, a Holocaust survivor, and founder of the logotherapy—healing through meaning—school of psychotherapy. Dr. Frankl wrote 39 books. His most influential, Man’s Search for Meaning, is a memoir/manifesto of his time in a German concentration camp.

Why am I pondering this Jewish intellectual during the final push of our Presidential election? Because I need to take a breath from the daily rancor and consider the bigger picture of the society we have created.

Back in 2015-2016, traversing America on my bicycle, two observations about Donald Trump were abundantly clear:

First. The media made the man. Sure, Trump loves to cry ‘fake news’ and protest against the media. But each time he does, Donald Trump ensures his position as top news story. The master of consuming all the oxygen in the room—and in our country—is genius at maintaining his spot as headline of the day. The media is not President Trump’s enemy: it’s his accomplice. Actually, it’s his benefactor.

Second. The country ate up the Donald because he provided a rush of adrenalin excitement missing from most of our lives. President Trump claims credit for many things, but I’m convinced his most important leading role is: Drama-in-Chief. The man literally provides the populace a reason to get in the morning just to see what craziness he’s tweeted overnight.

The United States might be excused, in 2016, for electing continual soap-opera drama. Things were pumping along pretty well and government didn’t seem all that important to a citizenry increasingly smitten with the diversions that Amazon, Google, Walmart, and Facebook delivered. A buffoonish President would provide droll amusement. But the aftermath of our complacency is all around us: over 200,000 coronavirus deaths; shattered international stature; expanding economic inequality; and state-sponsored brutality against pesky citizens who refuse to remain silent to injustice.

I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, ‘homeostasis,’ i.e. a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. – Victor Frankl

Since the end of World War II, the mantra of American corporations and government has been “Take it easy.” Their purpose, to woo us into a tensionless state. Relaxed folks make for docile, pliable, complacent citizens. The elemental idea of a consumer society is to turn human beings into passive resource receptables, while in truth, the healthiest humans are the most active. Not just with physical movement, but with purpose.

As to the causation of the feeling of meaninglessness, one may say, albeit in an oversimplifying vein, that people have enough to live by but nothing to live for; they have means but no meaning… The truth is, man does not live by welfare alone. – Victor Frankl

It is particularly difficult to feel engaged and purposeful when almost all of our interactions are filtered by a screen, when autumn’s chill beckons us to hygge, when it’s always easier in the moment to watch something rather than create something. In hunter/gatherer days and agrarian days, we did not have to search for meaning: the imperative to survive thrust meaning upon us. But today, when our capacity to provide the essential components of life are more easily met, the most fortunate of us are in the awkward position to have to seek out meaning in life. We have to choose the hard stuff, both in physical exertion and social interaction. We have to actively extend ourselves in a society that constantly preaches us to remain cocooned.

Please, struggle against this entropy. Shake up your mind. Shake up your body. Get out do something meaningful. Engage with somebody new. A good way to start: walk to the polls and cast a well-considered ballot.

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Vote Yes on 2

The Awkward Poser does not stump for any particular candidate; my politics are too idealistic to descend into that fray. But I am a strong advocate for anything that strengthens the underlying principles of democracy: civic participation and robust, informed voting. In that spirit I hope that all Americans will vote this November 3—and that everyone in Massachusetts will vote ‘Yes’ on Question 2: Ranked Choice Voting.

Ranked Choice Voting is exactly as it sounds: instead of voting for only one candidate running for a particular office, each voter has the opportunity to rank as many choices as she wants (first, second, third). If no one in a multi-candidate election receives a clear majority of number 1’s: the number of 2’s, 3’s, etc. are proportionately accounted such that the person with the highest total ‘ranked choice’ is the winner.

Advocates of ranked choice voting claim that it helps curb the influence of special interests, enables greater participation of independent candidates, and helps to elect candidates who best represent the full populace. Detractors say it is overly complicated and confusing.

I fall firmly in the first camp for one simple reason. For over thirty years I have lived in a city that uses a form of ranked choice (proportional representation) and have witnessed the benefits of living in a community where people are invested in electing their officials.

Across the United States, 45 percent of all local and state elected officials run unopposed. The percent of competition in primaries, where voter turnout can tally below 4%., is miniscule. Cambridge, Massachusetts presents quite a different picture. In 2019, twenty-one candidates ran for nine City Council seats; eleven people ran to be on the six-member School Committee. Aspirants run active campaigns, videotape pleas on local CCTV, and plant yard signs galore. One local political junkie hosts a build-your-own-ballot website (cambridgecouncilcandidates.com) that enables voters to find the cocktail of candidates that most closely fit their personal agenda.

As a longtime Cambridge resident, I am accustomed to the guffaws of practically everyone who resides beyond the seven square miles of our People’s Republic. It’s easy to poke fun at our immense public education budget, our Smokey Bear attired park rangers, our Peace Commissioner. The place is certainly guilty of being precious. Yet, how many cities of 105,000 residents can boast of having over 130,000 jobs? A median family income north of $125,000 per year? A pre-pandemic unemployment rate below 2%? And not one, but two of the world’s most prestigious universities? It must be easy, you say, to have honest and generous government under such fantasy conditions.

But what if we flip that argument on its head? What if the bubble of benefits that constitutes life in Cambridge is due, at least in part, from having an electoral system that challenges and engages our citizens? A system that leads to fair elections, in which people feel heard, and elect local officials whom we believe represent.

Cambridge does not have sound government because it is such a nice place to live. It is a nice place to live because it has sound government.

Let’s extend that logic to our entire state. Massachusetts voters are fully capable of understanding and executing ranked choice voting. Once we begin to realize the benefits of this fairer electoral system, I am confident that we will see participation among voters—and candidates—increase. That may not be in the best interests of today’s vested politicians. But it is in the best interest of democracy.

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The Beauty of the Breakup Album

My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me up.

How messed up is that.

Everyone over the age of sixty should have a pair of Millennial children. Even if it requires you to adopt late in life. Just to keep a tiny bit informed.

When my daughter Abby told me to buy the Dixie Chicks latest CD, Gaslighter. I did as told. (Abby knows I don’t do Spotify or Apple music or whatever—I still have actual discs that I insert in a player.) Two days later I received my CD, which has the word ‘Dixie’ emblazoned on the cover, though the progressive country feminists have since dropped that politically dubious adjective, and are now officially The Chicks. I’m not sure that moniker is totally liberating either.

 

I listened to the album several times through, the way a person must to absorb an album into their fascia. I texted Abby, “It’s terrific.” She responded, “I love breakup albums.” I considered whether that was a distant, personal call for parental help and decided: no. Then I listened to Gaslighter a few more times.

After the pounding title track (Gaslighter / Denier / Doing anything to get your ass farther…), the second track, “Sleep at Night” could be a lullaby. Not. Midway into the first stanza I’m hit by “My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me up / How messed up is that.” And though I know I’m supposed to be mad at the jerk, I flash a knowing smile. Because, once upon a time, a bizarre variation on that quadrilateral confusion happened to me.

May 1996. Less than six months since the judge gaveled us divorced, I receive a call from my ex-wife. “Shorty,” (Yes, she still called me ‘Shorty.’ Yes, she still does.) “I was wondering if you would like to go to the gay pride parade with the children and me.”

 

Now it’s important to know a few things about my marriage and divorce. We were a solid couple, happy, driven—until we weren’t. That I realized I’m gay, thirteen years in, may not have been the sole reason for our demise, but it made for a definitive coffin-nailing, camel-back breaking, cliché ending. By May of 1996 our every-other weekend child care groove was well worn; I was openly gay and—as far as I knew—my ex-wife was straight. Therefore, an invitation to join her and our children (on her designated weekend) elicited from me the only logical reply.

“May I ask why you and the children are going to the gay pride parade?”

“We’re going with Jim.”

I’d heard of Jim, Lisa’s new boyfriend, though never met him. Seemed to me, if she had wanted to date a guy who went to gay pride parades, it would have been a whole lot easier to stick with the man she’d already married, rather than dump me for a different one. But I struggled not to raise old wounds.

“May I ask why Jim is going to the gay pride parade?”

“His former wife Nancy will be there, with her partner Alene.”

“I see. You’re asking me to go to the gay pride parade with your new boyfriend, his former wife, and his former wife’s lesbian lover.”

“Jim’s two children will be there.”

“Ours as well.”

My mind flooded with United Nations images: all stripes of people holding hands and singing in harmony. I realized how nicely my presence would fit into that tableau. Even better if I had a boyfriend (no dice in that department, for sure).

 

I understood Lisa’s overture was a benevolent one; however peculiar the rapprochement. I could have kicked my response down the calendar, say I’d let her know. But I didn’t need any time. “Sorry, I’m just not that liberated.” Sad, perhaps, yet an honest truth.

I never went to the gay pride parade again, not by myself, or with my children, or even my ex-wife. Or even my ex-wife’s boyfriend’s ex-wife. It’s not that I lack gay pride. It’s just that, although coming out can change many things about a person, it doesn’t guarantee he likes parades.

“Sleep at Night” is definitely my favorite song on the new Dixie Chicks CD. Except maybe for “Gaslighter” itself. Except definitely for “Juliana Calm Down.” Except maybe…I don’t have to choose. A favorite. The point of a break up album is to scream “F-you!” to the world in general and one person in particular. And then move on boldly, proudly. Which I did. Even if I missed the parade.

Thank you, Dixie Chicks, for turning that bizarre time of my life into an almost, sort of, happy memory.

 

 

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Salve November’s Guilty Conscience: NOW

“I just don’t know what I’ll do if I wake up on November 4 and Donald Trump’s won.”

“I’ll die if Trump wins the election. Then move to Canada.”

Thus are the refrains I hear from friends who, in a moment of sympathy-seeking, forget that I am concrete enough—and blunt enough—to earn a diagnosis on the spectrum. Anyone pleading impending guilt finds no safe harbor with me. I simply respond:

“If you think you’ll have a guilty conscience then, you ought to be doing more now.”

They look at me with sheepish disdain. Shrug their shoulders. Protest that, being from Massachusetts, there’s little we can do to save the rest of the country from this nightmare.

Rubbish. In the era of COVID-19, everyone has either got money or time. Money, if we’re still working (and have no place to spend it). Or time, if we’re not working. So we can contribute money: to candidates, to advocacy groups, to get-out-the-vote organizations. Or we can contribute time: calling swing-state voters, writing post cards, pestering that tiny percentage of people who are still undecided. (Though, it’s inconceivable to me that anyone whose even half-awake is still undecided. I suspect anyone taking refuge in that category is being a mischievous disrupter.) If you are not fully committed to being either Blue or Red, there are non-partisan, non-profit groups who need volunteers to help explain the intricacies of completing a legitimate absentee ballot: not as easy as it might appear. Anyone, in any state, can go to iwillvote.com and learn how to navigate their state’s rules. Better yet, help someone else while you’re at it.

Not everyone will be good at everything. I am an atrocious phone banker, so awkward that everyone I speak with claims to be the wrong person, who by the way has moved. I’m equally dismal at postcards: damaged nerves and mangled wrists from two bicycle accidents have rendered my handwriting spooky. But I encourage voters in person, and here. Fortunately, I also have the resources to support folks who have better penmanship and savvier telephone voices. And, of course, I will vote on November 3. Even though I’m from Massachusetts, a state that will likely never earn the moniker ‘swing.’

But the system is rigged, you proclaim. The electoral college veers right. Voter suppression is real. And what about the Russians? I cannot argue the reality that the United States has, perhaps the weirdest electoral system of any place that dare call itself a democracy. What other nation has fifty different sets of rules for a single Federal election? I have advocated for change it in the past, and will in the future. But over the next month, we have to navigate the current system, however warped.

The Russians, the Electoral College, the lack of drop-off boxes in Texas, the shuttered urban polling places in Georgia, even the heavy hand of the Supreme Court may play a role in determining the outcome of this election. But they won’t determine whether you feel guilty. Any guilt you feel on November 4, will be inversely proportional to how much, or how little, action you take now.

You may not single-handedly determine the outcome of this election, but the guilt is within your control. If you wake up the morning after with a guilty conscience, you’ll know that you didn’t do enough.

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Referee Whistle: How to Broadcast the Presidential Debates

The dominant feeling that flushed over me at the end of last nights’ debate was: I am embarrassed to be an American.

This is the state of our democracy. A mediocre moderator unable to guide a fork-tongued crank and a genial befuddler through any meaningful discourse beyond the overriding message that we are clearly in deep trouble.

For worse or worser, these two old white men intent upon atrocious teenage behavior are the two options between which the United States’ electorate must choose to be President. Since they refuse to act with the dignity the office deserves, it is incumbent upon the Commission on Presidential Debates and the broadcast networks, to present the debates in a manner that might offer us voters at least some modicum of useful information. Not changes to the rules (which had already been agreed to by both sides, and then rampaged over in real time). Two simple changes in how the debates themselves are transmitted to viewers:

  1. Silence everyone’s microphone except during his designated airtime. Silence both candidates while a question is being asked. Silence the opposition candidate during one person’s two-minute response, then flip for the rebuttal. The only time that the viewing audience should hear both candidates at the same time is when both candidates are ‘supposed’ to be allowed to talk at, over, and through each other.
  2. Show on screen only the person who is speaking. During each candidate’s designated time, show only that candidate. And vice-versa. This will save the folks at home the excruciating facial antics of the candidate who is supposed to be silent. Use the ‘split-screen’ only during time when both candidates are allowed to be speaking.

Are these changes petty and adolescent? You bet. But for those of us who look to the debates as a way to measure each man and his positions so that we can execute our responsibility and vote as informed citizens, these changes might provide us more actual substance with less of the inflated, interruptive rancor we witnessed last night.

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The Patriotism of Isolation

This week’s post is penned by my niece, Caroline Bringenberg, an LA-based Millennial activist who challenges me to think about the world I am leaving the next generation.

Growing up I remember hearing stories, at home and in history class, about America during WWII. We learned about the victory gardens, where families were encouraged to grow and eat their own food to conserve goods in the supply chain for our allies. We learned about women like Rosie the Riveter who stepped into the workplace, many for the first time, to keep industry afloat while the men were overseas. These are only two examples of the many ways that the U.S. government encouraged Americans to do their part by making sacrifices and altering their behavior for the greater good – defeating Nazi Germany.

Despite the horrors of the Second World War, this era and the following post-war period is often romanticized in American history. It wasn’t a perfect time—sexism and misogyny were rampant, racism went completely unchecked under Jim Crow—but Americans nonetheless abided by the idea that it was a priority to stand up to challenges united together as a nation, and that patriotism and loyalty to country transcended our differences.

Over the last six months, I’ve found myself reflecting on my understanding of the WWII era often. I feel very similarly about my role in the Coronavirus pandemic as I imagine those during WWII may have felt as they planted seeds in their victory gardens. I’m a middle class, white, millennial woman. I work in digital media, which means that my transition to remote work was simple and I likely won’t ever go back to a traditional office. My husband, an insurance underwriter, has also transitioned to permanent work-from-home. We don’t have children to care for, which means we’ve been lucky to avoid the stress around remote learning. Aside from our general anxieties around the state of the world, concerns about the future of the economy, and occasional double-booked Zoom meetings (which take a bit of coordinating, since we live in a small one-bedroom), the pandemic has been manageable for us to navigate.

As we know, this isn’t the case for millions of individuals and families in the U.S. Estimates show that 30 million Americans are facing joblessness, some of whom are close friends and peers. Those who are still employed are navigating remote learning for their children while also, in many cases, adjusting to a work-from-home schedule for the first time themselves. Eviction protections are running out in many states meaning that we are barreling towards an unprecedented housing crisis. We’re sending the lowest paid workers in our economy, like grocery store employees, teachers, factory workers, into the most at-risk environments with little more than a pat on the back.

American inequality is nothing new, especially along racial lines, though our income inequality has grown exceptionally stark in the past three decades. The Coronavirus pandemic has laid to bare the worst of these inequalities—those who were already struggling to get by are hanging by a thread, and those who were already doing well are doing better than ever before.

So what can those of us in the middle, like myself, do? We can take a page out of our history books. We can take it upon ourselves to do our part – make sacrifices and change our behavior for the greater good – even when the going gets tough. If we have the privilege of retaining employment while working remotely, we have a responsibility to our fellow Americans who don’t have those privileges to, at minimum, stay home and to wear a mask when out for essential activities. Even when it can feel isolating or boring – even when we feel gaslighted by those in other cities and states attending large events, or by our President telling us the virus is fake news.

What scares me is that staying home and wearing a mask is the minimum we should do, and yet we are divided over it. Every day when I open my Instagram page I’m flooded with images of my peers taking vacations to Mexico, gathering in groups, or posting maskless photos. If we can’t agree as a collective to do the minimum, how can we expect to get through this moment as a nation? Masks and social distancing shouldn’t be up for debate. We should expect more from each other—we should be participating in advocacy work to pressure the federal government on a sweeping stimulus bill that would aid frontline workers and keep renters afloat. We should be donating what we can to organizations helping families who lack home internet to make sure their children can attend classes. We should be educating ourselves on the ways that the virus is disproportionately impacting Black and brown communities and find ways to uplift these communities. We should be getting involved in our neighborhoods, meeting our neighbors, and asking how we can help those around us make ends meet. We should stay up-to-date on the latest science and practice media literacy in filtering out the fake news and the noise. We should dedicate our time, our energy, and our empathy to the cause in the same way our ancestors uprooted their lives for men overseas they had never met. To forego these temporary behavior changes while others suffer all around us is categorically un-American.

We’ve progressed as a country in many ways since WWII, but we’ve lost the collectivist patriotism along the way. This pandemic, six months in (and likely, unfortunately, six months from now, at the rate we’re going) requires us to look out for our fellow Americans—our grocery store clerks, the people we pass on the street, the person who delivers our mail—with a collective conscience. Not because we know them, not because we agree with them, but because we have to do our part through our empathy for all.

If you’re able, do the brave and patriotic thing: plant your victory garden seeds in the safe haven of your home. We can do it!

 

 

 

 

 

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My Summer of 75 Things

On June 2, 2020 Corinne Shutack published an article on Medium, “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice.” Quick on the outrage of George Floyd’s killing, with a long pandemic summer before me, I decided to make a project of the long yet relevant listicle. Over three months, I carefully read Ms. Shutack’s list, hit all of her links, watched all of her recommended videos, and read several of her suggested books. Given my engineering nature, a spread sheet was required. Seventy-five rows by three columns: Action Item / What Have I Done? / Resolution.

By Labor Day Weekend, I had gone through every item on the list. Which is not to say that I completed them all. Rather, I considered and investigated each; acted on a majority of them, and deferred action on ones that feel inappropriate for me/for now. The beauty of a long list is its inherent customization-ability.

I’ve written letters to my local police department, city councilors, state and federal representatives and senators, as well as my governor; inquiring about police procedures, advocating penal reform, bail reform, sentencing reform, parole reform. Reform being the common thread. I’ve watched more Spike Lee, read more Ta-Nehisi Coates and even more James Baldwin. I’ve fallen deeply in love with Amber Ruffin, whose “Amber Says What!” proves that woke can be hysterical while forging common bonds among disparate humans over truly important things: like Stanley Tucci.

But I digress. I joined the Boston branch of SURJ (Stand Up for Racial Justice) and participated in a slew of (online) discussions and trainings about structural racism, my role in sustaining it, and opportunities to lean my shoulder toward bending our arc toward justice.

This being the United States, activism, like everything else, is tied to money. Bye-bye Bank of America and indexed mutual funds, hello local community bank, social investment funds, and deposits in Black-owned One United. Hold steady traditional social service philanthropy, while I fuel organizations with activist agendas. I selected ones that resonate with me; there are plenty that will speak directly to you.

There is certain satisfaction in checking off a list of personal action items in response to the societal canker exposed by the pandemic and systematic racism. I need the education, my elected officials need my opinion, these organization need my money. But if I mistake personal enrichment for real change, I am missing the point. Brandon Kyle Goodman’s worthwhile You Tube video, addresses the difference between reactive and systemic change. Tabulating a list of actions and addressing each is a viable reaction to the ugly belly of our society so brutally exposed over the past four months (four years? four centuries?). Reactive tasks, no matter how numerous, cannot create systemic change. However, they are the catalyst from which systemic change can emerge.

If we do something often enough, long enough, focused enough, we form a pattern. The deeper we track a pattern, the more it seethes into our being, until it becomes integral to us. We each nurture healthy patterns and questionable ones. Good thing I walk 10,000 steps a day, since I gobble a sweet after every meal—I mean even breakfast. The value of studiously attending the list of “75 Things a White Person Can Do…” cannot be found in any particular item. The value accrues from spending time, every day, for three months thinking about people whose lives are very different from mine, trying to better understand how the singular deck of economic and cultural cards that makes my life so satisfying, is stacked against them. The value is in forming a pattern of thinking about—and appreciating—other ways of being. I don’t beat myself up for being a white male. Nor do I pretend that I will be the tipping point of change. But if I keep my pattern going, keep learning and acting as an anti-racist, I will contribute some small part in a shift towards equity.

Kara Springer’s A Small Matter of Engineering, Part II is the featured image of Corinne Shatuck’s post. My initial reaction to the image was discomforting. What makes these four words (white people. do something.) on a black canvas, art? And why is it that white people have to do something? Haven’t white people already done enough—good and bad—in this world? Aren’t we in a mode when white people ought to step aside and allow others take their turn steering? This blogger, convinced the world will be better when the humans do less, had to wrassle with the notion of white people doing more. Until, of course, I realized, we are not being challenged to do more. We are being challenged to do different. And since white people developed the systems under which our society operates, either we take the lead in unraveling them, or face the revolutionary anthems our oppression will deservedly inspire.

Ms. Shatuck keeps adding to her Medium list. By mid-summer it was “97 Things White People Can Do…” Last I checked it was “103 Things White People Can Do…” There are plenty of things I can do to feed my pattern of conscious anti-racism, to make it stronger. Which is what it will take to turn a spreadsheet of action items…into systemic change.

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The Measure of All Things

Pat Barker’s 1992 novel, Regeneration, is about many things. The futility of war, the assumptions of Freudian psychotherapy, the defacto caste system of early twentieth century Britain, the absurdity of England’s attitude towards homosexuals. An anti-war novel without a single shot; the love story between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen without a single touch.

Almost nothings happens—except talk—within the cloistered mental hospital where WWI British officers are sent for however long it takes for them to ‘recover’ from shell shock enough to return to trenches in France. Then, abruptly, in the final chapter, another talking head—this one actually named Head— takes us on a late night detour in recounting a long ago trip to the Solomon Islands.

“I don’t know whether you’ve ever had…the experience of having your life changed by a quite trivial incident…I was on the Southern Cross—that’s the mission boat—and there was a group of islanders there—recent converts. You can always tell if they’re recent, because the women still have bare breasts…I started asking questions. The first question was, what would you do with it if you earned or found a guinea? Should you share it, and if so, who would you share it with? It gets their attention because to them it’s a lot of money, and you can uncover all kinds of things about kinship structure and economic arrangements, and so on. Anyway, at the end of this…they decided they’d turn the tables on me…What would I do with a guinea? Who would I share it with? I explained I was unmarried and that I wouldn’t necessarily feel obliged to share it with anybody. They were incredulous. How could anybody live like that? And so it went on, question after question. And it was one of those situations, you know, where one person starts laughing and everybody joins in and in the end the laughter just feeds off itself. They were rolling round the deck by the time I’d finished. And suddenly I realized that anything I told them would have got the same response. I could have talked about sex, repression, guilt, fear—the whole sorry caboodle—and…they wouldn’t’ve felt a twinge of disgust or disapproval or…sympathy, or anything, because it would all have been too bizarre. And I suddenly saw that their reactions to my society were neither more nor less valid than mine to theirs. And do you know that was a moment of the most amazing freedom. I lay back and I closed my eyes and I felt as if a ton weight had been lifted.

“…the Great White God dethroned…We quite unselfconsciously assumed we were the measure of all things. That was how we approached them. And suddenly I saw not only that we weren’t the measure of all things, but there was no measure.”

Within that sideways vignette exists, for me, the essence of all human understanding; illumination upon the chasms that divide us. Every person measures the world around her and establishes identity from the actual position he occupies, as well as her relative relationships to others. An origin point at the spine is the only way a sentient creature can measure their place in the world. Which leads, logically, to misunderstanding, self-centeredness, narcissism, selfishness, prejudice, dominance, the whole sorry caboodle of distrust and violence.

 

The way through this conundrum is, of course, through education and travel: witnessing other ways of being and acknowledging their validity. I believe there are fundamental truths that must apply to all of us if we are ever to attain a civil society (the Golden Rule, anyone?) But I also realize that the parameters that guide my world are not the same as the ones that guide others. And I can be alright with that.

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Two-Way Affirmative Action

 

Recently, I completed a survey from Beth Israel Lahey Health, the mother ship of Mount Auburn Hospital, where I volunteer three days a week. It was a simple, two question survey from the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Career Advancement.

Q1: How have recent Black Lives Matter activities affected your work? (A: They haven’t.)

Q2: How can BILH improve opportunities for all our staff?

My initial response was boilerplate affirmative action stuff: make more opportunities for BIPoC to advance in their careers; have more BIPoC in positions with authority and responsibility, blah, blah, blah.

Then I took off a tangent, not entirely knowing where it would go. “At the hospital where I work, virtually all the transport staff are Haitian men; the housekeepers LatinX women. Why is that? Why isn’t there more diversity at all levels of the job spectrum?”

I offered nothing more specific. But in the days that followed, I realized there could be real advantages to implementing affirmative action in both directions; requiring that, at some proportionate level, every job is filled by a cross-section of our local population.

The knee-jerk response to this idea is obvious. How are we going to get white people to do the jobs that BIPoC’s do when white people don’t want them? Besides, isn’t the whole idea of affirmative action passe? How or why would we ever require more?

Yet there’s beauty nested within the idea of two-way affirmative action. If employers needed to hire a certain number of white people to push stretchers and clean hospital rooms (and process meat and collect garbage and pick crops and do all the other activities that white people rarely do) then employers would have to improve the conditions of work. They would have to increase wages and provide better benefits and improve working conditions to attract white workers. All of which would lift the standards of work for people of color.

Sure, I want to see more BIPoC in professional and managerial positions. But we will actually change the living conditions of the broadest number of people if we elevate the grunt jobs that are almost exclusively the province of Blacks and Browns to include some white folks as well.

A crazy idea, perhaps, and hard to set into law in a country where we can’t even mandate a minimum living wage. But a worthy objective that would raise a whole lot of low-tided boats.

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Pool Paddle

 

A few years ago a friend of mine was minding his sister-in-law Adelaide’s son for the afternoon. The day was hot and sticky, so Mike took five-year-old Zach to a local pool. When it was time to go home, Zach ignored Mike and refused to get out of the water. Mike’s temper flared. In a pique of anger, he lifted Zach out of the pool and slapped the boy’s behind.

As quick as the impact landed, so too arrived Mike’s regret and remorse. They were not a family who hit their kids. Zach’s cry registered surprise as well as sting, though the sting was obvious: a red mark emerged beneath the boy’s bathing suit.

Mike told Zach he’d made a mistake. He apologized to Adelaide and her husband Tom when he took the boy home. Mike drove away, sincerely chastened.

The next day Mike was arrested. Zach’s parents had called the police and filed a complaint. Thus began the spiral of officers, attorneys, and social workers. Thus ceased civil contact between two segments of the family. As a white male without a previous record, Mike’s punishment was light: a fine; counseling; probation with the eventual possibility of a fully expunged record. Mike’s action prompted other changes. A long-time high school teacher, Mike decided to change careers for fear that his impulsive temper might flare in the classroom. And though Mike voiced consistent penitence, sometimes the consequences of that afternoon turned him belligerent, for however light his sentence might have been, it added up to a whole lot of wrath for a single slap.

At the time of the incident, my concern for my friend centered on his logistical challenges in navigating the criminal justice system. Mike completed the checklist of activities required for his punishment. By any objective measure the case is successfully closed: Mike will think twice before raising his hand again. Yet the rift between the two families has hardened.

The events chronicled here are true. Everyone’s name has been changed, even though no one is fully innocent.

Mike’s story came stampeding back into my head during a recent Zoom training about transformative justice. This summer’s agitation about police brutality has, belatedly, made me question how exactly police ‘protect and serve’ us. I’ve also begun to understand more deeply the structural flaws in a justice system premised on punishment. Under the guise of protecting the victim, we basically freeze the relationships of all parties to a crime at the worst possible moment. Restorative justice offers a positive direction; it seeks to bring parties together, address what transpired, and shape punishment in the form of amends. But transformative justice takes a step beyond. Transformative justice contends that the judicial system cannot address the root causes of criminality because it is rooted in a system that’s inherently unbalanced—the United States of America. Transformative justice empowers people to seek justice outside of existing systems. Not as vigilantes. As engaged neighbors and citizens, who mutually take care of one another.

As a white person living in a safe neighborhood, this idea is foreign to me. When we are harmed we call the police, and they ‘protect and serve’ us. However, that mindset does not apply to poor communities and communities of color. These sectors of our society don’t see police as a solution. Police represent the problem, and they represent it with guns on their belts.

As the ramifications of transformative justice sink into me, my friend’s tragedy has reemerged in my mind. Mike and I rarely talk about his abusive act and subsequent punishment anymore; or whether he misses teaching, hanging out with Adelaide and Tom, or watching Zach grow up. In Mike’s case, the police did the right thing: arrested a man who struck a child. They acted appropriate to their role from the moment they were called on the case.

But the precepts of transformative justice redirect the pertinent issue in this story. Why were the police called in the first place? Mike will never know what Zach told his parents when the boy returned from the pool; he will never see how bad that bruise turned, or why Adelaide and Tom decided to call the police. What he does know is that they chose to hand the situation over to the law rather than communicate directly with their brother-in-law.

Somewhere between the 1950’s and 2010’s we, as individuals and as a society, began offloading the difficult task of getting along and taking care of each other to government authorities. I pick the year 1950 only because there was no way, when this rather fat, clumsy, bullied boy was growing up, that my parents would call the police when a neighbor slapped my behind. No way. Yet in 2020 many Americans make a libertarian cry for less government and more individual freedom, and then defer a family dispute—serious, yet completely internal to the family—to the public arena.

We have grown to expect social agencies to provides services that families used to provide themselves. Our schools provide lunch, and breakfast, as well as a Friday backpack of weekend food for undernourished students; senior programs provide meals, social activities and rides to appointments. The same expectations apply more and more to our policing. Adelaide and Tom had every ‘right’ to call the police; their son had been struck. But what they did wasn’t right. It was safe, non-confrontational, even easy. In calling the police, they avoided the hard work of having to address a difficult problem within their own family. As a result, the family is permanently diminished.

Reshaping how the police protect and serve us—all of us—requires all of us to reconsider how we lean on the police. Call them less. Communicate amongst ourselves more. Even, especially, when it is difficult to do.

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