Why nobody can hear the alarm anymore, and what you and I can do about it today

There’s a reason it seems nearly impossible these days that our country could deal decisively with a genuinely dangerous or unfit leader. It has to do with the way you and I speak every day.

Our problem, if we can stand a little self-reflection, is that you and I habitually label as “dangerous” or “unfit” EVERY SINGLE PERSON with a perspective significantly different from our own. We exaggerate their faults and exaggerate the threats they pose.

We use words like “absolutely insane” or “downright evil” or “totally incompetent” or “worst ever” or “pathetic” or “ignorant” or “sick” or “disgusting.” We throw these labels around pretty easily, using their intensity as our argument.

(I do this, too.)

That lawmaker is “an imbecile.” That judge is “entirely unfit.” This governor is “mentally unstable.” This crisis is “unprecedented.”

No. No, probably not. Usually, that person is actually just . . . different from us. Pretty significantly different. And maybe we have valid concerns around the impacts of their ideas. And maybe we’re right that “they’re wrong.” . . . And sometimes, sometimes, yes, they’re pretty yucky people.

But when we use superlatives–“worst,” “craziest,” “weakest,” “most radical,” “most dangerous,” “most disgusting”–to describe every single person with whom we disagree . . . then we have no effective language left for when there is a truly “worst”-case-scenario.

Psychologists and psychiatrists warned years ago of the genuine dangers of having a narcissist in the White House, but that label carries little alarm when you and I have already been calling every political leader of the opposite party a “narcissist,” a “bully,” “corrupt,” “ignorant,” “mentally unstable” . . .

If we claim at every single election that the opponent is “the most dangerous candidate we’ve ever seen” or “the most incompetent” or “a complete joke”–then what language is left to sound the alarm when it’s actually true?

If every single election season I hear my group’s favorite called “an asshole,” “hopeless,” “an absolute idiot,” “wrong in the head,” or “unstable”–why would I take it seriously when it’s finally true?

It’s like the boy who cried wolf, only it’s us and our sort of lazy habit of calling everything and everyone we don’t like “the worst.”

In reality, very few of us are “the worst.” You and I and everybody exist on a scale. A bunch of little scales, actually. I have some neuroticism, some selfishness, some ignorance, some weakness. And I have some strength, some compassion, some clarity, some courage. And so does that lawmaker you despise. And all “those liberals” or “those conservatives.”

So when four years later a President with an apparent case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder whips up his followers into a frenzy–it’s . . . sort of . . . on all of us. Somehow, we got here together.

We got here together by (among other things) having little tolerance or respect for people who disagree. By automatically labeling “different” as “dangerous.” By demonizing everyone who isn’t like us.

When we live and breathe a constant stream of superlatives, it’s sort of on all of us when “the most dangerous President in history” doesn’t really alarm half of us anymore.

This isn’t to shift the blame away from anybody who deserves a big, big share of it.

It’s a call for you and me to be a part of making this better starting now.

This nauseatingly polarized country is made up of a bunch of you’s and me’s. It IS our problem. We DID get ourselves here. WE make up “the people.”

It’s not all your fault or all my fault, but I think we have more power to change our country’s trajectory than we realize. We can each start by acknowledging that “those people” may be well-meaning, competent people, living somewhere on all those scales. And that we actually CAN live with them and keep working toward good side by side–even when we see good differently (and even when maybe we’re right).

On the other hand, if we keep demonizing all who disagree with us: We lose all credibility; and we wear out the alarm we may actually need on occasion.

Republicans don’t want all the poor people to starve and democrats don’t want to steal all your money or kill all your babies.

And if we take the easy way out by accusing each other of these worst-case caricatures, then when a truly dangerous character shows up, a bunch of people won’t notice.

“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” – Donald Trump at a January 2016 campaign rally

If we want the circus to stop, we need to change the way we talk to and about each other. Every. Single. Day.

“They” are NOT all hopelessly evil.

For the most part, they’re . . . people.

Like you and me.

Less labeling. More conversation.

This WEIRD holiday season

Humans infect each other through smiles and embraces.

“Cheer” is a word about the holidays.

And Cheer is just the greatest condition to be infected with.

Each year, sometime in October or November, we hear rumblings of Christmas music.

Cheer is on its way.

Soon we start putting parties and get-togethers on the calendar.

We browse to find the perfect gifts, picturing the glow we will see in the eyes of our best buddies as they tear into the wrapping paper.

Daydreams of pies and cinnamon and (for some of us) eggnog.

And finally, all bundled up, shivering on the doorstep, we ring the bell, and as it swings open we see: the faces of our loved ones.

The faces beam.

And then–all the hugs.

The touch, the embrace, the proximity, the loving smiles so close you can feel them.

Cheer.

What does Christmas mean to you?

If you celebrate another holiday around this time of year, what does it mean to you?

Answers always include words like Family and Love.

One of the big words, though, is “Cheer.”

It’s what we’re supposed to feel at the holidays.

Only problem is: 2020 isn’t exactly the year of smiles and embraces.

The smiles we need to see, that would remind us that there is love to be had this cold winter, are hidden behind cloth masks.

The get-togethers we put on our calendars mostly say “Zoom,” and that almost feels lonelier than having none at all.

And we wonder how long it will be before we get to feel those hugs again.

This.

Sucks.

“Cheer,” this year, won’t come easy.

So, friends: How can we infect each other with some cheer anyway, this weird year?

Let’s figure this out with each other–for each other.

What do YOU need?

Tell someone.

And then ask what they need.

Let’s cook up some unique ways to bring each other some cheer this year.

Any ideas?

Wishes for 2021

My wish for 2021: That it will be a year of LOVE.

In 2021, we will listen more.

In 2021, we will surround ourselves with people who look and think and sound and live and celebrate and feel and act differently than we do.

In 2021, we will work together with people who are not like us (but really just like us).

In 2021, we will “cancel” less and communicate more.

In 2021, we will be radically compassionate.

In 2021, when you and I get the chance to experience the magic of conversation, we’ll go deep–deep to the places where we remember what inspires. And deep to places where we discover that you and I actually share the same fears and hopes.

In 2021, we will use our breath to calm ourselves and learn to pause regularly and think for a minute before speaking.

In 2021, cruel, hateful speech and bullying will not be celebrated, or even accepted. In any way. Ever.

In 2021, the go-to will be understanding, not escalation. Never escalation. No more escalation. Ever.

In 2021, we will encourage the peaceful work of coming together. We will not instigate or cheer on violence and hate.

In 2021, the words and behavior of our leaders won’t make us embarrassed and nervous as citizens of a big, beautiful, diverse world.

In 2021, when we feel fears, we will explore those fears a little more deeply before we act on them. We’ll think of the bigger picture of humanity in those moments. “How can I handle this momentary fear in a way that doesn’t push humanity further into hate?”

In 2021, we will stay very honest and bold about our anger and disagreement. But we’ll lose the sarcasm and taunting and bullying.

In 2021, we will fight tirelessly for a world in which nobody will be disrespected, disadvantaged, or live in fear because of their skin color, accent, social status, shape, disability, gender, or sexuality.

In 2021, we will see every life as valuable.

In 2021, we will SEE EVERYBODY. The homeless man on the street in downtown Minneapolis. The entrepreneur who has worked 80 hours a week to give a contribution to the world, and the world to her family. The terrified but brave mother fleeing across the border with her little child. The 13-year-old dissociating in class because he’s being abused at home. The small town business owner who can’t afford for taxes to be raised. The little Uyghur girl in China who hasn’t seen her mom for a long, long time. The suburban mom who is hearing more and more stories of violent crime and would stop at nothing to protect her children. The governor making the toughest possible decisions, knowing the backlash that will come. The Black man everyone crosses the street to avoid. We will see everybody.

In 2021, we will search out the populations that, for one reason or another, can’t breathe. We won’t wait until a crisis to care about people being trampled by our world.

In 2021, we will stop thinking or acting like some lives are more important than others. Does patriotic have to mean that Americans (especially those whose families have been American for generations) should be happier and healthier than anyone else in the world?

In 2021, the god of Competition will be worshiped just a little less.

In 2021, we will stop chasing profits just long enough to make sure we’re prepared to take care of the vulnerable, the heroes, the small businesses, and the self-employed when the next pandemic happens. (And for that matter, to just take care of people in general all the time.)

In 2021, the health and safety of every human will be a higher priority than my right to only care about myself.

In 2021, I hope that social media platforms will change their algorithms that have been constantly showing each of us more and more and more of our own narrow views of reality.

In 2021, I would challenge every person in the United States to google the word “Dogmatism.”

And in 2021, I want to do hugs again, before the year is over. And have lots and lots of people over for a meal and laughter and being in each other’s space again. And I want to see smiles again when we get to take our masks off. And lots of hugs. Lots and lots of hugs.

Exhaling our way into a beautiful new year

Wishing you Love

Why not both?

“Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?”

~ John Heywood, 1546, in his book, A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the english tongue

“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” I’ve actually never appreciated this old proverb. It’s not that I think it’s wrong, just that I think we apply it far too often.

The idea is that once you eat your cake, you won’t have it anymore. I do appreciate this problem, and it is a real problem, because when I buy a quarter pound of Humboldt Fog or a block of real Parmigiano-Reggiano, once I finish eating it, it IS gone, and that sort of hurts deep down in my heart. I’ve tried, but even taking elegantly staged pictures before each cheese-eating ritual doesn’t take the sting all the way away. The memory’s not quite the same once it’s gone.

So yes, once you eat your cake, you don’t have it anymore.

I get that. It’s a quick, over-simplified reminder that “you can’t have it both ways.” That when two options are mutually exclusive, you’ve got to pick one.

But I don’t like that saying!

It seems fair to say “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” to your two-year-old who genuinely CAN’T EVEN because you put her shoes on, and then oh also CAN’T EVEN MORE when you take them back off, because she wants them on AND she wants them off, and yes, those two options are mutually exclusive.

But where do you find yourself applying this concept in your own life? Or when you hear others say it–“you can’t have it both ways”–what is the context?

I bet that you’re pushed to pick between a lot of things that aren’t actually mutually exclusive. They even named a logical fallacy after this: “False dichotomy.”

 

Here are some examples of false dichotomies, or “false dilemmas,” that we impose on each other and on ourselves:

You can’t love someone and be angry with them.

You can’t take care of both me and yourself.

You can’t make a lot of money and have good work-life balance.

You can’t be a strong leader and be gentle with your team.

You can’t stand for peace and march in protests that sometimes turn violent.

You can’t maximize profits and take good care of your people.

You can’t love and accept your family for who they are and establish strict boundaries.

You can’t be a healthy, happy person and eat lots of yummy food.

You can’t care about poverty and spend weekends on your luxurious boat.

You can’t be a quiet, introverted loner and expect people to respect and listen to you.

You can’t commit crimes and possess a right to dignity and life.

You can’t be happy and sad.

 

There are even some true dichotomies that, though technically true, might have some really healthy workarounds:

You can’t be married and single. (Yes. But maybe the parts about being single that your soul craves–the freedom of time, the occasional aloneness, the pursuing of your own favorite things, the feeling of independence–maybe you can allow each other the space and the times to live like you’re married and single.)

You can’t have kids and not have kids. (Yes. But maybe you still find healthy ways for mom and dad to go adventure all by themselves. Or maybe there’s a complicated-but-manageable way you can build a regular just-you-and-me date night into your schedule.)

You can’t, technically, be both a full-fledged extrovert and a full-fledged introvert. (True, but the two types have their natural strengths and advantages, and maybe you can incorporate helpful aspects from both styles into your day-to-day life.)

How often do we just accept parts of our lives as all-encompassingly-defining, when if we looked a little deeper we could find workarounds, so that we could have our cake and eat it, too?

 

This year there are two false dichotomies that jump out at me and, I’m sure, at every other person on the face of this 2020-flavored earth:

You can’t . . . stand for peace and justice and safety and stability, supporting those who serve the cause of keeping people safe from crime and danger . . . AND . . . cry foul on America’s history–past and present–of racial oppression, loudly protesting ongoing brutalization of Black people by many police officers and demanding changes to a system that continues to enable racism and abuse.

Why not both?

Why would being passionate about justice for one group of people make you against justice for another?

Why would saying “We have a problem we need to fix” mean that you wholly reject all the good, throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

Why would saying “I am proud of our police officers who risk their lives to protect people” keep you from saying “But many of them have prejudices that put Black people and other minorities at an unfair disadvantage, and that needs to be changed, and the ones that are consciously hateful and violent should be separated from their power.”

Why does believing in peaceful “law and order” mean that you have to blindly accept the laws in place, instead of acknowledging that, as expressed by Martin Luther King Jr, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Why can’t you march against police brutality and racism for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and also support your loving, humane, honest, selfless friend who is a wonderful police officer?

 

A second false dichotomy, courtesy of 2020:

You can’t . . . save the economy, avoid countless permanent closures of small businesses, restaurants, gyms, and airlines, keeping them afloat by providing the funds to help them and their employees ride out a pandemic . . . AND . . . take massive, sweeping precautions to help as many sacred lives as possible make it safely to the other side of this pandemic.

Simply: You can’t take care of the economy AND protect a population from a virus.

Why not both?

Why either or? This world is overflowing with wealth and resources–plenty enough to do good for more than one vulnerable group, to work for more than one cause.

Instead of fighting over whether we’re going to have the cake or eat the cake, what if we just made a bigger cake?

What if the cake is already big enough, but a few people are hogging most of it?

And what if we could put all our energy into sharing the cake and then baking another, but we’re so afraid of losing our piece that we’re just hiding in the corner wolfing down our own share?

 

Justice and compassion. Progress and people. Us and them.

 

Why do we keep assuming that we can’t have anything both ways?

Sure, there are a few things in life that you truly have to choose between. But when you feel this pressure to choose between–to pick which cause to support, who to care about, what identity to claim–stop long enough to ask if the two awesome-things are really mutually exclusive or if we really could just make a bigger cake.

The big things, like justice and pandemics. But also the little things, like taking a day off.

Next time someone says “You can’t have it both ways,”

try saying . . .

“Why not both?”

 

eating my cheese and still having it, too ;)

You still are and you still can

I am a world traveler. An explorer. An adventurer.

Salty wind on a gloomy Scottish coast, with an order of fish and chips. Diesel smell from the red double-decker buses.

Giant red Maple leaves painted on the airplanes, a little memory to remind me that I had technically been to Canada, even if it was more through. Little me still wants it to count.

The palpable rush of confidence and swagger as sheltered teen me navigated the Heartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and caught the MARTA, all by myself, to see my adopted family. Atlanta and its suburbs that, after a few trips, was my emotional stomping grounds, my “real home.”

Restaurants on piers in San Diego, with the loud sound of crashing waves. “Red and white,” a cryptic inside joke that out-of-place teen me and all my fellow travelers in San Deigo laughed and laughed at, though I never actually got it.

Homemade black-bean breakfast burritos at dawn on the road in Arizona with my big sister, and the jaw-dropping, don’t-know-what-to-do-with-it massiveness of the Grand Canyon when I first walked up to its edge.

The carefully-choreographed nonchalance with which I’d swing my backpack over one shoulder (only once accidentally smacking a fellow traveler in the face with the cool maneuver). The “oh yeah, this is my every-day, I’ve got this” demeanor I adopted whenever I had traveling companions, just to prove that yes, I’m a seasoned world traveler at seventeen.

Traveling by greyhound bus. Telling people I traveled by greyhound bus. Cred.

A long, long, long flight to . . . Amsterdam? And then to Frankfurt, where I logged onto an internet kiosk to send a quick love-note and discovered that German keyboards switch the Y and the Z. Struggling to keep my eyelids open so as not to miss my connection to Africa.

And then there was Ethiopia. Addis Ababa. I could write and write and write. The collapsed, seat-belt-less back seat of the taxi with the door that would swing wide open around curves. Ululating funeral processions. Wedding feasts. The way Amharic speakers gasp and raise their eyebrows to denote that they’re still listening. The beautiful Ge’ez script that doubled as code for my secret love letters. Morning prayers over loud-speaker. Blue and white taxis with boys hanging out the door yelling their destinations, and chaotic traffic like you’ve never seen (though YouTubing “Meskel Square” may give you a sense). Outrunning a bull down an alleyway. Beautiful old cathedrals. Getting lost at dusk in a corner of the city I’d never seen. Key Wat. And the streets of Addis Ababa coming alive with runners at 5am.

And Uganda. Kawunga ne ebijanjalo for lunch every day. The dancing, the rhythm. The elephants and giraffes as I rode a massive bus from one corner of Uganda to another. The beautiful landscape. The “oh-yeah-this-is-normal” feel of wildfires in the hot Savannah. The warm, generous welcomes in remote villages from the poorest of people. The python I suddenly notice slithering through the grass two feet away. Jack Fruit fresh off the tree. Roaring waterfalls, rivers with hippos and crocodiles. The several-story shopping malls and glamorous houses that told me that I’d learned only a tiny little version of the truth about Africa.

A dreamlike week in Mezzegra on Lake Como in northern Italy. All the pizza, all the wine, and fresh food from the little shop on the corner, where the deli attendant didn’t wash hands after using them bare to wrap our raw chicken, but like in a this-is-normal way. All the little restaurants serving food fresh from their home gardens. Showing up at the local super market fifteen minutes before the hour, only to see the doors shut and someone explain that they weren’t busy so they went ahead and closed early. Beautiful mountains and towers and villages and trails. An intimate elopement at the Villa del Balbianello with just my adventure buddy, our photographer couple, and the reckless driver of our wooden boat. And gelato, of course. Il dolce far niente.

And most recently, a few years of flying or driving or taking a train or doing whatever it takes to get to any and every gorgeous piece of America (or Canada) we can–from Big Bend to Glacier to the Rockies to the Smokies to Zion. And a weekend wandering Santa Barbara, driving its mountain roads, splashing in its waves, eating authentic tacos, and wishing Shawn Spencer and Burton Guster really lived there.

World-traveler.

That’s me.

That was me.

People still say I travel a lot. I guess I do, when we’re not hunkered down waiting out the coronavirus. But like . . . sort of traveling. I don’t fly on airplanes very much anymore, mostly shockingly long drives (think sixteen hours in one day), and pretty much just in the United States. But I didn’t mean to be a United-States-traveler, I meant to be a World-traveler.

When I left my home country for Africa, I discovered that a big portion of my heart belongs to exploring countries and cultures all around the world.

That just is me.

“But,” I haven’t left the country in five years. When I was twenty, I envisioned this World-traveler me flying off to a new land to explore at least once or twice a year. I knew how to, I learned all about it . . . this was what my life was going to be about, in a big way.

In the ten years since, I’ve flown across the ocean only once. Been to Italy and Canada. In ten years. Not what I envisioned. So . . . am I a World-traveler?

 

What is something like that for you? Something that is a huge part of daydream-you? Maybe a thing you used to experience, do a lot of, love, dream about, envision as one of the main threads in your life?

Maybe something you haven’t gotten to keep doing quite like you envisioned it?

Traveling? . . . Running? . . . Writing? . . . Drawing? . . . Volunteering? . . . Journaling? . . . Singing? . . . Playing sports? . . . Being romantic? . . . Adopting fur-children? . . .

Have you felt like you’ve had to give it up? Like you shouldn’t claim that title for yourself anymore, because it’s not accurate?

Maybe you used to be a runner, but not really anymore now that you’ve had kids. 13.1 used to be your jam, but now a slow 1 or 2 miles is a major accomplishment, when you even get the time for it.

And you still love “running.” You want it. You remember it. You know it. You miss it. You have your old medals, photos, miles logged on your running app, memories of worn down pair after pair of shoes. You occasionally look at your old race bibs and get very opposite feelings at the same time–happy and sad. . . .

Are you even a runner anymore?

 

Whatever your big thing is–and maybe you have a few of them–I wonder . . .

. . . why does time matter so much in your identity?

. . . and why can’t you still have it, even if in a more these-days version?

 

Why do we get so wrapped up in the passing of time when it comes to our identity?

You will always, always, always have the miles you’ve run. You’ll always have the countries you’ve visited. You’ll always have the people you’ve loved. You’ll always have the dances you’ve danced, the songs you’ve sung, the books you’ve read, the letters you’ve written, the rock walls you’ve climbed, the parties you’ve thrown, the puppies you’ve snuggled, and the accomplishments you’ve accomplished.

Why do they count less ten years later?

One day, it will be one hundred years later. And then, which will count as you? The one-hundred-years-ago you or the ninety-years-ago-you? At your funeral, who will be remembered? Only the you of the final couple years? Or the you that has lived a long and vibrant life of twists and turns and adventures and accomplishments and passions and stories and favorites?

Your memories and photographs of 10-year-old dancing you, 20-year-old dating you, 30-year-old running you, and 40-year-old parent you . . . they’re no less real or important or wonderful or YOU than they were 10, 20, 30, and 40 years ago.

Why do we judge ourselves by arbitrary measurements of time when we tell ourselves and others of our identity–of what makes us us? Why don’t we just access our deep down selves, even if our deep down selves haven’t had the chance for many years to show up the way they love to? The love for the thing is still there. The memories are still there. The reality is still there. The identity is still there.

You don’t have to throw back-then-you away. Now-you will also one day be a back-then-you. They all count. Let go of time a little when you know and share yourself. Let you still be you.

 

And why can’t you still do that thing you once loved and still love? Is it not normal for this stage of life? No problem, be abnormal. Are you not as physically capable of it as you used to be? No problem, do it slower/lighter/easier. Is it too expensive to do as much as you used to? No problem, find (or make up) a cheaper version of it, no matter how unique.

What would happen if we still just did that thing we loved–still love? What would it take?

Among other things, it would take just letting go of the need to be “the best at” or even “good at.” Can we let go of that? If we can, there’s a lot of epic life to be lived.

It would also take accepting the fact that the experience will just be different now. When I was sixteen, I could eat a lot more pizza in one sitting than I can now. And I don’t feel as great the next day as I used to. Okay. . . . That’s okay. And before my concussion, I could run a lot harder than I’ve been able to since. Okay. . . . That’s okay. And exploring and traveling for me looks a little different now than it did when I was nineteen. Now, instead of living on the other side of the globe for the better part of a year, I sneak in a couple quick hiking days into a long weekend bookended by long drives. A little less glamorous. Okay. . . . That’s okay.

 

So that big thing of yours . . . that thing that holds so much of your identity, but that you feel you’ve lost . . . are you sure you’ve lost it? Won’t it always be a part of you? And could you still find a way to live it and celebrate it some more?

 

I’m still a World-traveler.

I hope to do lots more actually physically visiting other countries in my lifetime. I’d love someday to do it very regularly. But for now, I take hiking road trips in North America, study languages from places I want to adventure, learn about other cultures through documentaries, and explore those places on Google Maps for hours at a time.

I always will be a Word-traveler. Even when I’m stuck at home for a season.

It’s who I have been. It’s who I will be. And both of those make it who I am.

 

Who are YOU, “even though” . . . ?