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the poor in spirit

(Because this veers into rant territory, parts of it might be incoherent. Apologies. Remember, this is my sketchbook.)

One of the other teachers sometimes wears a t-shirt from her university mediation group to school. I told her jokingly that I wished we could teach mediation, educate the kids on the idea of the BATNA. But later, I realized that I wasn't joking at all. I work with sixth graders, and historically, between the school transition and the puberty, sixth and seventh grades are prime time for jerkhood no matter where you are. The kids yell at each other. When they get angry about something, instead of just TELLING US, they act it out in weird passive-aggressive ways or blow up over some other, usually much smaller, incident. And it's ridiculous. I tell them all the time that if they would just speak nicely to each other, their detentions would probably go down by 50%. The root problems wouldn't go away, and there would still be times when a good holler was necessary, but the road to solving them would be a lot smoother and faster for everyone.

But even so, I like them (obviously), and I know they have the skills to act decently. It's a matter of practice.

The other night I went out with that same teacher in a group for her boyfriend's birthday. She introduced me to one of her other friends as follows: "This is Miss Eason. She thinks about privilege a lot." (This was a compliment. She'd heard me read one of my essays.)

She's right. I do. Because, over the last eight years, I've spent a lot of time working with those very same kids, mostly very poor, mostly minorities, and - often because of the behavior described above - every day you spend doing that is a hit from a boxing glove on a spring, one that's labeled "Privilege." BAM! You did not struggle with this. POW! You took this for granted. WHAM! This problem never even occurred to you. And, to add insult to injury, the rest of the world often sends the message of fault - that struggle is a result of error, that the punches you feel are all in your head.

Because these boxing metaphors are somewhat opaque, however, I'd rather share the best summation of privilege that I've read recently - a hard knock to the idea that everyone here has the same shot. It comes from this article (via my friend Veronica, a former teacher herself).

There’s no give in the finances of a low-wage family: no margin for error, no wiggle room to account for the inevitable vagaries of life. Each day is spent tiptoeing along the edge of a canyon, knowing that the slightest breeze could push you right in.

Things that seem fairly minor to middle-income families — an unexpected car repair, a high heating bill during a cold snap, a trip to the E.R. when little Connor breaks his arm — are cause for total panic, because there’s no cushion to absorb them. Pay for that car repair and now there’s not enough for the light bill; forgo the light bill and now there’s a late fee; pay for all that and now there’s not enough for the rent.

It takes almost nothing to start a real avalanche.

My head started to hurt. People sometimes say folks are poor because they make “bad decisions,” but she wasn’t doing anything wrong (and society needs nurse’s aides, after all, so it seems reasonable to hope you could be one without worrying about starving).

What’s more, I could think of many middle-income and well-off people who’d made “bad decisions” without spiraling into poverty; the difference was just that they’d had the resources to fix them. (They could afford counseling and medication for the depression that sparked the alcohol problem, pay off credit cards just by trimming back on vacations and eating out. They could go back for a second semester after partying and flunking out, because it hadn’t taken their entire life savings to get them there for the first.)

But she had no cushion. There could be no surprises. She could not make mistakes.

I was raised to believe in the power of perseverance to overcome obstacles. I saw it happen through my parents, two of the hardest-working people that I know - people who, truth be told, operated without a cushion for a good part of their adult lives. I was raised to believe that people naturally gravitate towards a market economy. And to be honest, I still do, in my own way.

But I can't handle anymore the inverse of that idea, that these life challenges always equal fault somehow, that privilege doesn't matter that much, that the market weeded you out. As though trauma can't be inherited; as though simply attending your local school is definitely enough to prepare you for the world; as though, if you have all your paperwork in order, your applications or your loans or your processes will definitely go through. As though emotions are illegitimate, or they play no role.

Here is life in America: we trade things with each other, because that is our natural impulse, but not everyone has access to roads, or is allowed to trade with everyone else. Your school might not prepare you for the world. Your culture might not be recognized as legitimate by other people, which is, in a way, the same thing as saying that you are not legitimate either. And the world will tell you that this is your fault, because on paper you had the same chance as everyone else. But paper is two-dimensional. It doesn't let anyone else in.

The Salon article above ends with a call to compassion. In their marvelous book Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, the Catholic theologians Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison argue that compassion means "to suffer with" - to understand the experience of another before making these judgments or decisions. It's easy to write off compassion as a series of inefficient handouts, a pie-in-the-sky solution, instead of what it really means: changing the tenor of the argument, lowering the amount that we scream at each other. Trying to understand the vast systemic factors that inform the other person's viewpoint. Privilege is about not having to suffer unless we choose to do so, but making that choice - the choice to at least listen and understand - doesn't mean giving in as much as it means making the problems easier to handle, by everyone. We who have so many resources, can it really be so hard?

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we lift our outspread hands

 (On the heels of the post about the Italian reporter.)

 For about five years or so, it seemed as though everyone I met had read Ender's GameI suspect that, especially in the '80s and '90s, it was a frequent teacher suggestion for "smart" kids who didn't fit in, in one way or another; Ender is in some ways a prototypical prodigy, a kid whose power is used by others until he finally takes control of his own narrative. It would be a lie to say that his life gets fixed, per se, but it's a good book for outcasts to read, because he does ultimately learn to make his life work within the circumstances he has.

I've been thinking about Ender more lately than I have in a long time. When I returned to DC, I joined a faith-based social justice group, and our talk of late has been on the ever-cheery topic of drone warfare. What's weird is that Ender's Game more or less exactly predicts drone warfare and its consequences (spoiler alert: not pretty). What's weirder is that despite the fact that Orson Scott Card wrote a book in which I beautifully see my moral dilemmas outlined, there are other areas in which I can't really find any common ground with him at all. It's hard to reconcile.

There are a lot of ways in which long-distance killing, of men indiscriminately classified as "militants," seems to be the next (inevitable) step in humanity's (inevitable) decline. There are also a lot of ways in which I just want Orson Scott Card to be a Dude I Can Admire, instead of finding myself on the same page with a person I find otherwise difficult to stomach. Add to that the guilt of worrying about anything at *all* as a rich Westerner, and the inevitable personal and professional stresses that some weeks hit harder than others, and it all combines with the stupid and horrible problems of the world to make everything feel overwhelming, even for a privileged girl safe in a second-floor apartment in Washington. And after a while, you find yourself sympathizing with the righteous anger of this excerpt from George Appleton's Oxford Book of Prayer:

We worship death in our quest to possess ever more things; we worship death in our hankering after our own security, our own survival, our own peace, as if life were divisible, as if love were divisible, as if Christ had not died for all of us. To You we lift our outspread hands.

As if life were divisible. As if love were divisible. What vain messes we are as humans. Seriously, how do we stand ourselves?

And yet: you can't do anything if you're drowning in a sea of worry, and if you're fretting about how stupid it is for you to fret. (Welcome to the American dream: the luxury to worry about worrying.) Being with others tonight, finding fellowship even over such grim topics, was a good reminder that, in our quest to create a better world, sometimes we have to remind ourselves that happiness remains. In the words of Jennifer Michael Hecht, in a piece I think I've quoted in every journal I've ever had,

...The way you can sit there, miserable, and every person you can think of seems miserable. A is jealous of her boyfriend, B has just been put on Depakote, and C has a cat. Which is to say that life seems gross and frustrating and you feel certain that happiness or satisfaction isn't real. At least you're not singled out for misery, at least it's endemic and egalitarian...
[But] there are moments of such joy in writing this, and sometimes in looking out my window onto First Avenue. And if all that is true, that no one is happy and yet there is happiness, that the human heart changes more than you'd ever expect and yet it also runs alongside its chariot, blooming sweat and pounding away with the same glory that I feel right now, then it might also be true that we were once about twenty-one years old and standing outside my parent's house, and it was autumn, we were in college near my hometown and you were picking me up for a class we taking together. I carried my camera around a lot back then, largely because I was inspired by the photo album you and Linda had compiled when you were together... So I have this picture of you, under the tree, leaves everywhere, drinking from one of my parents' mugs. I guess we used to bring the mugs into the car and then return them at the end of the day. I guess we were alive, and I am alive, and the person in the photograph is you.

It's not revealing too much to say that Ender does not give up, despite a series of outcomes that would make anyone else reach for their cyanide capsules. Even that prayer offers a measure of hope: it doesn't end with "We worship death. UGHHHH WE ARE THE WORST," but rather a motion towards redemption. I guess that, as simplistic as it may sound, it's useful to remind ourselves sometimes that even if it seems that no one is happy, there is happiness. That no matter how frustrating the world becomes, there is joy in learning and being with friends and seeing the night sky. That we were alive, and that I am.

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