Dallas and Wichita: This Is The Post You Are Looking For

This was not the blog post I was going to write today, but Steven Barnes asked me to write something up about what I saw and experienced, so here it goes.

I don’t often say that I am proud to live and work in Wichita, Kansas. I grew up here, and have lived most of my adult life here, as well. It isn’t and never will be a tourist destination. But yesterday, I was proud of my city.

Black Lives Matter, in the form of a local group called IGYB (I Got Your Back) had planned to hold a protest here on Sunday. Rather than oppose it or warn people, our new Chief of Police, Gordon Ramsay (really!) spoke with IGYB and decided to hold a public cookout for any and all who wanted to come and play and talk and eat together. I have to credit my wife for our participation: I would never have seen that the event existed without her.

At first, when Mr. Barnes asked me to write this essay, I was unsure of what I was going to say. I wasn’t able to really join in the discussion or listen to the speakers. By the time people were speaking, my children, who are seven, five, and three, were up past their bedtime and were starting to melt down. I would have done nothing by staying except frustrate them (and doubtless the people around us). Nothing earth-shattering happened, either in general or to me and my family. I didn’t make a new friend, sadly. I’m not the kind of person that easily begins conversations with people I don’t know. And I didn’t say or hear anything life-changing. I didn’t have a conversation that opened my or anyone else’s eyes.

But as the conversation on Steven’s Facebook page grew, I could see how much people wanted to know about this event, and how very, very basic the questions were. So this is what I saw:

I saw my White and my Black neighbors there. I’d say that the races were pretty evenly present. Maybe about 45/45 Black/White and 10% Other.

I saw dozens, if not scores of Wichita Police officers (and Kansas Highway Patrolmen, and Firemen and EMTs) mixing in with the community, smiling, and glad to be there. I saw them speaking with people with Black Lives Matter shirts on. I saw both groups speaking with men who looked like bikers. Everyone was greeting one another. No one looked afraid.

I listened to a young Black singer while we ate. He had a good voice. I regret I got caught up in my children and didn’t find out his name.

I had a brief discussion with an officer who seemed optimistic about the way the city was headed, and he’d been on the force since 1988, when I was entering high school.

I saw my children jumping through bounce-houses with my Black neighbors’ children, with huge smiles on their faces.

I watched my children enthralled by a couple of eight-week old puppies that were being carried by a pair of Black men who were a little older than I am. They let the puppies down on the ground to play with my enthralled kids. I thanked them for their time.

As we left, I heard a speaker. I don’t know who he was and I don’t know exactly what he was saying, but he was saying it to a crowd of all ages and races, several hundred strong, who were giving him their undivided attention. And he called on them to become more active in their community, and to be involved in the political process. He had faith in our democracy, and our people, that we would be able to come together and to do what is right.

And this morning I saw photos posted by a young Jewish officer holding Black children and dancing with them. Ten years ago, that young man was sitting in my history classroom. And I was proud of him, and grateful to have had the privilege of seeing him grow into his dream of serving our community, and doing it well.

And today I am remembering Dallas, and how easily Wichita and Dallas might have changed places. Because right before the terrible act of violence that seared Dallas across our minds, they, like we, had come together — White, Black, Police, and Civilian — to talk to each other, confident that they could make peace.

Today, because of the leadership of our police chief and our Black community leaders, I have new faith that we here in America can make peace with one another. No people on God’s Earth ever had a better chance.  Things are really and truly getting better in our nation, despite the terrible things that some choose to do. I am a history teacher, and I can tell you that this is not usually the way that things go. When a nation has a history of conquest and enslavement, it’s much more common to see increased separation leading to violence, oppression and revenge. And all those things are still with us, yes. But the pain that we are now going through is in may ways because our expectations of ourselves and of others are rising. I can tell you from living in them that many other countries do not go through this pain — but it is not because they are less oppressive than we. It is because prejudice and concepts of race superiority are so entrenched that they are not even questioned.

I know there are those who will think that I only say such things as a justification for maintaining a status quo. I do not. I say it because I see the good that began in Dallas swallowed up and lost in the horror of its ending. And I know that while Mr. Barnes had no need to ask me or anyone else about the terror in Dallas, he needed me to show him the good in Wichita. If we do not believe that good is possible, then how will we ever invest our fortunes in it, much less pledge our lives and our sacred honors?

The last thing I said at the cookout was to exchange greetings with a Black family that I don’t know. I think it was probably a father, his children, and his mother. We said hello, and the older woman said, “God bless you.” Yes, ma’am. May His blessing be upon us all. And I hope to see you again, at another cookout. There’s talk there may be more of them. I do hope so. If we can, we’ll be there.

 

Confessions Of A Zero-Sum Gamer

When I was a senior in high school, I won an award I never even knew I was being considered for. If you haven’t been there, I’m not sure how to describe such a bizarre feeling. A teacher hands you an award, in this case an obviously-plastic book covered in gold leaf floating in a small block of lucite, labeled “The Xerox Award for…”

You know, I can’t even remember. Obviously, it was one of the defining moments in my life. And I scratched my head, trying to figure out why. I don’t think she ever really told me what I’d done to earn this award. Scored high on tests and achieved good grades, as far as I can see. You know — general all around awesomeness. It came with a small scholarship. A few hundred dollars.

I didn’t get it then, but that moment really was  a defining moment in my life. I vaguely wondered then if there was some other kid that had actually tried to win that award. For whom it had a real meaning. Who actually cared about it, had worked for it, and now was sitting there wondering why he or she hadn’t measured up to me. I still wonder about that, obviously, or you wouldn’t be reading this. But mostly, back then, I took it as my due. I was very good, then, at winning things.

I was a National Merit Scholar. My education was paid for by my own determination to be the loyal Son of Academia. If my peers called me a nerd (which was not at all cool in the eighties, but that’s a different story) and cast me out of all cliques of friendship? I would damn them and work twice as hard. Because I wasn’t just good enough and smart enough. No, fuck that: I was better,  I was smarter, and if people hated me, then who fucking cared? Because I was better than all of them.

As you have no doubt guessed, I was kind of an asshole. But I was a competitive asshole.

I was naturally good at the zero-sum game. A zero-sum game, for those who might not know, is a game in which the person who wins does so at the expense of the person who loses. For me to win, you must lose. Sports work this way. My W is your L. So do most games that make people hate each other: Risk. Monopoly. I chose to obey the rules, because they were good for me. Because I could succeed on the terms set for me by authority. Be better than others. It was easy for me to “win.” And yes, it’s been a blessing; I won’t lie. I’m not looking for sympathy from people whose college was paid for by parents (and yes, mine helped me out when the scholarship money wasn’t enough, too), or crushing amounts of debt, or a spouse, or a sleep-stealing part-time job. It was a good thing on many levels.

But what I learned from that was that I had worth because I won. I tied my self-worth to winning. Chained myself to it. “Link by link, I girded it on, and link by link I wore it,” in the words of Marley’s tired old ghost. Worse, I won so easily that I did not know how I won. I put little effort into doing it. It just was. When I tried things, I tended to win. Every victory was another validation of my greatness.

Until I began to lose.

The lows were as low as the highs had been high. I got out of graduate school, which I had attended with another full-ride fellowship I never really understood how I won, (GRE test scores, my friends!) and stopped winning. The reason is no doubt obvious to you. Because in the real world, no one sets the goals for you. In the real world, there aren’t tests, except can I convince someone to pay for this? Am I good enough to get people’s attention?

Of course I wasn’t. I hadn’t had to sell myself, and I hadn’t had to make friends. So I sucked at both those things. When I pursued my real dream, that of writing science-fiction and fantasy (nerd, remember?), I had no idea how to do it. So I wrote badly, alienated the few writers I did meet (asshole, remember?) or lost touch with them, and met rejection after rejection.

But I kept plugging away at it, because I didn’t know what else to do. And I was having a little success. A very little. I was better than the others in my writing group, anyway, and that was something, right? And we were all getting better. All three of us got stories into the final round of an anthology that was the most prestigious market any of us had ever been considered for (very little success, remember?).

They got in. I didn’t. And that, small as it was, was devastating. Because now I was worthless. All my life, I had tied my worth to my success. To being better than. And now I was worse than. The highs had been exaltingly high. But now, that life — the only life I had ever known — was over. I was a failure, and since that was what I was rather than a result of what I was doing, it meant hopelessness. It meant damnation. I stopped writing. What was the point? I was no good. I couldn’t talk to these people any more. I was shamed before them.

It took a long time to dig out of that crash. It took friends and mentors and counselors all helping me shovel the enormous pile of bullshit I had stuck myself in. And to be clear: the fact I was stuck there was my responsibility. No one else’s. Digging out of it meant getting through a lot of anger and resentment as I was forced to look up at people who were now more successful — and, in my twisted world, therefore better — than me.

One of the things that pissed me off the most in those days, were the gracious people. Those incredibly condescending, gracious people, who kept saying how happy they were when others succeeded, because writing isn’t a zero-sum game.  They loved it when other people did well. I dismissed these people as liars. After all, of course writing is a zero-sum game. If you get into the anthology or the magazine, I don’t, because there’s limited space. Besides which, the people saying this were the ones who were succeeding. They’re like the rich guys saying “money isn’t everything.”  Only then I remembered something. My writing group, those people who had dared become better writers than me? (And they still are, by the way, much better writers than me; they didn’t quit in sulky rage). They didn’t play the zero-sum game. They didn’t look at the world as an arena. And though I doubt that either of them will read this post, I will take this time to apologize to them. I am truly sorry for my unfriend-like behavior and disrespect.

It wasn’t, as I had told myself, that successful people could afford to play the zero-sum game. It was that people who didn’t play the zero-sum game could afford to fail. And the failure that they accepted, learned from, and capitalized on became success. I, who could not tolerate losing, had damaged my own soul, incredibly. Because I could not love, could not befriend, and could not learn unless I was winning. Could not tolerate even looking at my failure long enough to learn from it. And that was true foolishness.

Because really, I should have known. I should have at least trusted in the words of my own faith, which teaches us that our worth is in things like kindness, patience, self-control, goodness, love, joy, and peace (Galatians 5:22-23). That should have been enough for me to know that worth does not depend on what I make other people do, still less upon defeating them. The cost to me in friends lost and opportunities missed and lessons unlearned is beyond numbering. Doubtless, many of you reading this feel that I am an idiot. Well, I was. Perhaps you feel any good person ought to know all these things already. Perhaps you were fortunate enough to learn these lessons at a much earlier age, from better teachers. Well done. I can only learn from where I am.

So why am I writing this? For pity? No, I neither deserve nor need that. You see, I’ve learned better. I am becoming better. No, I’m writing this in the hope that someone who reads this will need to read it. That people out there who can’t sell a story, or can’t land a job in their fields, or can’t find romance will listen, as I did not. Will see that they are not irrevocably flawed, so long as they can practice virtue.

Also, since followers of Christ should know this better than others, I leave a warning to my own Church. I see far too much, at this present time, about the Church “winning” or “losing,” especially in politics and culture. Our victory is not over flesh and blood. It is already won by Christ our founder. Our faith is no zero-sum game. And as long as we can love our enemies, we can never lose.

From Somewhere In Orbit

In Slavery to Freedom

I was brought up in the American nation, and I was brought up in the Christian faith. And I quickly learned the two lessons you are supposed to learn growing up in those two traditions. They are not hard lessons to grasp; my five year-old son can do it:

1) A follower of Christ loves God’s people (that means “people,” by the way. Not “people I approve of,” or “my co-religionists.”)

2) Americans, and all people, are of right and should be free.

Now that is very, very simple, and I find it incredible, really, that American Christians seem to have lost our way on what really should be the very beginning of Christ’s teaching here. This week I see examples of that failure all around us. Who could possibly miss them? The Church, no less than the nation, has erupted into rage and outrage, cries and outcries. We see outward condemnation and smug self-righteousness everywhere. So maybe we have to go back to two very simple points, one about love and one about freedom:

Point 1: If you will not love a person that you can love, then you are doing evil.

I will not backtrack on this statement, though I know a lot of people will want to call me on it. They are going to say that I have no right to tell them to love. They will say that they cannot love anymore. They are going to say that they will love once they have justice.
Well, the first one is right on; I do not have the right to tell anyone to love. I can only point to Christ, who does have that right because he earned it in the only way that kind of right can be earned: by showing just how far his love would go, and He took it very far indeed. As for those who truly cannot love anymore, I will not judge them, but I will say that if you truly cannot love, then you are as close to powerless as a human being can be. The power of a human soul is nothing other than the power to love, and if that has been taken from you, then I can only counsel that you try to do no harm and pray for God to change you. But the idea that you are going to love only when you have justice, or worse, freedom, is truly a perversion. For one thing, it creates the terrible delusion that justice could ever be anything other than love. And this, of course, is what the protests in Ferguson, in New York, and in Cleveland have got to be about, or they are nothing but bloodlust.
Justice is about restitution, both to the person injured, and to the one who has done the injury. We may do harm to the offender, but it is in the name of (at best) turning him or her from an offender back into a free citizen. At worst it is about stopping him or her from injuring others, because we cannot do what is best.
Now if these protests are about anything meaningful, they are about the perception that White America does not love Black Americans. That we are more interested in doing what is worst: controlling, suppressing, and eliminating them than we are in taking the risk involved in doing what is best, and relating to them like we would to other human beings with different skin colors and voices and cultures. And love entails taking risks just as surely as justice entails love. Law enforcement should understand this more than anyone, and while I don’t want to dump on the police here, who face a lot of risk daily over the dumbest things imaginable, the fact of the matter is that the very reason we respect the police is because they are willing to take risks. They signed up for the awful privilege of taking those risks, not because they are good at avoiding them. And that does mean putting themselves in harm’s way to avoid killing.
But likewise, when we demand justice from the police and from the state, we must remember that the police and the state are in the end human constructs of human beings. Society itself is nothing more than individual human beings.
Now, if our goal is to engage that society with the hope of changing it for the better, then it must be in love. Either that, or we might as well go all the way and admit that we do not want to better our society or our neighbors, that we are two societies at war, and start fighting in earnest, so that the horror of it might be spilled out, and show the survivors how not to do it.
But if our goal is to be free and claim power for ourselves, then it is even more vital that we love. When we fight, do we not fight for the right to be safe enough to love our families and our friends? And when the “enemy” whoever it is, has been defeated, how then do we treat our families? Which of my readers has never been involved in the terrible wars that families wage, or the bitterness of broken friendship?
This is the terrible and painful truth: If we will not claim the power to love our enemies, we will never be able to love anyone as we must. We cannot pretend that the injustice done to us gives us some “right” to withhold love, or justice, from our oppressors, as if that were a strength. It is a false strength. Which brings me to my second point:

Point 2: If you cannot love until you have a thing, you are a slave to that thing.

When you deny that you can love, because you have not received enough justice, or enough safety, or enough equal treatment, or enough respect, you are effectively ruled by that thing that others have the ability to deny you. And yes, you can really be ruled by that thing. It would be stupid for a man held at gunpoint to pretend there is no gun. I am not one to recommend non-violence in all situations. Hold a weapon on me, or God help you, one of my children, and you will see what violence I can do.
And I do have sympathy (for reasons I will not go into here) for those who find it difficult to get out of that type of thinking. Who really have been traumatized to the point where they have difficulty believing they can ever really be out of danger. It takes for them great courage to love. It is not their fault that they have been wounded. But this is not really about fault. This is about healing, and all healing requires the act of courage, at the last, to say to oneself, “I will go out into the world that has hurt me, even though the danger is not past, and live again.” Anyone who cannot do this is not really healed, but wounded. Anyone who is wounded is not really strong yet.
We have accepted a lie in this nation, which is that strength is the ability to take what we want by force, and ignore our enemies. This is a powerful illusion, but it ends up with us treating everyone like an enemy, and being the slaves of our wants: safety, respect, and possessions, and even freedom itself. Only when we learn to love like followers of Christ will we be truly free.