“…the term “white body supremacy” —I’m operationalizing it. The white body is used to hearing things that make it comfortable. And so when you say something like ‘white supremacy’ especially here in Minnesota, everybody goes, “Yes, absolutely. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.’ And then what happens is, it goes — just the term, “white supremacy,” is a very intellectual term. It doesn’t land in the body.
-Resmaa Menakem, therapist and trauma specialist in Minneapolis who teaches across the U.S.
For all its presumed innocence, this way of life lived by well-off North Americans is both unjust to those who cannot attain this lifestyle and destructive of the very planet that supports us all.
Sallie McFague was an American feminist Christian theologian, best known for her analysis of how metaphor lies at the heart of how we may speak about God. She applied this approach in particular to ecological issues, writing extensively on care for the earth as if it were God’s “body.”
‘In this award-winning text, theologian Sallie McFague challenges Christians’ usual speech about God as a kind of monarch. She probes instead three other possible metaphors for God as mother, lover, and friend.’
Center for Action & Contemplation
While we may continue to practice physical distancing from other humans, most of us can still safely spend time in nature. The Journal of Health Psychology confirms what Franciscans and mystics have long known: interacting with nature is a great stress reliever. Just thirty minutes of gardening lowers the cortisol released during stress-induced fight-or-flight responses. Today’s practice, written by poet, writer, and educator Trevien Stanger for the book Order of the Sacred Earth, invites us to make a very specific contemplative contribution by planting trees.
Ethnobotanist, author, and Potawatami elder Robin Kimmerer asserts, “We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world. We need to restore honor to the way we live, so that when we walk through the world we don’t have to avert our eyes with shame, so that we can hold our heads high and receive the respectful acknowledgment of the rest of [the] earth’s beings.”  . . .
I contend that every individual can participate in [the] Great Turning, and that one of the great challenges of our time is for each of us to figure out how and where we plug into this psycho-spiritual current. . . . I, for one, plant trees. . . . In my more recent work as an environmental studies professor at a community college in Vermont, I’ve had a hand in planting just shy of 100,000 trees over the past 12 years. . . .
What happens when you plant a tree? What happens when you wield a shovel in one hand (a human artifact) and a tree (a provisional mystery) in the other? What happens when you dig a hole (a Kali-like destruction) and plant a tree within it (an act of creativity)? What happens when you learn about your local ecology not just as an observer, but also as a participant? What happens when you embrace the wildness of a tree-being and integrate it into the semi-wild streets and streams of your local community? What happens when you crack open your isolated sense of self and plant within your heart this symbol of our ever-branching inter-being? What happens when you consider your actions in terms of your ecological and cultural legacy? What happens when you move beyond your concerns of today and inquire as to what type of ancestor you will be? Nelson Henderson posits that “. . . one true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”  Under whose shade do you sit beneath today? Whose shade shall you help gift for tomorrow?
Trevien Stanger, “Tree Planter,” Order of the Sacred Earth: An Intergenerational Vision of Love and Action, Matthew Fox, Skylar Wilson, and Jennifer Listug (Monkfish Book Publishing Company: 2018), 184-186.
Image credit: Legend of St. Francis: 15. Sermon to the Birds (fresco detail), artist unknown, formerly attributed to Giotto di Bondone, c. 1297–1299, Upper Basilica of San Francesco d′Assisi, Assisi, Italy.
“In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.” — Dave Hollis
“Put humanity and earth at the center.” — Jacqueline Novogratz
‘I want future generations to say, ‘Look how hard they tried,’ not ‘Look at how blind they were.’
From Father Richard Rohr, Barbara Holmes, and Bill McKibbon:
Goodness is a first principle of the universe. God declares it on the first page of the story of creation. —Barbara Holmes
Creation is the first Bible, as I (and others) like to say , and it existed for 13.7 billion years before the second Bible was written. Natural things like animals, plants, rocks, and clouds give glory to God just by being themselves, just what God created them to be. It is only we humans who have been given the free will to choose not to be what God created us to be. Surprisingly, the environmentalist and author Bill McKibben finds hope in this unique freedom. He writes:
The most curious of all . . . lives are the human ones, because we can destroy, but also because we can decide not to destroy. The turtle does what she does, and magnificently. She can’t not do it, though, any more than the beaver can decide to take a break from building dams or the bee from making honey. But if the bird’s special gift is flight, ours is the possibility of restraint.
We’re the only creature who can decide not to do something we’re capable of doing. That’s our superpower, even if we exercise it too rarely.
So, yes, we can wreck the Earth as we’ve known it, killing vast numbers of ourselves and wiping out entire swaths of other life—in fact . . . we’re doing that right now. But we can also not do that. . . .
We have the tools (nonviolence chief among them) to allow us to stand up to the powerful and the reckless, and we have the fundamental idea of human solidarity that we could take as our guide. . . .
While the lives of our elders, our vulnerable, and essential workers are at stake during the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of millions of us across the globe have been restraining ourselves at home, choosing not to do many things for many weeks in order to protect those we love (and those others love as well). Surely the earth is breathing a sigh of relief for our reduction in pollution and fossil fuel use. This “Great Pause,” as some are calling it, gives me hope that we will soon find it within ourselves to protect our shared home, not only for our own sake, but for our neighbors across the globe, and future generations.
How is a huge part of the world organised under a system that has different meanings country-to-country, and could even mean something different to you, and the person standing behind you in the line to vote?
How do we know democracy is broken if we don’t know what it is?
by Patrick Chalmers.
“To my mind, there seems no better starting point for understanding politics than to grapple with the word “democracy”. What does it mean and how should it work?
The word is easy enough to define. It comes from the Greek for people (demos) and power (kratos), translating as people power, or government by the people. Most of us know democracy as something like that. But things quickly get more complicated when we ask what exactly that means in everyday life.
‘…there’s ubuntu, Watch South African Anglican cleric and human rights activist Desmond Mpilo Tutu describe ubuntu in this video clip.the Nguni language word for a humanist philosophy and way of living from southern Africa. It’s most often translated as “I am, because you are”, a profoundly political concept which evokes the connectedness that exists, or should exist, between all people and the planet – a manifesto for inclusive government.’
The distorting – if not corrupting – influence of money helps to explain why elected representatives rarely reflect the societies they are meant to represent but rather their richer members. Consider the representation of women in government. Though their share of seats in legislatures worldwide is growing, they still represent fewer than a quarter of deputies. The same goes for minorities – whatever they may be, wherever they may be. So while, for example, western countries are becoming more ethnically, racially and religiously diverse, their legislators generally haven’t kept pace with these changes. If the current US presidential race is anything to go by, the face of democracy is still pale, male and stale. In parts of the world where people of colour are the majority, male and stale usually covers it.”
As the arrow endures the bowstring’s tension so that, released, it travels farther. For there is nowhere to remain.
Concentrate on seeing all the beauty your soul can absorb but turn away from what is ugly and vile and degrading. The higher your sights, the better your spirits. Everything we do requires us to reveal our inner longings. Identify them clearly and make productive use of them.
There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action to which men are driven by their own Faustian misunderstandings and misapprehensions. We have more power at our disposal today that we have ever had, and yet we are the more alienated and estranged from the inner ground of meaning and love than we have ever been. -Contemplation in a World of Action, 1965
A Democratic Pledge
I would like to
become more selective in what I watch and read
become more critically aware of the messages I receive
find new sources information about the things I care about most
participate in local media
create interactions in my community
Living Democracy is emerging within the human services, focusing not solely on individual self-reliance but also on the capacities of people to work together for mutual healing and problem solving. Society’s obligation to help support citizens with specific needs does not have to mean top-down governmental control; self-help and society’s help are mutually enhancing and mutually beneficial.
Towards a Moral Revolution
Moral reckonings are being driven to the surface of our life together: What are politics for? What is an economy for? Jacqueline Novogratz says the simplistic ways we take up such questions — if we take them up at all — is inadequate. Novogratz is an innovator in creative, human-centered capitalism. She has described her recent book, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, as a love letter to the next generation.
‘I think, in this moment of such peril & possibility, we really could build a world like the world has never seen before. If there was ever a decade to do it, it’s this decade. I want future generations to say, “Look how hard they tried,” not “Look at how blind they were.”’
A liminal or threshold experience can take many forms: a time of birth, a transition from life to death, or even a global pandemic that shuts down the status quo and forces us into silence and solitude. Liminal spaces, as Richard Rohr writes in the new issue of Oneing, enable us “to see beyond ourselves to the broader and more inclusive world that lies before us. When we embrace liminality, we choose hope over sleepwalking, denial, or despair. The world around us becomes again an enchanted universe.”
Liminal space is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. -From Farther Richard Rohr
Hardly anything turns out the way you expected it to, and you’re frequently ready to write life off as too paradoxical and too difficult to endure. Then some indescribable light fights its way through the impenetrable dark. –Paula D’Arcy
There is deep beauty in the darkness, in the unknowing, in the indescribable, if only we can open ourselves to its purpose. –LaVera Crawley
What if we can choose to experience this liminal space and time, this uncomfortable now, as a place and state of creativity, of construction and deconstruction, choice and transformation? –Sheryl Fullerton
Into this liminal realm, between the known and the unknown, we are invited to enter if we are to learn more of the way forward in our lives as individuals and as communities and nations. –John Philip Newell
Without standing on the threshold for much longer than we’re comfortable, we won’t be able to see beyond ourselves to the broader and more inclusive world that lies before us. -RR
Eco-theologian Thomas Berry says the universe is so amazing in its interrelatedness that it must have been dreamt into being. He also says our situation today as an earth community is so desperate—we are so far from knowing how to save ourselves from the ecological degradations we are a part of—that we must dream the way forward. We must summon, from the unconscious, ways of seeing that we know nothing of yet, visions that emerge from deeper within us than our conscious rational minds.
“The great loss is that we can move through our whole lives, picking up phones and talking to our most beloveds, and yet, still not know who they are. Our ‘How are you?’ has failed us. We have to find something else.”
Writer Ocean Vuong has long noticed how we grow numb to language when it’s ubiquitous, rote, rehearsed — and what’s at stake when we stop examining the words we use. Krista spoke with him at On Air Fest in Brooklyn back in March, just days before the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global pandemic. Even then, he said “How are you?” doesn’t go deep enough.
“When you’re using language, you can create it, use it to divide people and build walls, or you can turn it into something where we can see each other more clearly, as a bridge.”
Maybe this is one way of asking: How can we choose words that allow us into one another’s lives, especially in a time when language is one of our few remaining ways to connect? Vuong beckons us toward the freshness of tomorrows, just at the tips of our tongues. -Krista Lin, Editor, the On Being Project.
Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese-American poet, essayist and novelist. He is a recipient of the 2014 Ruth Lilly/Sargent Rosenberg fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a 2016 Whiting Award, and the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize for his poetry. His debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, was published in 2019. Awards: MacArthur Fellowship, T. S. Eliot Prize, Whiting Awards, Dylan Thomas Prize
Don’t forget: disasters and crises bring out the best in people
“Dear neighbours. If you’re over 65 and your immune system is weak, I’d like to help you. Since I’m not in the risk group, I can help you in the coming weeks by doing chores or running errands. If you need help, leave a message by the door with your phone number. Together, we can make it through anything. You’re not alone!”
“We’ve learned how to accept help from others,” writes a woman living in Wuhan.“Because of this quarantine, we have bonded with and supported each other in ways that I’ve never experienced in nine years of living here.” Millions of Chinese people are encouraging each other to stand strong, using the Cantonese expression “jiayou” (“don’t give up”). YouTube videos show people in Wuhan singing from the windows of their homes, joined by numerous neighbours nearby, their voices rising in chorus and echoing amongst the soaring towers of Chinese cities.In Siena and Naples, both on complete lockdown, people are singing together from the balconies of their homes.
Children in Italy are writing “andrà tutto bene” (“everything will be all right”) on streets and walls, while countless neighbours are helping each other.On Thursday, an Italian journalist told the Guardian about what he had witnessed with his own eyes: “After a moment of panic in the population, there is now a new solidarity. In my community the drugstores bring groceries to people’s homes, and there is a group of volunteers that visit houses of people over 65.”A tour guide from Venice notes: “It’s human to be scared, but I don’t see panicking, nor acts of selfishness.”
The words “andrà tutto bene” – everything will be all right – were first used by a few mothers from the province of Puglia, who posted the slogan on Facebook. From there, it spread across the country, going viral almost as fast as the pandemic. The coronavirus isn’t the only contagion – kindness, hope and charity are spreading too.
As a species of animal that evolved to make connections and work together, it feels strange to suppress our desire for contact. People enjoy touching each other, and find joy in seeing each other in person – but now we have to keep our physical distance.
Still, I believe we can grow closer in the end, finding each other in this crisis. As Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, said this week: “Let’s distance ourselves from each other today so that we can embrace each other more warmly […] tomorrow.”
The pandemic has exposed how interconnected and interdependent we are as humans. Everyday practices, like handwashing and covering our sneezes, have become the most basic duty we owe to friends and strangers alike. And we’re finding thoughtful ways to care for another amidst the tumult.
Editor, The On Being Project
“Hope, for me, just means … coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen and that there’s maybe room for us to intervene.”
“Great literature will come from this. Great art will come from this. Great awareness will come from this. Great love will come from this. More than anything else, great people will come from this – if we allow it to expand our hearts and minds.”
‘In the days since the Seattle area became the epicenter of the outbreak, the outpouring of support has been moving and inspiring. On an individual level, people have offered free babysitting, cooking and food delivery for harried parents and medically vulnerable older adults.
After racist coronavirus fears drove down business in Seattle’s Chinatown International District, Bill Tashima, a board member for the local Japanese American Citizens League, created a Facebook group on Sunday to share ways to support small restaurants. Within days, the group had nearly 5,000 members, sharing ideas for restaurant takeout to boost business in the struggling district and creating a virtual “tip jar” that one member was using to collect donations for restaurant workers.
The artistic community, which already experiences economic insecurity in good times due to unpredictable contract-based work, saw all public events canceled like dominoes in the past week. Seattle-area author Ijeoma Oluo quickly set up a GoFundMe on Monday to raise and distribute funds for artists. Within days, the fund raised $80,000 and distributed $10,000 and was in the process of distributing another $30,000 to artists directly impacted by loss of income due to the coronavirus. Another group of people started a live-performance streaming site on Facebook called “The Quarantine Sessions,” where artists can perform and the audience can tip the band before their performance starts.
To support those who are most vulnerable in an emergency, a grassroots effort formed in Seattle called “Covid19MutualAid,” centered on people with disabilities, people of color, undocumented people, older adults and others. In addition to recruiting volunteers for direct support such as food and grocery deliveries, the group is also advocating for systemic changes that would make communities less vulnerable in the first place.
When Seattle Public Schools announced Wednesday they would be closing abruptly the next day, people across the city jumped into action, knowing that for the 32% of Seattle school district families that are low income, school lunches are a critical part of how children stay fed. Volunteers and staff distributed school lunches for pickup at Highland Park Elementary in West Seattle on Thursday and in Rainier Beach, Washington Building Leaders of Change or WA-BLOC and food justice organization FEEST planned a free hot lunch called “Feed the Beach” for families on Friday with additional lunches twice a week after that.
These are just a few of the many grassroots efforts that are just getting started in our region. Larger entities like the Seattle Foundation are also taking action, with rapid response resources like the COVID-19 Response Fund quadrupling to $9 million in a few days.
The coming months will challenge us in ways we have never before imagined. But if we continue, as writer Sonya Renee Taylor said, to “put radical love into practice,” we might emerge stronger than we began.’
Editor’s note: The spread of novel coronavirus has left the state of Washington in a state of uncertainty. But amid the growing pandemic, members of the community have shown remarkable acts of kindness and efforts to take care of each other. From crowdsourced relief funds for local artists, to readers sending our own newsroom pizza after a long day, many people are rising to the occasion to uplift one another.
Mattia Ferraresi is a writer for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio.
A message from Italy
‘So here’s my warning for the United States: It didn’t have to come to this.
We of course couldn’t stop the emergence of a previously unknown and deadly virus. But we could have mitigated the situation we are now in, in which people who could have been saved are dying. I, and too many others, could have taken a simple yet morally loaded action: We could have stayed home.
What has happened in Italy shows that less-than-urgent appeals to the public by the government to slightly change habits regarding social interactions aren’t enough when the terrible outcomes they are designed to prevent are not yet apparent; when they become evident, it’s generally too late to act. I and many other Italians just didn’t see the need to change our routines for a threat we could not see.
Italy has now been in lockdown since March 9; it took weeks after the virus first appeared here to realize that severe measures were absolutely necessary.
The way to avoid or mitigate all this in the United States and elsewhere is to do something similar to what Italy, Denmark, and Finland are doing now, but without wasting the few, messy weeks in which we thought a few local lockdowns, canceling public gatherings, and warmly encouraging working from home would be enough stop the spread of the virus. We now know that wasn’t nearly enough.
Life in lockdown is hard, but it is also an exercise in humility. Our collective well-being makes our little individual wishes look a bit whimsical and small-minded. My wife and I work from home, or at least we try to. We help the kids with their homework, following the instructions their teachers send every morning via voice messages and video, in a moving attempt to keep alive their relationships with their students.
Strangely, it’s also a moment in which our usual individualistic, self-centered outlook is waning a bit. In the end, each of us is giving up our individual freedom in order to protect everybody, especially the sick and the elderly. When everybody’s health is at stake, true freedom is to follow instructions.’
Eric Klinenberg, NYU Social Sciences Professor
‘It’s an open question whether Americans have enough social solidarity to stave off the worst possibilities of the coronavirus pandemic. There’s ample reason to be skeptical. We’re politically divided, socially fragmented, skeptical of one another’s basic facts and news sources. The federal government has failed to prepare for the crisis. The president and his staff have repeatedly dissembled about the mounting dangers to our health and security. Distrust and confusion are rampant. In this context, people take extreme measures to protect themselves and their families. Concern for the common good diminishes. We put ourselves, not America, first.
But crises can be switching points for states and societies, and the coronavirus pandemic could well be the moment when the United States rediscovers its better, collective self. Ordinary Americans, regardless of age or party, already have abundant will to promote public health and protect the most vulnerable. Although only a fraction of us are old, sick or fragile, nearly all of us love and care for someone who is.
Today Americans everywhere are worried about the fate of friends and family members. Without stronger solidarity and better leadership, though, millions of our neighbors may not get the support they need.
We’re not likely to get better leadership from the Trump administration, but there’s a lot we can do to build social solidarity. Develop lists of local volunteers who can contact vulnerable neighbors. Provide them companionship. Help them order food and medications. Recruit teenagers and college students to teach digital communications skills to older people with distant relatives and to deliver groceries to those too weak or anxious to shop. Call the nearest homeless shelter or food pantry and ask if it needs anything.
Why not begin right now?’
‘If you’re like me and worried about your favorite local businesses right now, buy their gift certificates. It will help with their immediate liquidity needs and you can use it later once we’re past this.’
CANTICLE 6 by May Sarton
Alone one is never lonely: the spirit
In a quiet garden, in a cool house, abiding single there;
The spirit adventures in sleep, the sweet thirst-slaking
When only the moon’s reflection touches the wild hair.
There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone:
It finds a lovely certainty in the evening and the morning.
It is only where two have come together bone against bone
That those alonenesses take place, when, without warning
The sky opens over their heads to an infinite hole in space;
It is only turning at night to a lover that one learns
He is set apart like a star forever and that sleeping face
(For whom the heart has cried, for whom the frail hand burns)
Is swung out in the night alone, so luminous and still,
The waking spirit attends, the loving spirit gazes
Without communion, without touch, and comes to know at last
Out of a silence only and never when the body blazes
That love is present, that always burns alone, however steadfast.
Last night I watched a documentary on war, and the part I carry with me today was the spectacle of a line of maybe 20 blinded soldiers being led, single-file, away from a yellow cloud of gas.
That must be what accounts for this morning’s brightness— sunlight slathered over everything from the royal palms to the store awnings, from the blue Corolla at the curb to a purple flower climbing a fence, one gift of sight after another.
I couldn’t see their bandaged faces, but each man had one hand resting on the shoulder of the man in front of him so that every man was guiding and being guided at the same time, and in the same tempo, given the unison of their small, cautious steps.
“In these days of anxiety, I wanted to find a way to continue to share some of the music that gives me comfort. The first of my Songs of Comfort:
“The American political system—which includes everyone from voters to journalists to the president—is full of rational actors making rational decisions given the incentives they face,” writes political analyst Ezra Klein. “We are a collection of functional parts whose efforts combine into a dysfunctional whole.”
He traces the feedback loops between polarized political identities and polarized political institutions that are driving our system toward crisis.
On Being with Krista Tippett
Why Is This Happening with Chris Hayes
Ezra Klein Show interviewed by historian Jill Lepore
[If you can only listen to one, please choose On Being with Krista Tippett. Beyond the exemplary content, it’s worth noting the calm Krista brings to Ezra’s atypical tempo. She is seemingly able to, through conversation, slow his often rapid delivery allowing reflection, pause and spiritual insight.]
Journalist Ezra Klein has been widely interviewed about his new book, Why We’re Polarized. In this conversation, he’s frank and reflective about what’s at stake in human terms in this political moment. And he describes how we all — Democrat and Republican, journalist and citizen alike — walked into this as a way to trace our steps out of it.
What are the structures that shape people’s decision-making? What are the structures that lead us to be who we are? I think that we often have an illusion that we made a choice for ourselves, when that choice was so fundamentally shaped by who we are and where we grew up and what was around us and what made sense for us to do, that in some final accounting, it was really almost never a choice at all. And I think when you look at the world like that, then it becomes very, very deeply important — it becomes of central importance — that those systems are just and that, in some big way, we are helping people who were born into, or who fell into, the wrong systems.
one of the really radicalizing things for me in the past couple of years has been this question, and it came a lot from my political reporting and talking to members of Congress and watching other journalists and starting Vox, of just: Have we built a system that has structured itself such that it is, at the very least, very hard for people to express the best versions of themselves within it? And I think we have.
I talk about this interview I did with President Obama, in the book. And I talked to him about polarization, and he’s somebody — I interviewed him many times, and I have great admiration for him. And he’s somebody who, I think, in a very deep way, believed that America could overcome its polarization, believed that a lot of that polarization was illusory. And I asked him about it, because at that point in 2015, when we had this discussion, he was quite polarizing. And I asked him about this. And he said, well, look: We all know that we’re one way in politics, but then, when we’re on the soccer or the little league field together, or we’re at the PTA meeting, or we’re talking to our neighbors, or there’s been a storm, we’re very different than that. And so, yeah, then, maybe, when you talk to that person about politics, you can’t believe what they’re saying, but then you look beyond that, and they’re good people. This country is full of good people.
In the past couple of years — and it was actually at the recommendation of Varshini Prakash, who is the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, the climate change movement — I had a conversation with her on my show, and I asked her, what does she do when she thinks about failure? And she said that every day she reads some of the Tao, the Tao Te Ching. And I thought, that’s a strange answer. And so I went, and I had not read it since I was young, when I didn’t get anything out of it.
And this time when I read it, I was really, really, deeply struck by its ideas of non-dualism, its challenge to think about everything is also encoding its opposite. And so much of how we are taught to think — I just think in general, but very much in politics — is, things are one way. They are right, or they are wrong. We got it right, or we got it wrong. This person won, and this person lost. It’s a clean equation that has one answer, every single time. And the deep truth about the Obama presidency is that the DT presidency was within it …
And this time when I read it, I was really, really, deeply struck by its ideas of non-dualism, its challenge to think about everything is also encoding its opposite. And so much of how we are taught to think — I just think in general, but very much in politics — is, things are one way. They are right, or they are wrong. We got it right, or we got it wrong. This person won, and this person lost. It’s a clean equation that has one answer, every single time. And the deep truth about the Obama presidency is that the DT presidency was within it …
The title says it all on this one, folks. What is it about the American political system that cultivated this deeply dysfunctional and polarized climate? Last year, we had Ezra Klein on the show to assess how bad things were in the Trump era (conclusion: not great). Now, Klein is back to discuss his new book “Why We’re Polarized” which provides a systematic look at the deep structural defects in American democracy that are manifesting themselves in two coalitions that are increasingly at each other’s throats.
Jill Lepore is a Harvard historian, a New Yorker contributor, the author of These Truths, and one of my favorite past guests on this show. But in this episode, the tables are turned: I’m in the hot seat, and Lepore has some questions. Hard ones.
This is, easily, the toughest interview on my book so far. Lepore isn’t quibbling over my solutions or pointing out a contrary study — what she challenges are the premises, epistemology, and meta-structure that form the foundation of my book, and much of my work. Her question, in short, is: What if social science itself is too crude to be a useful way of understanding the political world?
But that’s what makes this conversation great. We discuss whether all political science research on polarization might be completely wrong, why (and whether) my book is devoid of individual or institutional “villains,” and whether I am morally obliged to delete my Twitter account, in addition to the missing party in American politics, why I mistrust historical narratives, media polarization, and much more.
This is, on one level, a conversation about Why We’re Polarized. But on a deeper level, it’s about different modes of knowledge and whether we can trust them.
In 1974, a 15-year-old Serene Jones sat at a campfire sing-along that helped shape her understanding of America and its complicated relationship to its own story. She and her fellow campers were singing along to the familiar lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” when she learned for the first time that the song actually has a few lesser-known verses, including:
“In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, By the relief office I seen my people; As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking Is this land made for you and me?”
She writes in her book Call it Grace bout how hearing these more critical lyrics to a popular American song was a moment of revelation. Even decades later, she’s held onto the memory as a metaphor for America’s tendency to shine light on the “sunny, hopeful, and helpful” while “[lopping] off the uncomfortable verses about our lives.”
And in this week’s On Being, Jones talks about how her work as a public theologian is about reconciling these two realities in humanity: Both our propensity for love and connection, as well as our capacity for hatred and cruelty. She says it’s the work of connecting our personal stories to this bigger question — what does it mean to be human? — that makes theology such an important exercise. “What is theology, if it’s not talking about our collective lives and the meaning and purpose of our lives and how we’re supposed to live together and who God is, in ways that are part of our conversation together?”
Serene Jones describes theology as the place and story you think of when you ask yourself about the meaning of your life, the world, and the possibility of God. For her, that place is a “dusty piece of land” on the plains of Oklahoma where she grew up. “I go there to find my story — my theology. I go there to be born again; to be made whole; to unite with what I was, what I am, and what I will become.” In her work as a public theologian, Jones explores theology as clarifying lens on the present — from grace to repentance to the importance of moving from grieving to mourning.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue,” he wrote. “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
My sense of place — I have — it’s not quite a theory, but the way I’ve been thinking about it lately as an engineer — that everything has a physical landscape, an emotional landscape, and a natural landscape. And I think the way those three things combine form our sense of place and belonging and connection. -Richard blanco
“…what happens to our imagination about these humans when we use the word “immigrant” or “refugee” or, what I’m so aware of now, is what the word “migrant” has done. I think that language makes an abstraction of people and creates an ability for us to separate.” -Krista Tippett
‘As a longtime civil engineer by day and a poet by night, Cuban American writer Richard Blanco has straddled the many ways a sense of place merges with human emotion to form the meaning of home and belonging. In 2013, he became the fifth poet to read at a presidential inauguration (he was also the youngest and the first immigrant). The thoughtfulness, elegance, and humor of Blanco’s poetry and his person captivated the crowd for this live conversation at the Chautauqua Institution.’
Richard Blanco practiced civil engineering for more than 20 years. He is now an associate professor of creative writing at his alma mater, Florida International University. His books of non-fiction and poetry include Looking for the Gulf Motel and, most recently, How to Love a Country.
‘White dominant culture has been alive and well for centuries, and its grasp for power is only growing more desperate. Today we see unabashed racism, classism, and sexism at the highest levels of the United States government. How naïve many of us were to think we lived in a post-racial society after the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s and after we saw an African American president and his family in the White House. Now our collective shadow has again come out in the open for all to see.
It seems every generation must be newly converted. While we seek to transform individual hearts and minds we must also work to create change throughout systems. Until a full vision of equity is realized, we must continue naming and resisting the ways in which so many people are excluded and oppressed. Author and activist adrienne maree brown writes:
Separation weakens. It is the main way we are kept (and keep each other) in conditions of oppression. . . . Where we are born into privilege, we are charged with dismantling any myth of supremacy. Where we are born into struggle, we are charged with claiming our dignity, joy and liberation. . . .Adrienne Maree Brown, “Report: Recommendations for Us Right Now from a Future,” Sublevel, issue 2 (2018)
If we remain exclusive monotheists, like Judaism, Islam, and much of Christianity up to now, we normally try to impose a false uniformity on others but rarely know how to love, honor, and respect diversity. We remain in competing tribes and colonies.’
-Richard Rohr, Center of Action & Contemplation
Let’s remake the world with words. Not frivolously, nor To hide from what we fear, But with a purpose.
Let’s, as Wordsworth said, remove “The dust of custom” so things Shine again, each object arrayed In its robe of original light.
And then we’ll see the world As if for the first time, As once we gazed at the beloved Who was gazing at us.
“The beauty of being human is that we are incredibly, intimately near each other, we know about each other, but yet we do not know or never can know what it’s like inside another person.”
-John O’Donohue, Irish poet, author & priest
The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.
Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. The architects of apartheid understood this. Part of the effort to divide black people was to make sure we were separated not just physically but by language as well. Racism teaches us that we are different because of the color of our skin. But because racism is stupid, it’s easily tricked. If you’re racist and you meet someone who doesn’t look like you, the fact that he/she can’t speak like you reinforces your racist preconceptions: He/She’s different, less intelligent. However, if the person who doesn’t look like you speaks like you, the brain brain short-circuits because your racism program has none of those instructions in the code.
-Born a Crime, Stories from a South African Childhood
Before one of his poetry readings at the On Being Gathering, David Whyte quoted these famous lines from poet Antonio Machado:
“Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Al andar se hace camino …”
“Pathmaker, there is no path, You make the path by walking. By walking, you make the path …”
River of Life Exercise
Editor’s Note: This activity was originally developed by Joyce Mercer. It is edited and adapted with permission.
All you need is a pen and a blank sheet of paper. Give yourself at least 30 minutes to work through it.
Step One: Reflect Think about the course of your life. Take a moment to consider the following questions:
If your life were a river, what shape would it take?
Where are the bends and turns, when your situation or perspective changed? Was the transition smooth or sudden?
Are there rocks or boulders — obstacles or life-altering moments — falling into your river?
Are there points at which it flows powerfully and purposefully or slows to a trickle?
Step Two: Frame Draw your river of life with its bends and turns, smooth waters and rough spots, strength and vitality.
Label your approximate age and/or dates along the flow of your river.
Identify various key events in your life that shape your story — the boulders in the river or places where the river changes course.
If you were to divide your life journey into sections, where would the sections divisions occur? Name each of the sections of your life river.
Step Three: Guide Think about the various people who have accompanied you along this river’s journey. Record these key relationships and losses in the appropriate places on your river of life. If you wish, you can also record thoughts and feelings attached to these relationships.
What relationships have been most significant at different positions in your life?
Who has most shaped you?
Have there been significant losses of relationships along the way?
What groups or communities of people were most important?
Step Four: Contextualize Reflect on your life’s journey and trajectory. Using words and/or symbols, place life events in the appropriate locations on your diagram.
Are there times of significant pain or suffering — yours or others’ — that shape the flow of your life river?
What was going on in the world — locally, regionally, or around the world — that shape the flow of your life river?
Step Five: Evaluate Note what has been important to you.
What values, commitments, causes, or principles were most important to you at a given point in your life?
Toward what goals, if any, were your primary energies directed? Or, metaphorically speaking, what purposes and ends helped to shape the flow of life waters at a given time in your experience?
As you finish depicting your river of life, review the whole diagram. Do its symbols and words seem to portray how you think and feel about the whole of your life? Is there some important element left out? Make adjustments as needed. Remember that no diagram can possibly capture all that shapes your journey.
You can share your river of life with others or simply use it as a tool for personal reflection.
“When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”
Unrest in Baton Rouge
“Our bodies run with ink dark blood. / Blood pools in the pavement’s seams. // Is it strange to say love is a language / Few practice, but all, or near all speak? // Even the men in black armor, the ones / Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else // Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade / Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat? // We watch and grieve. We sleep, stir, eat. / Love: the heart sliced open, gutted, clean. // Love: naked almost in the everlasting street, / Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze.”
Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith
‘Love is a language/Few practice, but all, or near all speak’
”…it’s about caring for our shared world, lest we let it sleep away through inattention and neglect. […] The active threats to that world have multiplied many times over. There’s a new urgency about paying attention and responding to what we see. The Powers that Be are intent on ‘disappearing’ so much that million of Americans care about—pristine wilderness, clean air and water, affordable health care for all, the social safety net, and mutual respect in the midst of diversity.”
Parker Palmer/On Being
What can a person do to help bring back the world?
We have to watch it and then look at a each other.
Together we hold it close and carefully save it, like a bubble that can disappear
Reclaiming this nation starts with reclaiming our attention.
The next time you open up the newspaper or sit down in front of your computer or open an app on your phone to inform yourself about the day’s news, take a moment to set an intention of reading majority non-DT-related news. If you do read a piece related to him, attempt to privilege the information that is about his actions, not his style. When you are in a conversation with someone and it veers down the path of deconstructing something DT has said, intentionally steer it away. Take something you learned while de-prioritizing him and offer it up to your conversation partner. Be part of the solution — highlighting the world around us that has been deeply and poisonously overshadowed by the political climate of the last year and more.
Media obviously has a role to play here, but so do all of us. Our consumption patterns determine what media producers focus on during the next cycle. What we talk about with our friends, neighbors, families all contribute to either feeding or starving this obsession with big politics, as opposed to science, art, our communities, and so much more.
I’m not advocating for disengagement. There’s never been a more important time, at least in my lifespan, for citizens to lean in hard to our duty — to be aware, to be awake, to take action. But obsessing over tweets doesn’t count as civic duty. It’s rubbernecking, not awareness building, and it’s making us feel more disconnected than ever before. Reclaiming this nation starts with reclaiming our attention, our daily media practices, our everyday conversations.”
I sat across the street from my childhood home on the cold curb in the dark and watched the party as if it were a TV on mute. Adults moved in and out of the frame of the big picture window, glasses in hand, laughing, touching one another jovially. The warmth was palpable, even though I was shivering a little bit. It was my parents’ 40th birthday party — a joint blowout to mark the arrival of middle age. Friends brought gag gifts about how “over the hill” they now were and made jokes about their waning eyesight and hearing. I remember, my 10-year-old self thinking they must be getting really old.
I just turned 38. It has been nearly three decades since I sat on that cold curb and watched the merriment inside, trying to wrap my brain around what it all meant. I don’t feel old at all. Some days, in fact, I feel like I’m younger than I’ve ever been — a kind of Benjamin Button, temperamentally speaking. I’ve always been too serious. Aging has helped me lighten up in all kinds of ways. I’m humbled by how hard life can be, how complex. Where I used to jump to judgment, I am now more likely to feel solidarity or sadness. That at the tragic part of the human condition or even wonder. How broken are we, and yet, how beautiful? It boggles the heart.
I want to be one of those people that widens, not narrows, as I age. And yet, as I inch closer and closer to that picture window of my parents, it is the finite nature of life that hits me hardest. Sometimes I will be sitting on the rug in the living room, listening to my youngest daughter pound dominoes (her latest obsession) into our coffee table while my oldest wraps her baby doll in a suffocating number of layers of blankets, my husband banging around in the kitchen making pasta, and time will suddenly halt into a sort of freeze frame profundity. I’ll lose my breath for a second as I think, “Wow, this is it.”
It’s not a sad “this is it.” It’s a happy “this is it.” And yet, it’s interlaced with bafflement — “so really, this is it? These are my daughters? This is my person? This is our house? Huh, amazing.”
The same sort of bafflement creeps into my workday, too. I’ll be hammering away at this keyboard, trying to put a sentence together, and I’ll realize — “Wow, this is it. This is what I do. This is what I am going to contribute to the world in this lifetime.”
I’m not a small town mayor or a nonprofit director or a judge. I’m not a single woman with no children who travels the world investigating war crimes. I’m not a portrait photographer or a chaplain. I’m not a woman who plays the blues harmonica at open mic jazz nights in little clubs in New York City.
Those were all, believe it or not, versions of myself that at one point existed in the future. And then days and decisions accumulated and I kept moving further and further into that future and these women started fading, one by one, from the potential story of my life.
And I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel grief over their disappearance. Even Robert Frost admitted to sadness over his road not traveled, though he was sure he did it right. We are practiced and very convincing at creating the fateful narrative in reverse — everything always happens how it is supposed to. Unless it really doesn’t, in which case we pretend it did anyway. That’s what we do as humans — if we are resilient and adaptive, which most of us are, we tell ourselves the stories we need to hear in order to take the edge off of our mourning at the lives we’ll never lead.
Although… what if we might, in fact, lead them, just not this time around?
My friend Sandy, who is on the other side of 40, recently taught me another adaptation that I am reveling in. She said that after a period of feeling acute sadness over all the versions of herself she would never be — “I’ll never be a Russian painter!” she exclaimed — she decided to throw down for reincarnation. When she has a pang of sadness over a version of herself that likely won’t exist, instead of trying to banish it from her brain as quickly as possible, she delights in it, adding it to her file of “next lifetimes.” While feeling genuinely grateful for all that she is packing into this impossibly little life, she’s also conjuring and collecting these potential future versions of herself. Sandy won’t be a Russian painter tomorrow, but what if she is in another century or two? How is she to know that this is or isn’t possible? How exciting!
I don’t believe in reincarnation, per se, but that’s beside the point. I believe in the magic of what I don’t know, and I don’t know that reincarnation isn’t possible. So I’m starting to build up my portfolio of next lifetimes. I know there is beauty in limitation. And this life, with the husband banging around in the kitchen and my babies stumbling around the living room, this life with the sentences upon sentences — well, it’s a tremendous gift. I feel even more capable of recognizing that when I allow for the possibility that during some other journey, I’ll be an NBA basketball star or a labor organizer or a painter with a giant studio somewhere overlooking the water.
‘Does conversation really matter when our disagreements are so stark and important?’
Better Conversations: A Starter Guide
It seems we are more divided than ever before — unable to speak across the differences we must engage to create the world we want for ourselves and others. We offer this guide as a resource for creating new spaces for listening, conversation, and engagement. We’ve created it as producers, but more as citizens, out of what we’ve learned in over a decade of conversation on On Being.
Words That Matter
And, ask three questions:
What are you feeling?
What is the country that you long for?
As your bravest self, what do you do now?
This guide is intended to help ground and animate a gathering of friends or strangers in a conversation that might take place over weeks or months. Adapt this guide for your group and your intentions, choosing a focus and readings you find meaningful and relevant.
If you have an inner voice telling you that how this country is now is not right, / that these shootings aren’t right, / That racism isn’t right, / That treating immigrants as they are isn’t right, / honor that voice. / It’s your heart reminding you that love is real, that there is a more beautiful way to live. / Nurture this voice, and link it to others. / We are not alone. / We are not bound to live in a starless night. / Love will win. InshaAllah. / It will come into public, as justice.
On Being Staff:
“In response to the mass shooting in Las Vegas, we offer this special commentary. President Trump called it “an act of pure evil.” Courtney questions why we use the word “evil” to explain such violence. And, she argues, why we should stop making that moral bargain. I realize this is a complex issue. How do you think through it?”
The Mental Bargain We Make When We Use the Word ‘Evil’
by Courtney E. Martin
“’Evil’ is a cop-out. It distances us from asking hard, important, and specific questions about how this could have been prevented and what each of us can do to save lives — actual human lives — in the future. … If there is evil here, it is complacency, and it is collective.”
I don’t want to make that moral bargain in my brain anymore. I’m not going to call Stephen Paddock “evil,” and I’m not going to sit idly by when anyone else does — whether that person is my president or my neighbor. Not for his sake, but for my own. I refuse to live in a moral world of my own making where mass shootings are inevitable and don’t have anything to do with me. Instead of numbing myself with that powerful little word — “evil” — I’m going to dig into moral and strategic questions like:
Why did Paddock have 23 firearms (including an AR-15-style assault rifle) and hundreds of rounds of ammunition? Why does anyone have 23 firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition?
Why can’t this country agree on common sense gun legislation that would prevent the mass murder of innocent people?
What was Paddock’s mental state? Who knew about it? Why didn’t he have connections with people who were more aware of the dangers of his mental state and capable of getting him help?
Is mental illness on the rise among white men and, if so, why?
What kind of funding goes into addressing the mental health of men like Paddock?
What have I, personally, done in the wake of mass shootings in the past? How can I do something different?
“Evil” is a cop-out. It distances us from asking hard, important, and specific questions about how this could have been prevented and what each of us can do to save lives — actual human lives — in the future.
None of us with the power to vote, organize, and advocate is innocent in a country where this is not only possible, but frequent. Paddock intersected with our health systems, our schools, our gun policies before he put his finger on that trigger. If there is evil here, it is as subtle as you or me, anyone with a beating heart, pointing a finger at one dead man as if the moral responsibility lay only with his cold corpse.
If there is evil here, it is complacency, and it is collective.
“I think what we’re seeing actually is not compassion fatigue, but empathic distress.”
Buoyancy Rather Than Burnout in Our Lives
‘It’s easy to despair at all the bad news and horrific pictures that come at us daily. But Roshi Joan Halifax says this is a form of empathy that works against us. There’s such a thing as pathological altruism. This zen abbot and medical anthropologist has nourishing wisdom as we face suffering in the world.’
[Scott Simon/Peabody Award-winning reporter & host of NPR’s Weekend Edition.]
Today I was researching various websites and periodicals about surviving mass shootings so that I could put some suggestions together for my kids (23 & 21) to consider when they gather in public spaces with larger groups. And then I paused. I realized in that moment what what our country has become for me. Because of the power of the NRA, gun lobbyists, and political greed, guns are more important in the United States than the lives of its people. I heard one television news pundit say in the aftermath of Las Vegas that ‘mass shootings are the price of freedom.’
A most twisted definition of freedom, indeed.
Watching a cable news TV program the day after the massacre, well-known more liberal minded anchors were doing their reporting, standing, situated outside on the Las Vegas strip with the Mandalay Bay hotel/casino positioned behind them. I felt a fear rising within me as I watched them. Not because they were in the Las Vegas aftermath, but because they were exposed, vulnerable, unprotected to the crazed minds who disagree, haters who carry guns in an ‘open carry’ environment. When did this happen? A fear of simply being outside, in a public place, could cause concern for others being harmed, shot, or killed? -dayle
Veteran journalist Tom Brokaw told the TODAY show anchors Monday morning that in the years he reported for the program from 1976-1981, he covered just one mass shooting. With the Las Vegas massacre now the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, he suggests the more frequent attacks are a result of radical gun sale changes. “No other Western nation has the number of gun deaths that we have in America, and we need to talk about it.”
Two Dark American Truths From Las Vegas
(On the certainty of more shootings.)
by James Follows
No other society allows the massacres to keep happening. Everyone around the world knows this about the United States. It is the worst aspect of the American national identity.
Mass Shootings Don’t Lead to Inaction – – They lead to loosening Gun Restrictions
The most probable policy response to the atrocity in Las Vegas will be new laws allowing more guns to be carried into more places.
by David Frum
The five years since a gunman killed 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, have seen one of the most intense bursts of gun legislation in U.S. history—almost all of it intended to ensure that more guns can be carried into more places.
Since Newtown, more than two dozen states have expanded the right to carry into previously unknown places: bars, churches, schools, college campuses, and so on. The most ambitious of these laws was adopted in Georgia in April 2014. Among other provisions, it allowed guns to be carried into airports right up to the federal TSA checkpoint.
AXIOS: Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal columnist and speechwriter for President Reagan, on “Morning Joe”: “There is a sense that society is collapsing — the culture is collapsing. We’re collapsing in crime. The world is collapsing. Crazy people with bad haircuts have nukes. Everything is going bad — terrorism, etc. They want to be fully armed on their hill, at home. … They’re Americans, and they want to go down fighting.”
N.Y. Times columnist Thomas Friedman: “If only Stephen Paddock had been a Muslim … If only he had shouted ‘Allahu akbar’ before he opened fire … [N]o one would be telling us not to dishonor the victims and “politicize” Paddock’s mass murder by talking about preventive remedies. No, no, no. Then we know what we’d be doing. We’d be scheduling immediate hearings in Congress about the worst domestic terrorism event since 9/11.”
[Vince Gill & Amy Grant pray during a candlelight vigil in Nashville for the victims of the Las Vegas massacre.]
by Roseanne Cash
For the past few decades, the National Rifle Association has increasingly nurtured an alliance with country music artists and their fans. You can see it in “N.R.A. Country,” which promotes the artists who support the philosophical, and perhaps economic, thrall of the N.R.A., with the pernicious tag line “Celebrate the Lifestyle.”
I encourage more artists in country and American roots music to end your silence. It is no longer enough to separate yourself quietly. The laws the N.R.A. would pass are a threat to you, your fans, and to the concerts and festivals we enjoy.
The stakes are too high to not disavow collusion with the N.R.A. Pull apart the threads of patriotism and lax gun laws that it has so subtly and maliciously intertwined. They are not the same.
I know you’ll be bullied for speaking out. This is how they operate. Not everyone will like you for taking a stand. Let it roll off your back. Some people may burn your records or ask for refunds for tickets to your concerts. Whatever. Find the strength of moral conviction, even if it comes with a price tag, which it will. Don’t let them bully you into silence. That’s where their power lies — in the silence of rational voices and in the apathy of those who can speak truth to power.
This is a moment in American history that can’t be met with silence. According to PolitiFact, from 2005 to 2015, some 300,000 people were killed by gun violence. That’s roughly the population of Pittsburgh. The grief that extends through the affected families is endless.
Those of us who make our living in “the tower of song,” as Leonard Cohen so eloquently put it, must let our voices ring out.
We can’t survive in a constant state of agitation.
by Sharon Salzberg
When a change in law or policy harms us, we may feel powerless and discarded, unworthy of love. Experiencing that helps us empathize with the suffering of others. We may feel heartbroken when we see people so battered by circumstances and lack of opportunity that they feel that they have nowhere to turn. And we may feel a deep love for the planet, and recent actions to discredit climate change might be the cause of our anxiety.
In that way love presents itself as risk, as it often does when you love another. The love you feel causes you to care deeply and when you do, you may take on some of the hurt that your beloved feels. Love can also protect you. It is love that is the point of contact for how much we care about what happens to ourselves as well as those around us.
Finding common ground with others who share our values and taking collective actions that express those strongly held beliefs reminds us of the good in the world and the good in others. If we allow the bad news to be the only news we hear, we may give up the fight, which would be the most debilitating of all actions. The best way to stay engaged is to make a choice when and how to do so — and to do so from a balanced stance of love for ourselves and love for the world, at the nexus where we can draw those two together in actions that connect both.
“Piety is something you do alone,” he says. “True freedom, spirituality, can only be achieved in community.”
On Being with Krista Tippett
“…I was searching for that elusive thing that all of us search for. Most of the time we’re not even conscious of it, but we’re searching for ourselves in an authentic way. We want to recognize the person we see in the mirror, and embrace that person with all the brokenness and lackluster, all the things that only we are aware of in the depths of our being.”