Finding Balance, Fixing Blame

Missy sat on her pillow, only to find most of it had no mattress underneath.

WHUMP.

Startled but unhurt, our disabled ward looked up from the carpet. And then, with a growl worthy of Yosemite Sam, she pointed fiercely at the nearby nightstand.

“No!” she bellowed, with offended justice ringing in her voice.

I glanced at the object of her ire and then helped her up.

“Missy,” I said gently, “the lamp did not trip you.”

Another scowl resulted. Guilty or not, that nightstand lamp would not be forgiven any time soon.

It’s not the first time I’ve had to act as a defense attorney for an innocent object or creature. When Missy’s coordination issues produce an occasional fall, she’s good at slowing herself down into a soft landing. She’s also good at fixing the blame on anything nearby. In the days when we still had Big Blake, our lovably massive English Lab, the Missy Finger of Judgment would quickly indicate her furry friend … even if he happened to be across the room at the time.

“Missy …”

Other times, the accusation has been leveled at our birds. (A real accomplishment, that.) Or an empty chair. Or maybe a passing poltergeist out for a stroll. Anyone and anything except herself.

But then, that shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, many of us do exactly the same thing.

I’ve said before that we’re story-centered beings. We want a cause or an explanation for everything, the simpler the better. But we also don’t want that cause to be us or something we admire. And so, we look for a convenient target.

In sports, we lash out at the ref for making That One Call. (Never mind the 300 bad plays before it that made the call important.) Or we decide that everything’s the fault of one coach or one player – like an ancient king, sacrificing them will prosperity to the land again.

In the larger world, it gets even uglier. I don’t need to recount how many Others we’ve found to blame for the problems of a troubled society or a broken world. Usually we choose a people who are safely powerless and already despised, convenient scapegoats that make us feel good about our prejudice or contempt.

Too often, we don’t look inward. Too often, we don’t dare.

Some of it is simple pride. Many times, we’ve committed ourselves deeply to an action, a cause, a person, a belief. And when someone gives that commitment badly – if the belief is ill-founded or the hero is anything but – turning back means admitting “I was wrong.” Maybe even looking foolish.

That’s hard. Far easier to double down instead, to deny the uncomfortable truth and press on ahead.

The times when we’ve been able to break through those clouds and start to choose a different road are some of the proudest in our history. But they never come without struggle. And the struggle always starts on the inside.

We will find that clear vision again. But how long it takes and how hard it will be depends on us. And when we stumble along the way, I hope we can find our balance in each other and rise again.

Even if it means forgiving that darned lamp.

Standing Like a (Little) Rock

Ten years ago, I had the chance to hear Minnijean Brown Trickey encourage everyone to take the road less comfortable.

The name might not ring a bell. After all, it’s been 60 years since the Little Rock Nine made their way to high school accompanied by the 101st Airborne. Sixty years since a tooth-and-nail battle to bring black students to an all-white school, in the face of every obstacle that could be erected. It’s a faceoff that’s become iconic – an image, a newsreel, a chapter in a history book.

Suddenly, for one night, it became flesh-and-blood. And as Minnijean spoke of what she had seen and done, an entire audience asked itself “What would I have done then? Could I have been as strong?” No one doubted the right thing to do, or even that it still needed to be done – but that first step seemed so long, toward a world of uncertainty and danger and arrest.

Minnijean,  who once spilled chili “accidentally on purpose” on another student that harassed her, was gentle in response.

“Everyone is conflicted,” she said, in words that I took down at the time for The Emporia Gazette. “You might have to get kicked out of a few things. And you might find out how strong and courageous you are because you got kicked out of a few things. … It’s not about being arrested. It’s about being able to sleep at night.”

Self-respect. But not wholly self-reliance. Everyone is scared, she insisted. Everyone wants someone braver to help them be less scared.

Everyone needs everyone.

True then. True now.

***

When I first saw the news out of Charlottesville, I couldn’t find the words to meet it. It still seems unreal. Or maybe too real, the unwanted made undeniable. Torches and Nazi flags. Naked hate. Death, cold and real.

Some of us are lucky; we don’t have to think about this sort of hate on a daily basis. But like a mouse in the walls, not seeing it doesn’t mean it’s not there. And like those rodents, by the time you have to see it, the problem has grown.

It also becomes a wake-up call.

We’re a nation that argues. We always have been, even if the present time feels especially vicious. But if there’s anything I’ve seen mass agreement on from left, right, up, down, and all around, it’s that this evil has no place here. No, it’s not unanimous, sadly. But my goodness, there are a lot of us.

Enough to call evil by its name. Enough to stand.

This is the evil that friends and family fought as troops on the battlefield.

This is the evil that my English grandparents fought as workers in the factory.

This is the evil that has defined evil for four generations of authors, moviemakers, playwrights, and more.

This is the evil that sleeps beneath the human soul, waiting for an opportunity.

And it must be opposed.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m a First Amendment absolutist. Fred Phelps had the same right to speak as Martin Luther King, Jr. This is a country where one has wide latitude to speak evil and hate and horror if they will.

But the rest of us have the freedom not to listen.

The rest of us have the freedom to argue, and to oppose, and to ridicule. (Evil hates ridicule.)

The rest of us have the freedom to say not on my property. Not on my website. Not on my dime.

And when hateful speech becomes harmful action, an entire nation must be ready to show that actions have consequences.

This is not a comfortable duty we’re called to. Awareness never is. Confrontation never is. The first step toward better is as long as it was in 1957.

And as necessary.

Everyone wants someone braver to help them, Minnijean said. We can be each other’s someone.

And then, perhaps, we can all sleep a little better at night.

Now Starring

“Daddy, look!”

I smiled – with Missy, “Daddy” is more of a job description than a title – and came over to the table. She stabbed her finger eagerly at the coffee table book, before turning more pages, and then more.

“Look! Look!”

From the pages leaped star fields, the points of brilliance crowding the page like sand on a beach. And then nebulae … and galaxies …. and planets. Some of the beauty was practically next door; far more of it was farther away than could be traveled in a hundred lifetimes.

But all of it, every last photo in the book from the Hubble Space Telescope, had captured Missy’s eyes and imagination. Our disabled ward is often a woman of few words, but she didn’t need them this time. Her face said everything that needed saying.
“WOW!!!”

She had been ambushed by wonder.

I’ve been there. I think we all have. It might be while watching the Northern California ocean at night, or seeing a blanket of stars above the Rockies, or an unexpected strain of music that lifts you beyond every cloud. It might be something quiet, even ordinary to the outside world … but not to you. Never to you.

Those may be the moments when I unmistakably feel the strength of hope.

Consider. Except for a few primal things, like loud noises, most fears have to be learned. It’s why the toddler years can be so unnerving for any adults nearby, as the little ones reach out to explore a world with no awareness of routine dangers – the electric socket, the heavy book on the end table, the doggie that might not like having his fur pulled.

Some of the fears and cautions we learn are of that sort, the awareness that keeps our impulses from leading us into harm’s way. But we teach others that are less beneficial – suspicions, prejudices, hatreds that inflict pain rather than avoiding it. Almost 70 years ago, South Pacific sang out the truths we’re still dealing with now:

 

You’ve got to be taught, before it’s too late,

Before you are six, or seven, or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

And then, there’s wonder.

It’s not something that’s taught, though a good teacher can lead one to it, and help shape it when it comes to light. You find wonder. You discover it. You come upon it and claim it as a gift.

At its most basic, wonder reminds us that we’re connected to something larger than our everyday view of the world. It takes off the blinkers, gives us perspective. At its most powerful, it can be a fuel for dreams and thus for reaching out, because few dreams of any size can be carried out by one person acting alone.

It’s not taught … but it can be sought. And in a world where fears try to crowd out hopes like weeds in a garden, it needs to be.

We build our walls high. So we need to be ready to climb. Wonder can come anywhere, but we help it most when we test our own limits – when we’re ready to risk a new experience, meet a new person, take our mind somewhere it hasn’t been before. Whether it’s the limitless reaches of space or the garden plot you’ve always meant to try out, all of it can serve as a step to something greater.

The clouds above are thick. But if we keep walking, we can find the stars.

Some of them are shining in Missy’s eyes right now.