What to Do When You Can’t Save the World

July 23, 2008

A lot of my thoughts and prayers and worries (and my conversations with my partner) deal with the state of our world and what can be done about it. My partner is a walking encyclopedia of news and statistics, so we are never short on increases in carbon emissions, poverty, and the big machine of capitalismandconsumption that does some good, but does, it seems, much more not-good.

I, on the other hand, am not good at remembering statistics, except that they are typically overwhelmingly bad. I remember senses of things more than concrete information. Essences and generalities.

When I was about five or six when I realized that every person’s life seems as important to them as my life does to me. I was floooooorrrred. I didn’t know what to do with that. Everyone is equally as important. How could I take that all in? Whom should I care about? How were we supposed to deal with all the people in the world who were all as important as my own life?

In a sense, we can never really take that in. We can’t die inside every time we hear a heart-wrenching story about someone who lost their health insurance, lost their child, got deported, slipped through the cracks. We would be useless messes. So we have to filter. To pick our battles. To decide how much of ourselves to give, how much to hurt for others.

One thing I have noticed over the years is that progressive work – religiously, politically, social justice wise, racism and sexism wise, etc. – is about mitigating the harm that goes on in our world. We will not stop rape – we hope to make it less and less.

We will not end global warming – we hope to slow down the destruction.

We will not end poverty – we hope to make it less, less likely, less painful.

People in our congregations and those to whom we minister will continue to make mistakes, encounter injustice, ache so badly that it feels like they will split in two. No work that we do will stop this pain. We can only hope to maybe lessen its frequency, its intensity, its duration.

It is not that we give up on ideals and dreams, but we do not get frustrated when progress inches along at a snails pace. We cannot expect revolution, or we will burn out, give up. I can think of no successful, sustained revolution that changed everything it wanted to change. Social justice work is hard, slow, and, compared to the rate we would want it to change things, it crawls along. There isn’t an end point.

That is not exactly inspiring – we can only slow down the statistics of poor, of hungry, of displaced by floods, of exploited and hurt.

Granted, some things get better. Racism is less these days than it was in the past. Heterosexism is less in many ways.  Sexism is less bad in many ways. We’ve made progress, yet we do not arrive at what we envision.

This is hard to hear. And hard, for many of us to come to terms with. How much should we do if what we do will not save the world? How much effort should we put in for little gains, for baby steps? I think of all the time and energy and money I have put into mentoring over the years. For three young men. Three great young men, but still huge investments on my part. I think of the hassle of rinsing out every cat food can, of flying less than I want, of paying more for green products, of getting up early on Sundays to give sermons that many will forget. Sometimes knowing how minuscule all this is in the scheme of things makes us do less. I know it does for me.

How do we know how much of our lives to give it we are only a drop in the ocean – if we are only mitigating harm?

I think a lot of times our solution is to do a little, enough, so that we can say we are doing our part. Many others will burn out, throw up their hands and give up. Some will never even give it a start – too much. The pay-off is not great enough.

Yet, I often try to imagine myself as the beneficiary of the little harm that is mitigated. Tons of people don’t have clean water, yet many people have it because of the long, slow, hard work to get clean water for more people

A lot of people are hungry or starving, yet many fewer are hungry and starving because people fight hard to make sure that they are fed.

Even if the hunger is not solved, access to clean water is not achieved everywhere, if I was one of those people who was less harmed by the work for justice and equality – with food and clean water – then I would say it is worth it. Probably because to everyone their lives are super-important, even if, to us, they only look like some statistic.

Mitigating harm is not as exciting as winning the revolution and saving the world and eliminating poverty greenhouse gases hunger war. But it seems to me that we should keep pushing ourselves to do more, keeping in mind that each person’s life is just as important as our own, yet knowing that we can never fully grasp this or embody this. We will not bring about the revolution. But we can make a difference in many lives. For me, I am coming to realize that that is enough. It must be and the time I waste fretting about not saving the world takes time away from the many lives that need my harm-mitigation work.

Just some thoughts on stuff I think about a lot.


We can’t take off the white goggles, people.

July 18, 2008

I used to watch The View long ago when I was probably in high school or college. It isn’t so much my style these days. And Ms. E. Hasselbeck has always rubbed in the wrong way (I know, big surprise there). But I was so cheering Whoopi Goldberg on so much when I read about this. They were talking about the presidential election and E.H. was pretty much saying that black people should think a little bit before they just vote for the black candidate because he is black. (Which, of course, my reply is, hey probably they did, genius. But that is not the point here.) And W.G. is pointing out to E.H that there is really just no way she can understand where black folks are coming from.

SHEPHERD: But you’ve seen, you know, your entire lifetime you’ve seen people in positions of power that look like you. I, I am- the first time in my life, I am seeing a man that’s running who looks like me.

HASSELBECK: I’ve never seen a president that looks like me.

SHEPHERD: They look like you. They are white and they look like you. I want to be able- it shows young black men that they can have a voice in politics. It shows my son Jeffrey that he can do the same thing too.

HASSELBECK: I’m not against the idea. I just- I’m against the idea of not just looking beyond the things which have prevented them from being in office. We need to step away from that a little bit and look at the entire picture. That’s all I’m saying.

GOLDBERG: It’s a very- and I say this with a huge amount of love. It’s a very white way to look at it.

HASSELBECK: What do you mean?

GOLDBERG: And I, I’m saying this with love, so I understand, because it’s never.

HASSELBECK: Let me take off my “white” goggles.

SHEPHERD: You can’t. I wish you could. You can’t.

GOLDBERG: But you can’t. That’s what I’m trying to explain. This, for us, is totally- it’s not an experience I can explain to you. I can’t explain why black folks are saying “oh my God.”

My point of this is not to say anything about the presidential candidates or who should vote for who or why, but to point out this widespread notion that white people don’t really have white goggles (which Hasselbeck said sarcastically). I just wanted to appreciate W.G.’s point (which you don’t hear much on network television that much) that people need to be more aware that there are just some things that white people cannot grasp about what it means to be black. It shows so much when E.H. said, “There has never been a president that looks like me,” of course completely missing the point so much. I understand the difficulty of being white and wanting to be a good white person and not racist and to be neutral. Yet, it is only when we understand that we benefit from being white whether we want to or not, and that white is not neutral, that we can begin to get at the heart of the structural racism that hurts so so many people. We can’t take off the white goggles. The point is not to take them off and be all neutral and good, but rather to notice them, see what they do, and take the often hard steps to break down the racist structures that so fundamentally shape our society.

I just ordered this.

July 17, 2008

Oh, Jordan, Angela, Rayanne, and Ricki, If only you had lasted more than 19 episodes. But with each sweet episode, all of us other 14-year-olds ached with you. You are not forgotten. Amen.

On another note, this website also sold a shirt with the phrase, “If you got a problem, Yo, I’ll solve it.” I wanted to order that but $22 is A LOT for a t-shirt and of course Jordan took precedence. I was just entertaining my family the other day by downloading 90s songs from itunes and singing along every word, along with some very 90s dance moves. Oh, yes, I know every single word to Ice Ice Baby, Baby Got Back, Nuthin But A ‘G’ Thang, Funky Cold Medina and so on. A few beats and I am back at the skating rink. Oh, those were the days.

And when they scrape their knee, you can also hire someone to comfort them.

July 17, 2008

The NYTimes is running an article about people who hire a nanny to comfort their baby at night. One woman says

“[The nanny] swaddles the baby and sings to him and that’s the whole point for us — she has a lot more energy and patience at that point in the day than my husband or I do. We are wiped out.”

And, hey, I understand being wiped out and having a high pressure job and all but, um, why did you have kids? It isn’t like it is going to get easier. Are you going to hire someone to potty train them? Learn to ride a bike? Go to parent teacher conferences? To me, comforting your baby and attending to his or her needs is an essential part of being a parent. I am not against having a nanny or help for some tasks. I am not for this parents-have-to-be-heroes and be perfect and all-attentive. But it seems like six nights a week of someone caring for your baby is sort of like having a baby and then hiring someone to parent him or her, especially if you work during the day so you aren’t home with the baby then either. You can’t parent only on Sundays.

I just think it is part of this on-going thing where people think they can still be good parents without making any changes to their lives. (See article that Ms. T pointed out a few months ago about how children are not decor (shock!), including this weirdo family that refused to put up stair railings because it just looked so bad. Do seat belts also wrinkle their clothes, too?)

The Big Deal About Being Kind to People

July 14, 2008

I have written probably countless times about my struggles with the unfriendliness of Greater Boston. Sorry if you are sick of it. Skip if you like. But, today a very unfriendly sassy woman taught me a good lesson: even if people seem to be doing really dumb things, generally, it is probably even still a good idea not to be nasty to them.

I was driving to dinner in Cambridge. There are all these squiggly narrow back streets where they start off as two-way and turn into one way. I went a way I haven’t gone before and ended up going the wrong way down a street. I know. Not ideal. But it was a super-tiny street, and I was going about 12 miles an hour, so it wasn’t like there was going to be a head-on collision or something. Anyway, this woman looks at me with the meanest look and says some snappy comment about it being one way. Okay. Point taken. I start to turn around and she continues to stare at me with a “Could you be any more stupid?” look like I have just purposely tried to kill her cat or something. My windows were down and she was super-close and I said, “Sorry, these streets get confusing sometimes.” Which, as any Boston/Cambridge driver knows, is the case. Instead of an understanding nod, or maybe at least just ignoring me, she continues to give me the Look of Death and says, “Well, there are signs,” in a super-sassy, snarky, bitchy way. I’m already embarrassed about the mistake, okay? I wasn’t talking on my cell phone or doing something that distracted me. Clearly the signs are not that obvious. I said, “Well, thanks for being so nice and understanding about it.”

Little did this woman know I was having an already hard day. I am super-emotional. Things are a bit raw, even. And, even though I did feel a bad from such random unkindness and lack of understanding, it was a good little lesson to me to be really nice to people even when I don’t feel like it. Because you don’t know if their mom died that day, or if they are getting divorced, or if they just lost their job. (These things are not happening to me, but you get the point. Maybe they already feel really bad.)  Maybe they just need someone to show a little extra understanding. For whatever reason, it seems always better to be nice to people. It doesn’t take that much but can be the difference between tears, or a more stressful day, or a brighter day, a little more hope about the goodness of humanity.

So, mean woman on Sacramento Street, I will be being extra nice to people just to make sure I don’t make anyone feel like you made me feel today.*

*Lest you think I am over-reacting to her nasty little comments, well, I know I am. But the point was, I was already feeling bad. And she just made it worse for no good reason at all. I know I know. I shouldn’t take it personally. But when you are already feeling a little bad, it is hard not to take it personally. Which is the whole point. We never know what people are going through. Why risk making an already-difficult world more difficult for others if you can help it?

Most Popular Song These Days: I Kissed a Girl

July 10, 2008

So, of course I would find out about the number one song on the charts on NPR. I can’t believe I hadn’t heard it, or maybe I had and just didn’t notice until it was pointed out. The song is I Kissed a Girl and the lyrics are as follows:

This was never the way I planned
Not my intention
I got so brave, drink in hand
Lost my discretion
It’s not what, I’m used to
Just wanna try you on
I’m curious for you
Caught my attention

I kissed a girl and I liked it
The taste of her cherry chap stick
I kissed a girl just to try it
I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it
It felt so wrong
It felt so right
Don’t mean I’m in love tonight
I kissed a girl and I liked it
I liked it

No, I don’t even know your name
It doesn’t matter
You’re my experimental game
Just human nature
It’s not what, good girls do
Not how they should behave
My head gets so confused
Hard to obey

I kissed a girl and I liked it
The taste of her cherry chap stick
I kissed a girl just to try it
I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it
It felt so wrong
It felt so right
Don’t mean I’m in love tonight
I kissed a girl and I liked it
I liked it

Us girls we are so magical
Soft skin, red lips, so kissable
Hard to resist so touchable
Too good to deny it
Ain’t no big deal, it’s innocent

I kissed a girl and I liked it
The taste of her cherry chap stick
I kissed a girl just to try it
I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it
It felt so wrong
It felt so right
Don’t mean I’m in love tonight
I kissed a girl and I liked it
I liked it

This is like an OWL discussion waiting to happen. There is so much here. On the one hand, I want to say, “Great, a little pop culture acknowledgment that sexuality is fluid, attraction does not depend on sex/gender, and it is no big deal for girls/women to kiss.” I want to see the good in this. Yes, this is better than revulsion, or hate when it comes to two women or two girls kissing.

Maybe it is sort of like the eternal Will & Grace question. Is it better that we have it, even given the stereotyping, and other problems? Or does it do more harm that good….

Even before I found out (ugg) that apparently her last hit song was “Ur So Gay,” which, let’s be clear, is not some sort of queer power ballad, I was thinking that this song has got some problems. First, this is not for 25 year olds as far as I can tell. Her voice and demeanor make her seem like she is shooting for the Miley Cyrus crowd, not the college clubs (although, of course, you know this is a hug favorite of many college frat guys). So what message does this send to the 14-year old listeners?

1. Drinking is a key part of sexual experimentation. Is this the end of the world when done semi-responsibly in your 20s? No. Is it a good message to convey to 13 year olds? Not so much.
2. Kissing girls is fun for experimenting, but a boyfriend is really the main thing (“I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it.”)
3. It is more like a fun activity, not something to take seriously (No, I don’t even know your name/
It doesn’t matter/You’re my experimental game)

Right, so when ever was pop music some sort of good example for kids? Probably never. Best hope is that this opens up some space for conversations…paves the way for songs not just about kissing a girl while you are drunk. Yet, at the same time, I’ll be glad if/when we can move away from girls making out is so hot, especially when it is just for fun, but men making out is gross and not hot at all. This leads to questions about how bisexuality for women got to be so in/cool and what that really might mean. But that is for another post.