An Artist’s Duty: A Conversation with Aleta Myles

Creativity is intertwined with culture. Art has long been a form of activism, a way to change the status quo. Everyone making art wants to change perceptions, to challenge stereotypes. The most important artists of our time are those who dream of leaving the world a better place than they found it. And some are realizing that dream.

My friend Aleta Myles is an actor, singer, makeup artist, and YouTube star with a passion for starting dialogue through art, and building bridges with storytelling. Whether you’re left laughing, crying, or thinking in a new way, Aleta and her work will change you.

For her, creativity is an integral part of the human conversation. Making art can be a step on the pathway to healing.  She and I had a great talk recently about what it means to be an artist, and the role of artistic expression in creating community.

[BTW: There’s a lack-of-line-break weirdness below that I’m still trying to fix. Thank you for your patience!]

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Of the characters you’ve created, do you have a favorite? Why or why not? Which
character do you most identify with?
 I don’t know if I would say [I have a] favorite. There are a few whom I have fleshed out a bit more so they are easier to work with. I have feel very attached to them and love them for different reasons. I really wish they weren’t me so I could hang out with them. They all carry elements of my personality and beliefs, even if it’s wacky or silly. I have yet to create a character that has conflicted with me: if they do they don’t stay around long.
Who are your heroes and why?
I’m still gaining heroes but I will say Carol Burnett, Tracy Ullman and In Living Color had a huge effect on me. I love watching them and laughing. Annie [the movie] has always been my favorite. When I first saw Carol Burnett, I was in love. She was silly and not afraid to be crazy. I have real life heroes who are actors that i get to work with and call my friends, they inspire me more than anything. I am inspired by the bravery of artists. I am inspired by vulnerability. To be an artist and to be an actor is the most vulnerable thing you can do…if you do it right…it’s not pretend it is a form of vulnerability. 
What are your goals or resolutions for this year?
My goals are to keep creating and ask questions later. I tend to question things to death, instead of releasing content. I’m also resolving to floss more.
How does being a black woman living in America shape your art or your approach to art?
You can have a few approaches as a Black creative: you can speak about your difference and celebrate it, highlight the needs, highlight the humanity  or for some it never comes into question: they don’t identify their culture and their art together.
I love the quote from Nina Simone: “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”   It’s a line that is good to blur into one. Sometimes I battle because I love creating characters and I love humor. When it comes to the heart and things that are important to me, I would rather have a conversation about it. I haven’t [fully] learned the art of letting my humor in when it comes to things that make my heart beat fast!  I’m [still] learning.
I’m more of a therapist/ educator when it comes to speaking on current events and history. My other struggle  is possibly just my own,  but I loathe the way my ancestors had to come through minstrel shows and some of the content that was created with them as the joke. Sometimes I struggle with being perceived as a minstrel show because I am funny woman of color. I never want that. I know people whose content is considered “chittlin circuit” but i just want to create content without it being put in another box. 
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What does diversity mean to you?
Diversity is not being able to tell who is in “the Majority”. There is enough uniqueness to be represented that is most definitely NOT represented. Diversity needs to represent the world we live in and having the conversations that break down things that separate us. The lack of diversity is SO strong in American entertainment that when you try to create content that is “diverse” people don’t think it’s believable. But that is only because folks need time to change their entertainment diet–they’ll get used to it and start to enjoy it when you put it on their plate more than once a year.
What was the last book you read?
I last read the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass. [It was] Black History Month so I felt it was a good choice!
 What issues affecting you/your community are you most passionate about? 
The justice system, laws that are in effect that are oppressive, housing inequality, education inequality, financial inequality… [When I] talk about these issues people often either roll their eyes [or] under their breath say, ” It’s not that bad” “Get over it” or “All lives matter” . . .  When I hear that, I think, “That’s an amazing point of view when it’s not affecting you. What you mean is it’s not that bad for YOU. So let’s get down to the root. YOU don’t care. Just say that”.  I am not afraid of those conversations because honesty is  the start to healing.
Can art and creativity solve social problems? (Why or why not?)
Most definitely! Art opens the soul and then you can insert truth. The arts are cathartic. It isn’t the only way to solve problems but it is one way.
What progress can you see in diversity/inclusion of everyone in the human story?
Love. When you can see we are all human and broken and it’s celebrated…that is LOVE…that is God’s best, in my opinion. We are made beautifully broken.
James Baldwin said : 
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Boom! Enough said. Healing hurts. Prejudice is so arrogant and fearful: it clings on being “right” it doesn’t want to be healed because it’s afraid of pain. But the pain won’t last. Healing is possible.
What work still needs to be done to better celebrate diversity and inclusion and how do artists help? 
Art is a way of allowing people to tell their stories. Being honest about your journey is healing to you and others. Let people tell THEIR OWN story…not a second hand observance of what you think someone is dealing with. Empathy is awesome but it is still coming through your filter of understanding. I think we need to shut up and listen to each other. 
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Aleta Myles lives and works in Nashville, TN. To learn more about her work, watch her videos, or contact her for a booking, please visit her website and social media pages. 

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One More Thing (on Social and Political Change)

charles-darwin-sssshh-ofset-to-right-of-frameBecause of its tendency to polarize and alienate people, and how easy it is for online “discussions” to lose control to third/fourth/fifth parties, I have resolved to no longer engage in emotionally charged social and political discourse on Facebook (or social media in general).

This doesn’t mean I don’t have strong beliefs and opinions, or that I don’t care about voting or community activism. It doesn’t mean I don’t think speaking one’s mind is important. I think there are many people who are gifted at political discourse, activism, organizing and social theory, and they continue to share those gifts.

I have simply come to the conclusion that it is more beneficial and fruitful for me to have these discussions in an environment that is controlled, peaceful, and personal. It is way too easy for me to dehumanize  another when we use machines to communicate.

If I share something, I want it to be in the spirit of sharing what I learned, how something helped, edified, or challenged me, not as a means to shame my detractors.

(I have not “arrived” or perfected any of this. I’m writing this- all of this- for the same reason I write anything down- to hold myself accountable; to preserve my commitment for posterity.)

Beyond that, I don’t feel it’s my prerogative to make sure an online acquaintance changes his mind, or that a friend changes her opinion and votes for the same person I do. I am not obligated to answer for their choices.

The best I can do is set a watchman for my conscience, my feelings toward others, and my own behavior. I think the best way for me to change the world is to change it around me, through interacting with people and with my community at large.

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Some will disagree with me and take the big picture approach. Some will see things more the way I do. Both have their benefits. Both can and do have positive outcomes. One is just a better choice for my own peace of mind and relationships than the other.

With some professional guidance, I realized that If I focused the same energy I expend trying to convince others to see my way, if I channeled that into action, big or small,  my relationships and my community would transform. [Wow, I thought. What if all people had this approach.]

With all that said, it would be hypocritical for me to tell you who to vote for, how to voice your opinion, what to protest, how to act. When it comes to choosing your candidate, your cause, or your way to take action, there’s only one thing I can ask people I care about to do.

And it’s the same thing I’m asking of myself:

When you make your choice, do it with intention. Doing one small thing that you know will have an effect changes more than sitting idle for hours, stewing in anger and contempt. If your conscience tells you that something (or someone) is morally repugnant, align yourself elsewhere.  If you want to change a social or political reality, take an action that answers the call of your conscience. Whatever you choose to do, do it to strengthen your community, not to tear down someone else. While it’s always nice when others join you, sometimes they won’t. Don’t lose heart. Act in a way that leaves you at peace and doesn’t betray yourself. You can act big, or small. The important thing is to act from kindness, in earnest, and with empathy.

Here’s hoping.

What’s My Motivation? Changing What I Share Online

The Internet: Part information superhighway, part Eternal Troll Cave of Fathomless Depths. I used to love it. As someone whose driving motivation was understanding and solving social problems, I saw Facebook as my personal megaphone. It was a towering soapbox  from which I could denounce the social/political/moral evils surrounding me.

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My Resting Scroll Face

I would type out a fiery diatribe and gleefully hit send, shocked when my condescending drivel wasn’t readily embraced by the masses. Yes, I would think, I’m making a stand. I’m speaking up for what’s right: me. 

Wait. Aren’t you a Christian? You guys are all about denouncing some moral evils, right?

Yes. I am called to put a stop to thoughts and behaviors that are contrary to loving God and  neighbor. But I’m supposed to do that in my own life before I even think of “helping” someone else “see the error of their ways”.  Reminds me of a quote I saw today by St. Maximos the Confessor:

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Focusing on changing everyone on my News Feed for the better renders my own change null and void? Dag. Is it just me, or do the Saints straight-up roast people sometimes?

Beyond that, I’m starting to believe it’s impossible to have meaningful discussion [read: debate] on social media. Why?

  • I could be wrong. There, I said it. Hey, anything’s possible.
  • I can be right and still be mean or condescending about it. And that’s wrong.
  • I could assume someone I don’t agree with is bad or evil, without knowing all the facts (which I never will anyway). And that’s judging.
  • I will probably get angry more quickly (and for longer) online than I would in person. The vitriol/intensity of the Internet and the way opinions are written there makes it a breeding ground for angry, spiteful and otherwise violent communication.
  • It’s public. Eliminating the privacy of a face-to-face conversation almost guarantees that someone else will weigh in, take something out of context, gang up on one of us, and so on.

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When I disagree with, denounce, or vilify someone else’s perspective/political party/difference of opinion online, they can see it. [Even if I passive-aggressively Vaguebook about how wrong “some people” are on my own timeline.] And everyone else we’re friends with can see it, too. Not to mention our little tête à tête  is saved for posterity. Plus there’s never really been a time when I’ve thought: Wow. That gloves-are-off Facebook debate really brought us closer.

So, if I’m going to post something online, I start with asking myself something simple: why am I sharing this?

Is it:

  • Because I’m angry?
  • To declare how right I am?
  • To declare how wrong you are?
  • To make “the other side” [or people who identify with them] look bad, or foolish?

If the answer is yes, I need to re-think. As cheesy as this little mnemonic is, it’s really helpful for us social media mavens:

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The first time I saw this, I thought something alone the lines of: well, guess I have to delete Facebook and stop blogging. I didn’t blog or stir the pot on Facebook for months. I tried my hand at holding my tongue (my success varied widely from day to day). And while I try to be much more careful about the tone of what I post now than I used to, I still believe social media and blogging are powerful ways of sharing new ideas, and building connections rooted in empathy rather than same-ness of opinion.

Filtering what I share doesn’t mean I can’t post about tricky issues or things I care about, or that I’m suggesting Shrinking Violet is the New Black. My desire for a peaceful newsfeed does not cancel out my strong convictions. The key is changing the focus of the material I post from “what they’re doing wrong”  to “what’s helping me do better”.

What did this teach me?

How is this helping me be a better human?

What about this situation worries or troubles me?  

I know this is a problem. What is a solution I can realize in my day to day interactions and/or in my community?

 If my main goal really is to change myself for the better, I can share  things in terms of what I learned, or how something helped me change my perspective. If something is important to me, I can simply say that before sharing, without bringing what “some people” think into it. If someone misspeaks online and the error could hurt them or others, I can do my best to gently present my point of view.

All in all, I’m learning it’s best for my peace of mind (and my relationships) not to get too deep into a Facebook face-off. In general, I think the tricky things are best discussed with a friend, over cold beer and Hot Chicken.

Small Things/ Great Love

A couple of months ago, while talking to my priest. I was doing my usual: unpacking my laundry list of worries about life and the cosmos. And I don’t just talk about my worries, y’all. I pile them up. I stack them carefully, one on top of another, like scary, toxic Fear Pancakes:

Well, what about racism and police brutality?

What about global warming?

What about natural disasters and the end times and the future and GMOs and- and- and. . . 

You get the idea. We’ve all been there: that point where we are literally Can’t Even-ing because the Whole Entire Flip-Flappin’ World is just so Out-Of-Its Mind-Crazy. But I had stayed there in that state of mind and pitched a tent. I scrolled through (and wallowed in) the misery of the world and drank up all the injustice I saw in a medium where [more often than not- I know there are exceptions] no direct action can be taken by me to fix the problem.

For an aspiring social activist, I was pretty immobilized But that’s what happens when exposure is equated to involvement. The choir and I took turns preaching, we all shouted AMEN. I wrote the perfectly researched comments that silenced my opponents. I had become callous in the name of caring. I had replaced engaged with enraged. And I was beginning to drown. In fact, I noticed that the discourse on Social Media was simultaneously doing the following [and on a 24-hour, ever refreshing loop]:

Demanding I care passionately, constantly

Demanding I demonstrate I care in a specific way

Heavily implying [or outright stating] that to the degree I didn’t post, discuss, or engage in a public forum, I didn’t care.

Is it just me, or does the News Feed turn social causes and opinions into that horrible snob in every 80s coming of age movie? You know, the one who pressured their boyfriend or girlfriend with the words “You would if you really loved me”.  So much of the rhetoric on The Book turns everyone into That Guy [or Girl, anyone can be a jerk]. I see it happen all the time.

And if I’m being honest, I’ve been That Person often, and I’ve done so in the name of being correct, open-minded or [worst of all] theologically sound. I’ve done it for the recognition, for the praise, and to prove my own moral amazingness. And that both humbles me and grosses me out.

While it’s a great tool for fast communication and spread of good ideas and causes, Social Media and the Internet can also increase feelings of alienation, polarization [us vs. them], and snap judgement.

What- in a normal conversation- would amount to “We don’t see eye to eye on this, but I know from our other conversations and interactions that you are not, in fact, a soulless monster, but my friend” becomes “OMG U FASCIST I HATE YOUR STUPID FACE AND I HOPE YOU FALL DOWN A WELL!!!!!!!!”

So what’s changed? Am I off Facebook? [Girl, please- it’s open in the next tab.] I did- however- find a more realistic way of looking at it, and at the whole idea of social engagement.

My priest-remember him? the patient guy at the beginning of the story?- told me about something he read about that helped him not to become overwhelmed, hate everyone, and spend the rest of his life crying [paraphrasing there]. He told me about the Circle of Influence: areas we can actually change and influence vs. the Circle of Concern: the big, ever-present problems of the world.

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According to the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the most effective [and/or proactive] people focus the majority of their time on their Circle of Influence, and far less on their Circle of Concern. This not only made total sense to me and struck me as a really healthy way to be,  it helped me realize that social media, and media in general, distorts things such that our Circle of Concern is either presented as identical to our Circle of Influence or vastly more important when it comes to changing our circumstances, when it’s really the other way around.

“Imagine,” Father said, “what it would be like if you took that energy for those causes you cared about and put them into action in your community and in your day to day life.” I  could write a letter to the editor, have a conversation that promotes empathy and understanding of someone different than me, treat a friend who is struggling financially to a meal, recycle, look someone in the eye and tell them they matter. The wonderful paradox is: I can do almost nothing to solve the big problems of the world, but the “small” things I can do that would truly make a difference are in fact vast, endless, and ever-evolving.

What if I- what if we all- took that approach first and foremost? Would all social problems be eliminated? Probably not. Would action be taken consistently, and would things change? Definitely. And that seems like what all us are truly after.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta changed the way the world views poverty, service, and love. She transformed the lives of countless people with her work, and continues to do so with her teachings. Yet she did not use a computer, and rarely traveled outside of the area where she lived. Would we dare say she didn’t care?

Even contemplating shifting my focus from “great things” to “small things with great love” has been immensely freeing. To do so helps me see more clearly how much I am loved. I realize more clearly what I can do for others.

I believe that thinking and acting in our sphere of influence- doing small things for our friends, enemies, neighbors, communities, opponents and compatriots- deliberately and consistently with great love will shift our connection to humankind from virtual to reality.

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What do you feel connects us to one another? What harms that connection? What helps it?

What small things have been done for you with great love?

What small thing can you commit to doing this week for someone that you love? For someone that you don’t always agree with?

A Letter to Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

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Dear Amy and the Smart Girls:

I just visited your website where I read- with the same disappointment one might read the phrase “Sorry, we’re all out of pizza”- that Smart Girls has no contributor/intern/job openings at this time, but to check back later. I can assure you I will check back later, but in the meantime, I hope you will take a few minutes to read this letter due to your general awesomeness, your interest in story-sharing, and my bone-deep conviction that I am your long-awaited best friend. I have been trying to be more courageous lately, and this is borderline crazy, so I thought I’d go for it and see what happens.

I am a 29 year old woman (or Girl, to stick with the vernacular) from Nashville, TN. I have grown up here, and- apart from an internship for the Federal Government in DC and about 15 months of graduate school in Athens, GA- I have lived here all my life. Doing the best I could in school was a good decision; I was able to go to both undergrad and graduate school with several scholarships in tow, and to receive honors over the course of my education. Because I have always loved learning and put a great deal of pressure on myself to succeed, I started college at 17, finished my bachelor’s shortly before 21, and completed my Master’s within a few days of turning 23. [I realize that not enough people get an opportunity for an education, so I am profoundly grateful to have had it]. It is uncomfortable for me to write this part of the letter, because I was raised to be modest, which I kinda took to an extreme by never talking any of about my accomplishments with my friends. I am also leaving some stuff out because I am terrified that someone reading this will think I’m- gasp!- kinda braggy, or even worse: that I’m no fun at parties. Anyway, bear with me, I promise that not only do I have a point, it’s on it’s way. Also, I’m super fun at parties. Ask anyone.

My bachelor’s in Sociology [“Oh, wow. This world is kinda messed up for all these reasons that seem to be cemented in the social and economic fabric, and here are a bunch of depressing books and papers about just how bad it is.”] paved the way for my Master’s in Nonprofit Organizations [“Maybe it’s more like peanut butter than cement: it’s sticky and messy and gross when it gets on you, but malleable. We can change it, we will change it, as soon as we get enough grant money.”], and I have been working in the nonprofit field as a volunteer, intern board member or staff member, for about 10 years now.

But a traditional education and list of 9 to 5 jobs do not necessarily a Smart Girl make. We have all met plenty of people who have the appearances of success that are really just Mean Girls [“One time, she punched me in the face. It was awesome.”]. And of course there are plenty of Smart Girls who are so because they have found joy, success, and contentment and human connection by their own unique and innovative means. There is so much room in this world for Smart Girls, and so many Smart Girls looking for voices. I know this not just because I have met those girls, but because I am one.

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I was born with Cerebral Palsy, a disability with onset at birth that affects everyone who has it in ways unique to them. Most commonly, mobility, motor skills and speech are affected first, with other secondary effects. However, just like with any other experience of disability, the challenges faced when living out that experience are not merely physical. Beyond my own story, I know that many people experience intellectual disability, and many have a disability that is not visible but still plays a great part in the challenges they face [such as Autism Spectrum Disorders or Traumatic Brain Injuries, among many]. And while a life with a disability is certainly just as full of joy, blessing, talent and strength as anyone else’s, there are also many other factors at play that too often silence the voices of so many Smart People out there. People with disabilities face far more hurdles to employment, education, and acceptance in community life than their typically developing peers. People with disabilities are almost entirely absent from popular culture and media, with the few exceptions still placing all the focus on their “otherness”. And the rate of depression, anxiety, and similar emotional challenges amongst people with disabilities is extremely high.

Here I’ve spent a decade working for people with disabilities, with many of my peers working twice as long as I have, and it is still remarkable to people that I have an education, a job and a partner. While I am not in any way downplaying the very real work myself and so many people I know have done to reach such milestones, I dream for a world where stories like mine are no longer the exception, but the rule. And I am at a point in my life where I am realizing that sometimes in order to do big work, you have to think big. You have to try something new; you have to leap and see where you might land.

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Why Smart Girls, you ask? Why not one of those spiffy nonprofits I alluded to like a hundred paragraphs ago? Well, because the Smart Girls are all about acceptance, celebration, and inclusion. They’re all about having a voice that gets heard, not by shaming and negativity, but by affirming, by celebrating and building connections. Yes, nonprofits serving people with disabilities crusade for all these things, but the whole point of doing so is for our story to be heard, and not just by people who already know it. To make lasting change, I have to tell the story of disability experience in a way that causes someone to snap out of their comfort and familiarity zones and realize, “This is not just a cute, inspirational article. This is my story. These are my neighbors and friends. This is my family member or partner.”

Working in the disability services field the power of connection is apparent. We work hard to cultivate a spirit of empathy, and an attitude of saying “you can do anything you set your mind to, and I’m here if you need any help or support in making it happen”. I was very fortunate to have a community, a support system, a means of finding my voice. But in this age of information overload and lack of true connection, I have often wondered: are there other people out there needing that community, that sense of voice? I believe the answer is yes, and I believe that need will always be present. I also believe that Smart Girls can be one of those voices

Recently, I re-entered the job market. My husband suggested I contact you guys (because he’s smart, too), and I considered that suggestion a huge vote of confidence. Of course I realize sending this letter provides no guarantees of a response, or of any action on your part. I am just reaching out in hopes that perhaps somewhere in my story, you will see an opportunity, or that when one arises, you will remember this letter. If you want to think of ways to make your curriculum more accessible to people with disabilities, if you need help finding great stories of people with disabilities to tell, if you ever want to make sure that eliminating ableism is a clear part of your values, or if you just want to eat some nachos, you know where to find me.

Thank you for all you do, you beautiful unicorns of the sea.
Beth H. Thielman

Aspiring Smart Girl

Nashville, TN

You Just Got Served: the Good Samaritan Edition

As I was ruminating on current events, and the discourse surrounding them, I kept coming back to the famous parable from the Gospel of Luke:

And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 

He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”  

So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘[love] your neighbor as yourself.’ And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” 

But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 

Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed,  he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ 

So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”

And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37, NKJV)

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The term “Good Samaritan” has become synonymous with helping people in need or distress, with the moniker especially applied to those who do so without expecting anything in return (i.e. giving to charity, helping someone stranded on the roadside). Of course, these are good things to do and to continue doing. But the actions of the Good Samaritan can teach us a lot more once we think about how he overturns some of our most entrenched attitudes. Here are a few of the most toxic ways of thinking about people and situations that the Good Samaritan reverses with his acts of love:

Us vs. Them

Samaritans and Jews did not get along, and that’s putting it nicely. They despised each other (a very brief explanation of why can be found here). Jews would travel far out of their way on journeys to avoid passing through Samaria. They feuded bitterly with each other over their ethnic, cultural, and religious differences. So for a Samaritan to not only be characterized as a good man, but to help someone who was presumably a Jew (while a Jewish Priest and a Levite passed by), would have been a stark example of love, compassion, and empathy.

Our society, and sometimes our own choices and attitudes, often perpetuate an Us vs. Them mentality. What creates this otherness? Perhaps it’s because we lose our sense of  community.  Consider the religious law expert asking Jesus “Who is my neighbor”. This falls into the category of “You can’t make this stuff up”. A religious law expert was seriously questioning Jesus to find a loophole in the “love your neighbor” commandment?! News flash, dude. If you have to ask that, you either don’t know who your neighbor is, or you don’t want to know.

Of course, he got served when Jesus pointed out through the Parable that everyone we meet is our neighbor, and that to be a neighbor is to have mercy on everyone we meet. There is no us, there is no them, there is only our responsibility to each person, to all of our neighbors in this human community. It got me thinking: have I ever tried to find reasons not to love my neighbor? Because, surprise! None of them are valid!

Not My Problem

Often times–because the Us vs. Them mentality takes hold, it is easy to detach ourselves from the troubles of others, or of the world at large: that’s not my problem [because it affects “them”]. Whether “them” is a social group we don’t identify with, or just someone other than ourselves and our inner circle, it takes work- a series of intentional decisions and actions– to go from detachment, to compassion, to action– which is exactly what made the Good Samaritan so “good”.

He had absolutely no reason to stop and help. In fact, he had every reason to keep on going. He didn’t know the guy, and it was someone who he was completely different from (in ethnicity, religion, culture). Not to mention it was a graphic scene, it would cost him money, and it would require him going out of his way. Why should he invest time, energy and feelings in this guy? Clearly he was in a bad way– what if he deserved it? Wouldn’t it be better for someone else to handle this?

Served again. Along with “his neighbor”, the Samaritan had a broad definition of what counted as “his problem”: it seemed to be any problem he noticed affecting not just himself, but his neighbor [essentially anyone who crossed his path].

I can’t help.

Even if we recognize that all mankind is our neighbor, and their hurts and needs are our problems, it is easy to feel like we can’t help. The problems we observe might affect many of our neighbors, or one neighbor may have many problems we don’t feel equipped to solve. Here the Samaritan offers more wisdom: you can help. Just use what you have, do what you can, and reach out to others when needed. Sometimes we can’t solve an entire problem for our neighbor, but there are always ways we can help. It may be as simple as listening, saying a prayer, or affirming and validating someone. In any of those cases, a little bit goes a long way toward healing.

I can’t relate.

So, if our neighbor is supposed to include everyone, there are going to be times we don’t agree with our neighbor, or have so little in common with our neighbor that it feels like we can’t relate to them on any level. How can we help, how can we heal, if we don’t see something of ourselves in them? If we don’t feel like our neighbors are in the right– are we off the hook? If there is nothing about their problem or their situation that we feel deserves our time and attention, is that person still our neighbor?

Although the Samaritan was obviously kind and generous and did many things to help the man by the roadside, Jesus spotlights one characteristic, one attribute above all that made him a neighbor more than any single act: he showed mercy. Mercy is defined in two ways:

1. kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly

2. kindness or help given to people who are in a very bad or desperate situation

Both of these apply to the mercy shown by the Good Samaritan: he was being kind to someone in dire straits, and the person he showed kindness to was someone who he could–in a social context- have every reason to treat harshly.  His example is one we should all follow: in which the world is our community, every person in it is our neighbor, and in which we are called to help one another heal through [both kinds of] mercy.

***

Food for thought:

What is the most challenging lesson of the Good Samaritan?

What is one way I have been shown Mercy (when I may have had reason to be treated otherwise)

How can I “go and do likewise”?

Opinions are People, Too.

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I haven’t blogged in a long time, because I have been afraid. Yes, afraid to do something I should be eager to do as a writer living in a free-speech loving country: I am afraid to share my opinions, and tell you the stories that form them. I have kept quiet for a long time about many things. But that doesn’t jive with me, turkey.  Because whatever else I have to be to pay the bills, I am a writer. Writing is what I do. I do it to make you think, make you feel, and [hopefully] make you smile. I have to do it. It feels wrong not to, especially when I am learning, struggling, and wanting to grow, since writing is the vehicle I use to do that. I have to speak up. I have to be myself. I have to tell people who that is, because I like her, and I am proud of who God has made her. There is a good case for keeping our mouths shut a lot of the time. But after much thought, prayer and consideration, it is time to break the silence.

Warning: these stories contain opinions that may not be agreeable to all readers:

  • Several months ago, I implied on social media that I think anyone should be able to get a wedding cake from anywhere that sells wedding cakes, regardless of whether I shared the same definition of marriage as that couple did. [My reason being, of course, that if a business owner could decide to deny someone else a good, service, or civil right based on a differing characteristic or belief, I could also concievably be denied civil rights, goods, or services by the same exact line of reasoning.] And there was a firefight. I mean, you would have thought I said I was a cannibal, and that you were next, buddy. The comments made me cry. I lost sleep. It was not an easy time.
  • A few weeks ago, there was a barrage of posts on my newsfeed about how [yes] all women have been victimized, objectified or abused.  Perusing some of the posts reminded me of my own experiences: growing up with a man who made ours a tumultuous house, being flirted with [in the classroom] by male teachers who were twice my age, being asked by random men for a “ride” because of my wheelchair. Remembering made me feel small and sad, and my heart went out to women.  But at the very same time, I was made aware through circumstance and conversation of the countless good men in my life, who have never treated me with anything but love, dignity and respect. Some of the most poignant, loving and heartfelt help I have had working through these things has come from the men in my life- one in particular. And my heart went out to them, too. Good men–no, great men–who were only seeing negative messages from the world at large. I wept for my friends, male and female, as I watched them victimized and villainized. I could not perpetuate that.
  • I have read things bemoaning government assistance, wondering why individuals who receive it have nice phones and televisions. I receive government assistance. I have a nice phone and a television. I also[gratefully] work 2 jobs. But I know people who can’t work for many valid reasons, and I think of them, how grateful they are for what they have, how freely they have shared with me of the possessions and resources such assistance has allowed them to have. I couldn’t agree with prejudice directed at people like those I knew. And iCouldn’t let someone who had no interest in learning about any other aspect of my life make me feel guilty for having a talking phone [I have to admit, it’s pretty neat].
  • I have seen posts about how a photo of me in my two-piece swimsuit might cause trouble in a marriage. “My husband shouldn’t have to see your boobs” it read. I agree, I thought. And he won’t, I can assure you. But he may have to see my opaque, normal-for-this-century swimsuit [gasp!]. And I have full confidence in his ability to continue to be lovingly and faithfully married to you after he does.
  • Just yesterday, I was accused of believing in “magic” because I have a deep and abiding faith in the sacraments and the healing power of the Church. I was singled out and belittled by a stranger without a second thought.
  • The same day, I saw the latest title from a popular Christian blogger: “If you want birth control, go buy it. Nobody is stopping you” he said. And I felt ashamed because I would not be able to afford birth control without the insurance [from the government] that helps me pay for it.

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Every single time I found myself in possession of a strong opinion after reading [or receiving the brunt end of] these social shenanigans, I simultaneously wanted to shut up about it and shout it from the rooftops. And I have kept quiet, for a long time.  Truth be told, I was a wimpy-wimpface who used my insecurities as an excuse to be so. But I had to cut loose [footloose, kick off your Sunday shoes!] Because my opinions are not just tenets or ideologies.  They are indicators of my feelings and passions, my shortcomings and wants. They remind me where I am on my journey of empathy, compassion, understanding and faith.  They are my stories. And coming to this realization has shown me something important.

Just as my opinions- when you read or hear them- point directly to myself and my circumstances, opposing viewpoints from people whose opinions differ from mine, are still glimpses of who they are. If I am angry at an opinion and I state that anger plainly and without tact, it will hurt the people attached to those differing opinions. It will make it a battle of correct and incorrect, instead of an effort to do the right thing.

To counter the knee-jerk reaction to talk about how right and awesome I am, I have tried a new strategy of late. I have intentionally read opposing or differing viewpoints, to get a sense of the stories people are trying to tell me.

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As a result, I enjoy reading about and discussing men’s issues, LGBT issues, minority issues, stories about the military, blogs by rabbis and Muslims, you name it. [And surprisingly, I have not turned into an LGBT Jewish Muslim man yet!] The whole thing has challenged me, taught me new things, and made me more aware of “the other side” of a lot of popular debates in the news and media.  I especially like to read opposing views from people I know. I can flex my empathy muscles and make them big and strong. Which is important because:

  • Everyone has opinions on everything.
  • Those opinions are strong, often because they are tied to a real-life experience the person has had, or a deeply-held belief or tradition.
  • There is much more to a person than their opinion on one issue.
  • People’s opinions change over time, and can even change as a result of an exchange of opinions with someone different from them.

And most importantly, the opinion I don’t agree with belongs to a person with a need, a hurt, or a story. A person I am obligated by my humanity and my theology to love, from right where they are.  Because that’s just the right thing to do, in my opinion anyway.