Why ask why

Since I started writing again, I’ve purposely avoided tackling the topics of the moment: COVID, racism, civil unrest. There’s already so much being written on all sides that I feared my voice would just add to the confusion. And to be honest, it’s safer.

It doesn’t feel right, though.

It’s hard to keep it light when so many things weigh heavily on my mind. I am heartbroken about what’s happening across the country: Minneapolis, Kenosha, Portland, Los Angeles. Pick just about any city right now and you can find protests and violence ravaging the streets.

While I don’t condone violence–against humans, animals, property, or anything else–if we ONLY look at that, we’re missing the point. It’s too easy to focus on an end result and make sweeping judgments. When we do, we’re just treating the symptoms.

Why aren’t we asking WHY?

Why are people so frustrated and angry? Why does an entire population feel disenfranchised? Why do people feel they have to break things or cause unrest to be heard? Why aren’t the rest of us listening?

We have built a society that systemically discriminates against people who are not white. We didn’t admit Black people into college for a really long time, and when we did, we didn’t let them live there or use the libraries or do any of the things they needed to succeed. We didn’t let Black people get union cards back in the day, so they couldn’t find work in the trades. We didn’t let black people get loans so they couldn’t make investments in businesses or houses or their own prosperity. I could go on, but hopefully you see the point.

Fast forward to today. Even when laws have changed, the cultural effects continue to be carried forward. Attitudes, neighborhoods, expectations, beliefs, stigmas. Some of us won’t even acknowledge a problem ever existed at all.

There’s a tweet going around the internet about an idea for a new reality show:

ok hear me out….a reality show where billionaire CEOs have to live off of their lowest-paid employee’s salary for a month

— eva ☻ (@evamarieluter) August 30, 2020

If you follow the thread (which is now ginormous), someone commented that it wouldn’t be a problem for the billionaire since s/he would just invest, build wealth, and get the heck out of there. Yeah, right. Understandably, many people responded to remind that person that when all your money goes to rent and food, there isn’t anything left to invest. The debate got pretty toxic, but isn’t this the same point we need to examine for Black people in our country?

How could we ever expect anyone to work their way out of dire situations when all of their resources went to survival? And we refused to provide the tools–education, jobs, certifications, access to credit–that would help them change things? Even if those things are (arguably) available now, they’re already way behind. And again, the cultural effects remain much more deeply entrenched.

Before you start giving me anecdotal illustrations of people for whom this was NOT the situation, I’ll agree with you. Yep, right now. I agree. Not every Black person suffered in the same way. Many became prosperous and “lived the dream.” (Whose dream is debatable, but that’s for a different day.) But many, many, many more–the overwhelming majority–fell victim to a system designed to keep them separate at best and unable to function at worst.

I’ll also say this: I don’t have the solution.

What I do know is that we will never, ever make any progress toward peace and justice if we only address the symptoms. If we only address the violence and looting, it will keep happening. We need to treat the whole disease to find a cure, not just the symptoms.

Start by asking what brought us here. And don’t forget to listen to the answers.

Kicking the tires

flat tireMy kids and I pack a lot into our days. With work, school, practices, rehearsals, committees, and social lives tugging us in different directions, we sometimes have to get creative in order to spend time with each other. That’s how I came up with the idea of having my kids tag along on my runs–on their bikes.

A few years ago on one of spring’s earliest days, I laced up my running shoes to take advantage of the warm air and colorful blossoms. I invited my daughter to come with me so that we could steal a few moments together. She said yes, grabbed her bike, and off we went.

Before we proceed, you have to understand that my dazzling princess is somewhat averse to physical exertion, or at least she was at the time. Previous runs through the neighborhood with her on foot had resulted in my frantic assessment of potential onlookers to see if anyone might be calling Child Protective Services as my daughter screamed things like, “Stop hurting me!” “Why are you doing this to me?” “Why won’t you let me stop?!” and “You’re a MEAN WHALE!” Keep in mind that these exclamations generally came about five minutes into any activity after she remembered what she might be missing on TV.

Back to the story.

A block into our run/ride, dear daughter started complaining. It was too hard. It made her legs hurt. Could we please go home? Shaking my head, I pressed on, shouting over my shoulder, You have wheels! I only have feet. Keep up! After another block of ever-increasing complaints, the grousing stopped. Relieved, I looked back to see whether my daughter had caught up with me.

Rather than being hot on my tail, she was a block behind me, feet firmly planted on the sidewalk, wheels stationary. She refused to budge.

As I retraced my steps wondering how to cajole her into continuing, a tiny thought weaseled its way into my brain. I don’t think she has had her bike out since last fall. I wonder if she needs air in her tires…

I arrived at her fortified position and squeezed the rubber. Sure enough, her tires were flat. Not just low on air, but completely flat. No wonder she was complaining; she was riding on the rims! Every revolution of her pedals took extreme effort for her little legs. Oops. Bad mom moment. Her complaints were valid this time.

That incident is never far from my mind, and I’ve become extra-vigilant about checking tires before bike rides. As I’ve chuckled sheepishly over the memory, I’ve also realized there was a greater lesson embedded in it than the effects of winter storage on air pressure: never, ever stop listening.

You see, I know my daughter and her patterns. When a situation seems to fit a pattern, it’s pretty easy to check the box and tune out; it’s all about context, right? Of course, that’s exactly the moment when I risk missing something important.

I’m a huge proponent of understanding context, but paying too much attention to the context can sometimes crowd out the facts. Like tire pressure.

Shut up and listen

I pride myself on catching on quickly. I like to think I get it without a lot of explanatory narrative. Maybe there is some amount of natural intuition involved, but mostly it takes active listening and making mental connections. So, by some mathematical property that should certainly apply broadly to touchy-feely analogies like these,I think that must make me a good listener.

Well, pride goeth before a fall.

Sometimes I get so caught up in making those mental connections and proving my comprehension that I slide right through the listening part. Luckily, there are often verbal cues to set me straight, to remind me to shut up and listen.

I was given one of those cues the other day. While I was rambling on about the point I thought my boss had made, he sat quietly, waiting for me to finish. I didn’t notice that his eyes had glazed over, nor did it occur to me that he wasn’t speaking or nodding. When I finally stopped to take a breath, I heard the cue resonate loud and clear–though my boss said it quietly.

Where I was going with this is…

Oops. Those words embarrassed me more than I can say. I had clearly missed the point. I should have kept listening instead of jumping in to show that I understood. Thankfully his reminder was gracious, and we moved forward without further attention to it. It made me stop and reflect, though. Regardless of what I think I know or how good I think I am at interpreting, it never, ever, ever hurts to shut up and listen. Even communications people need to be reminded every now and then.