I was making lunch today, and my four-year-old asked me, “Mama, what’s your favorite song?”
I’m actually not a fan of “favorites.” My favorite color, dessert, or song usually depends on my mood, and there’s just too much good stuff out there for me to pick a favorite. But that answer would sound evasive to a four-year-old, so I grabbed my phone and quickly scanned my music downloads. The first song to jump out at me was “First Day of My Life” by Bright Eyes from their album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.
As I listened to this song with Jonah, I thought of when Ned and I got married. This was our “first dance” song. Ned and I were at an impasse on a song for a long time, and then I was sitting in our condo living room one night with my laptop, listening to song after song after song. Ned was in the bathtub, soaking in oatmeal to try and kick some hives he had from a nasty allergic reaction. And then I watched this music video, and I knew this was it. My eyes filled with tears, the hair stood up on the back of my neck, and Ned yelled from the bathtub: “Hey! I love this song! I’ve had the CD for years.”
So we danced to it at our wedding, full of joy and optimism at the thought of “forever,” totally unaware that we actually got something really, really right with this song: Transformation.
This song is teeming with messages of transformation. From the title, “First Day of My Life,” which signals a new beginning, to verses such as:
I remember the time you drove all night
Just to meet me in the morning
And I thought it was strange, you said everything changed
You felt as if you just woke up
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the conflicts and the fear and the anger that seem to be setting the world on fire right now, and I proposed that the only thing that can fight the violence is Radical Love. I admitted that I don’t know exactly what it looks like – and I still don’t – but I feel like when I watch this video (which still makes me cry), transformation seems like an important piece of the puzzle.
If we really want the world to change – to be more peaceful and loving – to what extent are we personally willing to transform to create these changes? Are we willing to take time from our busy days to help a neighbor? Are we willing to change our lifestyles and sacrifice some material luxuries so that others can meet their basic needs? Are we willing to listen when someone shares something that makes us feel uncomfortable?
I don’t ask these questions lightly. In many ways they profoundly challenge our culture as it stands now. A week or so ago, Hillary Clinton Tweeted that white people need to do a better job of listening when people of color share their experiences with racism . . . and people were pissed at her. Why? Is it really that hard to listen?
The answer is Yes. When what you’re going to hear challenges everything you believe, when it proves that our country has not, indeed, moved past racism, it is extremely uncomfortable to listen. It is uncomfortable to admit that your countrymen are denied basic human rights because their skin is a different color. People are so intent on protecting their current version of reality that they get downright angry when someone requests that they listen to another point of view.
But how do we move past the hate and the violence if we’re not even willing to admit that they exist? If we really, truly want the changes that we claim to want – love, peace, an end to violence – we need to be willing to transform. We need to be willing to listen to one another and admit that, for some of our brothers and sisters, reality is far different than how we perceive it. Transformation is absolutely essential for progress.
On the other end of the spectrum, we are now witness to a rallying cry for the past: “Make America Great Again.” Is America less great than it used to be? In some ways, yes. A couple of generations ago, my grandparents could provide for their families – one with five children, the other with twelve – even though they had no higher education. The relationship was such between employer and employee that a living wage and benefits were exchanged for hard work. That’s not necessarily the case now. But what about social equality? Were things better for women? People of color? The LGBTQ community?
What would it mean for these Americans for America to be “great again”?
I don’t remember which speaker it was – possibly Ben Carson – but sometime in the last two days someone at the Republican convention pitched a line disparaging the “thousand different ways we’re supposed to be politically correct now.” And everyone cheered. Why? What exactly is political correctness, and why does it make people so angry?
Political correctness is the act of using language that makes people feel respected and validated. Yes, political correctness is sometimes confusing. I’ve met some people who prefer the term African American and some people who prefer black, and it makes me a bit anxious about which one to use because I don’t want to offend anybody. But isn’t it better to make the effort – to show that you care about people’s feelings – than to bumble through social interactions stubbornly using language that feels demeaning to others?
Political correctness creates anxiety in white cisgendered people because we’re afraid of making a mistake and offending someone. That’s uncomfortable. So if we can write off “political correctness” as somebody else’s hypersensitivity instead of our own personal responsibility to be respectful, it shifts the onus away from us and onto them. But what’s the cost of denying our personal responsibility for making our country a more respectful place to live? If we really want to transform our nation, can we willingly accept the anxiety that comes with acknowledging that racism is still a problem and we’ve benefited from its existence?
This is an important question because, quite frankly, unlike people of color and other social minorities, white people have a choice. We don’t need to address racism. We can go on living our everyday lives and pretend that a black therapist in Florida wasn’t just shot by police – while he lay on the ground with his hands in the air – because the autistic man he was working with was holding a toy truck that police mistook for a gun (story here). We can choose to go about our day because that simply isn’t likely to happen to us. But what about if you’re black? Can you simply choose to ignore that? No way in hell.
Are you not sure what to do about it. Not a problem. Nobody is asking white people to take charge of this. Right now, the most common thing I hear is that people of color just want white people to listen when they say racism is still a problem. Even though it’s uncomfortable as hell, we need to listen.
And this kind of listening isn’t passive. Uh-uh. This kind of listening is uncomfortable because it’s going to transform how we see the world. It’s going to be scary and painful to listen to a women of color – women like you in a lot of ways – and hear that they fear for the lives of their fathers, husbands, and sons when they encounter police. It’s going to feel like getting punched in the gut when you realize that black mothers have to teach their kids precisely how to act in stores or around police so as not to arouse suspicion. Developing empathy is going to hurt.
We feel anxious because we’re scared to go down the rabbit hole, and part of our privilege is that we have a choice. Are we willing to transform – to allow our perception of reality to transform – so that we can move toward the more loving world we claim we want?
We assume that we’ll change and transform when we fall in love or become mothers. I started dating vegetarian Ned and my meat consumption went down by 75%. I threw out my Bath & Bodyworks lotions that I loved because they give him hives. I even begrudgingly compost our coffee grounds because I know it makes him happy. When I became a mom, I traded alcohol for extra coffee and karaoke for kiddie-themed sing-alongs. I even got a new name: Mama. Any kind of truly profound love is an exchange that will transform you. It’s part of the deal.
And I would argue that hard work and transformation are just as critical with our community relationships.
The last verse of the song says:
So if you wanna be with me
With these things there’s no telling
We’ll just have to wait and see
But I’d rather be working for a paycheck
Than waiting to win the lottery
Are we willing to put in the hard work for a better, more equitable country? Or are we going to keep waiting around for a magic solution that isn’t coming? I prefer to work.
My first two radical love challenges for myself are: 1.) Listen. Not just to people of color – although that’s extremely important – but to everyone. What can I learn about their experience, about their reality, that I can’t see from my own narrow viewpoint? And 2.) Try to use language that makes people feel respected. Whether it’s better understanding politically correct terminology or paying attention to which nicknames my sons do or don’t like, using language that makes someone feel validated takes very little effort from me and can mean a lot to the recipient.
Quite frankly this all scares the shit out of me. But it’s time for change. I want a more loving, peaceful world for my boys, and I’m willing to challenge and transform my current belief system to get it. Are you?