Without Flinching: Radical Listening To Save The World
On my fourth birthday, Mom surprised me with a 64-box of Crayola’s with a built-in sharpener. She told me that it cost her an-arm-and-a-leg and I’d only get one ever, so when I have friends over I keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t color sideways with Cornflower or break Burnt Sienna in two.
One time my friend Susanne peeled the paper clean off of Red-Violet without even asking me and I got in big trouble for caring. I still had to be nice and say thank-you-for-coming-over even though it wasn’t even true.
Mom’s boyfriend Gary wears steel-toed boots, western shirts, and Wranglers with a shiny silver belt buckle. He smells like Old Spice and picks her up for their dates in a big white pickup truck with a built-in toolbox that says Seamless Guttering on the side in black letters. I stay at our neighbor Tootsie’s while they dance at country music bars, drink whiskey-n-cokes, and smoke Marlboro’s by the carton.
Sometimes Gary sleeps over, which turns out to be a good thing because one night before the sun is out he wakes us up to tell us that he caught a nigger crawling in the kitchen window. I’m not sure what a nigger is, but when Gary calls the police they start scribbling in their notepads so I guess it’s no good to have them crawling in your windows at night.
That night Gary had been cleaning his gun. He had it right there on the coffee table. Says he heard a sound, walked in as the guy's leg was halfway in the kitchen window. He tells mom that the motherfucker’s eyes were glowing white and big-as-saucers when he pointed the gun at his head.
The police say good-thing-you-didn’t-shoot-him, but after they leave Gary says he wishes he had.
One day Mom asks me if I want to meet my dad. All I know is he has curly hair like mine so I say yes and he flies in from Texas for a visit. I wear my favorite Bugs Bunny t-shirt and my brown boots with buckles on the sides.
When stranger-dad arrives, Mom and I pile into his car. He takes us to McDonald’s, then KB Toys. He buys me Tinker Toys, PlayDough, and a Mr Potato Head, then we head home. Mom calls Gary while he and I play in the living room. I laugh when he gets a real potato from the kitchen and dresses her up like Mr. Potato Head’s wife.
He visits again the next day. We play hide-and-seek.
I find Mom hiding in the closet. We all laugh.
Then he leaves.
After that, Mom won’t stop pressing her lips together. Gary shows up and I take my toys-that-should-have-been-groceries over to Tootsie’s to stay the night. Mom picks me up a couple of days later and hugs me. Hard. Like she hasn’t seen me in a summer. Her hair smells like perfume and cigarettes and a couple hours later, I catch her throwing up in the bathroom toilet.
Too much wine, she says.
I’ve been working on my memoir for a couple of years now and on rare occasions I summon the courage to share from its pages. Often times, the reader will reflect something back in the story that I didn’t even know was there. Meaning and complexity that I could never have spoken to directly.
Our personal stories hold within them a deeper narrative and truth. Life’s profundity is contained with countless mundane moments, and the more honest bits of our humanity are best revealed through the sharing of our experiences.
Outside of the genres of literature, complex narratives without spin and/or agenda can be hard to find. The stories we watch on television and in movies are mostly formulaic - with predictable arcs that we ride like waterslides toward adrenal heights or emotionally-fluid endings.
But everyday lives don’t unfold in the same way. The end of one story is the beginning of another, each overlapping and tethered to ancient narratives passed through generations.
A couple of weeks ago, a right-leaning conservative friend of mine expressed to me how she’s been feeling attacked by her liberal friends. She sounded angry. Defensive. Fed up and shut down.
And the thing is, I know loads of people - people who know nothing about her aside from her political affiliation - who will refuse to feel sorry for her. They’ll roll their eyes and shake their heads acrimoniously, insisting she be punished for a mess of her own making.
But I think that’s lazy. Childish.
And for the most part, bullshit.
As much as I am personally disgusted and outraged by pretty much all the president-elect himself seems to stand for, I am not so naive as to think that the people who voted for him - the people on the so-called other side of history - are looking through my same lens.
The other night I spoke with a friend who was in tears at the thought of a Trump presidency. She shook her head and wondered aloud: “But how? How is it they cannot see him as I do?”
Easy, I said.
My stepdad, Gary, had been married once before and had two daughters back in Wichita he rarely spoke of, reasoning they were better off without him.
He prided himself on having been the classic 50’s bad boy, flipping his finger at authority figures and regularly getting in fist fights. At the age of eighteen, he had one too many run-ins with the law. He stood before a judge. “Son, as it stands you have two options. You can either go to jail, or you can march your ass across the street and serve your country.” He enlisted in the US Marines that very day. He served two tours as a first-responder on the ground in Vietnam. After eleven months of active duty, he had watched as forty members of his platoon were killed in a bridge explosion. One of three survivors, he took shrapnel to the shoulder and was sent to Hawaii for three weeks medical leave. When sent back to complete his finally sixty days of service, there was an oversight and he stayed on for a second tour without leave. Stories from this second stint on the ground were rarely spoke of, were only hinted at during scotch-induced tirades. They involved shameful atrocities that shred lines into the soul of a man, turning scars into everyday madness.
Blue-collar through and through, Gary worked as a union welder, drank Miller Light by the case, and watched WWF Wrestling every Sunday. He was an avid patriot who saw absolutely no irony in the fact that at least twice a month he told Uncle Sam to fuck-off. He adamantly encouraged my every ambition; in the next breath referring to women as broads, cursing all the rich assholes of the world, and quoting Hank William’s, Jr. as if he were the greatest poet of his time.
Most of all, Gary protected and provided for us.
In exchange we agreed to live and think as he did.
As though each day was a life-or-death battle to be fought and won.
I’ll admit it.
Antagonism is easier.
There are days when I desperately need to exorcise my outrage. Verbally point fingers. Name names. Cry out in fear. There are times when I have to actively fight the urge to demonize in a political climate that so often elicits my own feelings of righteousness and disgust.
But soon after I give into my animalistic urges, I can't help but ask myself: What purpose will my anger serve if it only perpetuates the dissonance I hope to correct?
Are we not mature enough to get pissed off and remain open to wading through some ugly truths? And is it not possible to stand together in resistance without de-humanizing those we disagree with?
Chris and I have had some damn good fights in our four-plus years together. The worst of which happened a year and a half into our relationship, shortly after we moved in together. It is an occasion that will forever be evidenced by a dent in the dining room wall.
I don’t recall what time of day it was, or the exact words he spoke that set me off. Only that I was wearing my favorite bathrobe and holding onto my last bit of patience - along with a yellow coffee mug - when anger completely untethered me from reason. Without forethought or a remaining remnant of sanity, I threw that fucking cup against the wall. Hard. As if my life depended on it.
Years have passed and now, together we laugh at the dent in the wall. It signifies a turning point in our relationship when, with humility and the help of a highly-skilled therapist, we began building a foundation of trust strong enough to speak another language.
Our most recent fight was a few weeks back on a Saturday night. Let's just say it involved a minor miscommunication and small amount of bourbon. The whole thing lasted less than a half-hour, just long enough for both of us to air our anger and differing perspectives before getting to the more essential business - that of apologies.
We certainly don’t always agree. However, through practice we have learned that maturity means saying sorry even when our feelings don't align with the facts. Together we know how to make room for two conflicting truths to co-exist in the same time and space. That, and two hearts filled with honest emotion.
Love is our anchor when the shit hits the fan. And, as cliche as it might sound, when it is present for at least one of us, we both become strong enough to be vulnerable and real regardless of the narrative unfolding around us.
There is no way to sidestep division.
We must move through it.
If we want to unite people, parties, and nations - we have to grow up. Mature in our dialogues and be willing to sit through honest discussions about the many dissonant ways of being that we wish would just vanish from view. We have to replace condemnation with curiosity and do the emotional heavy lifting that compassion actually requires of us.
Real life (often painful) narratives are at the heart of the conflicts we currently face as a country and as a species. Activism will involve political resistance and continuously speaking out against the status quo. Absolutely. Do your part. Write your representative and do all you can to make sure your voice is heard.
But also be sure to actualize your activism daily, stalking your knee-jerk responses to anyone who thinks and behaves differently than you. Never forget, the vast majority of people act in the way they do with the best of intentions. There is a story there, if you are willing to hear it.
These are radical acts. Listening. Looking Closer.
And if you want to succeed in your aim to unify and educate, at times you will have to approach people at the level of feelings - examining not just the facts, but the needs that drive people to completely ignore them.
Educate yourself on the pervasive narratives that drive people toward odious behavior.
Do your part to assist as they rescript their world, one conversation at a time.
Safety, justice, a sense of belonging - we all want the same things, we just have different strategies.
Take it from me… someone who grew up in the world so many are quick to condemn.
Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not always fear that creates division.
Sometimes it’s love - misfiring.
If you want to help disavow a culture of ignorance, bigotry, and xenophobia, then you have to be willing to walk with others through some messy narratives (their's and your own) without looks of irony or indignation.
And you must say fuck-all to what-you-should-think long enough to speak candidly about the ways in which you-yourself might be sidestepping shame, projecting your own political over-corrections onto the people around you.
If you want people to own their ignorance, then you’ll have to own yours. Climb down off your moral high horse. Listen to their truth & their story - especially if it is out-of-sync with yours.
Advocate for the best in those you disagree with by looking at them straight in the eye & listening without flinching.
That is unity.
That is love.
That is our only hope.