Asking

Many folx cite “asking for help” as one of the hardest things to do, regardless of the circumstances. I hate asking for help. But it’s not because I feel proud or courageous. In fact, asking for help scares me.

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Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

Something happened to my back yesterday- have you ever felt so much pain you can’t stand up straight, it takes you over five minutes just to will yourself to sit because your muscles are DEFINITELY tearing, you know they are, the agony is so real and you just want to sit in the car for goodness sake. The person screaming yesterday was me. My entire upper back felt like braided string cheese smushed so tightly in the plastic packaging. I could barely walk, let alone carry a grocery bag. In a perfect world, I would have teleported home so as not to disturb anyone’s fun. But I was out with some friends, wandering the aisles in a Korean grocery store in San Jose, and I had to ask for help.

First, I needed help carrying a bottle of vodka. Don’t judge. It was on sale and finals week is coming up. I couldn’t carry it through the store, so I asked one of the friends with me to hang on until checkout. Next, everyone patiently waited by the car as I crawled, muttering to myself, “a few more steps. That’s it. Just a few more. One foot, the other.” As I mentioned, getting in to the car (and the front seat, which I tried to demand I didn’t need) had me wondering if I could walk home because the pain upon bending my legs made me nauseous. Our classmate in the driver’s seat insisted that I couldn’t simply go home. So, the four of us embarked on an adventure.

I felt vulnerable and guilty. Here were three graduate students accompanying me for my own damn problem, something that didn’t affect them save hearing my groaning. I refused everything they suggested at each different point, only to succumb to their insistence. And I started wondering why I couldn’t just let these three wonderful people take care of me.

Many of the students in the sections I teach utilize me as a teaching assistant very well. They send outlines, rough drafts, even crap I don’t know how to label, and I respond within twenty four hours as a personal rule. I hate sending my work in progress to others. I hate it because it scares me to show people my process and thus, my imperfections. While I don’t call myself a “perfectionist,” I realized that this fear of showing the work behind the product comes from not wanting to admit a period of uncertainty. Yesterday, I couldn’t stand the fact that these helpful, kind and caring people could actually express their care for me because it meant showing my pain before I can show off how well I heal.

When I worked as a chaplain, my colleagues and I often talked about modeling good human behavior. What we meant was allowing our students to see that we do make mistakes, muddle through problems we don’t understand, and we work to improve. I will always hate asking for help because I will always fight the negative voice in my head calling me a fraud. Maybe that voice isn’t always a bad thing- it’s the worst of any criticism. Maybe it’s ok to sit in the front seat once in a while.

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Dumping

I saw a great Tweet recently. It really captured something I have been struggling with for the past year or so. The Tweet said (and I paraphrase): it’s fine to process with friends sometimes, and to listen when a friend is in need. However, a friend is not a therapist, and certainly doesn’t get paid to be one. In a nutshell, don’t dump too much emotional baggage on people- it’s not their responsibility, and it can be quite taxing.

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Photo by Aaron Barnaby on Unsplash

There are of course layers to this- therapy is expensive. It isn’t accessible to everyone, to most. Therapy doesn’t work for all, and a majority of therapists are white and cisgender, which is important to note because people of color and trans folx especially experience much more difficulty accessing a good therapist if they have the resources in the first place. That is not to say therapists must share all life experiences with their patients, but it is to say therapists are people and have limits.

What I am struggling with is taking on the emotional dump for a particular group of people- cishet white men. I am struggling because it is my burden and I want to own that. At the same time, I find some of their “confidential” complaints problematic. Further, when confronting the problems, the response I receive is often one of outrage and gas lighting.  As in, “I just wanted to complain, I don’t need advice,” or “You’re not listening, you’re being condescending.” Their complaints are about a felt “oppression” because of who they are. While I can’t fight feelings, I can correct the false narratives that lead to these feelings- one of these narratives is that “white people aren’t given positions of power anymore.” So, what is the balance between listening to a fellow white person when they absolutely should not be airing these unfounded grievances on people of color, and struggling against the exhaustion of fighting this emotional labor handed off to women and non-men?

Giving up is not an option, because that would invite two different scenarios. The first is perceived agreement- allowing these bullshit complains to seem valid just solidifies their position of unchecked privilege. Ignoring them and demanding they take their problems elsewhere is also unhelpful, because then someone else is burdened. I’m working on developing more skills to confront without feeling emotionally wrecked after a thirty minute conversation, but this question interests me.

I think beyond working on stamina skills there is a fundamental point of view that needs to change. It is very related to this popular quote that has taken 1000 iterations, something like “Equality feels like oppression when you’re in a position of privilege.” The reality is, as we work toward equity and eventually liberation, privilege needs to be dismantled. It’s ok to be passed over for a job despite having the proper qualifications. It’s ok to not have the mic or be the face of an office or a movement. The reality still is that white folx will demand positions of power and more air time, and continue to espouse a narrative that allows us to claim oppression. Another reality is that white men will continue to dump these feelings on non-men unless other men learn how to listen and hold each other accountable. I think the most dangerous position is to be in one without introspection.

Can I Use Expletives?

Though I try to avoid using them in my writing, I love a good swear word. We could probably have an entire debate about which one works best in a particular situation. The crispness of two consonants hissing off the teeth feels so satisfying. Why are expletives so…off limits?

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Photo by Bill Jelen on Unsplash

Expletives of course are words that make a statement- sometimes inappropriate (who decides that?) and often cut from public media because they are dirty, obscene, profanity, or cussing. Again- who dictates what language we should use in particular situations? Sometimes they are used to degrade and dehumanize, so I have to be upfront and say expletives are not always helpful, they can be harmful. But maybe the root of naughty words can help us frame the sh**storm that happened this week and what comes next.

I remember watching a proto-YouTube video once that detailed the history of the “F” word. I was around eleven. The video demonstrated that the F word is one of the most versatile in the English language- it can be a verb, a noun, a gerund, an adjective, and an exclamation, among others. I showed the video to my sister, nine at the time, who giggled as though she had secretly glimpsed  a raunchy scene in an R-rated movie. My grandmother came over to see what we were fussing over, so we had no choice but to show her the video. She watched, expressionless. Finally, the video ended, and she looked distraught. “That word does NOT come from German, it comes from Latin!”

Taking a lesson from Grandma Mary, the root of “expletive” comes from the Latin explere, meaning “to fill.” An expletive is a word used to fill a sentence or verse without changing the actual meaning. Think poetry rules. Seemingly, an expletive is an excessive addition to someone’s thought- we don’t need it to understand their point. We do need it to follow the rules of language, maintaining the correct number of syllables and perhaps a stylistic upgrade. So, in a strange sense, expletives might seem like rule-breakers when used to profane or curse, but traditionally, they actually maintain the formula.

The importance of how we understand expletives is actually in how we think about rules in this moment. Last week I met with some religious life professionals for an inaugural training session and got a sense of how higher education professionals interact with chaplains and religious life on their campuses. The gathering was tense for a few reasons, not the least of which was the untouchable elephant in the room that involves human rights violations, religious intolerance, and dehumanization to the highest degree. The subject itself was an expletive. I wondered- what would it be like to break this rule that says we can’t talk about it, because feelings will be hurt?

The real takeaway for me, frankly, is that rules are oppressive when they allow a group of people in power to feel hurt when an oppressed group moves toward some kind of equity. Remember that quote “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression?” I’ve been thinking about that quote every day. I would add that when you’re accustomed to rules, challenging them feels like a violation- but in this moment, violations of what we think we need and know are the only thing that can bring forward the equality of the oppressed. So F*** the rules.

Space

About a year ago, Jose and I packed a burly Chevy Tahoe full of our stuff and set out for home. We took about two and a half weeks to finally arrive in Los Angeles after touring the northern United States. In the weeks that followed, I wrote almost 50,000 words describing our trip- who we met, what we ate, what scared us, what we learned about people who do not live where we do. With two weeks left in the Spring Quarter and what yet again seems like a million assignments to complete, I feel as though that trip happened years ago. Of course so much has changed.

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Photo by NASA on Unsplash

One thing I have learned constantly for a little over a year now is what it feels like to experience both intense depression and despair and genuine joy. I am back in New Mexico this weekend to meet with the chaplains and think toward the future about our field. The upcoming conference and our work feel promising. I find myself immersed in my work at Stanford feeling a real sense of purpose- even enduring the struggle in a way that feels good. My colleagues around the table have expressed that sometimes, the work doesn’t feel meaningful. And sometimes, amidst distractions like email and reports and meetings, the work still makes sense. But the reality is, sometimes what is meaningful changes, and sometimes what is meaningful is not worth the headache. Context matters as much as action.

I realize, as I return to our roadtrip last year, that sometimes we need to let go of meaning in order to free ourselves of grief. As we drove across the country, I was searching for some kind of closure to our time in Boston- this was “a new beginning.” But it wasn’t actually the beginning, or an end, it was a process of losing and making space to actually begin. One chaplain suggested we must “lean into a struggle when we don’t necessarily know what that means.” When we can’t name what we want, how do we know what to change?

As we navigate the joint conference between the two chaplain organizations, we must lean into the struggle to define our joint meaning. I realized today that this poses issue in “trivial” things- like where people pay to register, or what the schedule of conference sessions should be. All of this plays into a larger question about what makes this experience meaningful enough for people to come- the small struggles illuminate larger convictions about why we work through them.

A year ago, I felt so empty of meaning. The job I loved for many reasons also caused me deep strife, and I had failed to find a genuine sense of community outside of work. I didn’t know what I wanted, exactly- but I knew I needed the emptiness for a while. The long drives gave me more than enough time to reflect, but the discomfort in visiting places that I did not know opened a space to think about crafting a new purpose.

 

 

Knowing Students

I don’t know how this is possible but this quarter seems more overwhelming than the previous two. A very real possibility is that I’m tired and ready for summer. Last week, I went to bed before 11 almost every night, which is pretty rare. Finally, it occurred to me that my exhaustion was caused by teaching. I love teaching, and I feel terrified of teaching.

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Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

“Teaching” in my class consists of leading a thirty minute discussion twice a week, during the latter half of class. 19 students and I crowd around an amalgamation of tables. The space feels cramped. The students work very hard; they exude excellence. Given my background in dialogue facilitation, this should be a piece of cake, right? Wrong. First of all, there was no baking soda in the time of Jesus, so cake probably didn’t happen. Second, leading a discussion about a subject that is not my expertise feels wrong, in a way. Who am I to make judgments about whether someone makes a good point, or needs to be pushed further? Very gradually, I have relaxed into the role knowing I will never feel like an expert, and that saying “I don’t know” will be an essential phrase in the next two months. Maybe on the last day of class, I will feel like I got the hang of this discussion thing.

Just when things began to feel smooth, a handful of students turned in papers for me to grade. Grading is not something I have much experience doing, and so I feel even more overwhelmed by the activity. This week, three papers sit on my desk waiting for assessment. I’ve read each one twice already and tried to utilize a rubric, only to feel more confused. You see, I find it impossible to separate the writer from the writing. Even with the limited knowledge I have about my students, their contexts influence my perception of their writing.

One student, for example, diligently sent a rough draft two days before she turned in her paper. She explained that English is her third language, and she likes when readers can ask questions of her writing to improve it. Even from the draft, I see improvement in her writing. Do I ignore the few missing articles and some awkward tenses? Another student explained that he wanted to turn in the paper early because his team would be competing in national championships during the week. Without expressing too much enthusiasm, I felt so excited for him. Who gets to compete in national championships?

The framework of college chaplaincy never stopped influencing how I see the world, and especially how I see students. This means above all else, my commitment to students is to learn who they are. It’s not just skills or exciting news, I need to know how they learn, what makes them excited or upset or discouraged, and how to push them outside their comfort areas. The key warrant is that students don’t enter a classroom having left the rest of themselves outside the door. Though perhaps more exhausting, knowing my students actually makes me feel like I can grade their work. It’s not about excuses, it’s about particularity. Good thing, because reading 20 papers with the exact same thesis would be pretty darn boring.

Dangerous Interfaith

The beginning of the quarter means meeting new people- classmates, students, and professors. We know the drill- introduce ourselves and tell the class what we do. My classmates give such eloquent introductions. They have their elevator pitches polished. I usually say, “I do interfaith studies.” Frankly, it doesn’t sound lyrical or complicated. Often puzzled looks lead to questions. “What do you mean by interfaith?”

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Photo by Efe Kurnaz on Unsplash

Right now I mean interfaith community building is nothing short of radical. Revolutionary. Extraordinary and necessary and dangerous. Creating relationships with people who disagree with our fundamental values sounds difficult and painful. It is, and it can be. But this mixing of unlikely subjects is disruptive. It calls the system and those in power to answer. You see, we have been socialized to stick to “our own kind.” This keeps those in power powerful, and those not in power disjointed. Of course, interfaith community building requires intentional time and real work for authenticity. Putting several “different” people in a room together is not community building.

Today we remembered Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy as a civil rights leader. Except when Dr. King died, he wasn’t a celebrated figure at all. Many literally hated him. The government feared him. Dr. King was a troublemaker of the worst kind. He didn’t demand violence as the way to create change. He used sacred words. He used community. He used prayer. He exegeted and sermonized.

One of the reasons Dr. King earned his menacing reputation was the people with whom he spent his time. Non-Christians, protesters, ex-convicts, journalists. People that the system would gladly have oppose each other, compete with each other, hate each other. Working across these lines caused the real disruption.

This is what I mean by “interfaith.” It’s not warm and fuzzy, not a conversation about our favorite foods or holidays (though awareness is important and helpful for base building). Community building is about shifting our needs from the center of ourselves to the center of the circle. In interfaith work, this means inconveniencing ourselves to get others at the table because representation matters. Community building also demands that we speak our truths and acknowledge when we have harmed. It should be celebratory too- when something joyful happens, we can feel ownership over that joy. This is horrifying to a system that keeps power by managing groups separately. King spoke of a Beloved Community that invoked theological underpinnings. Interfaith communities hold not one sacred claim, but many.

I read several articles about the birth of empathy today. The authors scattered words like compassion, benevolence and pity throughout the text to help us readers understand what sympathy is. The concept of empathy hasn’t existed for very long, but it makes a powerful claim- one that when we take the time to embody someone else’s suffering-to physically and mentally comprehend- it is as if the suffering is our own. I believe empathy evokes a kind of spiritual practice that puts ourselves into the world without apology and fully vulnerable.

Interfaith community building doesn’t require empathy necessarily. We can create strong relationships without fully embodying another’s experience, and often we should refrain from assuming we could ever understand the oppression of another. Empathy does help us disrupt, though. It blurs the lines of responsibility and leadership. At a table full of conflicting convictions, empathy says “you are welcome because you are.”

What We Deserve

Some amazing election milestones took place this week. The first turbaned Sikh mayor got elected in Hoboken, New Jersey. During the campaign, racist fliers circulated calling him a terrorist. The first out trans person will serve in the Virginia legislature, beating the person who sponsored an anti-trans bathroom law. Also in Virginia, the first two Latina women ever will be state representatives.* The first trans woman of color ever was elected to public office in Minneapolis. My friend and classmate from graduate school, a Somali-American woman who wears hijab, got elected to school board in Hopkins, Minnesota. The list doesn’t end here. I’d like to take a moment to congratulate everyone who played a role in these elections. Your work is working.

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Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Today I caught up with one of my chaplain colleagues. She has been more than a colleague- she’s been a mentor, a thought partner, and a friend when I desperately needed one. As we shared what’s happening in our worlds, she mentioned that her teenage son said something impactful. He said “people who do your work deserve therapy. You deserve therapy.”

I grew up with a mother who didn’t stigmatize therapy and counseling. She suggested it for me when I was a struggling college student trying to find my place among the vast sea of academia and university social structures. She helped me find someone that worked, someone I trusted and with whom I could see gradual change. I feel enthusiastic about my current therapist and the conversations we have, treating them as a gift and a privilege, which they certainly are. I have never considered that I deserve it, that I am worthy of this work for my mind and spirit.

Therapy is a privilege. Consider the cost, the time commitment, the need to break down preconceived notions and often to swim upstream against cultural and communal norms that demonstrate weakness or “something wrong” with those who seek it. It is not the answer for everyone, either. But everyone deserves to have an outlet. Everyone deserves to give and receive love. How do we prove that to ourselves, that we deserve this care and compassion?

The phrase “you get what you deserve” often seems threatening. Like, you got an F because you didn’t study. Our actions or lack thereof warrant consequences. I want to suggest that when we can recognize our achievements as something we deserve, and especially when others deserve theirs, we can challenge this negative thought process. It’s not about thinking positive, it’s about doing the work and recognizing ourselves once in a while. It’s equally as important to know that often people who are marginalized deserve recognition and basic human decency that is violently denied.

This week those who worked tirelessly to tell the stories of the elected folx who desperately want to create change and serve their communities, yet hold threatened identities, deserve to celebrate and be celebrated. The new faces of cities, counties, school boards, states, and other public office deserve to be listened to, and their constituents deserve a voice too. The work certainly isn’t over. As I’ve written before, recognizing the small milestones just like in therapy help us imagine what we might deserve down the road- our vision to be realized. What will we do with our victories?

*I wanted to clarify that this sounds misleading. See the article below to find out more about the first trans woman elected to state legislature in Massachusetts.

https://m.dailykos.com/stories/2017/11/8/1713845/-Before-Danica-Roem-Althea-Garrison-was-the-first-trans-woman-elected-to-state-legislature-in-1992