One of the things I love best about the middle school my girls attend is their focus on service and community. They are encouraged to find something they are passionate about, big or small, and use that energy to connect with others and make a difference in the world.

Three years ago, Eve partnered with a friend of hers who started an organization focused on kids with serious illnesses who were spending large chunks of time in the hospital or places like the Ronald McDonald House.  The group is called That Lucky Bracelet and the girls put together customized “Smile Packages” for sick kids. It has been a terrific thing for Eve to be part of and the girls have a lot of fun making gifts for kids based on the things each one tells them they love. The weekend before Easter, we hosted a gathering of four of the girls in our backyard and they spent hours stuffing and decorating hundreds of plastic Easter eggs with candy and bracelets and stickers and bouncy balls that they would drop off at our local Children’s Hospital and Ronald McDonald House for the kids and their families.  If you know of someone who would love to get a smile package from these bright, determined girls, hit their website and fill out a questionnaire. Some of the kids who have received packages continue to communicate with the founder for a long time after getting their initial package and it has been a really rewarding experience for everyone involved.

Three weeks ago, Lola was thinking about school supplies, not because she is anxious to go back to school, but because we were talking about the homeless shelter we worked in last Spring. One of the things the girls did while they were there was to volunteer in the childcare room and watch the toddlers while their moms took parenting classes or ESL classes or went to job interviews.  Ever since then, Lola has been talking about those kids and thinking about what it must be like to be homeless as a young child.  She asked me, “How do those kids get school supplies if they can’t afford food?” and I replied that I figured it was probably pretty hard.  That they probably had to look through the donated items to find what they needed.  An idea was born. She got together with her best friend to create Education Belongs 2 Everybody, a place where folks can go and donate money to help these kids buy school supplies.  We started thinking, and between backpacks and calculators and binders and all of the other things that kids really need to get for school, the cost can run into the hundreds of dollars easily. And what a great feeling it would be for these kids to get to go to the store and choose their own lunchbox or folders based on the things they love!  If you’re so inclined, go check out their website and donate a few dollars through PayPal. Each and every penny donated will go to the shelter we have worked with in the past so that these kids can be better equipped to start their school year off right.

I am reading my first book by bell hooks. I have read quotes of hers before and come across people who think she is absolutely brilliant and yet, I have never once picked up a book by her. Until now. And to be honest, I don’t even really remember what made me pick up “All About Love: New Visions,” but it is quickly becoming a tome to set next to the likes of David Whyte’s “The Three Marriages” and anything by Brene Brown to read over and over again.  I have taken so many pages of notes I’m running out of space in my notebook and I am only about 70% of the way through it.

hooks’ meditations on every kind of love from friendships to family to intimate, romantic relationships to self-love are so simple and profound that I am stunned again and again. And, as I often do, I find myself stopping mid-page to muse about the ways in which her philosophy pertains to different aspects of my life and pop culture.  The fact that her thoughts feel so incredibly universal to me is one reason why I suspect I will be able to read this book many times and find some new perspective during each and every reading.

She begins by defining love in a way I’ve never heard it spoken about before and, yet, it feels absolutely right to me.  She uses M. Scott Peck’s definition, the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth, as a springboard, and adds, “To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients – care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.”

She has chapters on every imaginable application of love but in light of what is happening in the Middle East right now, I am particularly struck by her chapters on community and what she calls a “love ethic.”

I have been called hopelessly idealistic and a dreamer most of my life. I own it. And so, in that spirit, I began thinking about what the world would look like if we embraced the notion of a love ethic, cultures rooted in mutual respect and acknowledgment instead of materialism and consumerism and money and power.  In this kind of society, it would be absolutely necessary to address our fears and take daily leaps of faith. In this kind of society, we would be required to forego the possibility of having everything we want in order for everyone to have some of what they want.  In our current model, we are encouraged to think constantly about what we as individuals want which sets up this endless cycle of desiring and attaining and assessing and desiring more. We are always comparing what we have with what we don’t have, what we have with what others have, and we will always come up short. In our current model, where possessions equal success equal power, we are tricked into thinking that more stuff will make us happier and we dehumanize other people who get in the way of us having more stuff.

When I think about the daily violence happening in Gaza and Syria, I see a cycle of fear and entitlement. I see groups of people desperate to have exactly what they think they need and willing to go to any length to get it.  I see militaries who have embraced the power of fear to make others do what you want them to do and one of the big problems with that is that, while fear is a terrific motivator, it is only ever a temporary one.  And fear doesn’t allow you to have relationship with others, so if you’re intent on controlling them for long, you either have to continue to ratchet up the fear factor or you have to worry about their retaliation. (Of course, one other solution is to entirely eradicate the “other” so that you don’t have to consider being in relationship at all.)

In hooks’ love ethic, everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and to live well.  Everyone expresses themselves honestly and openly and with a view toward living their ethic in everything they do and, in doing so, they are investing in their own individual growth and the growth and happiness of everyone else.  Individuals in these kinds of communities recognize the humanity of the other individuals at every turn even if they don’t agree with them. In acknowledging the humanity of others, there is no desire to “win” or rule over another, there is only a concern for the good of all and the acceptance that nobody can ever have all that they want because that is not good for the community.

The irony in the present situation in the Middle East is that everyone’s actions are rooted in fear, even as they are doing their mightiest to instill terror in the hearts of their opponents. And when we act out of fear, we cannot hope to accomplish anything but inciting more fear and anger. This cycle is endlessly destructive and while we may gain momentary feelings of righteousness as we claim small victories, we
have not made any lasting, sustainable efforts toward peace.

In the case of the violence in the Middle East, Benjamin Netanyahu has been very clear that the goal of attacking Gaza is to shut down the tunnels that Hamas has built from Gaza into Israel’s territory. They are afraid and, goodness’ knows I don’t fault them for that. Their fears are justified, given the violence Hamas has rained down upon Israel thanks to the tunnels. But in disproportionately attacking the civilians in Gaza, what Israel is doing is showing that they can instill fear in Hamas, that they can be scarier than their enemy in hopes of what – convincing them that Israel is mightier and they ought to just give up? Even if Hamas did concede that point for now, if they ever hope to get any power again, they will have to invent some way to be even more frightening in the future. And the Palestinians are not likely to ever forget the horrific numbers of innocent civilians who fell prey to Netanyahu’s military which means that the prospects for a peaceful solution are even farther away than they were before.

There will always be someone who will come along and threaten to take what you have – your feeling of security, your home and possessions, your family. And we can set up fences, locks, alarm systems, but as long as we are operating from a place of fear, we are focused on what we might lose instead of what we already have, what is most important. If we can learn to retreat to a place of “enough” instead of continually visiting the well of “I need/deserve more,” we won’t feel threatened by others and worried that they will take what is or might one day be “ours.” And if we can build communities based on everyone taking the courageous, incredibly difficult step of extending a hand and trusting in each others’ humanity, we might just begin to find solutions that are rooted in love one day.

I learned about Occam’s razor in a college philosophy course and it made a strong impression on me. At the time, I was strictly a science major – biology and chemistry – and the idea appealed to me.

According to Wikipedia, Occam’s razor is

“a principle of parsimony, economy, orsuccinctness used in problem-solving devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347). It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but—in the absence of certainty—the fewer assumptions that are made, the better.”

In other words, the simplest solution is generally the best.  We humans tend to make things more complicated than they need to be and often, when I am feeling particularly perplexed, this bit of wisdom reminds me to step back, breathe deeply, and think about a simpler way to get to the result I am seeking.

Yesterday, when I read a story about some newly genetically modified bananas that are set to be tested on human beings, the full force of this theory slapped me upside the head.  You can read the entire story here, but the gist of it is this:  For the last nine years, researchers in Australia, backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have been attempting to enrich bananas with Vitamin A in an effort to combat the lack of this vital nutrient in the diets of many African children. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness, immune deficiencies, abnormal brain development, and death.  And so, these researchers have spent years and years and untold millions of dollars attempting to engineer a better banana and they think they have finally done it.  They will begin feeding it to human beings soon (the article does not say which human beings where) and hope that by 2020, (a mere six years from now), they can begin planting it in African countries and harvesting it.

Beyond the obvious issues I have with GMO foods and human trials whose effects we cannot possibly predict, I am speechless.  I know that Bill Gates’ life was founded and built on technology, and I know that he has seen it do amazing things. I understand that he is completely besotted with the idea of technological solutions for nearly every problem he sees, and I know that his foundation has long been in bed with the likes of Monsanto, but this entire endeavor is so wasteful and misguided I can barely breathe.  I cannot claim to ever have worked with the man, so I don’t know what his managerial style is, but I can’t imagine being a part of his organization and not pointing out the fact that a potential solution to Vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition ALREADY EXISTS. 


Those of us humans who know a little about nutrition and real food call them sweet potatoes.  They grow quite well in many African climates and have boatloads of beta-carotene – the form of Vitamin A that has been engineered into these bananas – and have already been tested on humans for tens of thousands of years.  In the absence of massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, they are quite healthy for people of all ages and easily consumed and digested by infants and toddlers.  And they didn’t require a massive investment of money or time to develop.

Of course, you can’t patent sweet potatoes, so perhaps therein lies the rub. But if a non-profit organization like The Gates Foundation is truly interested in solving the problems of world hunger, they ought to stop wasting millions of dollars on R&D and look to the solutions that already exist.  Helping African communities get access to a healthy, well-balanced diet is surely simpler than they think. There is no reason to engineer food in order to feed people unless you are blinded by your love of technology. Just because you can engineer it doesn’t mean you should, especially if it will cost more in time and money than a solution that is already available and you can’t be sure the outcome will be good for the people you say you’re interested in serving.

Photo copied from Patty Murray’s Facebook page

I just got back from having lunch with Washington State Senator Patty Murray and Massachusetts State Senator Elizabeth Warren.  And about 2,000 other people.  Murray, known around these parts as the “mom in tennis shoes” thanks to a slight she got from one lawmaker when she dared challenge funding cuts in a local preschool program, fully embraced the classification and went on to successfully run for her school board, state representative, and is now a four-time Washington State Senator. As part of her acceptance and celebration of that title, she now holds an annual event that honors other people in our state who have taken it upon themselves to make changes that benefit others, going so far as to give them a golden tennis shoe.

This year, I was invited by the folks at the Women’s Funding Alliance to join them at their table and I was thrilled to accept, given that Elizabeth Warren would be speaking.

The honorees were truly fantastic – an immigrant who lived in a housing project in Seattle, got a degree from the University of Washington in business, and headed right back to that housing project to help raise other residents up and offer them the benefit of his wisdom and experience; a young woman whose mother was killed by her boyfriend after years of emotional abuse who went on to start a campaign to teach middle and high school students how to recognize the signs of domestic abuse and step in to stop it; and a woman who took her passion and talent for training dogs and turned it into a project that pairs wounded veterans and disabled children with service dogs as well as utilizing prison inmates to help train the dogs, giving them the benefit of working with the dogs and a useful skill they can parlay into a job when they are released.  It was even more fantastic to hear Senator Murray say that the number of individuals who were nominated for these awards was overwhelming and it was difficult to choose from all of the people in our state who are working so hard for the greater good.

After the awards were given and all of the awardees spoke, Senator Warren came to the podium to thunderous applause.  She was passionate, eloquent, articulate, and spoke clearly about her three biggest priorities: equal pay for equal work, raising the minimum wage, and revamping the student loan system.  She has clearly done her research and staggered us with some of the statistics she shared, and she encouraged us to continue to support candidates who are committed to making changes that will help families pull themselves out of debt and poverty.

Honestly? I felt a little deflated.  Even though the final speaker, a local representative who was funny, concise, and had a compelling story came up to make the “ask” for donations was using the right combination of humor and prompting, I couldn’t do it.  It’s not that I don’t support Senator Murray or Senator Warren. It isn’t that I don’t thank my lucky stars that I have someone like Patty Murray representing me in the Senate.  It’s that I’m in a bubble.  And it is hard to imagine my dollars making the slightest bit of difference unless they transcend that bubble.

All of my federal representatives are Democrats and, for the most part, they all stand for the things I stand for.  My state’s governor? Democrat. My city’s mayor? Democrat. My city council person? Democrat. Even if one day one of those folks decides not to run again, because of where I live it is highly likely that a different Democrat will be elected.  That doesn’t make me complacent, it just means that I doubt that my dollars make much of a dent. They’re preaching to the choir. Elizabeth Warren was preaching to the choir – heck, just today the Seattle City Council was voting on a $15/hour minimum wage proposal. I’m pretty sure she’s barking up the right tree, but unless I’m living in a Tea Party infested district, I have a hard time understanding how my words or actions or dollars have an impact if I give them at a luncheon like that.  Sometimes I wonder how frustrating, and yet energizing, it might be if I did live in a place where there was an entrenched, misogynistic representative and a strong Democratic candidate stepped up to challenge that person. Would I jump in with both feet to campaign and carry signs and donate? Would it feel like I was really part of some change? Would it be awesome?

As I walked away, grateful for the opportunity to have heard people talk about the good work they’re doing, the shared humanity they believe in, the values I hold dear as well, I became even more committed to narrowing my focus.  If I can’t make any substantive change in the way things are done at the macro level (besides what I already do, which is rant on Facebook and write OpEds for places like The Feminist Wire), then I can at least make an effort to fully support those folks who are working hard to make change more locally.  Ultimately, today’s luncheon solidified my decision to continue working with the Women’s Funding Alliance whose focus is on raising up girls and women in the state of Washington in a wide variety of ways, knowing that they are the key to turning lives around.  There, I know my dollar makes a difference.

My piece wondering why, in this country, colleges and universities get to investigate sexual assaults on their own without involving the local police.

And while one of the first comments on it is by someone accusing me of wanting to strip extra layers of protection for college victims, I am most certainly not looking for that. I know our system of justice is woefully inadequate when it comes to rape, but I think it’s a good start to hold all perpetrators (and those accused) of sexual assault to the same standard, regardless of where they live or go to school.  Check it out if you’re interested.

And have a terrific Monday!

Eleven wine glasses. Stained with lipstick prints and puddles of dark red wine in the bottom, too tall for the dishwasher, sitting in a cluster next to the sink waiting for me to wash them. Remnants of last night’s book club meeting where we sat and talked about Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Invention of Wings,” our conversation straying to the challenging history of race in the United States and the recent rash of car burglaries and home invasions in our community. We agreed that we all sit in a place of privilege, but that we are not separate or immune, that awareness of and compassion for the lives of others is vital. We talked about our children and the ways in which their world is so different from the days of slavery in the South and how many strides we have made, not discounting the distance we have yet to go.

This morning I was grateful for those glasses and the opportunity to stand quietly and wash them one by one. I let the warm water run over my hands and imagined it melting the tension in my chest, the fear I brought home with me from driving this morning’s carpool.  As I soaped first the outside and then the inside, swiped the rim of each glass and then the stem, I reveled in the methodical work.  Last weekend there was a gang shooting a few blocks from the girls’ school and the park where they hang out at lunch was quickly host to a growing memorial for the 24-year old who was killed. The side of the school building became a display of sadness and love for the young man and school officials decided to leave it up until after his funeral to honor the community’s grief.
Last night I praised the school’s handling of the issue, the way they talked openly in community meeting with the students about the incident and let them ask as many questions as they wanted. The staff were sure to use the victim’s name and the girls repeated it often throughout the week. Eve shook her head as she told me he had two young children. Some of the girls were upset that their school had been defaced by the graffiti, and others were angry that they can’t go outside at lunch any more for a while. 
“Even though we may not be able to understand why someone would post graffiti on the school, we have to honor their process so long as it doesn’t harm us. Like it or not, our school is part of that community and it’s important to acknowledge that,” I told the women in our group.  
In the middle of the night, there were two more shootings within blocks of the school and I woke up to an urgent email detailing the increased police presence that would be at school today.  All outdoor activities were postponed, including the bike ride Lola’s entire class was to go on today.  When Lola found out, she buried her head under the covers and burrowed down to the bottom of her bed.
“I don’t ever want to go to the park again.” 
I wondered what it must be like for her to have a constant reminder of the young man’s death every time we drive by and see the memorial site, black and white balloons floating from the street sign above a collection of candles and stuffed animals and a bottle of whiskey. That park where she and her friends play tag and shoot baskets and swing as high as they can go. Will it be forever marred in her mind? 
I was thrilled to be the parent driving carpool this morning, if only so that I could see my girls safely from door to door.  After they were inside, I stopped to talk with other parents clustered around on the sidewalk in the shadow of a huge police officer who kept a watchful eye up and down the block.  Overnight, the graffiti in the neighborhood had bloomed, anarchy signs tagged in red on every block and a few posters pasted on signs declaring “The only good cop is a dead one.” My sternum was locked up tight.  The first victim’s funeral service is to be held on Monday and I am afraid of what will happen over the weekend. 
One by one, I washed the stains from the glasses and turned them upside-down to dry on a kitchen towel. Thoughts flitted through my mind, dissolving as quickly as they formed like so many soap bubbles.  In the suburbs, I worried less about random street violence. Is this the beginning of an uptick in gang warfare? Is there something substantive I can do to make a difference? As a white, middle class woman, would my showing up to try and do something be more offensive than not? None of my musings had any weight or substance and I washed them down the drain.  
I am driving carpool this afternoon, too. Until then, I will sit with this fear and examine it. I will do my best not to act from it and honor my own process. I have compassion for the families involved, who have lost sons and fathers and brothers, but today I think of my children. Today, I will think about how to shine a light on what is good and hopeful and promising in our lives so that I can show up for Eve and Lola feeling grounded in love instead of rooted in fear. It may take all day, but that is my task.

I’ve had occasion to think a lot about our system of health care lately. Bubba is doing a big project at work for a new client that revolves around prevention and healthcare education and I love kicking around ideas with him on our evening walks, especially because I love that this giant organization is thinking in this way. The questions are huge and the obstacles seem enormous, but so do the implications if they can find a way to pull it off.

With 8 million people and counting signed up for the Affordable Healthcare Act, as a country we need to get it together with respect to the way we deliver (and even think about) healthcare.  In Washington state, the number of folks eligible for the Medicaid expansion has outpaced their wildest imaginations and it is increasingly becoming obvious that we need a new game plan in order to serve these people. Many providers refuse to take Medicaid and even Medicare because the reimbursements are so paltry compared to private insurers and there is a big question looming about whether or not we’ll be able to find enough qualified practitioners to treat these new patients.

While we may utter the word “prevention” a lot with regards to health, the simple fact is that the vast majority of people don’t truly understand what that means or how to put it in play in their own lives.  Yes, we all pretty much know that our lives will be better if we get enough sleep, manage our stress, eat healthy, exercise and don’t smoke or do drugs, but actually knowing how to implement those things regularly and effectively is tremendously difficult.  When so many people, especially those newly eligible for health insurance, are struggling to pay the rent every month, finding the time to locate honest resources where they can educate themselves about what healthy food is or learning effective stress-management techniques is pretty far down on the list of priorities.

So where do most people get their information about health care? Not from their physician, it turns out, because as a system, our health care priorities lie in treatment of symptoms and deployment of technology, not conversation.  Doctors get paid to write prescriptions and schedule surgeries or diagnostic tests, not to sit with their patients for an hour at a time and help them understand how to read a food label or coach them in relaxation techniques or set up a viable exercise plan.  And while there are some physicians who take the time to really listen to their patients and explain things in depth, it isn’t always easy to remember exactly what they said once you leave the office.  Yes, it is possible to find people who will teach us about nutrition and stress management and exercise, but they are rarely paid by insurance companies and most people can’t afford their services.  Why don’t we make it part of our health education to offer those services in the doctor’s office as part of the care? The first real nutrition education my mother got from her healthcare provider was a class on how to eat after being diagnosed with diabetes. Helpful, but maybe classes on how to avoid diabetes in the first place would have been better, given that now Medicare pays hundreds of dollars for prescriptions every month that might have been unnecessary.

I predict that, thanks to the ACA, many healthcare providers will find themselves overwhelmed by a glut of new patients with complicated health histories. There are some who are relatively young and healthy who have signed up for coverage and may choose to establish a relationship with a physician, but there will be many more who have suffered with chronic conditions for years because they couldn’t afford to have someone treat them.  It is here where the rubber meets the road and, I think, the issue that will prove to be the stickiest for this much-needed leap forward in our healthcare system.  A doctor who sees a middle-aged person with multiple complaints that have been ongoing for years will be hard-pressed to find enough time for a comprehensive introductory examination that can unravel years of health issues. Most of these patients will end up leaving their first doctor’s appointment in years with a fist-full of prescriptions that may or may not make a significant difference in their long-term health, and will more likely treat symptoms instead of causes. Additionally, if the fee schedules don’t change, the folks who have to pay for some portion of their prescriptions may find themselves unable to afford the treatments they’ve been offered.  Without some effort to integrate these individuals into a system that educates them and offers them someone to collaborate with when it comes to preserving their health or reversing chronic conditions, we are destined to continue to have the most inefficient, expensive healthcare system in the nation, albeit one that is covering more folks than ever before.  Until we revamp our priorities by paying more for consultations and less for quick-fix deployment of technologies like surgery or prescriptions, we can never hope to turn the tide from treatment to prevention. We will always be playing catch-up and we will never catch up to our national obsession with fast food and sugar and vapor cigarettes as a viable alternative to regular cigarettes, because we haven’t been educated by people who have credibility, with whom we have an ongoing relationship. We have to enlist our healthcare providers as educators and partners and pay them to work with patients to keep them healthy and help them make good choices instead of giving them incentives to do expensive surgeries and prescribe drugs that treat symptoms. Until we are willing to turn our attentions from quick-fix ideas to long-term prevention strategies, we are doomed to continue down this path of being one of the unhealthiest countries in the world. With some of the most educated healthcare workers in the world, it is an absolute tragedy that this is the situation we find ourselves in, but if we choose to use doctors and nurses as collaborators instead of auto mechanics, we can make a difference.

Elizabeth highlighted this op-ed on her Facebook page on Sunday and, as it is fairly short, I urge you to go read it before you continue reading this post.  It makes me sad that the author is so spot-on as he calls out the responses of so many of his readers.  I agree with him that there is a lack of compassion in general in this country (and maybe in others – I don’t honestly know because I’m only here), but more specifically online. I think that it is much easier to assert our opinions in sound bite form with respect to challenging issues when they are stereotypical or beside the point.  I can cite several examples of nasty comments I’ve seen upon reading a news article or blog post that have nothing to do with the issue at hand, and serve only to attack either the writer or one of the main people in the story for superficial, usually physical, attributes or knee-jerk reactions to one minor point of the story.

We are all so conditioned to have an opinion and share it that we rarely stop to consider nuances and details of a story that may have eluded us. We are conditioned to talk instead of listen, and make up our minds but not change them.  Compassion requires a willingness to walk in someone else’s shoes, or at least acknowledge that their shoes are different from yours in a fundamental way. Compassion requires curiosity about the circumstances of another person’s life and it implores us to suspend (or altogether eliminate) judgment. In order to be compassionate, we have to take the time to build a bridge from the parts of us that are most human to the parts of others that are most human and that takes courage.

I struggle most with compassion when I am trying the hardest to keep fear at bay. When I see a parent grieving for their child, my mind races to find all of the reasons why that could never happen to me and often, that manifests itself as judgment. If that mom/dad hadn’t made the choice to ______________, this wouldn’t have happened. The more I convince myself that someone else is Wrong and my decisions are Right, the easier it is to feel safe, to believe that whatever horrible thing this person is suffering won’t visit itself on me and my loved ones.  Finding my way to compassion means that I have to step off of that righteous path and into the soft muck on the side of the trail, facing my fears and acknowledging that I am just as human as anyone else and I can’t know the details of someone else’s story. It requires me to open up and let fear and sadness move through me, to take up the mantle of shared humanity and responsibility and bear the weight of another person’s struggle along with them. It asks me to sit firmly in the knowledge that we are not ‘other,’ we are not separate, we all deserve love and acceptance and when we give it freely to one another we are stronger and happier for it.

It takes time and energy to be compassionate, much more time than is required to dash off a pithy, snarky remark about someone’s weight or tattoos or sexual proclivities. We have to be willing to consider, to listen, to really pay attention, and many of us don’t want to do that. We also have to be willing to forego the opportunity to see our own opinions in print or hear our own voices. One draw of the internet is that it allows us to all have our say. Our words can reach audiences we could never have dreamed of before and we don’t have to write an entire op-ed or letter to the editor of our hometown newspaper. But if “our say” is a twitter-length rant on how inferior someone else is or how they deserved whatever they got, it showcases our inability to understand the deeper connections and the vital points of any story.  Last week in our region an elementary teacher was convicted of having a sexual relationship with one of her students. The photograph of the teacher that ran on the news outlet’s Facebook page was of a mixed-race woman with facial hair. I cringed as I saw it, knowing what most of the comments would be like. Sure enough, there were hundreds of people questioning her gender, saying that of course she was a “child molester” given her physical appearance, and suggesting hateful things ought to happen to her, not because of her crime, but “because she needs to shave.” There were a few token comments from people outraged that the conversation was about her appearance instead of her crime, and a couple explaining the symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome which causes some women to grow facial hair, but the vast majority were hateful, even violent comments based solely on the photograph the media ran.

I asked Lola what compassion means to her and if she thought it was something that can be taught. She wasn’t very articulate about her definition of it, but she did say that she doesn’t think you can teach compassion. She said, “I think it’s individual for everyone. They need to come to it on their own and they can’t do it all the time. But you can put people in situations where they might think about it more – like volunteering at a homeless shelter or something – and then they might come to it faster on their own.”

I hope she’s right, or maybe I don’t. I’d like to think that compassion is something we can teach, but even if we can only plant the seeds and hope it spreads, that’s at least something I’m willing to put a lot of time and effort into, at least in my own household.

I don’t know how the Dalai Lama does it. Except maybe he was never the parent of a teenager. Because when the explosion happens, like a fiery plume from the Deepwater Horizon, up from the depths, burning through water to spray into the sky and rain down, it’s hard to respond with love instead of panic. As the person under fire, I’d like to curl into a ball, tuck my head and limbs underneath me, and slink off to safety. As the parent, I know the thing to do is stay calm, dig deep into the recesses of my brain for parenting strategy, and endure the onslaught as I try to slow it down.

At the end of the talk someone from the audience asked the Dalai Lama, “Why didn’t you fight back against the Chinese?” The Dalai Lama looked down, swung his feet just a bit, then looked back up at us and said with a gentle smile, “Well, war is obsolete, you know ” Then, after a few moments, his face grave, he said, “Of course the mind can rationalize fighting back…but the heart, the heart would never understand. Then you would be divided in yourself, the heart and the mind, and the war would be inside you.”

My war is inside. Not only because I want to fight back, to dispute each thrust (even those that come out of nowhere – from the left and the right when my focus is straight ahead) with an equally adept parry, but because I am her mother. Because while my own wounds are stinging, I hurt for her, for the wound that is the source of all of this, the one thing she won’t let me see.  The one thing I don’t have an answer to because she keeps it so well hidden.  And because I know fighting back won’t change a thing. My head wants to delve in and examine, understand why she is so upset. My heart knows that the only way to fight fire is with water, the only way to fight hatred and fear is with love.

As the insults and hurtful words rain down, I struggle to stay in my heart. I wish that the sheer volume of my love was enough to spill over and fill her up. I want my boundless affection to swallow her anger and fear, consume it and move on like The Blob, spreading love like so much blue slime, neutralizing the pain. I want her to find the part of her that simply can’t accept my love and touch it, probe it, examine it. I want her to push into it even as it hurts and discover that it holds no sway anymore. I want her to discard it like the decoy it is and turn to me with open arms.

As the fireballs fly, it is increasingly difficult to stay open and radiate love. Every instinct I have pushes me to close down, pull in and fling well-aimed water balloons, or at least put up a shield. Eventually fatigue creeps up and I remember to listen to my heart. No matter how much it hurts, the only way out is love. I’m trusting the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m going on blind faith, here, that if I just refuse to fight back and repeat myself, eventually the message will get through. I love you. I love you. I love you. No matter what.

Americans love a dichotomy. Black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. Reducing any situation to its most basic elements is a specialty of ours, forcing a decision about which “side” you’re on using carefully crafted sound-bites, facts and figures and charts chosen strategically to illustrate the stark differences between those two sides. Make a choice. Are you in or out?

When I was in high school and first discovered dichotomous keys, I couldn’t have been happier. Of course, growing up with sports-loving boys and men in my house, I already knew about playoff brackets – those visual aids used to whittle the pool of teams down to just two, eliminating half of them every time until you got to the final championship game. I found them stark and calming, clear and concise.  But I was interested in life sciences in school, so learning that I could key out any plant or animal using a very similar method gave me chills. (Yeah, I know – total geekdom.)

I went around gleefully separating plants in my neighborhood by simple or compound leaves, evergreen or deciduous, flowering or non-flowering. Occasionally I came across a question I couldn’t discern the answer to, either because I didn’t quite understand the distinction or because the plant’s characteristics lay in somewhat of a grey area.  In such cases, I tended to blame my own ignorance, assuming that there was a definite category in which everything belonged that simply eluded me. I forgot one simple thing: humans created the dichotomous key to make our own lives easier and more understandable. The key was not a Real Thing to which the laws of nature adhered. It was a false construction that was somewhat helpful but not absolute. No matter how hard I tried to force a particular organism to fit into my perfect notion of what it was, there would likely still be outliers and things I couldn’t account for.

I have found it helpful to remember that fact in my daily life.  Here are just a few of the false dichotomies I have encountered in my Facebook feed in the last 48 hours:

  • Is Richard Sherman (cornerback for the Superbowl-bound Seattle Seahawks) a cocky a**hole or not, as evidenced by his comments immediately following the end of last Sunday’s football game?
  • Does refusing to vaccinate your child put everyone else on the planet at risk for contracting sometimes fatal diseases such as measles and mumps?
  • Is breastfeeding better than formula feeding?
  • Is marijuana more harmful than alcohol?
  • Are employees unions ruining our economy?
Some of these questions come from friends, others from pages promoting specific products or ideas or blogs, but they are all the same in that they begin with a statement and end with a question. Most often the question is formulated to stimulate conversation (ie. “What do you think?” or “Thoughts?”). The problem, in my estimation, is that instead of encouraging a wide range of discussion, they generally set up the notion that there are only two possible answers.  That you ought to choose a side and defend it. In my experience, this prevents an actual exchange of ideas from occurring. Individuals spend their energy attempting to convince others that their position is the correct one, generally by attacking the folks who think otherwise. In the end, very little new insights are gained and nobody really leaves feeling good.
At this point, you may be thinking, Duh, so what? Herein lies the rub. If we convince ourselves that there are only two sides to every important story (the mass media is either perpetuating misogyny or it isn’t), and everyone who cares falls into one of those two camps, we are robbing ourselves of the chance to make any forward progress.  There may, from time to time, be a convert or two that heads to the other side after an important life experience or an impassioned conversation, but for the most part, we are inclined to say our piece and throw up our hands. Hate the way your state’s governor is running things? Oh well, just wait until the next election and cast your ballot and hope things go your way. 
In cases like Richard Sherman’s, choosing one side over the other may not matter much to anyone but him, but if we think about how important advances have been made in our lives, it isn’t because a majority chose one side over the other. It is because someone, or a group of people, chose to think outside that false dichotomy, brainstorm new ways of doing things and seeing the world, and listen to individuals who may have seemed crazy at first. Prior to the invention of the birth control pill, it was widely assumed that if you had sex, you were running the risk of getting pregnant. Sex = risk, no sex = no pregnancy. But at some point, at least one person thought,  Wait, abstinence doesn’t HAVE to be the only way to keep from getting pregnant. What if…?

What if, indeed. What if, instead of vilifying the makers of vaccines or those who choose not to have their children vaccinated, we toss that discussion out altogether? What if we recognize the intent (humanitarian, not capitalistic) of ensuring that our children don’t die of diseases like rubella and talk about whether there are safer methods than the vaccines we are currently using?  
I often talk about how my goal is to change the conversation about certain polarizing issues, but I’m coming to realize that all of this back and forth most of us are doing in Facebook and online, taking polls, commenting on incendiary essays and blogs, adding our two cents, is not conversation at all. It is empty posturing.  And while it is likely harmless much of the time (I don’t really mind if you think Robin Thicke isn’t a misogynist pig – it won’t convince me to buy his music or let my kids listen to it in my car), it sets up a pattern that is helping us to forget what actual discourse is. So maybe, instead of changing the conversation, I’m hoping to catalyze a conversation. A respectful, honest discussion of some incredibly complicated issues about which we all tend to have knee-jerk reactions and try to boil things down to two sides – ours and the other guys.