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(Personal) Spit and Vinegar into Clear Water

Buddhism 150I think most Buddhists, if we’re really honest with ourselves deep down, flirt with the daydream of what we’d look like enlightened. I know personally I would love to resemble Budai, the eternally-laughing bodhisattva known for his jovial attitude, wisdom, contentment, and the fact that you can rub his belly for good luck. In my daydream, I would move through the world with a wide smile and ready laugh, meeting everyone in my travels with the same abundant good humor whether they were friend or foe. Of course, these daydreams about my enlightenment are ironically a barrier to my enlightenment. They move me away from who I am in the present — an already-enlightened being too distracted to realize it.

This daydream does something a bit more subtly damaging, too. Instead of accepting the parts of myself that are difficult to absorb I excise them to mold myself in the image of this laughing Buddha. Gone is the brief but intense flash of anger; gone too is the persistent static of anxiety and fear that thrums through my veins. Self-doubt, an easily-overwhelmed brain, impulsive and puzzling behavior — all mysteriously absent. As much as I love the idea that I would be Budai, the truth is I would not be; I would simply be myself, as imperfect as always, but mindful of my imperfections in a way that allowed me to express the Dharma in a truly unique way.

It’s important for me to remember this, especially these days. For a very long time I have built my energy around the hope that if I believed hard enough, I would unlock something within myself that loved everyone without reservation. I wanted to be the embodiment of loving-kindness, of compassion in even the most difficult circumstances. This is a not-so-secret of mine: the most beautiful thing in the world to me is a moment of small grace in a hopeless situation, those automatic gestures that speak to the spark within me, that gives me hope that for most people the basic state of humanity if collaboration and love.

One of the reasons this year has been so rough on me is that this dream of mine is dying and I have no idea what to replace it with. Reconnecting with my family and spending time briefly in Baltimore has shown me what life is like for too many people who have lived their entire lives in a hostile and unforgiving world; any sense of compassion and connection is seen as a weakness, and something even as basic as a smile is not to be trusted. Everyone has an angle, not because they’re selfish, but because it has been ingrained in generations of black Americans that there is absolutely no one who will look out for them; they’re on their own, and the more quickly that’s realized the better able they will be to get theirs and keep it.

Some brothers and sisters in the city are so desperate for connection that they’ll see any attempt to give it freely as an opportunity to tap the well dry. While it’s understandable, given their background and experience, it doesn’t make the reality of it any less unpleasant. I find myself pulling back more and more to protect myself from being drained completely, but at the same time I feel intensely selfish for doing so. I left Baltimore, and over a very long time and through painful effort eventually managed to build a decent life for myself. I have a loving husband and amazing friends. I make decent money. How could I not want to go back to the place I came from and help others to do the same thing?

It makes me feel like a bad person to not be generous. Aren’t people with compassion supposed to be? Isn’t that how you prove loving-kindness?

At the same time, I find it increasingly difficult to be compassionate and loving towards those people who have demonstrated time and again that my life, my rights, and my happiness mean less to them than preserving the status quo or taking a hard look at the inherent problems in our society. When I see someone making excuses for fascists, white nationalists, misogynists, bigots and other anti-social people I am filled with a rage that I have worked hard to manage and redirect towards positive action. But this is happening so often that I’m angry all the time; exasperated that there are so many people who are still silent and equivocating even though it’s so obvious that the current administration is filled with incompetent, criminal racists but that this is the result of decades of cultivating distrust of the government, racially-coded dog whistles, and the persistent preservation of institutionalized inequality. I used to believe that you had to be patient with everyone, for they were fighting a battle you could not see. But now we’re in a place where these people mean to do me real harm; I cannot be patient with someone who doesn’t see a problem with a world that thinks my continued existence is a threat to its survival.

So I am taking an increasingly hard stance on politics. I’m ending long friendships with people that I genuinely liked, because they voted for a man who is damaging the ideals of this country beyond repair. I can no longer tolerate people who have a problem with Colin Kaepernick but no problem whatsoever with police who brutalize and kill people of color without even a trial. I can no longer ignore that these people would rather be blind to the real fear and anger I have about my country than think about how they’ve been implicit in the progression of white supremacy and make deeply uncomfortable changes. I just don’t have it in me any more to give these people any quarter. But does that make me a bad Buddhist? Does that mean I simply can’t achieve boundless compassion for all people, for all times?

I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it does me no good to judge these feelings as bad, or keep trying to run away from them. They are who I am at this moment, and as such they are as much a part of this enlightened and distracted being as the love and equanimity I feel. I cannot sit with something that I refuse to recognize.

So I have to be honest with myself — and with all of you — about how I feel. I’m angry, all the time. I’m very scared that we will not be able to find a way out of this. Even if we impeach Trump and remove him from office, we still have a major political party that was willing to bring us to the brink of fascism to hold on to power — and that party has rigged the system through gerrymandering and voter suppression to make it easier that they keep themselves in state legislatures, governor’s mansions, and Congress. Even if we make sweeping changes to reset that, we still face the existential threat of climate change — the same issue we’ve been talking about for 50 years without meaningful progress or even complete willingness to make progress. There’s the runaway train of capitalism that replaces compassion with competition and will not stop until it is forced to crash, killing most of the people trapped on board. These problems may not be insurmountable, but they will require coordinated and sustained effort to solve. We are nowhere close to that, and we’re running out of time to get there. In this environment, it’s so easy to despair. I struggle against that every day. It takes more and more effort to try; what’s the point of succeeding in a world that seems determined to destroy itself anyway? Why bother being kind in a world where kindness is weakness to be taken advantage of? Why keep shouting into a void that wants nothing more than to render me invisible?

I don’t know. I really don’t. I’m having a tough time with this. I’m hoping that facing it will help me find a way through.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2017 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Politics) Why I’m Boycotting the NFL

Politics 150Exactly one year ago today, Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem in a silent protest against police brutality and the inadequate response by police departments around the country to the demand for more accountability. The NFL never really forgave him for the controversy it ignited; after opting out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers at the end of the season, he hasn’t been picked up by another team. While his 55.2 QB rating puts him in the bottom third of starters last season, it’s still better than Ryan Tannenhill (MIA), Cam Newton (CAR) and Eli Manning (NYG), all of whom are still members of their respective teams.

Kaepernick has been looked at by a few teams, and the closest he’s come to being signed is extensive interviewing from the Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore Ravens. Both teams passed, ultimately, and it’s widely believed that owners have effectively blackballed him from the league. These are the same owners who have allowed players who committed domestic abuse, aggravated assault, attempted murder, DUI, animal abuse and a lot more into their league. All kinds of this anti-social and illegal behavior is acceptable, but a legal protest against institutional racism is not.

Meanwhile, the link between playing professional football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been built steadily over a decade — the latest study has found that evidence of CTE was present in 99% of the brains of former NFL players they had access to. While this doesn’t say that *every* professional football player will get CTE from playing the game, it does establish a very clear link between the game and this devastating neuro-degenerative disease.

Did you know that players in the NFL are overwhelmingly black? 70 percent of total players in the league are black, with four positions in particular almost entirely populated by black athletes (cornerback, wide receiver, running back and defensive end all above 80% in 2014). Statistics for the 2012-2013 seasons on concussions reveal that these positions had the highest-reported incidents during that time. Meanwhile, there is not a single black American owner in all of the NFL.

This is a sports league where black bodies are routinely sacrificed for the game. Every week, a mostly white audience (77% of viewers) cheer for a team that is mostly black (70% of players) but owned nearly entirely by white people (only the owner for the Jacksonville Jaguars is a person of color). The average NFL career lasts a little less than three years, during which time a major injury is all but certain; afterwards, they face a life of physical disability, directionlessness, and unpreparedness for life after football. After the fun is over, these players often go broke. The viewership, however, moves on to cheer for the latest body to move the ball down the field without a second thought.

The toll of the game has weighed on me for a while, but the reaction to Kaepernick’s protest both from around the league and among people who have never watched a game put things into perspective for me. The NFL, for all its talk about the good it brings the communities surrounding their teams, doesn’t do right by its players. By extension, it doesn’t do right by the black community. Black people take most of the risk for the least reward — we dominate the injury-prone positions on the field but are nearly absent from the coaching staff, front office and owner’s boxes. The league’s sluggish response to the strong evidence about the damage being done for the sake of the game is bad enough, but blacklisting a player for drawing attention to another facet of this institutionalized racism is inexcusable.

It’s for this reason that I simply cannot participate in the culture of the NFL any more. My silence and engagement make me complicit to the destruction of my brothers playing the game, and I can’t allow that. It’s not right what the league is doing to black athletes, and it’s simply immoral what the owners are doing to Kaepernick for exercising his legal, constitutional right to non-violent protest. I won’t be a part of it.

This is not a judgement on anyone who chooses to watch or attend NFL games, buy NFL products, play fantasy football, or root for their favorite team. We each have our own uncrossable lines, and our reasons for why some things carry more weight than others. However, I invite you to take a long, hard look at the league and ask yourself whether or not it’s something you’re proud of. If it isn’t, what are you going to do about that?

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2017 in Politics, Pop Culture

 

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I’m…37? Yeah, 37.

Self Improvement 150Yesterday I celebrated my 37th birthday by watching Kubo and the Two Strings, playing two rounds of mini-golf, and having a dinner out with a few friends. It was tremendously fun, and I really appreciate folks coming out to help me ring in another personal new year. I have amazing friends, and to say that I appreciate all of you would be an understatement. You inspire me, you encourage me, you elevate me closer to being the rabbit I would like to be. Thank you all so much for being in my life.

Year #36 for me was a pretty big one. I went back to school for a time, reconnected with my family in fairly tragic circumstances, fought with despair and anger about the direction our country is going, and always kept trying to build on the gains that I’ve made — wherever they might be. Through the loss of my sister and helping my mother, the passage of time and the inevitability of death have been weighing on me. In three years, I’ll be 40; it’s such a strange thing to write because of the weight we place on middle age. In a lot of ways, it feels like we should be calcifying into the person we are by then; change happens much more slowly, through concentrated and difficult effort.

That doesn’t feel like the arc of my life at all — or the arc of most of the people I know. Human beings are nothing if not adaptable, and I watch as my friends struggle to cope with the setbacks of life, changing and strengthening through their experiences. Some of us have figured out our path and the struggle becomes how to walk it consistently; others of us are still seeking out a foothold that will allow us to see the way forward. But no matter who we are, we are constantly changing, molding ourselves towards our goals and the times, becoming the people we need to be.

To be honest, it’s been a joy to watch — and to experience. For all the difficulties this year has brought me, it’s helped me to see how change can be weathered and how the support of the community can be essential for that. When Teneka died suddenly back in April, so many people stepped in to help when they really didn’t have to. They gave me emotional support, direct assistance, financial support; knowing that I didn’t have to face this nightmare alone helped pull me through one of the most difficult parts of my life. It restored my faith in humanity at a time I badly needed it, and it helped encourage me to try and do the same for others. This tragedy, and all of the chaos that followed, made me stronger and more compassionate. I have everyone who helped to thank for that.

Looking towards the future, it’s easy to be frightened and overwhelmed. Personally, it feels like there’s an ugly undercurrent in our society bubbling up to the surface, threatening to consume us all. Beyond an erosion of trust in our institutions — our governments, our media, our businesses — there seems to be an erosion of trust in the concept of society itself; it feels like so many of us distrust the goodness within our fellows, that the purpose of our lives is to take as much as we can for ourselves and maybe the people closest to us while we can do that. The American Dream isn’t a just and prosperous society; it’s elevating the “virtue” of selfishness above all.

This kind of thinking will lead to our ruin. We have not evolved to be a purely self-absorbed species; we are a social animal, built for collaboration and cooperation. We share this planet with other human beings with different ideologies, cultures, histories and perspectives; we share this planet with other animals who depend on us to make sure we keep things in balance as much as our limited understanding will allow us. We can’t focus only on the things that we have while ignoring the suffering of others. We can’t preserve our safety and prosperity if our neighbor is poor and in danger. We can’t keep taking whatever we want without making sure there’s something left for others, for our children.

I really don’t know how we rebuild our trust in our society. I don’t know how to encourage people to care about each other. I can only trust in the goodness of my fellow beings, know the selflessness and compassion I have seen in others, and see that in everyone I meet. I can only treat people as if they were their best selves already, because in so many ways they are — fearless and resourceful and far more beautiful than anyone gives themselves credit for. I want to be a mirror that reflects the Buddha-nature of everyone I meet.

But that takes a lot of difficult and consistent practice. In order to shine and reflect as well as a still pond, I must first smooth out the ripples of fear and anger within me. In order to reflect Buddha-nature, I have to realize my own.

That, I think, is what I will strive to do with myself in year #37. I’ve lived through a difficult year, and I know that I can live through another one. That’s not enough. I want to develop an equanimity through difficulty that helps me move through my own fear and anger; I want to be calm and reflective in even the most difficult of circumstances. That sense of stillness doesn’t mean inaction, or disinterest in the world around me. It means that no matter what happens, I can engage with a clear mind and a full heart. It means recognizing the poisoning influences of fear and anger, working with those difficult emotions, and ensuring my actions don’t only come from those places. That is much easier said than done.

Thankfully, I have 36 years of experience to draw upon. I have the help of my community. I have the wisdom forged by countless difficulties through thousands of years, lived and remembered through the stories we tell each other, the stories we tell ourselves. I have the hope that one day, we will look at someone different and see not a stranger or an enemy, but ourselves and our capacity for boundless compassion and love. I only hope that we won’t make things too difficult for ourselves before that happens. I only hope that we don’t fall to our fear and anger and destroy ourselves.

I love all of you. I know I’m scared. I know I’m angry. But I am choosing to struggle past that. There is something so much better on the other side.

 

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(Personal) Mission Statement

Myth 150This is an amazing world, inhabited by amazing people. We don’t have to go very far to see an animal or plant that does something incredible, if we stop to think about it. All around us, there are countless people each with their own rich inner worlds and intense, beautiful, heartbreaking stories. I think the single greatest challenge facing humankind today is the inability to maintain a perspective that allows us to live in harmony with each other and the world we share. This planet is the only home we’ve got, and as our population grows it’s going to be more and more important to focus on the impact each of us has on it and what that means for our friends, family, neighbors and fellow human beings. It’s frustrating to see that as thinking more about one another becomes more and more necessary for our survival, we seem to becoming more selfish, short-sighted and small-minded. I have no idea if this is a trend that can be stopped, much less reversed. But I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no hope of that happening, so I have to hope that it can — and will. It’s my mission in life to help connect people as much as possible, and to remind them that an attitude of collaboration is so much better than one of competition.

All of us move through our days with blinders, trapped in the narrative of our own making. We’re the protagonists of our stories, so everything that happens to us is filtered through that lens. If something prevents us from achieving our goals, it’s bad or unfair; if it gets us closer to where we want to be, then it’s great. The people who agree with us and help us out are good; those that don’t hold the same values as us, or who want something that we want, or who are just too different from us to relate to — they’re bad. Over time, this narrative becomes stronger and our belief in it absolute. We never question what the same reality looks like to someone else; we stop imagining what a situation looks like if we’re not the star of our own story.

So we start thinking that what’s good for us is good for everyone, or ignoring the complex and often invisible forces that have helped us along the way in addition to our own hard work. Our tolerance for other perspectives erodes, bit by bit, until we’re simply incapable of even imagining what the world looks like to someone else. We even become incapable of thinking that the world COULD look different to someone else. Our opinions become fact; other ones become wrong, even evil. We start to disconnect from more and more people until our world is small and hard, an oasis that must be defended from anything that would seek to change it. In extreme, everyone who doesn’t think exactly like we do becomes an enemy to strike down. Our way of life is a beacon of good; anything different, therefore, must be evil that is to be eradicated. Once that becomes our story, it’s nearly impossible to think it could be anything else.

But it has to be if any of us want to avoid a bad ending. We can’t keep alienating each other, dismissing the perspective and experience of other people. If we don’t learn to see what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes, we’re not going to stop fighting each other until no one’s left — or until there is nothing left to fight for.

I know where this idea can lead. So Jakebe, you might say, does that mean we have to understand why neo-Nazis see me as sub-human in order to avoid all-out war? Is that the message I’m supposed to take from this? Am I supposed to tolerate someone else’s awful idea just because not tolerating it means we can’t live together? No, of course not. Neo-Nazi ideology, or any intolerant, bigoted idea, should not be entertained or given quarter in civilized discourse. I cannot abide anyone who holds the idea that I’m fundamentally inferior simply because of who I am, and I cannot ask anyone else to do that either.

But, at the same time, the people who hold these ideas are not monsters. They are not fundamentally inferior, either. They hold abhorrent ideas and as long as they do I have no interest in entertaining them or their toxic perspective. But I try very hard not to forget that they’re people, and that whatever it is inside them that made them that way is also within me. That hatred, that fear, all of those awful emotions that make us shrink in on ourselves — that’s in me too. I could get there somehow, some day.

It’s very important for me to remember that, and to remind other people. We live in incredibly divisive times and just how our divisions are mended is really difficult for me to see. But we’re going to have to find a way to live together. And in order for that to happen, we have to stop seeing each other as monsters — or as pure evil, or unthinking hordes, or weak snowflakes, or enemies. We are connected, as difficult as that is to fathom, and each one of us has a hand in creating the world we live in. As flawed and frightening it is, we each have to look at what we’re doing to contribute to it for good or ill.

Personally, that means trying to be mindful of the role I play in someone else’s story. In every interaction, I try to be what someone needs in order to make their story that much better — though I know how often I fall off the mark. That doesn’t mean that I’m never challenging or that I never set myself up as an antagonist; if that’s what is needed, then that’s what I’ll do. I’m not going to subsume myself for the sake of someone else’s story.

It mostly means, though, that I won’t cause conflict needlessly if I can help it. I try to remind myself that each person who talks to me has their own story they’re moving through, and each “scene” with me is a chance to get them closer to where they want to be. If it feels like where they want to be is someplace that will actually lead to harm, I try to redirect that desire towards something better if I can help it; and if I can’t, then I try to be as honest and direct as possible. Which is the hardest, because I really get anxious about conflict.

As a writer, this means that I want to use my stories to remind people of the connections we share, the values that are most important to me, and ultimately a vision of what the world could be like if we just did a better job of looking out for one another. I want people to come away with a desire to engage with the world and with their fellow human beings; even if the story is a tragedy, I want it to be one that fosters compassion in someone else.

My life, my purpose, is to be structured around this goal. I want to live the way I’d want everyone to live — mindful of the responsibilities we have for one another, but to see that responsibility as a joy and an honor. To me, there is no greater thing than inspiring your fellow humans to live well, to encourage them to feel connected with the world around them, not above it or in enmity of it.

I know that I fail at this goal frequently, and I’m trying to get better. I may never achieve perfection with it, but that’s not the point; the point is the process, the attempt to get there. Even if I never reach my destination, the journey is what makes me a better person.

 

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(Personal) The Importance of Love

Buddhism 150We’re less than 24 hours away from Valentine’s Day, a holiday that a lot of people out there have a problem with. Traditionally we’ve thought of it as something only people linked in romantic relationships care about — single people need not apply. I’ve always thought that this was kind of a limited view of love, and it would be awesome if we could expand the focus of the holiday towards something a bit more egalitarian. Love comes in so many forms, and instead of taking the day to focus on the one kind of love we don’t have it would be much more in the spirit of the holiday to sit back and focus on the kinds of love we do. What do we love? Who do we love? Even if we’re not in a committed romantic relationship, what are our closest and most enduring bonds? When do we take the time to celebrate those?

Full disclosure: I’m a happily married rabbit, so my perspective on single people might not be the most accurate. But I would like to talk about the importance of love and how necessary it is to take the time to be grateful for its presence in our lives. One of the ways in which society (and our biology) conditions us is to make us acutely aware of the things we lack. We look at the successes of our friends and neighbors and wonder why we don’t have the same things. Meanwhile, it’s quite likely that our friends and neighbors are regarding something about us with an equally jealous eye. When we spend most of our energy focused on the things that need to be improved, we tend to miss all of the things that could bring us enormous contentment.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in assorted corners of the Internet. In our fandoms, we gripe about the direction our favorite shows are taking, the theories or pairings that become most popular in our cultures, or wage war on other, more inferior or stranger communities. With our politics, we’re ready to whip out the pitchforks at a moment’s notice, our outrage on ready standby for the controversy of the day. I don’t mean to belittle the value of anger about injustice. It’s important, and even necessary, to speak loudly against the things that we will not stand for. However, I think it’s equally necessary to speak up in support and defense of the things we love. By being open and passionate about the ideas that make us feel like better human beings, we remind ourselves of the kind of world we want to build, and aren’t solely focused on the things we need to tear down.

This is going to be a rough few years for us progressives. Conservatives control the Executive and Legislative Branches of the Federal government, an overwhelming majority of governor’s mansions and state legislatures, and they’re launching an all-out blitz to increase and preserve their power, push through an agenda built on fear instead of facts, exhaust and alienate those that oppose them. We’ll have to absorb that and fight against it every step of the way. In 2018, we have our first chance to oppose them through the electoral system — but any candidates that rise up in the mid-terms will need to have a message more inspiring than “We aren’t those guys who will try to take away healthcare, reproductive and minority rights, or put more power in the hands of businesses and bankers!” The people who hope to shift the country towards the left will need to outline a vision of what they believe America can be, what their values will lead them to focus on if elected, and remind us of the love we have for our country and each other.

As activists and informed citizens, we need to do the same. Yes, President 45 is a terrible embarrassment for our country, but why is that? What values do we, as Americans, see him and his administration stripping down for political gain? What ideals do we want to see restored, and where else can we find them in times like these? What WOULD a more just and progressive society look like for us?

It’s important to think about these things. We need something to work towards as well as something to work against. We need to imagine the society that we want to live in, the community that fulfills America’s promise. What do the people in that vision look like? What kinds of things do they do to help their fellow Americans? What role does government, business, and economics play in all of this? How does our country interact with foreign governments, allies and rivals alike? How does America influence other countries to be better in their own ways? What does a successful progressive vision for the world look like?

For me, it’s a world that embraces the collective responsibility that we share for one another. It’s a world that respects individual and cultural differences while also balancing that against the need to take better care of our planet and each other. It’s a world that gives everyone — no matter who they are or where they come from — the means to achieve their dreams with hard work, patience and a sense of fair play. It’s a world built on mutual respect and consideration, one that acknowledges freedom must be tempered by wisdom — that just because we’re free to do what we like we’re free from considering the consequences of our actions. My dream is that the world recognizes itself as one community with a common goal, the survival and advancement of the human species and the recovery of our home, the great planet Earth.

I want to spend more time speaking up for the things I love — compassion, creativity, and connection. I know that there are a whole heap of fires out there that need fighting right now, and I’m rolling up my sleeves to put them out. But I also want to remember that we’re fighting these fires because we’re trying to save our house; the place that we were born, or moved to, that shelters and protects us, that forms the basis of our best memories. I want to remember that my house is worth fighting for, and that there are so many reasons why.

Fear and anger can make us cruel when it gets out of balance with our love and our courage. We’re all afraid right now, and we’re all angry. It’s more important than ever to spread love and encourage each other to be brave. So, tomorrow, in addition to romantic love, let’s spread any kind of love we have in our lives. It could be the love between friends; the love of family; the love of our country, culture, background; the love of cherished ideals. Spend some time thinking of what you love, and if possible, encourage that love, spread it wherever you can. Loving what is good is just as effective a form of protest as hating what is bad.

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2017 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Politics) Self-Respect as a Form of Protest

Myth 150As a culture, I feel like we’re bathing in a pool of reminders to consider ourselves discontent, incomplete, and unworthy. Advertising is predicated on the idea of creating a need for whatever needs to be sold, and since it’s so ubiquitous we’re awash in a chorus of commercials, billboards and banners that scream to us “YOU ARE NOT HAPPY. YOU NEED THIS.” The current administration has told us that “real America” has been left behind by an establishment that cares more about itself than any of us, but that they do care and they will fix it. When we speak up and tell them their actions are making things worse, or that the claims they’re working from are fundamentally untrue, we’re told that they’re offering “alternative facts” or attack us for being unpatriotic enough to disagree with them. On the internet, any assertion made by women, people of color, LGBQTIA people, disabled people or anyone else on the margins is frequently met with a pack of dissenters eager to tell us our own experiences are wrong, our perspectives are skewed. We are constantly assaulted with messages designed to make us doubt ourselves, which is why we need to start putting in the work to believe in who we are and what we care about.

Respecting ourselves can be a form of protest against the society that wants to shape us into people who will passively accept what we’re told by our institutions, uncritically and gratefully. With so many of our cultural forces attempting to control how we think about ourselves, it is a revolutionary act to reject those attempts and determine who we are and who we want to be. Setting our own standards for happiness and personal fulfillment, then following through on those standards, makes us more resistant to the constant messaging that attempts to set our values for us. It allows us to know ourselves and our beliefs in a way that gives us a solid and stable center, that roots us to ideals larger than we are.

Our connection to this foundation is essential to our well-being. Instead of being buffeted by the shifting winds of our cultural attitudes, we sway with them while keeping true to who we are. Just as a tree bends with the wind, carries the burden of rain and heat, and still provides shelter to the animals and other plants who depend on it, knowing who we are allows us to be both flexible and grounded enough to remain upright against gale forces that threaten to bowl us over. We can come to see these storms as intense but transitory and gain a courage of conviction that checks our fear.

This work is not easy. So many of us have been told all of our lives that there’s something wrong with us, or that we have to change to fulfill the desires of the people around us. But there’s nothing wrong with you. You, as a human being, are worthy of happiness and respect. It’s one thing to be told that and wish it were true, another thing to believe it might be, quite a different thing to know it’s so. Getting to that point is a long and sometimes difficult process; it requires us to face ourselves and acknowledge our thoughts, our desires, our actions and beliefs. We may find things that are unpleasant and hard to deal with. But accepting all of ourselves, even the bad parts, shifts our perspective to one that makes the effort to change that much easier. It’s possible to recognize our flaws, work to correct them, and still treat ourselves with love, respect, and care.

When we do that, something extraordinary happens: we begin to have a clear perspective on the flaws of others and we learn to treat those with compassion. We learn to see how the behaviors of our fellow man are rooted in their own system of values, and how similar we are to each other. We find it easier to forgive people when they make mistakes, because we’re able to forgive ourselves for our imperfections. When we love ourselves, it becomes so much easier to love everyone around us — even the difficult people, the awkward ones, the people whose personality grates on our nerves.

We also find a security that allows our beliefs to be tested and changed according to new and more accurate information. We don’t cling to false ideals, or assume that our identities depend on dogmatic thinking. We know that our morality is an extension of our values, our ideals translated into action. Our understanding of those ideals and the actions they lead to can be examined and adjusted without the feeling that we’re killing ourselves or becoming unmoored. We gain a deep strength that underlies a flexibility allowing us to admit when we’re wrong and change our behavior with sincerity and purpose.

I don’t mean to say that learning to respect ourselves is going to solve all of our problems, because it won’t. We will still be frightened from time to time; we will get angry when our sense of morality is offended; we will still react poorly, make mistakes, backslide into bad habits, behave without compassion. We’re only human after all. However, learning self-respect will make us more resilient, more confident, more open and more compassionate. All of those traits are absolutely necessary if we are to face the rising tide of intolerance, ignorance and cruelty that threatens to destroy us. We cannot force others to respect us if we don’t respect ourselves first. We can’t teach others if we don’t learn about ourselves first. We can’t fix society if we don’t set the wounds we’ve taken on and ignored.

This year, learning to love and respect myself is one asset of my activism that I’ll be paying attention to. I will think about my values, and how that shapes the way I see the world. I will work to resist those people who diminish my values in an attempt to control me. And I will encourage all of us to do the same. We are as worthy of happiness and respect as anyone else; we have the right to demand our society treats us with the same respect we give ourselves. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

 
 

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(Movies) Hold On To Each Other or The Krampus Will Pick Us Off One By One

Entertainment 150Christmas-themed horror movies have a really poor track record; except for Gremlins, I can’t think of anything that could even remotely be considered good. Well, until now at least. I’ve already gotten into a few debates about this particular film with other folks, so please understand your mileage may vary. But for me, last year’s “Krampus” — which I only now got around to seeing — blends horror, comedy, and Christmas spirit perfectly. It delivers a cautionary tale that’s endearing and relatable, deeply silly, and actually kind of chilling all at once. The story turns out to be a meditation on what Christmas — and every winter holiday before it — is meant to be for the people who celebrate it, and the horrors that befall us if we forget it.

Tom (Adam Scott) is the patriarch of a typical American family preparing for the chaos of Christmas. Sarah (Toni Collette) is his wife trying to make the perfect holiday; his mother is an old-school German-speaking home-maker, while his daughter Beth is more interested in her boyfriend than her family. Adding to the stress, Sarah’s sister Alison is visiting for the holidays — with her obnoxious alpha-male husband (David Koechner) and four children in tow. To top it off, Sarah’s aunt Dorothy crashes the party to add her particular brand of cynicism, chain-smoking and binge drinking.

Only Tom’s son Max still believes in the Christmas spirit. That changes when his cousins embarrass him at the family dinner table by reading his letter to Santa out loud, exposing true and tender feelings about secrets that might be better left unrevealed. Hurt and angry, Max rips up the letter and tosses it into the wind, inadvertently summoning the shadow of Saint Nicholas. A supernatural blizzard cuts off power to the entire town, and that’s when the bloodletting begins.

Krampus tries to blend a kind of existential horror with demonic set-pieces that feel designed to be crazy enough to force a laugh, and how well it succeeds depends on your tolerance for tonal whiplash. I found it best to just buy into the film’s big request for a suspension of disbelief; once I did, I discovered that there was something surprisingly thoughtful lurking beneath the silliness.

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— HERE THERE BE SPOILERS —

Beth goes first, heading out into the storm to visit her boyfriend. She finds his home open to the elements, unnaturally frozen and everyone missing. On the way back, she’s chased by a horned figure jumping from rooftop to rooftop until she hides under a truck. Just when she thinks she’s escaped, another monster attacks her from the bushes. Tom and his brother in law are attacked as they go looking for him, and the family barricades themselves in the house. This, of course, doesn’t work — one by one, they’re isolated and abducted. As their numbers dwindle, their relationship to one another changes. Instead of focusing on what they hate about one another, they cling to each other a little tighter. Each terrible, strange disappearance forces them to band together that much more desperately.

This is where the movie starts to feel like it actually has something on its mind. Omi, the German grandmother, tells the story of how the poverty of her village made her lose her Christmas spirit when she was a young girl. Krampus visited, took everyone, and left her alone to serve as a witness. Now that Max and his family realize what is happening, they do their best to escape together; Omi stays behind to confront the demon, and that leads to a series of sacrifices. Tom gives his life to save his family, then Sarah gives hers to save her children. Eventually, Max tries to give up his life to save his cousin.

I might be overthinking this, or it might be the dire times we find ourselves in, but it was fascinating to watch these people realize the importance of unity against an often harsh and unforgiving world. As the home becomes increasingly unsafe and the family is driven into the bitter cold, I’m reminded of people learning to band together in ancient times for warmth and shared resources through the dark chill of winter. The festivity and merrymaking isn’t just because there was nothing else to do; these holidays are meant to deepen the bonds of community and remind us of the importance of our relationships. Gifts aren’t the meaning of Christmas; they only represent it. We give each other offerings to show our loved ones what they mean to us.

The consequences of forgetting how to be part of a community are often invisible and can easily go unnoticed. And by the time we realize that something has gone dreadfully wrong it’s too late. Max’s family struggle against a world that has suddenly turned against them in the worst way, and they display tenacity, ingenuity and bravery in the fight — but it does nothing to stop all of them from dying. Max begs and pleads with the demon to reverse what’s happened; he apologies, he promises to remember his lesson, he even gives Krampus back the coal bell he received as a token of his ordeal. Then he is thrown into a pit, and wake up in his bed.

Downstairs, his family is enjoying Christmas morning. For all of their flaws, they share a common bond that fills the room with warmth. Then, Max opens his gift — Krampus’ coal bell. A chill quiets the room, and everyone looks away from each other as they remember the horrors they’ve experienced.

That image is a chilling one. Instead of reaching for each other to share and relieve their suffering, they retreat into themselves. It strikes me as a particularly nasty version of hell; taking a moment that should connect us and trapping us within it with people who simply cannot do so. Being alone in that room full of people is an exceptionally lonely feeling.

So, this Christmas, I’ll make it a point to be more open about the things that frighten or depress me — and I encourage you to do the same. It’s more important than ever to bring ourselves together, to hold on to one another before it’s too late. We haven’t reached the tipping point yet, but I worry that it’s so close. We have to learn how to band together; we may have our differences, and we might disagree, but what happens if we don’t is terrifying and irreversible.

Hell is a banquet table where everyone has no option but to use forks that are too long to feed ourselves. Heaven is what happens when we decide to feed each other instead.

 

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