The Privilege of a Dream

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash
Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

I am dreading Martin Luther King Jr. Day. There, I said it. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for commemorating Dr. King, but it feels like this day has more to do with social media posts than working to end injustice. We post about his dream as we fleetingly remember the aspects of his life that fit our polite narrative.

Meanwhile, the capitalism-bashing, militarism-fearing, racism-despising man that Dr. King was is relegated to an after-thought at best. Those of us with the privilege to dream, do so at the expense of King’s vision while others remain trapped in the nightmare of an unjust existence.

On Wednesday, CNN aired this story about black workers in a Toledo GM plant who have endured violent racial hostility for years. They are subjugated to racial slurs, derogatory writings, and vague threats, but two specific aspects of this harassment caught my attention.

The first is that, on multiple occasions, nooses have been hung in the plant. NOOSES Y’ALL! The same terror-inducing tool that was used during the height of the lynching era to destroy black life is being used in this GM plant to intimidate black workers. That is how bold people have gotten.

Moreover, both upper management and the union reps. have indicated that they believe part of the problem is the sensitivity of the black workers themselves. Phrases like “you just can’t say certain things anymore” are subtle hints that someone feels the real issue isn’t the violent or degrading language, but rather our PC culture or the sensitivity of the victims. In short, they are offering legitimacy to the abuse that is taking place.

Perpetrators are thus emboldened and those in positions to stop the abuse, are indifferent. More than fifty years after Dr. King’s assassination, workers at one of the flagship American companies are subjected to lynching-era threats and the terrorism is subtly endorsed by those in power. The value of black life is still being demeaned. Lest you think this is just a few bad apples, allow me to remind you that in some way, shape or form, this demeaning of blackness happens daily.

Photo by mwangi gatheca on Unsplash
Photo by mwangi gatheca on Unsplash

I know this because it happens to me. Someone recently told me that I perform my job duties so well that when they think of me, they don’t see me as black.

….wait what?…

Somehow they thought they were complimenting me with this observation. They were smiling when they said it. No context provided. No realization that I might be offended. No insight about the underlying assumptions that drove them to say this. They simply offered their “compliment” as some kind of endorsement of my solid job performance.

Second-by-second, my heartbeat grew louder as it threatened to break open my chest. A strange cocktail of anger and confusion swirled in the pit of my stomach and the weight of the invalidation slowly set-in. I sat dumbfounded as I tried to decide if I wanted to confront them or just move on. I decided to move on, but I emailed him later to explain how I’d received his faux-compliment. I doubt they ever truly understood how problematic their words were. Unfortunately, this experience and the accompanying feelings weren’t new to me.

Whether it’s being called “boy” by an older white man or being called an oreo by white friends, I’m familiar with these subtle invalidations of my identity. (Side note: oreos are inferior to nearly every other cookie product, so being called one is quite insulting. I’d rather eat a box of fig newtons than one oreo. Come at me!)

At some point, people either choose to completely ignore my blackness because they see no value in it, or they use it as the only means to determine how to relate to me. That is the sad reality of being black in the U.S. In one way or another, blackness is devalued or demeaned.

Not everyone who commits a microaggression will hang a noose in their workplace. That isn’t what I’m saying, nor am I suggesting that I’ve gone through anything as traumatic as what those GM workers are experiencing. What I am saying is that our national racial ideology is built upon the premise that black is bad and white is good. Therefore the possibility for terror exists at virtually every moment for people of color. The weight of this possibility is a heavy burden to bear, and we’re tired. I’m tired.

Photo by Kristina V on Unsplash
Photo by Kristina V on Unsplash

As I’ve shared with y’all in previous posts, I already have old anxieties that constantly tell me I’m not enough. I worry that at any moment, people might see me as I am and decide they can’t handle me. This work of countering negative self-messages becomes even more difficult when I’m forced to confront the truth that my skin color or hair texture can actually be enough for someone to invalidate me.

As much as I work to tell myself that I’m loved, appreciated and cared for, I can’t ignore the reality of my experience or forget the history of my people. The unfortunate truth is that at any moment, in almost any place, my perceived racial identity may be enough for someone to reject me, or at worse, threaten my life.

What I still haven’t even acknowledged yet is that for a variety of reasons, my privilege has protected me. I’m light-skinned and college-educated, so there are ways in which I don’t feel the full brunt of this terror. Memes won’t undo this reality and quotes won’t awaken us from this nightmare. We need action.

Instead of posting about King’s marches, will you march? Instead of quoting from his speeches, will you speak out? Instead of lamenting the bullet he took, will you offer your body so that black and brown folks might save theirs? This ‘dream for a day’ way of commemorating King is tired and ineffective. Nooses still hang. Black bodies still burn, and black existence is still invalidated in large and small ways daily.

I’m not looking forward to Monday because I know that Tuesday always comes. On Tuesday, there will be another noose. On Wednesday another abuse of power, and on Thursday we’ll be told we’re too sensitive or, all lives matter or some other bullshit that does nothing but reinforce the nightmare that Malcolm spoke about so often.

Monday will come whether I want it to or not. When it does, please save the dream memes and instead name the realities of this nightmare from which so many cannot yet awaken. There are resources at the end of this article that you can utilize to help you think about what that might look like.

As always, I pray you first do the uncomfortable work of looking within. I still find myself perpetuating negative stereotypes and racist thought from time to time, so know you are by no means alone in this on-going work. Continue to make time to learn and reflect, and as you do, I leave you with this question.

How might your silence or inaction be creating space for terror?

Resources

Becoming a White Ally

Black America Again

Punishing Effects of Racism

The Case for Reparations

Herstory #BLM

Lynching Data

Why Being Colorblind Doesn’t Work

Dr. King Three Evils Speech

Still I Rise

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Old Tapes

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

For the last six weeks, I’ve written about my personal experiences, inner dialogue, and life lessons. I’ve enjoyed the work and appreciated the affirmation I’ve received along the way. Today I’m inviting you to join me in a more intentional way. First, let’s talk about 80s technology.

One of the most consistent things I’ve written about, but not yet named, is how old tapes affect our lives. Old tapes are those messages from our past that we play over and over again. In order to do this topic justice, I need to take us back to the revolutionary technology known as the cassette tape. Most of you are…um…I want to say “experienced” enough to remember cassettes right?

Cassette tapes allow you to store and listen to your favorite audio tracks, and for a variety of reasons, are the perfect metaphor for the emotional messages we carry.

Like our emotions, cassettes often get tangled. Some days we know we don’t feel right, but we can’t fully decipher why. The messages within are so jumbled that rather than one distinct emotion, you feel an intense collection of energy within your body that you can’t diffuse. The knots are too tight. The messages too jumbled and the process of untangling too daunting to actually unpack what you’re holding.

Part of the reason for this jumble is the amount of information that we collect over the course of our lives. Like cassettes, we have multiple sides that we can record on. We might store positive messages about ourselves on side A and negative messages on side B. As we work to improve ourselves and undo the negative messages from our past, the other side of the tape still plays from and takes us back into the darkness we’re trying to outrun.

Because we have so much storage space, we’re constantly recording our environments. With old cassette players, you can literally hit record and document everything that was happening in your environment. As conscious beings, we do this recording naturally, so that whether we remember a specific moment or not, it still has the capacity to affect us. Traumatic moments like death, divorce or abuse are all recorded and the messages are stored in our minds and in our bodies. When we’re least expecting them to, those old tapes start playing again and we’re suddenly re-living that first trauma.

Finally, like tapes, we can erase and record new information. This process takes time and looks different for different people, but it is possible. There are a variety of techniques you can use to begin recording new messages. The imaginative exercise that I mentioned in last week’s post is one of them. Other examples include intentionally speaking your new truth to yourself throughout the day. You might simply whisper “I am loved” whenever you’re feeling insecure. If that isn’t your speed, you could stop, take in several deep breaths and tell yourself that you have all of the love, acceptance, etc…that you need in this moment.

Over time, these new messages will take hold, and you’ll find them playing more often than the old tapes you’ve carried thus far. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m keeping this week’s blog short so that I can invite you into this work of naming our invisible truths. Take 5-10 minutes, and reflect upon the tapes that are playing in your life. Where do you notice yourself acting or reacting to situations in ways that aren’t intentional? What is causing the reaction? Do you notice any messages being played?

As you become aware of what these old messages, write them down. Make sure it is somewhere that you can return to. You’ll want to add to the list as new messages reveal themselves. Now think about your counter messages. What do you want to believe about yourself? What do you need to hear in order to feel validated, accepted and full? It need not be complex. It just needs to feel affirming to you. Now write down your new truth. Good so far? OK, here’s the challenge.

Once you’ve written down your messages, share them. Use the hashtag #invisibletruthschallenge, tag this blog and share the title of your old tape along with a brief description of your new message. You can write as much or as little as you want. The important thing is that you share your truth. I’ve given an example below that rings painfully true for me:

@invisibletruths My old tape is titled Always an Oreo. At various moments of my life, I’ve been told I’m not black enough. I feel insecure about my identity and am afraid that at any moment, someone will notice that I don’t measure up and my blackness will be invalidated.

Today I name that I am enough. My blackness is uniquely my own, and it is powerful. There is room for me at the bbq.#invisibletruthschallenge

Once you’ve posted with the hashtag, share this blog post, and invite others into the invisible truths challenge. It won’t go viral, but by stepping into this uncomfortable vulnerability we’re modeling a more authentic existence that will open us all to deeper healing.

I recognize that sharing something so personal isn’t a risk that everyone will take. I strongly encourage you to lean into this discomfort as much as you’re able. If you’re not yet ready to take this step, I understand. Instead, share your old tape with at least one person you trust and invite them to do the same. If you go this route, you’re still welcome to share the blog post and use the hashtag anyway :). The purpose of this challenge is two-fold. It helps us to recognize the messages we’re carrying and gives us the opportunity to practice more intentional vulnerability. In short, it is an opportunity for us to be stretched.

I hope you’ll join me in this work. I won’t make asks like this often, but every now and then, I will invite you to be more intentional about not only supporting me but also living out the authenticity we long for. You know, “be the change…” and what now 🙂 #ghandi As we each take ownership of our healing and create space for others to do the same, we’ll begin to notice cycles of pain and inauthenticity broken.

Reflect, record, and share what you discover. Invite others into this journey with you, and repeat the process.

What old tapes are playing for you?

Who’s driving?

Photo by Samuele Errico Piccarini on Unsplash

“I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want—instead, I do what I hate.”(Romans 7:15).

As critical as I often am of the Apostle Paul, sometimes he kept it 100. How often have you gone into a situation determined to do something different or feel something different only to fall into the same tired patterns you’ve been in for years?

It happens to me a lot, and I’m often left wondering why? If I want to do something different, why can’t I?

For instance, when I’m with some of my dearest friends, I often feel the most anxious and insecure. These are people that I will be friends with until the day I die. We’ve got that LeBron-Dwayne Wade, or JT-Jimmy Fallon type friendship.

We’re vulnerable with each other. We challenge each other, and most importantly, we laugh with each other. They’re great people, yet when I’m with them, I notice my chronic anxiety go into overdrive.

I feel anxious aftershocks reverberating through my body; starting at my chest and pulsating outward. I breathe deeply, focus on the moment and try every trick I know to shut the anxiety off, but the aftershocks continue. Each one carries a different version of the same question:

What if I’m not enough?

Black enough, funny enough, smart enough…there are an endless amount of enoughs that I can generate to convince myself that I’m not worthy of the love and acceptance I’m experiencing.

Question after anxious question runs through my mind. One voice reminding me that I’m loved and accepted as I am. The other voice screaming that I’ll be rejected as soon as they realize I’m not good enough.  

Back and forth it goes until the moment passes, and I regret not being able to be fully present. If I don’t want to feel anxious, and I know that I’m loved and accepted, where does that other, anxiety-ridden voice, come from? Who else is vying for control of my psyche?

Cue boxing announcer, aka, Michael Buffer voice

In one corner, we have 30-year-old millennial who stands 5’7 ¾” tall (I’m counting every fraction of an inch) and 145 lbs (I’m being generous). His confidence often outweighs his abilities, but he’s got a lot of heart. Known as Btapp, Tapper or to those that know him best, smartass. Ladies and gentlemen its Ben Tapper.

In the other corner, is a 9-year-old lean mean anxiety machine. At 3’9″ tall he is light enough to be blown away by a stiff northwest wind. He’s best known for bossing around his younger siblings and getting nose bleeds at a moment’s notice. He can destroy a plate of biscuits and gravy in under 2 minutes flat. Introducing ’97 Ben.

If you managed to read all of that in Michael Buffer’s voice, give yourselves a pat on the back. 2019 is going to be a great year for you 🙂

 ’97 Ben is the source of my anxious messaging. He carries the weight of the world on his small shoulders and remains vigilant in order to protect the people he loves. He is an anxious string bean of a boy whose fears are as strong as his smile is bright. He knows that rejection and disappointment are waiting around every corner, so he lives each moment bracing for the worst. 

Which is why he is constantly looking for reasons I might be rejected. I can’t possibly be enough for anyone because he’s never felt like enough, so he’s watching and waiting for things to go wrong like they always have.

Here’s the thing though. ‘97 Ben is more than an over-burdened, hyper-anxious 3rd grader. He is also strong, adaptive and determined. He survived child abuse and neglect. He lived in homeless shelters, played in roach-infested motels and spent many nights sleeping in the car.

To name only the anxiety and worry is to incompletely define him as a person. The truth is, he embodies both my deepest insecurities and my boldest resilience. 

The trouble is that ’97 Ben has been in the driver seat of my life for too long. He helped me survive a very traumatic decade, but I don’t need him to be in charge anymore. I don’t need to be constantly guarded, and I don’t want to spend every second bracing for the worst. If I’m to be fully present with the people I care about, I’ve got to let ’97 Ben off the hook.

To do this well, I use a contemplative exercise that is part meditation and part imagination. I close my eyes, breathe deeply and imagine myself in a car. I’m in the passenger seat traveling on I-65. I look to my left and see my younger self behind the wheel. His eyes are locked on the road with all the intensity and focus that a 9-year-old can muster. I ask him to pull over so we can talk. Once the car comes to a stop, we both get out, and I kneel down so we’re looking eye to eye as I begin talking.  

“Hey lil man. I really appreciate you driving for so long. You must be tired.”

He nods and warily waits for me to continue.

“Without you, I wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be here. Thank you so much! You’re amazing. The good news is, you don’t have to be in charge anymore. I got us from here. We’re okay.”

I rub his head, tell him he gets to relax now, and invite him into the back seat. There is a game boy and a to-go box filled with my mom’s biscuits and gravy waiting for him. I buckle him in, and as he picks up the game boy, he looks up at me and says “thank you.” I close the door, move to the driver’s seat, take one last look in the rear-view mirror to make sure he’s relaxed then start the car and go.

It’s an elaborate visualization, but as wonky as it sounds, it works. It eases the anxiety and reminds me that while my past will always influence who I am, it doesn’t have to be the driving factor in every moment.

Who is in the driver’s seat of your life?  

Reflect on the mountaintop and valley moments of your life. Have you experienced sudden life changes or traumatic experiences? Where were you when they happened? How old were you? How did you feel?

Take note of these things because it is those moments that can freeze us in time and allow past selves to remain in the driver seat long after the moment has passed.

As you’re able to name significant moments and see your past selves begin to take shape, imagine what they what they need to hear in order to move from the driver seat to the back seat. Remember that they embody both your greatest and most uncomfortable qualities, so even if they’re unhelpful right now, they served a purpose and deserve to be treated, even within your own imagination with love and respect. How might you let yourself off the hook with grace?

If we can find and connect with our past selves, we’ll experience freedom we’ve not yet known. This work of connecting with ’97 Ben is ongoing for me. He’s been driving for so long that my constant anxiety and obsession with rejection feel normal. It will take some time before a new standard is set for me, but it is time well spent.   

As you enter the New Year, I invite you into a deeper awareness of the internal voices that influence you. Take note, be curious and receive all of the love, grace, and acceptance you need to move forward. Know that you will grow tired of this work. You won’t catch yourself every time, and you’ll feel like you should be further along than you are. That’s normal my friend. When it happens, pause, breathe in the love you need and give yourself permission to keep doing the work without judgment.

We don’t have to spend 2019 falling into the same patterns that have always dogged us. When you get a chance, ask yourself:

Who is driving?  

A Christmas Story: Divine Pain

The war on Christmas is here. By now you’ve heard this infamous and nonexistent war referenced at least once. The fact that holiday cards say ‘happy holidays’ or ‘seasons greetings’ instead of Merry Christmas is somehow evidence that Christmas is under attack. This war is so well-known that it became a campaign promise during the 2016 election.

Truth be told, there is a war on Christmas. At least there was, but it was lost long ago. Capitalism won, and as a result, we’ve been led to believe that Christmas is about the joy, that comes through gift giving. You’ll be shocked to hear this, but that isn’t the original message of Christmas.  

I know what you’re thinking. “Ben, I’ve already watched ElfA Christmas Story and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I think I know the true meaning of Christmas.” I get it. The “true meaning of Christmas” motif is as ubiquitous as the war on Christmas itself. However, the Christmas message I’m referring to isn’t mentioned in our favorite holiday songs, movies or even the Bible.  

At its root, the Christmas story is one of sudden joy and hidden pain. The joy is a result of God’s manifested presence through Jesus, but Jesus couldn’t have arrived without Mary’s pain. The details of Mary’s pregnancy and delivery are omitted from the Christian tradition. We have sterilized Christmas so that it is soft, sweet and mystical.   

There is no record of Mary’s flesh being ripped open or her screams piercing the otherwise quiet night air. Neither the blood that covered Jesus, nor the sweat that drenched Mary are depicted in any nativity scene, but the absence of those details does not detract from their importance. There was joy on that first Christmas, but it wasn’t possible without pain.  

What’s true in childbirth is often true in other aspects of life as well. Pain can be a signal that we’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to do. I felt that signal strongly during December of 2009.  

Flashback Alert: (I’ve found that looking to the side and tilting my head at a slight angle really adds to the flashback experience. Join me). 

I’m sitting on the floor in my grandmother’s living room watching tv with my younger brother. There are four chairs, two along each wall. As usual, my grandma is in the chair to my left. She’s making small talk with my girlfriend, Brooke, who is sitting across from her. I’m leaning against the chair behind me and watching my brother as he laughs at whatever is happening on tv. For a moment everything feels right. I’m spending time with people I love. No stress. No pressure. Just quality time. The moment evaporates as I remember that there is someone else in the room: my biological mom.  

She is sitting in the chair across from me, and as I look up to see her smiling and talking with Brooke, the normalcy and peace I felt moments ago vanish. It feels as though I’m living in an alternate reality. My past has encroached upon my present and the merger is disorienting. Refusing to pretend anything is awkward, I talk with my mom and occasionally even laugh as we both try our best to pretend this is normal. Internally, I’m fighting desperately to hold off the upheaval that is taking place. The visit ends, but as I drive home the real work begins.  

I soon feel the undercurrents of anger, betrayal, and rejection move through me like a boiling river. I’m so overwhelmed that I can’t process what I’m feeling; I just know it feels terrible. The pressure that was used to bottle up my emotions for a decade now fuels the explosion happening in my chest. I feel everything and yet nothing. It’s all jumbled together, one emotion wound up in the next forming knot after intense knot in my chest.

I shut down and push people away. My parents, my girlfriend, and anyone else that wants to be around me meets a wall of resistance. There is no reason for me to celebrate; no excuse to be thankful this Christmas. I just want to be angry, and my God am I angry.   

As I look back on that week in 2009, I recall being triggered because I realized I couldn’t escape from the past. I assumed I could put it behind me. I did my best to live a happy life without being defined by what had happened to me. I didn’t want to remember the pain I felt when my mom left. I didn’t want to remember the anger I felt when we were placed in foster care. I sure as hell didn’t want to remember the fear I felt when I was around my step-dad. I honestly thought I was over it all, but in one fell swoop, I was undone by a past I thought I could bury.  

It was by far the worst holiday I’ve had in the last twenty years.  As painful as that moment was, I know I needed it. I needed to have my wounds reopened so they could heal properly. I needed to be reminded that my work wasn’t done. Most of all, I needed to be reminded that I can’t outrun ghosts. My past will always win that race.W

Have you ever tried to get over your past by simply moving on? It can feel easier to pretend we’re ok than to carefully examine the invisible scars we carry but what is easy is not always beneficial.

I invite you to an intentional awareness this Christmas and New Year. Take note of the feelings, situations or memories you’ve been trying to avoid. Give them the space they’re asking for. I’m not asking you to wake up every day and think about all the things that are wrong with your life. Rather, I’m suggesting you carve out intentional pockets of time to let the feelings you’re uncomfortable with exist without trying to get rid of them. If you give your hurt the space it needs, it’s less likely to encroach upon your joy.

For example, I’m making space to grieve my dad. The process isn’t spectacular. I take a moment every day or every other day to sit still, breathe deeply and be aware of the sorrow that sits like a softball in my chest. I hold it gently and with reverence because it too has a purpose. I’m not trying to feel better. I’m not trying to lessen the grief. I’m just noticing it and letting it be. After a few moments of this holding, knowing and breathing, I let go and continue with my day. It’s simple but effective.

Find a practice that works for you. Maybe it will incorporate exercise, music or meditation. As long as you’re making time to be present, you’re doing it right.  

The war on Christmas may be over on a national level, but in your own life and with your own family, you can still mount a resistance. As we move closer to Christmas, imagine that Jesus’ birth wasn’t announced by angels, but rather by the anguished screams of Mary forcing new life into the world. 

Hold the discomfort and exuberance of this holiday season just as she did, and look for moments when pain is calling you into your deeper purpose. 

Permission to Be…a lesson from Kanye


Photo by Jorge Saavedra on Unsplash

Kanye West is known for many things. Most of them are of the infamous variety, but he’s recently outdone himself. During a meeting with President Trump, Kanye said the MAGA hat made him feel like Superman. No, I’m not making this up. Kanye “George Bush hates black people” West, said the MAGA hat makes him feel like he has superpowers. 

If you missed the moment I’m speaking of, click here for the full transcript. While I’m both concerned and disappointed in Kanye, I’m also aware that he consistently does something most of us wouldn’t dream of. He expresses his authentic identity. He doesn’t let the pressure of who people want him to be limit who he actually is.  

We won’t live that boldly. The thought of being cut off from our communities, damaging our reputations or risking our careers is too much to bear. Therefore, we live so that feathers aren’t ruffled, and we never give ourselves space to be curious about who we really are. As a result, we fail to live into our greatest potential. Desires go unnamed. Dreams are locked away. Destiny is rerouted as we pretend we’re okay living out the identities assigned to us.  

Who do you need permission to be? 

In the past, I’ve needed permission to be a man in the way that is most authentic to me. I’m a heterosexual, cisgender male. As an adolescent, I noticed that I was more emotionally sensitive and more comfortable relating to women than most hetero, cis boys I knew. People often assumed I was gay, and as a teenager, I took that as an insult.

It meant that I was somehow more feminine than I should be. Moreover, it made me feel deeply misunderstood and judged. I felt a large knot in my throat as I wrestled with the shame of not being masculine enough to fit in.   

Why did my feelings get hurt so easily? Every insult whether levied seriously or in jest was taken as an attack on who I was. Even if I logically knew it wasn’t meant that way, my emotions still got the better of me. My chest and throat constricted and my eyes watered as I desperately fought back tears. Each time this happened, the shame rose within me as I told myself I was stupid for caring so much about what other people thought of me. 

Why was it easier to make female friends than male friends? I would regularly find myself at the lunch table surrounded by girls. Before you ask, they weren’t fawning over me. I was firmly entrenched within the confines of the friend zone. Girls just felt easier to talk to, and less threatening. They didn’t want to fight or wrestle when they hung out.  They just talked, and I liked that. 

As a result of my emotional sensitivity and my preference for female friendship, I often held one significant question about myself…


Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

What is wrong with me? 

Can you feel the weight of that question? The inherent shame oozes from each word and like hot asphalt on a summer day, it stuck to the deepest parts of me. For years I held that shame believing I was somehow broken. Slowly I found a way to erode the asphalt and experience grace, and two things helped with that process. The first was greater awareness of myself. 

I realized I was sensitive to criticism because I spent seven years of my childhood getting berated and assaulted by my stepdad. His words cut me deeply, piercing my still-forming identity and crippling my young masculinity. As a result of the relationship I had with my step-dad, I gravitated more strongly towards my mom and learned to relate to women more.

In some ways, men still feel threatening to me. There is a silent alarm in my subconscious that gets triggered when I’m around men whom I perceive to be more masculine than myself. I feel my anxiety spike almost as if a low-level fight or flight response is activated. I know it is illogical, and through awareness and self-talk, I hope to one day shut down the alarm system. For now, I accept it as it is without allowing it to dictate how I relate to people.  

The second thing that helped me accept grace was beginning to understand gender as something socially constructed rather than divinely instituted. Concepts of masculinity and femininity have been applied to gender in order to sell clothes, market perfume, disempower women and desensitize men, but they are not a natural part of our existence. Gender is constructed in the same way that race is constructed. Whereas race was constructed around differences in skin color, hair texture, and facial features, gender was created based upon differences in external genitalia.  

Both gender and race are arbitrary distinctions loosely based on biological characteristics, and both are designed to keep people in their place so that those in power can maintain it. Unfortunately, these arbitrary distinctions continue to play a significant role in our identities. Even though I’m now aware of the illusion of gender, I still succumb to my embedded beliefs. 

For example, I fall into the trap of trying to protect Brooke’s emotions. I am tempted to withhold information from her because I’m afraid it will be too difficult for her to hear, or I’m worried it will upset her too much. When I withhold information to “protect” her, I’m intentionally or unintentionally denying the existence of her strength and agency. What I’m really saying is “I don’t think you’re strong enough to handle this.”

Logically I know that’s an antiquated and misogynistic way of thinking because I’m failing to see her with agency and power. Moreover, it is problematic because I think my masculinity comes with an inherent right to be the gatekeeper for her emotions. It is unhelpful at best and hurtful at worst. The trouble with embedded beliefs is that, like shrapnel, they’re difficult to remove all at once. 

The truth is, my wife is a bad-ass woman with immense strength and deserves to be treated as such.  If I’m really being honest, the underlying fear isn’t that she won’t be able to handle the truth I’m holding, it’s that I won’t. Once I express it to her, I’m forced to fully confront it as well, and that is terrifying. Fragile masculinity is motivated not by the weakness it perceives in femininity, but by the weakness it perceives in itself. Most of us aren’t curious enough about ourselves to understand the roots of our fragility. 

Who do you need permission to be? 

This question is not one answered in a moment. Rather it is a slow-cooker question. You reflect on it for a while, let it simmer and when the time is right an answer will present itself. In the meantime, pay attention to who you are at various moments of the day. Which identities present themselves? Are they identities that you have chosen, or have they been given to you? Which identities are whispering and waiting to see the light of day?  

Most of us will never receive as much national attention as Kanye, and that is probably a good thing. Fame can mess a person up. What I hope we learn from Mr. West, aside from the reality that no one looks good in a MAGA hat, is that sometimes we must do the hard thing; step beyond what is comfortable in order to live into our deeper truths. 

Take time this week to explore the identities that you carry. Notice when they feel uncomfortable like wearing a shoe that is a size too small. Notice when they perfect like your most comfortable pair of jeans. Give yourself the freedom to be curious, self-aware and bold this week as you ask questions that you’d normally ignore.

Who do you need permission to be?

P.S. You have permission. Now go be you! 🙂

Dissonant Truth

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

Truth is uncomfortable. It shatters our preconceived notions about right and wrong and must be uncovered intentionally. It must be sought out, or at the very least, invited. It doesn’t stand in plain sight shouting at us. Like wisdom personified, it gently knocks and waits for us to open the door. We’re often able to distract ourselves from truth’s subtle call until the norms we comfortably depend upon are shaken by the inevitability of death. It is the reminder that control is an illusion and time is not our servant.  

This past Wednesday, the U.S. observed a national day of mourning to commemorate the life and death of the 41st president George H. W. Bush. As soon as news of his passing broke out, articles touting his conservative credentials and strong leadership style emerged. In contrast, others asserted that the president put political expediency over the common good and that his policies did lasting damage to the lgbtq+ community.  

Which perspectives are true? As most of our childhood stories have taught us, you’re either a hero or a villain. There is no room for complicated legacies or nuanced understandings of history. We’re an either/or society. However, in death, we have the opportunity to hold competing perspectives with grace.  

One of my dissonant truths emerged slowly but forcefully one evening several weeks ago. I sat on the back steps and intentionally took in the crisp autumn air. With each slow breath, I gathered and held my anxious thoughts, before releasing them into the atmosphere as I exhaled. With every cycle of breath, I became lighter, clearer and more still.

Soon, I was still enough that the truth washed over me like the first waves of high tide, steady and unsettling. Instead of stepping back from the waves, I remained in that moment, allowing myself to be rocked back then gently but firmly drawn into the depths. This truth was deep, unsettling, and challenged long-held narratives about my childhood, my family and my own identity. The truth I was faced with on my back steps was that… 

love my mom. 

Mind-blowing right? If you don’t know my history, you’ll likely think I’ve just wasted your time, so allow me to take you back to 1997. You remember ‘97? I didn’t, so I had to do some research. Turns out, it was quite a year. Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, and Notorious B.I.G died. Mike Tyson bit off a chunk of someone’s ear, O.J. Simpson was finally convicted, and the cinematic world was set ablaze by such classics as Flubber, George of the Jungle, Austin Powers, Liar Liar, Men in Black, Hercules, and a lesser-known film you may not have heard of called Titanic.  What a time to be alive!  

I wasn’t aware of any of this because I was nine-years-old and living in a homeless shelter. I have my own memories of that year, but one, in particular, stands out above the rest.   

I’m standing in a homeless shelter kitchen. My is mom walking towards me, but something is wrong. She looks upset, and my gut initiates that slow and steady lurch which tells me something bad is about to happen. As I’ve done many times before, I brace myself. My mom kneels down in front of me, so we’re looking eye to eye, and says what I imagine are the hardest words of her life.  

“Ben, I have to go away right now. You’re going to stay here, with your brothers and sisters, but don’t worry. I’ll get a lawyer and come back to get you.”  

With that, she hugs me, turns and walks out the door. I stand there struggling to comprehend what has just happened.  

Why does she have to leave? Who is making her go? Why can’t we come with? Who is gonna take care of us? Will we have to move again? 

The anxiety surges through my thin, nine-year-old body, causing question after question to race through my mind faster than I can comprehend. I stand there for a moment searching for answers and desperately trying to make sense of the life that is shifting beneath my feet. As I watch the only constant thing in my life walk out the door, I feel rejected, alone and abandoned.

Then, right on cue, my coping mechanisms, which have been tested by years of abuse and neglect, kick in and I feel the familiar resolve to survive. I will not let these feelings overcome me. I can’t. I have to it keep it together for my brothers and sisters. I don’t know what is coming, but I know we must survive.  

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

While we did indeed survive, and at times thrive in our new home, the pain from that moment remained. One night my foster mom was tucking me into bed, and I laid there overwhelmed by a sadness, maybe even a deadness within me. She asked what was wrong, and my eyes immediately filled with tears. I laid there in my bed, fighting back the deep, dark sorrow that threatened to take over and I said: 

“I miss my mom. It feels like there is a hole in my chest where my heart used to be.”  

Over the years, that pain continued to present itself as anger, depression, and longing. The more I processed my childhood experiences, the more betrayed I felt by my mom. Before that moment in the homeless shelter kitchen, I never would have questioned her, but after that, I started to see things through a different lens. 

It occurred to me that she not only left us, but she never protected us from our stepdad. Every time he punched or kicked, she stood to the side and allowed it to happen. Every chance she had to get away and start over, she refused to take. She kept letting him back into our lives after every arrest and separation. With these realizations, the illusions I had of my mother began to crumble. She not only caused deep emotional hurt, but she allowed us to be hurt physically as well.  

I love my mom.

Do you feel the dissonance of those words now? They trigger a flurry of questions and unleash a torrent of anxiety. If I admit I love her, does that let her off the hook? Will it make my adoptive mom feel less appreciated? Will my brothers and sisters feel betrayed by my admission?  

I’ve spent twenty-one years carrying the scars, trying to forgive, and hoping I’ll stop being affected by her. I’ve spent twenty-one years trying not to be that vulnerable ever again, yet here I am. 

I love my mom. 

As I sat on my back steps allowing the weight of this realization to wash over me, I experienced the warmth of healing slowly emerge as the first light of the sun at dawn. I was swimming in both the discomfort and the release; truth embedded in dissonance.  

Within this dissonant truth, I’m finding a restoration. In some way I can’t fully articulate, I am more fully myself today than I was two weeks ago. The pain has not gone away. That homeless shelter kitchen still brings tears to my eyes and anxiety to my heart. However, I know that I don’t have to protect myself anymore.

I’ve lived my whole life waiting for people to hurt me. Which means I never let them in, or I emotionally detach at a moment’s notice. These are coping techniques designed to keep me from experiencing vulnerability and pain. While I will remain discerning about who I trust, I will also trust God enough to know that I can be deeply hurt, and still be restored. Healing is always possible.  

Truth can be present in dissonance. We have to be willing to remain in the discomfort long enough for it to emerge. Once it presents itself, do your best not to judge it. Give it space to be validated. Let it be, and feel how it begins to change you. The process of remaining in the dissonance and holding your truth will be uncomfortable or even painful for some of you. Some truths are shrouded in shame while others are shackled with pain or regret. Allow your truth to exist without the shrouds or shackles and listen for what it will tell you. Not every truth will make you suddenly feel more whole, but each one will help you experience more of your true self. There is freedom in that.  

Find space this weekend to get into a quiet place. Through your own practice of centering, find that stillness which makes room for dissonance. When your truth emerges, invite it in without judgment or condition. Hold it gently and trust that it will do the work it set out to do, even if that work is not immediately evident to you. Then, as you’re ready, share your truth with someone you trust so that they too might see more of who you are.  

More will be written about the dissonance in President Bush’s life and legacy. His death has given the nation an opportunity to choose how much discomfort we’re willing to hold for the sake of restoration. As you formulate your own opinions on our 41st president, remember that truth is knocking. Be still and open the door.  

Where does it hurt?

Young woman's eyes are swelling with water
Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash

Few things in life are as powerful as a question. The right question, at exactly the right moment, stops you dead in your tracks. One such question for me is:  

Where does it hurt? 

This question pulls me deep into myself, grips my heart and forces me to pay attention. “I’m good” ceases to be an acceptable response to any question. I’m no longer distracted by what the future holds or lost in my rambling thoughts. Instead I’m reminded that I hold deep pain. 

As I consider this question, for a moment I’m able to admit that everything is not okay, and for a moment, I don’t have to pretend that it is. This is both liberating and terrifying. Liberating because I secretly long to name my pain and have it acknowledged. Terrifying because I’m not always ready to feel the depth of the hurt or do the work necessary to heal. On some level, I’m aware that I carry the pains of my past with me. Pain from the wounds of physical/emotional abuse and neglect. It surfaces whenever I experience conflict. My adrenaline surges, heartrate quickens and stomach churns, as soon my fight or flight response kicks in. Its triggered during almost any form of interpersonal conflict, even if the conflict doesn’t involve me. I can simply be in the presence of two people arguing and suddenly feel completely overwhelmed and uncomfortable.  

My pain also breaks through in the form of intense doubt. I have a vivid memory of my mother telling me she had to leave which meant my siblings and I were going into foster care. As she walked through the door and out of my life, I felt abandoned and unloved. As if the reason she left was because I wasn’t worthy of her love anymore. This insecurity colors every relationship I have. At some point, I overanalyze every verbal and nonverbal cue I receive, desperately searching for evidence of my acceptance or rejection. As soon as I suspect I’m not fully accepted, my heart drops into my stomach, a knot develops in my throat and my palms sweat. I can feel the alarm bells of anxiety ringing loudly in my chest as my subconscious recalls my stored memories of rejection. Once this cycle begins, I spiral into a panic and search even more frantically for evidence that I’m not being rejected which triggers an even greater physiological response.   

I’ve spent most of my life trying to bury these emotions, so that I don‘t feel them as intensely. Despite my best efforts, even my buried emotions are still felt. The emotions I tuck away and hide feel like I’m wearing a concrete vest that constricts my chest and shoulders. Wearing the vest day in and day out fatigues me, so that some days I don’t even want to get out of bed. I long to be free of this weight, yet I fear the intensity of the emotion that has been buried. The pressure used to bury the emotions has not dissipated, so once the concrete vest comes off, I may face an eruption of lost memories or hidden truths. That is what makes liberation so terrifying, and so easy to avoid…until I see that question.  

Where does it hurt? 

Suddenly I am aware that I’m only pretending to be ok. I wear a mask to hide my feelings from the world and from myself. This reminds me of a scene from the 1994 cinematic masterpiece The Mask. Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the movie yet…it was made in ‘94, you had your chance. Just before Jim Carey puts on the mask for the first time, he looks in the mirror and mockingly repeats a quote he heard from a psychiatrist on tv. “We all wear masks…metaphorically speaking.” Jim Carey’s voice is stuck in my head, and I think it is important that its stuck in yours as well, so click this link and fast-forward to the 0:41 mark. You’re welcome 🙂!  

We all wear masks. They hide us, protect us and help us blend in. Case in point: my dad passed away nearly three months ago. I’ve done my best to move forward, but as Christmas draws near, I miss him. I’m acutely aware that he won’t hug me when I walk in the door and his laugh won’t fill the room as he plays with my nieces and nephews. The holidays just won’t be the same without him. I’m grieving daily, yet when people ask me how I am, I have no idea how to respond. I say something like “I’m good” or “I’m as good as can be expected”.  

If I were to answer honestly, I’d say: “I miss my dad. It sucks that I have to celebrate Christmas without him. Some days I feel depressed, and other days I’m in denial. It doesn’t feel like he’s really gone. I just really wish he were here so I could talk to him again. I want to hear him say my name one more time...  The thought of being this open and vulnerable is terrifying. It triggers my fears of rejection because I don’t trust that people really want to know how I feel. So, I put on the mask, hide myself, and pretend I’m ok. Occasionally, I come across someone who notices the mask and asks to see who is behind it.  These people are genuinely curious about how I’m feeling. They don’t try to solve my problems. They listen are sit with me in my discomfort. Sometimes they have advice, and other times they just want to ensure I don’t feel alone. Slowly but surely, I’m learning to take the mask off when I’m around them, and it feels refreshing.   

I’m also learning that God desperately wants me to experience relationship, wholeness and healing. When I say “God”, I’m referencing the ground of all being; that invisible, ineffable connection between all living things. That deep knowing within me. God cares about my brokenness, knows where my open wounds are and wants me to heal. Moreover, God’s intention is broader than my own individual healing, relationship and wholeness. God desires and is actively working towards these ends for every person. I’ll unpack more about how I understand God in later blog posts. For now, know that this thing that is bigger than any individual person, tradition or context; this thing that is experienced as conscience, love and connection, is actively working to help us experience healing. Call it what you want, but the language most familiar to me is God. One of the ways God brings me back to the work of healing is through this question. 

Where does it hurt? 

As I reflect upon it, I feel an invitation into the deep parts of myself. Sometimes this invitation is mediated through friends or family who care about me, and other times it is just me and God working through the masks I wear until we get to my authentic self. Regardless, this question is an invitation that I want to share with you.  

I invite you to take two minutes today and hold this question seriously. Talk it over with someone who loves you, hold it in your daily meditation or chew on it while you work out. Give yourself space to breathe deeply, feel deeply and know deeply. Once you’re ready, let this question stop you in your tracks.  

My friend, where does it hurt?