Conundrum

It’s not easy being a person of conscience, of ethics and morals and decency. It’s really not. Your own particular brand of conscience may require tithing and public prayer before digging in to your chicken fried chicken at Black Eyed Pea (90s me), regular donations to Public Media (00s me), monthly contributions to Planned Parenthood not because you think abortion is a party but because you hate the idea of women bleeding to death from botched back-alley abortions (10s me).

Your decency might be to support the US flag, no matter what the circumstances. You might believe, honestly and truly, that patriotism is unquestioning.

Your morality might include sponsoring a child through Compassion International, a fantastic organization which I still happen to support monetarily, even in my post-church life.

You might volunteer in a soup kitchen, you might always tip 20% because you comprehend that those in the service industry need to buy groceries; you might even drive a Prius.

And if you’re like me, it doesn’t seem to matter how many times you refuse a plastic bag in favor of your reusable one, or hand the paper-wrapped straw back to the drive through window attendant while explaining to their puzzled faces that you carry your own stainless steel straws with you, it just seems like it’s never enough…

because it’s clear that no matter what choice you make, it’s going to have a harmful, unintended consequence somewhere in this great big world.

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The genius TV sitcom “The Good Place” is handling this conundrum with a deft touch this season. As Michael, so brilliantly played by Ted Danson, and his posse of afterlife wanderers is realizing, the most innocuous choices can have magnificently terrible consequences. A simple tomato purchase is rife with opportunity to wreck a distant life in an accidental and unavoidable ripple effect: pesticides and underpaid laborers, for example.

Here lately, I find myself stymied by the quest for toothpaste:

the tubes that normal toothpaste come in are not recyclable. So when I throw them in the bin, where do they end up? Land fill.

I could order the chewable tablets that you bite down on, they’re packaged in glass, but then there is a truck that has to deliver them to my house, which creates more exhaust fumes, and thereby a larger contribution to global climate change.

Baking soda just tastes gross.

I have settled for a brand that touts itself as good for the groundwater, and it comes in a tube that is made from plant material and is recyclable.

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But then I am plagued by the follow up thought: I hear that recycling is at a near-halt because the Chinese are no longer buying and shipping our waste to China, and American waste companies can’t afford to actually recycle the volumes of plastic and cardboard that are now stacking up in warehouses.

What about the turtles, fish, and ducks, friends? WHAT ABOUT THEM?

And can we talk relationships? I spent a good hour today worried and upset and angry. Like so many others, I posted the video of the red capped teen staring. I try to keep my social media political posts to a minimum- just a couple a month, normally. My life’s work is about finding joy and sharing peace. Not about stirring up discord.

But this incident of the Catholic high school boys and the Native American elder really bothers me. Maybe it’s because I taught high school. I am familiar with that smirk, I have been cornered by a high school boy who threatened me harm out of the sight of security cameras, I have been hit by a student, I too have found myself in the midst of an unruly group of inadequately supervised teens and known the fear of turning every which way only to realize I was at the mercy of the “Lord of the Flies” adolescents.

But those aren’t the relationships that upset me today. Not tribal elders, not smartass teens, not their school leadership. And yes, I have seen the opposing arguments that we don’t know the real story, and to be frank, I am not buying most of it.

No, today it came from an old friend. A friend who is so staunch in her conservative world view that she posted a response that I could not even begin to handle. I deleted the whole thread, which I was planning to do anyway, but once the conservative mommy blog link was shared, I churned. I churned all afternoon. I would gladly have had an actual dialogue with this friend, but what I was unequivocally not willing to do was read a right wing mommy blog.

And here’s where I am stuck: What happens when our own particular value systems are so firmly at odds with each other that to compromise feels like we are cutting a piece of our gut out and laying it on a table as blood sacrifice?

There’s a lot of talk that goes: “We all, at the most basic level, share the same values. We just want a safe and happy place to raise and love our families.” Yeah, well, that’s the easy and obvious one. But if you go just one step deeper than that, to ask the questions about what justice looks like, what good citizenship looks like, how money should be spent, which lives have value and where people should be able to breathe freely, things get more complex. And those values are as essential to our humanity as loving and providing for our families.

Wasn’t it Jesus who said:

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36)

Those rude teenagers in Washington DC are not my enemy. And that gentleman beating the peace drum is not the enemy of the conservatives.

When does keeping the peace with friends, neighbors, work colleagues, and relatives, at the cost of staying silent on issues we feel passionately about, begin to erode our souls? How do we compromise when to compromise feels like betraying everything we hold dear? Or does it even matter, except in the voting booth? Does dialogue about issues matter?

I don’t have an answer. What I do know is that my own worry about which toothpaste to use is a microcosm of everything else that I am fearful about right now. It just seems like a decision about freedom and equality is too tough, so I’ll debate the merits of my organic toothpaste purchase. Shall I buy mint or vanilla flavored?

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And the winner is…

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It’s baseball season! And since I live in Houston, the home of the current World Champ Astros, for whom I just bought a new team shirt and am anxiously awaiting the chance to go to a game at Minutemaid Park,  I find myself contemplating the concept of sport. Of Competition. I wonder how much we Americans are conditioned to Competitiveness and how much is innate. Clearly, some element of Competition has existed in humanity before there was even organized society. Cain Competed with Abel for Adam’s esteem, spilling blood to be the favorite. The Greeks held magnificent athletic and artistic Competitions in the original Olympic games. Who was Alexander but the most Competitive general to lead an army?

So I don’t really have a problem with Competition. It is a necessary force that pushes humanity to make new discoveries, chart new frontiers, and achieve excellence.

But sometimes I wonder why we have seemingly made everything here in America about being the best. We give trophies and tiaras to four year olds who prance and priss better than the other little girls. We pit students against each other in spelling bees in first grade so that the adept learners can lord it over the ones who are a little (or a lot) behind. We award trophies to kids for being on a sports team, making the trophy the desired end, rather than emphasizing the lessons learned about sportsmanship and personal physical fitness.

It is a mentality that permeates every single aspect of American life. We rate our movies according to top box office gross every Monday morning. We look at the cars next to us at the red lights and either pat ourselves mentally or grit our teeth in envy. We slave endlessly (or pay yard workers to) so that we might put that “Yard of the Month” sign in our front yards. Most women eyeball each other in the mall, comparing rear ends, wrinkles, and wardrobes. We brag about our kids’ grades on bumper stickers. It’s in our schools, our churches, our businesses, our neighborhoods.

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Even when the cause is worthwhile we compete. Weight loss competitions abound in businesses. Companies use competition as a marketing tool, cloaking it in contests for charity. For goodness’ sake our kids even compete for medals to see who can read the Bible best (how in the world we American Evangelicals could have imagined that children showing each other up is a Jesus thing is just incomprehensible to me)!

So no wonder we Americans believe we live in THE BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD! Most of us have never visited any other country, but our Competitive conditioning tell us it must be so. That ideology was a deciding factor in our most recent presidential election. Competition, not competence. Supremacy over alliance.

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I don’t think I really am very Competitive by nature, though I think growing up in American culture can impart a pretty fierce dog-eat-dog mentality in all but the the most passive . I could never enjoy the fierce push to win at team sports, it seemed a silly waste of mental energy to me. When we had to shake hands and say “Good Game” I just wanted to make friends with everybody. I didn’t enjoy the All State Choir audition process in high school. I enjoyed the singing, but not watching some girls cry whose names were not called out. When our class elected its top ten most popular senior girls, I was #12. I watched as girls strategized and agonized about getting on that list, and I could not have cared less about that vote. I was surprised I got as close as I did. One of the top ten boys, Kevin R., told me in my yearbook that I could have been so popular if I had just tried a little harder. As a young adult I couldn’t have cared less about having better stuff than my peers. Still don’t.

As a theatre teacher, I found myself immersed in the arts, and Competition was probably one of my least favorite aspects of the job. Year after year I watched my students create beautiful work onstage and backstage. They were full of pride in their accomplishment. They gloried in the story they had told and they knew they had learned and grown in their craft as well as in their humanity. Then the trophies and medals got handed out and the kids without gold sparkly things suddenly doubted everything they thought about the art they had created. As a director, I had begun to start thinking cunningly, plotting for a win rather than for learning. Principals like it when you can set a trophy on their desks.

Irony of ironies, now that I am no longer a full time theatre educator, I serve as a judge at those very competitions. I go into those days with the goal of teaching and edifying the kids. Most of my judicial colleagues do, too.

I did discover that once the competitive element of trophies was introduced into my local community theatre stomping ground, much of my joy in that hobby was lost. I don’t get involved any more. I guess I have had one too many conversations with people who introduce themselves with their number or trophies, or who find ways to work their victories into conversation.

I am all for excellence. Anyone who knows me well knows I do not tolerate laziness or mediocrity. I used to lay that burden on others. I held everyone to my standards. Then I let go, and just held myself to a constant and unrelenting expectation of quality. That exhausted me. Through my practice of yoga, I have learned that winning has its place, but so does failure; that excellence is a worthy goal, but sometimes relenting and just being is just as worthwhile.

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I envision a world where kids play on rotating sports teams, drawn by lotto. Everyone works out and plays together and switches teams to make new friends and team parties at the end of the season include the whole league in one great big bouncy castle. The top spellers help the ones who are having a hard time. The beautiful popular girls hang out with the regular girls doing stuff completely unrelated to fashion, makeup, and boys. Neighbors come together to help each other with their yards. Plays are not pitted against each other in UIL, so that students and directors can come together and share their work and inspire each other without worrying about medal count, and Americans take the time to learn about all the beautiful countries and societies that populate our planet, appreciating cultural and religious diversity without feeling somehow disloyal to the States.

I may not be the thinnest or most beautiful woman, most talented performer, best mom, winning cook, or most decorated high school director. Fortunately, I now know (at least 80% of the time) that it just doesn’t matter. What I am is a human being discovering her own path, knowing that her path is not a race track. There is no medal for winning at the end. There is only the love we leave behind as our legacy, and there’s no blue ribbon for that.

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