This makes me think of my sons, of my brothers and their children, and of my father whose memory is blessed.
Black children are our most valuable possession and our greatest potential resource. Any meaningful discussion of the survival or the future of Black people must be predicated upon Black people’s plan for the maximal development of all Black children. Children are the only future of any people. If the children’s lives are squandered, and if the children of a people are not fully developed at whatever cost and sacrifice, the people will have consigned themselves to certain death.
I was texting with Sister Reverend Gina and Brother Reverend Eddie, rehashing details of an upcoming meal we’d have. In my calendar, these sacred and eucharistic occasions pop us as the Black Brilliance Gathering.
We got off that subject and into a query I posed to them about qualifying examinations, the exams I’m preparing to take around May and through August. I have four of them: psychology, psychology of religion, theology, and pastoral theology. Incidentally, if you think of any of those words, any combinations of those phrases between now and August, whisper words of prayerful intent for me!
Gina and Eddie, partners of mine in these doctoral streets, took their exams at the end of the summer. Their wisdom, as in all prior moments, was worth having. They were taking me to text school, answering my stated questions and answering the other ones that were abiding in my spirit.
They were affirming me, teaching me, calming me. Somewhere after Gina had broken down the most concise truth about the exams, Eddie wrote, “You already know enough to pass.”
After I experienced an immediate critique from all the ways and directions graduate school had trained into us at to that point, I breathed over his comment. It was what I needed even if I hadn’t asked.
Now, I still was studying–and still am until May or June according to my timeline and plan. I am attending to a list of nearly 200 sources of books, articles, and chapters in all the times I’m not working my good job, exercising, fathering, and dating. I always have a book or two. Actually, I’m reading during some of that dating at this point in my great relationship.
I always have an document on my laptop collecting my collections from all these materials. I’m in preparation mode. And yet, Eddie’s words pull me into a depth with what I know, with what I have, with what I’m prepared with as I am.
Now, he was addressing me and qualifying exams. But can’t you take his comment in your own directions? You already know enough to pass. You already know enough to…
When you give energy to a thing, you give it life. Energy includes mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual material like thoughts and posture and effort. When you give a thing or a person or an idea energy, you give it life.
The other, accompanying side is that when you remove your lifegiving energy from a thing, you starve that thing of life. It could be a shift in your focus onto a different task. It could be removing a contact from your phone. It could be the choice to leave a call unreturned. It could be a decision not to go for that walk you said you would take.
Giving to a thing is a gift that keeps that thing going. Removing what you give, then, is a resounding endorsement of another thing. What will you give to in the upcoming days of your life? What will you choose? Who will you choose?
The answer really is about what you want to keep alive, what you wish to sustain, or what you will starve. Chaos needs energy. So does peace. Toxic relationships require attention. Living as an ambassador of contentment does too.
I’m thinking about Dr. Susan Moore, a Black physician who recently died after battling for her own quality medical care and against Covid 19. And I’m thinking about a mother named Mary from a long time ago who was unmarried and who spoke sonnets about her experience of getting impregnated and carrying a baby whose existence was misunderstood from mystical beginnings.
Trauma, a word coming out of an early surgical model for discussing injury, has come to encompass a full set of pains. Trauma is an injury, a bewildering injury or set of injuries.
A trauma can occur to a person or a people. A lot of people from many disciplines are talking about trauma these days, how it happens, what it means to be trauma-informed, etc. From anthropologists to neuro-scientists, chaplains and therapists, and social workers and teachers, lots of folk are discussing and working to respond to traumas in people.
There is language in these discourses about how a trauma is a discrete event in many cases. It happens; it ends. There is a healthy discussion on when and if that’s always true. Some traumas do end. Some are protracted and are, in a real sense, unending. I won’t get so much into that but I want to write a little about the way trauma can return.
After occurring and “ending,” it/they can revisit persons in seen and unseen ways, through known and recognized forms, as well as through insidious and unacknowledged means. Sometimes we see the re-visitation coming. We anticipate it. When we do, we can prepare and draw upon resources to help through the revisited pains. When we don’t see them coming, we are likely more reactive, doing anything in response to the unexpected-but-somehow-still-known.
Disparities in healthcare and medical treatment can be a means of trauma recurrence. Unfairness and mistreatment become a mechanism whereby trauma returns. Now, you’d have to accept a cultural transmission of trauma to appreciate this reality where earlier experiences are translated and handed over to subsequent persons related to those who have experienced trauma. In other words, what happened in prior times affects these times. There is another post somewhere in this direction that combines cultural trauma (at least that type of trauma) with attachment theory to explain this transmission and the patterns and connections making this possible.
Still, interacting with a disparity in the emotional neighborhood of a prior trauma is an uneasy psychological experience. I’m thinking about healthcare but this is true in other places. Whenever a person meets the reminders of prior pain, the body recalls and sends all its resources to preserve life. Emotional life. Spiritual life. Physical life. You don’t want to be hurt. You never do. So if you’ve been hurt, if your people have been hurt, you consciously or unconsciously respond to the disparity, the trauma, at least because of deep memory.
This is evidence of what, in The Inward Journey, Howard Thurman called a “strange quality of renewal.” The response to the disparity is to, in some way, resist it as a means of death. Resistance is a sign, a strange one perhaps, of life. Thurman says, “this is the way of life.” When you’ve experienced traumas and bruising pains, and when those are revisited among you, your reactions are little signs that life is present.
The exercise of distrust by Black people, then, is a needed one. It is needed because that distrust is evidentiary of a different trust, a trust in life. I call it everlasting life. Black distrust of the traumatic opens the world to the actual agitating presence of the God of life, the Source of life. Distrust of one system illuminates abiding trust in another. Distrust of medical science or research practices, say, points toward the life bonds elsewhere. Isn’t the question, “how do I find the life here?” Or “What does trust look like then?”
Take it from there. Look for the next sign of life. But name that life force. Relish the presence of Spirit. Moving against the brokenness and the flagrant disregard of life is a spiritual resistance that itself is being visited in the world through your own act of resistance.
Listen to the Spirit. Act with the Spirit to preserve life, to vanquish non-life. Do what will counter the forces of death and what will make right – or righter – what was wrong the first place.
Illinois law requires drivers to stop at pedestrian crossings, sometimes hardly noticed lines in the street that are designated as safe places to cross. These crossings aren’t marked by stop signs. There is no stop light. There’s only a set of lines. In more resourced neighborhoods, those lines are accompanied by stand out posts with a kind of stick figure. Words are printed that tell you something about the law, words that are, if you’re unfamiliar with them, a distraction or an annoyance.
The truth is, these crossings aren’t always safe places. For drivers or pedestrians. It takes patience for a pedestrian – perhaps one on the phone – who is standing near a crossing to wait. It takes effort to gesture that you’re waiting to cross and not being ambiguous about your intent. These crossings are sometimes located near actual stops or lights, and since pedestrians may not be ready to cross, interpretation takes work. Designated places can be dangerous places.
Pedestrians dart out or jog out or walk in dark clothing at night, expecting drivers to yield. Drivers are distracted, have slower reaction time, or under the best circumstances, sometimes fail to notice and stop. The crossings themselves aren’t always clear since lines can be hard to see, covered in sand or snow. They can be so neglected by municipal services that they are invisible from wear, from walking, from untending.
These crossings are there. They invite us, or require us, to slow down, a whole related issue. Why walk or drive in a manner that you can’t slow down to stop? What are we doing that we can’t notice the speed of the other? Why are we so unempathic? What makes us assume that the other will pace for us when we won’t pace for them?
These crossings are there and they bring questions, queries for the head, heart, and hands. One of my theologian teachers, Nancy Bedford, said once that people drive for themselves, that they don’t drive for others. She said this in a way that she’s said much of her theological brilliance, when speaking about embodied matters. It was an “offhand” comment, inasmuch as Dr. Bedford makes those. She wasn’t talking about Christology (necessarily) but she was. She is, in a way, always talking Christologically.
Those crossings are there, worth seeing, worth responding to, worth thinking about. The pedestrians and drivers are there. All things worth noticing.
I was scanning lines, searching for articles in the news, trying to choose what I’d read and what I wouldn’t. The morning read. The light reading. The reading I wouldn’t quite plunge into, even if what I saw would sit on the corners of my mental bookshelves throughout the day.
I didn’t read the article but I saw a title on a page about why you should smile behind your mask. It got me to thinking about my own answers to the prompt and about the dual possibilities of wearing a mask, of being masked, and of being authentic. It got me to considering where smiles come from.
And the title prompt is a good one, no? Smile in the middle of a pandemic, in the midst of a day when it’s nothing but helpful that people can’t see the twist and curve of my lips when I hear what they say, see what they do, note who they are? But does it take something away, hiding these things called smiles?
Like lots of people, I think about how these masks are more than tools to maintain health and to minimize transmission of germs. A mask is a direct way to keep from seeing and being seen. Masks keep your germs to you but they also keep you from spreading your true identity in a way.
Masks can keep you in the habit of being fake, practicing inauthenticity, accepting reality as you offer yourself in the world without the important contribution of feedback.
As much as a mask is a tool promoting real health, these masks are also complicating the already complicated practice of being and showing who you are. Don’t we have enough trouble being who we are, presenting ourselves as we are?
So smiling. Smiling is a behavioral way of responding. It’s an embodied act, a gesture, sometimes an uncontrolled one. They are reflexes of a kind. They are also interventions. Reflexes show up spontaneously. Interventions come as a result of intention. Smiles can be both.
In college, I took–and dropped at midterm–an anthropology course. It was cross listed as a gender studies course. A three hundred level thing I was not ready for in my second year at U of I. I had never heard of gender studies and wasn’t even surprised to be the only young man in the room. Even less surprised to be the only Black because, well, it wasn’t Hampton.
The professor was as tall as anyone I had ever seen and she walked with a power and grace that was curious to me. She had done work too deep for me to appreciate at the time and talked about it. She pressed her feet into the floor as she taught, moving through the room in sandals, which threw me off, because it was cold all the time in Urbana-Champaign.
I have forgotten most things from the class. As I said, I dropped the course. But one thing I remember is something she started into about smiling. She was describing the behavior in chimps, explaining that a smile was theorized as a passive, self-effacing attempt on the part of the animals. Smiling was like cowering. Smiling was an attempt at deference in the presence of some stronger chimp, some more powerful other.
Now, I like smiles. They are surprising, often reactive, things. They come when you force them and when you think nothing of them. You can smile in a way that expresses disgust. You can smile from within and show everything that needs to be seen.
They can be attempts to pass the moment quickly and to relieve pressure, perhaps like with the chimps, and smiles can anchor you so far inside joy that you use all your good and bad teeth.
I think there are questions developing in me about these smiles and these masks. Which smile am I offering behind this mask? Am I en-joying myself, finding joy inside the face and body that is restricted or not by this mask? Am I being seen for the sometimes grumpy man I am? Is the soul deep joy coming through my ears, my eyes, off my head like a little halo?
But there are other questions. Am I hiding? Am I bouncing off that fabric or paper mask the reality that I’ve created, reiterating a lie about who I am, and keeping my germs to myself? Am I, therefore, ineligible for healing? Can I be seen for any fraudulent expressions of myself, and am I finding paths to be open and real and honest and accepting of truth? Am I looking at my real face and my real self in mirrors of life that I haven’t created, those self-created mirrors that make me look better than I really am? Am I looking?
Sometimes you smile when you know you’re in the presence of greatness, of a greater person, or a greater other if you will. I wonder if you and if I can cower in the presence of the truer other in the self. I wonder if rather than living inauthentically, you might consider smiling at who you truly are. Of course, the other related inquiry is who are you?
When you know who you are, there is very little to frown about. Even behind a mask you smile because of the reactive and reflexive delight in being the person you deeply, honestly, and truly are. I think it’s the unknowing, the rejection of one’s identity, that causes the downward smile.
When you know who and where and why you are, you meet joy. A joy that cannot be taken but only given away. That means, when you know you, you’ve found happiness. How can you not smile behind the mask?
Listen to these renditions of a song by one of my favorite ministers, Jonathan McReynolds:
Me and a Womanist Sister are working on a webinar for the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education where we introduce the community to Black Liberation Theology. It’s part of a series of didactics that’ll be accessible to our pastoral educators and CPE students.
The series is called 8:46 and will have 8 webinars that are 46 minutes long–in sober and theo-ethical acknowledgement of Brother Floyd’s murder and how ministers, clinicians, and leaders might nurture our work in everything from the social construction of race to the psychological implications of racism and other sins.
I’m working with a practitioner from North Carolina and we’re offering an introduction to (Black and Womanist) theology. In the preparation, I found a sentence Dr. Stephanie Mitchem wrote where she said that theology begins not in studying in the classroom but in living a life.
So I’ve begun journeying over the beginnings of theology, the origins of my own, lately. It’s resting with me that the origins provide a long shadow over the rest.
If theology begins in a word, who wrote it or spoke it or claimed its authority? If theology started in a person, was that person relatable, relatable in every way or particular ways? If discourse about the Sacred started in practices, were those practices exclusive, open, and are they relevant? The questions continue when you think and live theologically, right?
Think about yours. From where have your best understandings of the Transcendent come? How were you introduced to your “theological” world? We could keep going. These are the kinds of questions that need answers.