Summative Assessment

The final paper prompt for T008: Power and Pedagogy taught by Professor Houman Harouni in the Spring 2018 term at the Harvard Graduate School of Education was to write a reflection, framed as an action, on the themes and experience of the class. At some point in the long hours spent on its composition it became a meditation on my entire first year in divinity school, which is why I’ve chosen to share it with you.

Woven throughout are actual emails I exchanged with a classmate, whose name has been changed for publication. The oft-mentioned “reflection papers” were regular free-writes to the fixed prompt “What keeps you up at night as an educator?” To the extent that this class addressed itself directly to those sleepless nights, to the moments of self-reckoning that permit no performance or excuse, it is where I did my most faithful work this year as an educator, caregiver, witness, steward, agitator, and guide in perpetual training.

Six Actions

1. Refuse to annihilate the complexity of others.

“I think the purpose of consciousness is other people.”

She might just as easily have said, “Let’s go to Mission Dolores today.” It was that casual. Eyes off me, tracking dust particles in the noon light. Mouth half-full of burrito. But my friend’s words were nevertheless oracular. She was speaking my future in her breezy hunches.

Not long after I returned from my visit with her in California, though, I realized the problem she had surfaced for me. “People are my future, but I’m afraid of them,” I told myself. It was like having a lifelong fear of snakes and suddenly feeling called to herpetology.

The political philosopher Jill Stauffer traces this kind of conflict to the impossibility of pure autonomy. Echoing Emmanuel Levinas, she identifies in “the subject” – in the person as agent – a kind of simultaneous “hostage, persecuted by the other, bearing infinite responsibility and owed nothing in return.”

But to see this as a constraint rather than an opportunity, she implies, is to miss the point. Conceding the limits of autonomy is not an effort “to deny our freedom” but to recognize “the vulnerability that defines us as embodied beings and thus bears on what freedom can be for us.” Subjection is freedom, for the person who no longer fights it.

I have fought it.

In my reflection papers for Power and Pedagogy, I have fought it by making up dilemmas about the world that reduce people to pawns for, and impediments to, an unnamed and unnamable good.

Dilemmas, Professor Houman Harouni writes in the course materials, function this way, creating sweeping, binaristic quandaries that “cannot be lived with, and yet we all live with them.” In other words, they cast life as intractably at odds with some imagined ideal.

Far worse than their apparent unlivability is the fact that dilemmas, adds Harouni, “annihilate the world.” They deny the immensity, ambiguity, and irreducibility of what is. Reviewing my reflection papers, I see that my dilemmas annihilate not only the world but, with it, the complexity of others.

This, I think, is a common struggle among self-styled educators. Education, for all its liberatory strains, still primarily seeks to tame and impart. The complexity of others becomes at best inconvenient to this task and at worst hostile to it.

And yet we know that “Why aren’t people simple enough to tame and impart to?” is an outrageous question, negating the depth of students’ humanity and ours with it. So we create dilemmas that feel like more acceptable ways of asking.

To the extent I have managed at all to abandon the idea that I have anything to impart, it has been tentative, sporadic, and prone to reversals and backslides. The impulse to help someone make use of her own complexity without assisting her in a project to annihilate it, and without annihilating it myself, is the operative one, but runs counter to the impulses that prevail.

This means it must be practiced. But even to frame my final concern of the class this way feels a little too… dilemmatic. Still, it is a place to start.

*          *          *

April 14, 2018

Hi Joe,

Over the course of the semester I’ve tried to connect outside of class with people who I’ve clashed with or who I’ve notice [sic] that I’ve started to harbor some negative feelings towards… other than you. But I’d like to lean in to that!

If you have some time this week to connect, I’d really appreciate the opportunity. Some times that work particularly well for me this week are 3pm on Wednesday (right before class), Tuesday around 4, or Friday afternoon, but I’ll try to be flexible if there’s another time that works better!


*          *          *

April 16, 2018

Hi Brittany,

Thank you for this invitation. I suppose the most honest response I can give you is that I’m not convinced this isn’t an attempt to collapse the tension and make everything alright. And, while I believe that everything is, in fact, alright (there’s really nothing you or I need to change about who we are), I’m not sure I’m prepared to participate in such a project. At least not during finals. Perhaps when they are over. Meanwhile, I appreciate the thought that you continue to give to your words. All the best to you.


*          *          *

2. Get close to the ground.

In the Tanner Lecture on Human Values at Harvard University in December 2017, author, lawyer, and civil rights leader Bryan Stevenson urged his audience to militate against inhuman systems and ally with those they harm the most. One cannot do either well, he cautioned, without proximity. He used the word repeatedly, almost incantationally, exorcising its academic content.

The moment was reminiscent of Paulo Freire, for whom action without theory is mere “activism,” and theory without action is useless. Stevenson invoked “proximity” before a roomful of academics as if joining the hands of theory and action in a kind of historic accord. Get out there, it suggested. You can’t hope to do anything credible or effective unless you’re at the front lines.

This only indicts the dilemmas in my reflection papers further. What gave them their conviction, and powered their performed urgency, was their sense of retreat, their refusal of proximity. The more distance I have gained from my work in schools, which ended when I was summoned to off-site administration (think Siberia, with more self-congratulation) in 2011, the more sweeping and binaristic – and hopeless – my dilemmas have become.

The irony is that proximity reveals a dilemma’s true hopelessness – the impossibility of ever fully solving the real problems it corresponds to – while also exposing its points of workability, which at times feel more palliative than curative, but which anyway let us address ourselves to the thing itself, not the paper-nemesis version.

If I must choose between types of hopelessness from here on out, it will be this variety. I want to stay close to the ground.

*          *          *

April 18, 2018

Hi Joe,

There is, in fact, something that both you and I need to change about who we are. Tonight’s discussion prompted me to re-watch video from class, the class where you felt the desire to be provocative by attempting more than once to put me down and took up a great deal of class time explicating. I am also guilty of explicative blathering. I understand that there is a considerable contingency of people in Houman’s class who do not like me and do not like the things I say- so be it. I will continue to try and figure out why that is, and if the ways I am being prompted to change are compatible with “who I am” and what makes me “me.” I hope that someday you arrive at a place where you are willing to lean into your shortcomings and that the people you turn to for help are compassionate with you.


*          *          *

April 18, 2018

Brittany, I have leaned into my shortcomings much more than you will ever know, and probably to a more excruciating and revealing extent, it seems to me right now, than you are willing to lean into yours. You may feel free to characterize your own commentary as blathering, but if you are inviting me to share that as a characterization of my own, I politely decline. Mostly I just see you filtering every encounter with the new entirely through your self-concept. Which is solipsism.

Best of luck, Joe

*          *          *

3. Stay at arm’s length.

Proximity, however, does not imply merger.

“Leave room for the holy spirit,” Catholic school teachers are fabled to have said at school dances, prying teenagers apart on the dance floor and forcing them to dance in a Frankenstein arm-lock, as far away as possible while still able to reach each other’s shoulders. I don’t know from holy spirits, but you and I might need the space. The mitigated proximity.

To date, I have benefitted from it in two ways.

Whereas once it enabled me to maintain my illusions, now it gives me room to question them at leisure. In other words, I spent the first part of my life seeking distance from others so I could believe what I wanted, and the second part holding the distance so I could overhaul those beliefs patiently and reflectively. While I have learned to do the latter without need of so much distance, an arm’s length between us can still serve us both well.

When I enrolled last semester in a Spiritual Care and Counseling class, I experienced some anticipatory version of the dilemmas that cause me to annihilate the complexity of others. At the time I couldn’t name them as such, but after a few rounds of counseling role-plays, when a one-page summary of my counseling goals came due, I wrote, “All of my goals feel more achievable to me each time I approach a counseling situation with the mental image of a ‘zone of mystery’ around the counselee.” I had found a makeshift way to refrain from annihilation.

“This zone,” I continued, “feels like a third party in the interaction, one that diverts some of my attention away from the temptation to analyze or take possession of the counselee’s situation. It constitutes her own personal space of narrative uniqueness, an essence that exists through and beyond the words of our exchange, and that I must approach humbly, hoping for the privilege of seeing some of the mystery, but never presuming access to more of it than I am being shown.”

This is the beauty of the Frankenstein arm-lock. It checks the reflex to merge, and it compensates for my myopia, where you are concerned. It is an agreement to uphold your complexity as well as mine. We can both step back to look, feel, and not force ourselves to open or close our borders to each other completely, which would require us to simplify each other first.

Theory lives in this space, Freire might say, but so too does mutual compassion. I want to be close to the ground but also at arm’s length.

*          *          *

April 18, 2018

Joe, you absolutely blather and explicate. Forgive me for my naïve attempt to try and dissuade myself from the characterization of you that I’ve formed this semester. Good luck at the Div school.

*          *          *

April 18, 2018

I can tell from these follow-up emails that I wasn’t very far off. You are on an amelioration tour. When I said that “everything is, in fact, alright,” what I meant was: what would it be like to live with your shortcomings while knowing them, instead of trying to eradicate them? I regret that I cannot assist with your project of eradication.

*          *          *

4. Sacrifice your stated opinion.

In the context of the Frankenstein arm-lock, declaring a strong opinion can be like taking a giant step forward or back: inadvisable, if the goal is to remain in the sweet spot of constructive proximity and distance. This may be especially true for educators.

“What is the highest, most profound teaching of all the Buddhas?” Zen master Yunmen was once asked. “An appropriate statement,” he replied, which I take to mean a statement that holds the sweet spot, the best intersubjective position from which to teach and learn. By this standard there is probably far less that needs saying than we think, and at the same time far more. How does one cultivate the knack for saying it?

I have a small quarrel with the singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, who suggests that bravery is about saying “what you wanna say” and letting the words “fall out.” For some whose opinions have been heard too little, or whose reticence comes from terror, speaking up can be a stretch toward wholeness, and, in some settings, toward justice. But, by and large, our words do too much falling out.

Each time I contemplate working with others, I think hard about the value of and place for my own opinions. When they are premature conclusions (which describes most conclusions), they are not worth naming. Or, they may be named provisionally, as one trapeze that flings me to the next. But even when they are astute and bear well on what is being said, their best use isn’t necessarily in their expression. Good opinions can be stowed.

If you want to know the truth, I learned this lesson long ago. What I didn’t learn until much more recently is that stowing my opinion doesn’t always mean stowing it for later and, until then, behaving as though I have a juicy secret. Staying silent is not some kind of bargain with myself to sound off when the time comes, admiring my own brain power in the meantime.

This fundamentally changes the substance of my opinions into something far more expendable and pliant than ever before, which can create the feeling that they, and therefore that I, am ethereal, wispy, unless I choose to believe otherwise.

I choose to believe otherwise. Some opinions I stow, and not for later. And they turn into something else. Or they acquire new dimensions. Or they arise as someone else’s opinions, but far more thoughtfully than I had had them. Or they disappear, making room for others. What does the world need of my mind? More than I feared, and less than I hoped.

But my mind’s most strenuous application is perhaps in showing not telling, and maybe not showing much at that, because then the person in front of me will talk herself out into the open, and my job will be to enlist my wispy opinions, and the intuitions that produce them, for the purpose of believing her.

This feels like a conversational sacrifice, but a worthy one if the trade-off is more dexterity for response and a better ear for the appropriate statement. I want to see me be brave.

*          *          *

April 18, 2018

Is there a reason in particular you want the last word?

If, in fact, something is a shortcoming, then why wouldn’t I (or anyone) work to eradicate it? And, as a matter of fact, I’m fairly certain that you do not regret anything you’ve said to me, whether via email or in person.

I’m still willing to talk to you in person, but I find that it’s really easy to dehumanize someone when you’re talking from behind a screen. But I will not hold my breath.

*          *          *

April 18, 2018

At the risk of appearing to want the last word, I will say that, to the contrary, I have been utterly humanizing you. Maybe more so than anyone else with whom you’ve had conflict. Which is why I’m unwilling to prop up what you’re doing here. I don’t mind reading more words if you have something to say substantively or lastly.

Love, Joe

*          *          *

5. See yourself seeing.

“For there is no place that does not see you,” Rainer Maria Rilke concludes his brief poem Archaic Torso of Apollo. “You must change your life.”

By “place,” he refers to each contour and crevasse of his subject, the sculpted torso of Apollo, which Rilke imbues with the supernatural ability “to look and return gazes.” Moreover, writes Peter Sloterdijk, in returning gazes, the torso also tests “whether I will recognize it as a seer.”

For a final paper in another class, on Buddhist hermeneutics, I likened this to what the Lotus Sutra does. What does it mean, as a viewer of the sculpture or a reader of the sutra, to be seen seeing by the thing you see? And why is this a reason to change your life?

The power of the sculpture and the sutra is that, though at the outset you may be unaware of the agenda and labor of your seeing, or even the fact of it, they steadily bring it to your attention. Miraculously, you don’t look away. If you look away, you must change your life. The poem dares you, with its last line, to stay where it has placed you.

Only things that gaze at us a certain way can do this. Typically, when we realize that we are seen seeing, we blush and pull back, or grow flustered and too self-conscious to do anything good with the seeing. No, the object whispers. You’re doing fine. Stay with me. And then we go where it takes us, which is out of ourselves.

This is why my eyes welled up with tears frequently in both classes near the end of term. Because I am learning to see myself seeing. With that same gentleness. It is everything I need not to look away. And, thereby, to keep addressing myself to the previous four actions.

*          *          *

April 18, 2018

Joe, I am only asking because you said you don’t mind reading more words- why do you say that you have been “more so than anyone else?” From where I sit, it seems that you decided early in the semester who I am based upon our limited interactions in class. I also am curious about what you mean when you say “what [I’m] doing here.”

Tonight made me really sad. I know that I am disliked by more than a few people in Houman’s class, which is really frustrating because that course is the place I feel least “myself” this year. This is extremely juvenile to say, but it’s not fair. I do, however, desperately want to figure out what I’m doing that invites the treatment that I have received. So maybe eradication is not the right word, but if I can understand what exactly is happening I can at least choose.

I truly do hope that this is not “lastly.” I understand that no one person holds the answers here, but I reached out to you on the 4/14h [sic] because our first interaction (our very brief conversation about humility) was really thought provoking for me. I still think I can learn from you, even though the frustration is clearly mutual. I want to let go of that frustration and I approached it in a really, really weird way.

I mean this- I am not being facetious or sarcastic:

Love, Brittany

*          *          *

April 18, 2018

Brittany, I was being sincere when I wrote “perhaps when [finals] are over.” I would be happy to get together in May if you’re still here.

What I found when I really started diving into my shortcomings – a word I use reluctantly, but then, any better word would have to be at once both far less daunting [to me] and far more – was that no one could tell me what they were or talk me to a place where insights about changing them arose spontaneously, much less actionably.

That is, the answers – not a one – were “out there.”

The biggest transformation in my process came when I treated differently the kinds of things I thought my shortcomings could and would tell me about myself. It gave me much more room to breathe. Which then, of course, became room to change.

See you [in class on] Wednesday, Joe

*          *          *

6. Compassion begets moral subtlety begets compassion.

What if there is no saving humanity because this is who we are? Have I been acting all along the part of the determined partner who thinks he can change the person he’s dating?

There is too much at stake, goes the implicit rejoinder, not to try. We can leave our partners but not humanity. We do terrible things to each other, and we should make each other stop. And so:Learn to change the world!” implores the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The moral primacy of this slogan is only legible when embracing the world is viewed as the only alternative. It is not.

We should make each other stop. But we can’t. So first let’s accept, which is not to say embrace, the world as it is. And then let’s see how we can help the people in it refrain from their worst and habituate their best. This framework makes antagonists redeemable, and finds protagonists rife with antagonist tics. There are fewer clear lines than we thought.

In its lack of a fierce and totalizing conviction, this kind of moral subtlety might strike some as moral numbness, a denial of the stakes. I would not agree with them. It is true that the latter can disguise itself as the former, but its incapacity for outrage and grief always gives it away.

“If all turmoil were told, how could anyone endure tranquility?” wrote the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, and he is right that the extent of suffering in the world should induce, in each of us, a panic. That panic, however, must yield, not to tranquility but to whatever brings us back to a state of seeing ourselves seeing, and to the moral subtlety that lets us choose an intervention. An appropriate statement.

Panic cannot do that. Only compassion can. It is the chicken to moral subtlety’s egg. There is no causal order. Only infinite regress. Because compassion is a necessary precursor to effective interventions that accommodate the complexity and humanity of all parties, but then is generated in that process anew.

I can identify in the email exchanges interspersed above, between a colleague in Power and Pedagogy and me, the places where this regress stops running – which, when it happens, instantly takes the air out of my compassion and moral subtlety alike – and where I lose recourse to these five actions I have set forth.

My responses to her cohere, they all seem to flow from a unified theory of what is happening and what can happen next, but I’m not sure I know what that theory is or how to describe it, except as I have tried with this final reflection. The trouble is that this final reflection, a partial treatise on how I wish to encounter others, feels like a brochure from which the uglier details are excluded. Only the presence of the emails recovers them.

I probably could have met Brittany in person and trod more lightly with my intuition about her motives, so as not to put her on the defensive. But I didn’t want to. Which makes me wonder if my laziness ruined the opportunity.

This is not the same as wondering if it ruined the moment. The moment was always going to be ruined. It could only have been pleasant if her agenda prevailed and I didn’t care that much. But I cared. And so I chose an intervention. A set of statements that felt appropriate.

Appropriate statements ruin a lot of moments. This is not in the brochure.

And it brings me back, at the end of this class and this final reflection, to Freire, who I imagine has been widely misinterpreted. His Pedagogy of the Oppressed rests on the principle of trusting the learner. But in the contemporary west this doesn’t mean much more than trusting her to excel, to rise into herself in one fluid motion.

Some educators grant that it also means trusting her to fail, but apart from the basic formulary logic that she will try and fail and try and fail until she tries and succeeds (itself such an oversimplification that it lies), what are the actual behaviors we are trusting, the versions of her that will emerge during this sequence? Can we trust her to hate us, or herself, for a time? When is that time over, and who decides?

I know only that love must bear the message, when her process gets too loud for any other messages to be heard. (Brittany and I, despite clearly wanting to break the Frankenstein arm-lock at several points, each use the word “love” once, sincerely. I can’t speak to her reasons. For my part, I sensed her process getting loud.)

And love, anyway, is already operating in the background. It is what allows us to trust that she can probably tolerate a louder process still.

But it is not, despite what the songs say, all we need.


How to Keep a Liberal Heart

The United States has become what you might expect if you challenged a team of therapists to design a country purely on the principle of schadenfreude. Like those cooking shows that give contestants a single secret ingredient and thirty minutes to work it into an entire meal, America feels like it was whipped up in a hurry with, from soup to nuts, only the delight in others’ misfortune as a common policy thread. How did this happen?

When I was small, some adults in my life – usually men, always white – were fond of repeating that “if you’re not liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart, but if you’re not conservative when you’re old, you don’t have a brain,” which, like so many aphorisms, passes off wordplay as wisdom. An earnest little egghead in sneakers, I’d marvel at this supposed truth and wonder what inner transformation between youth and old age could so reliably flip one’s political switch. The more I grapple with America’s flourishing cruelty, the more I start to understand the answer.

It’s worth first clarifying what we mean by “liberal” and “conservative.” They’re fluid terms because they each stand for a broad and shifting category of values and positions. The most useful definitions account for this. The late American philosopher Richard Rorty argued that liberals believe our best days are ahead of us, while conservatives believe our best days are behind us, which tracks with the general conservative pining for a better time that never was.

Contemporary social psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes “liberal” and “conservative” as predispositions associated with certain personality types, which I’ve found to be an even finer way to slice it. In his research he has found that people who are risk-averse and prone to seeking safety tend to be more conservative, while people who are comfortable with change and enjoy new experiences tend to be more liberal. This feels so true to me that it almost belabors the obvious.

It seems, then, that what those adults in my life were preaching was a necessary conversion in adulthood from an open and adventurous spirit to a kind of functional protectionism in our day-to-day lives. Why this would be inevitable is beyond me, as is why it would signify the layering of intelligence upon heart, when it feels more like the elimination of heart altogether, and its replacement with something that is substantively less like intelligence than cowardice.

I mean, I get it. I’m old now. Well, not old, but older. I turn forty in almost a month, the age those towering giants of my youth were when they spouted their wordplay and bubbled ballots for the likes of Ronald Reagan. But I’m probably more liberal now than I’ve ever been. And I think it’s because I see something those adults looked past. The very fact that they looked past it meant they didn’t have to contend with who it made them and could freely interpret their fear as prudence, with so much life experience to back them up.

The primary difference between old Joe and young Joe is the amount of stuff I have now. Physical stuff, sure, but mental stuff, too, which is a heavier haul. I walk around with more accumulated memory now than I ever did, and all the little neurotic triggers that travel with it as I recall myself in unending succession, sometimes in horror and sometimes in joy, often consciously but usually not. My capacity to sneak up on myself with good intel is expanding, and I don’t like it. Aging, I think, means getting closer to death and having ever more to answer for, which feels like double jeopardy.

How to cope? There are two choices in reach of the human creature, as far as I can see. The first is to decide you’re not going to hold all that stuff so tightly. Author George Saunders describes this as “a simple matter of attrition.” In a commencement address at Syracuse University in 2013, he said, “As we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving.” The result? “Becoming kinder happens naturally, with age.”

I share Saunders’s confidence that it happens naturally, or at least it can if we don’t get in its way, and like him I prefer to think of it as the direction in which we’re trying to head. But there’s plenty of gray hair in Congress, and not much kindness to go around. And that’s because the second choice is to hold all that stuff more tightly still. American conservatism is nothing if not white-knuckled.

We see it most clearly in grandpa stereotypes. Cane-wielding old coots complaining about whippersnappers and forever admonishing them to “get off my lawn.” A natural response to the accumulation of memory, much of it painful, is to build up a bigger and bigger self-concept as a brace against it, or an overdesigned vessel for carrying it. What’s so important about my lawn? This is what the adults in my life looked past, even as they worked at it doggedly.

And it’s what some of them continue to miss. The opportunity to release the self, rather than double down on it. Doubling down on it, and on all the barbed wire it takes to preserve its lengthening border, begets Donald Trump. President of the Old Coots. Many of whom are not so old after all. Who are skipping the liberal heart and going straight to the conservative brain, which isn’t so much rich with wisdom as rife with panic. Schadenfreude works as a policy framework because someone else’s misfortune is the implicit triumph of your stuff.

I know this because, according to Haidt’s rule of types, I should be fiercely conservative. I’m not proud to admit it, but I’m cravenly averse to taking risks. I do fear change. And, when I manage to have a new experience, it’s usually because I distracted the voice in my head long enough to achieve something counter-instinctive.

The adults who shaped me are similar. Most are as conservative as I’d expect myself to be. Were I not gay. Were I not gay and forced, from an early age, to reckon with the dreaded knowledge that my basic identity, and with it my potential for happiness and love, were initially located outside of my own comfort zone, and demanded the very change I feared, in my heart and brain.

This is how both of these organs became liberal right away and never looked back. It’s a choice I have to remake again and again as I age, because a person moving unreflectively through life is a fast-growing territory to defend. The territory is of course a willful hallucination. But the United States of Schadenfraude seems eager to forget this permanently.

Intimacy with No Exit

I applied to divinity school in January 2017 seeking “civic pastoral education,” or training in a form of lay ministry that could attend to democracy as a central form of faith in the lives of Americans. In a 500-word essay I was asked to describe what I saw as ministry’s greatest challenges and rewards. This was my response.

*     *     *

A teacher was asked to describe Zen in four words. After some contemplation she replied: “Intimacy with no exit.” To me this phrase anticipates the greatest challenge of ministry.

Before fully understanding my call to ministry, I had undertaken a self-imposed curriculum in “intimacy with no exit.” It started with Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Kindness, which tells us that, in order to know kindness, “you must lose things.” Had I read this a year prior, I surely would’ve overlooked it. But I had just lost things. I was touched, because I was devastated.

Next in my informal studies came the Pixar film Inside Out, in which a child’s emotions are personified as characters vying to steer her behavior and identity. Sadness, a secondary character at first, becomes the hero in the end, as the basis of the child’s empathy and ability to accept the scope of her life.

But Sadness has to be pushed to her pivotal role, for, given the choice, she’d languish in bed. I recognized this paralysis. Intimacy with no exit. A mentor of mine suggests that ministry requires “listening without over-identifying.” Sadness struck me as the over-identifying type. But the danger of under-identifying is just as real. And, I would argue, consumes the world.

I pressed on in my syllabus, dipping into Peter Senge’s Presence, in which he and his co-authors contend that the problem of our age is failure to reckon with the whole. We approach our struggles as wholes, they say, rather than as parts of a whole, and thereby do we repeat mistakes and compound our pain through myopic fixes.

It’s the whole, I think, that would get Sadness out of bed, were she able to maintain perspective on it. Expansive, not contractive, views of humanity let us hold grief and hope in balance and neither over- nor under-identify. They enable us to witness and honor the experiences of others while seeing them as elements of a larger human story, and thereby toggle our own faith and commitment between the two.

Intimacy with no exit. Also ministry’s greatest reward. I’m almost always thinking about how to serve people. What I observe of our age is that we have ever more information and ever less time. To me, this makes us suffer in ways we don’t give ourselves space to understand, and drives interpersonal and political choices aimed at instant relief more than long-term good.

In other words, we’re paralyzed by “no exit.” Perhaps because intimacy still eludes us.

It’s this space I want to open up, and I can’t separate what I expect will be the challenge from what I know will be the reward. The anchor of my curriculum was Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion, which gave me permission to have mercy on myself, and freed me up for broader awareness and better decisions.

If I can witness and honor at the individual level, and teach the means of doing so for one’s self, it will be a life well spent.

Say Yes to the Distress

I have yet to hear a single rousing speech. A friend who feels the same way has started winkingly overusing the already overused word “woke,” applying it to most complete sentences uttered publicly, and to the occasional inspired brunch order. The resistance has a gravitas problem.

Last weekend I went to Augusta for a resistance summit I’d taken to calling “Fist ME,” its unselfconscious logo a raised fist (history-rich iconography now making the rounds as Clipart) thrust up the center of the state of Maine. “Remember your motivation,” the emcee admonished, flashing an angry mug of Donald Trump onscreen in the morning plenary (imagine Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. offering only a caricature of Sheriff Clark to motivate congregants in Selma).

These are local organizers, I thought. The pros will know better. Or so I hoped, tuning in a week later to the ACLU’s “Resistance Training Town Hall,” which took no Town Hall-style questions or feedback, and delivered little training to speak of.

ACLU political director Faiz Shakir appeared onstage twice, primarily for the radical gesture of sharing his email address, and to lead the crowd in vigorous chants of “People power!” ACLU deputy legal director Louise Melling came out to explain the GOP’s ACA alternative but offered few specifics, repeating “Is that what decency looks like?” as she sketched conservative healthcare attitudes in broad strokes.

It’s alarming to stand at the center of a movement, feeling this unmoved.

As politicians say before rhetorical flights of unclarity, let me be clear. I’m not here to rain on the parade, however much I feel it could use a few drops. I know the resistance, as we’ve named it, can ill afford naysayers, especially this early on. But, this early on, we must be receptive to criticism if we’re to get it right. Every time we shrink from what the fainthearted call “infighting” we miss the opportunity to evolve. If the resistance looks in a year exactly as it does today, we will surely have failed.

Too many of our leaders bear an uncanny resemblance to one particular cultural archetype: the camp counselor. Hired to galvanize us supposedly against our will, their very job is to insult our intelligence. And whereas that might be enough to compel a halfway decent lanyard bracelet, or perfect attendance at archery practice, it’s inadequate to the task of showing us the void and preparing us for sacrifice.

This is at once everyone’s fault and no one’s. I recently picked up Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” a work of strenuous observation, insight, and scholarship. If I rain on parades, Postman is the deluge. In 1985 he offered a bleak vision that our engagement in a common discourse and with each other has borne out. Though he focused on the medium of television, the internet, which has exploded since his death, is only proving an accelerator of the problem he saw.

There’s nothing wrong with television for a laugh now and then, some drama or escapist fantasy, as long as we understand what we’re escaping to, and from. But television has been a monolithic presence in every home for generations, and now invades our pockets. It is therefore, according to Postman, “our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself,” which means that “how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged.”

“It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails.”

Feeling fired up yet? Nothing about our world that isn’t processed televisually – which is almost nothing about our world – is immune to the expectation that it provide a kind of thrill, if not a kind of comfort. That it be presented beautifully, not too seriously, free of context, and without much consequence. The very idea of resistance strains to challenge this expectation, but finds us, ironically, resistant, and gives us the fight in a familiar package.

I look into the faces of our camp counselor-leaders and I’m not convinced they’ve reckoned with what they still might lose. Their bravery has no layers because, for many of them, it has no precedent. That’s fine. But the humility it requires in lieu of precedent, the private dance we ought to be doing with abject fear, is nowhere in evidence. I don’t trust them because the mountaintop they’ve been to is a set piece.

I am no exception. “Whereof one cannot speak,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, “thereof one must be silent,” and I cannot speak of a seriousness I’ve yet to experience in my life, that no television can recreate. And so I’ve tweeted and blogged certain half-thoughts, but so far have demurred from stepping forward as a resistance voice. I just don’t have the scars, and my culture makes it hard, and unnecessary, to imagine them.

For a lifetime, though, I’ve wrestled with an acute form of empathic distress, which, before I learned to accept it, made me grumpy in peacetime, angry and resentful of the people I felt deeply for. In wartime it’s a tool, until I get into the fray. I’m not looking forward to that. The fray is a place from which some don’t return. But it may be a critical step if I’m to witness and participate in the world as it exists today, not as television depicts it.

More than anything I want our camp counselor-leaders to ditch the platitudes and show me what they’re ready to know, the only thing worth knowing: that this fight isn’t a brief holiday from our old way of life but a repudiation of it. Maybe then I’ll raise my fist up too.

Ordinary People

“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.”
Stanley Milgram
Obedience to Authority

Chief Michael Sauschuck
Portland Police

February 26, 2017

Dear Chief Sauschuck:

I don’t know you. Some friends of mine say they do. I, and we, have great respect for the position you hold. And by their accounts you’ve approached it with the heart of a leader and the will of a public servant.

I write because my faith in our institutions is no longer equal to my fear, and because “worse still,” however unlikely, is increasingly plausible. Analyses of this unique political moment range from brief farce to death of the American democratic experiment. A student of history, I would probably place it somewhere in the middle. But I believe the latter is still possible. Because I never thought it would get this far.

The president has already cast the judiciary as a procedural speed bump. And acting almost entirely by executive order, he has also marginalized the legislature. He appears to recognize the powers conferred on his branch of government alone. That may not be fascism technically, but it’s dictionary-definition authoritarianism.

I hope our checks and balances hold. I hope no branch of government is overpowered or snuffed out or filled up with sycophants and functionally neutered. As a student of history I know that, if they don’t hold, it falls to law enforcement to halt our descent into tyranny. And that takes saying no.

In the early 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted experiments designed to test ordinary people’s obedience to authority even against their own moral objections. Not by happenstance they coincided with the trial of Nazi Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, who insisted he was only following orders, underplaying his role as an architect of the Holocaust.

What was arguably craven denial and lack of remorse in Eichmann’s case prompted some valuable research which did in effect show how far we will go on command. If Milgram is right, even good people buckle when coerced from above. I’ve read the stories of conscience-driven men and women for whom the juggernaut of authority proved too much to resist or oppose. Who took part in things they never thought they were capable of.

Roughly one week after the November election, Bangor Daily News ran a story entitled “Portland would likely cooperate with Trump’s mass deportation plan,” citing the city’s informal sanctuary status with no basis in policy and no firewall against federal overreach. Since then you have been quoted as saying, “Do we cooperate with our federal partners? The answer is yes.”

To be fair, in the uniform you wear it would be hard to say otherwise when asked hypothetically, and pick a fight before it comes to your door. But I believe it may come. And I suspect the reason you didn’t hesitate to pledge your cooperation is that what you’ve seen so far from the feds is questionable but not yet unimaginable. The unimaginable has visited itself upon organized human society and will again.

We all have a role to play in preserving America’s democratic principles and practices. I’m writing to acknowledge that your role may eventually be one of the more difficult ones, beginning perhaps with immigration and customs enforcement but not necessarily ending there. You may be asked to militarize beyond reason. To disperse protests of any and every kind. To forcibly remove a gay Portlander from a pizza shop, a Muslim Portlander from a bus station. Or worse still.

I don’t know you. It’s winter in Maine and I watch sledders racing down the hillsides. I’m reminded how slippery slopes work: you start with some speed then, assuming no resistance, gain a little more, and a little more still. Please don’t make this slope any slipperier than it has to be. Ask questions. Demand due process. And draw lines. Early.

I thank you for reading and ask you to mark this date, to save this letter. Moral ambiguity may not have descended but it will, and quite possibly in its fog you’ll be pressured to do what is plainly wrong. Listen to your heart, should the day arrive. I have every reason to believe it’s the heart of a leader. And so should you.

Joe Pinto
Portland, Maine


Please Agonize

Senator Susan Collins
United States Congress

February 8, 2016

Dear Senator Collins:

I’m a constituent. I think for myself, but I don’t think by myself. I’m part of a vast and growing network of people in and around Portland who, you’ve surely noticed, are communicating with you a lot more now than they used to.

We’re bringing numerous issues to the table. “One issue!” is the standard advice for addressing a Member of Congress – to be sure it’s heard, and passed along, and understood as “the thing you care about.” Every issue we raise is the thing we care about. For my part I think it’s important to tell you so. It’s not that we’re disorganized or scattered or frantic. We just believe the country is bleeding in several places. And we’re paying close attention.

My past few letters have been long, so I’ll keep this one short. I suspect some constituents have treated you like an automaton whose only job is to vote yea or nay. Every time I call or write, I try to address you as a thoughtful, conscience-driven person who goes home and deliberates. Even, perhaps, who agonizes. ‘Tis the season.

There are two strains of conversation I overhear with mounting frequency in Portland, the gists of which are:

Senator Collins, in her tepid rejection of the occasional bridge-too-far from the Trump team (Betsy DeVos, the Muslim ban), is still embracing far too much of an indefensible White House agenda. She has no integrity. She’s a lost cause.

I don’t participate in this conversation. No one is a lost cause. And I do see flashes of an inner compass in you. I really just wish you’d use it more.

It’s time to start thinking seriously about who might run against Senator Collins in 2020 – someone who will show the state of Maine unequivocally that he or she isn’t ready to forsake our democracy and cater to a president who rules by fiat and bullies critics.

I’m participating in this conversation more and more. It’s funny to be letting you in on that. But it’s not a threat. I’ve seen incumbents puzzle over reelection losses. This is how they start. This is the first foment. I thought you should know.

There is a third strain of conversation that has begun in my head as I try to rationalize your decision-making. It revolves around a question I wish you’d address, and a conversation I wish you’d open, with your constituents:

When you stood up to candidate Trump during the campaign, you correctly gauged his unfitness for office and anticipated an existential threat to the nation. That vision is coming true in every possible way. Does it surprise you now to see yourself getting behind it as much as you have?

What, for example, accounts for the difference between the Senator Collins who opposed candidate Trump and the Senator Collins who hushes a colleague for no real moral or procedural reason? Is that not the beginning of the end?

You owe your constituents more than yea or nay. You owe us conscientious deliberation and a commitment to American values; foremost, now, to justice and fairness. We address you in the spirit of that deliberation, and on the level of that commitment. Because your votes are making you unrecognizable to us. We hope not to yourself as well.

Joe Pinto
Portland, Maine

Original Panic

Senator Susan Collins
United States Congress

February 2, 2017

Dear Senator Collins,

I’ve called and written you more often in the past two weeks than I’ve called and written my own mother in the past two months. I’d like to tell you why. First, though, I’d like to tell you a little more about myself.

I have two things in common with what we can now undoubtedly call a majority, perhaps even a super majority, of Americans.

  • On a micro level I am scared for my own future, because it’s clear to me that the president and his inner circle are, by intent or effect (it matters little, the impact is the same) wicked people, making reckless, self-serving decisions with the economy, healthcare, the environment, foreign policy, and human rights.
  • On a macro level I grieve the (at this point undeniable) sharp decline of the incredible American experiment into kleptocracy, with “alternative facts” and contempt for the rule of law now risen to the top ranks and playing on our basest fears, which is usually how frail societies are hijacked and run aground.

Oh, and add to this a third common trait, that I worry for my friends and neighbors in marginalized groups whose fear of discrimination, alienation, and even bodily harm is increasingly legitimate under current rule. What makes me slightly uncommon – although that may not be technically true anymore, given the mounting statistical evidence for our diversity, however much straight white men still surround a photographed president signing orders – is that I’m also a member of such a group.

Let me share with you what it’s like to be a gay American. At certain mundane levels my existence is no different from yours, I choose much the same phrases when I write out Christmas cards and I balance my checkbook with the same numbers you use. These cozy mundanities go mostly unobserved between us, but they’re the ways our lives mirror each other, and thereby a source of some broader comfort (neither your nor anyone else’s comfort, however, is my biggest concern, and we’ll return to that).

Mostly you should know this: that in my gut, and in the gut of every gay American – eating away at our lifespan with shockwaves of physical pain and pulses of anxiety we’ve learned to take in stride – is a small mechanism that regularly experiences a kind of confusion and panic you may never know. For me it began as a child. I liked boys and wasn’t supposed to (the question has been definitively settled, but I assume nothing about what lore you may or may not have constructed around your politics, so I’ll be clear: this wasn’t a choice). Christians believe in original sin, but for gay people in our society that moment of realizing one’s attraction can be described as original panic.

Those of us who survive do so because we perform heroic feats of self-actualization and, yes, self-love against the grain, deciding that, no, we’re not wrong, or disgusting, or worthless. You’d think an end to panic and confusion at that point would be our reward. But then we have to watch our backs. Imagine having to take care how you walk and talk at some rural truck stop for fear of being tackled and beaten, or never, never being able to hold the hand of someone you love, except in private or surrounded by your own. Senator, the panic and confusion continue in cycles that never end. They are my clock.

By my clock we were moving forward under President Obama, with basic human decency finding its way increasingly into law, and the golden rule becoming national policy, against the protests of so-called Christians who claim to live by that rule in their homes and communities. By my clock now the decades are rolling back, toward original panic, and that’s just something I want you to know.

But back to the topic of why I’ve been calling and writing so much. In a very basic sense, it’s just what one does when he’s a citizen and has values and goals he’d like to see reflected in and upheld by a person who goes to Washington claiming to speak and make laws on his behalf. Beyond this, though, there are three reasons.

  • Maine is a microcosm of America; I love it as I love my country, and it’s just as divided. What makes Maine starkly symbolic of our national struggle is that it has only two congressional districts, to which it is tempting to ascribe the full weight of opposing value systems, though we must do our best to check emotion on this and veer our broken shopping carts away from fanaticism, which is where they want to go, and toward humanity.
  • You are a self-described moderate and I am not. I’ll level with you, to me, “moderate” used to mean someone who hedges bets and double talks to scoop up as many votes as tepid positions can gain. But in the escalating shouting match of American politics, a sincere moderate can stand in the broadening middle ground, as partisanship comes to resemble the hallucinations of a high-grade fever, and recover vast stretches of lost principle. What do you see, from your middle ground? Foremost are you finding that the emperor has no clothes? Or is that tiny reelection campaign manager in your head causing you to identify a robe, a crown?
  • Relatedly – this is my most important point, and the reason that, when I sit up late at night talking to America, it sometimes feels like I’m talking to you, and to all those like you in leadership – the nation seems to be locked in daily battle for your favor, pausing to hear what you’ll say once you’ve weighed the arguments, and trying to appeal to that core of you that thinks with clarity and integrity about our shared fate. This makes you, in a sense, the conscience of the country, and a kind of barometer. I wake up every morning, look at the weather forecast, and check my news feed to see what Senator Collins believes today.

Senator, I’ll be honest. Based purely on your actions since inauguration, I believe America hasn’t yet lost, but is losing. Do you remember that surreal moment you made the choice to publicly break with your party’s nominee for president? Think of what drove you to such a singular, unprecedented decision. Surely you saw shades in his campaign of the destructive presidency he envisioned. Senator, I ask you: has that vision not played out? Is it not even worse than you or any of us anticipated? Why, then, despite a few bold choices, are you selectively speaking out and not actively caucusing with the Democrats, who aren’t perfect but have the survival of our democracy at heart?

I want to take, as case in point, Ms. Betsy DeVos, whose confirmation hearings for Education Secretary, impressively, made a mockery of both education and our government, and whose bald conflicts of interest and lack of credentials are no less than a test balloon floated by a cynical president, to the American people but to Congress most of all: accept this, and you’ll accept anything. I have friends who cheer your opposition to Ms. DeVos as bravery, and others who see it as calculation, because, as of this writing, the vice president could still break the expected tie and render your vote meaningless, winning you easy favor, at no cost to the administration, with progressives who don’t ask why you didn’t just kill the nomination in committee.

Both interpretations are plausible but only one is supported by the surrounding evidence, which tells me that your fight feels half-hearted, and not nearly equal to the test being presented to you and to us, with no small number of blaring alarm bells, by this president. Senator, the people of Portland have gone shopping for your replacement, and I don’t doubt you face a serious threat to your reelection, but I’m not interested in a vote of no confidence in your leadership, not yet. For now, I choose to believe in you, and I respect you, as I do anyone who tries to serve. But make no mistake: you’re not fighting hard enough, and the people of your state expect to see more. We’re engaged in the rescue of the republic. We hope you are too.

Which returns me, at last, to the matter of your comfort. Here I sit, descending into original panic, but holding that in balance as I make choices with my time that I calculate will do the most good, staunch the most bleeding from our wounded state, to the extent any one citizen can. I may emerge from this period without a scratch, or I could, as my rights dwindle and emboldened aggressors taunt me in the president’s name, experience a world of hurt before this is done. So be it. I have deprioritized my own comfort. And so I’ve deprioritized yours.

Which means you need to go, inwardly, to the places that scare you, and be willing to get tossed on the angry waves of public opinion, with your moral compass furnishing your sole trust in the location, even the very existence, of eventual shores. Do this now, and do this for us. My vote is not yet cast.

Many thanks,
Joe Pinto
Portland, Maine