Thoughts on the New Zealand massacre from a counselor

Obviously you know the news by now from New Zealand: 50 people killed. Muslim worshippers at two different mosques. Suspected gunman with white supremacist, anti-Muslim beliefs with 5 legally purchased weapons, two of which were semi-automatic assault rifles. Hopefully, regardless of your own religious affiliation, your heart is broken and you are outraged.

I remember how shaken I felt after the Las Vegas massacre in 2017. The death count of this new massacre is nearly as high, but this time it is on the opposite side of the world and against people of a religion most of us do not identify with. What impact does this have on our concern? Our compassion? Or the ever-timely question of what we can do to make change?

I recall to mind exchanges I used to have with a counseling client, a boy nearing adolescence who was quite small for his age but quite big for his britches. Now, typically my approach is very client-centered and client-led, and I create a lot of space for the person’s beliefs and working out issues at their own pace, not the pace I wish they would go at. I was very challenged by this with this client.

One day my client came in complaining about, and even mocking, some of the new neighbors on his street and the kids in his class. He hated their accents. He hated how they weren’t up to speed on the American things he found important. My client (who was, by the way, a quarter black and I wondered about the internalized racism he must experience) lived in a very white suburb and to the best of my knowledge, it seemed this suburb was suddenly and uncomfortably diversifying particularly with a population of immigrants who also happened to be Muslim. My client’s family did not like this.

Sounds like New Zealand. Sounds like America.

My client would sometimes tell me about the things he was learning from his stepgrandma and how he was learning to distrust all the things he was learning in his public school. She told him the textbooks he studied were wrong. She told him that Democrats were actually the party of racists. She told him that the Qu’ran was filled with commandments to kill the infidel and about jihad and that Muslims were dangerous, bad people.

I remember the first time I met a Muslim and actually got to know her. I was raised on the same rhetoric that my client was hearing, and I learned a very one-sided view of Islam. I also came of age around the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which shaped my understanding of who Muslims were. In college, I was befriended by a sweet Muslim girl, because she happened to be the dorm neighbor of my best friend. She wore a head scarf almost all the time but would sometimes take it off in the safety of the all-female dorm hall. She had a smile to melt your heart, a warm and kind spirit, and a disarming tendency that drew you in. At the age of 18, my encounters with her were my first step toward a radical change in my exclusivistic Christian views and toward interfaith thinking.

Meanwhile, these recent encounters with my client became blood pressure-raising, cheeks-flushing 45 minute sessions. As I said, I typically interfere little with belief systems of clients, but I could not stay silent while he spouted off the rhetoric – propaganda – that he was picking up from a parental figure who was probably getting her own news from extraordinarily biased sources. I tried to challenge him on his notions of Islam, explaining what else Islam stood for: peace, respecting others, loving God. I even reminded him that his own Bible held some pretty ugly passages, but we generally choose to not focus on them. I questioned him on the blatant prejudice of categorizing “all” people of a certain group because he had a negative interaction with one of them.

I couldn’t not speak. I questioned whether it was okay to insert myself in such ways, but I also recalled the values I have promised to live by as a counselor to be culturally sensitive and stand up for the oppressed.

I don’t know if what I said in our conversations made any impact on him. I don’t know if the color of his own skin or his remarkable intelligence might one day have him think twice about people he perceives as outsiders or different, or if he will adopt defense mechanisms of paranoia and projection and view the “other” as evil and dangerous. But I knew then as well as I know now that the line of thinking he was following was not just discriminatory, not just hateful, but has the potential to be incredibly dangerous.

So how will we respond to this latest tragedy? Can our country self-examine and quit deceiving ourselves that policies like an attempted “Muslim ban” and broadly referring to neighbors across the southern border as “bad hombres,” gang members, rapists, and murderers might actually be part and parcel of the very same fabric from which this mass murderer arose? Might we admit that “nationalism,” as we understand it today, is perhaps not all it’s cracked up to be? Can we understand that when a significant portion of our country thinks the Qu’ran is only filled with hate for the infidel and assumes that to be Muslim is equivalent to being a terrorist, that we are all in danger and the worse off for it? Both because of people like this recent shooter and because actual terrorist organizations thrive off of angry, skewed views of Muslims?

Can our churches respond and say “We stand with Muslims”? Can we boldly proclaim that we are all God’s children and the heart of God and our own heart breaks with the loss of life and the proliferation of hate?

We are not left with our hands tied, regardless of how many time zones away this tragedy is this time. The problem is in our own backyards as well. What are we willing to risk to send the message that love – love of the neighbor, love of the stranger, love of the immigrant, love of the Muslim – is stronger than the hate that constantly threatens to divide and even kill us?

TURN YOUR ALARM SYSTEM OFF!

Two women, worlds apart, are talking.

“It is hard to listen to me?”

“It’s not hard. I have my alarm system turned off.”

On Being with Krista Tippett, interview with Arlie Hochschild

You know the feeling. My alarm system is on almost all of the time, so much so that I don’t even realize I have an alarm system. My hackles get raised when Fox & Friends plays on the gym’s TV during my morning workout, or when I think people are going to speak derogatorily about immigrants, Muslims, the LGBT community, Millennials, etc. Such things are my alarm system finely tuned to.

Our church is doing a book study called “Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism,” by Carolyn Helsel. Talk about an opportunity for alarm bells! “Anxious” is an appropriate word: we can be anxious that we will say something offensive, anxious that the conversation is going to devolve into politics, anxious that someone else is going to say something that really gets under our skin and our face will flush and we will try and talk honestly about systemic racism without being written off as a naïve, bleeding-heart liberal (oh whoops, was that just me??).

What would happen if we could just listen to people without alarm systems going off? With the understanding that others will say things we don’t agree with, but that we don’t have to let this hurt us. They got to their positions and beliefs somehow, just as we got to ours.

Don’t think I’m suggesting we just roll over and play dead when the “other side” starts raising its voice. Not at all. I firmly believe in the importance of truth-telling, honesty, and objectivity. But I’m also aware that facts do little to change people’s opinions when their emotions point them a different way.

Sometimes giving facts to emotion-driven people is about as useful as this dog is presently being.

Our brains are ruled by confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is not exactly objective: it feigns objectivity while really just reinforcing what we already believe at an emotional, gut level. We want so badly to understand the world we live in and make it a safe, habitable place. We make it safe by making it small. Once we think we understand something, we try and fit in all new pieces of information into the systems we have already worked out for ourselves. This has been our survival strategy for millennia upon millennia: we had to quickly learn how to categorize stimuli into “safe” and “not safe,” so we could, you know, act quickly and not get eaten by bears or stomped on by wooly mammoths.

Admit it. You don’t want to be stomped either.

So what can help us increase our capacity for feeling safe – and also for helping others feel safe?

There are many routes to do this. Just being aware of our own hyperaroused alarm system is a step. I would add in cultivating qualities of curiosity, compassion, empathy, and openness.

Cultivating openness.

Retrieved from www.pickthebrain.com

For me, spirituality helps inform the approach to the “other.” In non-dualistic ways of being (which I would describe, in part, as the place God dwells), the distinction between “self” and “other” is a false dichotomy. We are somehow deeply interconnected even with those who feel like enemies. Yes, that means I’m even connected with Trump. My ego may throw a little fit about that and my surface-level skin might crawl, but the deeper part of me has compassion for the both of us because we’re just human, trying to get by. Our wounds are different. He has a little more power (in the traditional sense) than I do. He has more of a temper than I do. But a belief I hold is that we are both image-bearers of the divine, muddled as that image may be.

I thought about inserting a pic of Trump instead… but I like this better.

Perhaps one of the hardest tasks of spirituality is navigating the path between the contemplative knowledge that we are all connected and everything is, ultimately, okay — with the reality that we are in a world where real-life issues need to be addressed, people’s rights need to be protected, where the poor, broken, and wounded receive real-life healing. I’m not saying I have the answers. But I believe we need both parts to be fully human. Hating the perpetrator while tending to the victims does not actually bring about the beloved community.

These are hard words to swallow. I write them and I want to believe them, but it is so difficult to live into. But if we can, we find the alarm system is suddenly a relic. We don’t have to hate and be alarmed by the other. And then, maybe then, will our world start to become the place we so desperately need it to be.

a whole different world: stereotypes and not judging

I’ve recently had the opportunity to facilitate small groups at a local college and meet some people I probably wouldn’t have ever met otherwise. Because I am working on my degree in counseling, I have been vested with the authority of “counselor” there and, even for just 20 minutes, I am entrusted with people’s lives and stories. They have shared with me some experiences that feel worlds apart from my own.

One such time was last week, meeting with a young black man who lives in what is known as a dangerous neighborhood near where I facilitate the groups. We are so different. Yet he somehow felt comfortable sharing his experiences and some of his feelings with me. That fact alone amazed me. I was worried he wouldn’t trust me or would think it ridiculous that his program director suggested he talk to me. But he opened up right away. Given what he shared with me, it would be so easy for a person from my background to judge him. I did my best to just hear him in his story and see him as the person he is.

While we spoke, I had to focus so hard to understand him, as our dialects are so different. Sometimes it felt like he was speaking a language I only partially knew. I wonder if he ever feels the same about me, or if he had to learn “my” language at some point? He also used vocabulary I wasn’t altogether comfortable with, including the “n” word. I wonder what that means to him?

He spoke of baby mamas and the kids he already has and another on the way, different women for these kids, spoke of wanting more kids but especially a boy. Spoke of his intense desire to stay in these kids’ lives, of his efforts to continue to communicate with the mom. I thought of how easy it would be for me to judge him for impregnating all these girls and not staying with them. Of what this looks like to me, an outsider. But if I’m really trying to understand him, I can’t at the same time be judging him. If I’m really trying to hear him, I can’t have my mind be distracted by thoughts of criticism, of how he should change, of how he should become more like me and hold my values. I don’t know how the moms feel, how their families feel, how the kids feel. I don’t really understand why this is a source of pride for him, to have these kids scattered about, because that’s not really part of my culture. But he wants these kids. He wants to be in their lives. That’s something worth encouraging.

He spoke of a “package” he had to pick up after this. I wondered if that was simple code for drugs. I wondered if it was naive to not simply assume that. I am naive. I’ve never used drugs; I don’t think I’ve even seen drugs of the illegal variety [well, illegal except in Colorado]. (yep, all street cred I ever possibly had just flew out the window). But that’s my background. I don’t know for sure what the package was. If it was drugs, I don’t know if he’s a user or just a dealer. I am aware, however, of how much more lucrative it can be for people to make a living selling drugs like that than working a “normal” job. I’m also aware of racism and school-to-prison pipelines and how crack (a “black person” drug) is punished so much more harshly than the more expensive cocaine (a “white person” drug). I’m aware of the generational effect of poverty, of assuming that this is what life has in store for you because it’s what is in store for everyone around you, of the difficulties of getting ahead for people in such poor urban areas. I wonder, regardless of what’s in the package, if he’s doing the best he can, or at least what he knows to do, given his circumstances.

And through it all, I was aware of being in the presence of just another person. This young man, speaking in ways I had a hard time understanding and about topics so unfamiliar to me: he’s just a person. I felt warmly toward him, knowing that at our roots we share in basic human emotions like fear, anger, sadness, happiness. That we want to love and be loved. That we have dreams of what we might do in our future, which might be realistic and might not be. I was grateful for our 20-minute exchange, for getting a glimpse into a life so very different from mine.

And at the same time, I’m all too aware that it’s only 20 minutes, that it’s far easier to try and assume the best about someone you don’t know very well, than to try and engage in dialogue and really understand each other. My glimpse was just that: a brief and momentary glimpse. Is there a way that our cultures might collide again?

It’s become clear recently that all too many times, when these cultures collide, violence and death can result. We do not know the other. We do not understand the other. We mistrust the other. Apparently, we sometimes think that it is best if the other were to die. Maybe we feel unsafe, maybe we can find a way to “justify” it, but the end result is the same: the Other is dead and we remain. Our feelings of righteousness and and wanting to feel safe have won out over the other person’s right to their own safety and life.

This man does not deserve to die because someone else feels unsafe around him. He has feelings. Kids. A girlfriend. People who care about him. He has a right to life as much as you or I. 

So short, our time together, yet I still think about him. I wonder what it will take for us to accept that others have different ways of life, for us to listen in non-judgment for just a minute, or step over the boundary that separates us and actually engage with someone so different from us. I confess, without this opportunity, I probably wouldn’t have. But I’m grateful I had the chance to meet him. And I pray for myself, and all of us, that we have chances to encounter other worlds and people who are different from us, and take a moment to try and see.