One thing 2020 is teaching me

While there have been an overwhelming amount of articles and videos and statuses and memes passed around during this time (aka if you want to find your opinion presented by someone, even who is deemed as somewhat reliable and credible, you will); there has also been some really quality content put out there. Some profound lyrics. Some necessary questions. Some helpful stories. Some needed confrontation and calling out. During this time one of the most simple yet life changing things I have heard is something along the lines of “just because it doesn’t affect you, doesn’t mean it’s not real.”

As I think over these last few months alone the examples pile up. From the corona virus to racism to unjust systems to abusive power to child trafficking. Endangered lives and families and loved ones. Hurting individuals. Fearful human beings. Angry groups of people.

So here are my two quick applications that I want to take with me regardless of how the rest of 2020 shakes out. Regardless of whose voice is shouting out to be heard in the future. Regardless of which “side” people are claiming it is coming from.

1. Informing our minds: education

I know I know, this word feels kind of like an attack. When anyone is told “educate yourself” it’s human nature to feel labeled as ignorant or uninformed. Like the person saying it is somehow claiming to have “arrived” and you, too, just need to be “enlightened.” So yes, it feels like a trendy tag line at the moment. But I’m not sure there’s a better way to really say it. We cannot speak to, and certainly not against, the things we have not taken the time to LEARN ABOUT (educate ourselves in).

There is really only one starting point for empathy and action, and that is knowledge. If we do not know something to be true, we will never be motivated to do anything about it. Some people have been forced to reckon with the present realities being debated politically and socially. It touches them personally in a way they never would have chosen. But if, at the very least, we want to have informed opinions and valid viewpoints, we must make the choice to listen. To read. To watch. And then guess what? We still have the freedom to choose what we let ultimately shape and inform us. Will some books be biased? Will some stats be skewed? Will some documentaries have agendas? You bet. But we simply cannot disagree with what we do not know anything about. And while we choose to listen and to learn, our opinions just might get tweaked. Our mindsets could slowly begin to transform. And our hearts may even start to soften. All in ways we never really expected but all in ways we may have needed.

2. Changing our hearts: empathy to action

A while back I posted a blog that listed the reasons why I want to do foster care. One was “because I’m afraid I can only care as deep as something touches me personally.” While that sounds snobby, I think it’s human nature. At least it’s mine. While reading statistics can shock me and hearing far-removed stories can sadden me, I think that can only go so far. We can put the numbers down and tuck the words away. Yet when something touches us, I mean really touches us, we can never be the same.

When we hug their necks and wipe their tears. When they sit on our couches. When our grandparents test positive in the face of a pandemic. When the neighbors we swap stories with are black. When the child we cleared a room for smears poop on those same walls because that’s how they deal with the abuse. When we hold their bones tight in the orphanage. When we visit them through the cell bars. When our own child is taken. When our nephew is exploited. When our spouses are addicted. When our siblings are targeted.

Everything changes.

But most of these relationships and interactions and experiences do not happen upon us. To those of us afforded the privilege (and detriment) of turning a blind eye, we must choose to open them up wide. This could happen by picking a friend’s brain who is in the medical field about their day to day interactions with corona virus patients. Asking a mom of a black boy what her fears are. Being denied a hug by a child who has never known safe touch before. Getting to know a strippers story. Staying after school to work with a struggling student. Stepping foot on a reservation. Visiting someone in a nursing home. Going to someone’s house in a low income neighborhood. Letting abuse and trauma and oppression touch you. Really physically touch you, touch us, just as it has them.

Just because it isn’t happening to you, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Do we hold these truths to be self-evident?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”

 

These words were declared long ago, and they have been declared many times since.

As “declare” implies, these words have been uttered with much heart and passion and vigor and through the years. They have been proclaimed as undeniable truth written on the consciences of all. They are rooted in conviction, covered in morality, and said with great American pride. The words grip us as well as ground us. They feel powerful as well as pure.

Yet we simply cannot go on ignoring the irony. During this time, while human rights were being defined on paper, they were very literally being taken away in real life. The exact same hands shackling a man in slavery wrote that all were created equally. Life was beaten. Liberty was obstructed. Happiness was withheld. Safety was not sought. While these famous words were printed into our future as a fact they were simultaneously being re-defined in the present by reality. They were engraved by human hands but ignored in human hearts. Its beauty has hung as a loud banner above us yet its blasphemy has been laid as a silent foundation below us.

As I’ve been thinking a lot about our current state of civil unrest, rooted in the past and twisted up into our present, a word keeps coming to mind. This word or idea is not an attempt to give a one-size-fits-all approach to issues varying in complexity and severity. I hope I am not oversimplifying or under-emphasizing. Yet I think this category with its differing reasons and ranks inside of it (including racial injustice) are worth taking a step back to recognize on the whole. To see as a broader theme. We might not even notice it but I’ve become convinced that this broader theme shows up in our own day to day interactions. It manifests itself in everything from belittling comments, to abusive behaviors, all the way to murderous acts. It is ranging from daily pornography to deadly prejudices. It has been trickled down all around us and rooted itself deeply inside of us.

Dehumanization.

Webster defines this as “depriving someone of human qualities, personality, or dignity: such as a: to subject someone to conditions or treatment that are inhumane or degrading b: to address or portray someone in a way that obscures or demeans that person’s humanity or individuality c: to remove or reduce human involvement or interaction in something, such as process or place.”

We, too, can be guilty of soulfully pouring over the Declaration of Independence for all peoples while blindly practicing its contradictions right around us. How then, along with fighting for liberty and justice on local and national levels, do we also bring it down to our neighborhoods? Our schools? Our work places? Our very own houses?

I think we need to do the raw and dark and deep and good work of re-humanization.

 

Re-establish what gives human dignity

The annoyingly obvious question we should never cease to ask ourselves is “why?” I think this is especially true when we see that our lived realities are not mirroring our proposed reasoning. Consenting to the truth of a definition is not the same as acting out of its implications. Maybe during this specific time in history we are being given a chance to stop and examine. To ask, in the face of pandemics and protests, if our definition of human value is lining up with our response to black lives begging to breathe or vulnerable populations asking to be protected?

Ekemini Uwan says, “once we accept, and grieve, that our old way of life is gone, we can build a better future.” If we want to move away from our old normal and towards a better normal we have to be really really honest. Painfully so. And we begin at the beginning again. We ask ourselves to define human dignity. To re-establish what is every person’s worth.

For me, the unshakable barometer of all living being’s value starts with a Creator. A Maker. One who crafted all human beings in His very image. Not apportioning himself in varying degrees of whom he favors. But to all. Completely equal image bearers. Given a mind and heart and even a soul. As David Closson says “Man is like a statue erected by an ancient king—as the statue bore the image of the king and signified rulership, man bears God’s image in the cosmic temple of the world, representing his authority and dominion. Man is the visible representation of the invisible God. If one wants to know what God looks like, simply look at man, the crowning jewel of creation and the only creature made in God’s image and likeness.”

Without some source of a foundational definition we have no starting point. And without a starting point we cannot convince anyone else, let alone ourselves, of what true liberty and justice will look like for all. Or why it even matters. It shapes the lenses through which we see the most bloody times in our history and the most horrific happenings in our present day. Without it, what moral leg do we have to stand on against slave trade and school shootings? What basis do we start with when talking about the horror of the holocaust and the devastation of massacres? What do we make of genocides and plagues and terrorist attacks and different kinds of wars? How do we speak out against human trafficking or domestic violence or child pornography or sexual assault? It is not enough for any of us to say that something simply is. Dignity and equality do not define themselves. That’s why entire people groups have been abused in the name of superiority, used as means of punishment, and written off as primitive animals without a soul.

Once we have established, or re-established, our unwavering definition of human dignity we have to begin the hard work of realigning the every day ways we think and interact and respond, back to it. If in the end our words and our actions continue to be impossibly ill-aligned and unrecognizable from one another we have to be willing to ask do I really, thoroughly, honestly, believe this to be true about all humanity?

Re-prioritize people to their place

Sometimes we realize that we have begun to subtly assign and apportion human dignity based off of underlying beliefs that are different than what we claim out loud for them to be. For some these beliefs have been silently shaped over time and we do not like them when they are exposed to us. While for others they have been consciously chosen and we do not want to change them. They may stem from our belief in divine design or natural designation. We may think they come from evolutionary make up, societal shaping, generational history, or personal choices. We may end up recoiling over our deep down barometer for human dignity or we may, in fact, revel in it.

Wherever we land, though, I think we must land there consciously. We cannot move on into any sort of action, or really even awareness, until we have gotten really honest with ourselves. Until we have meticulously thought through, for ourselves, what qualifies human dignity. Until we have concluded if there are ever any exclusions or exceptions to this qualification. Until we have critically assessed our definitions and called out the parts that have begun to be bent away from its original form. From there, where we spot inaccuracies and inconsistencies in our rawest form and from our deepest places, can we identify what is bubbling over on the outside. Can we see its out workings and implications.

One of these gauges and indications is where our priorities lie. Naturally, we desire things such as power, pleasure, possessions, and praise… even over people. When this happens we begin to see a person as a mere object standing between where we are and what we want. We then make the choice to either remove them as an obstacle or use them as a stepping stone. But that’s not our only option. We don’t actually have to land there. Instead, we can see what the layout of our placement and prioritization is becoming and we can do the continual work of putting people back in their proper places. Realigning them with our truest definition of who we have already established that they are.

So we take them out of the middle. Again and again and again. The middle is where they are reduced to merely a means of our own end. But when they are placed on the other side, they become a person again. They are repositioned to become the end itself. The focus. The priority. The point of value. It is here, directly in line with us, that we can actually exercise power, experience pleasure, enjoy possessions, and give/receive praise in mutually healthy and beneficial ways. We can function as one. Not as objects of helps or hindrances to where we’re headed but as human beings with equal worth and irrevocable dignity.

Re-define how it plays itself out in society

When the choice we are handed lies between people and possessions the answer seems fairly obvious. Unnatural to choose, perhaps, but hard to actually argue against. But what would it be like if instead of just dethroning power and praise over people, we had to choose between actual personhood? If we were somehow faced with the choice between which two people could live. What then, would rise to the surface in us? Would our definition of equal dignity and worth for all human beings quickly become met with a barometer full of assessments and questions? Maybe our instinct would be to consider their ages, or factor in their accomplishments, or weigh their contributions, or compare their records.

While we ourselves will likely never be faced with such a choice, what happens in us when we hear about a gang related shooting? An elderly lady passing peacefully in a nursing home? A firefighter not making it out of a burning building in time? A person of color begging for breath? A child’s heart monitor no longer beeping? A prisoner being beat to death?

In the midst of everyday headlines filled with tragedy and trauma we are left with the choice to listen to our own visceral reactions and mental responses. To be mindful of our internal questions about the person. To pay attention to our assumptions based off of where they were and who they were with and what they were wearing. When we sit with our own honest responses they will answer the question for us of who we deem more deserving of death and who we see as less worthy of life. When we are present with ourselves in this way we can actually catch our minds going to the places we do not want them to and then we can do the repetitive work of realigning and reminding ourselves why none of those things matter. It is in these small and crucial moments we can convince ourselves once again that all human life is equally dignified. And then we are conscious of where we allow our conclusion to go. About them. About humanity. About life. And even about death.

Dehumanization, though, is not just about dying at the hand of injustice. It is also about living from a place of inequality. Those we deem most tragic in death, we will also see as most worthy in life. We may not ever say that a person is not actually worthy to live. But, to what do we assign their quality of life? Is it one of equal opportunity for education and position? Is it one that is given a strong voice and sought after as a needed presence? Is their mind just as smart, their body just as capable, and their being just as strong?

Our degradation and objectification of others comes out in the every day ways we respond and relate to them. In the manner we address them in and the time we give to them. It seeps through in the ways we esteem certain jobs, praise specific positions, and place power with select people. This shows up in the way we smile at the CEO behind a desk and ignore the homeless person behind a sign. In the way we greet the guest at our front door and mumble a hurried hello to the server at our table. In the way we engage or dismiss children. In the way we talk tenderly or mockingly about the elderly. In the way we clap for those who wear uniforms and yell at those who answer our phone calls. In the way we keep together those who are the same and cast off those who are different. In the way we classify intelligence and dismiss disability. In the way we label foster kids as troubled instead of laboring with them as traumatized.

Being worthy to stay alive is not the same as being worthy to really live. To live in a way that we all long for: without being treated as inherently inferior or locked in as innately less than.

 

Re-build what has been lost

“When we see people without recognizing that they have a story, we become pornographers. Pornography almost by definition lacks a story.” I think Ragan Sutterfield was on to something far more than only poses and pixels. The same effortless reduction of a person into a prize for our own self pleasure does not just stay on our screens. It manifests itself into the people we pass by quickly, the newcomers we get to know slowly, and the classmates and coworkers and church members we interact with daily.

They could be young or old or rich or poor. They could have thousands of followers on Instagram. They could have dropped out of high school. They could have graduated with the highest degree. They could live in the suburbs or the city. They could be a white person walking down our street or a brown person grazing our shoulder in a grocery store or a black person pulling up next to us in a parking lot. An immigrant or an international student. One who is pushed in wheelchair or relies on a walker. They could be wearing a suit or sagging shorts. Someone who is bilingual, reads brail, or communicates with sign language. They could have eyes that are stone cold or ones filled up with tears.

But what do we see?

Do we see a service or a statistic or a social status? Or do we see a story? A lived experience. A survived trauma. A family they come home to. A job they lost. A generational cycle they were born into. An addiction they are overcoming. A disorder they are functioning with. Do we hear their voice behind their language, see their skin beneath their clothes, and remember their blood beneath their bodies?

As Lore Wilbert powerfully puts it, “when we enter a room, we often forget the blood—the story—pulsing beneath the skin. When we divorce a body from the story—the humanity and the life—that God has given it, it becomes a mere object to us. We can no more separate our blood from our bodies than we can separate our story from the bodies who have lived through it.”

It doesn’t matter who they are, where they come from, or how long they’ve been in our life; we can simply forget what it means for someone to be wholly human. There is a lot inside there, living inside of them, that we forget to see. To look for. To ask about.

We are all too quick to forget that people are dignified- with bruised skin, with broken bones, with beating hearts- fully and fiercely, dignified.

Why I want to do foster care

Because God has put it in my heart

Because it is one way to reflect his own heart

Because filling in for parents for a period of time and temporarily doing a job they cannot, gives them the space and time to make what is broken more whole. Kids need whole families. Hopefully they will find health and wholeness with us in the meantime. And ultimately, hopefully they go back to find it with their own families

Because I am for kids

Because parents love their kids and kids love their parents, and they should be together in a way that will best show and share that love

Because kids desperately need safety and stability and trustworthy touch and kind words; they need what has been tainted and twisted to begin to be untainted and untwisted

Because these aren’t “bad kids” …they are traumatized kids

Because I want to see my kids recognizing the needs of others and being willing to give of themselves, even down to their very own hearts, in order to let someone else in

Because foster homes are often worse than the very homes these kids are being pulled from

Because I want Christ in us to be a bright spot of someone’s story they retell someday

Because God chose to enter into my brokenness and not to stay out

Because I can’t unread the statistics

Because I look around and see so much space, space these kids are supposed to fill. Space that already has love and safety and laughter that isn’t being used up

Because being pro life means finding ways to care for that same life we fought for being born

Because God says our religion is worthless to Him if we do not care about widows and orphans. I think this includes those needing a temporary home

Because I care about the flourishing of human beings. The flourishing of both parents and children, and ultimately the flourishing of them together as one family if at all possible

Because these families might have a total of zero Christians who know them. Zero Christians who have walked into their story. Zero Christians who have joined them in their pain. Zero Christians who know what it feels like to love and to lose the same kids they do. Zero Christians who are praying for them

Because these kids need to know someone is fighting for them

Because these families need the same Jesus that I needed. The same Jesus I now have because someone else took the time to take me to Him

Because if I don’t, they will still be there. In need. Turning a blind eye in my own life does not change the dark reality in someone else’s life

Because I have been given too much grace to waste it on hoarding

Because abundance causes overflow

Because no time is really ever convenient

Because Christians are called to build longer tables not higher fences

Because I did not choose the environment I grew up in, nor can they

Because me getting too attached is worth the cost of a kid never getting to attach at all

Because the culture cycles of adult poverty and homelessness often start with a once-little boy or girl who never attached to another human being in healthy ways

Because I see in these kids the next generation and I want to help raise them up in any ways I am given the opportunity

Because I’m afraid I can only care as deep as something touches me personally

Because empathy grows when we know their names and look into their eyes. Especially when their innocent little faces sleep peacefully on our own pillows at night

Because compassion doesn’t stay put, it acts

Because I’ve seen my foster-parent friends and family with tear filled eyes and broken hearts say “it’s all worth it” and then do it again and again and again

Because our losses are worth their wins

Because I want to be involved in people’s messy lives. And that is always going to get complicated and it is always going to hurt. No matter the avenue we take to do so

Because I would want someone else to do the same for my own kids

Because I think the world needs Christ followers who simply say “I’m here” and then prove it

3 social media illusions I discovered while taking a break from it

As some of you know, I decided to take a month long social media break in January. While I missed some things about this place and mostly the people within it, this time away was enlightening, timely, reorienting, and refreshing.

Stepping away gave me room to more clearly see some things, both inside of my screen and inside of me, that had become blurry from being up close. On a much more surface (but still important) level, this break pushed me to rediscover some of my simple joys and gave me more time for hobbies. It allowed me to be more creative in how I stayed up to date on all sorts of news. It also helped me to be generally more focused and engaged with who or what was in front of me. On a bit of a deeper level, it exposed some of my heart and health. It revealed some surprising parts that live inside of me that somehow circle back to social media. It also caused a sense of retaliation to rise up in me against those “nerd gods” who calculatedly play on our insecurities and desires, to make a profit off of our handheld devices. It made me more convinced of what Bill Maher said about Phillip Morris just wanting our lungs and the App Store wanting our soul. It enabled me to reevaluate and revise my own relationship with my phone, and more specifically, the world of social media that lives inside it.

Yet I’m back. Cautiously but not reluctantly. Just like that, I’m back in the middle of this social media tension of “it’s obtrusive and draining and can be a time suck” and “it’s useful and beneficial and good can come from it.” But I’m hoping to tread this tension a little more diligently with the starting point that Cal Newport suggests: my values. This stepping away has also allowed me to better pinpoint my values and then ask, not the question of, “does this or that forum/app/platform have the potential to support my values?” But rather “is this thing, or the way I am using it, the very best way to enhance and promote my values?” And then striving to make digital and life choices that are answers to that fundamental question. Values can be anything from humor and beauty to faith and friendship. They don’t always have to be deep; they just have to be worthy of our time. They are the very things that we want our lives to be marked by.

If in the end you have decided to still be here too, in at least some capacity, I’m glad that you are. I hope that sharing some of these illusions that have become more evident to me after this past month will help inform, expose, diagnose, and encourage you as you seek to tread in this tension, too:

1. The illusion of urgency

I have found that for myself there is a strange phenomenon behind the very concept of “being on” social media. It brings about this sense of urgency in me. It’s like we, or at least I know I, feel this automatic pressure and draw to be constantly checking and responding and getting back. I hear the nagging voice on repeat “everyone is waiting on you!”

As soon as I made the declaration to myself and to others that I would be off social media, it was as if the nagging voice was silenced. As if I could take a deep breath. As if suddenly no one was waiting on me because they just knew I was away. And there was something instantaneously freeing in that.

Yet the most surprising part that I have begun to see is that this “urgency illusion” mostly comes from my own addicted brain and not actual people. The voice doesn’t come from friends saying, or indicating, or even feeling a sense of “where were you on social media today? Did you see what I posted?” It more comes from the voice inside my head looping through the vague yet enticing words “you’re missing out.” The idea of FOMO doesn’t just apply to real life experiences we know we’re not a part of. It’s more sneaky and deceptive than just that. It can also apply to this mystical idea that if we’re not refreshing our social media feeds every hour (or 20 minutes) then we might miss something. Something that is, in fact, not even there.

Here’s the reality whether social media is actively a part of my life or not: it will wait. It doesn’t need me. Every little red circle with a white number inside of it does not actually require an instant click. It will still be there. Even an hour or day or week later.

So in order to defraud this perception of urgency, can we not apply the same sort of space and freedom and patience to ourselves that we would if we were taking an announced social media break? Can we find ways to bridge the gap between social media addiction and quitting social media cold turkey?

Possibly for you this gap will be bridged simply by your mental consent that the urgency is actually just an illusion. You will not give in as quickly knowing that the pressure is not actually there, regardless of if you tell people you’re away from your phone or just decide to be. Yet I have become convinced, in large part due to the money making psychological schemes that are intentionally used to keep us coming back for more, it is going to require doing something more drastic than conjuring up the will power. It could look like app limits or app deletions. Or silencing or disabling notifications. Or carving out regular and routine times away from our phones. Or even something more extreme. For me personally, this will mean some pretty significant changes including things like designated scroll days/times and a husband with my pass code. My “rules” might continue to change down the road  in this ever-revisionary relationship with my phone. But, one thing I now know for myself is that it will always require more embarrassing measures than I would like for it to. Like buying a good old alarm clock to sleep by instead.

Whatever it takes, though, the bridge being built will require us remembering and then stubbornly proving to ourselves again and again that our phones will non-tauntingly, without pressure, void of compulsion, unfailing…. wait. This battery powered device’s mere existence, even with its instant availability, does not automatically require that we be on it. It is there. But we do not always have to be there with it.

2. The illusion of connection

I’m starting to see that changing our relationship with social media is not just about changing how we use it, but diagnosing why we do. It’s about discerning not just what our phone is saying to us, but what our phone is saying about us. Exposing not just what we want to accomplish inside of a screen, but what we are hoping to accomplish through that screen, inside of ourselves.

This accomplishing something inside of us might look like approval or affirmation, boredom or laziness, insecurity or escapism, fear or pride. Our desires to be on social media certainly are not all bad. Some may be simple and silly, but not negative. Some are even deeply good and beneficial. However, the infectious ones are well worth the hard work of self examination. Whatever shape our void or desire or motive takes, it is actively and aggressively looking to be filled. So it resorts to the quick fix of habitually grabbing the phone and then dismissing it as harmless. In an effort to connect quickly and easily to whatever is in our phone, we may be forfeiting all kinds of other real life connections; starting with the connection to our very own selves. Our minds might scroll aimlessly, but our hearts do so longingly. Running away by scrolling has a way of drowning out the voices inside of us. We may be simultaneously expressing ourselves online but losing ourselves in real life. 

In his book How Your Phone Is Changing You, Tony Reinker pegs one of these voids that we may actually be after when we reach for our phone as, loneliness. “Smartphones and social media were supposed to cure the epidemic of loneliness. We would all be connected—all together, all the time—and none of us would ever feel alone. But the harsh truth is that we can always be lonely, even in a crowd—and now, even more so, in a digital crowd.”

Why? Why is it that technology can lessen the gap between oceans yet simultaneously widen the one between room furniture that our friends and family are sitting on across from us? Ultimately I believe it’s because humans were made to live in real life community and not just screen level connectivity.

I think when our deepest connections are being met in the world outside of us we can stop trying to force them into the screens beside us. When we initiate friendships that we can stop counting followers. When we let others get close enough to see our flaws that we can stop fooling people with our filters. When we take the time to get to know our raw real-life-selves that we can stop rushing to present our best online-selves. When we stop spending the majority of our relational energy watching stories from those we will likely never meet that we can sit down and hear the stories of our neighbors who just moved in down the street.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that our screens (including the social media that is inside of them) have the unique ability to start and strengthen and shift friendship. I have grown in my respect for, understanding of, and camaraderie with many others solely through social media forums.  Whether it is thought out or thrown together words, immaculate or mundane pictures, sweet or silly comments; I’ve been challenged, picked up, inspired, humbled, emboldened, and educated. I’ve waited in anticipation for the happy announcements. I’ve cried at the sad ones. I’ve laughed at the funny ones. And I knew some of my own would be met with the same cheers and tears and laughter. Perhaps most significantly, I’ve been able to keep up with some of my very favorite human beings who live cities and states and countries away, in an almost day-to-day way.

Yet even with all of this, I have found that social media simply does not have the ability to ultimately and primarily sustain the truest of friendships. It can be an incredible source for all sorts of connection, but it will fail us every time if we hold it out to be our sole hope for deep and lasting community.

True community consists of people who show up in what Andy Crouch calls “the vulnerable moments of life.” They show up, fully present and fully human. Both of which can only take place outside the digital world and inside of the real one. This real world is where face-to-face we see eyes that empathize, lips that tremble, and hands that cheer. It’s where hugs are embraced, smiles are exchanged, and laughs are shared. It’s a flesh and blood, beating heart, all in it together, kind of place. The internet can enhance our experience in the world, it just cannot come close to replacing it or completing it.

I think the catch is that the more wholly connected we are in physical life, the more healthily connected we can become online.

3. The illusion of control

Illusions are the distorted version of what is, at least likely in part, true. It takes an ounce of what is and morphs it into what is not. Therefore I think exposing illusions for what they are calls for stepping back and sifting out the points of truth and then seeing where they have been twisted.

The truth is that our phones are exactly what they say they are, smart. Extremely, almost eerily, smart. The truth is that the distance between the person holding their device and what is inside of it is oceans deep and miles long and informational books stacked high. The truth is that one single device brings dozens of time zones, thousands of languages, and billions of people all to the same exact place all at the same exact time. The truth is that there really is so much potential and power cooped up in one glowing rectangle that can slip inside a single pant pocket. There’s no denying that it’s simply astounding what our phones are capable of.

The subtle shift happens, however, when we go from thinking that these devices are a source of knowledge to believing that they are a wellspring of endless wisdom. We then become controlled by the very thing that we were seeking after for control. Enslaved by the very thing we were running to for freedom. Conquered by the very devices we subtly thought we ourselves could conquer with.

The unchangeable reality that I’m learning is that the relationship we are to have with the preexisting material world can never be found or accomplished in our modern day man-made devices. There is a world outside of our phones that is too big, too beautiful, too raw, too scary, too complex, too brilliant, to ever fit behind a glass. Even the most impressive technology could never reproduce fresh air, soothing scents, and breathtaking sights. Human beings are too whole to trade our interactions with what is already breathing and blossoming in the world for our interactions with what requires chargers and batteries from a store.

We were created with too much capacity to reduce our selves down to phone-size. Our relational space was meant to keep expanding us into the world not shrinking us down into our phone. We’re gaining technological access while forfeiting God given autonomy. We’re exchanging consuming for creating. We’re seeking domination over cultivation. The world that we now think is in the palm of our hand is actually busy slipping right through our finger tips.

Therefore, the antidote to rightly relating to our phones must be rightly relating to the world around us, first. A physical world made up of time and people and nature. A world that our phones will never have the ability to replicate and therefore should never- and in the truest senses could never- replace. I want to jump in the water, taste the food, climb the mountain, feel the sun rays, smell the flowers (and the coffee) … and not just capture and caption them all. I want to intake what God is teaching me in the quiet spaces and not just turn around and output it into the loudest places. I want to let the experiences happening around me simmer and settle inside of me without plotting how to put them in a box on Facebook and rushing to tie them together with a bow on Instagram. I think when we take our little worlds- filled with their own kind of beauty and grace and mess- and delicately and intentionally translate them into a screen, we can stop asking our screens to instead translate the world for us.

Maybe when we choose to release the grip of urgency, defraud the promise for community, and let go of the quest for control, we can start the journey of using our phones instead of being used by them. And maybe, just maybe, the ultimate irony is actually that when we stop trying to make our phones be a means of mastery, they will instead – in a beautifully freeing way- become an avenue for enjoyment.

A mere expression, not an intrusive robbery, of what we value and care about, most.

What I kind of wish I never learned from Unbelievable: A Netflix series based on a true story about rape

“(We’re) talking about a crime that is absolutely devastating and massively under-addressed. So bringing that issue out of the dark shadows of our culture and pulling it into the light is really important” Showrunner Susannah Grant

{CONTAINS SPOILERS}

Not too long ago my husband and I finished watching the new Netflix series, Unbelievable. It was hauntingly powerful. It had a way of provoking anger and providing deeper understanding in us as the viewers. There was compelling character development amidst a tragically gripping and mesmerizing story line. But the heartbreaking reality behind this eight episode show is that it was much more than a show. It was someone’s (many someone’s) life reality being depicted. It was lived and felt and experienced off the screen.  Watching this part of other people’s lives played out before me in a show felt a little unfathomable.

I kept telling myself this really happened.

 As someone who thinks long and feels deeply about sexual abuse, this show caused a lot of those previous thoughts and feelings to come to a head. It is intrusively teaching me many things about this topic. In fact, these are some of the things I “kind of wish it never taught me.” Because now, I’m held accountable to a new degree. And yet this sort of knowledge-based accountability is the very reason I find these lessons worth sharing with you, too.

Maybe the first step is choosing to enter into the stories

I was hesitant to watch this show. I knew the content would be risky for me to watch on many levels. I knew it would affect me in ways I did not really want to be affected. To be honest, I have a pretty weak stomach when it comes to many of life’s darkest realities. Sometimes it feels as if the darkness swallows me whole. And to be even more honest, that’s part of why I ended up watching it. While I think knowing ourselves (our weaknesses, triggers, and tendencies) provides necessary ground for discerning what kind of content we take in, this time I decided I needed to push myself a little. Or a lot. I landed at the conclusion that for me, this time, it was worth it.

I think in hindsight my choice is teaching me that entering into the story, even of a complete stranger, will not actually lighten the load of what they are already having to carry. But on the other hand, it is teaching me that maybe choosing to carry just an ounce of it by exposure will give greater understanding, deeper compassion, and more fervent outrage for the weight already placed upon them. What we might carry for a week, some will carry for a life time. So we can choose to taste just a portion of the reality that they never got to choose for themselves. Maybe for you that will not mean watching the show. But it probably will mean that you will have to choose to learn something you cannot un-know and feel something you cannot un-feel by the exposure of excruciating stories from those who choose to share them to any degree and for any reason. 

There is no “right” way to respond to trauma 

There was a crucial turning point towards a whole new level of suffering for one of the victims. This turning point happened when Marie Adler, the first accuser, began to be doubted. A seed of doubt was first planted into the case by Marie’s former foster mom. There is a very telling scene where the foster mom is talking to a detective and sharing her suspicions of fabrication. These expressed suspicions depicted the real life foster mom who claimed that Marie’s response was not emotional enough, that she was not making eye contact, and that she found it suspicious that Marie had told several people. This was the sudden gateway to Marie being berated, belittled, and bullied by investigators. Which then led to Marie claiming and being charged for, false reporting.  What this spiraled into can traced back to the assumption that there is a “right” or “normal” way to respond to such experiences.

Scene one of episode two further drives this point home as we are introduced to a bubbly, communicative, warm woman who is sharing her own eerily similar story to that of Marie’s. The stark difference, however, is that she is not curled up in a ball grasping for words to report to the police. She, instead, is delightfully direct and detailed. She is deemed “dependable.” Marie was dismissed as “troubled.” Yet trauma is trauma. And its validity can not be measured systematically. Trauma will inevitably affect the inflicted. No amount of running or hiding or stuffing or shouting will make it disappear. But exactly when and how it will be responded to is not determined by our own prideful scrutiny. 

Rape is a direct act of violence 

For the sake of sensitivity and delicacy I will not delve deeply into this point. But it is utterly impossible to hear even the slightest detail of a rape case and not equate it with a sheer act of harrowing violence. I think our initial response to this statement would be something like “of course it is!” We wholeheartedly agree rape is very very serious, and even violent. Along with any form of sexual assault. Yet our lived response in today’s rape culture can tend more towards language like “being caught in the moment” or a “one time slip up.” But this sort of behavior must be attributed to something much greater than just an unmet sexual desire. It does not take much research, or experience, to discover that this sort of abuse is linked to power, control, and entitlement. Sexual assault can happen in a foreign place or a familiar place. It can come from a person the survivor will never lay eyes on again or from a person they will see every Holiday. Or every day at school. Or every day in their very own home. Regardless of when, who, or where we must talk about and treat such sexual assault for what it is- a pinnacle of violence. It is not only one act of crime (which this alone should ensue just-penalty); it is an act of many crimes coming together as one and culminating itself in the worst kind of survived brutality. 

Christians can, and should, show up for this battle

While most Christian viewers will heartily cheer on detective Duvall and gladly claim her as our own, we at some point will simultaneously shrink back upon the realization that we simply can never be like her. She is this gentle, soft spoken, empathetic, brave, passionate, powerhouse of a woman. And we’d be happy to be a fraction of the person that she is. “Detective Duvall” reminds us in a brilliantly beautiful way that Christians can, and should, fight hard against injustices. Injustices, like this show portrays, that are often dealt with unjustly. We, too, live in a world of injustice stacked upon injustice. And we, too, could learn a few things about how to take up the cause of the violated and the victimized. I believe this can be done without pitting the gospel of grace against the gospel of justice. I believe it can also be done without fear that this kind of darkness will make us forsake the light. It will be scary and hard, but we along with Duvall should say, “Here I am, send me.”

Yet when we put this detective on a pedestal (or any great men and women of the faith who have carved paths towards this end), we miss the God on his throne who they are actually representing. The God who told us from long ago that he cared about his people seeking justice, correcting oppression, and defending the rights of those in need. We may never be the modern day William Wilberforce of sexual assault. But, in our own small spheres of influences we can fight with the same sort of anger, plead with the same sort of passion, and care with the same sort of tenderness that these battle-hero’s-for-justice also exemplified.  All the while pointing to the Christ of our Christianity. 

We just never know

One significant scene that stuck out to me in Marie’s story was in the aftermath of her trauma and the backlash of not being believed. This scene takes place in a store that Marie is attempting to work at. She is behind a table with shaking hands that are unable to even successfully squirt ketchup into a cup. The lady waiting on the other side of the table is annoyed that this “incompetent worker” is not even capable of correctly preparing a small sample of dipping sauce for her as the customer to try. She comes across as impatient at best and condescending at worst. And it makes us mad. But let’s face it. We are watching from Marie’s point of view. Too often I am in the shoes of the lady who is only asking for base-line proficiency in customer service. Or basic reciprocation in my relationships.

I want this to serve as a reminder for me that the person in front of me, from my closest friend to a complete stranger, may have just walked away from their very worst nightmare. The kind that they are not able to wake up from. The kind where the invasive flashbacks cannot be ignored and the crippling panic attacks can not be predicted. As the often-spoken-little-applied quote goes “you never know what kind of battle someone is fighting.” So instead of accusing and assuming from the outside of the battle as an attacker, let’s enable and embrace as a defender who goes inside their battle and fights with them and for them. 

Whatever it takes, be a safe place

As this show eludes to multiple times, let’s give pause to these staggering stats from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center: 1) Rape is the most under-reported crime; 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police. 2) Only 12% of child sexual abuse is reported to the authorities 3) The prevalence of false reporting is between 2% and 10%. A study of eight U.S. communities, which included 2,059 cases of sexual assault, found a 7.1% rate of false reports. 

My goal in sharing these numbers is not to spark the newly heated debate about false reporting. It is more to challenge our defaults. Do I believe there can be harm in the rally cry “believe women, every single time, no matter what”? I do. But I also believe there is so much irreversible harm that we inflict when our default towards an accuser is one of doubt. What if instead our instinct was to first assume that another Marie Adler was sitting in front of us. The kind of Marie, who by sharing, was taking the risk to lose more than what had already been taken from her. The kind of Marie who heart crushingly exclaimed that if she had to do it over, she would lie again. Lie better and lie sooner. Why? Because the truth only proved to multiply her sorrow and shame. She came to believe that keeping the truth to herself was less painful than trusting it over to someone else for them to do what they wanted with it. The tragic irony of not being believed was that Marie now felt just as unsafe behind her unlocked door as she did outside of it. No one was safe anymore. Not even the good ones who were supposed to protect her. 

But, I am convinced that even more than the need to change the settings of our default is the need to cultivate the space for safety. May that sacred space be found in us. May we work hard to be the kind of people who are safe before, after, and in the midst of our friend’s and neighbor’s tragedies and traumas. May we be people of solace and solidarity. Marie finally found that place of safety. It was in a therapist. A therapist who welcomed her silence, saw her tears, and listened to her voice when she courageously chose to use it. The therapist’s refreshingly trustworthy approach was not to dissect a story, but rather to really get to know the girl sitting in front of her.  Let us, too, sit on a soft couch to listen from instead of a cold jury seat to dictate from.

** Below are anonymous answers from a diverse group of survivors that I know that were willing to answer the question “what is one thing you want people to know about sexual assault?”

 

   I would say that for me, it feels like everyone’s worlds keep going and mine stays still. I feel stuck and unable to completely move on, specifically because of my current court case. It just feels like a scab that keeps getting involuntarily picked off.

 

 Even though I’ve “moved on” and “forgiven” my abuser (whatever that even looks like) that doesn’t mean that I want to have anything to do with him. 

 

Healing comes in layers.

 

Yes, it was 20 years ago. But yes… I can still recall the fear & self-loathing as if it was yesterday.

 

The one thing I would want others to know about sexual assault is when someone opens up and shares, the most valuable way you can help is by listening and saying, “I believe you.” There is incredible incredible power in those words to break the cycle of fear, denial, isolation, and avoidance to the victim. How someone responses truly will have an effect on the healing process.

 

Those who are victims believe a ton of lies, but the main one is, “I should have been able to stop it. I should have been able to defend myself.” Or “if I had not done ____ he wouldn’t have assaulted me.” I don’t care if you’re 2 or 40. That is a complete utter lie! But with this lie comes the great pain of shame and guilt.

 

One thing I wish people knew about sexual assault is that it is so much more than being physically and sexually taken advantage of. It is certainly nothing LESS than that, but it is much more. It changes the entire trajectory of the survivors life. I truly felt like my soul was affected in this experience. So survivors aren’t being dramatic or emotional, an experience like sexual assault is deep and soul crushing. However, that doesn’t change the reality that we are ALWAYS called to “do the next right thing.” God’s plan is STILL for us to thrive where He puts us and live an abundant life. We don’t have a different measurement or standard for obedience. We don’t get to “opt out” of adding value to those around us, simply because we survived sexual assault. But with that said, I would urge others to simply consider this- being victimized changes everything, but also it changes nothing. Our call, responsibilities, and duties do not change. But we are forever changed. And that is very hard to navigate.