What did 2016 mean for you? And how does this inform your aspirations for 2017?
2016 was a year marked by the humanitarian horrors of Syria, by the polarization of Turkey, by Brexit, and by any number of grotesque acts of terrorism. Within the USA we’ve experienced maybe the most divisive and unpleasant American presidential election in living memory, and have seen an escalation of racism, anti-Semitism, and of acts of intolerance targeted at non-Christians and non-Whites.
Many editorials in the press describe 2016 as the worst year ever, and there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth. For many 2016 has brought a state of despondency, even despair. But for others, including Rev. Dr. Gerald L. Durley, pastor emeritus of Providence Road Baptist church and a civil rights leader, this is not the case.
I saw Dr. Durley speak yesterday and say he is not disappointed by 2016 and the presidential election, but rather he is excited. He sees this as a time when many will get more deeply engaged in what they believe. He is optimistic that Civil and Human Rights will regain much of the energy they have been losing not just in 2016, but over many years. And the NAACP Chair, keynote speaker at that same event yesterday, an Interfaith Emancipation Proclamation Day Celebration, said that service to others is the rent we pay for the space we occupy and talked of this as a time for build bridges and not leaving others behind.
Lessons From 2016
I agree with Dr. Durley’s perspective. That is not to be Pollyannaish about 2016: quite the opposite, I am horrified by the violence and hatred around the globe and by the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Syria; I am appalled at the plight of refugees and by the level of intolerance and prejudice in the UK and the US. I am sickened by the many awful stories I’ve heard, and even more by the personal experiences recounted to me, of Muslims and others who feel vulnerable and at risk and have been treated in the most disgusting ways, often by people they took to be their friends. And I am horrified at the new norms that have emerged within all forms of public and private life about what it’s okay to say to other people.
But despite all of this I am optimistic.
In recent years I have spent a lot of my time in groups of wonderful, deeply caring people who would make the world a better place, and I have learned much and felt deeply nurtured by them. It has been an honor to be welcomed into community that wants to make the world a safer, more loving, and more inclusive place.
But in recent years I have come to feel that these groups can tend to the idealistic and are often not equipped for the hard work of building bridges with those who think differently. I have found these groups can drift into group-think and become polarized in their own right. By becoming comfortable in their own worlds, these groups can drift into a form of isolationism and denial and thereby serve to amplify division and discord rather than heal a larger community. In a sense these groups can become part of the problem.
But in recent weeks and months I have been involved in a number of conversations with groups of people who have expressed feelings similar to mine, and who want to get outside their comfort zones and talk to people of different political beliefs and ideologies. I find this a profoundly positive and optimistic shift.
A Political Retrospective of the UK and USA 2016 Votes
I don’t pretend to be a political commentator, but I do think that the polarization of the political landscape and the perceived need for each of us to pick a side in a two party system is hiding deeper truths which shaped both Brexit and the US Presidential Election, and that we need to confront and deal with these truths if we are to move forward positively.
The first truth is that democracy is a participatory sport and that showing up once every few years to vote in a national election doesn’t meet the minimum level of participation required. We, the vast majority of the population, have ceded our democratic rights and responsibilities. We have accepted an education system that does not inform and train our young in their rights and responsibilities, and have allowed our media and elected officials to adopt a patriarchal approach so that we look to them and do not engage ourselves.
The second truth, which is closely related to the first, is that the party political system does not represent the majority of the population. On the one hand the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative Party in the UK, are the parties of business and commerce, with an agenda driven by wealthy business leaders; and on the other hand the Democratic Party in the US and the Labor Party in the UK are no longer the party of the people, but rather parties of an intellectual elite.
It’s hard to be crisp about the whens and whys of this last, but I think that something very disconnecting happened with Tony Blair’s “New Labor” movement in the UK and similarly in the US under Bill Clinton. Hopefully with the current chaos of the Labor Party, the UK is leading the way towards reform and the reemergence of democracy that truly represents (though the timing is most unfortunate since negotiating Brexit is critically important, and the Conservative Party do not have an effective balance).
Personal Successes and Failures in 2016
I’d be remiss if I didn’t reflect on and acknowledge my own successes and failures in 2016 before moving on to look at 2017.
First the successes. Well, I made good money in my business life and continue to keep my head above water on my financial obligations, particularly getting my kids through school and helping Holly financially as she moves on from our divorce; my kids are both thriving in college and seem to be doing really well in their lives; I sold a house and considerably simplified my personal finances; Second Helpings Atlanta, the food rescue organization I’m proud to chair has grown in so many ways in the last year and is well positioned to continue that trajectory; I had a couple of wonderful trips, the first to India with my dear friends at the Atlantic Institute, and the second to the UK to visit family; and Beth and I bought a house in Clarkston where we are really happy; and I am meaningfully involved in many other wonderful organizations and thrilled by the prospects to help there, too. All in all 2016 was a really good year for me!
But I have made many mistakes.
One of the more difficult to stomach is a terrible thing I did to two of Beth’s dearest and closest friends, a liberal Jewish couple. In the wake of the election I was having a conversation with them over dinner about the need to listen and engage in dialog with those who think differently, but they heard a lecture from a privileged white guy about having to submit to their oppressors. Weeks after the conversation I learned that they felt shamed and never want to see me again. This made me feel sick in my stomach and, as I write this piece, it still does. I have and will always upset people, and there will always be people who don’t agree with me, but to unknowingly shame others? To cause this level of suffering? I am not sure what to say or do and will be processing this for a while.
This points to the direction of the greatest risk and likely the place where the greatest mistakes in my life happened in 2016: my desire to engage beyond the liberal left and have meaningful conversations with a broader political and social spectrum. I am convinced this is what we need more of, and I am trying hard. I know that in doing so I can easily alienate people and lose friends, and this is a risk I’m prepared to take. But as the experience I related above exposes, there is a deeper risk that I’ll make mistakes, cause hurt, and do awful things without even realizing. So I fear that I am not even aware of my greatest failings and mistakes, and this does not feel good.
Looking Forward to 2017
2016 ended with a wonderful new movie about new hope: Rebel One, the new Star Wars flick. I take this as a fitting message into the new year. For Beth and me 2017 has started really well. We’ve been in our new house in Clarkston for less than two months, and on New Year’s Day we had a house party for our neighbors at our new home, and were invited to one across the street later that same day. We are really enjoying our neighborhood and looking forward very much to the new year here.
And I am inspired by a couple of Beth’s vows for the new year, vows which she has already been acting on and which, I think, suggest a direction for our hope. They are:
- Get involved in local politics. We spend too much time reflecting on the national landscape, but what happens at the local level affects our everyday lives so much more. And so few really get involved: it is possible to make a real difference here;
- Develop a garden. Not only does healthy, home-grown food taste great and make you a healthier human being, but the experience of gardening itself yields great benefits. The first of these is the exercise and the outdoor connectivity to nature, which has great physical and emotional benefits; the second is that it is a great and wonderful skill to have in a time of crisis.
My New Year’s Resolutions
I’m not a big believer in making grand resolutions, since I’ve never found them a good way of changing my behavior over time. Rather I’m a believer in tone and direction. In this regard I have some plans for the new year:
- Things are going pretty well, and I plan to keep steering in the same general direction: running my business; parenting my almost-adult kids; sharing a life with Beth; working energetically with my various boards and social justice groups; running this blog and podcast;
- 2016 was a year in which I made a couple of big moves to simplifying my finances, and I aim to continue that in 2017. There is no concrete goal there, but I believe that the way to financial security is simplicity and frugality, and that is definitely the direction I’m headed;
- I am also supportive of and a participant in Beth’s gardening project, and we have talked about that moving to include domestic solar panels and wind power, batteries, and water capture and reuse with e.g. a cistern. Again there are no concrete plans or milestones, but this is an important direction, a move towards personal freedom;
- One that is a little more concrete: Beth and I intend to do a much better job of having folk over for dinner. Now that we are settled together in a permanent home it should be easier, but it will also require some real intentionality and a change in our behavior. I’m committed and optimistic that we’ll do this.
A Story to Close
I want to finish with a wonderful story Roslyn Brock, Chairperson of the NAACP, related at the Freedom Day event yesterday. She narrated it with the enthusiasm, rhetoric, and energy of a Black Baptist preacher that I can’t hope to emulate, but while my narration will lack that power, I believe the story stands on its own – and it’s the inspiration for the cover image of this piece.
A herd of elephants came to a river that it needed to cross. In the herd were big elephants, medium sized elephants and small elephants. The big elephants started across first, and the medium sized elephants followed, with the smaller ones bringing up the rear. The largest elephants got to the other side and turned to watch. When the medium sized elephants got to the middle, they realized there was a problem so they stopped and called ahead.
“You big elephants,” they called, “it’s easy for you to cross, but this river’s deep! It’s not so easy for us, but it’s even worse for the small elephants. Why, some of them might even get washed away. You need to come back and help. You need to help the small elephants get across.”
So the largest elephants came back into the river and stood head to tail, forming a wall that dammed the river. And that dry river bed made it easy for the small elephants to cross.
The moral of the story, of course, is what Buddhism calls the Bodhisattva vow; no-one is saved until we all are saved, no one is free until we all are free. If you get to a good place, if you cross to the other side, you must stop, come back, and help others. It’s not just an obligation, it’s in your own self interest.
But the challenge, as Ms. Brock articulated with fiery rhetorical power, is what to do when others don’t understand. “What do you do when you’ve done all you can and it’s still not enough?” Her answer was that we look to the hills and pray for help from on high, we pray for power and stamina and the determination to stay. And this points to two important truths:
- We can only be saved if we are willing to surrender ourselves to a higher power, to something beyond us;
- It is all about staying: staying in the cauldron with the suffering of others, doing all we can to bring freedom to others, for only then do we have freedom ourselves.