How I Went From #AllLivesMatter to #BlackLivesMatter

I left Rush Limbaugh behind a long time ago. In high school, I served two years as the cartoonist for the school paper and I was known for working signature catchphrases like “Ditto” or “Rush is Right” into every editorial cartoon. Sometimes it was subtle, but most of the time it wasn’t. I still can’t believe they let me get away with it.

By the time I graduated from high school, I left Rush behind. I saw something in his rhetoric that reminded me of what the scriptures call “priestcraft,” and I came to think of him as someone who was less about ideology and more about himself. It didn’t take long for me to start seeing political parties the same way. When it came time to register to vote, I marked myself down as an Independent. I never looked back.

My value system still leans a bit to the right, probably owing a lot to my upbringing, and also my religion. I’ve never been able to completely buy into Progressivism, even though one of the tenets of my faith is an emphasis on change and progression. Though I don’t believe in being stagnant or getting things back to the way they were in “the old days” when, for example, women weren’t allowed to vote and redlining condemned multiple generations to poverty, I’m also wary of the constant drumbeat for change, which can become a moral value unto itself at the disregard of what I believe to be moral constants. We should be moving forward, always, but in the right direction and for the right reasons.

One of the big problems I’ve always had with Progressivism is something I’ve termed “temporary exceptionalism.” It’s this idea that in order for social reform to happen then we must make special allowances for underprivileged groups or bring down the majority in order for the minority to get a leg up (I’m oversimplifying a bit, but quotas would be the most basic example of what I’m talking about). I don’t believe in creating opportunity by taking it away from others. I don’t think we’re playing a zero sum game here and I think, as difficult as it would be to achieve, it’s possible for everyone to have equal opportunities at the same time. I don’t think you get to equality by lifting some above others the same way you don’t get it by pushing anyone down. Otherwise, you’re at risk of swinging the pendulum too far and that becomes another kind of injustice.

Years ago, when I first heard the term “Black Lives Matter,” I rejected it immediately. My first thought was, no joke, “Hey, wait a minute, all lives matter.” I saw Black Lives Matter as more of what bothered me–of lifting up one group over another. I saw “BLM” as saying, as I believe Progressivism often does, “The only way we’re gonna make this right is by giving more advantage to these folks over here than to those folks over there who have had it for way too long.” Elevating black lives over white lives? No, that’s not right—same way the other way around isn’t right. I saw Black Lives Matter as a different kind of inequality and isn’t that what we’re all supposed to be fighting against? My wife and I had a lot of discussions about this, debating it back and forth. I was on one side, her on the other, supporting #BLM. Both of us operating in good faith and trying to convince the other of what was right.

I was, quite obviously, wrong. As a concept, Black Lives Matter isn’t about excluding anyone, it’s a raising of a hand to be recognized. It’s a righteously angry plea for acknowledgement that black lives are the same as everyone else’s–they matter. All lives matter THEREFORE black lives matter, too. This is basic, and I missed it because, try as I might to be an independent thinker, I got infected by a rhetoric that said a particular advantage was trying to be achieved when that wasn’t the case at all. It never was.

It has to be said that Black Lives Matter because too many people are behaving as if they don’t. Particularly, unfortunately, people who have power. Black Lives Matter is a spotlight on an injustice and a plea for change–a specific, righteous change.

The best explanation I’ve seen going around (and that seems to be convincing a lot of Conservatives) is this one I saw on Twitter:

100688663_10157406132281344_2405721082112770048_n

It’s really as simple as that. My house isn’t on fire. I don’t have fear when I interact with white, bigoted, racist people, whether they have power or a gun or not, because they don’t see me as their enemy and they don’t see me as less than human. But if I were black? George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and so many before them prove there is a real reason to fear. It’s the fear of death, and, after all the strides towards equality we’ve made in the past 60 years, we should not be okay with anyone walking around in our country with the fear of death for the way they look, a thing over which they have no control and is of no consequence to their value as a human being. What inequality could be greater?

Another way of getting at this same idea (and this is another example I’ve seen going around) is to look at what Jesus doing when he left the 99 sheep to go after the one. He was, essentially, saying, “Lost sheep lives matter.” The 99 were safe, so he went after the one that wasn’t. White lives are not imperiled in the same way black lives are, so #BlackLivesMatter.

I’m encouraged by the sea change that’s happening. People are waking up to what Colin Kaepernick and others like him have been trying to say for years, and it’s important for white voices to rise up with them, so I’m adding mine.

I believe in change and progression. They are at the heart of the Gospel of Christ. It gives me a lot of hope in our country’s potential to heal what are some very old wounds when I see the movement that’s sweeping this country. To see mayors and governors and religious leaders and what seems like the majority of people in my social media feeds throw their weight behind Black Lives Matter is an encouraging thing and a positive sign at a time when it seems like we’re more divided than ever.

To anyone who also struggled at one time or another with #AllLivesMatter vs. #BlackLivesMatter, I would encourage you to add your voice. You’re not alone. However you arrived at your change of mind, it’s an important story to share. So, share it. This is the time.

All Parents are Terrible

Parents are terrible. You know this incontrovertible fact if you’ve ever read any published memoir about growing up. There’s one universal theme to all of them: the parents should be arrested and the key thrown away for the cruelty they inflicted on their progeny, the writer. If you were a space alien and the only thing you knew about the parenting practices of earthlings was what you read in books like The Glass Castle and Running With Scissors, you’d be justifiably horrified and immediately set about liberating the youth of the world through abduction (wait a minute, you don’t think…?). In fact, for a lot of coming-of-age memoirs, that literally is what the book is about: all-time, world class, terrible parenting. It’s the very best revenge anyone ever devised against all the therapy they had to shell out for later: immortalizing the parental misdeeds in print.

I suppose there’s a universality to that experience, and it certainly makes for good copy, but it’s pretty far from my own experience and, at the very least, the experiences of most people who belong to the same Church I do* (aka the culture I’m most familiar with). I tend to think there are more decent parents out there than bad, and I’ll hold up my own as a good, if imperfect, example.

*I say this having conducted no studies and done no polls, so I’m speaking mostly from experience and observation. The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church teachings provide a solid foundation for highly functional families. Any parents who draw from that deep, deep well are bound to get it more right than wrong.

Which brings up a good question: If I’ve written an entire book (tentative title: The Other Side of Fear) about my own growing up and my parents are a big part of it, how is the story I’m telling in any way interesting or exciting?

I guess it’s not. Save for a handful of chapters, my parents and I largely get along.

So, boring book.

I’m being a little facetious. Once you throw in the shootings, the murder, the bullies, the helicopters circling our house at 1am, the flooded city, the thief my dad runs down, the missionary tales, and everything else, you don’t really need to ladle bad parenting on top to have an interesting and exciting story. But bad parenting? No, that’s not really one of the ingredients I’m cooking with. My story is about growing up through through difficult things with good parents.

People clamor for good, clean, positive stories, but they flock to conflict and the controversial. These types of stories are not mutually exclusive, but they can be difficult to bring together, depending on the market and the audience, and, most importantly, the writer. Those who traffic in positivity can be afraid to let the real world in for fear they’re not being positive or uplifting enough. Their stories, consequently, can be, yeah, super boring. Meanwhile, those who focus mostly on conflict and controversy can easily choke out anything positive, or simply dismiss such notions altogether for fear of “watering down” or because their worldview doesn’t allow for it in the first place. I’m talking extremes here. The pendulum doesn’t only swing one way or the other, but I would argue that the mainstream creative world encourages a more cynical form of storytelling than not, and for good reason: it sells. At least, that’s the current thinking.

And I think it’s that kind of thinking that leads mainstream publishing towards bad parenting and cynical, isn’t-life-horrible? narratives, and away from any kind of positive, uplifting, religious narrative, even when done in a way that’s inclusive (another topic for another time).

I am not a fan of extreme positivity or extreme cynicism. Speaking of religion, I think good stories are like a religious life well-lived: accepting of the reality of the actual world we occupy while acknowledging the hope and reality that is above this world. It’s only when you combine the two things together that you get a story that is truly true and resonates and moves and uplifts and entertains and enlightens and encourages. You get your conflict and your controversy, and you slam it up against hope and positivity, and you end up with something that is dynamic. That isn’t so one-note and serves a defensible purpose.

My parents are both very human in the telling. They have flaws and foibles and quirks and maybe do not-so-great things because they are not perfect, godly beings. But, if I’ve done my job correctly, it all makes them more endearing than anything. There to prove them real and relatable, not to take them down. I can’t present them as real people if I only speak of them positively. And being real is the only way to get at the truth.

***

In other news…I’ve done a lot of the homework publisher Cedar Fort assigned me to get the book ready for publication. Writing my bio, submitting my author photo, etc. One of the big tasks that will take months to complete is reaching out to people for “endorsements.” These are the blurbs you read on the backs of books from people with some reputation whose praise you can trust. It’s a huge favor to ask someone of influence to read your book and appraise it, so I was a bit nervous to go out and ask. I hate asking for favors.

But, I’ve already gotten three “Yes” responses back! I can’t wait to share with you who they are (they’re very, very cool), but that feels premature right now and there’s always the chance they could read the manuscript, not like it, decline to offer their endorsement, and ask for monetary compensation for time wasted (wait…that’s not a thing, right?). But still, they’re willing to take a shot. Which is awesome.

Photo by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels

 

RBDM: Table of Contents (Limited Time Only)

UPDATED: The blogs containing the chapters have been removed, as promised, so the links below will not work. I leave this post up to preserve the reason for the removal at the end of it, and also for those curious about the book itself. Hopefully, I’ll bring the whole thing to you again one day, bright and shiny and new.

ORIGINAL POST:Below is a table of contents for all the chapters. If you haven’t finished yet, you should be able to find where you left off and pick it back up. I’ll leave all the chapters up for another week or so, but after that I think it’s better to take them down, including this post. If you’ve been reading along, I’d love to hear from you. Even if it’s just a “hi.” I miss contact with the world!

RBDM TABLE OF CONTENTS

Prologue – Ready: The funeral is over and it’s time to go to the cemetery, but before we get there my mother has a striking revelation to share.

I.

Ch. 1 – Shooting: Eight years earlier, two men burst into my father’s store and immediately begin shooting.

Ch. 2 – The Call: Alone and dying, my father desperately dials 911 to get some help.

Ch. 3 – Bullets: While my brothers and I dance in the living room, oblivious, my mother receives a mysterious phone call telling her to get to the hospital immediately. 

Ch. 4 – M&M’s: At the hospital, Mom crumbles and I get a whole bag of M&M’s all to myself.

Ch. 5 – Educated Guesses: My father is in critical condition and no one–not even the doctors–know if he’s going to survive. But I do.

Ch. 6 – Playing the Part: While dad struggles in the hospital, I head back to school to enjoy all the attention thrown my way.

Ch. 7 – A Suspicious Peace: Dad returns home from the hospital and I become a bullet wound cleaning expert.

Ch. 8 – Superdad: Months later, Dad is unstoppable, coaching little league, attending Sixth Grade Camp with me, and running down a guy who steals from him.

II.

Ch. 9 – The Wrong Side of Town: On the night before 7th Grade begins, a FBI sting operation gone wrong in our neighborhood prompts Dad to grab his gun and head out on his own to track the criminals down. 

Ch. 10 – A Friend in Need: When helping one friend comes at the expense of my relationship with another, I’m at a loss for what to do.

Ch. 11 – Fight: A friend turned enemy wants nothing more than to beat me to a bloody pulp. A school yard confrontation leads to big changes.

Ch. 12 – Hollywood: A reality show comes calling and Dad leaps at the chance to reenact his shooting for national television.

Ch. 13 – Talking to a Dead Man: The shooting reenactment airs on television and my eyes are opened to what Dad really went through in a whole new way.

Ch. 14 – Edited for Television: Dad’s rush to the hospital is depicted, and he talks about the shooting and what he was really afraid of in his own words.

Ch. 15 – How It Ends: How Dad knew he was going die young. Plus: The reenactment concludes with my national (embarrassing) debut.

III.

Ch. 16 – The Nerd Herd: A move across town means a new school and new friends. 

Ch. 17 – Breaching Brute Protocol: High School begins and I’m determined to make a new start, but the four bullies picking on me at once have other ideas.

Ch. 18 – Good Intentions: Sick of all the misinformation out there about my church, I’m determined to go to a friend’s church and correct her pastor. My parents have other ideas.

Ch. 19 – Sitting On a Chair with Wheels: Is God real? Is my church true? I honestly don’t know and it’s tearing me up inside. A caustic confrontation leads to Dad trying to talk me down.

Ch. 20 – Flood: Holed up in a church building late at night, my friends and I have no idea our entire town is flooding, threatening to trap us.

Ch. 21 – The Last Time: I finally get the answers I’ve been searching for, just in time for Dad and I to make peace and go on a road trip together.

IV.

Ch. 22 – Speaking in Tongues: My life as a missionary begins, but there’s a catch: I have to speak Spanish. I hate Spanish.

Ch. 23 – Bad News: Ten months into my mission, I receive a phone call from my grandfather with news I do not want. 

Ch. 24 – Faithless Prayers: While waiting for confirmation that I what I know in my gut is true, I pray.

Ch. 25 – Worse Than Death: How my father died and the devastating first few moments after I found out. 

Ch. 26 – To The Lord: The Mission President and his wife come to visit and console me. I’ve got a big decision to make about what to do next.

Ch. 27 – Being a Human Being: It’s the morning after and I want nothing more than to do the missionary work I’m supposed to do. But are my motives less than pure?

Ch. 28 – In the Absence of Kneeling Dragons: I return home from my mission many months early to a very different world.

Ch. 29 – The Shoulders: The house has been overrun with mourners, and I doubt very much all of them are there for the right reasons.

Ch. 30 – Speaker for the Dead: Mom has asked me to speak at Dad’s funeral, but I have no idea what to say. A forgotten recording reveals Dad’s feelings about the shooting in his own words and confuses me further as I wrestle with his contradictions.

Ch. 31 – The Eyes of a Dead Man: The day of the funeral has arrived and it’s my turn to speak.

Ch. 32 – Grounded: It’s Thanksgiving Day and I’m home. Should I stay home and not return to the mission?

Ch. 33 – Life After Death: It’s been a long week. Two moments stand out in particular, putting everything else into perspective.

Epilogue: Decades have passed. What happened to me? To my family? What’s the takeaway?

Why take it all down? Because:

I’m just going to do it. At the encouragement of my wife and a few of you, I’m changing the name of the book to The Other Side of Fear and I’m shopping it out…again. After 7 years.

RBDM CH 33E copy

The funny thing is that The Other Side of Fear is SUCH a better title and I don’t know why I never thought of it. That’s really what the book is about: what is on the other side of the worst thing thing you can imagine happening? This is such a theme in my life (and I’m sure many others). I have faced down my worst fears many times–literally the worst things I could think of–and you know what’s on other side of that? Peace. Quite honestly, it’s peace. The worst thing is never so bad as you imagine it to be, and you can never anticipate the ways you will grow and learn and change from those awful happenings. Calamity is how God operates on us. It’s how He fixes us into who we should be (but only if we allow it). And that’s a good thing. That’s what’s on the other side of fear: good things.

Maybe the syncing up of all this with the coronavirus is nothing, but it feels oddly right and clarifying. I’ve been in the house for two solid weeks now, and despite the occasional passing panic when I give into the temptation, I don’t really have any trouble centering myself. There’s a great freedom in knowing the universe will you up at any given moment and that you can take that beating and emerge victorious.

So, into the world this book goes once more. Maybe it will find a home, or maybe it won’t and I’ll get beat up again. Whatever happens, I’ve certainly got enough time on my hands to find out.

How to Be a Jerk to a Person of Faith

“Grow up and end your magical thinking.” – Someone, some post every two weeks on my Facebook feed.

Disagreement is in the digital DNA and fiber optic bones of the internet. I’m fairly certain the original, Graham-Bellian creation myth of the internet’s inception involved Al Gore sending his friend Mr. Lee Jones a simple text message: “Tommy–come over here–I want to tell you all the ways you’re wrong.”

I mean, forget shouting fire in a movie theater. You want to really see people go nuts? Type “gun control” on Facebook.

You know all this because you are currently reading this on the internet and have ventured beyond the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic boards. You’re open to being challenged. Maybe you’re the kind of person who, when you hold up your phone or dare to crack open your laptop, you pretty much expect to be hit with a point of view that’s different from your own. Diametrically opposed, even. And you’re okay with that.

Mostly.

Sometimes, it’s hard. Sometimes, people aren’t expressing opinions so much as just being bigots, prejudicial, myopic, close-minded, or just downright jerks. When is an opinion not an opinion? When they’re being a jerk about it. When their opinion comes with a heaping helping of insult big enough to overwhelm whatever savory flavors their otherwise (I’m sure) cogent musings had to offer, the jerks no longer get to have their thoughts taken seriously. They’ve rendered them stupid.

Or you have. Or I have. It’s not like “jerk” is some subspecies. They are us.

I opened this blog with a quote that’s become all-too-familiar to me: Grow up and end your magical thinking. Roughly translated, it means: Stop believing in God you big baby who can’t handle the real world.

What is wrong with this? Well, my problem isn’t that someone doesn’t believe in God or thinks I shouldn’t. I may disagree with both of those positions, but I respect another’s right to feel, believe, and think differently than I do. In fact, having people with points of view different from my own is something I value (which is why I’m seeing so much of this in my Facebook feed in the first place–I cultivate diversity in my friendships, both IRL and online) You don’t believe in God? Okay, cool. That is completely irrelevant to me as to whether or not we can be friends or have association. What is important to me is this:

Are you a jerk?

Where “Grow up and end your magical thinking” goes wrong for me is that in its expression of an understandable, legitimate opinion (however much I disagree, denying the existence of God is a point of view that is not incomprehensible to me) it wades into the murky waters of insult by way of condescension and casual dismissiveness.

Grow up” suggests a certain amount of childishness; a clinging to apron strips because of an insecurity about the world and one’s place in it that can only be mollified by the idea of an all-powerful bearded dude who sits on a cloud made of tissues he uses to wipe away ignorant tears. “Grow up” equates God with an imaginary friend, and the believer with the toddler who bops around the living room talking to Clarence, the combo lion-poodle who knows how to rock a tea party. How is “Grow up” anything other than insulting? And why in the world would anyone of faith listen to someone for whom that is their baseline approach? Who could even get a fair shake in a conversation with a person who insists on infantilizing them for the great crime of thinking the universe is a little bigger than what they can see right in front of them?

“Magical thinking” suggests a wrongheadedness in one’s thought processes and perspective on the world. It is a cry in favor of science, obviously, but it also denigrates a worldview that essentially boils down to: current science doesn’t have an answer for everything.* Religion is an argument against arrogance. Reducing religion to “magical thinking” is a complete misunderstanding of the purpose of faith, just like “grow up” is a misunderstanding of its function. Most of the religious people I know don’t actually believe in the existence of magic. To equate someone’s sincere, reasoned beliefs with fantasy is… say it with me now… jerky. It is being a jerk.** And if you are being a jerk then I know–I know automatically–that you are the one speaking from a place of insecurity about the world and your place in it.

A confident person doesn’t feel the need to be a jerk. A confident person does not mock the thoughts and beliefs of others because a confident person is not easily threatened. Being a jerk is, always, a reactionary position; a defensive posture. A jerk wants you to know he thinks you’re stupid, and, if he can, make you feel stupid. You can’t destabilize a confident person because a confident person does not entertain the bad math that says they can only be sure if others are not. They are willing to embrace or at least hear out opposing views and learn from them because they understand the value of such views inspiring and challenging them. An insecure person is a destabilized person before they even get to you. They have already been threatened by someone or some idea or thought or action and then you come along with your opinions and your faith and your whatever and you bring it all back, all the bad they’re trying to hide. It comes back, right to the fore.

Basically: people aren’t mean for no reason. That’s simplistic, but it’s true. The jerk hits back because they’ve already been hit. They need to say, for example, “Grow up and end your magical thinking” because in some way it will make them feel better and whole again. They think it will, anyway.

I think I know a better way.

*Science may not have an answer for everything, but even as a person of faith I do believe that the answer to everything is science. There’s not really any such thing as magic. There is only the principles and the order of the universe, some of which we’ve discovered. God is a person who understands those principles and orders to a greater degree than we are currently capable, and He does his best to help us operate within them for the best result. That’s what we call religion.

**None of which is to say the reverse cannot be–and just as often is–true. People of faith can be jerks, too. They can look down on those who don’t share their faith and it’s just as bad. It’s just not the angle this particular blog is coming from.

15 Years Ago Today

A still from the segment on "Rescue 911" that featured Dad's story

Today marks the 15th Anniversary of my father’s death. This is insane because I was 19-years-old when he died. (I’ll wait while you do the math.) I’m fast approaching a time when it will be longer since he’s been gone than the time I had with him. And yet, in a lot of ways, it feels like his death was just last week.

Coincidentally, I wrapped up my latest revision of the manuscript for my memoir today. (I’m not yet ready to talk about WHY I did another revision, but suffice it to say that this is a significant day for more than one reason.) The one passage I think I’ve struggled with the most over the course of my many, many rewrites hasbeen the one where I describe my thoughts and feelings immediately after finding out Dad had been killed.

For those of you that remain unaware (and, as often as I freely talk about it, that’s almost hard to believe), my father was killed in an armed robbery at his store 8 years after surviving a previous armed robbery. At the same store. Sometimes, lightning does strike twice. (Especially if you sell guns.)

Getting down on paper the various odd, monumental, despairing, uplifting, cynical, hateful, joyful and, ultimately, peaceful things that went through my head that night has just been an absolutely huge challenge. How do you take people on that journey with you? What words could possibly communicate those feelings? It helps that my memory of that night is about as clear as any memory I have, but still… it’s been a challenge.

I was in a unique situation when it happened. I hadn’t actually seen him in the flesh for 10 months.  I was serving as a missionary in Arizona, off in my own little world of cacti, no grass and a big, hot sun. When the call came in, I had just gotten home from a long day of knocking on doors and riding my bike and looking ridiculous with my helmet and tie ensemble. I couldn’t have been more shocked by the news–nor less surprised.

Dad always said he was going to die relatively young. He insisted he wouldn’t get to see all of his sons reach maturity. I’m the oldest of my four brothers and the youngest of us when he died was 9. (Hi, Tyler.) Everybody thinks bad things happen to other people. I grew up thinking we were the other people. It was kinda true. That’s a lot of what the book is about–what Dad knew and how that changed the way I saw the world and how much of a gift it was when he was finally taken from us. A bad thing does not always equal “a bad thing.”

There’s a hope and a responsibility that comes with knowing, and I’m glad Dad had the wisdom to tell us what was coming. My life hasn’t been the same since, but I can’t honestly say it’s been for the worse. Dad’s death marked a moment in my life when I stopped being who I was and became someone else entirely. We don’t get many moments like that, but when they come–however they come–they are an opportunity, I think. To grow, to change, to reassess, to gain empathy and understanding and experience. I hope I’ve taken advantage of that opportunity fully. I think that’s pretty much the point to life in general.

I’ll go visit his gravesite later today. I know he’s not there, but that’s as good a place as any to reflect and remember. And to be grateful.