That’s How the Light Gets In

 

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

A long list of losses define 2016—nationally for progressives with an election that proves ever more ominous as the president-elect appoints people on the extremes of issues. All kinds of communities: LGBT, African-Americans, Muslims, immigrants, government workers, women and others are facing new fears and harassment. The country seems more divided than ever.

Leonard Cohen, Canadian poet, songwriter and singer, died on November 7. Beloved by many, his music and lyrics live on. The above is the chorus from Anthem, one of my favorites, and these lines speak to me of the particular hard space we find ourselves in at the end of this tumultuous year.

The most important question to me is how we heal the wounds between Republicans and Democrats—and stop demonizing each other. Cohen’s line “forget your perfect offering” speaks to me again about the value of mistakes. My students in prison taught me that nothing is perfect. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes.There is a crack in everything. Everyone suffers and feels some brokenness. Everyone feels vulnerable. But, that is how we find our common humanity. Dialogue means that we listen, acknowledge, and respect not only our differences, but each others’ vulnerabilities. If we reveal ourselves to each other—our hopes and fears, our hurts and vulnerabilities, it should not be impossible to stand on common ground—even make new friends. We could start with working together on projects that matter to everyone.

I am taking heart from all the people fighting the pipeline at Standing Rock in North Dakota. I am so impressed by  the number of veterans who have shown up to provide support and by the perseverance of all the people who endure the cold and provide solidarity. Louise Erdrich, Native American author and activist, wrote this piece in the New York Times on December 11: How to Stop a Black Snake.  She says we need to form new coalitions, become more powerful together and realize that we must fight for our land, our water and this “precious democracy.” If any group knows about long struggles simply to survive it is Native Americans. They’re not trying to be perfect. They know there are cracks in the world, and they also know they need to reach out in love, not hate. That’s how the light gets in.

Living from the Inside Out

Parker Palmer became my North Star as I read and re-read his  books about education.  His wisdom, clarity and compassion kept me focused. This June, as I remember the absolute joy of our prison graduation ceremonies, his commencement address is the best I have ever read, speaking not only to graduates, but to the current chaos and concerns in our politics.

 

Living From the Inside Out

In May, 2015, I gave the commencement address at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Founded in 1974 by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, Naropa merges Western scholarship with Eastern wisdom in a context of contemplative practice. I was grateful for a chance to welcome the Class of 2015 to a world in deep need of their competence and compassion. In this season of graduations, I wanted to share my talk with you.


I have two modest graduation gifts for the Class of 2015. The first is a six brief suggestions about the road ahead of you. The second is a promise to stop talking in about twelve minutes so you can get on that road sooner rather than later!

My first suggestion is simple: Be reckless when it comes to affairs of the heart.

Now, before someone thinks I’m trying to corrupt America’s youth, what I mean is fall madly in love with life! Be passionate about some part of the natural and/or human worlds, and take risks on its behalf, no matter how vulnerable they make you. No one ever died saying, “I’m so glad for the self-centered, self-serving, and self-protective life I lived.” Offer yourself to the world — your energies, your gifts, your visions, your spirit — with open-hearted generosity.

But understand that when you live this way, you will soon learn how little you know and how easy it is to fail. To grow in love and service, you must value ignorance as much as knowledge and failure as much as success. This is ironic advice on a day when we celebrate your success at passing a rigorous test of your knowledge! But clinging to what you already know is the path to an unlived life. So cultivate beginner’s mind, walk straight into your not-knowing, and take the risk of failing and falling, again and again — then getting up to learn again and again. That’s the path to a life lived large in service of love, truth, and justice.

Second, as you integrate ignorance and failure into your knowledge and success, do the same with all the alien parts of yourself.

Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to your shadow side: let your altruism meet your egotism, your generosity meet your greed, your joy meet your grief. Everyone has a shadow: even Buddhists, even Quakers, even high-minded people like us. Especially high-minded people like us! But when you are able to say, “I am all of the above, my shadow as well as my light,” the shadow’s power is put in service of the good. Wholeness is the goal, but wholeness does not mean perfection — it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. As a person who has made three deep-dives into depressionalong the way, I don’t speak lightly of this. I simply know it is true.

As you acknowledge and embrace all that you are, you give yourself a gift that will benefit the rest of us as well. Our world is in desperate need of leaders who live what Socrates called “an examined life.” In critical areas like politics, religion, business, and mass media, too many leaders refuse to name and claim their shadow side because they don’t want to look weak. With shadows that go unexamined and unchecked, they use their power heedlessly in ways that harm countless people and undermine public trust in our major institutions. If you value self-knowledge, you will become the leaders we need to help renew this society. But if, for some reason, you choose to live an unexamined life, I beg of you: Do not take a job that involves other people!

Third, as you welcome whatever you find alien within yourself, extend that same welcome to whatever you find alien in the outer world.

I don’t know any virtue more important these days than hospitality to the stranger, to those we perceive as “other” than us.

The old majority in this society — people who look like me — is on its way out. By 2045, the majority of Americans will be people of color. Many in the old majority fear that fact. And their fear, shamelessly manipulated by too many politicians, is bringing us down. The renewal this nation needs will not come from people who are afraid of “otherness” in race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. Because of that fear, our once-vital society is gridlocked and stagnant — and our main hope for renewal is diversity welcomed and embraced.

I recently met a professor who left a predominantly white college to teach undocumented youth in Southern California. When I asked him how it was going, he said, “Best move I ever made. My previous students felt entitled and demanded to be entertained. My undocumented students are hungry to learn, hard-working, and courageous enough to keep moving out of their comfort zones.”

America will be renewed by people with those qualities. And if we who have privilege and power will welcome them, collaborate with them, and help remove the obstacles in their way, 2045 will be a year of promise for all of us.

Fourth, take on big jobs worth doing, jobs like the spread of love, peace, and justice.

That means refusing to be seduced by our cultural obsession with being effective as measured by short-term results. We all want our work to make a difference, of course. But if we take on the big jobs and our only measure of success is next quarter’s bottom line, we’ll end up disappointed, dropping out, and in despair.

Think of someone you respect because he or she lived a life devoted to high values: a Rosa Parks, a Nelson Mandela, or someone known only to a few. At the end of the road, was that person able to say, “I’m sure glad I took on that job because now everyone can check it off their to-do lists”? No, our heroes take on impossible jobs and stay with them for the long haul because they live by a standard that trumps effectiveness. The name of that standard is “faithfulness” — faithfulness to your gifts, to the needs of the world, and to offering your gifts to whatever needs are within your reach.

The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness, the smaller the tasks we’ll take on, because they are the only ones that get short-term results. Public education is a tragic example. We no longer care about educating children — a big job that’s never done. We care only about getting kids to pass tests with measurable results — whether or not they measure what matters. In the process, we’re crushing the spirits of a lot of good teachers and vulnerable kids.

Care about being effective, of course. But care even more about being faithful, as countless teachers do — faithful to your calling and to the true needs of those entrusted to your care. You won’t get the big jobs done in your lifetime. But if, at the end of the day, you can say, “I was faithful,” you’ll be okay.

Fifth, since suffering as well as joy comes with being human, I urge you to remember this: Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.

Sometimes we aim that violence at ourselves — as in overwork that leads to burnout and worse, or in the many forms of substance abuse. Sometimes we aim that violence at other people — racism, sexism and homophobia often come from people trying to relieve their suffering by claiming superiority over others.

The good news is that suffering can be transformed into something that brings life, not death. It happens every day. I know many people who’ve suffered the loss of the dearest person in their lives. At first, they go into deep grief, certain that their lives will never again be worth living. But then they slowly awaken to the fact that — not in spite of their loss but because of it — they’ve become bigger, more compassionate people, with more capacity of heart to take in other people’s sorrows and joys.

These are broken-hearted people — but their hearts have been broken open rather than broken apart. So every day, exercise your heart by taking in life’s pains and joys. That kind of exercise will make your heart supple, so that when it breaks — which it surely will — it will break not into a fragment grenade, but into a greater capacity for love.

Sixth and finally, I quote St. Benedict — not a Buddhist or a Quaker, but still worth quoting! — who said, “Daily keep your death before your eyes.”

That may sound like a morbid practice, but I assure you it isn’t. If you hold a healthy awareness of your own mortality, your eyes will be opened to the grandeur and glory of life. And that will evoke all of the virtues I’ve named, as well as those I haven’t, such as hope, generosity, and gratitude.

If the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s equally true that the unlived life is not worth examining. So I’ll close with this brief quote from the writer Diane Ackerman who reminds us to live — truly live — our lives:

“The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day. Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length. It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.”

Once again, a deep bow to the Class of 2015. To each and every one of you, traveling mercies and blessings as you make the journey from one mystery to the next and the next and the next!

 

Messing Up

 

Messing Up

At the end of one of my school years, my staff was invited to a dinner and program featuring Chick Moorman, who has written wonderfully useful books on teaching and parenting, including Spirit Whisperers: Teachers Who Nourish a Child’s Spirit and Parent Talk: How to Talk to Your Children in Language That Builds Self-Esteem and Encourages Responsibility. Moorman talked about mistakes and their usefulness. He advised teachers to ask, “Who made a good mistake?” which he defined as one we learn from. My students in prison, who returned to school as adults after years away, often voiced their concerns about “messing up.” These were people intimately aware of the mistakes they’d made, including dropping out of school, and I sensed that asking about good mistakes was a new and healthier way to deal with their worry about being able to do the work. I heard “messing up” all the time, but their confidence grew and their anxiety lessened, especially about taking tests, when we discussed good mistakes.

I heard a lot of negative statements about prisoners from people who had never talked to or known anyone who had been incarcerated. This one annoyed me: “They all claim they’re innocent.” In all the years that I taught, I never heard this. I heard a lot about being convicted on conspiracy charges; I heard a lot about the injustice of the war on drugs. I heard a lot about the police and the way they broke the laws. My students as a group were remarkably honest. More than one said, “I caught a case and I didn’t do it, but I did other things I didn’t get arrested for.”

We all mess up, all the time. As I wrote in my last blog, we all break the law. But, not everyone takes responsibility or even admits they’ve made mistakes. In a recent commencement speech Justice Sonia Sotomayor told graduates that we can learn more from our not-so-good experiences that we can from our good ones.

In the current political discussions (which seem at this point to be unending), the Great Blame and Shame Game is on—in full force. Candidates are constantly pointing their fingers at rivals to attack their opponents’ mistakes. But, rarely do they admit their own. To do so, would make them even more vulnerable to being blamed. Part of the American culture doesn’t seem to value looking at our own mistakes, making apologies that repair relationships, and making amends to people who’ve been hurt. Too many people working in the criminal justice system are all about meting out punishment for those who make mistakes—and very bad at not examining their own carelessness, missteps and often devastating failures in carrying out justice.  Paying for Years Lost Behind Bars illustrates a terrible wrong. Using the example of Glenn Ford, who served thirty years for a murder he did not commit, the article says he was freed in 2014 but died of lung cancer that was not treated while he was incarcerated. Neither he nor his family was compensated for the state’s mistakes. “Marty” Stroud, who was the prosecutor who sent Ford to prison, did apologize. His moving letter is found here: Lead Prosecutor Offers Apology I hope Stroud’s courage gives other people the room and permission to admit their own failings. In some capital cases, people’s lives are at stake.

Taking responsibility for messing up isn’t easy, but doing it lessens the grip and sting. It helps everyone move forward. Sotomayor said, “The ‘uh-oh’ moments are worth cherishing just as much as ‘ah-ha” moments: Mistakes, failures, embarrassments and disappointments are a necessary component of growing wise.” 1 One of my thoughtful students said quietly one day, “When I am pointing my fingers at other people and criticizing them, I make myself think about me. Often what I’m criticizing is really how badly I’m feeling about myself.” Great wisdom comes from courageous prosecutors, from Supreme Court justices, and it also often comes from people in the margins, from people we cast out away from us. It would be so much better for all of us if more people in power learned these lessons.

1. Kim Bellware, “Sonia Sotomayor Tells Grads to Embrace the Awful ‘Uh-Oh’ Moments,” Huffpost Politics, May 22, 2016.

A Father’s Restorative Justice

When I first read my friend Ron Simpson-Bey’s article, My Son’s 14-year-old Killer Deserved a Second Chance, it took my breath away. It is one thing to work for and advocate restorative justice for strangers, but it is quite another to want to give your son’s killer another chance. I was moved by several ideas put forth in his  article: the power of forgiveness and the good that comes when “victims,” are brought into the justice process; where he says we don’t make out communities safer by artificial lines between “victims” and “offenders;” and his emphasis on teenagers as children, not adults. The article makes me think about how white privilege makes many of us unaware of how so many families and communities of color are unheard and unconsidered every day. I am privileged to share Ron’s thoughts—as yet another Father’s Day approaches. I have included the full text of the article as it was published in The Root, below.


My Son’s 14-Year Old Killer Deserved a Second Chance

We don’t make our communities safer by creating artificial lines between “victims” and “offenders.” That’s why I advocated for fair treatment for the teen who killed my son, and why we must insist on it for all children of color in the criminal-justice system.

By: Ronald D. Simpson-Bey | Published June 11, 2014

My only son, Ronald D. Simpson III, was murdered on Father’s Day 13 years ago. Ronald was 21. His killer was a 14-year old boy.

We were devastated, as any parents would have been. Despite this, my son’s mother and I did not want our son’s killer to spend the rest of his life in prison. We don’t believe in the concept of an eye for an eye. We also did not want to compound an already bad situation by taking another child away from his family and community forever.

We recognize that even though he committed a horrible crime, the boy who killed our son was still a child. We wanted him to be processed in the juvenile system, which was set up specifically for children. We wanted him tried there and held there after his conviction to prepare him for release. The judge granted our wishes. The young teen was sentenced in juvenile court and told that he would be released at age 21 if he met the requirements of the court and demonstrated his rehabilitation. He succeeded and was released.

We were fortunate that we dealt with a prosecutor and judge who were willing to consider our wishes. As evidenced by the growing national support for restorative-justice programs, my family’s perspective is certainly not unique. The residents of the communities that are most impacted by both violence committed by young people and extreme sentences often recognize that we don’t make our communities safe by creating artificial lines between “victims” and “offenders.” We know that many of the children accused of crime have themselves been victims of violence, neglect, poverty, inadequate schools and failing social services. In addition, many of our families are suffering after having lost some members to violent crime and others to jail.

But too often, the voices of poor people and people of color are silenced on these issues. Prosecutors and others in the criminal and criminal-justice systems are far more likely to prioritize the perspectives of individuals from wealthier, whiter communities. The only victims who are considered legitimate are those who are in lockstep with prosecutors looking to implement the harshest penalties possible. Victim services, financial resources and other types of support are often meted out accordingly.

Research had proved what parents already know: Children are still developing and possess tremendous capacity for change. We also know that they do not have the same capacity as adults to resist pressure from peers and adults, think through the long-term consequences of their actions or remove themselves from dangerous situations.

As we approach Father’s Day, I call on parents and other interested people from these communities to insist on having our voices heard. We must insist that police engage our communities fairly and stop targeting children of color. We must insist on accountability from juries who determine the fate of our young people.

And as states throughout the country reconsider their juvenile sentencing policies, we must insist not only that they eliminate life without parole but also that they replace it with reasonable alternatives that provide young people with a chance to pay for their mistakes and then later have fruitful, fulfilling lives.

Everyone makes mistakes, and all of us—especially children—possess the capacity to change. We are all deserving of forgiveness and a chance to begin anew. This is a basic tenet of virtually every faith tradition, and one of the founding principles of our great democracy.

The child who killed my son is now a young man. I am not in direct contact with him, but we are forever bonded. My son and his sister had a child together, so my grandson is his nephew.

He has grown into a productive man because he had a second chance, which is all that any of us could want. Together, we can be sure that more young people get the chance they need and deserve.


Ronald D. Simpson-Bey is a program associate for the American Friends Service Committee in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is a co-founder and board member of the organization Chance for Life.

This article was first published in the The Root, which aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by editorial staff.