Towards An Ethic of Decency

“Film director Scott Derrickson noted recently that things such as racism and misogyny are in our American DNA. It’s worse than that. It’s in our human DNA. That’s not pessimism. That’s good theology…Untaught, unrestrained, unaddressed, and well fed it will grow into a cancer that will consume us. What is needed is a community of ordinary men and women embracing a contrary ethic, an ethic of decency…” Randy Greenwald, Somber and Dull

The other night, I went for an evening walk in my neighborhood.

For context, I’ll tell you that the first week I lived here, someone was murdered less than a block from my apartment. One night, also in that first week, shots were fired kitty-corner from the Casey’s that sits next door. In other words, my neighborhood isn’t considered the best area of town.

Still, having lived in an even sketchier neighborhood in Minneapolis (where my friend Kathe often worried that I might be the anonymous victim discussed on that morning’s news), I wasn’t particularly concerned for my personal safety. However, in the year I’ve lived here, I’ve spent very little time actually out and about experiencing my neighborhood. Which makes me sad, since I believe that neighborhoods are important building blocks of community, no matter where we live.

Which brings me back to my evening walk the other night. It was still early, only about 6:30 p.m., but in late October that means dusk is quickly giving way to full dark. As I stepped outside my apartment and started walking down the street, I noted activity – children playing in front yards, adults in cars pulling into driveways, finally home from the day’s work. Every dog in the area seemed to be outside and barking. It all felt a bit alien to me – like I was just a visitor passing through, someone who didn’t quite belong here. After all, I didn’t know who any of these people were. Like an involuntary reflex, I felt myself hunching up, alert to any sign of possible danger.

Not quite a full block into my walk, I glanced up to see a man sitting with a small child on the steps of their porch. I said hello, and the man responded, “Nice evening, isn’t it?” And then, as I continued past, he said, “Excuse me. Don’t you work at the university?”

I stopped, and we chatted briefly – exchanged names, brief bios related to our mutual connection to the school where I once worked. As I continued on my walk, I chuckled to myself: I had been recognized. And just like that, the internal narrative that I had been spinning in my head (that I didn’t belong and, therefore, might not be safe on these streets) came to an abrupt halt. I continued, less inclined to see signs of the sinister everywhere I looked – in spite of the gruesome Halloween decorations in many yards (and the scent of marijuana smoke wafting out of an open window).

Later, as I thought about my walk, and how quickly my experience flipped from the alienation of stranger to the groundedness of belonging, I couldn’t help but see it as a metaphor for much of what has been troubling me throughout the past two years of political wrangling in America. We have focused so much on The Other – and the ways that other poses a threat to us, somehow – that we’ve forgotten to put our focus where it truly belongs: on the ways our choices make US the other. I’ve spent very little time thinking about the ways MY behaviors create division, reveal an uncharitable heart, even pose a perceived threat to my neighbors.

I can’t help thinking about the immediate assumption I made, as I walked out into my neighborhood, that if anyone was at risk that night it was I. The fear I felt led to a readiness to catalog my neighbors as physically dangerous to me. As I write this, I compare my experience with the photo I can’t get out of my head of a man at a political rally, wearing a t-shirt calling Hillary Clinton a nasty four-letter word beginning with “C”. (I’m not claiming that Clinton supporters haven’t said bad things about Trump, though I’m hard-pressed to come up with an equally nasty word that could be lobbed at a male candidate.) Clearly, the man in that photo thinks of Clinton as OTHER. Clearly, that allows him to respond to her in a particularly dehumanizing way. Sure, his language choice is one I would never make – but is his visceral response to “the other” all that different from mine? Fear? Anger? Blame? Yep, all there in me, and I would guess in him.

Over on his blog, Somber and Dull, pastor Randy Greenwald has been musing on decency. The quote, above, speaks very directly to what I’ve been thinking about. (I hope Randy will forgive my edit; the emphasis in bold/italics is mine). My theology and Randy’s might differ somewhat; whether in our DNA or in our cultural conditioning, the fact that we each carry a shadow within us is undeniable. That shadow can take many forms, misogyny and racism being two of particular note recently.

We are called by our humanity, and/or by our faith in a loving Creator, to see and address that shadow, to combat its negative expression and impact on our world. I can’t help but echo Randy’s call for an ethic of decency. But the ordinary woman I am calling to this ethic is me. I have to confront my own tendency to cast my fellow humans, citizens, neighbors as “other”. I have to confront my urge to be judgmental, to demonize, to dehumanize – even as I speak against behaviors or political realities that I find troubling. I must remember the community I hope to create, even as I walk down unfamiliar streets, or find myself in emotional spaces of fear or anger. Embracing an ethic of decency, it turns out, is often difficult in the face of today’s world. But I believe it is worth striving to do.

As much as we need a prosperous economy, we also need a prosperity of kindness and decency.   — Caroline Kennedy


(If you are looking for a decent blog to follow, written by a truly decent man, please check out Somber and Dull by Randy Greenwald, link above. Randy is neither somber nor dull, the blog’s title is a joking homage to one of his favorite books!)


Three little words…

I attended an event tonight recognizing 40 leaders in our community who are under 40 years of age. Four of the award recipients were my former students and current friends. It was such a moment of genuine delight for me to see each one recognized for their hard work, dedication and commitment to others.

Each award recipient was introduced with a brief bio, after which he or she was allowed to give a speech. The only hitch was that each was allotted three words for the speech. Well, three free words. Any number of words above three cost the speaker a per-word fee of $50. The funds raised hopefully went to a good cause, but the word limit also served the purpose of keeping an event at which there were 40 honorees from becoming obnoxiously long.

There were many clever three word speeches given. One woman generously used her words to share the important news “1 – 0, Cubs”. Another carried her drink onstage, pointed to herself and said, “Single!” After the laughter died down, she lifted her glass and completed her speech with the words, “Bottoms up!” Many in the audience were moved when my friend Nate, carrying his adorable daughter, stepped up to the mic and declared, “Adoption changes lives.”

Words are so powerful that three tiny little ones can convey a multitude of meanings, reveal unexpected layers and depth. I will never accept the lie, being promulgated all over the place these days, that something is “just words” and, therefore, doesn’t really matter.

Which brings me to a moment tonight when I made my own three word speech.

In the nearly 17 months I’ve been back in this city there are a number of people I haven’t gotten together with. Not because I don’t care about them, but because I haven’t felt right within myself – stressed and anxious and sometimes on the snarky side. This is an old (if not particularly positive) coping mechanism of mine – avoidance. I hole up at home and don’t make an effort to connect. At first, it feels ok. But the longer the period of time that elapses without connection between me and these friends, the harder it is to reach out, to cross that divide.

Anyway, as several of us stood chatting during the pre-dinner reception, an old friend joined us. When I moved to Minneapolis, it seemed that every time I had a particularly hard or bad day, encouraging mail from this friend would miraculously arrive. My particular favorite was a drawing she made of me as a superhero named “Captain Tenacity”. Honestly, her missives were so supportive and timely, they truly buoyed me up and gave me new strength. Many times I wished to thank her in person, to express how much her encouragement meant to me.

Instead, I had not seen or spoken to her since returning to town.

We greeted one another with hugs and smiles. I was faced with a choice – behave as if it was no big deal that we had been in the same city all this time without seeing one another, or apologize for being a lousy friend. Both felt very uncomfortable. But that drawing of Captain Tenacity popped into my mind, and I was overcome with the emotional memory of how much it had meant to me. I couldn’t just let this opportunity to finally say something pass.

I hugged her again, and as I did so, I said, “I am ashamed.”

Listen, I can’t say what impact those three words, or the explanation and conversation that followed, will have on our friendship. This all happened just a few short hours ago. What I can share, what I already do know, is how powerful those three words were for me. Holding them in, and holding on to the emotion that inspired them was toxic. Expressing my shame and remorse, owning those feelings, robs them of their power to hold me back.

I’m so glad I let them out, even if a cocktail reception filled with local leaders might not have been the ideal location. Words are important. If you have some hanging out inside you that need to be said, I urge you to use them. Just don’t underestimate how powerful they can be.





In Retrograde…

“Is something in retrograde? I feel like something is in retrograde…”

“…there’s a full moon coming on.”

“That’s gotta be it. Do you feel it too?”

“Yes! wth?”

“OMG, I have been having terrible nightmares all week, and I usually don’t have nightmares.”

“Ok. Its a collective wth…that feels better.”


I chuckled as I read the thread, above, on my FB news feed earlier this week. I might not have described what I was feeling in such astrological terms, but I knew what these women were talking about: something feels out of whack, not right, unsettling. I’ve been feeling it myself. And yes, there is some comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in what I feel.

On a whim, I looked up the word retrograde and found this definition:

1. directed or moving backward.

2. a degenerate person.

3. go back in position or time.

4. astronomy: show retrogradation

Seeing the actual definition of “retrograde” made so much sense to me. Given what has been playing out on our national stage, is it any surprise that many, if not all, of us would be asking “what the hell?”

Especially women. *

At the top of the Republican ticket we have an unscrupulous liar and cheat who also, it comes as no surprise, feels entitled to engage in sexual aggression any time he is confronted with a beautiful woman. And possibly 13 year olds – though that rape case is still in the courts and has yet to be decided.

At the top of the Democratic ticket, we have a woman whose life of dedicated public service (NOT mistake-free by any means) has often been overshadowed by the fact of her marriage to yet another sexual aggressor. That her opponent(s) wish to cast her in the role of responsibility for “enabling” her adult husband’s choices compounds the sexism of the discourse exponentially.

Clearly, “degenerate persons” abound in the week’s news. Adding to the atmosphere of retrograde (or moving backward in position or time) is the response to a news report suggesting that if women were not allowed to vote, Trump would win: his supporters began calling for #repealthe19th. Yep, let’s fix our political problems by taking away women’s right to vote. Shut the women up and we no longer have a problem.

This week feels retrograde as hell.

I remember the women’s movement of the 70’s, you see. I remember women fighting to be taken seriously, fighting for their voices. I remember the put-downs being resurrected all over social media this week. I knew then that the women fighting for their own lives, and those of other women, were fighting a battle in a war that stretches back into the far reaches of human history.

I remember being told to “lighten up”, to see that some people are just saying these things to be funny, or just engaging in “locker room talk”  (why would that be considered an acceptable excuse?).

I remember being told to shut up because I was a girl.

I also remember the many times I have personally experienced sexual aggression – sometimes it has been significant and dangerous, other times what might be called micro-aggressions. And I am so normal – I am NOT an outlier in any way. Except, perhaps, that I have never experienced the level of direct violence that so many of my sisters have. (If you don’t believe me that my experiences are normal, check out the Twitter hastags #NotOkay and #YesAllWomen)

These things pissed me off back in the 70’s, when I was in junior high. But that’s nothing compared to how angry they make me now.

Here’s what I have to say to Trump (and Bill too) and all of their apologists: go grope YOURSELVES.

Leave Hillary (and the rest of us) out of it.

My right to vote is not a joke – you better believe that I, and most of the women I know, plan to take it very seriously come November.


*Which isn’t to say that there aren’t other groups feeling the backward movement of our political and social milieu right now – and feeling it keenly. The spotlight just happens to be on gender politics this week.







When I worked in Residence Life on a college campus, I learned never to say things like, “Wow, it’s been a quiet weekend so far…” because, inevitably, the very next thing that happened was all hell broke loose.

Earlier this week, I was chatting with my friend, Molly. Part of our conversation went something like this:

Molly:  You’ve been writing your blog a long time. You’ve never missed a Thursday, have you?

Me: Maybe once, but I don’t think so. For some reason, it is the one discipline I’ve really been able to stick with in my life.

Argh! Why did I say that? I should have known better!

So, of course, here’s what happend:

Last night, as I parked my car at home after work, I realized that I felt lousy. My body was full of aches and pains, my head hurt, and I just wanted to curl up in a fluffy blanket. Wednesday evenings, I usually get at least a solid start on my blog entry, but I decided to wait until morning.

This morning, I got up early to work on my blog post, even though I had planned to start the day later than usual (my colleagues and I spent the day doing post-flood service for a local nonprofit). I started three separate pieces: one on the difference between feelings and facts; one on the reason I’ve moved most of my political comments on social media to Twitter; and one comparing our current cultural milieu with The Hunger Games. None of them really gelled – for which we are all, probably, grateful.

Suddenly, it was time for me to leave home and I had no piece to post. I told myself I would be home early, and would just post in the late-afternoon.

Unfortunately, I was in pretty bad shape when I got home, after a day of hard physical labor (sandbags are heavy suckers). Even my fingernails hurt. I feel sheepish saying this, considering the heroic sandbagging efforts undertaken by so many of my fellow Cedar Rapidians in the past two weeks. But there you have it. I cashed out for a couple of hours with a heating pad tied across my shoulders.

When I was next capable of coherent thought, I sat again at my computer to write today’s blog post. The most coherent thought I had was, “I can’t think of anything to write.”

After two hours, I finally realized that I had jinxed myself when talking with Molly. Why oh why did I not at least knock on wood after I made such a fate-tempting comment?