Foreign Virus, Harvey Weinstein, and What COVID-19 is Teaching Us About Economics in America

I haven’t been able to get the phrase “foreign virus” out of my mind since the President first introduced it into our vernacular last night.

I similarly haven’t been able to get Harvey Weinstein’s well-deserved sentence out of my mind, or the fact that the United States Soccer Federation is using a grossly sexist legal defense to excuse paying female players less than their male counterparts.

And then of course there is the threat (and in some instances the actualization) of school shut-downs due to COVID-19 that will have the unintentional effect of depriving poor children of needed meals and safe spaces. Similarly, this novel pandemic has highlighted the plight of workers without health care or even sick leave. The men and women who go without are faced with losing their jobs or going to work and putting themselves and others at risk. Then there are the teachers who, even with sick leave and health care, continue to show up to work in germ-filled classrooms with Kleenex-filled trashcans and a short supply of hand sanitizer each and every day, despite their personal fears of becoming sick. And let’s not forget to mention congressmen who kill bills that might have eased the economic burden on those who need it the most.

From “foreign virus” to sexism and abuse and back to the virus again, these seemingly disparate things have one very specific thing in common: othering.

It was no mistake that Trump deemed COVID-19 “foreign.” Not because it started in China or because Europe didn’t make a good enough effort to contain the virus, but rather because it is inflammatory, self-protecting, and accusatory. If we—Americans—become ill, it is only because some other government, some other type or color or differently accented people, immorally allowed a virus to ravage not only its own people, but also ours. Economic and physical harms arising from this will continue to be laid at the feet of the other, even as Dr. Anthony Fauci says America is failing to appropriately address this pandemic.

Harvey Weinstein preyed upon women who went to him looking for work, for mentorship, for help in a cutthroat profession where women are already expected to acquiesce to nude scenes and subject themselves to playing roles that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. These women—like the female soccer players who are accused of not working as hard as or having the inherent physical talent of male players—apparently needed to pay their dues somehow and Weinstein found a way. Under these standards, the female body, whether as an athlete or sexual being, is no match for the prowess of men. Women are “other,” and in being so are less than.

But of course, that’s almost always the case.

It is the “other,” those who are “less than,” whose economic plight many are just now realizing as COVID-19 is sweeping our nation, bringing certain hardships into common conversation. It’s easy to see only the “top layer” of a story, but underneath there is always so much more. The plight of low-wage workers, food insecure kids, the homeless, and the chronically ill goes on each and every day, not just this particular moment in history. Sick leave, health care, child care, living wages; they are always relevant.

We live in a nation built on “othering.” There are moments in time that make that othering obvious, bring it to the forefront of public consciousness. But a Facebook meme showing white people in traditional Chinese garb holding a giant bottle of Corona is not a novel type of humor. The abuse Weinstein perpetrated upon women happens at every economic level and largely without public scrutiny or discussion. Women at all professions, not just professional athletes, continue to be underpaid, and the poor tend to remain that way.

Gratefully, a small but mighty portion of Americans wage a daily war against the disease of othering, though usually in ways that are underfunded, overworked, and underpaid. And as we too often do in important work sectors (such as education), we tend to push those in the trenches of this war into their own economic insecurity. Of course, with a president who continues to create new columns in which we can place those “different” than us, nationally televising and normalizing xenophobia, I think it’s safe to say these war wagers will not soon be out of a job.

The Problem with a Woman’s ‘No’

Like most women I know, I am a woman who “does things.” Whether in the church, classroom, or community, I volunteer for activities and events because I enjoy doing them.

The problem with this (one of a few) is that once a woman gains a reputation of saying yes to things, even more requests for stepping up come her way. There is some good that comes with that, but also some bad. The requests begin to broaden in scope until they encompass unenjoyable, un-called-to things. They also begin to pile up, as two hours of help turn to three, then ten, and before you know it, a whole month has gone by. Sleep is lost, kids ignored, husbands relegated to last in line for attention. Nutrition and exercise fall to the wayside, and, perhaps, stress begins to manifest in physical ways.

Hence the market for self-help books teaching women the seemingly-easy skill of saying no. There are actually books—plural!—that contain hundreds of pages explaining how “no” is a word women shouldn’t be afraid to say. Those two little letters, that tiny package of a word, is truly a linguistic barrier to a happier, healthier life. If we women who “do” things could just learn no’s value, the books claim, we could better live into our actual calling, better love ourselves, our husbands, and our children. But wait! There’s more! We also wouldn’t lose friends, professional opportunities, important roles in the community, or any of those other things we’re afraid of losing should our yesses stop coming.

It isn’t just books: Pastors give this advice. Therapists. Friends. TV doctors with good intentions. And I agree with them: no-saying is a necessary skill for those of us living in a world with too high expectations and too few people to fill the roles we’ve spontaneously created then deemed essential.

But knowing intellectually that we should balance our yesses with a handful of nos is one thing; putting it into play is another.

It’s hard to step back and let something fail, go fallow, or not be done to our personal specifications. It’s even harder to let go of things that fulfill us, that intellectually stimulate us, that give us more to talk about over dinner than laundry and homework. But sometimes there are reasons we must say no, even if we’re left not just with more family and “me” time on our hands, but also with isolation, unpracticed talents, unstimulated minds, and deep sadness.

A couple of years ago I was really sick. Like go-to-the-hospital-bi-weekly sick. In that two-year season I posted on this blog a grand total of FOUR TIMES. I couldn’t even write while at home in my PJs sipping cocoa! I was living off prednisone and even with that most hated of the best loved drugs propping me up, I still just couldn’t go on being someone who “did” things.

So my husband and I decided it was time I just said no.

I emailed heads of boards and bowed out of roles. I spoke for hours, days, years it seems, with my (very supportive and understanding) pastor about church roles I could no longer fill. I let folks at my children’s school think I’d fallen off the edge of the world. I rejected clients. I just … stopped.

So I’ve been there, and you can trust me when I say that sometimes saying no is way, way harder than the overburdening of all the yesses combined.

Being out and about in the world I knew without being an integral part of how it ran was devastating. Not because of the loss of control, but because some of us, like me, were created to be in the ranks of those who do. I thrive on the yesses.

But then … it got easy.

Don’t get me wrong—it wasn’t like easy easy. Just … easier. Enjoyable, even. After the boredom and sadness passed, I started to feel better. I went off the prednisone. I had the energy to switch to a vegan diet (one of the top five best decisions I’ve ever made, by the way. Feel free to ask me about it.). I watched TV. Read books. Had an actual conversation with my husband. And then I was able to go off the immunosuppressant medication that kept me living off antibiotics.

Through this I learned that while the yesses might be life-giving, saying no can be lifesaving.

But I’m sad to say I learned another lesson as well.

I learned that the books are wrong. That our well-intentioned friends are wrong. That the TV-doctors and celebrities are wrong. Even our religious leaders are wrong.

The hard truth is that few people want to hear a no.

While many are sympathetic to the need to step back, many are not.

I was told I didn’t care about my church.

I stopped hearing from friends I’d made through shared volunteer activities.

I was excluded from certain conversations and actions I still wanted to be a part of.

I was stunned.

I readily admit it’s true we can’t always have the best of both worlds. In some roles you’re either in or out; there is no in between. It’s also true we can’t expect place holders: we snooze, we lose. And, of course, there’s the issue of reliability: will she or won’t she back out at the last minute?

Showing up is crucial—when one takes on a role or task it’s expected that she will perform it. How, especially after repeated cancellations, can others continue to rely on and trust those who no longer seem reliable? Likely they can trust that the intentions are good, but good intentions never cleaned the church kitchen, taught a Sunday School lesson, or edited a manuscript. You need an actual person for that.

So this isn’t a bright line issue.

There’s a burden on the chronically ill person to know her limitations and establish firm boundaries, even if those boundaries are disappointing. Being on a particular board may be something really relevant, important, and desired, but if all the meetings start at 8pm and you need to be asleep by 8:30pm, then not accepting the board position to begin with is essential.

There are other roles, however, that are more fluid. Roles someone can more easily step into on the fly if needed, roles that can be quickly understood and executed. Roles where a bit of delay won’t actually cause as much of an issue as others might like to think it will.

There is definitely nuance to the conversation.

But the point here isn’t to delve into each possible scenario, rather it’s to bring a hard truth to the surface for conversation: though we are taught, preached to, advised, and counseled that “no” is a viable and even respectable option, the response received to it does not always correlate with that position.

As I write this, I’m wondering if some will think this is a pity party or indictment of my various communities.

I reject both of those notions.

Let me say that I am writing this only because I hope that by bringing a real-life experience to light, those on the receiving end of “nos” may reflect on their own responsibilities as leaders and respond the way we’re taught to believe they will: sympathetically, warmly, and with understanding.

I also hope that by reading this, those who need to take a step back from some responsibilities can go into the process as better-informed decision makers. Are there things you will lose, perhaps long-term? Will some—even those you think of as friends—respond with criticism? Will people second guess you? And worse—will you begin to second guess yourself? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding … maybe.

All this begs the question: should you say no if you don’t feel up to a yes? Yes! And should you say yes if it may sometimes be dotted with nos? Well, yeah, I think you should.

My mentor, who has her own chronic health issues, explained it this way: we don’t forgo our work in this world because of illness. Yet we don’t necessarily need to live it out in times of flares or in ways that push us to the brink. Instead, we establish systems and supports that can be put into place as needed. That is one of the many things community is for, and part of successful ministry is learning to use the strengths of community wisely.

As hard as some things have been post-season-of-nos, it was worth it. I got a significant-if-limited portion of health back, reconnected with my family and myself, and made radical life changes that I will continue to reap the benefits of in the years to come. There is nothing more important than that, even ministry, as we cannot give of ourselves if there’s nothing left to give.

 

 

Laundry Before Laughter: Day 1 of Lent

I’ve been asked a few times what I’m giving up for Lent. When asked that during Ash Wednesday service, I answered with a full and complete answer, but only because I got to write it down, ball it up, then burn it away. Sometimes we want to hide what we’re foregoing, because foregoing it admits that we did the thing we want to stop to begin with.

For the other times I was asked today, I responded with an honest “I don’t know,” because there are the things you give up on a piece of paper soon to be burned, and things you give up that you can say aloud to others. It was the outloud one I’d yet to land on.

There is a tendency, I think, to forgo things like TV, meat, cell phones … the types of things that bind us to worldly ways and impinge upon the parts of life deemed sacred. Family. Friends. Church. Community. The earth.

These things can sound trite on the surface—Christ died on the cross and you’re giving up (insert first-world luxury here)?!?— yet hold deep spiritual meaning for our lives. Do they directly address our mortality? Our sinfulness? Bring us to repentance? For some, they may.

For others, Lent is a time of self-improvement. An opportunity to quit sugar, or caffeine, or cooking-based reality shows so that we may become the healthier, more perfect earthling we think we’re meant to be.

As tempted as I am to focus on improving myself over the next 40 days, I know instead my inward reflection, my Forty-Day Habit of a Highly Effective Person, must go from the inside out. Besides, I really don’t want to give up cooking shows.

Earlier today I posted an article on my church’s private Facebook page regarding the health benefits of friendship. And last Sunday at my church’s annual meeting, we were made aware of a church-wide desire for stronger community and increased fellowship. Not the drink-bad-coffee-together fellowship, but the no-need-to-knock-just-come-on-in type. And today, after a long talk with old friends, I’ve spent a good portion of the afternoon reflecting on friendship or, more specifically, the society-wide, self-imposed lack thereof.

What used to be a rare ascetic practice of withdrawing from society has now become a sought-after daily act, removed from religion and all things spiritual, as we go from car to garage to house, shop without leaving our homes, text instead of talk, work all hours instead of finding time for play. And as much as I like staying in my sweats and ponytail all day, I know that our chosen isolation is harming our neighborhoods, our churches, and even our marriages and kids.

To right this wrong, I may just have to suck it up and put on a pair of jeans.

So in addition to the hidden things I burned to ash today, I have decided to give up complacent community. Complacent friendships. Complacent isolation. What does that mean, you ask? Well, I would argue it means exactly what it sounds like.

I’ve lost friends and family to death and misunderstandings, to long distances and opposing views, and yes, to laissez-faire attitudes towards community and friends. And yet I still too often take for granted the people in my life who bring me joy and better health. To be blunt, I’ve put laundry before laughter for far too long. The time has come for me to own up to that and fix it before it’s too late.

But this isn’t just an issue of living life fully and appreciating what I’ve got before it’s gone. It’s a deeply spiritual matter as well. It is only in community that we can realize our calling and how to live it out. It is our community that affirms—or not—what we think that calling is.

Ministry cannot be realized or fulfilled in isolation.

Our friendships themselves are microcosms of ministry, one to the other, a quid pro quo of the best sort. As we belong to Christ, we belong also to one another. Worship was never intended to be done individually and life was not meant to be lived alone. Our increased physical well-being when living in community bears that out. And in that way, perhaps foregoing complacent community is in fact a habit of highly effective people. Perhaps it is a self-improvement method equivalent to cutting out sugar or screens. But unlike those types of items, the sacrifice of which improves primarily our own health, sacrificing our complacent aloneness might just help us and those around us live a longer, fuller, and happier life.

Intentional Adulting

Having been away from teaching Sunday School for a while due to health reasons, I am THRILLED to finally be back at it. And when I say thrilled, I mean bound-out-of-bed-happy-three-hours-before-church-even-starts kind of thrilled.

Anyone who knows me—virtually or otherwise—knows how much I love children. Put me in a room split into kids and adults and I will always find some reason why I should be in the kid group. I’m pretty sure part of the reason for this is because my own childhood ended too soon when I became a mom at fifteen. Or maybe it’s because I’ve lost a child and through that gained a different (and hopefully uncommon) perspective.

But rather than try to pinpoint it, I think it’s safe to assume it is the sum of various life experiences that has led me to discover and deeply understand the complexity, joy, and needs of childhood, as well as the honor it is to be an adult in a child’s life.

But let me be clear: children are not amazing because they are commodities. They aren’t amazing because they’re our future. They aren’t special because they may some day cure cancer or put a person on Mars or any of the other feats we all mention when looking into a child’s potential future. We make the mistake of defaulting to these ideas as well as descriptors such as  “innocent” and “joyful” because there are simply no words, or at least none I know, that can truly embody the essence of what makes children so special.

I stand in awe daily at the privilege it is to be in a child’s life, even if briefly. Every single interaction adults have with children is an opportunity to shape who they are, who they will become. How that child will parent, be called into God’s work, be a friend or a spouse or a random person passed on the street whose smile brightens a stranger’s day. Let that truth sit for a while until its enormity hits you.

That is huge and, frankly, overwhelming.

The collective “we” never know what might stick with a child forever and always, for good or for bad. We might never recognize that one off-hand comment that spirals their self-esteem, convinces them to be an astronaut, makes them feel they have failed everyone and everything, leads them to God.

That’s a lot of pressure. I don’t recommend thinking about it all the time; it’s too big a yoke to bear. But truthfully, it is our yoke. Not thinking about it all the time is one thing; never thinking about it is another. Perhaps adults should spend a few minutes each day reflecting on the fact that every word, action, or inaction that comes from our being shapes the children around us. Those mere few minutes should be more than enough to bring us to a place of intentionality in how we “adult,” at least most of the time.

I readily admit that I do get frustrated with my children. I’ve even met a couple of kids I didn’t like. And I am far from consistently intentional. That is my very human failure I attempt daily to rise above, but sadly too often fail. But my emphatic hope and prayer is that I live a life reflective of my privilege and responsibility as a shaper of human beings.

It is an awe-inspiring wonder that our system of human existence relies so heavily upon generational influence. That is no mistake, but rather the hand of the divine at play. My actions shape the small beings who live in my house or attend my Sunday School class or stand behind me in line at the store. Knowing that brings out the best in me which, in turn, brings out the best in others. Not always. Not perfectly. But some.

So take it seriously, folks. As frustrating and runny-nosed and loud and chaotic and time- and energy-sucking as they are, children deserve and need the best from us. And in the amazingly perfect symbiosis of our universe, when we give them our best, we too, get the best in return.

Fiona Hill’s Defense of Women

Democrat, republican, or a member of the who-gives-a-damn party, anyone watching Dr. Fiona Hill’s testimony yesterday was surely impressed. Having watched the impeachment hearings from start to finish (I’m recovering from surgery so have had plenty of time on my hands for TV watching), I can say emphatically that she was the most impressive in a line of impressive witnesses. I use the word “impressive” here not necessarily referring to the content of testimony but rather to the poise and intelligence of the witnesses (even Sondland, whom I otherwise take issue with regarding both character and veracity).

But Dr. Hill… she blew them all away. Her no-nonsense attitude, clarity, poise, steeliness, and resolve were gratifying both because she’s a woman and because her expertise is a credit to career civil servants. I don’t know her politics (though she referenced both non-partisanship as well as leftist ideals in line with the UK, not US, definition of “left”) or personal history beyond what she disclosed. On the face of her performance, however, I stand by my complete takenness with Dr. Hill.

Importantly, Dr. Hill stood firmly in defense of herself, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, and Congresswoman Stefanik in the face of sexist treatment. These women have been bullied by primarily white, primarily male politicos, and, in Stefanik’s instance, support of male bullying by those on the left who would—and do—cry foul at similar treatment of women by the right has reeked of hypocrisy. I have little doubt that Dr. Hill has faced bias throughout her career in a male-dominated field. Knowing this, I wondered if this bias is what has led, at least in part, to her steely, no-nonsense demeanor. Men often label women’s anger and indeed any show of emotion as histrionic, and women seeking respect and career advancement must quash emotional responses, whether those responses are warranted or not.

Earlier this morning, President Trump stated on Fox and Friends that he was told by others in his administration they had to be “nice” to Ambassador Yovanovitch because “she’s a woman.” This is disturbing whether it’s true President Trump was actually told this or whether it’s a fictitious account. No, women do not need to be treated “nice” because they are women. Kindness is a trait we should all work to demonstrate, but in the hard-knock world of politics it’s absurd to expect genteel kindness based on gender. President Trump’s statement furthers discriminatory treatment and hiring practices by giving credence to a belief that women in the workplace will require special treatment and kid gloves lest they break down in tears, scream in anger, or lodge a harassment suit against unkind treatment.

Dr. Hill’s testimony lays this myth bare, exposing it for the fiction it is. Anger at times is warranted, such as when one is being undermined in their jobby others acting in direct opposition. In this precise circumstance, Ambassador Sondland characterized Dr. Hill’s anger as “emotional,” to which Dr. Hill replied, “Often when women show anger, it’s not fully appreciated. It’s often, you know, pushed on to emotional issues or perhaps deflected onto other people.”

Indeed.

I applaud Dr. Hill for refusing to allow that kind of disregard and disparagement go unchecked, whether it is against her, her colleague Ambassador Yovanavitch, or congresswoman Stefanik. Sexism is not bound by political party and our reactions to it should not be, either. Dr. Hill’s across-the-board calling out of bias is either proof of her non-partisanship, proof of her deep belief in gender equity, or proof of both. As we continue along our political journeys in a deeply divided United States, I strongly urge us all to remember and emulate her example. Disagreements over policy, candidates, and politics are one thing, but disagreement over equitable treatment of our shared humanity is simply not debatable.

A Way to Help

The following is a testimony I gave at my church earlier this year. I have provided an update at its conclusion.

I spent summer and winter of 2018 in a state of rest that we half-jokingly called my “sabbatical.” This was a time for rest and healing and, as the balm of those two things took hold, of active listening for the Word of God. In those months I lost many things I knew I could not get back, but I also knew that as I healed, God would call me when and where I was needed. I now had time on my hands and space to breathe; all I needed was God to point me in the right direction.

A couple of months ago, Andy and I got an email from a local advocacy group asking if anyone would be willing to sponsor a family seeking asylum. The family was in Tijuana and wouldn’t be allowed to cross into the US unless someone on this side would promise to get the family here and help them out once they arrived.

I had time. I had space. I had resources. I emailed back within minutes. Andy and I would be happy to help, I said.

This last Tuesday the mom, whom I will call SJ, and her three children arrived on a red eye from San Isidro after spending several hours at a McDonalds where ICE had dropped her and children. Gratefully, through a network of concerned individuals, we were able to secure overnight respite in the house of a well-placed angel willing to help a family in need.

At 7am Tuesday morning, I watched SJ walk through the airport, carrying a one-year-old baby and an extra-large duffel bag—did I mention yet that SJ made this journey without a stroller? That means she was lugging a one-year-old from Tijuana to San Isidro to Maryland.

So perhaps it goes without saying, but SJ is an amazing woman; her children are, too. Her oldest is a brilliant artist and has handily beat my daughter in chess many times. Both she and SD have made ample fun of my Spanish skills. The one-year-old is a champion sleeper and the eight-year-old boy and my son hit it off immediately, speaking a boy-language of shoves and wrestling moves and video games.

When SJ and her children left their home behind, they also left behind two bunnies—both named “bunny”—a chow puppy named Chowbella, and a big yard to play in. They now live in a two-bedroom apartment with a total of 10 people. The 10 people are spreading what money and food they have between them, but ten mouths are a lot to feed.

Andy and I are continuing our sponsorship of this wonderful family and are learning as we go how to best do that. Tomorrow I take SJ to see an immigration attorney and Wednesday I will drive her to enroll her kids in school. Thursday Andy will take them to Baltimore for their Immigration check in. Beyond that, we’ll play things day-to-day.

On this day, my sponsorship activity is this testimony. Both so you can feel the joy of a successful story—against every odd they made it to the United States—and also so I can ask you to consider what you might be able to do to help this family get on and stay on their feet.

Their main needs right now are adequate housing and assistance with daily expenses such as groceries and toiletries. If assisting this family is something you feel called to do with the time, space, and resources you have, please let me know.

Most importantly, please remember this family in your prayers, and ask for God’s providential care over them as they begin their new life in the United States. Remember too, that when we slow down and listen, God will speak.

Since I wrote these words several months ago, much has changed. The two school-aged children are thriving, making friends, learning English, and becoming accustomed to a different way of life. The baby is confident, smart, and obsessed with our puppy. Most importantly, SJ and her children have found an apartment to call home. Each month is a struggle to make ends meet; SJ’s income does not cover essential expenses and we are often scrambling to find a way to ensure each person’s basic human needs are met. To that end, we have established a Go Fund Me page to help this family with their day-to-day expenses. Any amount helps, and I ask you to consider whether a donation to this family is right for you.