I’m the kind of person who always wants to know why. Why do people do the things they do, say the things they say, make the choices they make? Why do some things work and some things fail? I like to know the why because I think the best way to make meaningful, lasting changes comes from addressing root motivations/issues.
When it comes to human nature, there are some very basic common motivations for all of us, but they are wrapped up in our very complicated lives and beings. So while there may be an overall simple explanation, it is usually not the first simplistic one that people come to. The things on the surface, the things we see as “the problems” are actually symptoms of something deeper, both more complicated and more primal. We have to do the work to unearth the root causes of the symptoms we see if we ever want to truly address them in meaningful ways.
For example, if I have a headache, that is a problem and it may be the problem for me that day in that it changes how my day goes, how I act, what I do, etc. I can take medicine for it to help me through that day, but I have not addressed the thing that caused the headache, so it will likely be back. The headache itself is a symptom of some larger issue, it is a warning signal from my body telling me something is off. Maybe it’s neck tension, maybe it’s dehydration, maybe it’s stress, maybe it’s all of that, maybe it’s none of that. If I want to stop taking ibuprofen like it’s my job, then I am going to have to pay attention to my body, how I’m taking care it, etc. It’s a basic thing, taking care of your body – eating, drinking, sleeping, managing stress. It’s something everyone should be doing, but most of us have times when we don’t do it that well, and that causes problems for us (and those around us). Not everyone’s body produces the same warning signals though, not everybody’s lack of personal self-care is going to produce the same problems, but there will be problems.There are typical ailments, but such a variety, and so many different ways to address it that all boil down to the same way to address it – take care of yourself.
Anger is the same. Violence is the same. These things are a problem, causing more problems or stemming from other problems, but they are not the problem.
When something happens that seems outrageous to us, it’s easy to dismiss or quickly label as “the problem with those people” because it’s something we aren’t part of and don’t understand. If the seemingly outrageous thing happens in our midst, in the midst of people we are connected to, we are likely to bind ourselves to the side of the people we most relate to, we are also likely to call out “the problem with those people”, but from a more personally invested and emotionally heightened way. To put it simply, when someone from our group is attacked, threatened, abused, disenfranchised, vilified, or murdered – we react. Most of us react first and ask questions later.
Despite our best attempts at being islands of independence, most Americans are still deeply rooted to at least one community of people. Maybe it is our family, maybe it is our church, maybe it is our neighborhood, maybe it is our profession, maybe it’s our sexual orientation, maybe it’s the demographic group we fall into: white, black, poor, middle class, rural, urban. Maybe it’s ancestral like “Italian-American” or geographic like ”Southern”. Maybe it’s our political party. For most of us, it’s several of those groups, sometimes at odds with one another, sometimes overlapping.
One way or another, most of us have some people that we align ourselves with, come hell or high water. These alliances and associations color the way we live our lives and whether we want them to or not, they create a sense of “otherness”. There’s us, and there’s “the others” – the people who aren’t us. This mentality may not surface until someone in your group feels or is threatened. In the heat of the moment, we are pitted against each other before we even evaluate a situation. Our sides get chosen for us and it can be easy to allow ourselves to be swept up in the storm that follows.
If we are especially connected to either the victim or the villain of the story as it plays out, we may dig in our heels even more. We may not all rally around the same community, but we sure know how to rally around our own, whoever we perceive that to be at the time.
Though technically we could all see one another as one of our own (Americans or even humans), most of us we really struggle to look past our different “types” and see that the problems we are having are not the problem. Most of us fail to even try to search for or acknowledge the root causes and motivations and so we see the same scenes of violence and heartbreak happen again and again and again and so we keep raising our voices and pointing our fingers and the anger and fear keep throbbing beneath our skin again and again and again.
Being part of a group gives us community, becomes part of our identity. It’s a natural desire we all have to categorize the world around us to help us understand and navigate it. It’s not bad in and of itself, but it can be easy to get caught up in groupthink (where we unquestioningly follow along with something) if we aren’t aware, particularly with the constant, fast-paced media presence and the function of social media in our daily lives. Everything is out there, all the time. We find ourselves responding rashly without even meaning to, knee-jerk reactions to the stimuli around us.
We have a responsibility as citizens to carefully evaluate the situations before us: the ones we see on tv, on the internet, and in our communities and to consider not only “our own”, but also “the others”. When it all boils down our alliances, communities, and bloodlines all intertwine and are interdependent upon one another both for safety and long-term success. Any idea that there is some way for one group to stand on the backs of the rest of us and not tumble over when we collapse is short-sighted. There is no person, no group that is able to be great, or can even exist on their own. We need not only for our own people to be okay, but for the other people in our nation to be okay too for the healthy functioning of our society. If we take seriously the idea of being a great nation of any kind, we all have to carefully consider what it is that we can do to lift up the people around us. We fall and rise together.
There is something I learned through many years in community mental health and it holds true for all of us: Perception is reality. What someone (or a group of people) perceives as their reality is their reality and they will react to situations with that reality in mind.
You may not perceive the same reality as someone else because our personalities, our environments, and our experiences develop into our perceptions and these all vary greatly.
This means that we are not all functioning within the same realities – even though we may all be going about life together in many other ways.
The roles we play and the communities that we are involved in or live in have their own power to shape our vision of the world around us too. We have individual perceptions and group perceptions. We must be aware of what the people around us perceive as their reality, because their reality is what they are reacting to (just as our reality is what we are reacting to).
So when someone tells you that they are hurt by something, you don’t get to tell them that they are not. When someone tells you they are afraid of something, you don’t get to tell them that they are not. What you can do is ask “why”. Not a whiny bratty juvenile kind of “why”, but a grown up I give a damn and don’t understand but want to try kind of “why”.
Sometimes people will react to their realities in ways that we don’t like, don’t agree with, or don’t understand but that doesn’t always mean we need to do anything about it. If that person’s words or actions aren’t putting you or someone else in direct harm, sometimes all you need to do is allow them the dignity of handling their life in the best way they see fit at the time.
Yes, there are times we have to address the clash of our perceptions and realities because we are living in the same world and in many different ones all at the same time and that results in conflicts – but not every disagreement is a call to war or a line in the sand. There is a way to coexist, even with people who we don’t ever anticipate seeing eye to eye with, but we have to be willing to sometimes, even if we think they are so wrong, to let people be – and to let them be free of ridicule, harassment, and attempts at converting them to our own beliefs or ways.
I know that I know that I know that we are more all alike than we are different, in spite of all our differences. I truly believe that the more time we spend with people, not trying to change them or fix them, but just existing with them, the more we will pick up on our connectedness and the easier it gets to really see them. The more time you spend with people, the less “other” they seem. This doesn’t mean anybody changes anybody’s beliefs or ideals, sometimes it just means that our realities intersect a little more, and that makes navigating the world together that much smoother.
Society is not simple. The social context of something like violence is multi-layered. It is not easily explained or “fixed”.
No one thing will fix everything.
And I know right now, because I am a church-raised resident of the Bible belt, that some well-meaning people are thinking “Jesus will fix everything… If Jesus were in our schools, our government…”
So let’s go there (without getting too much into freedom of religion or separation of church and state and how important this is for all of us, Christian and non). Jesus is in our schools – in every Christian that walks the halls or teaches a class. Jesus is in our government – in every Christian who is an elected official. Christians in our nation are persecuted far less and in far less extreme ways than Christians in other countries or than anyone of any other religion that is in our country. What our nation lacks is not religion. What we do lack the active practice of the major facets of most major religions, such as Christianity, which include: practicing mercy, kindness, goodness, self-control, gentleness, love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, the protection of the vulnerable, and denying the temptation to give in to materialism and greed.
So if beneath the surface of the idea that we “need more Jesus”, is the idea that we need to be living and acting more like Jesus, taking the mantle for change upon ourselves and not projecting it onto the “other”, then yes, I absolutely agree that this could make a great difference in the way our society functions.
The great news is that this is something completely in the hands of any person that feels convicted in this way. There is no law against these things. There is no policy that must be in place. There is no red tape. We can turn our lives upside down right now for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of love, for the sake of those hurting and in need. This is one thing, but it is many things. It can be done right away, but the fruit of it takes time to grow and spiritual pruning will happen along the way and that can be hard and painful, but is necessary for change. It’s a long road. It’s a hard road. It’s a dirty road. I’ve heard it can wreck your plans, your bank account, your livelihood, and any other idol you’ve found along the way. I’ve heard it breaks you so much that it sets you free and with that freedom you can break the chains of others held back and held down.
So if your first thought, when you see the world on fire before you is “we need more Jesus”, then I am begging you – please mean it, please do it, please be it. Let it be.
The “whys” of most things are complex, even the ones that seem simple at first. We take far too many things at face value. We listen far too often to the noise around us and ignore the softness of our own humanity, the raw and quiet place that has the capacity to understand things aren’t always what other people say they are.
And sometimes we dig just far enough into it all to find ourselves in a mess that doesn’t make any sense at all and doesn’t seem resolvable. If we only go this far, despair and apathy threaten to take over because, really, what’s the point?
But if we push past the noise and the things we don’t understand, if we wade deeper through the confusing middle of the mess of everything that appears to be too far gone, if we hang in there, we will see that through all the twists and turns that shape our choices and the choices of those around us, there is a common ground; there is an essential, primal, core motivation for everything. The “why” of a thing winds itself through the intricacies of humanity until it does become simple. We are all motivated by the same things. Love. Fear. Need.
What we do with our need, our fear, and our love varies and does something in the world around us and we all bear the consequences of this, good and bad.
And so, we see the problems around us, we see the root motivations within us, and now we must get back into the middle – the sloshing mess of everyone’s lives and all of the systems that affect our lives and we must stop pretending this is easy and we must stop pretending this is too hard. It is not easy, but it is not too hard. It is just hard. But that’s okay, because we can do hard things.