By Laura Moore
Throughout my life, I've wasted so much energy arguing.
And I don't mean on the good kind of arguments: the ones where two parties tackle open issues--thousand sided issues--in an effort to sway back and forth across various shades of gray.
I mean black and white arguments that fail to follow any sort of protocol. The kind where each side talks loudly from behind pre-drawn lines in the sand. The sorts of exchanges where decisions have already been made, and the owners of those decisions are not willing to revisit them, to roll them over or to cut them open.
For a while, I entered those debates with a false sense of valiancy. I felt responsible for educating my opponents about my position on an issue, and if I neglected to do so--or to do so adequately enough--then the other person would walk away without hearing both sides, without seeing the full picture.
Oh how righteous I felt.
Oh what a jerk I was.
See that mindset--and the behavior resulting from that mindset--is toxic. It eats away at individuals and relationships. It inspires a feigned sense of empowerment, and it screams and yells and edges out those who are less aggressive, even when--and especially when--the less aggressive people have something important to say.
When someone takes the opposing side to issues tugging at my heart strings, I can feel my blood pressure rise and my stomach churn. My thoughts spray like semi-automatic weapons, and in truth, I probably only listen to one in every three things the other person shouts. Lodged in a defensive state, I take the one thing I hear and I twist it and I turn it and I beat it like a fragile yolk. I search for rhetorical grenades. I try to present the other side as ridiculous. I strive to make my views so appealing no one could possibly disagree.
But the other person does the exact same thing, and the noise we create in our pointless war makes it impossible to hear, makes it impossible to think, makes it impossible to move our feet in any direction whatsoever--any direction, except back.
Our discussion is not productive or valiant. We are not persuasive game changers; we're narcissistic pontificators. We're both waiting for contradictions, for over-stepping stereotypes, for hypocrisies. We're each looking for the chance to site articles or interviews or research so we can be right. And when the wake subsides, regardless of where it trailed along the shore, deep down, both of us probably feel horrible about every single part of our interaction.
At least, I know I do.
Don't get me wrong, I think it is important for one to stand up for his/her interpretation of truth and justice, but I think it is equally important for us to know how to do that. Issuing a round of verbal crossfire does not yield unilateral results. Spouting off the longest list of "facts" does not necessarily denote a victory, and tossing pseudo-intellectual quips toward someone who does not understand the sarcasm, does not make one unequivocally more right than their vulnerable opponent.
It just makes that person feistier (and insufferably more arrogant).
And it often inspires a deeper trench between people. It does not bring anyone closer. It does not make anyone's point clearer. It does not increase the troops fighting for any one cause.
It just divides.
It makes the world louder and angrier. It raises walls capped with barbed wire spikes. It inspires shields and muffles ears and perpetuates toxic narratives. It gets attention, but it doesn't make people change.
If we want true change, we need to open ears and eyes and minds. We need to listen to one another: even if we disagree, even if we hate the other side, even if we think we know the answers. We need to listen to the words, to the stories, to the subtext, to the ideas, to the emotions, to the feelings, to the fears, to the hopes, to the dreams, to the frustrations, to the obstacles. We need to share our ideas, but once we do, we need to sit down, zip our mouths, and listen. We need to temporarily halt our selfish whims so we can think about how our actions impact others. We need to make an effort to empathize with experiences, we need to consider other narratives, we need to accept the fact that the world might not be what we think it is.
Because maybe if we open up, maybe if we try to find common ground, maybe if we step outside of our own experiences, maybe if we let people speak even if they don't have all of the right words, maybe if we think about how our version of justice impacts theirs, maybe if we think about the consequences of both action and inaction, we might find a way to tear down the seemingly insurmountable barriers between us.
See despite our differences, most of us just want what we perceive to be fair. We want what we think is right. And because we all have slightly different opinions about what that means, if we want to move forward, away from all of the noise, we need to consider a variety of interpretations of what right entails.
We need to listen to both traditional and nontraditional voices. Really listen--not so we can trounce on stories, experiences or ideas by calling one another names--so we can learn why people feel the way they do. So we can escape flying fingers, cruel euphemisms, and glass shattering decibels, and actually arrive in a reasonable space where we can not just coexist but co-thrive. So we can feel safe enough to admit we have much to learn. So we can help our loud monologues evolve into constructive dialogues. So we can give our ideas a chance to inspire epiphanies and partnership and progress. So we can help our children find a way to begin smearing lines.
I don't know about you, but this is my goal for the final weeks of the year....and all the ones that follow.
By Laura Moore
Instead of enjoying a cup of coffee, or a few extra moments with my husband and son Monday morning, I rushed through my routine and darted across town at 7:15 am, in an effort to retrieve my wallet (which unfortunately, I, as the last customer of the night, left at a battery store Sunday evening).
I realized I had forgotten it as soon as I double checked my purse prior to picking up the pizza, and that realization led to a flurry of searching on behalf of my husband and myself: in the diaper bag, the stroller, the carseat, under the seats in my car, anywhere we could possibly think to look.
But the minute I realized it wasn't in my purse, deep down, I knew I left it there, at the store; I could picture exactly where I set it down, and--because I felt guilty for being the jerk who came in ten minutes before close--I knew I left it in that spot because I was mindlessly hurrying out of the store so the employees could log out and enjoy the night.
Despite knowing no one would be there when I returned, I rushed back to the store just in case, hoping that maybe someone was waiting for a ride, or got a last minute phone call, or had some other reason to remain well beyond closing time. When I pulled into to the empty parking lot though, I knew it was hopeless. Nevertheless, I gazed through the window anyway--just to see if it was there--and sure enough, propped up on the counter exactly where I left it, I saw my wallet, sticking out like a butterfly on asphalt.
I wanted to vomit. Why didn't anyone see it and lock it in the register?
Then I proceeded to scare myself: Someone is going to break in
. My wallet is so OBVIOUSLY there. The window doesn't seem that thick. The lights are so bright.
My abandoned billfold looked terribly tempting, bulging with the thickness of my life, hovering beneath spot lights, ripe with a vulnerable identity waiting to be stolen. Frantic to retrieve it, I knocked on every window. I left a message for the manager. Heck, I even called the emergency door line listed on a sticker at the top of the door. Nothing I did, however, produced results, and so I sat there, defeated. Before giving up entirely though, I called the police.
The non-emergency line operator told me to wait in the parking lot and she would dispatch an officer. Relieved and hopeful, I sat there, staring through my windshield into the store window, focused painfully on what I left behind. I sat there praying that the police officer would have the solution. I sat there inventing a thousand scenarios where authorities would arrive with a skeleton key, or a manager or some other magical means of opening the door and handing me back the
container that allowed me to conduct the business of life.
It took about ten minutes for the officer to arrive, and while I waited and invented my stories, I looked around. Observing my surroundings, I sized up the risk of my wallet camping out in plain sight. And when I spotted an over-served man with a blonde, scraggly beard, unkempt clothes, and ruddy red cheeks stumbling back and forth behind me in the parking lot, for the first time, I grew afraid. I watched him lumber in uneven strides, falling one way and then jerking back to correct his movements, and when he neared my car and split his gaze between my rearview window and the well-lit store containing my wallet, I grew terribly suspicious. Was this man dangerous? Did he want to get into my car? Would he break into the store and steal my wallet? Was he going to ask me for money?
I turned the key in my ignition and placed my hands on the gear shift. A slight wave of ease came over me as I realized I could dash off if he approached my car. With my adrenaline on high alert, I cued 911 on my iPhone, and I kept checking my mirrors, studying him, eyeing him,
waiting to see what he would do.
Moments later, he passed me, and as he wandered north up High Street, I rewrote his narrative in my mind. My fear now gone, I was free to be rational. And from a safe distance, I no longer saw him as a singular creature of suspicion--he was no longer a dangerous drunk who was looking for the chance to threaten some part of my life--
he was just a man, with a thousand possible reasons for why he just so happened to stumble through a parking lot at the same time my personal crisis (that in the grand scheme of life was not a big deal at all) happened to unfold. Maybe he was looking at me because he wondered if I was in trouble. Maybe he self-medicates because he can't afford medical care. Maybe he wasn't impaired, and just suffers from vertigo. Maybe he is taking care of his sick wife and didn't have time to shower. Maybe he was helping a friend with yard work and had one too many celebratory drinks. Maybe he isn't well, and is forcing himself outside to find food.
Of course, since I had idle time to think, the maybes
continued. And the more they continued, the worse I felt about my initial read, about my gut instinct to start the car, cue the authorities, and plan my escape on account of the way he looked
My train of thinking broke seconds later when the police arrived, and I turned my energy to the situation that called me there to begin with. The officer who was dispatched to my location greeted me with a smile, and when I explained my
dilemma, she peered through the store window at my wallet and then searched her records for emergency numbers. Even though she didn't have to, she took the time to call the contacts she had. Unfortunately, they didn't answer, but her response helped me feel better about the circumstances. She wrote notes about our interaction, and told me that if anything happened to my wallet, there would now be a police record.
The officer and I parted ways once our exchange was complete, and I spent the entire ride home thinking about both the man in the parking lot and my pleasant encounter with the officer. I wondered what the man's real story was. I wondered how he perceived the distant intersection of our lives. Despite thinking
that he was looking at me, perhaps he didn't even notice me there, perhaps he didn't give me a second thought, but perhaps my presence made him just as nervous as his presence made me. Perhaps my presence caused him to fear an altercation with the police, or with whomever he imagined was meeting me.
Despite giving him the benefit of the doubt later, I wondered why my initial gut reaction was fear. What was it about that man that made me afraid? Would have I been afraid under different circumstances? Or was there something about him that would have always triggered a high alert setting? And if there is something about seeing certain people that triggers an innate, survivalist response, where does that response come from? Is our fear the byproduct of a deeply ingrained instinct toward self-preservation or is it something we learn,
something culture teaches us over time? Perhaps it is some combination of the two, and if so, when is fear good and when is it bad? And how do we draw the line in such a way that we can keep both ourselves and our respect for humanity safe?
The police, of course, were on their way, so in my situation Sunday evening, the promise of seeing blue and red lights calmed me. If anything happens, they will arrive and stop it,
And the mere fact that my view of them as an ally, as a helper, as a beacon of justice made me wonder about all of the people who would never think to call authorities when they were scared, or desperate, or in need of a small outpouring of help. It seemed so natural to me to pick up the phone because that's what my
narrative tells me to do: Call 911 when you're in trouble. The police will help you. When cop cars pull onto the scene, you can relax. But this isn't a natural response for everyone.
As I drove home
from the battery store Sunday night, I thought about how different my narrative looks from the narratives of those who have been raised to avoid authorities, from those who have seen or experienced police brutality, from those who have endured tension, violence, profiling and fear. I thought about those who spend each day hoping
to avoid conflict, because they have learned that there are few voices standing up for them, standing up for all forms
I wondered how many other narratives were out there: not just with our justice system, but with every facet of life. Narratives that are not only shaped through a lens influenced by race, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation, but also through lenses influenced by drug addiction, physical impairments or mental illness. Lenses that alter the way human beings experience and are experienced in the world. Lenses like the one I looked through when I feared an unkempt, middle-aged white man stumbling through the parking lot behind me.
Monday morning, I went back to the store, got my wallet and headed home. Everything resolved itself in a fairly uneventful way, but my brain was still alive with thoughts when I sat down at my computer. Uncertain how to make sense of them all, I smiled when I opened an email from my brother: "Here's your Monday morning writing inspiration," he wrote, and within the body of the email, he sent me David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College
. Of course since my brother knows me well, he sent the transcript
rather than the video, and when I read Wallace's words, I found myself stopped dead in my tracks.
Fully aware of his liberal arts audience, Wallace discusses the value of a liberal arts education (and not the typical "it teaches you how to think" defense, but a meaty defense that explores the idea of losing your arrogance, of learning how to be aware). He talks about how two human beings can experience the same story and derive different truths. He discusses how a true education takes a lifetime, that we will always be working to sharpen our mind and open our eyes. And he talks about the routine of daily life, what we worship and the options we have for how we choose to see our world.
If you're in need of thought about thought, I fully recommend reading the whole thing, but in the interest of time, one idea in particular stuck with me. One idea brought me back to the man in the parking lot, to the idea that we all have a choice about what choose to see or not to see, about what sort of narratives we write. Wallace talks about how we instantly judge the people around us, but that true freedom is taking a step back from our initial read and being open to alternatives. True freedom is about accepting that our view of the world is not absolute, that the things that happen around us are not always about us. True freedom is deciding not to accept the mindless default, and instead it is about choosing to be thoughtful, aware and conscious.
In other words, true freedom is about deciding
to give people the benefit of the doubt, and in so doing, releasing ourselves from the grip of negative assumptions, from being absolutely positive that our world is miserable and ill-intentioned, and deciding instead, to see it as multifaceted, to see it as having a variety of truths, a variety of complexities, and a variety of narratives.
My brother had no idea what I was thinking about Monday morning when he sent me that speech, but reading through Wallace's thoughts helped me sort through my own. It framed the way I reflected on my experience, on the questions and curiosities, on the line between instinctual self preservation and irrational fear. I have no answers about any of things I pondered or saw or felt. I still don't know if it was good street-smarts that led me to judge the man who walked behind me, or if my fear suggests a form of calloused cruelty, but I do know that the experience made me think. It made me stop. It made me see value in the process of considering why my default setting was to issue judgement. It made me take a step back and consider various narratives, realizing that though I might see the world one way, that man might see it differently. That while my lens shows me one side of the world, it is no clearer and no better than anyone else's lens; it's just different.
Of course the idealist in me hopes that one day we can arrive at a place where fear isn't so rampant, where more of us can can hear and accept the various narratives around us, and where the police-as-protectors concept is accessible to all people, but I don't want to sound naive. I'm not sure how such change can happen, but I do know that before it is possible, we must first see and admit a need for progress. We must first open our eyes and recognize that we all have different lines of sight. We must choose to dislodge ourselves from the default, and instead, decide to be open to the multiplicities of life.
By Laura Moore
After what seemed like ten straight days of rain, I finally decided to venture outside with the sole purpose of assessing the weed situation. Shovel in hand, yard waste bag at foot, I stood at the base of our walkway and immediately began laughing: clovers strategically assumed residence in nearly every vacant patch of unoccupied dirt.
The idea of removal seemed unappealing at first, but once I kneeled down and began to dig, I found the process strangely enjoyable. I looked forward to each new cluster of clover: the dainty ones, the hefty ones and everything in-between. Unable to suppress my childish urge to pause before I yanked, with each new patch, I allowed my eyes the guilty pleasure of scanning for a prized anomaly: the four leaf clover.
I continued plucking for an hour and a half, clearing the dirt of undesirable impostors, and as the crisp flowerbeds reemerged, I found myself thinking about weeds. Stuck on the moving boundaries of my definition, I decided to pause my effort, pull out my phone, and look up the word: "a herbaceous plant not valued for use or beauty, growing wild and rank, and regarded as cumbering the ground or hindering the growth of superior vegetation...an unprofitable, troublesome or noxious growth."
In other words, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a weed is a worthless, ugly, toxic, wild and/or rank entity that gets in the way of things that are far more valuable.
After I swindled a few moments pondering the idea of vegetative hierarchy, I returned back to the clovers, back to the life form that had aggressively overtaken my hostas. The weed definition certainly seemed to fit the description of most clovers, but I couldn't help but wonder why it didn't fit the four leaf clover, a plant that is admired, used for good fortune, and profitable when pressed and sold. I couldn't help but wonder why a society who despises a particular plant would enshrine a deviant variety of that same life form. If we are truly committed to the elimination of anything that might crowd our illustrious landscaping, why would we worship a mutation that takes up more space?
This seems particularly odd given the fact that mainstream society tends to gravitate toward what's expected. We love our norms. We are comforted by our norms. We spend our lives learning how to navigate our norms, how to declutter our lives in pursuit of them. When something doesn't follow a consistent, predictable pattern, we are often stymied. When someone or something looks different or acts differently, we grow uneasy, and in extreme situations, because the anomaly feels threatening, we are often compelled to reject it, remove it, weed it from our lives.
For some reason, this is not true when it comes to four leaf clovers. When we see a four leaf clover, we cast aside our concern for prized landscaping. We abandon our mission to protect superior plant borders. We drop our adherence to norms and treasure the symmetrical imperfection pinched between our fingers. We raise it on a pedestal and revere it. Unlike its clover peers, we gaze at it, cherish it and even preserve it. Crowds gather to admire the vegetative spectacle, and good luck is bestowed upon any individual fortunate enough to sift through a patch of homogeny and find the oddball.
This thought delighted me as I foraged through the clovers in my yard. If we can cast aside our concerns about infringing weeds, we can certainly do it with people. If we can find the time to comb a yard in search of something that occurs 1/10,000 times, then maybe we can find the time to look closer, gaze wider and learn more about the people around us. If we can drop our guard and reexamine our perspective on vegetative intruders, maybe we can do the same with our neighbors. Maybe we, as a mainstream society, can carve out time each day to appreciate the four leaf clovers in our lives: the beautiful, useful and uniquely crafted people who just might enhance, rather than hinder, our growth.