Why I’m not shutting people down so I can ask “Why?”

I haven’t written a post since March, and last week, I gave myself some space to ask why. Was it because I was writing all the time for work and didn’t want to write anything else? Nope. The seemingly endless Zoom meetings? No, that wasn’t it either.

Turns out I was filled with contrasts, contradictions, and tensions, and I wasn’t able to make sense of them. The last thing I wanted to do was go public with them.

What I’m learning about spirituality counters many conversations unfolding in academic and other public circles around the pandemics of COVID and racism. People are quick to shut down conversations or revert to data, facts, and evidence without actually engaging in conversation, and I’m guilty of doing both. It’s easy, it’s comfortable, and it’s familiar. But it didn’t feel right to do anymore.

These tensions came into focus during a four-day virtual Institute for Spiritual Guidance this past weekend. In this space, spiritual directors develop their skills and focus on their spiritual journeys. At some point this weekend, I realized I wasn’t writing because I feared voicing these tensions, and by not writing publicly, I was running away from why this blog’s purpose—to create a public space for spiritual academic life and all that it holds, both the challenging and the affirming.

This post falls into the former category.

Academic training + spiritual journey = ???

My academic training taught me to live in facts, logic, evidence, and data. Scholarship is intended to move disciplines to more certainty, better clarity, and improved ways to see the world. We hope to move our students in this direction, too. Conversations are “shut down” because they counter what we know—or perceive to know—to be right. Ideas aren’t published, voices are silenced. Or at least that’s been my experience with academia.

Spiritual life honors the inner life, home to emotion, intuition, and soul. These spaces question the ego. Spirituality trusts uncertainty and acknowledges that uncertainty brings us the greatest gifts. It honors the stories we each have, and our stories are not right or wrong—they just are. Our stories deserve to be heard. Or at least that’s been my experience with spirituality.

I struggle to integrate these pieces, so I was relieved when my friend Matt Cox shared two recent podcast episodes from The Daily, “Cancel Culture: Part 1 and Part 2.” These episodes dive into “cancel culture,” and they capture my frustrations, hesitations, understandings, agreement, and tensions around cancel culture, a nuanced term that is appropriate in some situations and not in others.

The podcast highlights many of the tensions I share below, and I’d encourage you to listen to it.

Throughout this post, I intentionally avoid using “cancel culture” because my understanding of the term is evolving. Plus, I don’t want to add to the blanket use of the term, which the podcast discusses. So, I use “shut it down” to refer to interactions that might warrant opening up and further exploration.

Resisting “shut it down” temptations

At one of my field’s annual conferences last year, a large sub-group of my colleagues attend an annual luncheon. That year, we were assigned to tables where we discussed pedagogical challenges about racism, sexism, and homophobia in the classroom.

One of the scenarios went something like, “You see a student make a racist hand gesture under their desk. How do you handle it?” When my table discussed how we would handle the situation, I offered that I would talk to the student one-on-one to learn more. Perhaps there was something else going on, maybe an underlying medical condition that may have led to that movement. Our table discussions wrapped up, and each table’s representative summarized the discussion to the large group.

My table’s representative shared our summary, which included my wonderings if the student had an unexpected reason for the hand gesture. The mic moved on to the next person, who stood up and said, “It doesn’t matter the reason. You just shut it down.” No room for discussion with the student. Shut them down.

To me, a “shut it down” response ran counter to my pedagogical training, and I notice these same discussions are arising now when we talk about responding to racism in the classroom.

My response to the hand gesture was similar to how I handle plagiarism: there is a story behind it. Sometimes students don’t know they are plagiarizing (and for all the readers out there who thinks that’s bogus, it’s not; it happens). Other times students have circumstances that lead them to plagiarize, and they don’t know how else to respond but to steal someone else’s work.

In that moment, I saw the situation the same way. This student’s hand gesture had a story behind it. Perhaps the student didn’t know that the hand gesture was racist. Or maybe they did. But either way, I wouldn’t know how to respond until I asked and let the story unfold.

Choosing to move into uncertainty

Flash forward to today where we’re living in multiple pandemics, including COVID-19 and racism.

The academic me reacts to anti-maskers and racists by using data and evidence to point out errors in logic. So far, that has only stopped conversations altogether or resulted in a lack of stasis, where we talk across and not with each other. Rarely do I understand where they come from or do they understand where I come from.

The spiritual me responds to people by asking about, listening to, and holding their story. This part sees the denial, anger, fear, grief, and ignorance behind the behavior. Even though I disagree with them, I choose to be curious and enter uncertain space by asking them about their story.

Asking someone “Why?” can feel like entering the unknown. You know there’s another side, even if the way through is unclear.

Recently, a close friend shared a photo on social media about the “safest cities” in their state, and one of their relatives works as a police officer in a safe city. Across this photo was “Defund the police” with emojis expressing anger and rage.

I followed my first reaction to tell them reasons why that list was biased and to explain what “defund the police” really means. They replied, and as I was typing my next reply, I stopped. I knew what would come next because we’ve had this “conversation” many, many times before.

Instead, I deleted my message and asked, “Genuine question: Why do you share stuff like that with me?”

I waited with great apprehension. By asking a question out of curiosity instead of spitting back with a reply, I entered uncertainty.

Their answer surprised me: “Because I’m proud that I know a cop in one of our safest cities. I wanted people to know.”

Not what I was expecting. I never guessed that this was the story behind what I saw as an anger-filled, logically flawed original post.

My friend and I talked about this interaction when I asked their permission to share this story. From their perspective, my initial, data-filled reaction was what they expected from me, and they shared that I took their post in a direction they hadn’t intended. From my perspective, I couldn’t see it any other way until I asked, “What’s behind that?”

When we shut things down, what and who do we leave behind?

Likewise, the calls for prison and police abolition highlight these tensions in unexpected ways. For me, they speak to spaces of deep grief, spaces where I want to live in logic and facts because it’s a whole lot easier than asking “why?”

As I’ve shared before, my uncle Bill was murdered by a white man, Jason, who confessed to the murder but will never serve jail time. Instead of jail, he’s currently at a mental health hospital where he can petition for release every 6 months for the rest of his life—and that’s a petition to be released out into the world, not into jail.

Jason has over a 20-year criminal record, but his mental health only came up after he murdered my uncle Bill. In effect, it’s what saved him from serving any jail time for the murder. It seemed pretty convenient to me that he was diagnosed with a mental health disorder after a murder he confessed to. Combining that convenience with his white male privilege means there will never be justice for my uncle. His privilege means a lifetime of unrest for those of us who miss my uncle.

Currently, there are academics whom I highly respect calling for prison abolition. Parts of me agree with this call so that people of color, transgender people, poor people, immigrants, and disabled people are no longer disproportionately and unfairly imprisoned. And although prison abolition is not the same as cancel culture or even “shutting it down,” it speaks to blanket solutions that don’t clearly tend to nuances and tensions. (If I’m missing something here, can someone please tell me so I can learn?)  

But at this point in my life, I do not support abolishing prisons because convicted felons like Jason need to be held responsible for their decades of crime and for the related lifetime of pain, trauma, and grief they inflict on their victims and their victims’ families. Their white privilege should not let them off the hook.

At the same time, I 100% believe my uncle’s murder could have been prevented if we had real support systems, policies, and programs for people like Jason who suffer from undiagnosed mental illness. That hopefully with lead us to not need prisons.

But those policies don’t exist yet. I know for sure that we have families like mine who live with the effects of gun violence.

The academic in me wants to uphold social justice and abolitionist theories that call for a world without the need for prisons.

The grieving niece in me wants known-murderers to be held accountable.

My soul wants to hear Jason’s story because he, like me, has one.

I struggle with how to hold those tensions.

We all have stories, even murderers and racists, and as challenging as it may be, we can invite these stories to unfold and choose to hear them. Hearing them doesn’t mean we condone actions or beliefs. It means that we have strength to move into uncertainty to wonder what’s behind the them.

Are we curious and courageous enough to ask “why”?

Questions to ponder

  • Will we invite people to share their stories, even if that means we move into uncertainty with someone we disagree with?
  • What will we do when people begin to share? Will we listen? Will we shut it down?
  • How will we determine when we need to listen and when to shut something down? Can they co-exist?
  • Where do you notice tensions and uncertainty?
  • How do you respond to them? What would happen if you responded differently?
  • How can you give yourself space to encounter those tensions and uncertainties?
  • Then, how can we create space for our students to do the same?

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