Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Myth of Second Chances

The last 24 hours have seen a rare national glimpse into an oft-hidden world I inhabit: NCAA Division III basketball. I am the national columnist for D3hoops.com - THE source for news and information about Division III basketball for over 20 years. Division III is non-scholarship athletics, so the athletes are paying tuition just like every other student. We like to call them the real "student-athletes." Schools range from very small (400 or so in enrollment) to gigantic (40,000+) and talent varies as well. It's the largest division in the NCAA, with 450+ members, but even so, unless you've got a connection, most people don't pay attention or even know some of these schools exist.

Of course, that changes when something bad happen. Tuesday night Fitchubrg State hosted Nichols college in an otherwise ordinary early season non-conference matchup. Nichols is pretty good; Fitchburg isn't so much. The game was pretty uneventful, except that Fitchburg was making a late run, led by the truly excellent play of transfer Kewan Platt. Platt will now forever be google connected to the elbow he delivered, seemingly unprovoked, to the face of Nichols freshman Nate Tenaglia. If you follow sports even remotely, you've probably seen the video somewhere.

It was pretty vicious and ugly. Platt checked to see if the ref closest to him was looking before he delivered it, but failed to notice another ref nearby (or the webstream cameras that caught the whole thing). Tenaglia was in pain, obviously, but did and does (so far) seem physically unaffected. He passed a concussion test and hit both his free throws, following the foul. The Nichols team should get immense credit for responding so coolly and appropriately in this matter. Platt got ejected from the game and has since been removed from the team and banned from campus until official processes can be executed.

It got out on Twitter first, with all the various ugliness that comes with just about anything on Twitter. From there, the general consensus was that Platt should never be allowed to play basketball again and should probably be arrested. It likely was assault, although courts have to make that distinction, which they might do - another D3 player was arrested and received a one year suspended jail sentence for punching and stomping on another player and helping to incite a riot at a game last year. Hockey has had some similar issues with violence on the ice, as well as other sports from time to time.

I am a bit baffled by the severity of the reactions, though, even after you discount the Twitter factor. There's been time for discussion, both in person and in more civil, relational online forums, to talk about Platt's elbow, and people still seem pretty set on this moment ruining the kid's life.

First, I should say, I'm all for consequences, although I've written before on this blog about how easily we confuse consequences with punishment in this society. I don't think shame should be a consequence, though, especially an outward, national shame. Being ashamed of one's actions - maybe disappointing family, friends, and coaches, yes - but having national public shame heaped upon you doesn't feel like an appropriate consequence for an action that was extremely localized.

Fitchburg State will do what they do and the school's athletic conference will probably have a say. I hope those are fair and gracious processes not unduly influenced by the attention this has received. Schools are about shaping people and it's really hard to do that if they people aren't there. Every coach talks about shaping women and men of integrity and responsibility, but at the Division III level there's almost nothing else to do. Yeah, win basketball games, but those don't get you much on their own.

I don't know the context, obviously. Platt could have a long history of violence and this is a final straw. Schools can't have violent, angry people roaming around campus; that's not good for the formation of people either. Of course, I don't know if this is indicative of something deeper or just a one-off terrible decision. It's not really my place to even find out.

I do think we should recognize though, even if this isn't a pattern, that kind of violence is indicative of some kind of impulse control problem. That usually stems from some kind of mental trauma or illness, in which case shame is about the worst thing to help someone improve. Platt needs more people on his side than ever - not excusing actions, but offering help and support. I can't see how any of the internet traffic really helps that.

Yes, my site reported on it. We got video (hopefully with more context than the six second that went around Twitter) and we did background work to understand as much as possible. It's news; it happened. We can't shy away from admitting difficult truth, just because it hurts somebody. That's the balance. Recognizing there are consequences to our actions, but also refusing to dehumanize a person or define them by their actions.

We are not what we do. What we think, what we believe, what shapes and forms our understanding, those things are evident only in our actions. But we, as people, are more than just what we do. To define a person by their actions is to dehumanize. Kewan Platt is the kind of person who can elbow a guy in the face and walk away; he'll have to live with that and deal with that and it'll be hard - but we can't say any of us is inherently different. We can't say, given the same set of circumstances - from childhood to relationships to genetics to whatever - that we wouldn't do the same thing. That's humanity.

Now, providing a reason is very different from providing an excuse; we often get those two things confused in society as well. It's always wrong to hit someone. I'm a firm believer in non-violence. I don't think anything justifies what Platt did, ever. There is no excuse for that kind of thing. There are always reasons, causes. We have to be careful not to equate causes with excuses.

Immediately after the video started circulating, a lot of the comments were, "what did the white kid do to deserve that." We justify violence as a response to violence. We do it all the time. I get that it makes sense to some people in some contexts and I've certainly written about violence in other posts; there's not time for that discussion here. What those comments do, though, is recognize that actions depend on context.

We see less fighting in basketball than we used to see. We're less tolerant, so that may have something to do with it. We've also got this global social media platform that amplifies the violence that exists. My freshman year of college, a friend and I drove ten minutes down the road to watch our basketball team play a local rival. During the game, an on-court altercation ensued that really exploded. Eventually people were coming out of the stands to fight players and each other; it was a pretty terrifying experience. We told the story. We moved on. I don't think the local paper even covered it. Times change.

If both players had gotten shots in, we'd be having a very different conversation. It wouldn't have gone viral at all. People get mad playing sports. Adrenaline is running and emotions are high. Earlier this year there were NBA suspensions from punches thrown. It's rare, but not uncommon, even in basketball. It was a defenseless, unprovoked elbow to the face; that's worse.

Is it this much worse, though?

We tend to justify those things we could see ourselves doing and vilify those which seem foreign to us. The gap between the two, though, isn't as wide as we make it. In fact, it's razor thin. A hard foul during a basketball play is a response many might deem appropriate for a perceived slight. If Platt had been tripped or terribly insulted, more people would've come to his defense. It's all about perspective... and context.

I've never been in a frat, but I did go to college in Boston. I've seen some violence from drunk frat boys on a Friday night, maybe even an out-of-the-blue sucker punch or two. You hit a guy in a bar, is it even a 50/50 chance you get arrested? That's assault, but it's not always handled that way.

This wasn't a racial incident, but when you're talking about violence, crime, and punishment in our society, race does matter. I don't want to see another young black kid get his life derailed because of a really terrible decision like this. It's just harder to "learn" from this experience and move on if you're black, especially if Platt ends up with a rap sheet because of it. Anger management is a skill you learn in your teens and 20s. Some kids learn it more easily or more thoroughly than others. The patience we have with people as they learn this skill doesn't have to be dependent on race, but sometimes it is. That's just the truth.

I don't think this kind of behavior should ever be excused or justified or forgotten or swept under the rug. I'm just not sure what the end game is here for all the shame? Do we feel good about someone being "worse" than us? That says more about our own guilt and inadequacy than it does about Kewan Platt. It does feel good. I'm sure if you went all the way back in my Twitter feed you'd see some shaming I'm not proud of, but I'd like to think I've learned over time. I'd like to think we all can. I want to believe we can be better, more caring, more compassionate and understanding people than we were yesterday. I'd like to think that of Kewan Platt, too.

Violence creates two victims. Always. It shapes the life of the victim in ways they don't deserve or ask for. It also shapes the life of the offender, regardless of the consequences. In both cases, the only healthy response to violence is knowing, believing that we are more than what we experience, more than what the violence tells us we are.

If we're willing to call Kewan Platt "trash" or "worthless" we might as well just wish him dead, because we're writing off his future. For so many people, the future is determined by the mistakes they make. It doesn't have to be that way for any of us. We don't hear it enough, but we can be something different than what we've been. We have to be, or there's no point to life.

Nate Tenaglia is really the only one with standing to address Kewan Platt. Yeah, his coach and school and family and friends have a responsibility to address what he did; those actions come with consequences. But they, like us, really have one choice: to do what's going to help him be more than he was Tuesday night. Shame doesn't do that, no matter how much it feels like the right way. We've all had enough experience with shame to know that life itself is just a succession of second chances.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

A Game We Can't Win

FauxNews and CNN are right next to each other at the gym - it's almost like a troll from PlanetFitness. Typically, I place myself right between HGTV and ESPN - only the truly crude settle for three-letter networks - but the "news" channels are right next door. I spend 65 minutes on the elliptical a couple times a week (I know, I know, but my knees are shot and I can't even do the stair-climber for more than 15 minutes), so I get a sense of what they're covering.

Lately, it's been two things exclusively: the stupid liberals are talking about mailbombs nonstop and the evil conservatives can't stop covering the migrant caravan (although, I notice, they never actually show pictures of it - easier to be afraid of the unknown, I guess). Literally, hours on end with no interruption, like these are the two biggest issues in the world.

I hope you recognize that neither is significant. They're manufactured either by the networks themselves, because they drive ratings, or by the politicians who think they can score easy point. It's not that security or immigration isn't important, but that these specific things - the "bomb" in the mail and this particular group of migrants - are way down on the list of things that have an impact on daily life. What's not getting covered on these channels? Elections and the issues that matter to the people represented by the Congress getting elected right now.

Those things are left to the other channel, during commercial breaks, where politicians are lobbing toxic lie-bombs at one another non-stop, because the only people who can actually be influenced in an election have no time for FauxNews or CNN. Those networks only cover things that get their audience the angriest, because driving voter turnout is what matters.

It's all a game and no one wins. Voters aren't even capable of winning. It's just a system where a few power brokers fight over the ability to keep power. They've self-selected two teams and throw out shibboleths so people can tell on which side they belong. It's a zero-sum, go-team-go kind of thing, where it doesn't matter so much if we win, so long as other guy loses.

I mentioned on Facebook the other day that I don't vote for anyone who knocks on my door or leaves a flier on my porch. The response I got was, "don't you want candidates to talk to you about issues?" Maybe, but I've never seen that happen. When people come to my door, they don't ask what I care about, they try to convince me to vote for them, usually by appealing to one of the aforementioned, self-selected, focus-group approved issues.

No one is looking for or working towards solutions; if they do that, they're not in office very long. Politicians want to be re-elected. To do that, they have to distract you from what really matters with things that make you angry or scared or both.

This is why, when we, once in a while, get someone so proficient at making you feel heard, someone capable of being both charismatic and articulate, someone good at masking how truly power-hungry they are, we elect them in a landslide. That's what we call Presidential. And just to combat the bias here, Barack Obama is the worst offender at this. Yes, I preferred his Presidency to the alternatives, but that's not exactly high praise.

The guy is probably a decent person. He loves his wife and is kind to his children; that tells you a lot about people. He's still a power-hungry, arrogant, manipulative dude. I'm not saying he can't be that and also be important, mature, sensitive, and compassionate. You can be both; in fact, most Presidents are. When you like their policies, that second part is all you see in them. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Obama - people love them more with each year, and with good reason. When you're not playing politics, you don't need to play politics.

That doesn't change the game any.

It's not about truth and justice and freedom and equality. Those things are lip service, but they're not anything a government can or particularly cares to provide. That doesn't mean they aren't important or that they're impossible. It just means the system we have - a system that specifically claims to be the only avenue to achieve those dreams - isn't capable of delivering.

I've said it a lot and I'll say it again. Whatever it is you do everyday is far, far more important than who you vote for or even if you vote at all. I will go to my polling place this year, but I may cast a blank ballot for the first time. I can't find a single candidate worth supporting in any of my races. That's ok. It's a little disappointing, but it really just makes things easier.

It's a reminder that real politics is the way I treat my neighbors, the involvement I have with the people in my town, the way I spend my time and money interacting with those around me. That's politics. Not this voting crap.

Elections are all about numbers these days - the right amount of money in advertising can move the needle in predictable ways. The side that's better at figuring out and executing those moves tends to win. A good message helps; the right manipulative issue - but in the end, it's just the using and abusing of people who put their trust in a game they can't win.

Maybe the giant lottery jackpots this week are a good analogy for how the whole thing goes. You invest time, money, and hope in a system where someone else is guaranteed to get rich. Winning is not about a better strategy, but about finding a better game altogether.

Politics has nothing to do with governments or elections. Stop believing the lie.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

We All Fall Short


We don't often look at Jesus' most famous parable from the perspective of the Samaritan. I, myself, have re-written the parable a number of times - I posted one here, part of a sermon, five years ago - but even while it was from the perspective of the "Samaritan" it was intended to speak to us as the wounded man.

I think about being the Samaritan today, as the plight of thousands of refugees and immigrants is systematically weaponized and ignored in our media. The left, apparently, doesn't think immigration polls well and the right sees the thousands of desperate people trying to reach the unwelcoming, relative comfort of the US as something to be feared. I don't watch cable news, but CNN and Faux are next to HGTV and ESPN at the gym, so I can't help but catch the headlines for an hour or so 3-4 times a week.

I've struggled with how to address the issues beyond simply the religious approach. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I can't see the world through the eyes of an American citizen, but only as a citizen of the Kingdom of God. Thus, borders and documentation don't mean much to me. People are people and we all deserve the same treatment no matter where we are or how we got there. Immigration isn't really a "debate."

Not everyone begins from the same perspective, though. US civil religion has infiltrated our culture enough that many people see themselves as US citizens first (or, worse, no difference between being a Christian and being an American - maranatha). Is there a way to approach this situation that goes beyond legalities and borders and fear - fear is the key element, as always, that we fight. We're challenged to be afraid of the other, of the sacrifice that loving someone else might mean for us.


That's where the Good Samaritan comes in. We see that story as a call to sacrifice for the other, even the one who is hated, called enemy. Jesus takes the question "who is my neighbor" and turns it into "what does it mean to be a neighbor." At the core of the parable is one line - "he was moved with compassion." The Samaritan saw the hated other in trouble and not just felt bad for him, but imagined himself in the same situation.

When we see desperate people fleeing for their lives - whether it be in Guatemala or Syria or those dark-skinned neighbors moving in from the city for a safer neighborhood and a better school district - our reaction cannot be "there might be a few bad apples mixed in, so I better avoid the whole lot." That's what our culture is doing right now. Better safe than sorry is an extreme reaction to fear. It might keep us physically safer, but it's killing our souls, diminishing our humanity, and literally costing thousands of vulnerable people their physical lives.

We must be moved with compassion - not just the heart-wrenching pain of seeing suffering. I suspect the left-leaning channels avoid the story because real relief for refugees in the US just isn't an immediate reality (not to mention it's a losing issue most places in the upcoming election). We don't like to feel sorry for people when there's not much we can do to alleviate the pain.

Compassion is something deeper - not just feeling another's pain, but identifying with the other in their pain. Until the plight of those refugees is our plight, until their future is inextricably tied up with our future, we are not truly seeing them, valuing them as humans of equal importance. I am guilty of this sin, of omission, or lack. I'm no better than CNN - "poor them; if only there was something we could do."

I don't think it's enough - not by far - but it's better than what we've been doing. Let's, all of us, people of faith or none at all, Democrats of Republican or those fed up with anything red and blue, let's pray or focus or meditate or whatever practice we employ to help form and shape ourselves into people different than we were this morning. Can we beg to be broken? Can we ask or strive to or be transformed into the kind of people who not just notice the plight of others, but internalize it?

We must see ourselves in the suffering, not on some superficial level, but deep down, intrinsically. They are us, not metaphorically, but quite literally. They are us; we are them. That is the hope for a bright and beautiful tomorrow. It seems impossible, but it is not.

May it be so.

Amen.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Trump, Yellowstone, and Fear

I really enjoyed the new Kevin Costner show, Yellowstone, this summer. Perhaps it's because we spent some time in Yellowstone and the scenery in the show is absolutely stunning, but I really think it's because these sorts of relationship dramas have become compelling. Succession was a big critical hit this summer - telling, essentially, a fictionalized Murdoch family drama about an aging media billionaire and his children fighting to inherit his company.

They're both pulpy, for sure. Succession probably has a more complete cast, but Yellowstone, for me, was just as good - with the visuals making it more fun to watch. Both are soap operas, but with the freedom of modern television, they can really raise the stakes. Instead of alien babies and endless kidnappings, you've got corporate espionage and actual murder.

Yellowstone certainly starts off dialed to eleven and stays there throughout. Costner plays a rich rancher who basically runs Montana and battles with everyone - from developers to politicians to local native tribes to his own children - to maintain and expand the empire his family has built over 132 years. There's a real tradition vs progress vibe that does a good job of not sinking wholesale into us vs them, but recognizes the tension of changing times.

I'm certainly giving it too much credit at this point, but it was created by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water and wrote and directed Wind River (my favorite movie of 2017). His fingerprints are all over Yellowstone and you should check it out.

What intrigued me about the whole thing (having binged about ten hours of tv in two days), is how allegorical it is for the Trump perspective on the world. I find it interesting that so many people try to read Trump critiques into Succession, which aren't really there, but miss the Trump show on TV because it's dressed up in cowboy hats and lost in the woods of Montana.

The first real example is the "branded men," criminals that Costner's character hires, essentially as indentured servants, to work his ranch. They're a separate crew from the regular ranch hands and they each take the cattle brand of the ranch on their chests. This is reminiscent of an ancient Hebrew practice, detailed in the Bible, where servants who had earned or been given freedom could pierce their ear as a sign of commitment to their masters, essentially committing themselves to service beyond what is owed.

One of the branded men on the show, newly out of prison, begins to understand how the ranch operates on it's own terms and tells the foreman he won't break the law. The foreman replies that the brand signifies trust, specifically, "That we trust you to do what we tell you." The man replies, "That's not what that word means."

I couldn't help but think of Jim Comey's memoir and his awkward retelling of the dinner he had with Trump in which the President asked for his loyalty. Comey replied that he'd be loyal to the country and it wasn't quite what Trump was looking for. Loyalty has been a big thing for DT throughout his life and campaign. We've come to see that loyalty and trust mean something different to him than they do to most people.

In another episode, Costner is trying to convince his daughter in law to give up her job teaching on a local native reservation to take a more lucrative position that would help secure her family's future. He says, "To consider other families before my own is to fail them as a father." This is another pretty clear allusion to how Trump operates. Regardless of how the Presidency turns out, his family will be much better off because of it.

I can't believe these exchanges are accidental on the show. They really put into focus the self preservation and single-minded, survive at all costs mentality Costner's character brings to life. He's willing to use politics, fear, intimidation, and violence to further the empire he's found himself responsible for. In some ways, it humanizes a Trump who's so easily vilified, but it also lends credence to the pioneer mentality that's so prevalent in the West.

This isn't a take down, but a study - and it's about more than just Trump. On a larger scale, it's a human reality. We survived as a species only because of our selfishness. Babies live because they're demanding and self-serving. Humans beat out other competing species because of how well we adapted to tribal life - not only seeing our group as an extension of ourselves, but recognizing the threats that other groups pose to us and our safety.

We just watched the documentary Jane, about Jane Goodall's early work with Chimpanzees in the Gombe. Years after her research facility had been established, the tribe of chimps she was studying split into two groups, essentially sharing the range they'd occupied together. This triggered an all out war, in which one faction literally attacked and eradicated the other. Even though there was plenty of space for both to exist, the disloyalty created a threat that had to be dealt with.

There's something primal in us that recognizes the self and the tribe as essential to life. We are not chimps, but those overt, primitive actions reflect on the some of the things we humans do to each other and the way we view our relationships. Pressure tends to push us towards our baser instincts - those parts of us buried the deepest tend to come out in times of stress. A lot of "successful" people use pressure - both real and manufactured - to create the kind of pressure necessary for them to act in ways that further their aims.

I think of the coverage of Luis Suarez, the top soccer player known mostly for biting opponents on multiple occasions. He talks openly about growing up in poverty and the things he had to do to survive. Even though he's now rich and in no real danger of anything anymore, he convinces himself that the guy across the pitch is literally trying to take food from his children's mouths, which enables him to summon the passion needed to excel at a high level.

Obviously, there are issues with this kind of approach, but it's certainly present in the world and it's probably far more present in our own lives than we'd like to admit. It's easy to see the success of Suarez and Trump (or Costner in the show), and think "isn't there a limit? Don't you have enough?" Some chalk it up to greed, but I tend to think it's fear. We're afraid of want or suffering. We're all just one bad break away from poverty. That might be less true for some than others, but it is a reality of the world in which we live.

Psychologists have done a number on people like Trump - saying he's striving to fill the void a lack of love left in his life, or that Suarez is simply not over the trauma of his childhood - and there are plenty of valid explorations there. I think more, though, this conversation is important for what it says about all of us. Fear is the dominant narrative of modern times, especially in the US.

Despite being relatively comfortable, we're constantly afraid, because we're constantly asking each other "what if? what if? what if?" We dwell on all the possible threats to the point where we can see nothing else. Yes, it might be elevated in someone like Trump, but the guy wouldn't be popular if that narrative didn't strike home for so many.

Guess what? The genius (to me) of Yellowstone and the Trump allegory it portrays, is that it also exposes the fear inherent in the opposition. Trump resistance uses fear as motivation in the same way. Yes, I get that the actual things - actions, policies, laws, etc - being proposed by each side have real and important differences, but the atmosphere and means by which those things are sought is the same. It's always about someone else taking something you deserve.

When it comes to Yellowstone, and to Trump, I think there's plenty to critique, but there's also a lot to consider.

How does fear impact our lives? How often do we respond, act, speak, or live in reaction to fear, as opposed to some positive force, like love, rationality, or logic? It's easy to critique those more extreme than us, but those extreme reactions begin somewhere - and that somewhere is typically the kind of decision we make everyday. Our fears are not unfounded - we live in a world where bad things happen - but they're almost always out of proportion, which means they occupy a larger place in society than they deserve.

Fear breeds fear. Things escalate. The cycle not only continues, but builds and grows. This is the lesson of Yellowstone; it's also the lesson of the Trump era. By all means, stick up for what you believe, but don't do it in ways that feed the fear. Fear is the real monster; what you're afraid of a mere symptom.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

The Confidence of Doubt

We used to make fun of the old hymn - that one line where it says God "has never failed me yet." The grammar of that seemed to belie the faith we claimed to have. The 'yet' signifying that God might fail us in the future, but so far, so good. It was the "right" answer, the one we were supposed to give, the joke we were supposed to make. Of course God is all sufficient and we should not just say it, but know it. That's how faith works, right?

I sang a song with a similar line this weekend. It wasn't the old hymn, but it spoke of God not having "failed me yet," or something along those lines. With the space of decades, a theological education, and some real-life experience, it seemed a lot more profound. The 'yet' seemed incredibly important.

I'd still claim God does not and will not fail us. I don't have an theological or intellectual doubts about the direction in which my life is pointed precisely because I believe in the steadfastness of God. I do, however, like how the 'yet' speaks to the immediacy of the moment. More and more I like the AA analogy for faith and Christian life - with the gatherings of the Church being the place where we can say, "I'm Ryan and I'm a sinner." Some people are in permanent recovery and they earn their chips every year; others have to make the same confession each meeting. It's a much better model than the congregations where you can only say it once, and anything more is met with shame and disappointment.

I don't know if it's practical or healthy or "correct," I've found it quite helpful to meet temptations with delay tactics. I'll indulge that vice tomorrow, but for today, I'm going to stick to my principles. Most of the time it works for that extra bowl of ice cream and sometimes even for anger or laziness. It's the same model AA uses - one day at a time - it's why they tell you to go to as many meetings as possible, because the more often you get up in front of a room of people and admit your weakness, the less time you have to indulge it in between.

I sat listening to the song, after the first time through the line with "yet" at the end, just enjoying the moment. I thought of our childhood jokes and how much more I appreciated that "yet" today. There are plenty of reasons to doubt the love, good will, and grace of God - the world is pretty awful much of the time - but we can save that doubting for tomorrow. God's good enough and close enough and trustworthy enough for today -let tomorrow worry about itself, because today, today is all we really need.