Super Saturday: Reflections, or, He Shoots Lightning From His Feet

I’m constantly amazed at how applicable my posts before the accident are to me post-accident. This post was originally posted on April 22, 2013.

I want to pack up every thought I’ve had in a box and place it in a corner where I will one day forget about it and when I finally rediscover it I will assume it’s a box of old basketball trophies (the kind you get for participating) and because you can’t do anything with old basketball trophies I will put it out with the trash and never have to think about it again.

I want to pull back all the words I’ve ever spoken as if they existed on measuring tape and I could push a little button on the side of my head and they would all come back to me and even if the shock of all of those words hurt me a little and made me feel a little dizzy at least they would stop hurting anyone they have stung.

I want to walk backwards through life and watch as everything I’ve ever done unravels and I want to know how it feels for the pressure to decrease steadily steadily steadily steadily.

I want to line up every person I’ve ever known and I want to stand on trial before them so they can judge whether I have helped or hurt them not because I want to know if I am a good person or a bad one but because I want to know how to maximize the helping and minimize the hurting.

I want to write down everything and everyone I have ever loved so that I can chart it [love] and diagram it [love] and dissect it [love] and maybe figure out what it [love] means.

I want to curl up into God like He is a king-sized bed and I am a three-year-old child and I want to feel all of my secrets wash away under me deep under the covers into long-forgotten and never-traveled bed-spaces.

I want to gather all the people I have seen but whose names I do not know and feed them cake and throw a party with small talk and then later big talk and then much later tears and when I leave I will know many new names and I will have made many new friends and fallen in love perhaps twice or more.

And I want to dance so hard that I create a storm and no one will be able to get near me and they will look at me and they will say that storm used to be a boy but then he danced and now he shoots lightning from his feet.

“You’re Irritating:” Reflections on Anger and Patience

I remember an instance freshman year of high school where a peer was asking me a question. I don’t remember the question or why it caught me in the way it did. But I distinctly remember turning around and snapping at him, my face turning red. I can remember the heat on my face and the way the anger kind of bubbled up from my stomach and seemed to wrap itself around my heart like a tiny, evil, hate-filled dragon.

High school for me was characterized by sporadic instances of these outbursts. To do this day, I’m not entirely sure where they came from. But it was almost always a result of impatience.

I can count on one hand, though, my run-ins with anger in college. I thought this was because I am mostly an easy-going person–I am someone who is easy to get along with, I thought. I am someone that can see other view points with ease, I thought. I am someone who understands others’ problems, I thought.

And then I began to teach.

What I thought was the result of a good character was actually the result of a lack of conflict. For four years, I worked hard at a place where very little was demanded of me, where (even when I was in leadership roles) I managed very few people. I lived and studied in an environment where often my biggest conflict on any given day was if I was going to ask a girl on a date that weekend. And so when people talked to me about patience and humility and optimism, I thought well yeah, I have those.

What I’m learning now is that I was wrong about basically everything I once thought about myself. I am not naturally patient. I am not naturally optimistic. I am not naturally humble.

A student complained to me today about how I’m always angry. And I have been angry a lot lately. That tiny dragon is taking up permanent roots in my chest. I can feel him breathing fire into all the other parts of my life.

And the more I reflect on that, the more I recognize it as a problem. I don’t think I would listen to someone who was always angry. In fact, I don’t. Even if a person has interests and opinions similar to mine, it’s hard for me to take something valuable from him or her if s/he is angry. For my students, I’m some strange angry man whom they barely know who is teaching a subject matter with which they are frustrated. Of course they don’t want to listen. Of course they start tuning me out. Of course.

I’ve been waiting for my students. “I would be less angry,” I tell myself, “if my students were better behaved.”

But, my students argue, they would be better behaved if I was less angry.

My students sometimes hit each other (playfully) in the halls. It’s something I don’t get. I don’t remember so much physical contact in high school. The other day, I was talking with my class with which I have the best relationship, and a girl was complaining about how someone had playfully hit her and how she should seek retribution, and I drew a diagram on the board showing how this process was necessarily infinitely cyclical. My students thought about it carefully, and considered how always wanting revenge leads to more and more of the playful hitting, which none of them seem to really appreciate (unless they are doing the hitting).

I’m glad I could share this moment with my students, but I don’t follow this in my own daily life.  I am angry far too often. And my anger leads my students to want to be frustrated with me. And their frustration leads me to want to be frustrated and so on. If their frustration and discontent was always met with love and peacefulness and patience and humility, I think they might start thinking twice of their disruptions. Why be so mean to a person who is so nice?

Some days I think I need to teach my students how to be kind. But really, they are the ones teaching me. Their hearts are big; their memories small. I can kick a student out of class and by the end of the day, that student is able to have a productive, loving conversation with me. That’s a testament to the student, not to me. My heart is too small; my memories too big. MY memories, MY experiences, MY ego: I spend so much time thinking about these things. I never really understood how Jesus says you need to die to yourself to follow Him. I am starting to understand.

Reflections, or, He Shoots Lightning From His Feet

I want to pack up every thought I’ve had in a box and place it in a corner where I will one day forget about it and when I finally rediscover it I will assume it’s a box of old basketball trophies (the kind you get for participating) and because you can’t do anything with old basketball trophies I will put it out with the trash and never have to think about it again.

I want to pull back all the words I’ve ever spoken as if they existed on measuring tape and I could push a little button on the side of my head and they would all come back to me and even if the shock of all of those words hurt me a little and made me feel a little dizzy at least they would stop hurting anyone they have stung.

I want to walk backwards through life and watch as everything I’ve ever done unravels and I want to know how it feels for the pressure to decrease steadily steadily steadily steadily.

I want to line up every person I’ve ever known and I want to stand on trial before them so they can judge whether I have helped or hurt them not because I want to know if I am a good person or a bad one but because I want to know how to maximize the helping and minimize the hurting.

I want to write down everything and everyone I have ever loved so that I can chart it [love] and diagram it [love] and dissect it [love] and maybe figure out what it [love] means.

I want to curl up into God like He is a king-sized bed and I am a three-year-old child and I want to feel all of my secrets wash away under me deep under the covers into long-forgotten and never-traveled bed-spaces.

I want to gather all the people I have seen but whose names I do not know and feed them cake and throw a party with small talk and then later big talk and then much later tears and when I leave I will know many new names and I will have made many new friends and fallen in love perhaps twice or more.

And I want to dance so hard that I create a storm and no one will be able to get near me and they will look at me and they will say that storm used to be a boy but then he danced and now he shoots lightning from his feet.

Why Not?

I.
“Why?” she asks.

Her name is Emily. I met her five minutes ago. Her first question was “Do you like to dance or do you love to dance?” That turned into “Do you love to dance or are you in love with dance?” That turned into “If you are in love with dance, would you marry it?”

Now we are talking about my future. I tell her I’m going to be a teacher. And now we are here.

“Why?” she asks.

I mumble something about TFA offering me a placement. She seems content with this. Our conversation continues. When it threatens to die:

“Why?” she asks.

I appreciate what she’s doing. It makes a more interesting conversation than the typical party fare.

II.
In three months, I will graduate from college (Lord willing that I finish my thesis first). I enter the shortest commitment I’ve ever made with my time. Two years teaching. Many of my peers will have shorter commitments than that if at all. It’s weird.

I want to plan the rest of my life right now. I want to lay down a plan. I want to have an end goal and I want to plot the path that will lead me there. I want to figure out exactly who I am. Who is the “real” Spencer? What does he like? What does he do?

III.
In high school, I had a girlfriend, I played golf, and I was a practicing Christian. These things took up most parts of my identity. But I also did stupid stuff. I spent too much time on the computer, too much time watching television, too much time playing video games, too much time thinking life was hard.

When I went to Bible studies, though, we would talk about giving our lives over to God. But we hardly ever talked about television, video games, or the computer. Instead, the leader would turn to me and say “Spencer, what if God made you give up your girlfriend or golf?”

The conversation has evolved since then. No one puts it into quite those terms. We still talk primarily about the same thing, though. When we talk about wisdom, for instance, we correctly note the difference between wisdom and academic knowledge, but then we draw the wrong-headed conclusion that some academic knowledge, because it is not wisdom, is useless.

IV.
I want my life to have meaning. I try to achieve that through faith. If there are bigger ideas tugging at my soul like justice and peace and love, then it is easier to forget about the things that don’t matter. The problem is that, as a human, I must slog through the “thing that don’t matter.” I cannot instantly achieve justice, peace, or love. I must work at these things. I must chip away at the stones in my eyes that keep me from seeing them.

But what I hate about my faith is that it falls prey to the same things that the world falls prey to–namely, prescribed narratives. There are things in the Church that we assign importance to with no real explanation–mission trips, having a family, leading a ministry. We put up with the minutiae of our day-jobs and educations in order to be a part of these things. But these things, in and of themselves are not meaningful. Mission trips can sometimes do more harm than good. Families fail when members think their purpose on this earth is that family. The Westboro Baptist Church is a ministry. We lose justice, peace, and love for the American Dream. Or for the Christian sell-everything-you-have-and-walk-barefoot-around-the-world Dream.

V.
I believe that God has an intimate relationship with me. I believe He is talking to me even when I’m not listening. And it is for this belief, that sometimes, I gain enough courage to trust.

VI.
Emily walks away. I’m glad. She is fun, but the question “why” is beginning to become annoying.

I begin to walk around the party more freely, not afraid to talk to groups of people I only marginally know. When the iPod stops playing, I know that I want to turn on music that I want to listen to. Informed by both my own tastes and those of the people at the party, I turn on Aaron’s Party.

Emily, who has left the room by now, comes back to dance. This time she does not ask why.

The Journey From a Bitter, Disgruntled Eighth-Grader To an Open-Minded Man: What Love’s Got To Do With It

“Also, there is the feminist thing. It started off good, but now girls think everything is sexist, and boys are supposed to be kind to them, because they might be going through a ‘change.’ So, as a guy, I must assume that every time a girl is depressed or gives me a hard time it is because they are going through ‘a change.'”
-From the journal of an eighth-grade me

Spending time in my childhood home always makes me reflect–both on who I was then and who I thought I was going to be now. A constant theme running through my journals through high school is a belief that I was losing integrity–that as I grew older, I also grew more nefarious. Upon having a few of those same thoughts recently and rereading some of those old high school journals, I’ve realized that there probably wasn’t a time of maximum integrity. A continuous looking back to some golden age of Spencer morality probably does more harm than good.

But while some things have remained constant, many other things have changed. I no longer believe, for instance, that feminism “started off good, but now girls think everything is sexist.” It’s even a little bit shocking that I am the same person as the boy who wrote those words. Change is strange.

***

I watched Cory Booker’s 2012 commencement speech to Stanford University today. If you have 45 minutes, I recommend sacrificing watching another episode of your favorite television show and watching this instead. (I watched it instead of watching another episode of The West Wing.)

Booker talks about a “conspiracy of love.”  He argues that true change, true innovation happens when individuals refuse to give up hope, faith, and love. He talks about a man who drove past graffiti on his way to work every morning. Rather than complain about it or grow cynical about it, he left for work a little earlier one morning, bought a can of paint, and painted over it.

I don’t think like that.

I don’t believe in things or causes or even other people. I believe in myself. If something, some cause, or some person does something I strongly disagree with, I leave. I “take my business elsewhere.” But I don’t think that’s how it should be. I think we should change from the inside. I think the world would be a much more interesting place if everyone was forced to join the religion and political party of his or her family. It would force change. Real change. Dynamic change. Meaningful change.

I heard a story today from a woman who was scared to tell her grandmother that she was gay. Her grandmother often railed against Ellen DeGeneres for her sexuality and so the woman thought there was no way her grandmother could ever accept that her own granddaughter was a lesbian. But when the woman told her grandmother she was gay, her grandmother accepted her perfectly and amazingly. Her grandmother even became the first in the family to reprimand family members if and when they told bigoted jokes (Smyka, The Moth).

Obviously, the woman has an amazing grandmother. But I think the reason this story had a happy ending is because there was real love between the grandmother and her granddaughter. What finally broke the grandmother’s bigoted views was not factual argumentation but a loving relationship. Because she loved her granddaughter unconditionally, she had not choice but to accept her granddaughter’s sexuality.

***

I try to remember the exact path that took me from the boy in my eighth-grade journal to the man I am now. I can’t remember the exact twists and turns anymore. But I know this: I was never swayed by an argument telling me I was wrong. In my mind, I had facts, stories, ideas, and people smarter than me to back me up. And I know how to argue. What ultimately changed me were people. People who loved me. Friends who had to have recognized my wrong-mindedness but loved me anyways.

I have convictions–ways I would like to see the world changed. Too often, the way I go about spreading those convictions is through arguing–on Facebook, on Twitter, in real life, or on a blog. But, I think I have to learn how to love that eighth-grade boy first.

In Which Sparks Are Found

1. Judaism has a magnificent term–tikkun olam. It means “repair of the world.” It was humanized in a 16th century myth. In the myth, God sends light to the world in ten vessels. The vessels, too fragile to hold the light, break on their way to Earth. In order to get the light back, God creates humans. Humans, then, are charged with tikkun olam. They must repair the light of the world by finding these holy sparks.

2. There is a movement in psychology known as social constructivism. Its main tenet is that meaning is constructed rather than discovered. Meaning and truth are created through conversation and interaction. My identity is not so much a steadfast reality as much as a group of stories and characteristics that the people around me and I agree upon.

3. I’m beginning to wonder if the very act of language is intrinsically oppressive. The act of naming something sets it apart from other things. My frustration with words is that they are simplistic. When setting something down on paper, I cannot possibly fairly represent things the way they are in my head. Complex networks of ideas intersect in counter-intuitive ways. And I don’t think I am capable of explaining them.

4. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, the oft quoted Bible passage for weddings, reads:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

I believe all these things. What this passage fails to mention, however, is that love is the quickest way to get all of these other benefits. Love is patient and kind but it also demands patience and kindness. Impatience and meanness have no room in love. Love forces its opposites out. True love makes us better. It challenges us. One of the ways I know my parents love me is that they hold me accountable when I make a mistake. 

5. When I am safe in my room, I cannot, for the life of me, understand why I would ever do anything I don’t want to do.

I Think I Want to Waste My Senior Year

In 24 hours, my college town will double in size. Every year close to 30,000 people come out for a Halloween block party. 30,000 twenty-somethings take over the main drag of Athens. The city shuts the street down. People wander in and out of the dozen bars on the street and bands are booked for different alleyways. It’s a great time.

Except last year, there were 50 arrests.

The year before that, there were 78 arrests.

I don’t think anyone comes here expecting to get arrested. Probably, the vast majority of these people are good kids in the wrong place.

But, I have an issue. We have created a world in which the end all of “blowing off steam” is participating in a party that is rife with illegal activity.

***

In 24 hours, religious zealots will descend on my liberal college town to stand in the middle of a block party to hold signs reminding people of hell. They will tell the costumed college students that fornication and drunkenness end in death.

I don’t think these zealots are hateful people. I just don’t think they’ve ever interacted honestly with a costumed college student.

And many costumed college students will come to the conclusion that God has nothing to offer them but death and punishment.

And all of this sucks.

***

Fifty miles away, in the heart of rural southeastern Ohio, is a 10th grader working on his homework. He is in a special education program. He loves to read. In fact, he has read the book his class is currently reading four times already. When asked about the book, he gets excited and can talk about it for near half an hour. Most of that half hour is summary, but it’s the most detailed summary you have ever heard.

On Monday, he will go to a school where teachers will applaud him for that rambling summary, believing that to be the precipice of his academic achievement. Meanwhile, the “normal” 10th graders will be asked to analyze symbolism and figurative language in poetry. None of this higher level thinking will ever be asked of our student in the special education classroom even though he obviously has the capacity to connect to a text in a profound way (since he has read a book four times).

***

A costumed college student at the OU Halloween party will be arrested. She will call her parents in the morning. After the initial shock and anger of their daughter being arrested, conversations will happen about why she engaged in the behavior that led to the arrest. She will site stress or peer pressure.

She might go to therapy for a while. When she is finally able to see herself as a “good kid” again, she will leave therapy. She will go back to hanging out with her old group of friends. She won’t get arrested again. But her grades will suffer. No more Bs; Cs and Ds now. She will graduate, won’t be able to find a job, and will move back in with her parents.

She will spend months, years complaining about information overload or “how busy she is.”

***

I am tired of having to hear about the costumed college student while the book-loving 10th grader is struggling.

My generation is wasting our time. We are wasting our time with “inspirational” blog posts and with quotes with cool pictures on Tumblr and with inventing things to complain about. There is plenty to complain about. When drunk drivers kill innocent people, for instance. Or when bullying and “slut”-shaming leads to suicide.

Or when half the country isn’t getting a quality education.

Or when your country uses drones to kill people from other countries.

Or when 20% of women report being sexually assaulted at some point.

But, instead, my privileged middle class peers and I choose to spend our time talking about how Facebook poking is cramping our dating game. Or how corrupt and evil everything is except our three closest friends. Or “blowing off steam.”

I have been told more times than I can count that I need to enjoy my senior year. Why? Why is that so important? I appreciate the sentiment, but with all due respect, I am only here because I had the privilege of growing up in a family that valued education and because I went to a public school that expected I end up here and because I am hardly paying a dime for my schooling.

And what is this enjoyment anyway? Does it really require that I go to a block party that was invented so that my peers could perform illegal activities without consequences? Does it require that I go to a small bar with my close friends and toss back a cold one?

Or can I, like, fix things? Would that be okay? Like, if I took all of that energy I put into trying to figure out how to make myself happy and spent it on figuring out how to save lives? Or would that be a waste of my senior year?