Our Histories are Cyclic

santayana learn from historyWestern culture tends to believe that history is linear. In truth, at least as far as our personal histories are concerned, it’s more accurate to believe they are circular. We keep returning to the scene of our trauma by recreating it with a new cast of characters and hoping it will turn out differently this time around. Of course it doesn’t and so we recast the play and have another go at it. Because we tend to choose that new cast because it resembles the original cast, the effort is doomed from the start.

Are you a heterosexual woman who finds herself repeatedly in relationships with a certain type of ruggedly good looking, athletic, rather narcissistic man who ends up treating you poorly and at times abusing you? Find the man in your past, likely in your family or very close to it, who fits that description and you will have found the reason you make the same “mistake” over and over. You will never succeed in your efforts because this kind of man is constitutionally incapable of treating you well. The excitement you feel when you meet another one of these guys isn’t attraction, it’s danger – but you have come to conflate the learning_from_historytwo. You have somehow come to associate danger and being treated poorly with being loved, and that simply isn’t true. Ultimately, the answer to “why does this keep happening to me?” lies in the bathroom mirror.

If we take an honest look at our history and discover we keep making the same mistakes, it’s a good time to pause and examine that tendency more deeply. We need to unpack our histories and discover the roots of our unhealthy tendencies so that we can sever the connections and start making better choices. We may well find that there is a part of us that doesn’t believe we deserve to be treated in a kind and loving manner, quite likely because we believe we have a horrific defect. We haven’t yet skeleton closetfigured out that everyone has a defect they believe is horrific but that very few other people would notice if the owner of the defect didn’t keep pointing it out!

In truth, we all have skeletons in our closet. If we examine them and come to terms with them they will stop being problems. If we come to see that everyone has the odd bony inhabitant in their closet, we will stop feeling the need to hide ours. When we stop hiding ours, something decided different than showing them to everyone we meet, we will stop feeling compelled to replay the unsatisfactory parts of our collective past in the hopes that things will turn out differently this time. When that happens, Cowboy Bob won’t seem appealing any more. Imagine!

A Tightrope We Must Walk

I believe we are living in a crucial, historic time. The opportunity is in front of us to, at long last, address racism in a substantial way. It will require deep listening, thoughtful dialogue, and a whole lot of deciding to let the little stuff go.

One thing about language that makes it alive and interesting is that it evolves very quickly. If you don’t believe that, listen to someone forty years older or younger than you are and notice how usage has changed. Notice how the trendy words or phrases they are using are different from the ones you are used to. If they are forty years older than you there is a good chance they seem silly and dated to you. If they are forty years younger ellenthan you there is a good chance you aren’t exactly sure what they are saying. Consider things your parents or grandparents say such as “cool” and how uncool it sounds to you. Consider that your children or grandchildren might say “sick” even when they aren’t. A few weeks ago I heard someone criticizing someone they heard using the term “woke.” They said, “nobody says woke any more!” Well, somebody just did and you just did. As that critic ages they will likely learn that it gets harder and harder to stay on the cutting edge of language.

Ellen DeGeneres was recently harshly criticized for using the expression “people of color,” which is apparently no longer acceptable. George Floyd was Black, so only Black people are the victims of racism? News to me. I must not be on the appropriate email list. I guess Ellen isn’t either, so I don’t feel quite so left out. How many times has the preferred term changed from Black, to African American and back again? On what date, precisely, did those changes occur? Why was I not informed? Where do I write to get the updates? What are we supposed to call people who are not White? Under what circumstances, when talking about racism, can we include everyone who is a victim of racism?

Most of us are well intended and want to say the right thing. I believe that a substantial number of White people want to change racism. If, however, we are going to get bogged down in eviscerating everyone who uses terminology we don’t agree with then we aren’t going to get anywhere. If we can’t say anything for fear we are going to say the wrong thing, then dialogue can’t happen. White people need to engage in deep listening and all people need to cut others a bit of slack. That’s how learning happens.