FEAT

The Morning After : What Trump could teach New Zealand

I’ve followed the last three US elections religiously. I listen to a multitude of podcasts and read every article you can imagine. So when yesterday came it was the culmination of two and half years of watching and waiting for the US to decide that a reality TV star is incapable of running a country. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster to be honest. I remember hearing Trump announce his bid and saying ‘nothing dumber than this will happen this election’. Boy was I wrong! Like, Seriously! What the hell just happened?!

What I had to face this morning as I stepped out of my front door onto this little liberal enclave of Cuba Street is that there is a big world out there. A world where almost half of the voting public in the US said they’re willing to tolerate sexism, racism, xenophobia and violence if they believe it will ‘make America great again’.

I was reminded this morning that in this world I have a very specific perspective. It’s a Christian Left perspective. A male perspective. A white perspective. A middle-class perspective. A privileged perspective. An employed perspective. A tertiary-educated perspective. Those six things alone surely make me among some of the most lucky, safe and secure in the world.

This morning I’m reminded just how myopic I can be. I’m reminded that my views are in the minority and that they are shaped by always growing up with enough to eat, not having lived through a major conflict and having almost every possible opportunity afforded to me to succeed. I’m convinced it wasn’t so much Trump who won last night, but fear. Fear won the US election. All these many privileges above make it difficult for me to truly understand what it is to have fear, and so also the perspectives of many of the 50 million people who chose a President like Trump.

I’m convinced that Trump is what a society produces when we cease to try to understand and empathise with one-another. It’s what happens when educated liberals from New York retreat to their political camps and blue-collar workers from Flint do the same. Each of their perspectives left to grow in a petri dish of like-minds. Though it’s hard for me to admit, conservatives need progressives and progressives need conservatives too. When these political identities and cultures become so fortified we can no longer talk then a Trump is inevitable. A man with the charisma and the ability to exploit and widen the divide for his benefit.

A few years ago while battling with depression I met regularly with a counselor. I was feeling torn up by the painful actions of a young person I’d been working with. Where I felt I’d been loving and gracious they had responded with some painful and costly deception. I felt raw and like it was all deeply personal. My counselor at the time gave me some of the best advice for healing the wound. They suggested that every time something like this happens I invent an empathetic narrative in my head for why this is the case. Maybe this kid is stealing from me because there’s no food in the fridge at home? Maybe he’s lying to me because he doesn’t want to let me down? Maybe he’s screaming at me to see if I’ll abandon him just like everyone else? 

And you know what? it worked.

In the absence of having the full story I still continue today to imagine stories that evoke empathy in me rather than judgment and condemnation. I trick my heart into compassion when it would prefer to do the opposite. I don’t invent excuses for immoral behavior (what Trump has done is inexcusable), but an explanation helps me to take off my own perspective for a moment and stand in the shoes of another.

I’m trying to do the same this morning. I’m trying to imagine what it’s like not to live in the liberal heartland of New Zealand. I’m wondering what it’s like to be a steel worker from Flint, Michigan who saw the jobs of her or his community shipped offshore. I’m wondering what it feels like for him not to be able to provide for his family. I’m wondering how this experience of desperation framed how he saw those two planes hit the towers on September 11. I’m wondering if he remembers his childhood as a better and a simpler time where his country and his community thrived. I'm wondering if that made the ambitious offer to ‘Make America Great Again’ resonate with him just a little bit. I’m wondering if he’s not a redneck fool, but someone just desperate for change.

Because the truth is that, regardless of our own preferences, none of us here in Aotearoa want our political system to go the way of the States. To prevent that we must lean into empathy and resist division. I have a conviction this morning that I need to begin to bridge the divide with my Right Wing Conservative neighbour. I need to remember that Cuba Street is too far removed from a Taranaki dairy farm for me to claim I understand. I’m resolved today, more than ever, that we need each other. I’m praying we would all have the courage to lean across the fence/aisle, knock on the door of our neighbor and truly begin to understand. Will you join me?

The Day I Learned I Was Ugly

Recently I’ve become a enormous fan of the podcast ‘This American Life’. Hosted by radio legend Ira Glass, TAL has been running for some 20 years and specialises in making the mundane profound. Everything from summer camps, to schooling, to stocking vending machines on an aircraft carrier. This stuff is as captivating as any series you’ll binge watch on a lazy afternoon. Recently I listened to one on ‘coming out as fat’. It was about plus size people using the F word for the first time and coming to terms with their bodies. They shared about their struggles with weight loss and the feeling of often being invisible to people. One of the interviewees spoke of how, soon after radical weight loss surgery, she scored a job at the Letterman show in New York. Her job was to walk up and down the line of people waiting to get in and put a mark on their tickets. In 2008 I stood in that line and had my ticket marked and thought nothing of it. It turns out those marks are three classes of audience-member. The top class is the beautiful people and they get to sit in the front three rows. The next class is the average people who sit in the rest of the downstairs section. Finally, there’s the bottom class who sit upstairs out of view of the cameras. They are often elderly or showing signs of a clear disability. Pretty horrific huh?

And here’s the thing. I was in that middle group!

Now I think I’ve always known that I don’t fit the world’s standards of beauty. I can tell the difference between Ryan Gosling and myself. But no one had ever said it so outrightly, so starkly! I’m fun, smiley, charismatic and my wife thinks I’m hot. But listening to that podcast 8 years after my first trip to New York I felt like a veil had been lifted as I suddenly saw a policy of systemic prejudice affect me, making a call about my value and acceptance in society.

I felt that feeling again just last summer in Ethiopia. After meeting a stranger near Meskel Square in Addis Ababa we ended up walking with this new friend all around Merkato Market. We strolled about, had lunch together, and by the end of the day had agreed to go on a five day road trip with him. I emailed two of my friends some details about him, where we’d be staying and what we’d be doing. I told them that if they didn’t hear from me at the end of each day we were probably lying in a bathtub missing a kidney.

What transpired over the next few days was a hoodwink as we realised we were essentially paying for a trip home to see family for our new acquaintance. We had incredible experiences that we never would have otherwise had, but we had a sense that we were continually on the receiving end of some kind of joke that we didn’t possess the language or the cultural intelligence to decipher. That joke looked a lot like us become the purse of our host. We felt angry and confused. Were we misunderstanding the culture around us or were we genuinely being swindled? Conversations were being constantly had about us in another language without any of them directed to us.

As our frustration grew I felt that gentle interruption of God’s spirit challenging me.

I realised that my anger was about powerlessness. As a white, straight, wealthy, westerner I was, for the first time, experiencing a measure of powerlessness. Whether it was true or not i didn’t know, but how I felt was judged, sidelined, overlooked, exploited and manipulated. I felt a spiritual call to lean into this experience of powerlessness and allow it to shape me. To see this as a very rare and precious moment of which there may only be a handful in my life.

Anna and I sat at the airport in Addis Ababa a few days later and wept. We were winded and wounded. I thought of a quote I’ve heard many times recently…

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

And then I thought of refugees and migrants who move to New Zealand who are often voiceless while services have conversations about them in front of them but not to them. I thought of New Zealand’s indigenous Maori who have been made to ‘sit upstairs’ for centuries, only called into the forefront for tokenistic appearances. I thought of the LGBTIQ community of New Zealand, for whom discrimination and powerlessness has been a daily reality. I thought of the developing world who often have no voice at all.

Maybe, for those of us who have had so much go our way in life, it’s a good thing for us to experience the kind of discrimination that brings a true but brief moment of solidarity with those who suffer everyday. Maybe it’s good for us to feel ugly sometimes. Maybe it’s good for us to feel powerless. Now the question is: will we run from this discomfort, or allow it shape us?

On Managing Anxiety

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Recently I finished up 9 years with Zeal's Wellington youth centre. I'm convinced this was one of the best things I could have ever done with my twenties. I've been privileged to journey alongside some incredible young people, to watch some amazing talent flourish into careers, and to be in the engine room of something growing from a local to a nationally influential charity. I have no regrets and am enormously grateful for this time. As Anna and I begin to cool down from a shared 16 years with Zeal Wellington we have opportunity to critically reflect on the way we did it. I am fairly sure I will never work as hard, as naively or as doggedly as I did throughout this season. During some of the most difficult seasons of Zeal I was literally up all night painting walls, working on funding applications and responding to our young people. In the later years I learned to work a bit smarter, but this self-imposed attitude of 'whatever it takes' was the catalyst to exacerbate and reveal a tendency towards anxiety. On particularly bad weeks my heart would race abnormally, the room would begin to spin and I'd sometimes develop a twitch in my left eye. I'd find myself becoming easily claustrophobic and suffocated in the company of friends and was sometimes a real asshole. These are not badges of honour for working hard, they are the result of not listening to my body, my spirit and my friends when I should have.

For a long time I had the idea that the moment I stepped out of the frenetic pace of Zeal this anxiety would change, but it was during our pilgrimage along the Camino De Santiago in Spain that I began to really understand myself and this thing I call 'anxiety'. The Camino is a 30-35 day walk of about 850km from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. The pilgrimage is hundreds of years old and dates back to the time of the Knights Templar and medieval Europe. Each day we would typically walk 25-35km and stay in monasteries or albergues along the way.

I had said a prayer before I left that this would be a journey on which I would discover what 'Joy' really is. Each day I would meditate on this and consider the physical walking of the pilgrimage to be the mirror of an internal journey of learning and spiritual growth. Each night I would finish the day with a proverb or a learning about what real joy looks like. Perhaps the most startling of these was the realisation that "Anxiety is not around me, it is within me." I had traveled thousands of kilometres to the other side of the world to walk with no cell-phone reception, no work expectations and no deadlines, yet I found that this anxiety continued to hound me in this most peaceful of settings.

For those of us who struggle with this continual tightness in our chests, heaviness on our minds and worry in our souls, it is easy to believe that a change in circumstance will alter our internal state. In reality, this is often nothing more than rearranging furniture in a burning building. What we need is to learn how to rationalise our fears and to see potential consequences in their correct place and priority. Here are three questions that have helped me to tackle this:

  • What is the worst that can happen? I am a master at allowing worst-case scenarios to spiral in my mind. Certain phone numbers that flash across my mobile screen immediately evoke a sense of urgency or dread before I've even answered them as I wonder about what I'm about to have to deal with. In reality, we will all maybe receive 10 calls in our lives that are 'unmissable' and the rest will call back later. You've heard the phrase 'the squeaky wheel gets the oil'. Well sometimes the squeaky wheel is just squeaky and can wait a few hours, days or weeks for us to oil it.
  • Am I really that important? Closely tied to the thought above I'm trying to ask myself if I have a realistic perception of the responsibility I have and the importance of my availability to people. If I'm not around, there is a good chance someone else will use their common-sense and intuition to problem solve the situation in front of them. If I get it wrong, it will actually only affect the tiny sphere of influence infront of me and not the fate of the world entire.
  • Is this really personal / about me? I can be quick to leap to the assumption that if someone has done something frustrating or hurtful that affects me it must have been a personal attack. In reality, there's a good chance they didn't even think of me when they did it and, if they did it intentionally to hurt or harm, it says more about their character than it does about mine. It doesn't mean it doesn't hurt, but how ridiculous it is that I can spend days mulling over the affects of a decision they made in 1 or 2 minutes.