In July 1986, I moved from Cincinnati to Silicon Valley. Michael and I had been engaged for three months. Since the bulk of our courtship had been conducted through letters and phone calls, we decided to actually date for a few months before planning our wedding.  On a late September afternoon, I walked along Escuela Avenue toward downtown Mountain View. I was homesick. The thrill of being in a new place had worn thin; I was tired of adapting.   Instead of a cool fall day, it was over ninety degrees.  Instead of a shower of red maple leaves, I walked past rows of palm trees.  I turned the corner onto Villa Street, trudging past Chiquita and up Mariposa Avenue. As I crossed an intersection a block away from El Camino Real, I found myself hating the Spanish street names, the palm trees, the fact that I couldn’t walk through a grocery store without seeing men shopping in the middle of the day (why aren’t they at work?) and hearing five different languages.  In Ohio, women ruled daylight shopping, men worked regular hours, everyone spoke English and streets were given proper names like Oak and Maple. In Ohio, things made sense. 

(I probably needed a snack and a nap.)

When your world is turned upside down, it’s easy to blame the obvious without uncovering the true causes of your pain. In Ohio, there was a homogeneity to life I missed in the multicultural Bay Area.  In Ohio, I had left my family, dear friends, a church community I loved, wooded trails I roamed without fear and a job where I felt valued.  At that point, I could’ve let my resentment fester toward the “un-American” (at least my view of America) aspects of Bay Area culture.  I could’ve kept my anger on the surface and never looked further to what was really going on.  In truth, I actually liked palm trees and warm weather and the variety of cultures.  Michael had offered to move to Cincinnati but I chose to make the transition.  

After two months of daily togetherness, however, the realities of my choices were beginning to sink in.  I was feeling the loss of all I had left, beginning to encounter the challenges of marriage and building a new life. My worldview was expanding; for someone who thrives on control, this is a very uncomfortable experience.

 

Little did I know on that day that I was only on the cusp of more transition, that I had yet to learn the meaning of stress.  Within the next 18 months, there would be several more address changes, job changes, cross-country wedding planning, first mortgage, first pregnancy……the unmatched agony of stillbirth. Two young people trying to hang on to their year-old marriage, grieving dysfunctionally. Clinical depression, unspeakable loneliness, a loss of faith in their small god of easy answers, not yet recognizing the actual presence of a God bigger than they knew who quietly held them.

 

Today I awakened to a phone call from a dear cousin.  Age-mates, we were best buddies as children and still enjoy time together. Our children are close in age as well. When I heard her sobs, my first thought was “someone’s died.” But the last name I expected to hear was that of her youngest son.  His 30th birthday is tomorrow. Thirty years ago, she celebrated her 30th birthday with his birth. They were together to celebrate their shared birthday. A heart attack at 29.  No drugs or alcohol involved, no foul play, no immediate signs of Covid. He had overcome much in his young life. Was doing well, active.  They were supposed to go on a bike ride together, then a Zoom call with his brother in New Zealand. His parents are in shock, traumatized.

 

In a year of unprecedented disaster, this one shakes me to the core.  I feel raw.  As my cousin described cradling her son’s head, whispering her love, above a body growing cold, I was taken back to holding my own son, my own whispers.  Covid death statistics lose meaning as numbers, but to imagine 200,000 Americans (almost a million people worldwide so far this year) whispering goodbye to sons and daughters, to parents and grandparents ….  Even non-Covid-related deaths, from heart attacks and cancer and car accidents, are affected by pandemic restrictions on funerals and travel, border closures and hospital access.

 

We are a world in transition, a world in grief.  We are raw. We feel the loss of what we’ve left behind.  We feel the loss of the freedom we once enjoyed to ignore dire words of warning. Some of the things we’ve experienced this year we could never have anticipated.  Others we chose not to acknowledge; perhaps some are still making that choice. 

There is a lot of anger in grief.  It’s easy to hate the messenger, the latest upset in the news.  It’s easy to hate street signs.  It’s harder to acknowledge what’s going on inside.

 

Between the pandemic and politics, our nation’s stress fractures have been revealed.  In my life, stress has been an unwelcome companion. Similar to this year, there was about a decade when it seemed one momentous crisis after another came crashing in —  the rise and fall of finances, special-needs children, my parents’ unexpected deaths within the same year. Some of the crises proceeded from my own inability to acknowledge my limitations as I tried to continue living up to my own impossibly high standards –  a perfect wife, perfect parent, perfect Christian, perfect home school teacher, etc.  (perfectly exhausting).  I ignored all the warning signs of stress fracturing and ended up with serious health issues. It has taken another decade to begin to repair all the metabolic damage.

Some of us only learn the hard way.

 

I suspect a lot of us have been yelling at the street signs this year.  It’s easier to blame what triggers our discomfort – differing political or religious views – than to acknowledge our own feelings of confusion, fear, loss and grief.  Blame somehow engenders a feeling of power even when everything else is spiraling out of control.  (I wonder sometimes if that is why our current president seems to blame others so quickly.)

Blame and critical judgments rarely lead to effective solutions.  We cannot force anyone to accept responsibility; that is a choice of will.  We can only accept the responsibility that is ours.

We build worlds that create and maintain our illusion of control.  Years like this one are a stark reminder of the fragility of that illusion.  It is the horrifying realization every young parent experiences – the moment you concede that you cannot possibly protect this child, who has overtaken your heart, from every danger out there. You would gladly give up your own life in exchange if the choice is given.  But sometimes, like my cousins are experiencing today, you don’t get that choice.

 

If today you are grieving a specific loss, or just feeling the cumulative stress from a year of emotional punches, pay attention to what is beneath your immediate emotions.  We tend to vent with anger or frustration, either directed outward at others or inward as depression. For some, like me, there may be a retreat into dissociation, a resistance to feeling anything. Negative emotions can get entangled with religious directives or perfectionism, a layer of “should’s” that drive the true feelings even deeper. Give yourself permission to feel whatever is there. Pay attention to the resistance; it helps to highlight where to focus.

 

Chronic stress can damage our bodies and minds.  We can’t control what happens out there, but we can do things to take care of ourselves.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed, start with the basics: 

Physical choices – getting enough sleep, nutrition, water, fresh air and exercise. If you find resistance there, treat yourself as you would a defiant toddler. Gently and firmly. “I know you don’t want a nap, but we’re just going to lay down here together.  I know you’d rather have cookies for dinner, but your body really wants some vegetables.”

Mental choices – limit exposure to social media, news reports or whatever tends to trigger those punches.  Again, pay attention to the resistance.  Do you feel a NEED to stay informed? Does that come from addiction or from a genuine need for connection? Evolutionarily, we have catapulted from the concerns of a single village to that of the entire planet.  Our minds were not designed to carry such a weight.  

Emotional choices – we all need to love and be loved.  We all need to be heard and affirmed. Especially in this time of sorrow, being there for someone else is one of the greatest gifts you can bestow.  Don’t try to fix it, just listen and affirm. If you’re feeling lonely, try reaching out to offer your presence to someone else. If you are the one grieving a significant loss, don’t hesitate to accept offers of help.  In either case, choose carefully those you deem to be safe people and spaces. Keep strong boundaries around those who tend to trigger your defensiveness.

In everything, begin with an acknowledgement of where you are. Then think about where you want to be and how to get there.  The best path toward enduring change consists of minuscule, incremental steps. Literal baby steps involve a couple of tottering steps, some excitement, followed by a face plant.  Managing chronic stress is remarkably similar.  If you struggle with all the choices above, trying to fix them all at once will end in facial rug burn.  Pick one. One glass of water consistently every day is better than eight glasses one day and none for the next month. Momentum builds with success.  Success starts with a ridiculously easy goal achieved consistently.

With the upcoming election, stress is steadily increasing in America.  Choose today how to best care for yourself.  Ask God to highlight anything in the above lists that might be helpful, either in a sense of invitation or resistance.  This isn’t a time for big changes, but one small one may bring hope.

After residing over 30 years within the same five mile area, I can now report how much I enjoy the multicultural aspects of Bay Area living. Authentic ethnic dining and retail options, combined with the fascination of personal stories and variety of cultural experiences, provide numerous opportunities to recognize humanity’s many similarities as well as our differences.  Sameness has its comforts, but if I’m honest, it can also be a little boring.

Last year, some of my dear Ohio friends visited us. Dining together at a local salad bar, I remarked that on my previous visit to this particular restaurant, I had noted how cool it was to realize I was the only white face among a variety of Asian, Hispanic and other ethnicities.  “And you like that?” my friend asked. His unspoken discomfort evoked a memory of my inner-tantrum walk down now familiar Spanish-named streets. I realized that my friends, and people in a lot of American towns, were perhaps only beginning to experience the blending of cultures that now feels so normal to me.  I wanted to assure him that beyond the initial discomfort, there waits a greater appreciation for diversity, a greater love for others, a greater awe of God’s faithfulness and creativity.  I wanted to warn him that remaining in the comfort of the familiar – in the fear of change, in only looking back to supposed loss – would cause him to miss the wonders of present and future opportunities.  I wanted to say we can trust God to preserve what is essential to our faith and we can also trust Him not to let us stay in mud puddles when He’s offering us the seashore (thank you, CS Lewis).   Instead, I just replied, “Yes, I love it.”

 

Deplorable.  Conspiracy.  The n-word.

 

When Kelsey was five years old, as we were driving home from a playdate, she announced.  “Mommy, I know what the f-word means!” 

I tried to keep my face neutral as I glanced back at her in her car seat.  “You do, Kels?”

“Yes, it means ‘fat.’ At Cheryl’s house, you aren’t allowed to say ‘fat.’”

“Oh?” I replied, amused.

“Yes.”  Her face grew thoughtful. “But Caleb said that isn’t the f-word.  He says the f-word is fuck.  Is fuck the f-word, Mommy?”

“And here we are,” I thought.  Keeping my voice light, I told her. “Yeah, that isn’t a very polite word. You probably shouldn’t say that word.”

“Ok.” Silence filled the car as I exited the freeway.  Then, from behind me a lilting little voice sang, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Fuck is a word you shouldn’t say…”

“Kelsey,” I added a little sternness to my voice.  “What did I just say?”

“But, Mommy,” she protested, “I wasn’t saying it, I was singing it!”

 

Ask any mom, you’ll probably hear a similar anecdote.  Children learn early what adults sometimes forget: there is power in words.

 

Sometimes words become symbols.  When Hillary Clinton referred to a segment of Trump supporters as “deplorable,” she wanted to differentiate between two groups –  the first: hate-filled, alt-right white supremacists intentionally spreading lies to seed distrust and stir up fear – versus the second group: “people who feel the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures; and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but — he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

 

The differentiation was lost by the next news cycle.  The second group, the ones who Clinton said deserved understanding and empathy, were bombarded by the first to believe she had referred to them as “deplorable.”  Soon, it didn’t matter what the actual context of the speech entailed.  Deplorable had become an identity for disenfranchised Appalachians, for evangelical Christians, for anyone in a “flyover” state who has felt disregarded by their elected leaders.  When I recently heard a white, upper-middle-class friend refer to herself as a deplorable, I was a bit taken aback.  In the same conversation, when I said the word “conspiracy,” her eyes sparked.  “That’s a word they use when they want to shut you down,” she said, an edge of anger in her voice.

 

Some words connote a depth of meaning far beyond their dictionary definition.  In part one of Emmanual Acho’s guest appearance on The Oprah Conversation, there is a brief discussion about the history and use of the n-word, how it has been re-branded within black culture (although Oprah herself does not allow its use, no matter how it is spelled.)   

 

What gives any word power is the intention behind it.  A five-year-old singing about the f-word does not carry the sting of an adult screaming it at another adult. (Of course, after Kelsey’s song, we had a child-level discussion on the use of swear words.)

 

I think that most people who repeat what they have heard on the news or social media do so in this kind of innocence.  We might know it’s gossip.  We might not have taken the time to fully vet it ourselves but we trust the person who shared it with us.

Unfortunately, the source of the story or opinion may not be quite so innocent.  Tracing Pulitzer / Hearst yellow journalism through grocery market tabloids to what is sometimes presented today as serious news, some media outlets have vied for their market share by latching onto the most sensational, shocking, attention-grabbing headlines they can find (or create.)  In the digital age, under quarantine, those methods have overfilled a sorcerer’s apprentice bucket with scandal, dire predictions and lies designed to frighten us and enrage us.

And we buy it.  And click on it. And share it with our friends, as we shake our heads and gather our children to protect them from an increasingly dangerous world.

 

Unfortunately, we do have an enemy.  But it is probably not your neighbor or high school friend or relative, even if they have gone over to the dark side (whichever one that is.)   It’s probably not Bill Gates.  

Our enemy is the one who prowls around like a roaring lion.  That old lion who roars, frightening the prey into the path of the younger lions, the ones with teeth.  If Satan (or evil, if you prefer) is the old lion, the young lions are those who intentionally use his tactics to accomplish their goals.  “Satan only has about six tricks,” a pastor joked in a sermon that has stuck with me. “But he keeps using them because they work!”

The more I investigate the inner writings of some political strategists, the more chilling I find them. Cold calculations measure how much we will believe manufactured evidence when motivated by fear. It is no longer mistakenly crossing a line in our passion, it is obliterating that line and the next and the next in an inexorable march to gain more wealth and more political power.

As consumers, we have become accustomed to the blatant manipulation of product advertising.  Over the years, we have learned to be more discerning; most of us don’t jump up and drive to McDonald’s the moment a Big Mac appears on our TV. In recent years, we’re learning to recognize and resist getting seduced by “targeted” ads on our computers.

Our skills at detecting political manipulation may not be as well-honed.

Also in the mix is our pride.  How can we admit we may have been manipulated?  Was I concerned about socialism or immigrants or racial issues before stories began appearing on my Facebook feed? If Russian troll farms influenced how I voted, what does that say about me?   So we double down on our opinions, even when there’s a glimmer that wonders, “Could it be true?” 

Unfortunately, our pride is one of the factors in the calculations.  I do not believe Trump is God’s man for our time; neither do I believe he is an evil genius.  Is he a sociopath and narcissist as many psychological reports suggest? Is he simply a man unaccustomed to real adversity or a man in the grip of greed? What I do believe about Donald Trump is that his pride, and his desire to “win,” opens him up to extreme manipulation from others.  David Horowitz grooms a young Stephen Miller who writes Trump’s speeches and feeds him the same fear and hate-filled “evidence” that the President retweets. Media reports are horrified and outraged (which is the point) and what the President says has less and less meaning (also the point).  Meanwhile, the silent power sits back in the darkness and is delighted.  

 

Since Eisenhower’s administration, much has been written about the potential of misplaced power in the military-industrial complex. Organizations such as ALEC have been happy to stay in the shadows and pull the strings of our legislature.  The American Legislative Exchange Council labels itself (and claims a tax-exempt charity status) as an educational nonprofit. In “educating” conservative legislators, the legislators receive campaign contributions and invitations to attend closed-door meetings with corporate lobbyists where they craft model bills designed to benefit the corporations.  Many of these “models” are copied verbatim (your state name here) and passed into law.  From the NRA’s “Stand Your Ground” law which protected Trayvon Martin’s killer to mandatory minimums and three-strikes in the “Truth in Sentencing Act” backed by the private prison industry, our society is being shaped according to stockholder share value.  Big Pharma, oil, manufacturing, insurance and utility companies, along with a large host of federal and state government representatives, have mutually benefited each other for decades.  ALEC’s recent agendas address voter regulation, school privatization, exploiting the pandemic to deregulate federal statutes and create bigger tax benefits for corporations.  False reports re: voter fraud, healthcare and socialist agendas have been traced back to ALEC. As a student of the history leading to the American civil war, not to mention that of Nazi Germany,  I find their current rhetoric emphasizing the influence of judges and states rights (where the majority of their power is concentrated)  disturbingly familiar. 

For more on ALEC:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3yIbxydlHY

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/investigations/2019/04/03/alec-american-legislative-exchange-council-model-bills-republican-conservative-devos-gingrich/3162357002/

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/04/exposing-alec-how-conservative-backed-state-laws-are-all-connected/255869/

https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/readers/2015/02/26/corporate-influence-borders-fascism/24033017/

 

Perhaps the most chilling discovery in my research was the fact that ALEC founder Paul Weyrich was also a co-founder of the Moral Majority, as well two other well-known Washington think tanks, the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation.  Excerpts from FCF’s strategic plan, The Integration of Theory and Practice: A Program for the New Traditionalist Movement   published in 2001, highlights how effective their plans have been:

…the truth of an idea is not the primary reason for its acceptance. Far more important is the energy and dedication of the idea’s promoters… (Ideas) have an impact only insofar as adherents of those ideas are willing to take measures to propagate those ideas…

…We will take advantage of every available opportunity to spread the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with the existing state of affairs….

…We must be feared, so that they will think twice before opening their mouths….

…It is a basic fact that an us-versus-them, insider-versus-outsider mentality is a very strong motivation in human life….this has to be recognized and taken advantage of for the good of the movement…The strong appeal of a feeling of exclusivity and superiority will give our members a reason to endure the slings and arrows of popular disapproval…

…We must recognize that literature and philosophy do not appeal to the masses. This is why we must develop ways to spread our philosophy using non-rational means…

…If we cannot capture the imaginations of our members, then we cannot expect our members to make great sacrifices for us. There must be a common repository of books and movies that everyone in our movement is familiar with and inspired by….The films Braveheart and Gladiator are possible examples from current popular culture that could serve…There is no medium more conducive to propagandistic purposes than the moving image…The visual image allows us to illustrate our beliefs and arguments to our members and others in highly compelling terms…combined with our commentary, selectively edited and arranged for maximum impact.  (ed. note: this was written three years before social media gained widespread popularity; apparently the Internet has replaced their strategy for study groups and book clubs.)

…We have a dearth of human material (!) that shares our traditionalist values. These people must be created in our own institutions…..We will accomplish the goal of retaking our country only when large numbers of young people are educated outside of the indoctrinating environment of many public and private schools, universities, and of course, the popular culture…

…Our movement must be highly provocative. The thing we have most to fear is that we will be ignored…”sensible” people do not go to the barricades, they do not make great sacrifices for a movement…We must reframe this struggle as a moral struggle, as a transcendent struggle, as a struggle between good and evil… 

…Culture wars generally seem to inspire higher emotions…Our people must learn to have contempt and scorn for the wider society, and reject it in all ways. 

Note: the Free Congress Foundation is now known as the American Opportunity Foundation. All three think tanks are still tax-exempt, still incorporated as nonprofit educational entities serving the “public good.” 

 

Our feelings of confusion and not knowing whom to trust are part of an intentional strategy designed to erode our perception of truth.  It is an intentional strategy to represent perpetrators as victims.  It is an intentional strategy to claim victims are the real perpetrators. And so on…

In an article promoting her new book Hatemonger, Jean Guerrero writes, “Horowitz wrote that hope and fear are the two strongest weapons in politics. Barack Obama had used hope to become president. ‘Fear is a much stronger and more compelling emotion,’ Horowitz argued, adding that Republicans should appeal to voters’ base instincts.”

https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/08/01/stephen-miller-david-horowitz-mentor-389933 

 

In my opinion, any person or organization that intentionally uses fear to manipulate, isolate and subjugate others are themselves being manipulated by the enemy of our souls.  Do not follow them.  Just don’t.

 

When it comes down to this year’s election, I’ve spoken with many friends who have voted Republican for their entire lives.  Some believe wholeheartedly in Republican ideals, such as limited government. Others believe they are still voting for traditional family values and against abortion. They may not approve of Donald Trump personally, but they cannot imagine themselves voting for a Democrat.

Does it matter if your goals, even Godly goals, align with people whose actions do not reflect your values?  I think this time, in this election, it does.  In the past four years, hate and fear have been given a place at the table.  The default retreat – “it’s just politics” – has worn thin.  We are shouting at each other but very few are actually talking to each other. The earth itself seems to be reflecting our disharmony in waves of disasters. Our enemy doesn’t really care which side of the aisle we support.  Our enemy delights in the terror, in the fighting, in the gossip, in our pride, in our weariness and hopelessness. 

This time, in this election, I think it’s important to sit with God and look into our own hearts.  Our right to vote is a precious privilege.  No one can see who you vote for, not your spouse, or pastor, or denomination leader. Only God sees.  Yes, your vote is important, but you are more important.  To God, you are not a chess piece to be sacrificed or manipulated.  You are His precious creation, His beloved. 

Our Creator doesn’t need us. He wants us.  Abba isn’t interested in utilizing you. Jesus told Peter his Father could send twelve legions of angels if needed; why would anyone think He needs us to battle other humans for Him? Abba invites you into fellowship to hang out, to just be with you. There is nothing you need to do to gain His acceptance or His love. Did God craft the universe or wildflowers or brilliant sunsets for peak efficiency? No, He simply provides beauty for our souls.  His glory is displayed for capitalists and socialists, for Republicans and Democrats.  No political party gets to claim God as their sole supporter. 

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” (Proverbs 14:12)

Yes. They’ll forget us. Such is our fate, there is no help for it. What seems to us serious, significant, very important, will one day be forgotten or will seem unimportant. And it’s curious that we can’t possibly tell what exactly will be considered great and important, and what will seem petty and ridiculous…And it may be that our present life, which we accept so readily, will in time seem strange, inconvenient, stupid, not clean enough, perhaps even sinful. . . .” Antov Chekhov

 “Truly, God does not see what man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD sees the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) 

 

Ask God today, “what do you see in my heart?”  

Then stay long enough to hear the answer.