24 August 2016

The Wrath of Privilege

It has been 30 years since a computer first came into my home. The following year I purchased a dot-matrix printer—which is likely when I started generating personal/professional newsletters—and my once-loyal manual typewriter disappeared without leaving so much as a note. I wrote at least two each year, stuffing them into stamped envelopes until the late 90s when it became possible to reach most people through email. Now I mostly upload newsletters to my Changing Winds blog and offer a link at Facebook, which means less effort for me but also that a lower percentage of you—as opposed to back in the postal days—will see or read it.

The more convenient communication becomes, the less memorable it is. Last month going through belongings at my mother’s home in Gloucester, I came across the shoebox of letters that perhaps you also have somewhere. The earliest postmark was 1968. As happens so often, when I set out to divest the family home of the superfluous, I lose myself in the past. I determined the least I could do, short of discarding them all, was pare the letters down to highlights—those with drawings, recounting of significant experiences, adolescent ponderings, angst, revelations. One letter in particular I sought was from Maria, an African-American (the only one in our class that year I can recall) I befriended in ninth grade, who grew disenchanted with the ivory tower of the prep school we attended, moving out of the dorm and back to Detroit. I wanted that same determination about where I belonged and where I didn’t, and the ability to act on it, even when it meant giving up privilege. Reading the blue fountain pen on onion skin, I recalled the encouragement I once felt in her words—her confidence that I, too, would one day resolve the schism within, the clash of values, and align with my true self.

This aligning has proved to be a life-long process that remains uncompleted. Only in hindsight can I see it played out. In adolescence I connected with a passion for music, and assumed that it would become my life’s work. Yet, however much I dedicated myself to the study of music, or my instrument, I could not prioritize perfection. My ambition was distracted by a restless gravitation toward social justice, spiritual growth, and emotional healing. One kept mucking up the other. Perhaps it was this inner tussle that kept me from adapting to the priorities of school administrators I worked under, or to lay the groundwork for a career composer or performer. It is not that I was not disciplined, but that my disciplines were at odds with one another.

It is just three years that I have worked as a drug and alcohol counselor (known in these parts as a CDP). There is a recording of a speaker we heard at the 2013 Freedom in Sobriety conference (annual Tacoma AA event) that I play regularly to my groups. The speaker describes how he came to kill a young woman and her two daughters while driving in an alcohol blackout, and how that event has played out in his life in the ensuing decades. Particularly challenging for him was reconciling his survival with their deaths. The only alternative to despair and internal damnation was to view his victims as having given their lives to save his, and to dedicate that life to honoring their memory. He still cannot remember anything about the incident between shooting pool in the bar and waking up in the hospital.

Most of those listening to the recording remark something like, “I can’t imagine what it’s like to wake up every day knowing that you did such a thing.” The fact of the matter is that, in one sense, I have. I am descended from a line of white Christians who committed grievous crimes to protect their own privilege and that of succeeding generations. I may not have seen the acts committed, but my ancestors did, either as participants or silent bystanders. Even if there were times certain ancestors risked their lives to stand up against persecution, the net result remains an unfair distribution of resources with preference given to my demographic—particularly the male half. Most of my ancestors were Irish—arguably an oppressed people at various points in history—but the Dupuytren’s Contracture in my right palm evidences that I am also descended from the ninth century Vikings who pillaged the Emerald Isle. As if there were not already enough oppressor material in my line, I had a German grandmother.

Where did we learn of the Doctrine of Discovery that, since the 15th century, justified the appropriation of all lands not already occupied by Christians and abduction/enslavement to maximize profit? Not in my school. Dare I make the analogy between this inter-generational silence and committing manslaughter in an alcohol blackout? I should add that I have heard some Christian missionaries were well-intentioned and provided needed services. The heirs of the Doctrine would be corporations, whose culture of profit—stripped of humanitarian concerns—encourages war, illness, recidivism, and tolerates any human sacrifice that increases the bottom line and CEO pay.

I continue to recall the scene in Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella, 1997) where the German professor that Guido waited on in Italy, while posing complex riddles, he encounters again in the concentration camp. The professor now being a Nazi officer, Guido hopes to take advantage of their pre-war relationship to enable the survival of his captive family. Instead, the German has become obsessed with an unsolved riddle, his preoccupation having increased to the point of blanking out present reality. Presumably, this was the man’s natural defense against the horrors in which he had become complicit, surviving through dissociation—as do many trauma survivors.

Then I turn to look at the things I do, as a participating member of the consumer culture, to escape confronting the reality of world-wide suffering, environmental destruction, or my own complicity in generational fratricide. We may each reason that there is nothing we can imagine doing to effect change so we might as well live it up—die with the most toys. But when prioritizing my own comfort I have come to feel a visceral disconnect at the soul level, a severing between my morals and my behaviors. My own life itinerary can be interpreted through this dilemma. I wouldn’t even call it altruism. I did not end up working with addicts—victims of the prison-industrial complex, upward redistribution of income, and “the war on drugs”—so much to champion their survival; rather, it is my own survival, spiritually anyway, that is at stake. Being able to live with myself requires stepping further outside the protective bubble created by my privilege. Given what it pays, it is a sign of privilege that I can even afford to work with the disenfranchised. But considering my unwarranted entitlement, it is the least I can do to hold their pain. As I compare their stories to my own, I weep inside for all they were denied, that should have been any child’s birthright. The playing field was never level.

And so I endeavor to share with them those gifts that I took for granted but they could not. These include: education and intellectual curiosity (had they received more brain stimulation they would not struggle so often with boredom); the ability to regulate myself emotionally (and thereby avoid DV charges); and the foundation of security and trust that resulted from getting my childhood needs met. In my masters’ program we learned about “mirror neurons”—where a client’s inflexible thinking can be freed up simply through regular exposure to the (hopefully) more rational thinking of the therapist.
The price for my advantaged starting point was more likely borne by the labor and sacrifice of their ancestors than it was by mine. And just as many of them must pay restitution for crimes committed, so must I for generational crimes that never resulted in an arrest. The AA program—as descended from the Oxford Group—teaches us that in order to maintain sobriety we must make amends, wherever possible, to those we have harmed. My life-long restlessness would therefore appear to be a subconscious longing to make such amends. I need to work this ninth step even though I did not end up addicted to a substance. Had I fewer options, I could have. Generational amends-making might well be considered a form of past-life therapy.

One of my clients announced in a fury last week he would likely be put in jail for 90 days because he could not afford to pay for the electronic ankle bracelet for home monitoring. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the private contractor who profits from home monitoring has lobbyists on the payroll). Of course, it would be an ethics violation to offer him a check, him being my client. (What would I do if he were instead my neighbor, I wonder to myself). What I could give him, though, is a place to process feelings about yet one more victimization by a justice system where his outcomes are negatively affected by his defendant case history and skin color. Over the course of 2-3 group meetings I encouraged peer support and validation of his feelings. The day before he had to report to court he reflected that “whatever happens tomorrow I am content. I’m through stressing about it. No matter the outcome, I will accept it peacefully.” Were I back teaching school music, it would have been like seeing a student everyone thought of as shy sing her first solo in concert. I am also reminded of the bumper sticker about teaching a man to fish rather than simply give him a fish. As it turned out, he was not put in custody, but offered more reasonable terms to begin the home monitoring. Though he continues to wage the external battle, the internal battle, for this month at least, has been won. Speaking of fishing, he later came to group beaming about fishing with his six-year-old daughter.

I will not be the one to break the back of of our oppressive system. Rather it will be a diversity of non-reactive, clear-headed, impassioned targets of that oppression who overcome the divide-and-confuse tactics used so effectively by that system. I stand in the wings to support them. Spending the work-week with these clients has brought me a new kind of peace. I have encouraged them to detach from the material—such as blaming others for their pain—and engage the spiritual—particularly as experienced in collective group consciousness. Yet I still ache like the wealthy man who said to Jesus:
“Teacher, I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”
Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
When considered in the context I have been describing, our possessions can indeed make us sad. Can we have possessions without the soul-death of attachment? Maybe some of us.
Soy felíz, soy un hombre felíz
Y quiero que me perdonen
Por este día los muertos de mi felicidad
—Silvio Rodriguez

I take this Spanish to translate as: “I am a happy man, and wish that you will this day pardon me, those who died for my happiness.” While he was singing about the Cuban revolution, the song speaks to a universal survivors’ guilt. Those who died for our happiness most likely wanted us to be happy. But I, much like the homicidal alcoholic, can only begin to approach that happiness through honoring their memory and lending a hand to their children.

P.S. My newsletters have always contained some music news, so I will tuck a little here at the end. With being in school and working full-time, I have had to push musical projects to the back burner. Simmering there, however, is a rich concoction of pieces at various stages of completion for guitar with digital effects. A exciting addition of late has been the midiguitar software that allows me to trigger synthesizers polyphonically from my classical guitar without any special hardware, just the saddle pickup used for live sound. Once converted to midi, notes can be isolated for unique treatment, allowing me to play synthesized sounds only within a specified range or at certain dynamic levels. The footstool has been replaced by an expression pedal; the other foot accesses three toggle switches—all programable as needed, of course. There is still only one of these pieces at my youtube channel, but I have a backlog of others to video when time permits.

Where I’ll work when I finally get my mental health license remains to be seen. We are purchasing a house on Orcas Island, so I may be seeking to work in behavioral health there and on neighboring islands. Monica has interviewed for a job there already. In the meantime we will rent the house out. Peace to all.

06 August 2016

Mom's birthday verse

Twenty-nine years, twenty days between
The dates on which we came
Into this life, onto this earth,
And each received our name.
From that name we did our best
To go against oppression
That our privilege both brought about
And left us space to question.
We helped ourselves to music,
Fine art and seaside dwelling,
Accumulating memories
For later storytelling.
Which deeds will be remembered
By who it matters not;
So long as it is known within
We gave it our best shot.