Last month, I wrote about the natural process of individual growth. Our individual problems surface over time throughout our lives, and when they surface, it’s not a cause for alarm or self-shaming. When our problems surface, we are simply facing an opportunity for growth.
We might even come to be grateful for those chances to mature more and more into the people we are intended to be.
Instead of seeing those openings as failures, we can view them as necessary and even holy occasions that invite us to be, as the baptismal liturgy of my childhood said, “risen to walk in newness of life.”
This month, I want to expand that discussion about growth to suggest that what is true for us as individuals is also true for us as communities and cultures.
Issues will surface over time, and when they do, that is the time for us to recognize reality, accept the truth, release our dysfunctional ways of living, and receive new life.
In this small community of A Life Overseas, we recognize the issue of racism among us white folks.
We want to work on our racism as a community.
We want to own up to the ways in which we perceive ourselves as superior to others, simply on the basis of the level of pigmentation in our skin or the pure dumb luck of being born on a particular piece of the planet.
We want to be open to the possibility that we’re racist without knowing it.
We want to listen to the voices of others, receive input, and move toward health.
I believe that moving past racism is primarily individual work, because our communities and cultures are made up of individuals.
We can set community standards and goals, and we should.
We can support one another in our good intentions for change, and we should.
We can confront one another when we recognize racism in one another, and we should.
But ultimately, the work of moving past racism into a real experience of the Imago Dei in each other is individual work.
It is hard work, and it is work that will not be done without deep introspection and self-awareness.
As a therapist, the one thing that I see most hindering the individual work of growth and maturity is shame.
I truly believe that if we want to work on our racism, we have to work on our shame first.
We will never be able to bring change onboard when we are full up with shame.
When we release shame, we find ourselves open and able and even eager to be filled instead with the goodness of Love.
Shame says, “I am a bad person.”
And then, ever since Adam and Eve ran and hid in the garden, shame throws up a wall of defense mechanisms, all designed to hide the shame and pretend that the bad thing didn’t happen.
Our painful logic goes something like this: if the bad thing didn’t happen, I’m not a bad person, and therefore I don’t have to feel this shame.
Problem solved, right?
Unless the bad thing really did happen, and then we dig ourselves deeper and deeper and deeper until the truth is so far from us that we can’t even see it anymore, and we are lost in a pig-pen far, far away.
The solution to all this is the one Jesus told us about so long ago, in that story we call The Prodigal Son.
The solution is to leave shame behind, and turn for Home.
Receive all the Love that we need for ourselves, for our mistaken beliefs, for the behaviors that have harmed ourselves and others so deeply.
We must receive Love enough to confront the genocide of Native peoples by the hands of our ancestors.
We must receive Love enough to face the murderous enslavement of African peoples by the hands of our ancestors.
We must receive Love enough to bear the disillusionment that we are better than others, the narrative of our cultural superiority and exceptionalism.
We must receive Love enough to endure the pain of what our cultural collective has allowed and encouraged and even preached from pulpits, as though God is on our side when we abuse those made in God’s own image.
We must receive Love enough to carry us through our own recognition of our own racism, here and now.
When we have received Love enough, we are beyond fear because Love casts out fear.
When we have received Love enough for this, we will have Love enough for the others we have secretly despised for so long.
When we have received Love enough for all of this, we will release our shame and understand that even though the bad thing is real, we are safe in Love. We can admit to what happened, and then we can do what Maya Angelou tells us: “When we know better, we do better.”
When we have received Love enough for all of this, we will finally and truly understand that there is no limit to Love, no scarcity of supply, no need to hoard for ourselves, no requirement to harm others to provide for ourselves, no necessity to dehumanize so that we can use God’s Beloved as objects to our own ends.
This is the heart-work for the healing of racism: receive Love in abundance, and share out of that abundance with others.
If our response to the possibility of our own individual racism is defensiveness, that’s our shame and fear speaking, and the antidote to that shame and fear is Love.
Love enough for me, Love enough for you, Love enough for us all.
In my own life, contemplative practice is the best practical method I’ve found for receiving all the Love that I need, so that I can share with others, and so that I am less defensive and more open to new things I need to learn about myself.
Contemplative practice is as simple as setting aside a few minutes each day to focus your attention on Love. Many teachers of contemplative practice encourage us to sit in silence for 20 minutes, which trust me, is an eternity the first time around.
There’s a story about Thomas Keating, a teacher of contemplative prayer. When a student complained that her mind wandered 10,000 times in a 20-minute prayer session, Father Keating said, “How lovely! Ten thousand opportunities to return to God!” (Source)
And I think that is the beauty of contemplative practice: when your mind wanders, you simply say, “Love.” And when it wanders again, you say, “Love.”
That’s the practice: turning back to Love, so that it becomes a habit.
In contemplative practice, we’re just reminding ourselves over and over and over of the truth that Love is enough for us and everyone else as well.