bullets, break ins, and learning to tell a better story

A few nights ago, sometime after midnight, Drew shook me awake. I opened my eyes to see him crouched down, peering through the curtains. “Did you hear those gun shots?” Soberly, we watched as police cars arrived. “You’re sure you locked the doors?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. We laid there in the dark and I felt small and vulnerable, alert to every sound. I fell asleep comforting myself with the thought that no bullet from the street could reach my sleeping children in the next rooms. Our bed, our bodies, the walls would stop them first, I thought. And there’s no such thing as random violence. I inhaled and exhaled that thought until I passed out. The next morning I googled our street name and “shooting” and found a little blurb about 10 bullets and nobody being injured and footage from a neighbor’s security camera showing two people running past but without enough details to find them.

Then yesterday I got a text from a friend that they were robbed while she was at preschool drop off. They live just around the corner. They had just moved in the day before.

I am full of grief and rage, a potent mix that exhausts me, quickly stalling out into fear.

It’s that fear that has me sitting here, shopping for security cameras. Fear that convinces me that spending a few hundred dollars on video surveillance will stop an intruder even though the data shows that a few motion activated flood lights and secure locks are the most important thing. Fear has me anxious to be home alone, searing into my brain the factoid that most robberies occur between 10am and 3pm. Every noise I hear is sinister, suspect. Every stranger walking down our street becomes suspicious.

So I’ve got 20 tabs open, skimming between DIY systems I can buy on amazon and the traditional companies that have “money back guarantees” and even several hip newcomers – millennial targeted start ups that repackage the promises of safety into sleek apps that claim they can put peace of mind in the palm of my hand.  I’m comparing costs and data storage plans and cameras with night vision and reading posts about how to mount the camera so it sees everything but isn’t easy to reach. I wade through the buzz words and phrases, trying to understand which are descriptive and which are simply catch phrases : “Smart home”, “Night vision”, “Deep Encryption” “Bullet Cameras” “Total control” “Fortress security”

One even says, “Can be used as baby monitor”

This one breaks me, first into laughter at the thought of a precious infant under such strict surveillance, then into tears at the kind of world we’ve accepted we are becoming. I wonder if we’ll still be able to see our neighbors with this network of artificial “security” fencing us in. In my heightened state of awareness, it’s already harder to humanize the person who pauses in front of my home. Will it be any easier knowing we have a virtual “shield” between us? Is that the cost of peace of mind?

And then there’s the literal question: what is the actual price of peace of mind? I know there must be dozens of marketing firms doing complex data analysis to answer this question, to set profit goals and launch marketing campaigns that capitalize on our anxiety. But I would like to know, specifically, what level of peace of mind will $244.95 actually get me? More than the peace of mind amazon is offering in their “buy more and save bundle” – 4 cameras for $78?

I consider the fact that the average system costs more than I paid for my laptop. That we own nothing of any value – all our electronics are at the point of “only charges with that one cord if you blow on it and then hold it just so”. So what am I so anxious about securing? If peace of mind is directly correlated with purchasing power, we’ll never be able to afford it.

If someone chooses to break into our home, my peace of mind will be shattered along with the glass. It will shake me, an act of violence that feels deeply personal. Violating. And, at the same time, most burglaries are under 10 minutes start to finish. Smash and grab operations. Usually nobody is home. Intensely impersonal to the person ransacking our home for items of value.

The lure of fear is powerful. I want the fantasy of “security” that it offers. I want to believe that we can put sturdy walls between us and the brokenness of the world. A fortress against pain, walling out needy, broken neighbors. But it is only through embracing my neighbor and sharing the weight of their burdens that any of us find peace. If I really wanted to lower the risk of crime in my area, I would advocate for a better distribution of resources to my neighbors in need. I would know their names. I would listen to their troubles.

What if this whole notion, this whole industry is built upon the myth of self preservation? What if this myth is actually driving the violence in the first place? What if those who steal are doing so because they are so convinced that security lies in things, in quick cash. I wonder if our security fences are the biggest confirmation that they are right.

Instead of an ADT sticker in my window, I wonder what would happen if I put up a sign that said,

“We don’t have much, but we are happy to share. All you have to do is ask.”

or

“We’re on food stamps and medicaid, but we do have a tv if you’d like to join us for a meal and some binge watching.”

Would that deter an amateur and re-humanize a hardened criminal? Would it melt my icy, fearful heart?

(To her credit, Evelyn has already posted something like this on our front door. She tells me it says “All Halloween people, even witches, can eat our candy”.)


To be clear, I’m not trying to diminish the heartache of violence. The fear we feel after our bodies or our homes have been violated is real and dehumanizing. I still remember the gut punch when, years ago, my backpack was swiped from an  event I was helping to run. My laptop and camera were sitting out on the stage, untouched, but my dirty backpack containing my wallet, $0, my ID, and my old ipod nano full of jesus music was snagged from under a table. I was supposed to fly home in two days and the stupidity of it all was infuriating. Why didn’t they ditch the bag when they realized it was useless? How was I going to get through security? Why would one person do this to another? I’m a broke student, giving her summer to volunteer at a nonprofit. Why target me?

But that’s the whole thing, isn’t it? These notions of security insulate us from each other indiscriminately. The walls we erect between us and “the other’ we fear work both ways. We’re all afraid. We’re all throwing up walls, intensely suspicious and fearful that someone is going to come and take the little peace we’ve carved out for ourselves.


Last weekend I was at the Evolving Faith conference. One of the speakers, the artist Propaganda, challenged us to learn to tell a better story about our enemies. To tell stories that humanize, stories that combat fear with truth-telling, stories that change our narrative about how the world works by disrupting the old assumptions with new understanding.

The stories of the break in and drive by are frightening. They say that bad people out there are trying to get in here, to hurt us and rob us of our stuff and our security. They tell me I need to purchase the power to scare them back, to build walls, to threaten. They tell me this is the only thing those criminals will respond to.

Let’s tell a better story.

My neighborhood is experiencing a difficult transition. For many years community members have seen their wages stagnate, their health decrease, their access to affordable healthcare, childcare and food dwindle. The neighborhood school is under-resourced and under performing. Wealthy white people are seizing upon foreclosures and the properties of elderly neighbors who cannot keep up their homes, rapidly gentrifying the community. This stress and friction sometimes erupts in petty theft and vandalism with an underlying current of fear as strangers come in and tear down and force change.

These neighbors have so much to teach us. I watch them look out for each other on the neighborhood facebook page. They catch runaway dogs and return them. They warn one another about suspicious activity, they check in on others if they know an elderly parent had a surgery or needs other assistance. They hire each other for odd jobs and are especially supportive of young families looking for work to make ends meet. They do community art and beautification projects. They are proud of their large park and community space. They speak up when there is danger to others. They even put out handmade signs to remind drivers to slow down and watch for kids.

This better story reminds me how little I have done to invest in my community. It reorients my focus from battening down the hatches to flinging wide the doors and making sure the porch light is permanently on.

And, you know, I think I will make a few small window signs that welcome neighbors to ask if they are in need. A small, practical gesture of hope, a posture of welcome. I definitely need more of those in my life.

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practicing opening our doors with some Halloween s’mores

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curiosity in the face of fear

I grew up in an conservative christian community, proudly intolerant of all outsiders. From a young age I learned to look at these “others” with a mix of fear and pity – fear that their “lifestyles” would infect mine if given the slightest chance, pity that they were so committed to their hell-bound “worldly” ways. This attitude covered over everything from religious and cultural differences to sexual orientation and gender expression, even the smallest things like clothing, makeup, music, and people who let their kids do youth sports on sundays.

Their allegiance was clear, I was taught. They have put their desires, their interests, their very selves before the will of almighty. They were doomed. We would be too, if not for the grace of God and the prick of the holy spirit keeping us from listening to Evanescence and shopping at Hot Topic. (What? You didn’t also confess that sin of worldliness in your prayer journal numerous times between 2001 and 2003? Well. The Lord knows your heart.)

We weren’t without compassion. Like any person convinced everyone around us was going to burn alive for eternity, we did our part to rescue them. We had VBS programs and summer mission trips and I even went to public school so I could get a great free education while witnessing to my friends. In fact, our public school attendance was quite controversial in our church because the truly holy families sent their kids to our church christian school. I made up for this by starting bible studies at lunch and doing prayer walks before school with several other zealous and painfully awkward teenagers. To my memory, we weren’t angry or hostile towards others. But we didn’t really have any contact with people who didn’t share our beliefs. We were happily settled into a world of sameness.

It wasn’t until adulthood when I began to encounter these “others” as more than caricatures. They became my colleagues and neighbors and friends. We swapped stories about our weekends and lines from our favorite shows. We cared for clients and neighbors and friends. We planned a community garden. I babysat their children. Slowly, my horizons expanded. I learned about the diverse city I was making a home in, the people who were so different from me, until they weren’t. Until the differences gave way to a surprising amount of common ground, similar desires, values, dreams.

But all this stretching and learning and listening doesn’t happen quickly or come easily. Podcasts became my refuge – a powerful but safe, introvert-friendly way to explore other worlds while I worked up the courage to actually set foot in them.

There’s this intimacy to storytelling via podcast – a sense that there is no distance between the storyteller and the listener. I am not some faceless member of an audience, watching a performer on a stage. No, with the help of my ear buds I am sitting right across from this brave soul. They are speaking their beautiful life right into my heart.

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There are a few important things that happen when we learn to really listen to each other’s stories.

First, we gain valuable practical information to help us understand another’s world. That might be terminology or maybe an overview of cultural practices, it might even be historical data that we’ve never heard before. This information serves to fill in gaps in our most basic understanding of others – what sort of culture shaped this person to be who they are? What are the terms they use to describe their world, and what do they mean?

Second, storytelling humanizes. It’s easy to be afraid of someone, to allow the shadows in our understanding to become menacing and intentional. Luckily, it’s just as easy to adopt a posture of curiosity and wonder. When I listen to someone tell a story about their life, I am instantly transported into their shoes. When they share what the heartache felt like after their mother died, I feel a pang too. When I hear a story about a personal triumph, I share in their joy. But here’s the thing: if we do not practice empathy, our capacity for it atrophies. Luckily, the reverse is true: the more we practice this posture of curiosity and active listening, the more natural it becomes, and fear loses power.

Third, storytelling offers a safe environment to encounter and consider new ideas. From the safety of my own earbuds I can can learn about people who live very different lives, have very different values, and want very different things. No response required. I don’t have to mask my emotions if I am shocked or disgusted or confused. I don’t have to draw any conclusions or make any judgments. Stories have softened me. They’ve evaporated my fear.

Somewhere along the way I realized that the fear was self-imposed. No one was ever trying to take apart my beliefs, to win me over to some dark side. That nervous feeling I felt, the feeling I relied on and believed was telling me something dangerous was happening – that’s just the feeling of growing. The feeling of opening to new ideas, new questions, new possibilities. If we lean into it gently, patiently, there is no limit to what we will discover about the world, and about ourselves. Isn’t that wonderful?

Now I can’t wait to tell people about the fascinating worlds I’m discovering through my headphones. I’m no longer afraid of the harsh light that black and white thinking casts on the world because these stories have helped me to see the vibrant spectrum of hues that were invisible to me before.

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The phrase “I wonder…” has served me so well on this journey. It helps me to turn my quick judgments into opportunities for growth. I wonder what it’s like to be a refugee, fleeing on a flimsy rubber boat.   I wonder what it would feel like to live in a body that didn’t reflect how I felt on the inside. I wonder what it’s like to be Muslim in america. I wonder what it will be like to look back on my life at 50 or 75 or 90. I wonder what it would be like to live as an immigrant in a big city, or a small, rural town. I wonder.

But even with that posture, we live in an exhausting time. In the era of soundbites, it is easy, necessary even, to keep our guard up against the onslaught of polarizing opinions and extreme reactions. We learn to filter out everything we disagree with because we just do not have the energy to deal with it. Storytelling, a practice as old as human civilization, reminds us we are bound together by our humanity and helps us to process these complexities together.

If you’re afraid, cautious, too principled to wonder about how another lives as they do, I encourage you to try listening to a story told by someone in the group you fear. I love This American Life and The Moth for short, powerful glimpses into the lives other people lead. If a podcast feels like too much, you might try reading some of the short interviews on Humans of New York. That prickle of discomfort is the itch of growing pains. The stretch of becoming, making room for more love and understanding. Preparing you to see and flourish in a more colorful, vibrant world.

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I’m preparing to attend a conference this weekend. A christian conference. My first foray back into christian culture in some time. The group hosting it has created a sort of counter culture that challenges every exclusive, dualistic fiber of conservative Christianity, re-imagining the faith with love and hope and plenty of space for a spectrum of beliefs and questions. They are the loveliest people. But I am terrified. I am so anxious about exposing myself to “church people” again. So nervous about our differences of experience and beliefs. Dreading what conclusions my friends at both ends of the spectrum will draw about me attending something like this. It’s all fear.

So I’m taking some time this week to practice this meditation of wonder. To consider and breathe space for the possibilities. To listen for the stories, let go of judgments, and just be present to the experience.

It is through listening that we gain eyes to see more than what is visible – to understand what has been and imagine what can be.

 

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