Waking Up

August 4, 2007

From today’s Psalm, Ps 75:

“I will appoint a time,” say God; “I will judge with equity.

Though the earth and all its inhabitants are quaking, I will make its pillars fast.”

I got some unexpected news last week.  It was potentially life-changing news, and while I was not completely surprised, I had been hoping for something different.

This week, I started my vacation.  The kids and I are back home in Los Angeles for a few days, and then we’ll be off to Yellowstone and some other national parks before going back to Texas for the beginning of the school year.

Coming back to California is always wonderful for me.  This time has been particularly so– even after only one day here.  Yesterday, I felt like I “woke up” again for the first time in a long time since moving away from this place.

One of the first events in my day shook me up– disturbed me greatly.  After getting the kids up, we decided to go to a fast food place for breakfast.  A nice man asked if he could take my order– he asked in a very thick accent, perhaps middle-eastern.

And in a flash, just for a tiny split-second, somewhere in a barely perceptible part of my brain, I had a reaction.  It went something like this:  “Why don’t they put people in front of the cash registers who can speak English?”

And then, just as quickly, I was horrified with myself.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a thought like that before, and if I have its been so long that I don’t remember it.  It goes against everything that I stand for, everything that I believe in– breaks down the importance of diversity, the importance of bringing different peoples together and highlighting how we can find connections even among our differences.

I looked directly in the man’s eyes and made a connection with him.  I haven’t been able to connect well with people since being in Texas, but I did with this man– and in this simple act of placing a fast food breakfast order felt comforted to be back in California once again.

As we were back in the car moving to our next stop, I begin thinking about the book Blink, which I haven’t written about much but has shaped my thinking tremendously.  In that book about how our subconscious works, one of the examples was how cultural biases shape subconscious attitudes and actions.  Tests that are designed to measure whether we think of “black” as “good” or “bad”, for example, show that even African-Americans and very progressive Anglo advocates for racial equality cannot, under time pressure, refrain from equating “black” with “bad.”  It is just too ingrained in our culure, in the images we see on T.V., in the way the dominant white society portrays blacks in our society.  It takes time for us to make a conscious decision to change that gut reaction and make it better.

Now that is a gross over-simplification of the book and of the way it works, so if I’ve offended anybody forgive me.  But the point I’m using it for is this:  in the car leaving that McDonald’s, what occurred to me is that the dominant culture in Texas is not one that is open to difference.  It is primarily Anglo.  Southern culture values conformity.  There are little things– barely perceptible to the conscious mind– that are tremendously different in Texas culture from Southern California culture.  Where in California there is a willingness to be open, there is a willingness in Texas to judge– that could be indicated by a brief but disapproving glance in the store, a comment which betrays the givers feelings, a lack of responsiveness to small-talk and friendliness, or whatever.    We pick up on those things whether we realize it or not.  (And while Texas may be a wonderful place for some people to live I’m speaking about it from my perspective, not in absolute terms.)

And I have picked up on it.  Apparently I assimilated to it too, which is why I had that split-second judgement to the worker in McDonalds– who was very friendly and helpful and had no problem helping me except for that brief second where my own barrier got in the way.

I remember discussing this problem when I worked in the corporate world, and we had recently moved a call center to India.  One of the things we talked about was the difficulty in communications.  The questions we asked ourselves were things like, “Well sure, we can understand them.  We don’t mind talking to them.  We live in a city with people from all over the world.  We are accustomed to accents.  But what about John Doe in Kansas?  Will he be able to understand them?  Will he be frustrated with us for putting him in touch with people that he is not accustomed to?”  It is the same fundamental problem.  (Although the ethical questions surrounding globalization are quite different.)

I continued to have realizations as the day progressed.  It was as if a cloud was lifting, or as if I was waking from a deep sleep and realizing that the real world was actually in color when I had been dreaming in black and white.

We visited my daughter’s old preschool.  A lot of Chinese immigrants send their children there, and one of the Anglo teachers spoke to one of the children in Chinese.

In my daughter’s preschool in Austin, every single student in her school– not only her class, but her whole school– was white.

The next connection is harder to describe, but it is the most important one.

I realized that I had forgotten how to love.

I don’t know how to put it any other way.

Driving over those freeways that I had spent hours on, meditating on the sermons from my wonderful home parish, learning what God is and how God sustains us in love– maybe that’s what did it.

Maybe the experience with the fast food worker did it, realizing that I had fallen into the trap of the Texas culture which is too quick to judge and not quick enough to love.

Maybe it was spending the day with my kids on vacation and falling in love with them all over again.

Whatever it was, I realized that love was what was missing, and that gradually since I left Texas, love also had left my life.

I have said several times to people that my writing here has changed since I went to seminary, and that you can look at my writing from before seminary and find it has a different quality than before I left California.  It was less polemic.  It was more compassionate.  It knew better how to tolerate differences of opinion.  In short, it knew how to love.

I think that God lives in our imagination.   That isn’t the same, of course, as saying that God is imaginary.  But God works best when we are free, when we can live without restraint, when we can co-create with our Creator.  There are many writings and comments comparing religion to imagination.  I fell into the trap of losing my imagination.

As I processed all this yesterday, the bad news I got last week made more sense.  It was my wake-up call from that grey dream.  And the words of the Psalm I posted at the beginning of this post– which are appointed for today– come into context; that judgement is about propping us up when we are quaking, not about tearing us down.  In short, it is about love.

“I will appoint a time,” say God; “I will judge with equity.

Though the earth and all its inhabitants are quaking, I will make its pillars fast.”



2 Responses to “Waking Up”

  1. Jan Says:

    Jeff, thank you for your reflections. As I come originally from the west coast and now live in Texas, I connected with your observations. There is probably a more Anglo culture in Austin than in Corpus Christi, where I live. However, in CC, the minority (35%)of Anglos have the educated, wealthier subculture that seems to dominate.

    You must be going to the Episcopal seminary in Austin? I wish it wasn’t so far from me, so I could attend there. That’s why I ended up at the RC Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio. And also, I’m not becoming a priest.

    You write thought-provoking posts. Thank you.

  2. Jeff Says:

    Thanks, Jan.


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