Self Reflection or Self Loathing?


Photo by Albert Dera on Unsplash

When I was a teacher, a great deal of my time was taken up with helping children to manage their social lives. A lot of time was spent helping the kids deal with their anger and frustration as they interacted with other kids.

I have a very clear memory of one intervention. A little boy had been somewhat unkind to his classmate. He didn’t think he’d been mean, of course. He thought that he had just stated the obvious. But his “obvious” was painful and cruel, and his classmate was in tears.

I let each of the kids express themselves, without interruption or response. Then I addressed the child who had been rude.

“Do you think you should apologize to your classmate, and tell them that you didn’t intend to be hurtful?”

His response was unsurprising, but it was also frustrating.

“Why do I need to say that I was bad?”, he asked.

I took a breath.

“Nobody is calling you bad,” I began. “In fact, I know you well enough to know that you are not a bad kid. You are not mean. But your words hurt your classmate.”

It took some time, and a good deal of patience. But eventually, this little ten year old child was able to apologize for the actions that had caused pain. He was able to talk to me about the fact that he hoped he could learn not to say hurtful things.

So.

Self-reflection was a gift to this little boy. Self-reflection helped him, as it helps all of us, to move forward towards a better future. This tender hearted little person chose to look closely at his actions so that he could slowly and carefully become a better human being.

Self-reflection.

The chance to look at our actions, our words, our beliefs. A chance to improve ourselves as human being, in an effort to make the world a somewhat better place for other human beings.

Seems like a worthy activity for a ten year old, right? Stop being mean on the playground. Stop saying mean things. Don’t laugh at your friends when they struggle. Be kind. Be good. Be helpful.

Every adult I have ever met in my 65 years of life would applaud the efforts of this little child, and would congratulate him on trying to be a better person.

So.

Why is it so upsetting and unpatriotic when we ask our country to do the same self-reflection? Why do so many Americans see this kind of introspection as an attack?

I don’t know.

But I don’t like it.

As an old white lady, I am certainly full of self reflection when I look back on the beliefs of my childhood. I was raised in an upper-middle-class white suburb of Boston. My parents were first generation Americans who thought of themselves as open minded and accepting. And they were, within the context of the 1960s in Massachusetts.

I certainly believed myself to be a nice, non-racist, good person.

But you know what?

When I went to college and met people from a hundred different backgrounds, I realized that even though I meant well, I had whole lot to learn about the world around me. I learned that the United States was NOT always seen as a benevolent and kind benefactor. I learned that in spite of what I’d been taught, slavery was not a short term, temporary financial system that helped to create the “greatest nation in the history of the world.”

I learned a lot.

And I am still learning.

I am learning about the Tulsa Race Massacre. And the history of the KKK. I am learning about the horrific crimes committed by the CIA in the 50s and 60s.

I am reflecting on the history of the country in which I live. The country where I was born. I am looking at this nation with the eyes of one who wants to be better. One who wants to understand what lead to our triumphs and to our losses.

I am self-reflecting.

Shouldn’t we all be doing that? Shouldn’t every citizen of every nation be looking at their history and assessing what has been good and what has been a mistake? Shouldn’t we all be emulating my young student as we try to become something a bit better than what we were before?

For most of my adult life, every time I’ve questioned the actions of my government, I’ve been met with something akin to the phrase, “America; love it or leave it!”

The implication has always been that if I question any aspect of my government’s actions, I must hate America and I should immediately leave.

I’ve been called a “Russky” and a “Commie” when I’ve questioned the wisdom and morality of the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve been told that I should pack up and move to China when I’ve complained about the inflated power of corporate lobbyists in the creation of our national laws.

Worst of all, though?

The worst part of this, to me, is the fact that I have been accused of “hating” my country when I question her commitment to equality.

Because I believe that Black Lives Matter, I’ve been told that I hate the American dream. Because I have stated my support for gender equality and full acceptance of my gay fellow citizens, I’ve been told that I despise the very ideals on which this country was founded.

And so I find myself troubled, angry and bewildered. I find myself with only one response at hand.

“BullSHIT”

That’s all I have to say to those to want to claim that any self-reflection on the part of this American society is an exercise in self-loathing.

I question the founding principles of this nation, which were based upon the rights of land-owning white men.

I question the legitimacy of our story line, in which we crow about our love of “equality” and “freedom”.

I question the wisdom of pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth, and of demanding that our children blindly do the same.

I am reflecting deeply on the creation of our country. I am acutely aware of all of the good that has been accomplished within our borders. I am grateful for the fact that my grandparents were welcomed here as immigrants, even as I acknowledge the fact that it was their desperation and their willingness to work for pennies that opened that door to them.

I am an American.

I am a teacher.

I am aware that without self-reflection and an honest look at ourselves, there can be no progress, no growth, no better future.

Because I am an American patriot, I believe that it is my duty to reflect honestly on all that has made this country successful. But I believe just as firmly that is my duty to reflect honestly on all of the mistakes, failures, crimes and injustices that have paved our way to this moment.

America: Love it by asking every single day that it become something even better and stronger than it was yesterday.

Quintessentially American


Last week I taught a summer class in Improvisational Theater. The kids ranged in age from 7 to 9.

It was a hoot, let me tell you.

I had 9 students, divided between my morning and afternoon classes. Out of the 9, 4 were of Indian descent, with Indian born parents. Two were Chinese, and one was Russian. One child was from the UK, with a Scottish mom and a Welsh Dad.

It was a hilariously eclectic group of little ones acting out silly scenes like “Fashion Show!” or “Horse Race.”  They danced, pranced, twirled and acted. Some of them were excited and proud, but some felt completely embarrassed and out of their element.

My job was to encourage, to prompt, to help them to laugh at themselves and let go of their fears.

Other than the fact that on the last day I threw my back out trying to prance down the fashion show stage, I had a wonderful week.

Children were chatting with me, smiling at me, asking me questions about life. I loved it.

But our last day fell on July 1st. I had to ask the kids what they had planned for the most American of holidays.

They answered with so much joy, and such a level of excitement. I sat there, listening to the mingled accents from around the world, looking into the beautiful shining eyes of the kids. The American kids.

“We are going to the beach with our cousins!”

“We are going to the lake, and then having a cook out!”

“My family will barbecue! Hot dogs, cheeseburgers and good chicken!”

“My Dad says that we will use sparklers after dinner. We are going to have a fire in our back yard. With marshmallows!”

These children are America.

Their joy as they talked about s’mores and burgers and watermelon and fireworks; this is the joy of our country.

I looked into the beautiful brown eyes of those Indian children, warmed by the warmth that I saw there. I shared a grin with my Chinese students, moved by the sincerity with which they planned those barbecues.

I smiled with my blue eyed Russian student and her British pal.

This is America. All of these eyes, all of these smiles, all of these accents.

All of these lovely children planning to celebrate the fourth of July with the rest of our nation.

Happy Independence Day. Welcome, everyone. Everyone.

Welcome, beautiful children.

Independence Day


uc06330I’ve been thinking about this document a lot in the past couple of days.  I’ve been thinking about what it meant when Thomas Jefferson tried to justify the actions of those young revolutionaries.

For the most part, I love the Declaration of Independence because its just a long list of complaints; I think that the writers really just wanted to make the case for why they were committing the acts of treason that erupted after the Battles of Lexington and Concord.  They had broken the law, they were turning against the government, and they knew they were in deep trouble.  They needed to explain themselves.

Jefferson listed all of the ways that the revolutionaries felt aggrieved by the King. Everything from controlling the commerce of the seas to arresting people without just cause, Jefferson listed them all.  By outlining the “sins” of the government, Jefferson was trying to say that he and the other revolutionary leaders were right to oppose that government.

But my favorite part of the document is the beginning, where Jefferson lays out the political philosophy of the revolution.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

It sort of reminds me of another “subversive guy” who is trying to justify his actions in opposing the sins of his government.  Do you recognize these words?

“I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what’s happening and goes, ‘This is something that’s not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.’ And I’m willing to go on the record to defend the authenticity of them and say, ‘I didn’t change these, I didn’t modify the story. This is the truth; this is what’s happening. You should decide whether we need to be doing this.'”

Now, I’m not trying to say that Edward Snowden should be compared to Thomas Jefferson.  Not really.  But I think that there are some real echoes to be found here, and I think that if we truly value the actions and thoughts of those early revolutionaries, then we need to think hard about those echoes.

Snowden said that he found it necessary to commit an act that would appear to be against his government. He found that act to be  necessary because the actions of the government were being done in secret and the the public needed to know about them, to decide about the appropriateness of those programs.   Why?  Well, because “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”   If the government isn’t telling the governed that it is spying on them, then I guess it didn’t derive its just power to do that spying from the consent of the governed, now did it?

Happy 4th of July, United States.  Happy Birthday, American citizens.

Let’s just all be careful about what exactly it is that we are giving our consent to, and let’s make damn sure that we are being asked to give that consent.  Otherwise, I think we need to look closely at another section of the Declaration.   The part that says this:

“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”