It has been nearly a month since I last posted a blog. Since that time I had the chance to go on vacation to Northern Minnesota. While there, I had a once and a lifetime moment (for me) on the golf course. I finished a nine hole outing with three pars. Two days later, I started out the day with three pars. A year ago, this would have been no fun for me. I would have been paralyzed by making sure that I did not say something to jinx the streak. Instead, after opening the second nine with a par, I said out loud: “That is four in a row.” By the time I got to the fourth hole, I had a very makeable par shot. I missed. I calmly picked up the ball. My brother looked at me, incredulous: “No cursing? No throwing the club? You are so calm this week it is freaking me out.”
I want to write about control. It seems to me to be a complicated and contradictory notion and one that has fundamentally changed for me over the past six months. Here is the paradox: by giving up the need to control the situation, or more precisely, that my words and thoughts can shape the outcome, I have gained more control in my own life. In my first blog, I noted that I had begun a journey to accept that I cannot control what happens, but that I can control how I respond to what happens. Do I respond with fear or with strength?
Golfing well may certainly seem trivial. Indeed, it certainly does not resonate among the more important moments in my life. But it is within these little moments that I am constantly reminded just how paralyzed (yes, this is the second time I used that word) I was for so long. It is within these little moments, and my response to them, that I am beginning to see the potential for a much happier and satisfying and, indeed, relaxing life. I now listen to Cardinal games and do not turn them on or off worrying that I may affect the outcome. I drove into Minneapolis at rush hour and had smooth sailing on the interstate. I said as much out loud. My sister-in-law told me not to say it – that I would jinx it. A mile later we hit standstill traffic. I simply smiled. My words did nothing to create the line of traffic.
But it was at that point that I noticed something even more interesting. Now, I am not claiming to have a clear idea what it is like to be a recovering addict (alcohol, gambling, drugs…), but when my sister-in-law said that (something many of us often say but don’t really believe), I had to bite my tongue. I wanted to go into a long spiel about how jinxes are not real, about how my thoughts and my words cannot possibly alter the course of traffic in Minneapolis. But she knew that implicitly. I have to remind myself of that daily. Just like I can have a couple beers and be good, or gamble once in a blue moon, I imagine most people can play with the idea of jinxes and superstition without it negatively affecting their mental health. But I had gone down the rabbit hole, to use an overwrought and weirdly applicable cliché.
That this way of thinking was brought about (enabled) by post-traumatic stress built up over nearly two decades simply gives me the advantage of knowing why I became trapped in this way of seeing the world. The tendency to become trapped in this way of thinking was the effect, the cause was the piling up of traumatic events. But it is more of a causal chain: the way of thinking then became the cause that lead to the effect of increased anxiety, depression, and outbursts of anger at trivial matters. The outburst that my brother had every reason to expect after I missed that very makeable putt for par. The outburst coming not from the actual missing of the put, but for me blaming myself for missing the put not because I miss-hit the ball, but because I had made the mistake of thinking that I might miss it. Or that I might make it. The anger was more often than not self-directed.
Therefore, like a recovering addict, I now realize that I cannot not indulge in even the littlest bit of superstition. The socks I wear when I go three for three in softball mean absolutely nothing. Failing to touch the outside of an airplane, patting it three times, will not cause a plane crash (I failed to do this once and it was a long long flight). Yes, that seems trivial, but (at least for me) it can lead to a dark dark place.
One of my first teaching assignments took me to a dark place: as an adjunct instructor at a Community College in the Twin Cities, I was assigned to teach COMP 101 at a maximum security prison. My class was made up of men serving life sentences for all sorts of crimes. I was twenty-six years old. We had just adopted Caleb. I recall driving there one winter morning, snow piled up along the highway. I remember thinking to myself if I just yanked the steering wheel to the left I could spin out. I would end up in the hospital. I would not have to walk down the dark corridors of the prison, showing my ID badges to camera after camera until I arrived at the Education unit. It was the first time that I had this thought of preferring a hospital bed to dealing with a stressful situation.
And it was not that the teaching itself was all that bad. In fact, once I arrived and stood in front of the class, it was a positive and fulfilling experience. The class was not so different from any other insofar as ability, talent, and motivation. Although I learned early on that splitting them into arbitrary groups was not a good idea. They chose the groups. And I refrained from wearing a tie (I always wore a tie in my early years of teaching) so as not to be strangled. I wore a panic button that I was to push if I felt in danger. As I understood it: if I pushed the button, the room would be gassed and we would all pass out.
But the experience also provided me with hope, and in an odd way, increased my belief that for the most part, people are good. And as I look back on it now, I think many of these men had accepted their position and were, in their own way, responding with strength, not fear, to what life had brought them. Taking a college-level class at the prison was a privilege, not a right. They had responded with strength in the face of life in prison to better themselves. It was during the 2000 election, and I recall several inmates telling me they were thankful to be imprisoned in a state that did not have the death penalty. Prior to that, a part of me always thought that I would rather die than spend the rest of my life in prison. It takes a strength, and a desire for life, to choose bars over the quiet of death. I did not, at the time, see the irony in my ridiculous and reckless thought as I drove to teach them of considering a car accident over teaching – it was a response (and least a thought) motivated by fear, not strength. I see it now.
To be clear, I understand that I was teaching murderers, rapists, and molesters. I understand that these were bad men who did horrible things. But the program itself was born of grace and forgiveness. And a respect for all life. And it is a program, I fear, that is far from the radar in these days of budget cuts and crisis. But we continue to call these places correctional facilities. It seems to me that the measure of a country, of a people, can be seen in how we treat the least among us. Do we lock up our citizens for punishment or for rehabilitation? Punishment is borne of fear; rehabilitation from strength.
Which leads me to today, and to the election, and to the conventions. Two very different views of America. But before that, consider illness. During my first official Dean meeting on campus a few weeks ago, I became nauseous. We had to cut the meeting short. It took me nearly five days and a visit to the doctor to get feeling better. It was a strange intestinal infection. And why, oh why, am I sharing this? Do you want all the gross details? I will spare you. What I found interesting was how most people seemed most concerned with discovering how and where I got the infection. It seemed to me to be a fruitless endeavor (another cliché, I know, and one that seems to fall short). What does it matter? It happened. I can proceed and be more careful about what I eat, where I swim, how I wash my hands. Indeed, those are prudent and proactive reactions that may lower the possibilities of future infections. But knowing exactly how and where it occurred will do very little.
I mention this in response to something I touched on in a previous response when I alluded to the massacre in the Florida nightclub and the Sandy Hook shootings. Knowing the exact cause (reason) for those tragedies seems, to me, to miss the point. It is all so much speculation. Rather, paying close and careful attention to how we respond to the event (our words, our actions, our thoughts) will have tangible effects for future outcomes. Speculation on what has occurred is not nearly as important as how we respond. Consider: we cannot control what happened (I got sick), but we can control how we respond (I sought help and I will be more aware moving forward).
It seems to me that I have many things up in the air at the moment. Control. Golf. Prison. Illness. Mass shootings. Superstition. Trauma. And I want to tie it all together with what I approached earlier: the election and the political conventions. Stay with me here. I watched Trump’s speech. And I realized that if I shut off my brain, accepted what he said, embraced the fear and the idea that he could save us, and that all those in charge currently are inept, that what he said could be quite alluring. Indeed, much of the GOP convention followed that narrative: the nation is broken and dangerous and scary and we need a savior. Someone to make it all better. There is a boogey man, and the boogey man is the Other. But the fallacy in that thinking is that an individual can Control, single-handedly, what happens. The fallacy is that we can control what happens. Yes, the world has experienced Trauma. But it always has. The difference now is that the moment it happens, the trauma is broadcast, repeated, and tweeted at nauseam.
Disclaimer: I consider myself more of an independent than a democrat. I have previously described myself as a conservative liberal with libertarian tendencies. But given the choice, I more often vote democrat, which more often boils down to Social issues. However, a socially liberal and fiscally conservative Republican could definitely get my vote. But more than anything, I want a candidate that does not use Fear as a tool. It is disgraceful, un-American, and un-Christian. It is cowardly. Trump and his campaign are responding to current events with Fear and claiming to be able to control what happens.
However, it is not only fear that is driving many to support Trump. It is also apathy: “The system is so messed up, why not shake it up, turn it upside down. Anything is better than the status quo.” And to be honest, I understand both reactions. Fear and Apathy are easier paths – but they are also weaker paths. Trump’s path to election will need both: Fear and Apathy.
The true test, of course, will happen the day after the election as no matter what the outcome, many will be disappointed. I can Control my vote, but I cannot control the outcome. My vote is a response to a choice. The outcome is something else. So when that morning comes, how will we respond? Will we curse and throw our putter into the well-groomed green? Or will we calmly bend down, grab our ball from the cup, like an adult, and walk towards the next tee?