Listening To Our Ghosts: Pilfering With Privilege

Posted August 18, 2014 by Sharon Browning
Categories: Uncategorized

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No shadow entitiesFollowing the suggestion of Courtney E. Martin to ‘talk to’ my own ‘ghosts’, (To Be White and Reckon with the Death of Michael Brown) I find myself preoccupied with the ‘demonization’ of Michael Brown, the implicit suggestion that stealing some cigarillos could justify his killing. There is a wrenching in my gut every time I imagine the scene in Ferguson, a tangible grief over the loss of yet another young life. I think of my own children at that age and recognize how accidents of birth and circumstance, and yes, privilege, have brought them all into full adulthood alive and well.
And here is the hard part, where my ghosts rise up to instruct me: I remember every minor crime I have ever committed, as well as those of my white friends and family members, for which there were only minor, if any consequences, and for which we certainly did not risk or lose our lives: every petty theft, every traffic violation, every trespass, every illegal purchase and use of drugs and alcohol.
I can’t stop thinking about the shoplifting girls in high school, children of affluence, who swept through boutiques and specialty shops on a class trip with fingers so sticky that the school got a call of complaint from the merchants’ association the next day; their collective losses had been substantial. Although my memory is a bit fuzzy on this, I believe a bake sale was held to raise reparations funds to accompany the letter of apology that was sent. No arrests or prosecutions, no one chasing the young ladies out of the stores, no police searching for them on the streets, not even a whisper of violence. A bake sale.
We Americans are familiar with the disparities in perception, prosecution, and punishment of crimes depending upon the race of both victim and perpetrator. Our scandalous record is well-documented and even relatively well- reported. We KNOW, and can no longer claim or feign ignorance. We KNOW. And yet, not much changes.
Somewhere near the core, and certainly at the heart of this issue is our failure to see that we are One. As long as we can define another human being as ‘other’— not me, not my son— we lengthen the distances between ourselves, heightening and fortifying barriers of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, political persuasion, whatever category resonates with our fear and insecurity; we humans seize on just about anything to distinguish ourselves from each other in order to feel less lonely, more loved, as if we belong. And all of this just results in more judgment, distance, intolerance.
As I consult with my own ghosts, I try to imagine what might help bring us humans together, help us to see our inextricable connection to each other and to understand how warped a system of justice is that metes out such vastly unjust consequences for the same acts.
I have been struck in recent days with the massive success of the ALS fundraising “Ice Bucket Challenge”…a lighthearted effort to raise money for and awareness about a heart-heavy, dreadful and deadly disease. I am wondering if a similar campaign, albeit involving more personal risk, could help change both our national conversation and the perceptions that continue to fuel bigotry, intolerance, and fear, both conscious and not.
So here’s a suggestion to nip all of this finger-pointing and self-absolution in the bud and help build bridges of connection and healing. Let’s take a collective breath and share our Pilfering With Privilege stories, white America. Lovingly invite each other to step up, listen to our ghosts, and acknowledge our own capacity for poor judgment, for making mistakes that are a breach of the law. What have you done that could have escalated into serious trouble if discovered or seen through a racial lens? How has your own privilege protected you and your beloveds? What bad decision did your child-self make before you became hard-wired for sound judgment, as most humans do, somewhere in your early to mid 20s?

Let me be the first to tell my story of Pilfering with Privilege. I didn’t palm cigarillos; I stole candy. Not only that, my crime was a betrayal of trust. From time to time (OK, it may have been frequently), I stole a Mallo Cup from the box of candy-for-sale with which I was entrusted during recess when I was in fifth or sixth grade. I have no idea why I did this. Had my own demographics been different and had I been caught, at the least I would have been expelled, at worst prosecuted, possibly ending up in a Juvie program somewhere. And then there are the shoplifting girls. Imagine what the response would have been had they been black, especially black males?

How about you? What story is your ghost whispering in your ear? Muriel Rukeyser observed that the universe is made not of atoms, but of stories. Perhaps telling our stories of the common experience of youthful indiscretion can help create a world of connection and compassion for all of us in our frailty, reinforce our common humanity, stop us from dividing the world into ‘good’ ones and ‘bad’ ones, help us claim and honor the truth of our Oneness.

Please feel free to make yourself vulnerable on this page or anywhere else you choose. If enough people were willing, we could start a public Pilfering With Privilege Campaign; those sufficiently brave and technologically able could video their story  and post it on Facebook. Dumping ice water on ourselves for a worthy cause in a public forum is a very good thing to do, but let’s face it….it’s relatively easy and essentially self-congratulatory. Confronting and acknowledging even one small part of our place and privilege in a structurally unequal system is much more difficult, but is an excellent, courageous, and transformative thing to do, for our good and the good of all. Any volunteers?

Listening Post #29: A Hopeful Suggestion

Posted November 27, 2013 by Sharon Browning
Categories: Uncategorized

Interconnected resizedI haven’t written a post on this blog in over 6 months, despite the fact that every week I hear stories worth repeating, stories from the social margins of amazing resilience, courage, desperation, despair, triumph, failure, shame, and transforming love… just about everything the human spirit can experience. And every week I think, “I should write about that”. But I have found myself paralyzed, wary of being preachy, unable to tell these stories in a way that invites a deeper dive into what it means to be human, how we are all connected to each other, how all of these stories are actually my story, and yours.

I am not interested in evoking guilt, complaining about ineffectual politicians, or repeating the scandalous though now-familiar statistics of gross and growing economic inequality in the US. These activities just create more anger, or numbness, or indifference. I AM interested in having us become deeply aware that we all have the same needs and are all entitled, simply by virtue of our common humanity, both to having those basic needs met and to each other’s kindness and assistance. If you are hungry, my belly rumbles. If you cry, I taste salt. None of us are safe until ALL of us are safe.

So here we are in the season of feasting and celebration, a time of year that feels particularly conflicted. I fully embrace the spirit of thanksgiving and celebration, even as I witness the anguish of hungry people in food lines that grow longer by the day, and listen to the human impact of the suffering, poverty, and violence that is so much a part of our unequal human equation.

In a spirit of gratitude for what is right with the world, though, I would like to propose a hopeful exercise for your holidays: I just discovered a 2012 documentary that makes me want to hold round the clock public screenings and discussions in my living room. It is filmmaker Tom Shadyac’s I Am.: The Documentary (available on Netflix , Amazon, Comcast, or through Gaiam TV).

The film begins by interviewing and asking prominent thinkers and leaders two questions: “What’s wrong with the world,” and What can we do about it”, and ends by asking and answering a third, “What’s right with the world?”

This film made me so happy and hopeful, I need to share it: It reminds us of what we truly know, so deep in our bones.

• We are hard-wired for compassion, connection, and cooperation.

• We experience joy when we act out of that compassion.

• Our future as a species is dependent upon us grasping this essential fact : We are One. There is no such thing as an insignificant act; everything we do has an effect on the whole. Love is the most powerful force, and binds us all together.

Peter Maurin, Co-founder of the Catholic Worker, wrote that we need “to make a society in which it is easier for people to be good”. That task can feel overwhelming in the face of so much suffering and injustice. But watching this film gives each of us an idea about how we can do our small part to create the world we all hunger for. So give yourself a 2.5 minute treat right now and watch the trailer. Find just a few hours during the next month to gather with family, friends, and acquaintances to watch and discuss this movie. Absorb its hopeful and essential message….what’s right with the world (no spoiler here….watch to find out what that is). And then figure out one small step that you can take to make a world in which it is easier to be good, and take it.

It will make you happy, and thankful, and change the world.

ListeningPost #28:Mothers: Doing The Best We Can

Posted May 11, 2013 by Sharon Browning
Categories: Uncategorized

Recently, one of my younger brothers reminded me of the story he told about my mother at her Mom Laughing at the Skyfuneral….I had forgotten, but it strikes me powerfully today, perhaps because it carries more freight for me now than it did 15 years ago.

He recalled sitting in church one Sunday shortly after my father died….young, at 45, leaving six children between the ages of 2 and 13. We were all there with my Mom, a widow at 41.  I do remember feeling like ducks in a row, over-exposed, and slightly humiliated to be with Mom and all the sibs at my mature and righteous age of 11.

That day, the reading was the Widow’s Mite, the story of the poor yet generous woman who gave everything she had; her very last coin went into the temple treasury. When it came time for the collection that Sunday in 1963, my brother noticed that my mother contributed, but did not give away everything in her wallet. When we got home, as only a pre-adolescent can do, he went for the jugular and called her out on it. Why hadn’t she given it all? Calmly and easily, she replied, “I gave everything I could”.

I could weep with the simplicity and truth of her admission, not only for her, but for all of us. We are all pretty much giving everything we can, and who is to judge the sufficiency of our giving: of money, of love, of time, of ourselves? Were we to walk in each others’ shoes, we would do precisely what the other does. It seems far more important to look into our own hearts and assess the quality of our own giving and receiving, and when pondering others’ lives, to simply know that they are giving everything they can.

I am thinking of so many mothers today; some of us are fairly hard on ourselves, second-guessing our giving and loving, questioning our adequacy. Some of us are narcissistic, some of us give too much. Some of us are smug about our children’s accomplishments, some are sick with worry, some are humble and filled with wonder.  Some of us are bravely engaging our depressions or addictions; some of us have succumbed to self-anesthesia. Some today are joyful, and some of us are in deep, bone-shattering grief. We all struggle to get it right; all of us are doing the best we can, right now.

Earlier this year I watched my own daughter take those early parenting steps herself. I am awed and honored to have an intimate view as one more woman on the planet takes the responsibility of another fragile human onto her own shoulders with such fierce tenderness:  I am witness to love and grace, curiosity and diligence, toughness and vulnerability. This feels cosmic to me…all the generations of mothers stretching backwards and forwards in time, nurturing life and love with our bodies and souls, in whatever ways we know. My mother. My daughter. Myself.

I honor us all, every single one. It takes guts and bravery to be a conduit for life, and then let life happen and give everything you can. Thanks, Mom. You did GREAT.

Listening Post #27: Coming Soon: Our Litany of Life

Posted July 21, 2012 by Sharon Browning
Categories: Uncategorized

Aurora, Utoya, Tucson, Virginia Tech, The Nickel Mines Amish School, Columbine. Our expanding litany of horror and grief.  Once again the media hum with passionate voices on all sides claiming righteous, superior opinions on gun control issues. Frankly, I am exhausted by the political posturing and reactive rhetoric.

So I want to suggest something that every single one of us could do TODAY to begin to end the violence that has grown into our second skin.  Stop being entertained by violence. Refuse to watch it. Remove your assent to immersion in images of mayhem, mindless aggression, murder. Pull the plug on the profitability of terror and carnage.

An illustration. I recently tried to interest myself in the wildly popular Game of Thrones; I couldn’t do it. After five episodes, I quit; too much gratuitous, graphic gore, too much hatred, too much meaningless, violence-inspired sex. I literally felt sick. Interestingly, in two of the episodes, young and tender characters were advised by their elders and mentors not to “turn away’ when others were being tortured or killed. The message seemed to be that watching would somehow strengthen the viewer and create a sort of soul-callous necessary for tolerating such things in the future[i]. At the very least, being a willing observer would win the approval and admiration of those in charge.

Let’s all take a minute to breathe and think about this, and ponder how we are impacted by exposure to images and messaging of this kind. What subtle numbing have we all absorbed by the daily, almost constant assault on our senses and souls? I remember having to step out of the theater decades ago to calm myself in the middle of watching the first Godfather movie. The film was quite controversial at the time for its graphic violence;  that dispute seems quaint today.

I long for a world in which all of us habitually “turn away’ from violence, are sickened by it, horrified by even the thought of one of us visiting any form of violence on the tender, fragile frame of another living being. Could we begin right now, this minute, to transform our current reality? Can we become conscious of the effect that violence in all its forms has on our bodies, minds, and spirits,[ii] and intentionally choose to immerse ourselves and our children in images of kindness,  goodness, generosity, and healthy resolution of conflict?

We can have a peaceful world.  Don’t wait for it. Choose it NOW. Turn this litany of horror into a litany of life.


[i] See the work of Robert J. Lifton  and Sandra Bloom on the personal and social  effects of violence.

[ii] Do a simple web search and find the research.

Listening Post #26: Resting in The Grace of the World

Posted May 9, 2012 by Sharon Browning
Categories: Uncategorized

I’ve just spent the past week on a news-fast. I am certain that during this time the world has seen and recorded the usual mix of mayhem, tragedy, unimaginable suffering, political posturing and upheaval. I’ll hear it all soon enough. For now, though, I would like to report some alternative news and serve as an eyewitness reporter.

In and around a tiny farm pond in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, life is renewing itself.  Tadpoles are predictably, but nonetheless miraculously growing the legs of the adult frogs they are soon to be, red-winged blackbirds are building their family home, and Spring Peepers are filling (and I mean FILLING!) the night with their exuberant mating songs. I anticipated this interlude as eight days of silence. Happily, the silence is mine: the wild things are making their own energetic, joyful noises. I am listening.  And oh, I’ve watched the lupine flowering, row by row, amazing bud to stunning bloom.

In his poem, The Peace Of Wild Things, Wendell Berry writes:

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Here, I lie down where there is a green heron, not a great, the beauty of a mallard pair, still water, and above me, a Supermoon dancing with night-clouds.  Presence…palpable, profound.

Resting in the grace of this world is not a luxury; it is a necessity. If we are to do the work that is uniquely ours to do, walk gently on this earth, be people of love, of peace, of justice, we have to fill up our empty wells, restore our vision, mend the rips in our souls, and make time to do this, the essential, rather than spend our furiously frenzied lives doing the merely important.  The life being renewed here is also my own. How easily I forget my inextricable connection to all of life in the illusory crush of my day to day dramas and struggles. This is an antidote to the fear that keeps us spinning.

So I am committing myself to daily communion with Wild Things, to an ongoing immersion into their peacefulness. I promise to look, and listen, be present and teachable. Even from my customary urban perch, there are so many promising instructors: life insistently abounds all around us.  Every day, I’m going to cultivate the freedom that comes from resting in the grace of the world. For my good, and the good of all.

Join Me?

Listening Post #25: Warm Somebody

Posted February 6, 2012 by Sharon Browning
Categories: Uncategorized

I recently found myself  nearly slipping down the insidious slope of despair while reading the daily newspaper. Sipping a hot cup of coffee in my warm little nest, I read two stories that pushed me right up to the edge of hopelessness, or it’s more comfortable and familiar cousin, indifference.  I’ve backed away, though, and what I would like to suggest is an antidote for futility and despair, a methodology of hope that can move us away from the edge and help us heal and transform the pain we encounter daily.

To begin, here are the stories, both from the New YorkTimes.

The first tells of 22 children under the age of 5 dying of the cold in Afghan refugee camps in the past month. Displaced so long by war, the plight of 35, 000 people no longer qualifies as an emergency or humanitarian crisis. And so there is very little aid to provide already-struggling families with heat amidst an unusually cold Kabul winter. Little ones are freezing. Literally. Ponder the issue of why all of these people are in refugee camps in the first place, and our collective, paid-for- by- our- taxes responsibility for their suffering.

Lest the lack of such a basic human necessity as warmth seem like a distant problem, consider the other news story. Cutbacks in heating assistance to Americans struggling in poverty has resulted in desperation and extreme efforts to stay warm right here in the United States. An elderly man in Maine, with no more credit available for heating oil, walked into an oil company office with the title to his 16 year old car, offering it as collateral for an oil delivery. He and his wife had been attempting to keep warm with a fan circulating the heat from the burners on their electric stove.

I tried to let these stories in, and found it difficult. Nothing in my experience compares. Several years ago, I spent the coldest night of my life in an unheated cabin in the Pennsylvania woods: misery, and it wasn’t even freezing. I imagine my now-grown children as babies and toddlers, but from my comfortable home I cannot know what it feels like to wrap oneself around the tiny body of a fatally shivering daughter or son. And so I found myself  icing up my own heart, trying to become comfortably numb to the human tragedy of these circumstances.

Stories like these can be overwhelming. After all, what can we do about the people in Afghanistan or even Maine for that matter? But that’s the paralyzing question, not the generative one.  That question is: “What can I do right here, right now, to Warm Somebody?”  Each of us has a different answer; it’s worth wrestling with.

Recently, the mainstream media seem to be paying more attention to the issues facing people living in poverty in the United States. Even presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s sad, uninformed gaffe about not caring “for the very poor” has had the positive effect of raising a cry of outrage. This is good news. Too often, the lives of people living on the margins simply are ignored, omitted from public discourse. And when they do penetrate our consciousness, we often do what I did…distance ourselves, anesthetize our hearts and minds. Maybe it will all go away.

But it doesn’t, and we really are One. Our collective well-being is intricately interconnected. So let’s resist becoming numb. Let’s let the pain in and allow it to expand our hearts. Whenever something distresses you in the news, take a moment to let it in, allow it to enlarge you, reflect on it, and then ask yourself what response your heart wants to make….and make it.  It’s increasingly clear that our elected officials will not lead us to equality and justice for all; that power resides in us. As the Hopi Elders have said, we are the ones we have been waiting for.

So let’s all do what is uniquely ours to do.  If you know that someone on your block or in your neighborhood is struggling to stay warm this winter, arrange to pay their heating bills for a month, or drop off some thermal shirts. If you don’t personally know someone who is poor, work on that; but in the meantime, donate emergency fuel funds or warm clothing to an organization that provides desperately needed help.  A bowl of soup, a pair of gloves, the warmth of unconditioned love shining on another…all good.

Wherever you are, stretch yourself a bit. Write to your Congresspeople expressing your outrage that millions of our sisters and brothers  are forced to choose between heat and food while the 1% grow wealthier by the second. Descry the policies and funding for war that create such suffering half a world away and in our own backyard. Maybe you feel called to refuse to pay the portion of your taxes that finances the horror.  All of us can do something; imagine a world where we did.

And one more thing. If your response requires you to make yourself known, utilize your networks, exercise public influence, go for it. But if not, don’t tell anyone what you have done. Acts of love, kindness, and generosity carry immense power when they spring from our deepest sense of connection and compassion, not our egos. Just do it. Warm Somebody. Shhhhhhhh.

Listening Post #24: Gifts of the Season

Posted December 23, 2011 by Sharon Browning
Categories: Uncategorized

In the midst of the frenzy of gift buying and giving that preoccupies many of us during the annual commercial extravaganza that Christmas has become, I offer you two stories of gifts given that will warm your heart. I give you: Phil and Andrea.

A few weeks ago I had a serendipitous conversation with Phil, the wonderful human being who tends my car. Phil is a guy you can trust: he is routinely careful and professional, impeccably honest, unfailingly kind, always  going the extra mile for customers in his repair shop.  On the personal side, he lovingly raised and successfully launched his daughter, and settled into blissful empty-nested-ness.

But then, Phil became concerned about his 10 year old niece;. Growing up in a rough section of our city, she was beginning to have difficulties. An inadequate school and dangerous neighborhood conditions were having their effects, and the family was alarmed.

So post-child-rearing Phil offered to give the kind of self-emptying gift that this season is all about.  In September, he opened his heart and home to the 5th grader, fixed up a bedroom, enrolled her in the local school, and set about surrounding her with love and opportunity. His enthusiasm and joy are contagious as he describes her new-found love of reading, her delight in Harry Potter Weekend, and her shy request for additional spending money at a local fair. What for?  Books.  As I listen to Phil, I am awed and grateful, drawn into a deep appreciation for the overwhelming  gift of himself that he has so freely and generously given.

And then, there’s Andrea. Really, it’s an entire class full of Andreas at St Joe’s University. As students in Professor Frank Bernt’s  course this past semester, they were required to serve as visitor-volunteers in a hospice. The group gathered recently to talk about their experiences; I got to be a fly on the wall and listen to their stories of discovery and transformation. Andrea’s story is representative of all of them, and I offer it here as another example of gifts that change lives, gifts of the heart.

One of the patients Andrea visited was an older woman with a brain tumor that had caused damage resulting in aphasia, the impairment or loss of the ability to communicate using words. This was frustrating not only for the woman, but for Andrea, who originally saw herself as The Helpful One, needing to DO something, speak, help, fix…..something, anything to be of assistance. With great effort, the woman from time to time would say “ I can’t even begin to tell you……”trailing off, unable to continue, leaving  thoughts unspoken, unknown.

Gradually, as the weeks went on, Andrea became comfortable with that difficult space of Unknowing, and allowed herself to let go of her own agenda and need to be needed or effective. She began to occupy the place of Presence:  occasionally massaging the woman’s hands,  more often simply sitting in the mutuality and pregnant silence of their shared humanity.

On the last day that Andrea visited her, her new friend again tried to speak, slowly, with difficulty, echoing the only words she had managed during their time together. But this time, she finished the sentence. “I can’t even begin to tell you…, she said haltingly, painstakingly, “…how much you mean to me.” Andrea was dumbfounded, and immeasurably moved. “I hadn’t DONE anything. I didn’t think my presence was valuable,” she said. “But doing nothing meant everything to her.”

This may be one of the most profound expressions of gratitude that Andrea will ever get, an acknowledgment of a unique and extraordinary gift exchanged between these two women.  Together, they tapped into what Parker Palmer calls the Hidden Wholeness that dwells in each of us, and offered it to each other. “I didn’t change the world,” Andrea says. “The world changed me.”

In the dark days when I fear that our species is spinning madly out of control, caught in some fevered grip of  ignorance and insanity, I remember all of  you Phils and Andreas out there, giving each other the finest of gifts, the only ones that genuinely  reflect the Reason for the Season:  self-emptying gifts of the heart.  Maybe we could all give even one such gift this year. Think of someone needing this present: the Presence of another caring, loving human, and give yourself, all wrapped up and shining with the Light that dwells in us all. This is how the world is healed, how Incarnation happens every day.  Merry Christmas, Everyone.


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