Here's my blog version of "experience, identity and hope" and a disclaimer: I've started too many blogs I need to get to postable stage, and this [dramatic?] one may need liberal salt, but then again, maybe not.
I remember myself as a young, recent MSW insisting though I might consider attending seminary some day, no way could I remotely consider such a thing without a solid background in the social sciences. José Miguez-Bonino says the social sciences are a privileged way of interpreting human experience, and in my formally written-out faith journey I concurred, describing them as "next to theology." By the time I reached divinity school I glibly referred to symbol and stratification, deviance, marginalization, ethnicity, subculture, rent and role reversal, but by then I no longer referenced Pantone® and Letraset®; however, all that designer-vocabulary has returned now that I've truly come full-circle.
Despite my working-class origins, as the years progressed I lived acutely aware of my privilege. As an undergrad I'd lived in what the feds called a pocket of poverty (little did the feds officially imagine all the numerologists in the neighborhood, though on another level of course they knew), and as a result worked as a case aide at an outpatient psych unit in a highly transitioning neighborhood. By working there, as well as later serving a very multicultural protestant mainline congregation not far away (geographically and otherwise), I experienced closeup how poor inner-city neighborhoods dwell in many types of poverties in addition to the no-brainer economic, and observed how those impoverishments keep individuals as well as the entire (but is there a cohesive community in such settings?) community struggling to build up to ground level while people in more financially articulate parts of the city and in outlying suburbs have built multiple stories up toward the sky.
A particularly clear memory comes from my last Advent on the East Coast: Jürgen Moltmann, one of my favorite theologians, was speaking at Harvard late that afternoon, and I was scheduled to play an organ recital in an Advent series that evening on an organ I'd previously played, but I hadn't had time to register and practice my repertoire for the concert, so I drove out to the semi-suburban church, slipping and sliding across the trolley tracks on my way, since one of the season's first snows had started falling, thinking all along the way "what privilege this is—and it's happening to me!" Later on, after a slew of circumstances transpired, I found myself basically in the category of poor and under(-)served.
impoverished place, poverty of history
Theologically, psychologically, anthropologically and economically a lone individual becomes a person by becoming (notice the gerund) embedded in a textured, connected, interwoven history of shared experiences with other persons. People in this country have moved house so many times that place, location and geography (in other words, measurable latitude and longitude as well as named streets, neighborhoods, municipalities, towns, counties and outlands) has become less central to one's identity, yet still remains a factor. You gotta be able to define cartographic constraints and constants to some extent in order to be able to grasp the sense of self that derives from your cultural, ethnic, historical and other origins plus the later experiences of community and culture you enter, exit, re-enter and abandon. You (I need, one needs) need a stable community and plot of land to give you a stable sense of self if you are going to be healthy!
In order to become a social entity, you absolutely need social pathways and points of entry to meet like and unlike people, to share experiences, learn about different points of view, to create a humanly connected sense of your own identity, form memories and become part of history. Without those fluid living processes in a real sense an individual or a people has no history, but lives in a nowhere (neither here nor there) of a fragmented series of stories starting to form, then suddenly erased and beginning to be rewritten again, where shadows of former lives and shattered hopes drift through "today," but without a persistent core that includes people who have journeyed alongside us through time, so it's possible to "remember when" together, to evoke and rekindle tarnished dreams and splintered hopes. No matter how many other people come and go in each of our lives, each of us needs persons (and maybe places, too) of shared history, to accurately name ourselves and recognize others. Rephrased: I need persons and maybe places of shared history to accurately name myself and recognize others.
This is where scripture, theology, sacraments and liturgy leap onto this page and stay there—way out in front of any sociological or anthropological imaginings, but in a firm handshake with historical ones, and as Martin Luther would ask, "Was ist das—What does this mean?" Congregations, people, and groups can read out of the texts of scripture and the persons of the prophets, the apostles and Jesus the Christ into their own experiences; people, congregations, families and groups who have a history of living with and being alongside others can preserve, write, re-write and image that shared past into a full present and meaningful future, right along with awareness of themselves as community. Other people and events may enter, stay a while, leave and return, but being grounded and rooted in historical existence lived, narrated, written down and liturgically re-enacted keeps on and continues transforming lives.
Without continued connection to and communications with others who have journeyed for a time and distance with me, I now lack the fabric of inter-connectedness, participation, belongingness and recognition I need to be fully human and that would enable me ultimately to do quite a lot on my own. I've made multiple attempts to rebuild, to connect, to find opportunities to use my skills, education and experience, but I've been labeled, re-defined, marginalized and cast aside by others, and my own efforts are completely insufficient. Oprah said to that teenage girl, "You know you can't do it [life] on your own, by yourself." I find myself still scratching for life and barely surviving in ways I never imagined I would, in ways I used to observe other people doing when I was on their outside looking into their world, sometimes trying to figure out social services they could use, what agencies to refer them to. I've lost the original picture and cannot bring my life back into focus, fit all the pieces back together or find new ones without help. Besides, the original picture no longer is intact, so it's not there to find, but has been changed and transformed, probably both for the good and for the less-than-good.
center, heart, edge
Back to liminality and talk of the heart, the center, the core, the edges and the margins. For the most part I keep trying to get through each day as intact as possible despite the raw lump of grief that has settled in my gut. I've said I'm a lot like the energizer bunny and keep on keepin' on no matter what, usually without thinking. I still wonder about my place in the world and still ask whether or not my life again will have any meaning and purpose. I'm attempting to recreate a life and culture for myself rather than discern and describe what's already there and cannot do it alone! But I have no choice but to do it, because if I don't, I'll continue existence this way as a solitary individual and not a person of history, just one of a collection of individuals randomly in the same ZIP code, with little sense of hope for tomorrow and no shared memories or stories of yesterday that could help fuel and encourage dreams of tomorrow, not only for myself but ultimately for others, I'd dare hope.
I am so too sick of the way people try to explain to me why I'm in this situation, "Just give me a hearing, and I'll tell you all about it." They imagine themselves full of authority about how I got here and what I should to do get myself out of poverty (because that's where I am now, and politicians, journalists, social workers and their ilk actually believe they "know," and try telling me they've been here, lived where I'm living, but for the most part they haven’t). Instead, they've bought liberal stereotypes about poverty, disappointment, justice, work ethic and how they relate to personality and character that basically separate and marginalize poor people from "the rest of us," presumably hard-working Christian types. I've already said this, but I don't need a pill, a caring counselor or a primary care physician. It's interesting you're offering me your list of "therapists who take insurance" because I don't need a therapist and I ain't got no insurance.
In sum, when people tell me so loudly and insistently they can explain where I am and how I got here, they cannot be telling the truth because to do so would mean spending time with me and giving me more than a cursory once-over; it would mean sharing meals, days and life with me, carefully listening to a full-scale human being explain what has happened and how I ended up out of society's mainstream and started drowning in it—as well as drowning and sinking in the mainline church. A standard chunk of the stereotype claims people and communities exist outside society's cultural and economic center because their values do not intersect with the values held by "the rest of us" because their pathology distorts and blurs their senses of propriety, human decency and healthy behaviors. Oh, please!!!
By outward appearances, I believe most people I meet think I sort of am holding my own in society's mainstream, and in a minor way I sort of am, but I'm surviving despite daunting conditions of lack of shared history and absence of community. As on the edge as I feel from the rest of society I'm trying hard to maintain middle-class behaviors; I do what I can to try to live, to dress, to conduct myself, to discuss life and perfunctorily talk about a future like a so-called normal person. However, in the last analysis I'm still tied to the dominant culture in some ways from which I can't extricate myself. I've blogged about looking in on people having lunch and conversation at sidewalk cafés with friends and acquaintances (empty chair), and how that's no longer part of my life, but then again, I fell out of the public welfare system because I was well-educated, recently showered, wore clean clothes and spoke well. I didn't have the safety net to soften the hard fall as I drifted toward society's edges; existence on the edge doesn't afford people the cushion of any kind of active human or institutional or bricks-and-mortar, streets-and-roads infrastructure.
I've done a long series of in the end futile attempts to discover and maintain friendship, relationship, belonging and relative security, as I've tried to cut through the ambiguities of existence and establish an identity in a way the church used to do for me and that family of origin and original neighborhood never did (not blaming—they never did because they never could). In this year 2007, on one level I still desire the exact same outcome of mainstream values, middle-class life and mainline church I planned and schooled for: a reasonable chance at economic and professional success together with a safe, comfortable, visually attractive community that's also racially, ethnically, culturally and otherwise as diverse as can maintain itself. But then again, at this point I don't know that I want a wholesale lateral transfer into the dominant culture, because that could wash away my now painfully constructed new identity as well as obliterating my baptismal identity and call. Just as so much earlier on, I want to discover ways to blend these values into the amazingly rich matrix of who I have become during these years (hey, I do recognize it), to maintain a distinctiveness that's yet not an alien one—my own editorialized annotation of mainstream values.
Would I want to erase my experiences, disappointments and marginalizations of these past years? Actually, probably not! I'm proud of the way I've survived on my own, the burdens I've carried in spite of everything, knowing the struggles, the history, the pain makes me who I am and I do not want to give that up. I am never quite sure how much I otherwise could have learned about the pain of poverty of place, history and community, had I not felt it first-hand, because in the end learning about myself is about learning how individuals become people, disparate scattered people become communities.
The privilege I lived in during the long-ago past had disqualified me to stand and speak in solidarity with hundreds of my own (human and sister) kind; I had no way to participate in the conversation because I had suffered few of the same insults and deprivations. The advantages I'd lived with and almost taken for granted had disqualified me, for that time, from being part of their world in which I worked, resided and served. But now I've been there, done that, still have the stole—yes!, so will God not lead me back to those and similar places and spaces so truly I can minister as one who has walked in their sandals, become enfleshed as one like them, as one of them? I hope so and I trust so!