Think Black: Remembering C.T. Vivian

I note with sadness the death yesterday of the Rev. C.T. Vivian. For those of you who do not know of him, he was one of the core leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

I met Rev. Vivian in 1984 in Atlanta. At the time I was living and working at the Open Door Community, an intentional community modeled on the Catholic Worker communities. The Open Door provided permanent residence to about a dozen men and women who would otherwise be homeless without prospect of shelter. We also provided daily morning and noon meals to hundreds of other homeless women and men, daily showers and changes of clothes, and an ongoing ministry of visitation, advocacy and street actions against the death penalty in Georgia.

C.T. Vivian had no direct involvement with us, but he was at that time running day-long workshops that he called “Think Black.” The leaders of the Open Door thought that their young, naive volunteers would benefit from a course in racial issues awareness, so we were required to attend Rev. Vivian’s workshop, without knowing exactly what we were getting into.

It was an intense experience. With the passage of time, my memory is unreliable but several aspects of the day have stayed with me.

First, Vivian was a powerfully energetic man. There were times during the day when he broke his chalk, he was pounding it so forcefully against his chalkboard as he illustrated the centuries of crimes against Black people in America. I worried sometimes about his health; he was angry, and yet that anger was never fully vented. His was a commanding presence, unlike anyone I had ever met, even MLK himself. MLK’s presence was also commanding, but at least to my six-year-old self, it was quiet and self-contained. C.T. Vivian felt like he was constantly on the verge of combusting.

At the beginning of the day, he laid down several rules of engagement, of which I remember two:

1) If you agree to start, you stay until the end. No one leaves part-way through.

2) No personal stories.

That second one really got my attention. I don’t think I had ever heard anyone tell us not to tell our stories. The personal story, or the national, or the cosmic story seems to be the hallmark of the human experience. We are story-tellers. We love our stories. We love telling our stories. I had no idea what he hoped to accomplish by cutting us off from our stories.

In time I might remember more about this day, but I can tell you this: very few of us managed to abide by those two rules. Several left the gathering, in tears or in anger. Nearly everyone tried at some point to justify their opinion of something by telling their personal story. Vivian was relentless in shutting down those attempts. He did try to convince people not to leave, to abide by their commitment to him, but he failed in at least two cases.

For much of the day, Vivian seemed like a hyper-critical father for whom nothing you do is ever good enough, and nothing you say is ever right. He led us through a series of group exercises during which he challenged every comment and every self-justification. One of my colleagues, a Quaker who prided himself on his long life of nonviolent activism, very nearly came to blows with Vivian and was so red in the face I thought he was going to blow a gasket. He is one of the people who left before the day ended. One of the others who left mid-day, left in tears trying to tell her story of having an abusive father, and how she was being triggered by Vivian’s uncompromising manner.

There is probably legitimate criticism that could have been leveled at Vivian’s tactics. Only at the end of the day did he explain what he had been doing. He wanted this mostly-white group to feel during this one day, what it is like to be Black in America every single day of your life. Your opinions don’t matter. You are treated like a sub-human. Someone is always trying to throw roadblocks in your path no matter what you try to do. In order to approach equality with whites (which you never are likely to achieve the way the dominant society is structured), you have to work ten times harder than anyone else. Nobody cares about your story. In any other context, it would have to be called abusive behavior. Can you justify abusing a group of people in order to illustrate viscerally how abusive their status-quo culture is? It’s a questionable tactic.

At the end of the day he took time to meet with each of us (who had remained) to reconcile, to say something affirming and encouraging. To thank us for daring to subject ourselves to a host of uncomfortable truths about racism in America and in ourselves. His rule about staying was for this: he did not want anyone to leave before having that reconciling one-to-one meeting.

In addition to his central message about the violence and abuse heaped on Black Americans every day of their lives, I learned a couple of other lessons that day.

Lying not too deep beneath the veneer of nonviolence covering several of my colleagues, lay deep aggression when things did not go their way. I was pretty shocked to see my friends explode in anger when their much-vaunted self-image was called into question. We didn’t talk about White Privilege then, but if that term means anything then I think this is it. White folks see themselves as good, and peaceful, and fair and unbiased; but when the dominance of their worldview is challenged, they erupt in frightening and ugly ways. I went away wondering: how much of the “peace and nonviolence” in the community I moved in was just such a veneer covering over a deep dedication to white privilege and dominance?

Time and time again, when confronted with some belief or attitude that was racist, participants would resort to their personal story to try to explain their racist beliefs away. I learned that day how powerful a weapon the personal story is. We use it constantly to avoid the unpleasant, to explain away the status quo, to justify our own beliefs and behaviors. That day was really the beginning of my understanding of the role that our stories play in the creation of our sense of identity. The story is an ever-evolving series of self-justifications. We use it to keep our sense of self intact while reality continuously bombards us with self-challenging situations. We are deeply committed to ourselves, and we will fight to the death to preserve our sense of self in the face of a reality that contradicts us. The personal story is the primary weapon that we use in that battle of self against reality.

To me, the hallmark of spiritual awakening (although I hate that term; it’s more like a slap upside the head), is the unequivocal realization that I have spent most of my life, and spent most of my energy, in defense of a fictional narrative of selfhood. And that fictional narrative has run roughshod over every living person and every living thing that might at any time have posed a challenge to the structure and dominance of my almighty-self. Seeing through the story of the self cascades out into our relationships with everything and everyone. But, as C.T. Vivian knew, that story is a perpetual-motion machine. It is active every waking minute (and many of the sleeping ones) of every day of our lives. It requires a powerful intervention to interrupt the bulldozer of the personal story. And it isn’t usually too pretty when it happens. Try lying in the path of a bulldozer and see how it feels.

That is what impressed me most about C.T. Vivian that day. It became clear to me over the course of the day that he was willingly lying down in the path of our several bulldozing selves, and although he was not willing to be squashed by us, he took the blows, and the shouts of anger, and the threats and the insults (coming, remember, from a bunch of good, liberal, peace and justice, white folks), and never once did he retaliate in kind. Just as he had from Sheriff Clark on the steps of the Selma Courthouse, he took our blows and kept on keeping on with his argument that despite the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and decades of nonviolent struggle, Blacks in America still face an unending struggle to be treated as equals, not least by good liberal white folks who think they care more than anyone about racial injustice.

Well, they do, we do, until it upsets our status quo. Until we have to sacrifice some of our privilege. Until we have to restructure the society that works for the few, so it can benefit everyone. Until someone comes along and disrupts the perpetual motion of our self-justifying stories. Then, what we care about more than anything in the whole world, is putting our personal story back together again, with minimal disruption to our familiar, and entirely fictional, world.


We Can’t Go Back To Normal

We can’t go back to normal, because “normal” is a disaster. Normal, at least anywhere that industrial civilization is dominant, is deeply destructive, based on exploitation and domination of people, plants and animals; subjecting the entire biosphere to the demands of profit and power. These are turbulent times, by turns encouraging and dispiriting, but there is no viable “normal” to return to for anyone living in the industrialized world. Whatever comes from the current protests and the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the growing movement to safeguard Black lives and the authoritarian impulse to suppress dissent, going back to the way things were a few months ago is simply not an option. Continue reading “We Can’t Go Back To Normal”

Breaking the Frames

When I was a college undergraduate, I studied the theoretical underpinnings of Freudian psychoanalysis with J. Giles Milhaven, a former Jesuit priest and professor of religious studies at Brown University. One of the central concepts that I took away from my studies with Dr. Milhaven was the therapeutic necessity of what he called “breaking the frame.” His belief was that problems in human relationships come mainly from the way that we frame those relationships; the belief structures that we build around our relationships to make sense out of them and align them with our own needs and desires. Not all of our frames are dysfunctional. But when our framing stories are too far out of alignment with reality, we expend useless energy trying to force the world back into our frame, instead of allowing our frame to adjust to reality. This is the source of much of our distress: our framing of reality is out of step with reality itself yet we remain committed to our frame.

Our frames are intimately intertwined with our sense of who we are.  To dissolve one of our essential frames is to lose our sense of self. We are so committed to our mental frameworks, that we usually fight like hell in defense of the frame, even as it diverges further and further from the truth. In those cases where our commitment to our frame is absolute, the only solution is for something outside of us, some person, some situation, some unexpected force, to break the frame. Something has to happen that exposes the false frame, allows it to be seen at last for what it is. Not reality; merely a way of interpreting reality. Not the self; merely a story about the self. Not the other; merely an image of the other.

This is not an easy thing to go through. We pin our sense of security, our sense of identity, on our mental frameworks. When the frame is broken, we feel truly lost for a time.  This is well known to everyone who has lost anything that helped define our life: losing our health, losing a job around which we organized our life, losing someone we love, discovering that someone we trusted has been deceiving us; discovering that the system that supports us abuses others. The loss is hard enough, but the disorientation that comes with the breaking of the frame can be completely debilitating. We resist this disorientation, so we can carry on for years beyond the point at which we receive the first clues that our framing story is out of alignment with the truth. We resist and resist and resist the loss of the frame, because along with the frame goes a solid sense of identity. The frame is the boundary of the self. Without the familiar frame, who am I?

My work with Giles Milhaven was very influential. A lot of my frames have broken over the years, and it has never been easy. But I also have seen that ultimately it is healthier to stay in touch with reality than it is to carry on in conflict. It is easier to have a fluid and adaptable sense of self, than it is to have a rigid and fixed identity that is in conflict with the living world.

And I have seen that the framing of reality is not only something that happens in the individual; it happens to entire cultures, especially now when so much information is channeled through mass media and shared by millions of people almost simultaneously. When a distorted frame is shared, it becomes more and more possible for us to participate in mass delusion. It is hard enough to break the individual frame. It is even harder to break the societal frame, because we seem to be wired to conform to societal norms. We prefer to do what our peers are doing, to think the way our peers are thinking, to care about the things that we perceive our peers to care about, to look like the images that claim to convey what our peers look like. The risk of not conforming is isolation, being ostracized, kicked out of the community. If we rebel at all, we usually rebel within a subculture to which we continue to conform.

The planetary ecological crisis requires the breaking of frames at many levels: individual, societal, economic and political. A truly daunting prospect. I find myself frustrated with most attempts at change because they end up being the sort of change that tries to massage reality into the existing frame. Very rarely does anyone dare to break the frame. The consequences are too frightening. We react violently when someone tries to break our frame before we are ready. The frame is “me” until it is broken, so I will fight to the death to preserve it.

This is a great conundrum. Fundamental change is required of us at this time but most of us are not ready for the change. We are committed to our worldview, not to the world. We are willing to tweak the system, but not to turn the system on its head. We want our life to go on in its familiar track, not to change everything. We want security, not uncertainty. We want more, not less. We want to keep the frame intact and just change the picture. If someone tries to break the frame, or the Earth breaks the frame, we will resist. But the frame has to break nonetheless. Life depends on it now.

An example of changing the picture without breaking the frame would be our hope that technology will solve all of our ecological problems. The techno-optimists believe that we can solve all of our problems with solar panels, wind turbines, smart grids and electric cars. The only change required is a change of means, not a change of self or society. It won’t work. As long as we have a sense of self – or an economic system – that endlessly demands more and more, the technology won’t help. We’ll keep needing more of it, and the planet is already groaning under the weight of our perceived needs. Emphasis on the word “perceived.” These are not real, biological needs. They are needs arising from how we frame reality, including our sense of identity. The frames need to be broken. How do we do that without creating a backlash? How do we get around our resistance to essential change? That is the conundrum.

There is no easy solution to this. We are not yet ready to break the frames that define us in relation to the natural world. All I can say right now is that the longer we postpone the reckoning with reality, the harder the reckoning will be. The farther we push the physical limits of the planet, the harder the crash will be.

Take one example: Imagine a world without fossil fuels. Not 100 years from now when some unlimited fantasy fuel has magically appeared or the beleaguered Earth has somehow supplied us with the raw materials and the land to build millions of solar panels and wind turbines and hydro dams. Now. Imagine your life right now without fossil fuels. The blasting and drilling and fracking and pumping have stopped. Coal and oil and natural gas are gone. How does the limiting of your mobility, your autonomy, your employment options, your material security – all of which are presently tied to the availability of fossil fuels –  affect your sense of who you are, of how your community is structured, of what you can do?

Which of your frames – your fundamental assumptions about who you are and what the world is and what you expect the world to give you – are dependent on fossil fuels? Are you willing and able to abandon those frames for the sake of life on Earth?