Not Their Monster

Not Their Monster November 17, 2014

Guest Post: Rev. Erika Marksbury is the Associate Pastor on staff with me at Saint Andrew Christian Church. She is finishing up a PhD in a fancy inter-disciplinary thing that I can never remember the name of, but is really impressive. She is also a wife and mom and writer and, really, all the things. 

A side note: I sent Gov. Brownback a note the other day. Long story short, after being (narrowly) re-elected, he renewed his commitment to block gay marriage in Kansas, no matter what the Supreme Court says. The gist of my note was, what a tremendous waste of time and resources this is, when our state is in the midst of an epic financial meltdown (wrought by his policies). I got a note back from his office. It was obtuse. Maddening. I was, and remain, furious. Following that exchange, I appreciate Erika’s reflection all the more. Read on…

My boys, four and six years old, have best friends who are also brothers, five and three years old. Every Thursday the dads get the boys together, make pizza from scratch, and let them run around the yard to their hearts’ content. Last week, the usual tag game grew more complex: each of the boys assumed a super-hero identity, and claimed a special power. One was really, really fast. One could jump over anything in his way. One could transform into a flying machine. One could beat all the bad guys. They took on new names, reflective of their powers. Then this fierce foursome approached my husband as he prepared the crust.

“You’re the bad guy,” they told him.

“Ok,” my husband agreed. “And what’s my name?”

“BROWNBACK,” said the oldest of the boys, and the others joined in, spitting out the name at him. “Yeah, yeah! Brownback. Yeah.” Then, to each other: “Get him!”

* * *

Two nights earlier, election night, our boys sat on our laps, watching the numbers change as the precinct reports came in. They dozed off early enough that Paul Davis – the challenger for the governor’s seat in Kansas – still had a slight lead over Sam Brownback, the incumbent. Our hopes were high.

My four-year-old had come to the polls with me earlier that day. The older noticed our stickers when we picked him up from school, and asked where we got them.

“We voted,” said his brother proudly. “We want there to be a new president of Kansas.” You know…close enough.

“Why do we want a new president?” asked his brother.

“Governor,” I corrected. “And we want a new one because…” I began the litany of woes that have befallen my state since Brownback’s self-described “experiment” took hold, including severe funding cuts for the arts, for schools, for care and services for those in most need. It didn’t take long to convince my six-year-old that yeah, that guy needed to go.

That’s partly because, as many national pundits who had their eyes on the Kansas race this year will tell you, that guy needed to go. But it’s also partly because my kid is SIX. He believes whatever I tell him. That is an awesome power. I really, honestly, don’t want to misuse it. And I want my kids to know what I value, and to begin to think about what they do.

But what I sometimes fail to remember in my friendly indoctrination efforts is that kids are passionate, and they want to do good, and that coalesces as focused and intense conviction. My kids are vegetarian, by their own choice. Their reasons are (1) they love animals and (2) they especially love our cats. I’ve tried to convince them that even if they did eat meat, no one would cook up their pets and serve them for dinner. But their conviction is strong, and that nuance doesn’t make sense to them.

And that’s what I thought, at first, when my husband told me about the game. The nuance doesn’t make sense to them. They don’t understand that Sam Brownback, the person, is not reducible to his policies. They don’t understand that policies are complex phenomena, that he didn’t propose them, legislators didn’t pass them, thinking they would do harm. They don’t understand that people who love the same state and want what’s best for it can have very different ideas about what that “best” is.

But stepping back I realize, it’s not like my boys don’t understand that because it’s too complicated. Truth be told, part of the reason they don’t understand any of this as nuanced is because I never painted it that way for them. I explained the voting process, and encouraged them to be a part of it someday. And I scowled visibly when certain commercials aired, talked back to the television and accused the narrators of telling lies. On election night, I held the younger one on my lap, and I worried aloud every time my candidate’s lead narrowed. I dramatically bemoaned the fate of my state when it began to look like it might again land in the hands of the man I voted against.

Now they’re yelling, really yelling and running after my husband, the stand-in for the caricatured governor. But he is not a monster of their own creation. He’s a monster of mine.

And now begins the really hard work of explaining to them that their governor’s face is not the face of evil.

Not because he hasn’t hurt people, or made decisions I wish he hadn’t. Not because I’d ever want them to vote for him. But because evil doesn’t have a face. People have faces, and people are all nuanced – the ones I vote for, and the ones I don’t. The ones who narrate the commercials I scowl at. The ones who cheer as the narrow margin flips, the same moment I mourn.

Of course, it is hard to convince myself of what I know. But I think of how Buddhists practice the metta meditation: not just by repeating the words (May you be safe, and protected. May you be free from suffering. May you be happy. May you be healthy and strong. May you live peacefully, joyfully….) but by repeating the words to the images of particular people. Calling to mind certain faces, saying the words to them. Beginning with someone it’s easy to love, moving to someone who’s neutral, saying another round for someone they find difficult to think kindly of, ending with a repetition for all beings.

I like a spiritual practice that allows me to work toward a begrudging embrace. Because I think of (some of) my biases as matters of principle, and I’m not ready to let them go. So instead I conjure up an image of the Governor, smiling as he makes his victory speech, surrounded by his family and all those flags. I breathe deeply. “May you be safe, and protected…”

Read more from Erika here

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  • kcbrewster

    A parent’s job (one of many) is to help children transition from thinking about the world in black-and-white terms to dealing with cognitive dissonance and understanding complex issues. We are wired at an early age to be able to
    generalize and discriminate – it’s vital for survival. But as the brain more fully develops we become capable of dealing with dissonant thoughts (e.g., not all snakes are bad; strangers are actually good to talk with at job fairs; not many Muslins truly want to kill Americans).

    Unfortunately a portion of people (about half of them apparently) prefer to keep thinking of the world in absolute, black-and-white terms. They don’t want to let those pesky, inconvenient truths interfere with everyday life, profits, and
    inexpensive shoes.

    Your kids will continue to take what you say at face value and label the “good guys” and “bad guys” for a while, but will begin to understand the discord of the world as they move through high school and into college. Unfortunately many of their counterparts will continue to live in the world of absolutes just as their
    parents have taught them.

    The sad irony is that at some point we come to realize (through books like “Game Change”) that they’re all monsters. Don’t let your babies grow up to be

    • gapaul

      And if we don’t encourage thoughtful, compassionate people to become politicians, if we don’t respect those who do it with principle, and honor their hard work — who will run our government? Who do you want choosing your wars, fixing your bridges and running your schools?

  • kcbrewster

    Sorry Tanyam – that last line was meant as a joke. I don’t really believe they’re all monsters (just the vast majority of them). We are still obligated to teach our children the ideals of civil service and pray for a change in the dynamics of American politics.