Finding the True Legacy of American Slavery

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As a child, because of my father’s work in construction, my family would travel. My mother, someone as inquisitive and interested in learning as I am, would take us children to the various historic sites and museums near the areas we visited. A significant part of our time in the South was spent surveying Civil War battlefields, exploring plantation homes built in the Antebellum era, and pondering it all from the perspective of a proud Yankee.

At the time the devastation and destruction of the war was justified by the righteousness of the victors. Slavery was an affront to the notion that “all men are created equal” and thus this institution of human ownership remains an indelible stain on that founding ideal of this nation. This perspective made Abraham Lincoln a heroic figure, it made the Union soldiers honorable men, the North was morally superior to the South and that was that.

However, that was actually simplistic.

First, many of the casualties of war are innocent, the wrongs of our enemies not justify our own, and the reasons for a conflict are far more complex than the victor’s narrative, Second, slavery had been an institution since the beginning of human history and a subject of debate for the founders who ultimately decided that the constitutional federation of independent states against the British colonial power required some compromise. Third, the aggression of the North may have resulted in emancipation for slaves in the South, yet it did not improve the conditions of those treated like rented mules in Northern industries and mines nor did come without a cost. Furthermore, both sides in the Civil War relied on conscripts (poor men forced to risk life and limb to further the agenda of the powerful) and in the North disenfranchised whites (mostly Irish immigrants) rioted in New York City against the draft and taking their anger out on black city residents.

The human and economic costs of the Civil War were staggering. It is estimated that 620,000 men died in combat or from disease related to the horrid conditions and that’s not to mention the many more ‘casualties’ who returned physically or psychologically maimed. The direct impact was full 1.5 times the GDP of the time, for comparison the 2017 GDP distributed per capita (19,485,400/325.7×1.5) is $89,739.33, and the indirect costs were far far greater. The total economic price tag of the conflict is conservatively estimated to be 10,360 million in 1860 dollars or an incomprehensible 315 billion dollars in today’s money and at a time when the US population (and GDP) was a fraction of today’s. Every man, woman, and child in the South lost the equivalent of $11,456 during the war and continued to lose long after the war due to the destruction—the vast majority of them never owned a slave.

Poor whites in America, especially in the South, had the double whammy (or maybe triple whammy?) of being forced to fight on behalf of the rich, of working for very little compensation themselves and then still being called privileged by their actually privileged counterparts. It wasn’t the moralizing Northern abolitionists who freed the slaves nor the Southern slave owners who felt the greatest pain of the brutal conflict. The people who paid the real price were the working class, they were the ones who lost the most in the war, a war over an institution no fault of their own, and are now held as responsible as the slave owners themselves. It is a path to resentment. People who feel powerless often take their feelings out on those with less power than they do. Sadly black Americans have historically been the reciprocents of this frustration while the true beneficiaries of their exploitation are never held accountable.

Slavery, at its peak, only accounted for a fraction of the nation’s GDP:

In the 1850s, the zenith of the cotton economy, it came to between 1 and 1.5 percent of the nation’s GDP, not a trivial sum. By this period, however, the United States was already the second-largest economy in the world and was investing every year between 13 and 15 percent of GDP in new capital. Even if the entire “slave surplus” were saved (which it wasn’t, because there were mansions to build and ball gowns to buy), it would have made a respectable contribution to growth, but it just wasn’t large enough to be the basis of an empire. (“Was America Built By Slaves?“)

As the quote above suggests, most of that gain likely went to the slave owners themselves, spent on their lavish lifestyles then, on those plantation mansions that still exist in the South, and was not invested back into the economy in general. A significant portion of that wealth evaporated as a result of the war and emancipation. The value of a slave went from being $12,500 to $205,000 (in 2016 dollars) to effectively zero. So, in other words, if the 1860 census were correct that there were 3,953,761 slaves and the average price was around $800 in their dollars (or around $140,000 in our own) then slave owners lost around 554 billion dollars. Slaves, on the other hand, gained something priceless, that being their own freedom, and yet the cost of slavery to black Americans is truly incalculable.

The Incalculable Cost of Slavery…

The cost of slavery to black Americans is incalculable and not in terms of economic impact. It is incalculable because of the lasting social consequences that can’t be assigned a number value. The suffering of black Americans did not end with the Civil War, they faced the lingering resentment of their white neighbors, all forms of discrimination, intimidation tactics and terrorism. Even with Constitutional amendments prohibiting slavery, recognizing their citizenship and granting voting rights, conditions did not improve dramatically for black Americans in the “Jim Crow” South. It took a further effort in the 1960’s, the civil rights movement, to finally see some of these Constitutional rights fully realized and not before Dr Martin Luther King Jr was murdered by an assassin’s bullet.

But, perhaps worse than the lynchings and segregation, one time events that can be adjudicated or something that can be addressed through legislation, is the immeasurable impact on the dignity of those who know that their ancestors were once treated as property and sub-human. I can’t really imagine how it would feel to have my own race being counted as 3/5ths of a person in my own country’s founding documents. There is no way to compensate for that psychologically and especially not when the widespread mistreatment was still in full force a mere generation ago. In such a context, it would be hard not to see any misfortune or measurable difference in outcome as somehow related to prior generations being robbed of their dignity and right to self-determination.

However, making matters astronomically worse is the fact that even many of those claiming to want to help often treat black people as their lessor and do more harm than good in their efforts to restore. A prime example of this is the so-called “War on Poverty” and how since then black marriage rates have plummeted and out-of-wedlock births skyrocketed. First, intact families are a greater predictor of future success than race. Second, making a person dependent on government handouts does nothing to restore their human dignity and, in fact, keeps them trapped. The welfare state has more or less enslaved the black community (and many others) to politicians who stoke fear of losing ‘benefits’ as a means to gain votes and maintain their own power.

Affirmative action programs do nothing to help confidence. No, if anything, they only further reinforce feelings of inferiority and, worse, feeds a notion that black accomplishments may deserve an asterisk. I can recall very well the conversation I had with a young man in the Midwest whom I confronted over his racism. He made no apologies, he embraced the description, and then blamed his own lack of success in college on his not being given the same opportunities as minorities. Whether true in his case or not, it takes an extra dose of grace for a poor white person to not feel slighted and very easy to take out the frustration on the beneficiaries. I’ve had to fight this myself as someone who never finished college for mostly for financial reasons.

A few years ago I had hope, with the election of Barack Obama, that this would heal some of the wounds, bolster feelings of self-worth, and help us turn the page as a nation. Sadly, it has seemed to do the opposite. My opposition to increased government spending, as a lifelong conservative who doesn’t see more government control as the solution to every problem, was characterized in terms of race as was any opposition to his policies. Rather than be seized upon a moment of reconciliation, Obama’s race was used as political leverage, as a means to ostracized political opponents and advance a leftist policy agenda. The specter of racism is used to control, both to frighten some voters and also to smear others.

A decade ago I had believed that we were on our way to colorblind society, one like that Dr King had envisioned where people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Today I’m not even sure that is possible, the current political establishment benefits too much from identity politics and tribalism to allow that kind of society to form. It is hard not to feel cynical in a time when white vs black narratives dominate the headlines. And, while I believe this too shall pass, that the current racial tensions are an aftershock rather than a repeat of the past, there is also the reality that slavery is an unpayable debt.

The Unpayable Debt…

Some have suggested an idea of paying reparations to the descendents of slaves to right this historic wrong and would finally, once and for all, reconcile the injustice. There are those who have gone as far as to suggest a number, between $5.9 and 14 trillion dollars, as being suitable compensation or at least as a “meaningful” symbolic gesture and something that could improve race relations.

Those selling the idea of reparations say is that this is similar to payments made by Germany to those who suffered through the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis.

However, those promoting the idea fail to mention the significant differences. The first difference being there are actual Holocaust survivors still alive today to receive the compensation for their loss, but there is not one former slave or slave owner still alive. A second big difference is that the abuses against the Jews in Germany were perpetrated directly by the government itself, whereas slavery was a private institution that existed long before the United States was a nation and was eventually ended by the government and at a very great cost. Hitler’s Germany didn’t stop themselves, the government stole directly from people and sent millions to slave labor camps or gas chambers to be killed—it was literal genocide.

But the bigger problem with reparations is who pays, who gets paid and how much?

It is not justice to make one generation pay for the sins of another. There are many in the United States who did not benefit from slave ownership. My own ancestors, for instance, did not own any slaves and the own possible way they might have benefitted is in slightly cheaper cotton. However, I didn’t receive any inheritance of money nor of cotton clothes from my grandparents. In other words, my savings is my own, from my own work, do I owe anyone (besides my cousin who just helped install flooring in my rental and the bank) nor do I feel any guilt for anything I’ve done. So why should the innocent be forced to pay anymore than another person should be forced to work? Do two wrongs make a right? It would only be right to target those who actually did benefit directly from slavery and the complexities of that would be enormous. Would we go after the descendants of European and African slave traders as well?

And then there is the matter of determining who gets paid what. The reparations advocates come up with their dollar figure based in a calculation of hours worked, wages at the time, and interest that would be accrued. But that’s not how things really work. Again, the wages of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers were spent in their generation, dispersed into the economy, and there is nothing left for me. The reality is that the modern ancestors of slaves benefit from the economy in the same way that we all do, thus paying them with interest would not make any sense and especially when that money would be taken from their innocent fellow citizens. Then there’s the reality that not all American black people are ancestors of slaves, some of them are recent immigrants from Africa, some have mixed ancestry and others may actually be the ancestors of black slave owners. Yes, there were slave-owning black people in the American South—should their ancestors pay or be paid?

So, what do we do, start compensating based in DNA tests, as in, “You’re 1/5th black and thus entitled to X…”?

Do we prorate based on how much someone benefited from affirmative action?

Will multi-millionaires, those who obviously have done well, be paid?

Do we deduct welfare payments, etc?

Grading everyone based in their ancestors reinforces all the wrong ideas. It is measuring a person’s worth based in their ancestors rather than their own individual merits and exactly the thing we should be getting away from. Besides that, it is severely undervaluing the worth of a US citizenship, there are people fighting for the opportunity to be here, and our economy is much better here than it is in Africa. Yes, certainly a black person born into an urban environment may face unique difficulties. But then there are many immigrants who come here with nothing, who settle in the same neighborhoods and do advance. And where does it end, do we owe the followers of Joseph Smith for the systematic oppression of them and their religion? Do we owe the Republican party for the attacks against them by the KKK and lynchings of party members? It is just not a good direction to go, it is divisive, it will hurt the wrong people, and we are already deep in debt as a nation. Why should our grandchildren (black, white and other) pay interest to the Federal Reserve and other wealthy people for what is only a symbolic gesture and, if we are honest, won’t remove the stain of the past anyways?

The truth is that money won’t change anything as far as the past. Sure, I’m guessing many who would receive reparations like the idea, who wouldn’t take a windfall? But the reality is that all the compensation in the world cannot erase the legacy of slavery and all the wrong people would end up paying the price. A professional sports contract doesn’t make anyone forget injustice, many lottery winners often end up as poor as they were before, and money can’t be used to solve the problems created by money to begin with. There are times when a financial settlement is the answer, when both parties directly involved (the aggrieved and the accused) are properly adjudicated. But billing the current generation for the sins of the past, especially without due process, is a theft no better than slavery at worse and mere revenge at best.

The true legacy of slavery is that some are owed a debt that cannot be paid.

Wake Up, the Matrix isn’t Real!

A matrix, according to Merriam Webster, is “something within or from which something else originates, develops, or takes form.” And we do live in a matrix where our ideas about race, history, advantage and disadvantage matter more than the actual facts. In other words, the matrix is the way we individually or collectively interpret the facts and use them to form our ideas. Our thought matrix, our assumptions based our own interpretation of facts, plays a significant role in our outcomes. Overcoming the mental processes that keep us bound is key to success in life.

The other week I was driving to a jobsite and notice some nice new houses with their well-manicured lawns, spiffy two car garages and paved drives. I was overcome momentarily with tinge of envy, a little regret, and mostly befuddlement at how some people could afford such things. The question immediately came to mind, “What did I do wrong?” I thought of my life, my disadvantages, the opportunities missed, and all those things that held me back from reaching my full potential. However, before I went to far along in that thought process, another question countered the first, “What did I do right?” My mind went first to all the thing I did right, but then to all my advantages compared to most people in the world and the things I did not choose.

Did I do anything right, say compared to that Haitian man I saw in Port au Prince hauling a car body on his back or a woman born in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, etc?

Our mental construct, our prejudices, and preconceived ideas, a product of our culture and choices, can make a real difference in our outcomes. Sure, positive thinking cannot change the circumstances of where we are born, a good attitude does not mean that there will be fewer obstacles to our success in life, yet why not make the best of the opportunity we are given and live in gratitude for what we do have rather than envy of others or frustration because of what we lack?

Part of the problem is that there is a system of control, it helps to create our expectations, it feeds our insecurities and can keep us bound. The real systemic oppression is the idea that politics (or more money in our hands and power over others) is the answer to our problems. Money can’t fix what it created, money itself binds us to the system and the things that money buys rarely deliver the happiness that we think they will. Again, look into lottery winners, many end up as unhappy as they were before their winnings and some worse off. So why do we measure success in terms of things that will not and cannot make us happy?

What we really need to do is reorient ourselves. We must reject the unhelpful categories and classifications that keep us bound and change the way we think. Grievance culture, tribal score keeping and trying to rank people by their outward appearance is a backwards facing, small-minded and, frankly, racist orientation. There is no group guilt for slavery anymore than there is for inner-city crime, we need to stop seeing people as white, black, orange or whatever, building our own identities around those superficial things, and aim for something greater—aim for the future that we want, yet hasn’t fully arrived, where all people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

It Is Time to Think and Act Differently…

If I had my own life to do over I may have dithered less (convinced that higher education was the key to success in life because of what my teachers told me) and started driving truck earlier. It was my own pride (and anxieties) that kept me from taking the better options available to me and I suspect there are many who, like me, prevent their own success because of their aim. And I’m not at all saying that we should sell ourselves short or settle for less than our abilities can afford us. However, many do set themselves up for failure because they keep waiting for the big break, the breakthrough when everything they dream of finally comes to them, and refuse to take full advantage of the actual opportunities they have.

Another thing I would do differently is stop worrying that other people had it in for me and believing that I was helpless when the reality was that I was unwilling to make the right sacrifices. Part of my difficulty in life was due to my refusal to act differently or accept that my own behavior was part of the problem. Sure, there is something to be said for authenticity and being true to ourselves, but sometimes overcoming requires us to act differently and accept what is truly reality over our own individual construct. To find success in the religious context where I was born I would need to accept their rules and my fighting with that reality, my “kicking against the pricks” or resisting the flow rather than harnessing it, had some undesirable consequences.

Cutting to the chase, we have agency and we do not. There are well worn paths to success with risks worth taking, call them cultural conventions, and then there are the low-probability high-risk paths that lead many to ruin. For example, finding a profession like teaching, law enforcement, construction or accounting (as a opposed to seeking to be a career actor, model, musician or professional athlete) is more likely to produce desirable results for most people. Feeding our insecurities, dwelling on slights (real or perceived), demanding others conform to our wishes or that they respect us for who we are, expecting too much, is a path to long-term disappointment.

Overcoming the matrix means we need to stop seeing things in black and white terms. Sure, things like “black culture” or “white privilege” do exist in some form, at very least as a construct in our minds, but they really are only terms that obscure a far more complex picture and keep us trapped in the problem rather than working towards the solution. The reality is not as simple as the narratives pushed by academics and advocacy groups. There is no one group with all the advantages nor another with all the disadvantages. There is a reason why the suicide rates for middle-aged white people have skyrocketed while black rates have declined and are considerably lower—something (like connections and community) that might be missed in the commonly touted measures of success?

Recently I read the story of a naval aviator, an officer name Thomas J Hudner Jr, who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions in the Korean War. His act? He intentionally crash landed his Corsair to protect and attempt to rescue a comrade, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, whose airplane had been hit by ground-fire and was behind enemy lines. Brown, who happened to be the first black naval aviator, did not survive despite the efforts of Hudner, however, what does survive is an example of brotherly love that transcends artificial racial divides and presents a reality worth building upon. That is the legacy that, if built upon, will free us all from the sins of the past.

Loving dangerously, that is my idea of real success in life.

It is also neat, in these hyper-partisan times, to see George Bush Jr and Michelle Obama share some moments of common humanity together and continue this friendly exchange even at his father’s funeral. That is the symbolism that matters, that is the positive interaction we should aim for and the kind that can make a real difference in the world. If we love all people rather than prefer only those who look or act like us and orient ourselves to the hope of a better future rather than cling to our past and present suffering, we may well have a chance to build a better identity for ourselves as a nation. We may not be able to choose our inheritance, but we can work to create a better legacy for the next generation.

We, like Bush and Obama, have far too much in common to be at odds with each other.

Those who have faced hardship past or present should be heard and forgiven of their current insecurities. Those who have been indifferent to the suffering of others, out of ignorance or hardness of heart, should also be forgiven. And those two groups are all of us and have nothing to do with race. We are all victims, enslaved to a past that we didn’t create for ourselves, and all guilty of perpetuating the legacy to some degree. We can’t know what a person has been through by how they look on the outside and therefore we should love all people as we wish to be loved rather than by what we think they deserve. It is time to be courageously human, committed to true Christian love, rather than tribal, fearful and small.

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Why we give on Christmas

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In America it is easy to take our advantages for granted.  We have worked hard, we have invested our abilities and taken advantage of the opportunity to build our dreams.  Therefore, it may seem, the fruits of our labor are an entitlement and not a gift, right?

Well, yes and no…

If we had stayed in bed all day waiting for prosperity to happen we would likely be impoverished and therefore our will to get out of bed is a big part of our success.  However, was it by your own will that you were born with two good legs and are even able to contemplate getting out of bed?

If we are entitled to what we produce by will, but did not produce our legs by will, then who or what do we credit for what our legs helped us produce?  I suppose we could start by thanking our parents, we could be grateful to them for the transmittal of the genetic material that produced our legs and giving them credit for our success.

Then the fact you are able to read this, we can thank are parents and teachers who taught us language.  But, even if they seem older than the hills, they didn’t invent language and nor did the generation before them.  So can we take credit for the ideas we gained through written or spoken language?

Our lives are inexorably intertwined and interconnected like the very internet on which you read this.  The inventors mostly unknown, the contributions of many virtually forgotten and the whole maintained by a nameless mass of humanity, yet we do benefit or we would not use it.

So who or what deserves credit for our success?

We prosper to the extent that we do by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ and our own efforts amplified by these gifts providence has bestowed upon us.  We cannot take for granted the privilege of a stable economic system and opportunities that even a grade school education provided for us.

If you travel to Haiti the contrast is clear.  In a place where government is especially corrupt and available resources few, even the most industrious person will have a difficult time getting ahead.  Oftentimes their best chance is by escaping to a better environment, yet that is not an option for all and some are stuck doing what they can to earn a meager wage.

Our success is a result of both collective and individual efforts.  Therefore, we all together (personally and all contributors to our lives big or small) deserve all, partial and no credit.  As a web of intersecting circular chains of causality of shared responsibility, deciding who actually deserves credit is actually a true paradox.  This paradox of our own will within determinism is something I chalk up to Providence.

We are created by the dust of stars…

In nature brutal violence and exploitation is normal.  A gazelle in Africa does not consider the rights of the living plants it consumes to be sacred nor does a lion that takes down a gazelle for its’ meat seem to agonize about the decision.  I doubt many would consider incarceration of a lions that killed a gazelle a moral necessity.

The recorded history of thousands of years of human history show a similar disregard for the life of those in the tribe across the river.  The idea of conquest or taking what you could in raids (that including enslaving members of the other tribe to labor or be concubines) was very common behavior and only very recently has become widely regarded as a morally repugnant thing.  It was kill or be killed.

From a logical, reasonable and collectively minded standpoint survival of the fittest is an obvious choice.  With the advent of modern science the idea that imbecile parents produce imbecile children, concerns about overpopulation and idea of gene selection became a basis for eugenics.  So from whence doth this ethic of protecting the weak or nonproductive person come from?

I think it is empathy.  The idea, contained in the proverb “there but for the grace of God go I” and a thought that we are fortunate for what we have been given, is that we should give to those with less because we would want to be helped.  It may be against nature and impractical thinking, but it is evidence that we can think beyond a materialistic perspective.  We see each other as spiritual beings with value just for our own existing.

I believe it is spiritual progress, awakening to more full awareness and transcending nature itself that drives our generosity.  We recognize our own success is not a simple matter of our own individual responsibility, choice and effort.  We realize we are not a product of any one person, institution or entity in this universe.  We are created from star dust, we suddenly have become awake to a reality that we somehow know is unfair and unbroken.

So where does this leave us and where do we go from there?

I turn to God.  I believe to acknowledge God is to humbly admit we cannot take credit for creating ourselves, that we cannot find answers for our existing in ourselves alone and we want to live out an ideal beyond ourselves.

Jesus prayed: “Thy kingdom co me on earth as it is in heaven,” which is literally asking for heaven on earth, and ultimately what faith is supposed to be about.  With this my prayer, I cannot be content to hoard what gifts I have been given for myself only, my family only or my own people only.  If I pray for heaven, I must be willing to create heaven and by that I must be willing to sacrifice myself to see this reality in my own life.

Love for God in the Christian Bible is always defined as giving of our abundance to those in need and commitment to self-sacrificial living.  It is a message to each of us personally to do our part in bringing the ‘good news’ to the world of God’s love for humanity.  It can be misconstrued as religion, as a guilt trip, as a means to judge others, and a tool of oppression, but the true calling of Jesus is for us to give what we have to give.  Rich or poor, male or female, American or other, we all have something to give other and, in our giving to each other, giving to God.

God has given us the ability to create a better world and many squander the opportunity by their immorality, their selfishness, greed, envy, etc.  But faith is acting despite what others do, faith is the only way we will fearlessly lead in bringing heaven to earth and faith is what is required of us.  It is our job, as people of faith, to be the healing hands, the feet ready to carry a load for those struggling and the loving voice.  With faith we can be the hands, feet and voice of God.

I am not talking about strictly charity either.  In fact, I think most of our giving is by our careers, our talents and time.  And, I will go further to say that there is nothing bad about profiting from your efforts, receiving without guilt and enjoying life.  However, I would caution against an entitled attitude that fails to recognize all you have been given that amplifies your own willing effort.  The investments of the blood, sweat and tears of many is what has made the American lifestyle possible.

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48b)

Those who think their security, prosperity and confidence is something they earned—rather than a gift from God—have no need to help those who are without and assume those without have done something to deserve being without.  However, those who know their affirmation and acceptance is only by the grace of God, who understand the very opportunities they have were by divine providence, they will give to those in need with a humble heart.  An ungiving person is an ungrateful person.

So, why do we give gifts on Christmas?

We give because, the Christ child, Jesus was given as a gift by God and we are grateful.  To those of Christian faith, Jesus is the living symbol of God’s ideal, his life the ultimate example and his laying down of his own life so we could know how to live the ultimate hope of humanity.  Our giving on the holiday is symbolic of the gift of the grace of God.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  (John 15:13)

To give as much as we have been given is our expression of fullness of gratitude and that is our reasonable service to God.  If everyone had will to give their all then nobody would be without and in need.  Be a friend to all people of all nations, give your all and bring heaven to earth for someone this holiday besides you or your own kin.

Merry Christmas and God bless!

What Came First the Description Or the Reality?

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I’ve had a friend recently characterize some people as “needy” or “clingy” and I had to wonder if those terms are used more often as a justification than as a fair description.

My question is the classic chicken-or-egg-came-first causality dilemma expressed in our socialization.  Individuals create societies, but societies most definitely influence individuals and splitting up responsibility is not as easy as simply picking one or the other.

Causality: Words versus reality?

Descriptions do matter.  Describing adjectives are subjective points of view rather than concrete realities and yet themselves do help to form reality.  Two people evaluating the same behavior can come to vastly different conclusions.  An alleged flirt could be described as friendly, being aggressive may be assertive, opinionated could be engaging, arrogant could be confident, pushy might be sincere and the list goes on.

Descriptions reflect our prejudices.  A negative description influences how others may interpret a person’s behavior and could harm them.  What we see as bad in another person’s behavior may actually say more about our own personality and weaknesses than theirs.  We could very well be blinded by our own perceptions of reality and be blinding others with our less than flattering words.

Good judgment requires good context.  If I were to say a person is “desperate for attention” there is a sort of pejorative sense assumed.  But, if that phrase was used in the context of serious physical injury with a need for immediate professional medical help, does that change the inflection?  For me, it changes my interpretation of the ‘desperate’ person’s character.

Humans have many needs, all are things necessary for a healthy life or perspective of reality, and some needs are more immediate or pressing than others.  There’s a way the most reasonable or composed person can be made to become like a wild animal in less than a minute and all it takes is to cut off their air supply.  A person chocking a chicken bone or drowning is likely desperate, they are definitely needy and they might even get a bit clingy too.

Giving a cold shoulder to a starving soul…

Picture another scenario, picture a banquet hall, many at the table enjoying the abundance, some proclaiming loudly how blessed and full they are.  But, on all sides around those partaking are many others who are shut off from the food and drink.  Those at the table chatter and smile oblivious to those behind them.  Those outside are fully aware, they patiently wait their turn as the pangs of thirst and hunger build.

Finally, after this goes on for days, and those at the table take no notice, one of the outsiders taps one of the friendlier in appearance feasters on the shoulder asking just for a slice of bread and sip of water.  Unfortunately, the person at the table, fat from gorging themselves, look back, they see the peaked looking figures behind them, they assume these outsiders must be sick with a deadly disease and, instead of offering sustenance, they are horrified.

What happens when a person has no access to food or drink?  They starve, they thirst and, if it continues long enough, even the most confident person will become increasingly desperate in their search for answers and they eventually fall into doubt or fear.  They will no longer enjoy the shouts of satisfaction of others and especially that of those who refuse to offer rescue, relief or help.  It is understandable if they got a bit pushy and increasingly desperate, right?

It is our job as people of faith to turn those who are outsiders into insiders:

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”  (Colossians 4:5-6)

So, what should we do to be more loving?

Going back to needy or clingy, used as an assessment of human behavior, let me apply the feast scenario above to human need of companionship.  Like all people need air to breath and water to drink and food to eat, most people require a balanced diet of social interaction or inclusion to be happy and healthy.  A person shut off from necessary social sustenance will likely become increasingly desirous of affection or affirmation and with that their behavior may shift towards more assertiveness.

What could be hidden in our characterization of a person as being needy or desperate is a justification to mistreat them.  And, at very least, it is not helpful to tell a chocking person that “hey, you look desperate and needy.”  Without help offered, commentary on the obvious could sound more like a taunt than a useful observation.  At worse, it is stuffing a pejorative down their throat, giving them yet another reason to feel unvalued and isolated.

The needy and clingy characterization of someone is probably used unfairly in many cases and may be used as a cover for our own wrongful attitudes.  If their appreciation of our companionship and if their affection towards us were valued, we would call them “appreciative and affectionate” instead.  But, the reason we call them clingy or needy is that we (or those we are defending) are at some level wanting to excuse ourselves from responsibility for their human needs.

Needy and clingy are a negative spin on appreciative or affectionate. They could be used as a pejorative to describe a person who we don’t value and also are damaging words if used to help shape the opinions of others.  Our insensitive use of language can have consequences.  Labels affect how we see ourselves and also how we see others.  If we were to tell someone who made mistakes they are “stupid” or “idiotic” we may actually impact their confidence negatively to the degree they respect or others respect our opinion.

Wisely using words that build rather than harm…

People need affirming words to make them grow more than they need their behavior characterized negatively.  Even bad experiences can be redeemed if reframed as an opportunity to learn or grow. Likewise, a positive description can also be used to shape a person positively.  It is likely far more beneficial for a person already down on themselves to hear their hopes or desires given legitimacy and respect instead of derision.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. […] Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:29, 32)

Describing a person negatively to others is rarely helpful.  To speak disparagingly about a person without giving them a chance to defend from the accusation is basically to murder their character.

However, when times demand we must be critical and there are ways to offer criticism that help and other ways that hurt.  The first I recommend, rather than discuss them with other friends, is to go directly to them treating them as a friend.  This is the idea Jesus taught for addressing ‘sin’ against us (Matthew 18:15) and provides a chance for the offending party to explain themselves.  That is the way of love.

There are many wounded, broken and hurting people in the world who are well aware of their own need.  These are people who need not be reminded again of their own deficiencies.  We do not know what they have had to overcome.  It is not our job to determine what another person does or does not deserve.  True love is not the only kind or accepting of those most like us, but is self-sacrificial and gracious to the undeserving.  That is the way of Jesus.

Do your words feed and nourish a better reality?