Help Me Not Be Such an Ass: May 7-June 7


Goddamn it, it’s hard to be such an Ass*. The more I try not to be such an Ass the more I realize what an Ass I am, and always will be. I can get mopey about this, because it makes me crazy sometimes, despondent, that there is no end point, that I’ll have to keep trying forever; at such times, I aim for a process orientation about the whole thing–that’s why the “such” is important. There is no such (!) outcome as someday Not Being an Ass At All, but to live in the process of becoming a little less so–just not such an Ass– feels possible, with Help.

Here is some of what I’ve turned to in the past month for Help:

Who We Be: The Colorization of America, by Jeff Chang. I’ve rarely been so startled by a book’s wonderfulness. I expected it to be wonderful, and then it was MORE wonderful than that. I can’t encapsulate all the things this book is about; what it does, though, is blow my brain open about contemporary art, multiculturalism, and what smart people have said or done about both over the last 50 years. It took me months to read because I had to savor it, and that’s some praise.

Lilith’s Brood trilogy by Octavia Butler. A premise of these books is that what makes humanity such a hot beautiful mess is our particular kind of intelligence AND our retention of hierarchical instincts (attn COS practitioners!), and she shows us all about this via science fiction, which pushes me out of my aesthetic comfort zone. Some of the helpingest Help comes when I read, listen, or watch that which I hadn’t known was there at all, or which I’d eschewed, and I love learning about and from Octavia Butler, and I wish I’d known about her before, but all I can do is read her now. Have you seen the (doodled!!) “9 Painful Stages of Realizing You Live in a White Person Bubble” (thanks, Aurora!)? When I am talking with other white people about issues of racial justice, often someone asks in a voice that sounds frustrated, “Yes–so, there are problems. What are we supposed to DO? HOW do you propose we fix everything?” To be clear: I, Sarah, do not have an answer for systemic racism. The only thing I can ever think to say to this question is that it seems important to get ourselves to Stages 5 and 6, and then see where we are, what kinds of questions occur to us and what ways of generating answers, because when we depend on our own Ass-y (yep, sorry) understanding of the problem, inevitably informed by our experience as white people in a white supremacist society, we compound the problem. And! If you are finding you assume that systemic racism exists but don’t have details enough to talk to your Tea Party Uncle (thanks Drew), or are finding that you aren’t so sure it’s real (are you my Tea Party Uncle??), or are just like “UGH, stop talking about this, why are you so problem-focused?” I recommend these 6 fact-filled and unexpectedly lighthearted minutes from ColorLines.

Who We Be pointed me to a piece by Hua Hsu called “The End of White America?” and it’s a good read, especially if you have been uncomfortable about the self-congratulatory spirit of stuff like “Stuff White People Like” and also thought it was funny and then just not known what to with yourself. Or if you doubt the vitriol with which white people will defend their cultural supremacy (see also comments to the 9 Stages piece.) Or if you just want to marvel at Sean Combs (hint: you DO.)

This piece on restorative practices by a former EL teacher is lovely.

Black Faces, White Spaces, by Carolyn Finney, is something I am so glad to have read (thanks Joanne), because I work with an organization with roots in Outward Bound, that’s working to practice greater inclusivity, and that’s willing to examine how those roots may constrain inclusivity. From blurb: “Bridging the fields of environmental history, cultural studies, critical race studies, and geography, Finney argues that the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial violence have shaped cultural understandings of the “great outdoors” and determined who should and can have access to natural spaces.” 

This article in HuffPo about addiction (and how our models for thinking about it don’t correspond well to lived experiences) just cracked me open. Go read.  Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else. So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.

Also, this isn’t a resource I can link you to, but my chorus sang at a church today. Like, a church in the South on a Sunday, and then we had luncheon in the basement with the (7) parishioners, who were lovely, gracious, and welcoming (let it be known that we sang them a song called “In An Age of Twisted Values” that calls us all out on being Asses, including racially discriminatory Asses, and they still loved us).  This is not our usual milieu, and even so, many members of the chorus grew up in a church enough that they know the words to things, but I just stood there not-knowing, and it was such a good reminder to me that having no frame of reference for a big part of the life of a big percentage of the population is a hole in my education about the world. I don’t wish I’d grown up in a denominational church, but it feels suddenly incumbent upon me to learn more about what it means to people to whom it is meaningful.

Ok: The Guerilla Girls. MASKED ART-WORLD FEMINIST AVENGERS. You will love learning about them. This interview is a good start for history–basically, they called bullshit on the Whitney Biennial in 1984 and haven’t stopped.

Finally: The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making. This is ostensibly a work-related book, but the degree to which I am evangelical about it has surprised even me. I think it’s helped me in at least two ways: 1) it helps me not moralize difficult decision making/work dynamics (now I can counter thoughts like “AHHH, this is hard because we’re terrible or you’re terrible or I’m terrible!” with perspective on the actual predictable difficulty of complex decisions, which I learned in COS and needed to learn again and probably will need to learn again, again, again) and 2) it has made plain to me my own tendency towards fundamentalism–not about organized religion, but sometimes about things like frameworks I really like. It’s something I am working on being more conscious of. I welcome your help.

That’s it for this…month!

If you have suggestions for not being such an Ass, I’ll always take them.



*What this is about, and credit where it’s due:

Anne Lamott calls “Help me not be such an ass” the “fourth great prayer” (after “Help,” “Thanks,” and “Wow.”). I think of this as a gentle, loving exhortation, having to do with awareness rather than character; to be Such as Ass is to act out of insufficient understanding (including of myself) in a situation where that understanding would matter a lot to the people I am acting with or near. So the x-axis is consciousness, rather than morality. This might be micro-scope unawareness (if I don’t know that your mother has no arms and I ask you how many push-ups your mother can do, I’m Such an Ass) or macro-scope (if I don’t know the history of racial discourse in the U.S. and I characterize a Black woman as “angry,” I am Such an Ass). I think it does rise or sink or whatever to the level of morality if we remain willfully unaware in order to protect our physical and mental comfort, fingers in our ears, singing “The Greatest Love of All.” Anyway…as I wander around, I certainly ask for help not being such an Ass, and help comes, all the time (and I’ll need more, all the time, as we all will until we reach a self-transcendent stage of human development, and by then we won’t be self-righteously blogging probably).

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