Choking on the Reality of What Is

I stepped away for a minute over the weekend to get my daughter settled in for sophomore year 1200 miles away from home. No biggie. Stayed with my own parents for two nights while there and felt the poignancy of perching between generations, as the younger needs me less, the older needs me more. And I resist the shift in roles on both sides: I’m not ready to stop day-to-day parenting my daughter, nor to start day-to-day caring for my parents.

It’s not like an obstinate, foot-stomping kind of resistance, but something I guess you would call grief, at times choking me with the inevitability, the naturalness of the passage of time and what that means. My daughter is almost 20, my parents almost 73 and 83. I am almost 51. Everything is happening exactly as it is supposed to be happening. But being awake to the reality of all that is, at this moment, for me, excruciating.

Many of you reading this are nodding and “mm-ing” in support and understanding. Many of you have adult or almost-adult children; or are adult or almost-adult children yourselves. Many of you have aging parents, or are aging parents yourselves. You can imagine what I am experiencing at this moment, as I prepare to board a flight that will take me back to my home halfway across the country. You have empathy, you have compassion, you have ideas and suggestions and wisdom that will help me navigate this particular transitional time. We have a shared understanding of my experience because it is or appears to be a universal experience – we all age, our kids grow up, our parents get old and eventually die. And so do we.

But accepting that inevitability is altogether a different experience. And one that many of us never do – which is, according to Buddhists – the root of human suffering. We cannot accept what IS, preferring instead to come up with other narratives, other explanations, other reasons for what is happening.  It is the dissonance between what we want or hope to be true and what IS true that is choking us.

In class last week, we tried very hard to figure out what IS when considering the police shootings of Philando Castile by Officer Jeronimo Yanez and Justine Ruszczyk/Damond by Officer Mohammed Noor. We examined the divergent experiences of, for example Diamond Reynolds and Officer Jeronimo Yanez in the hours following his killing of Philando Castile. She was treated as a suspect, separated from her 4-year-old daughter and held overnight for questioning. He was driven home within hours after the shooting and told to get some rest. What explains that difference?

We wondered about the divergent reactions by the police departments and government officials involved in the killings of Castile and Ruszczyk. Officer Yanez was kept on the force for almost a year before being offered a separation package that included tens of thousands of dollars in something like severance pay. No harsh word was spoken against him publicly by any government or police official. The shooting of Castile was portrayed as an unfortunate event.

We don’t know much about what has happened to Officer Noor. He declined to speak to the press or investigators – which is his right under the U.S. and Minnesota Constitutions. We do know, however, that the local police union disavowed Officer Noor almost immediately; and that the Minneapolis chief of police spoke out forcefully within days of Ruszczyk’s death, condemning the killing and calling it completely unjustified. “Justine did not have to die,” she said. Within days of that statement, she had been asked to resign, and did so. The Mayor of Minneapolis herself is being called upon to resign in the aftermath of the shooting.

We tried to graph the intersectional identities of Castile and Ruszczyk, Reynolds, Yanez and Noor. In so doing, we had to confront how deeply contextual such mapping can seem to be (but maybe, for some identities, is not).

Yanez – who is a Hispanic police officer — is treated differently from Reynolds – an African American low-income single mother. Why? Because of his badge?  Or because he is a man and she is a woman? Or because being Hispanic is just slightly more powerful than being black?

Yanez is treated differently from Noor – a Somali-American, Muslim immigrant. Why? Can’t be because of his badge – they both have badges. Because Noor is an immigrant? Because he is specifically a Somali immigrant? Because he is Muslim? Or because he is black and Yanez isn’t?

Castile – an African American man — is treated differently from Ruszczyk – a white Australian woman. Why? Because he is a man and she is a woman? But what about Yanez and Reynolds – he is a man and she is woman? Because he was armed and she wasn’t? Because his car smelled like pot and she was a free spirit out in the alley in her nightgown? Or because he was black and she was white?

We went around the room and imagined explanations for the different outcomes of the two shootings. And there are, indeed, facts that might go a long way toward explaining the differences. Just as there are facts that would allow me to avoid feeling anything more than a bit wistful when dropping my daughter off, and noting the decline in my parents’ energy and mental ability.

But those factual narratives fail to capture fundamentally what IS. As one of my students bravely asked, “How can anyone see the Castile and Ruszczyk differences as the result of anything BUT race?” And as another of my students bravely answered, “because I can’t believe people could be that horrible.”

Well, what IS, my friends, is that we all age and we all die, and we all watch those we love age and die too.

And what also IS is that America has a terrible terrible problem with race; and we always have.  I’m not going to argue this point here, nor am I going to cite statistics.  Rather, I am going to ask you to consider honestly and off the top of your head, the most obvious difference between the shooting and killing of Philando Castile and the shooting and killing of Justine Ruszczyk. He was black and she was white.  And the officer who killed her was black.

We need to talk with our parents and our kids and our spouses and our other loved ones and each other about the reality of aging, illness and death.  And we need to talk with our kids and our spouses and our other loved ones and each other about the foundational problem of race in America.

But before we get to the talking part, we need to sit with the deep, excruciating, choking discomfort that admitting those realities causes us.  It is devastating to accept these truths — but guess what, it is even more devastating when we don’t. Just look around you.  Only when we have the courage and humility to be awake to the reality of the American condition can we begin to have conversations that will allow us to move forward in constructing a different understanding of living in global community.

Keep yourselves awake through these truly awful moments.  Pay attention and be humble.  We are all in this together.

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