David Beach – Thursday, March 9, 2017, 9:38 PM
God’s gifts through Ta-Nehisi Coates
On page 50 of Between the World and Me, Coates lists a number of poets and artists who had the courage to live “in the void, in the not yet knowable, in the pain, in the question”; they “pulled their energy from the void.” In this space, this void, their work is not quite political, nor is it necessarily personal; it is, as Carolyn Forche, one of the poets named by Coates, says, “social.”  Coates’ describes his social space in deeply personal and inherently political language, which resonates with the African-American experience over the last several decades, and, perhaps, with people of other colors who’ve been disillusioned with “the Dream.”
The killing of Dr. Mable Jones’ son, Prince, and the killing of Michael Brown represent disillusioning moments in the lives of Ta-Nehisi and Samori Coates—moments when assumptive worlds were shattered in an irreparable way, or perhaps a final shattering in a series of shatterings. It is from this disillusioned place, this place of exclusion from the Dream that Ta-Nehisi writes Between the World and Me—his offering in prose bearing witness to what it means to be a black male in urban America.
Through this lens of “Witness” literature, I listen to Ta-Nehisi’s telling of the episodes that took him from fear “to a rage that burned in [him] then, animates [him] now, and will likely leave [him] on fire for the rest of [his] days” (p. 83). From a place of immersion in his various American communities, Ta-Nehisi bears witness to the extremities of life as a black man in the artful and graphic language of metaphors, often from physics. The “tenacious gravity” that enslaved black bodies in the “American Galaxy” stretching from the “pandemonium of West Baltimore to the happy hunting ground of Mr. Belvedere” draws readers deeper into the “inscrutable energy” that “preserved the breach” (p. 21-22). Ta-Nehisi describes his developing consciousness of being black as more than just a benign “photonegative” of those who “believe they are white” (p. 42). He began to see “the larger culture’s erasure of black beauty” and the horrifying “destruction of the black body” (p. 44). He believed “what was required was a new story, a new history told through the lens of our struggle” (p. 44). This is his response; this is his bearing witness—necessary black history “weaponized to our noble ends” (p. 44).
In Carolyn Forche’s Against Forgetting, she says this:
We should not consider our social lives as merely the products of our choice: the social is a place of resistance and struggle, where books are published, poems read, and protest disseminated. It is the sphere in which claims against the political order are made in the name of justice.
By situating poetry in this social space, we can avoid some of our residual prejudices. A poem that calls us from the other side of a situation of extremity cannot be judged by simplistic notions of “accuracy” or “truth to life.” It will have to be judged, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said of confession, by its consequences, not by our ability to verify its truth. In fact, the poem might be our only evidence that an event has occurred: it exists for us as the sole trace of an occurrence.
Ta-Nehisi’s witness certainly is the sole trace of his own struggle with the constructs of color and race in America; however, the simple fact that it became a #1 New York Times bestseller lifts it out of the category of simple memoir, I think. For me, it becomes the artfully articulated historical witness of the consciousness of millions of people.
Though Ta-Nehisi denies theology as his enterprise and Christianity as his creed, he advances the voice of the oppressed in the style of black theology, which gives primacy of place to human experience, the wide and varied experiences of human pain and suffering caused by “evil.” Much like James T. Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Coates takes on the Christianization of lynching and the common practices of murder as a means of social and political control.
In my contexts
As an educator in the social sciences, one of my jobs is to raise the consciousness of issues like prejudice, bias, discrimination, racism, and racial identity all in the context of a Social Problems approach. Ta-Nehisi’s words and metaphors, his recollections, like the rapid fire of a weapon, use words to bring to consciousness what may be new and completely different thoughts and feelings about America for my predominantly white, middle-class, students. I consider his work a great gift for bringing to awareness race and color issues in America.
As a counselor, I consider his writing an example of the power of personal narrative. Through narrative reconstruction, several clients need to develop their own metaphors, to name what they feel/felt, to adequately tell their story. Ta-Nehisi’s rich figurative language provides beautiful expressions using astrophysics and different fields to talk even about telling a story well. An example: “The dizziness, the vertigo that must come with any odyssey” (p. 55) is a beautiful way of naming the weight of his realizations of what it meant to be black in America.
As a person
I remember well my own discovery of what it meant to be a Beach, a descendant of Joel T. Beach, Justice of the Peace of Ripley County in southern Indiana in the 19th century. I remember my joy in discovering in the Historical Society the document that designated him as such. And I remember my confusion in seeing the sign of the cross for his signature. For a time I was puzzled. Was he illiterate? Did someone else write his will? Did someone else write the letter I found that explained the distribution of his farm upon his death, that named each of his 10 children, one of which was my great-grandfather, John Henry Beach? Then I learned that it was the sign of the clan, and I was shocked and in turmoil. Since then, I have searched for a way to discharge my sense of responsibility for what he might have done. I rush to Ezekiel and find some comfort in the fact that sons will not be killed for the guilt of their fathers:
Ezekiel 18:17-20 “He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live. But his father will die for his own sin, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother and did what was wrong among his people.
“Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.”
Still, I long for someone to listen to my confession. I long to confess the sins of my great-great grandfather, though I don’t know what they are, nor who will hear my confession. I am sad that it cannot be Ta-Nehisi Coates, for with him there is no redemption. Perhaps his son will hear it, and there can be absolution. I know God forgives through the blood. Perhaps Samori can see the blood and forgive.
 From Carolyn Forché, “Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness,” American Poetry Review 22:2 (March-April 1993), 17.
God’s gifts through Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow”:
While reading Kahneman, an acute awareness struck me: there is a committee of critics, biases, fallacies, and illusions in my head that all sit at the boardroom table of Dave Beach Cognitions, Interpretations, and Beliefs, LLC. It is entirely possible that I can go a whole day (two? a week? a month?) without a new thought or idea. What if all my thoughts are merely associational rehash, a mixing, and mashing of prior thoughts, events, and experiences? What if my future will be dominated by reflections of the past disguised as new opportunities?
Why, a few years ago, I had a wild idea to do a doctoral degree at George Fox University in my sixties; now there’s something new. (Or is it?) How am I to think about my thinking about this idea? Am I doing the thinking? And, if so, who exactly is the “I” doing the thinking? Am I the “clever psychologist”/educator? Or am I the “chief dunce and inept leader” (p. 253) of Dave Beach Cognitions, Interpretations, and Beliefs, LLC?
The Inside view:
At times, I am single-minded and resolute about my decision; I’m sure it’s a good idea. I’m confident I can complete the course work (read thousands and thousands of pages, write thousands and thousands of words, travel to and from the Pacific coast, meet many wonderful people) and write a dissertation (a Theology of Suffering, no less) in just two-and-a-half to three years. Moreover, I can write it in such a way that really bright people think it’s interesting! (Well, at least enough people to let me graduate and receive a diploma.)
The outside view:
Then, I wonder: is this delusional optimism? A refusal to weigh the odds against this happening? Is Mr. Optimistic Bias running the boardroom, tabling all motions made by Mr. Negativity and seconded by Mr. Loss Aversion? Am I even considering the potential for miscalculations of my abilities? (I have, after all, no prior experience with dissertations.) Am I even allowing for mistakes, rewrites, and rejections that may take months and months to work out? Am I simply choosing to ignore this “outside view” (p. 247)?
“Cy” the Critic
At other times, there is clearly another person inside my head; perhaps I should call him “Multi” and acknowledge that he is actually me, but I prefer to call him “Cy” (short for Cynical Critic). He reminds me of an extensive collection of data that, according to him (and my remembering self), creates a coherent story of great ideas in my head that have gone absolutely nowhere—lots of them. Why just today he erupted in a diatribe that sounded like this:
And, after all, statistically speaking, what percentage of people receiving
their doctoral education are in their sixties? Come on! So, what are the
odds? Not good, Davey ole’ boy! Why, oh why, do you have to go shaking
up the status quo? You could quit now, you know. Then you would save
yourself from the “sunk-cost fallacy” (p. 253)! Don’t you want to save
yourself, Dave? Or would you like just to continue in “irrational”
perseverance (p. 411) oblivious to your optimistic bias and “losing track of
reality” (p. 256)? Do you really think you are up to a Theology of Suffering?
That’s not an “illusion”; an illusion is a perceptual error. You, my dear sir,
have a “delusion”—a deeply held belief problem!
Oi vey iz mir. Sometimes he’s so relentless.
So, am I a victim of my “illusion of control,” simply “focusing on my goal” and “anchored” in my plan” (p. 259)? Am I exposing myself to the “planning fallacy” and the heuristic of “resemblance,” (p. 7), because this seems something like my last degree program? What should I do? “Should I stay, or should I go? Come on and let me know; should I cool it, or should I blow?” (Such a Clash in my head).
This part is where perhaps my favorite chapter of the book comes into play. Kahneman—as committed as he was to being skeptical of expert opinions and a proponent of algorithms, formulas, and statistical thinking—invited Gary Klein—a skeptic of algorithms, biases and heuristics approaches and a proponent of highly developed intuitive skills in Naturalistic Decision Making (p. 234-244)—to study together on a joint project seeking how to “map the boundary that separates the marvels of intuition from its flaws” (p. 235). They eventually boiled things down to the question, “When can you trust a self-confident professional who claims to have an intuition” (p. 239)? They also realized they had focused on different experts in different environments.
They both agreed that “the confidence people have in their intuition is not a reliable guide to their validity. In other words, do not trust anyone—including yourself—to tell you how much they should trust their judgment” (p. 240). So, who can I trust? When will a judgment reflect “true expertise” (p. 240)? Their answer? “It comes when two conditions are met for acquiring a skill:
- An environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable
- An opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice” (p. 240).
Now, I have an answer for Cy, the cynical critic inside my head. It’s not my opinion; it’s my faculty mentor and spiritual director, MaryKate Morse, my instructors—Loren Kerns, Cliff Berger—and my dissertation advisor Michael Gama, who have all been great encouragers. They work in an environment that is sufficiently regular; they have their “10,000 hours” (p. 238). So, what I need are faith and courage: faith that MaryKate and Loren and Cliff and Michael have the expertise, not me, and that God is in this process; and courage to do something I have never done.
Here, I like Kahneman’s line, “when action is needed, optimism, even of the mildly delusional variety, may be a good thing” (p. 256).
So I am staying; I am writing; I believe the experts, not the board of directors in my head.
 Yiddish for “Oh, woe is me.” http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=oy%20vey.
 Jones, Mick. Strummer, Joe. “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.” Lyrics are sung by the band Clash. © Universal Music Publishing Group.
What I’ve learned in my 50-some short years of life and in sitting with couples who come for marriage counseling is that the most important part of communication is not speaking. In Communication 101, the impression given by the assignments (5 or 6 different kinds of speeches) is that communication is all about speaking: introducing, developing, persuading, summarizing, and concluding some thesis. But I’ve discovered that the most important part of communication was never even mentioned in Comm. 101—listening. More importantly, listening non-defensively. That is to say, listening in a way that truly receives, acknowledges, and appreciates, even when we don’t necessarily agree with anything that’s been said, but especially so when we do agree. This seems disturbingly contrary to our often selfish insistence on being heard—giving people a piece of our mind. And it seems elusive in its simplicity. Often people refer to listening as something their spouse or their children aren’t so good at.
This often seems disruptive and contrary to our usual selfish insistence on being heard—giving people a piece of our mind. And it seems elusive in its simplicity. Often people refer to listening as something their spouse or their children aren’t so good at.
Often people refer to listening as something their spouse or their children aren’t so good at. I remember trying to help adoptive parents listen to their daughter, who was increasingly frustrated with them for not listening. They were embarrassed and angry that their daughter had issues and needed a counselor. She was beginning to examine the religious beliefs they were teaching her; she had questions and felt they weren’t listening. She felt increasingly angry when they responded to her questions with preachy platitudes and scoldings for her “bad attitude” toward them. I attempted to help the parents to listen reflectively, simply repeating back to her in paraphrase, just so their daughter would know they had heard what she was thinking and feeling. However, the parents became defensive of their beliefs. The father began to lecture her about allowing her emotions to control her. He tried to extol the virtues of calm rational thinking in an irritated, defensive, and angry tone. (I don’t think he had a clue of how tragically ironic the dialogue sounded.) He couldn’t understand why I interrupted him. When I began to explain the difference between hearing and really listening, the mother became defensive and told how she was a good listener and just couldn’t allow her daughter to continue to “attack” her husband. All the daughter was attempting to do was share how she felt and how their conversations were impacting her. The parents were resistant, defensive, and offended that I suggested they weren’t good listeners. They were stuck in an ineffective communication pattern. Hearing defensively was mistaken for “good listening.” Change for the better was resisted. They didn’t have “ears to hear” their daughter, nor could they hear me without defensiveness halting the conversation. I remember realizing I was seeing a direct reflection of their image of God and how they understood conversation with him, their heavenly father. They were very well-intentioned it seemed, believing this was how God would have them be with their daughter whom they loved. It was a picture in miniature of how they understood they were to be in dialogue with God as his children. It was a relational style they had adopted and had been practicing for years. It was all too familiar. For it had been mine as well. For years.
I remember realizing I was seeing a direct reflection of their image of God and how they understood conversation with him, their heavenly father. They were very well-intentioned it seemed, believing this was how God would have them be with their daughter whom they loved. It was a picture in miniature of how they understood they were to be in dialogue with God as his children. It was a relational style they had adopted and had been practicing for years. It was all too familiar. For it had been mine as well. For years.
Often we resist change in preference for old, usually ineffective ways of communication with our spouse, children, or friends. Not until we experience the power of being heard and understood without resistance can we accept non-defensive listening as the important missing ingredient in our communication habits. (Even then, we may not let it change our own behavior.) Rather than focusing on speaking in Comm. 101 or gaining power over people in conversation guides, truly good communication depends on how we listen in our conversations–listening carefully for what someone thinks, what they feel, and what they want, then letting them know that we’ve heard what they’ve said (not changing it to what we wish they’d have said). Then, somehow, saying thank you—in some way expressing gratitude for their willingness to share their desires and thoughts with us. This, I believe, is good listening.
In light of this I’ve been thinking: what if my prayer life were to focus on listening to God and simply responding in a way that lets God know that I’m listening. This has helped me a lot lately to hear him without defensiveness or accusation. Like hearing Ps. 116:15 “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of those faithful to him.” I don’t like this passage. Not at all. I wish God had said something else. It doesn’t seem to fit in this Psalm, which begins with God saving the psalmist from the cords of death and the anguish of the grave. It continues with deliverance from death that the psalmist may walk in the land of the living. And then, verse 15. Precious? I don’t list that as a thought I have when I remember Sue’s death. The early morning knock on the door followed by policemen telling of my brother’s death? Not precious. Not at all the word that comes to me. But God has said it. It’s his reaction, not mine. I do not like it, but I’m listening. I’m trying to listen non-defensively, without resorting to the back and forth pattern of defensive resistance and point-counterpoint. It’s not that I don’t believe in arguing with God; it’s just that I’m realizing I’m not very good at listening to God non-defensively. I’m not very good at arguing lovingly like I would argue with my best friend.
Usually, I prefer to just avoid conflict altogether. But, I’m beginning to see in the Psalms how God is coaxing, coaching, even scripting for me, dialogues he would like to have with me. He is drawing me out of my conflict-avoiding, stoic resignation to the ills of my life and to the mansions of old pain and grief in the world. I don’t want to avoid conflict anymore. My years as a counselor have shown avoidance to be ineffective. Nor do I care for the volatile venting of those who simply want to attack. I would like to listen and be heard in conversations so that friendship is deepened, enriched, and enlivened. I think that’s what is meant when Moses is described as having conversations with God “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Ex. 33:11).
Dear God, I want to have conversations with you like I would have with my best friend, you know, listening, caring, being grateful for time together. So that even when I don’t like what you’re doing, we could still be best friends. Then when I’m saying something you don’t like, we could still be best friends, too. Well, that’s all for now. Thanks for listening.
Manipulation, Polite Conversation, Odd Moments, and Formula Prayers
We aren’t born good conversationalists. Our first conversational learning is Manipulation 101: How to get what you want using simple body language, volume, and intensity. “Change me!” “Feed me! And do it now!” We also learn that waving our hands and kicking our feet leads to a quicker response from others. We have to learn conversational etiquette; it is an acquired social construct—something we implicitly or explicitly agree to in order to improve social relations. Good, polite conversation takes learning and it takes practice.
What is polite conversation? Well, usually it includes turn taking; I say something or ask a question, and then I give you a chance to respond or answer my question(s). This back and forth can turn monologues into dialogues. It’s polite; it’s socially preferred. Imagine wanting to have a conversation with someone, saying something, or asking a question, and then getting no response, not even a nod—just silence. This violates our sense of social propriety.
Once I taught in the bible department of a university. Passing another bible professor in the coffee shop, I said, “Hello;” he just stared at me and didn’t say anything. It was an odd moment. His lack of response violated my sense of social etiquette. Was he angry? Was it contempt? If he’d been sitting down looking out a window instead of walking, looking right at me, I might’ve thought he was deep in meditation. Even saying “hello,” I have an expectation of a response, at least a nod; it seems socially appropriate.
Some time ago, I read a how-to book on prayer which suggested the A-C-T-S method. I thought it was catchy—using the name of a book in the New Testament. The letters stood for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. Praying in that order was suggested because some of the prayers in the bible seem to be in that order—it was “biblical” prayer. After a while it just seemed like buttering someone up before you asked for what you wanted; tell them how wonderful they are and how much you appreciate them to set the right mood for asking for that new baseball glove, a loan, or the car on Saturday night. A formula for getting it right and getting what you wanted.
Good morning Jesus. This is Dave again. I’m still thinking about prayer and how you like to have conversations. I want to have honest dialogue that’s polite and not manipulative, without the odd moments of awkward silence. I also wonder if you like some of the things people say about how to talk to you because some sound like formulas for getting what we want from you. I just want to know what you prefer. So could we talk about this?
by Mary Oliver
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver
SOUL OF CHRIST
(written by David Fleming, SJ)
Jesus, may all that is you flow into me.
May your body and blood
be my food and drink.
May your passion and death
be my strength and life.
Jesus, with you by my side
enough has been given.
May the shelter I seek
be the shadow of your cross.
Let me not run from the love which you offer,
but hold me safe from the forces of evil.
On each of my dyings
shed your light and your love.
Keep calling to me
until that day comes when, with your saints,
I may praise you forever.