Our Acceptance of Tragedy

Photo by adrian on Unsplash

I keep having to write these posts.  Just after I started this blog, just over 5 years and 2 months ago, my nephew, who was 7 at the time, went to school at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, on what was supposed to be a normal school day. It was not.  He came home that day.  20 other children and 6 adults did not.

Yesterday, students, faculty and staff went to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  It was Valentine’s Day. It was Ash Wednesday, a day marking the beginning of a sacred holy period for Christians.  It was supposed to be a normal school day.  It was not. 14 children and 3 adults did not come home last night.

I have spent the last 30 hours or so thinking about these incidents.  Today was my son’s 12th birthday.  I thought about his cousin, grateful, for the millionth time, that Nate, my son, had a February birthday, and Declan, my nephew was born in November and made the late cut-off to start kindergarten a year before Nate would.  That saved his life on December 14, 2012. I have thought about the families that lost children. I have thought about the educators that lost their lives. I have thought about those left behind who will carry this trauma for the rest of their lives.

Then I thought about inaction.

I thought about how social media has turned these tragedies into yelling matches or emotional posts at the culpability of one issue or another — guns and mental health top among them — and how easily thoughts and prayers get dismissed when they do not lead to action and advocacy.

Then I thought about where it will happen next.

Perhaps on my campus.  Perhaps at the middle school where I taught.  Perhaps in the community that I grew up.  Perhaps in my child’s school. I do not know where it will happen next, but I am sure it will happen next somewhere if we continue in the way that we have.

Because we have come to accept these tragedies.  In my last blog post, I wrote about the difficulty in being truly honest because we, as Americans, love happy endings.  We love heroes and underdogs.  We love being the best.

But, we also have come to accept that senseless violence and tragedies are part of the fabric of our modern society, and we have come to accept it so much that we allow for it to continue.

And when I say we, I include myself because, in my own mixed emotions of grief, outrage, trauma and frustration, I want to give into feelings of fear and hopelessness.  I want to homeschool my children.  I want to prepare the teacher candidates in my classroom for active shooter situations so that if/when it happens in their schools, they can be prepared.  I want to numb myself out and shout senselessly on social media (not that all shouting on social media is senseless, but it wouldn’t serve much of a purpose for me personally). I get these responses. I feel them deeply.

I am fortunate, I suppose, in that I am well acquainted with grief, outrage, trauma and frustration, though, and I know I won’t give into fear and hopelessness for long.  I know I will write through it because writing allows me to compose myself powerfully, and to breathe.  But, it took me a minute to write something.  I needed to sit with the raw emotion and find my part in the solution.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  1. I will send thoughts and pray. Because I refuse to forget and I believe that faith is critical in times like these.  But, I will also THINK on these things and take action because faith without actions is not enough.
  2. I will continue to advocate for sensible gun laws.  If I had my preference, no one would have guns.  I’m just going to be honest.  But, I understand why people want guns for hunting and personal safety.  Okay, but semi-automatic weapons and high capacity magazines aren’t necessary for citizens. They aren’t used to hunt or defend oneself.  You don’t have to agree with me.  This isn’t something I will debate.  This is my part.
  3. I will continue to advocate for compassion and destigmatization of mental health issues.  Many people with mental health issues are healthy individuals who are working with their health conditions, seeking help, sometimes struggling, but not violent.  However, when there are so many cultural and societal taboos around talking about when we need help, it’s a problem.  Maybe it’s not the central problem connected with school shootings, but it’s a larger problem in general.  We need a stronger mental health care system that addresses trauma before it reproduces more trauma.
  4. When I have money, I will give.  When there are elections, I will vote.  When I have the opportunity, I will use my voice. These are small actions, but they are important when done in coalition.
  5. I will use my position working with future educators to advocate for personal connection, presence with others that allows us to recognize another’s humanity.  Part of what bothers me most about the response to events like this is that so much of this tragedy and others like it result in further polarization and dehumanization.  We are entrenched in our corners, throwing blame (out of hurt) and we aren’t truly connecting with one another.  I am okay if this is Pollyanna-ish.  Maybe we need more Pollyannas.  Maybe we need to connect with our fellow human beings more.  Maybe if we connected more. If we took the time to stop being so distracted by things that are not important, we could appreciate one another and see our common humanity.  Maybe the loss of recognition of people’s humanity and the increasing alienation and polarization in our society is part of the problem.

I am sure there is more work to be done.  This is a start.  But, I refuse to normalize this tragedy and accept that we cannot do anything about it. I refuse because I love my children; I love children in general; and I love humanity, and my fellow human beings, even when we see very little eye to eye.  We have to start somewhere. I am starting with love. I hope that you will start somewhere that contributes to the greater good of our society as well, that responds out of love and not fear.  But wherever you start, or if you don’t start at all, I hope that we can come together at some point to recognize one another’s humanity.

The Courage to Speak Our Most Difficult Truths

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Sometimes it’s hard to talk about the truth, and even harder to speak about our own truths.

This week, the courage to teach the truth about slavery struck me as I read an article in The Atlantic by Melinda D. Anderson on “What Kids Are Really Learning About Slavery”. In the article, Anderson discusses the findings of a 2017 report by Teaching Tolerance, from a study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, that showed the cursory nature of teaching about slavery in American schools.  She notes that:

“Slavery is taught without context, prioritizing ‘feel good’ stories over harsh realities; slavery is taught as an exclusively southern institution, masking the complicity of northern institutions and citizens in America’s slave-based economy; slavery is rarely connected to white supremacy—the ideology that justified its perpetuation; and slavery is seldom connected to the present, drawing the arc from enslavement to Jim Crow, the civil-rights movement, and the persistence of structural racism.”

I read this article after listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power for the last week on my drive to work, and hearing about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow on Black Americans in the US, as manifested through structurally racist hiring practices, predatory lending practices, media representations and racial profiling.  Both Coates’ & Anderson’s work argue that America must do better in confronting its history of white supremacy and how it underlies not just our historical founding as a country, but many current institutional policies that reify racial hierarchies. But, instead, we focus on the “happy endings” of America — the end of slavery; the achievements of the Civil Rights movement; the election of a Black president and we convince ourselves that the horrors of racism were a thing of the past, and perhaps not so horrible after all.

It is not by accident that I am thinking about the difficult truths in our history that have led us to a difficult present time. I think about this all the time. And I try to integrate it into my work as a teacher educator.

Yesterday, in class, we were discussing how various aspects of students’ identities might come under attack and impact them in the classroom.  We talked about immigration status, religious identity, gender identity, sexuality, affiliation with the military and racial identity among other possible identity considerations.  I tried to help them negotiate the importance of who they are, their position and their beliefs, with the responsibilities and real micro-political environments they’ll face in public schools.  One of my teacher candidates, in thinking about the scenario she was given, turned to me and said, “Dr. Hsieh, this is really hard.”

Yes, it’s so hard.

And it’s reality.

It’s even (and especially) my own reality and identity.  I think about the parts of my identity that I am willing to share with others and those truths that I am much more reticent to share.  Many people know that I am a trans-racial adoptive mother of teenagers who are now adults.  They like the “feel-good” nature of that story and admire my family.  But, they don’t know the toll of inter-generational trauma on my older daughters and the ways in which our family struggles to figure out the complexity of that trauma as it plays out in our lives.  Most people don’t know that things haven’t turned out well for one of my girls and that things are getting much worse for my other daughter as she progresses in adulthood, despite everything she’s worked so hard for and that we continue to work together towards as a family.  Most people don’t know how much guilt I feel and how I wonder if I’ve done enough or done anything. They don’t see my worry. They don’t hear my prayers. They instead like the happy ending of a forever family.

Many people also know I lost my mother as a teenager.  They even know about the difficult realities of that on certain days of the year (like tomorrow, which will be the 23rd anniversary of her passing), but they don’t actually know the truth of what it was like going through my young adulthood without her guidance and support. They don’t know the ways in which losing her impacted the choices I made, many that I regret, during the 10-15 years after her death.  They don’t know how survival, fear and people pleasing drove everything that I did for years after she died, not self-actualization and empowerment, as one might think.  They don’t know how hard it is to mother every single day without her here.  They see where I’ve succeeded and the joys of my family, and they want to believe in the simple story of redemption.  We like happy endings.

But masking the hard truth is exhausting. I find myself constantly striving to be enough although I understand (intellectually) that I’m fine.  I find myself constantly silencing myself, although I want to find more courage to speak these hard truths, still haunted by the desire to make others happy and to not make waves.  I know my struggles are, to a degree, historically and socio-politically grounded in the ways Asian-Americans are positioned in society, but this doesn’t actually help.  The only thing that helps is finding the courage to speak my truth and speak the truth in community.  It helps to be heard, to have a hand extended to me, reaching out to pull me from the darkness where I’ve been hiding.

It is hard. And it is reality. But if we cannot find the courage to speak our most difficult truths, if we cannot look them in the eye and begin a process of self-reckoning, we are condemned to live in the shadows and behind masks that keep us from ourselves and from our communities.