My mother is fond of telling how, as a four-year old, I refused to open my mouth for the dentist until he answered every question I had and described exactly what he was going to do once inside. I came to my current faith the same way I came to that dentist, by way of questions. If you’re looking for pat answers to life’s interpersonal challenges, skip my writing. But if you want to look more deeply at society and race through the lens of faith (both religious and scientific) then consider me your friend.
I write and speak for two main reasons: to help myself and others grapple with the challenging social, emotional, and spiritual terrain that often surrounds both death and race. Time and again, these realities have amounted to the universe rubbing my face in some of life’s coldest snows.
I remember my first discomfort as if it was yesterday. There my four-year-old self sat, unceremoniously interrupting my father’s friend with peels of laughter as he recounted a recent midair explosion that killed all on board. I felt guilty for the longest time over what I knew was such a blatant show of disrespect in the shadow of death. In hindsight, perhaps the moment was only life foreshadowing itself.
In the coming decades, that moment (absent the laughter) repeated itself more frequently than I was prepared for – after my first New Year’s dinner at the Naval Academy opened with a prayer for a classmate who was killed over the holidays; after the early death of Scott, one of the best people I knew; after searching two days for an enlisted man lost in the jet-black seas off the coast of Cape Hatteras; after three children (one of whom had recently visited my Sunday School class) died in the frigid midnight waters off Adak, Alaska; and after all the tragic stories in between.
I eventually understood there was no need for guilt over dealing imperfectly with the pain of innocence lost. But not without other missteps. After my friend Scott died, I wrote an essay where I concluded that, like it or not, I had to accept the outcome because God had His reasons. I showed the ten-page result to an English professor who had become a friend. Deeply angered at my easy capitulation to a tidy understanding of the mysteries of life and death, she never spoke to me again. Nor was I on full speaking terms with God or my own soul for a long time after that.
It took eight years, resigning from the Navy, and stepping as far out of my comfort zone as possible to nurture a faith in God and science strong enough to grapple honestly with the complexities life had thrown at me. Unexpectedly, the emotional insights and spiritual tools I picked up along the way turned out to be helpful with another type of pain that had nipped at my heals for the longest time, that set of vexing problems posed by the color of mine and others’ dark skin.
Because I am a minority, you would think I always understood how much of a political issue racial discomfort and hatred are in America. I DID NOT. But not because my dad (who came of age in the deep South) didn’t try and make me understand. It was because I did not want to understand. Having been raised in an almost all white environment, having heard and believed the same stories my white friends were told, I had become a racial Peter Pan. I did not want to grow up, not if it meant growing up into adult realities of race, culpability, and the added weight of responsibility — on all sides.
My speaking, writing, and the people and things I love are reflective of this journey. I see significant parallels between race and death, not the least of which is the degree to which America society sometimes seems to be in deep denial about both.
These days, I figure that if it took me as long as it did to figure out the basic truth of race in America (around eight adult years to switch, and five more to get it with depth), then surely, it’s not going to be quick for someone who is remains a fish in perhaps the only isolated waters he or she has ever personally known.
Few model minorities and fewer whites who grew up in the same monochromatic isolation I grew up in are dying to dive into that muddy pool or – and this is the truer reality – to wake up to the fact that we’ve been swimming in polluted waters for a long time and need to clean them up, for all of our sakes.
I do not write, speak, or facilitate discussions because I expect things to change overnight. I do it because if everyone simply throws up their hands, saying nothing will change (and much has changed, lest we forget), then nothing more will change – about race, religion, climate, gun violence, or business as usual.
I write because early on – while grappling with a fear of rounding some intellectual corner of my soul and finding my faith completely gone – I realized that writing can be a lot like dreaming, for the author and the reader alike. Both allow us to approach things sideways. Through symbol and metaphor and story, they lend us a way to come to honest terms with fears and concerns that might otherwise be impossible to confront.
Thanks for taking time to read these thoughts. I hope you’ll press follow below and join me in discussion as my journey continues.