Posted in social justice

It’s After Midnight: Lines and Circles

There should be no doubt that we are living in a time, certainly in the US, but also in the world where human beings are more apt to draw lines as a way of being in the world. We draw lines between political parties and even within political parties. We say directly or indirectly are you with us or them?  Are you with me or against me? We say to those who have rattled us–you’ve stepped across the line. I’m deleting/blocking you.  We walk around with a boundary that we expected everyone to respect but which we never make known until the offense is committed. How dare you step across my line?

The drawing of a line has long been done with skin tones. I listened to an African American minister preaching recently (Pastor Voddie Bauchman). He passionately dispelled the notion that there was more than one race. He proclaimed that “there is only one race descended from Adam and Eve, and it is the human race.” He went on to articulate that our DNA is 99.8% the same across all human beings, and that skin color is a product of melanin reacting to environment.  He closed, humorously by saying: “And don’t you dare for one minute think that God loves me more just because I got more melanin than you!”  All of that to try and undo this horrible line that as been drawn around ethnicities and skin tones in order to elevate the lighter skin tone of Europeans as the right side of the line, and historically to draw the line between free and enslaved human beings in the US. The result of that line has created quite literally a nation, if not a world of trauma and trouble. We draw lines between genders and gender identities–the “right ones and the wrong” ones (and sometimes we even say those words!).  We draw red lines around neighborhoods where banks won’t lend money or won’t lend money at a good rate to People of Color. We draw lines around students, those who “can” and those who “can’t.”  We draw lines around our curricula using words for Honors on one side of the line and “regular” or some other designation on the other side of the line.

Line drawing is simple, and it is easy. Line drawing gives the drawer of the line the immediate sense of accomplishment, some sort of emotional safety and often mental superiority. So, it’s easy to see why we fall into this bad habit of creating binary thinking.  It’s easy to do and it has an immediate feel good. Never mind that it is also too often simplistic, not accounting for the complexities that are always associated with being human and living in and creating and maintaining communities. Too often (always?) line drawing results in disastrous, deadly and what we can call evil outcomes. That is because drawing a line too often reduces the complex to something it is not.

What, then, to do? Stop drawing lines? I would like to stop drawing lines, and I get suckered into line drawing like everyone else (remember, easy with feel good outcomes). I need an alternative. The more I reflect on it, the more I am convinced that we also have another kind of drawing that we use and have experience with.  The circle. Drawing circles in human relations is, I think, also a natural thing. We sit around tables to eat. We gather around campfires to stay warm, to roast good things to eat, to tell stories. We create reading circles both with little ones just learning to read and among ourselves which we call “book clubs.” Many of us set up our classrooms in some form of a circle because we know that it just changes the dynamics of the room. And that’s a good place to observe: when a classroom is set up with line drawing (straight rows in perfect angles) it’s largely about keeping control over those in the room and ease of things for the teacher. When a classroom is set up as a circle, it puts every student equidistant (mostly) from the action and gives them immediate access to what’s going on.  It also is messier to maintain and invites more noise than the straight line classroom.

Imagine this, if you will. (I wish I were capable of the graphics that I am asking you to imagine). You’ve drawn a line over some issue. Along comes someone who is with you on most things, but differs about one thing. After some consideration, you decided to bend the line just enough to include this person because largely they agree with you, and, over time, their differing idea becomes helpful. So, your line has a curve in it at one point. This happens several more times. Individuals come along, largely seeing things your way, but with some differences. Each time, even with a struggle, you relent and redraw the line to include them. After a while, you no longer have a straight line.  IN fact, if this keeps happening, you will end up with a circle.

My own experience is that inviting people into a circle, which means allowing them in (because I started out as a line drawer who has the power of allowing, right) with their differences, results in finding that all their experiences combined end up being far more like mine than not.  What goes around comes around. I thought you were so different, but you and I really are alike.

Both line drawing and circle drawing are things that we human beings do. I think that line drawing is really about emergencies, when we feel danger, fear, terror, when traumas are revisited. They work for the line drawer in creating a temporary experience of safety. Line drawing, however, over the long haul becomes a new form of trauma making. Circle drawing is the basis of creating community. It is challenged in the midst of a threat and may fall apart, but long term the circle is essential for human relations that are just, that respect the dignity of every person.

I belong to a community that likes the motto: No one is outside the circle of love. I have to tell you that some days I’m not so sure.  I “want” that to be true, but is it, really? I end up with something like this: We have created this circle over here. We’ve just opened it up and made a place for you.  Do you want to be in our circle?  If you do, we welcome you, and we are all willing to move and shift around so that you belong in the circle, too. Someone might say:  hell, no! I don’t want to be in your circle! And, I would have to respect their wishes. Unless, of course, I take that person’s choice as a threat somehow and I jump up out of my circle and draw a line and say–you can’t talk that way to us!  You aren’t welcome here! New, unnecessary line, new trauma, more troubles.

We have been drawing lines in human history and in this country for a long time.  It’s way past midnight on that score. Line drawing doesn’t work for the long haul.

Circles are really the way communities work best.  And they are messy.  They are constantly changing and re-configuring in order to make more room for others. They require work. They must be tended by everyone in them or they cease to be circles. I keep going back to pre-school and early grades circles. I think there are many reasons why teachers of very small children choose to put them in circles but at least one of them is this: it’s hard to lose a child when they are sitting in a circle.

It’s time to stop losing folks.

Bob Patrick

In the search for truth, may we be just; in the search for justice may we be loving; and in loving may we find peace. 

Elizabeth McMaster

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