The story from South Carolina about a young female student who was thrown across her classroom by the school resource officer, seems to have created a divide amongst certain kinds of people as evidenced by my Facebook conversations today. The cellphone videos capturing the incident are everywhere, so I will spare you the reposting of them here.
There are those who are saying that she deserved what she got because she was being disrespectful. And then there are the rational among us who can’t fathom how that type of violent reaction is remotely excusable.
Here are some of my observations from the videos:
She’s a student in a school classroom
She was seated at her desk
None of the students around her in the video seemed to be fearing for their safety
The police officer did not seem to be fearing for his safety
The girl didn’t appear to be going for a weapon of any kind
It appeared as though the officer simply lost his patience, and his mind, and flipped the student backwards in her desk, then picked her up off the floor and threw her across the classroom
If I misstated anything in the above list please let me know.
Here’s the deal. This story is not solely about the media’s portrayal of police officers, or about race. This story is about a guy with a badge and a gun, who has no business trying to resolve conflicts around kids.
And even bigger than that, for those saying the girl deserved what she got, this is the United States of America. We follow the rule of law. We are not a police state. If someone wearing a badge tells us to do something, we don’t surrender our civil rights. In fact, we have a constitution that is intended to protect us from government overreach, not provide cover for it.
Finally, yes I get it. She was surly. She was disruptive. She was wrong. She could’ve complied and diffused the situation. But the last time I checked, being insolent, disrespectful, and rude is not probable cause, nor does it in an invitation for physical violence. And the last time I checked, breaking a school rule or a classroom cell phone policy is not the same as breaking the law. This was a student, not a suspect. She was not under arrest therefore she was not resisting arrest. The inability of any adult in that scenario to bring a compassionate, thoughtful, non violent resolution to what seemingly started as a cell phone issue, is a colossal failing on their part.
We have to be the example we want to see in others, especially kids.
In 1886, Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story called “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” which you may, like me, have read in your middle or high school lit class. In this story, Tolstoy tells us about a man who will be given as much land as he can physically outline by walking. The catch is, the man must create this perimeter and return to his starting point before the sun sets in order for the deal to be finalized. As you may recall, with each hill the man crests, he sees in the distance some other enticing parcel that he’d like to own, and so his perimeter increases. As the man’s greed overtakes him, he loses sight of the fact he must complete the circuit on his perimeter before sunset. He ultimately succumbs to exhaustion before he can close the loop, and dies. In the end, we learn that the amount of land the man actually needed, was the six feet or so of earth removed from the hole he would be buried in. Nice huh? Of all the short stories I read in school, this one and To Build a Fire stuck with me. It must be something about the ridiculously fragile nature of life that lodges these tales in to my long term memory…but I digress. Back to Tolstoy and the idea of man’s ability to trick himself in to thinking he needs more “stuff” in order to find happiness.
This is obviously not a new idea. We all know that for some psychological or maybe even evolutionary reason, the accumulation of “stuff” has become central to the success meme that drives our consumption-based economy and in fact, seems to motivate a large swath of Western culture. We are told, through various means, that things will make us happy. The bigger the house, the bigger the boat, the nicer the car, the better the clothes, the more opulent the watch or blingier the ring, clearly the happier we’ll be. Right? Do we all agree with this line of thinking? No? Well why not?
Anecdotally we see why not in the news almost daily. There are very wealthy people who are miserable. The rich overdose. The famous commit suicide. There is suffering to found in the finest zip codes. But alas, there are also very wealthy people who seem to be quite happy. In the remaining 99% of the pie chart, there are also very poor people who are miserable, who overdose, who commit suicide. But there are also billions of very poor people the world over who are quite happy. So if our happiness just doesn’t have as much to do with how much stuff we have, what’s up with our quest for more of that stuff?
There’s a great joke that Daniel Tosh has where he takes issue with the old “money can’t buy happiness” line. He says something along the lines of, we live in America so who says money can’t buy happiness…it can buy a wave runner…and have you ever seen a sad person on a wave runner? It’s funny and true, to a point. The actual act of riding a wave runner is certainly a lot of fun. But is it fun paying tens of thousands of dollars for a wave runner? Do you derive happiness from filling it with gas or storing it for months during the winter? Is it fun when it breaks down, as it inevitably will? On net, how much happiness does it actually bring? I’m reminded of another joke about boat ownership that goes, the happiest two days in a boat owner’s life are the day he buys his boat and the day he sells it. I imagine that adage is a bit closer to the truth of the matter.
We, me included, get caught up in this idea that we need to adorn ourselves with things and that these things should make us happy. The more stuff we can bolt on to our fragile existence, the more fulfilled our lives will be. A house is not enough, it needs to be a bigger house. A bigger house is not enough, we need a lake house now, or a beach house. One car is not enough, we need two cars, or three cars. Maybe a car just for the weekend. Maybe we need an even bigger house, with a bigger garage to hold all of our bigger cars? And we need outfits, lots and lots of outfits. And shoes, pairs and pairs of shoes. And watches, but not just any old watches, Rolexes and Tags. And jewelry – diamonds, not cubic zirconia. And the toil for more continues.
So this is the rather obvious thought that occurred to me as I stood in the shower a few nights ago (sorry for the visual). We are not our stuff. We aren’t even close. We are only what we are. We can only be in one building at a time, one room at a time, one chair at a time, wear one pair of shoes at a time, tell time with one watch at a time, and so on. We can be either inside or outside. We can be in only one car at a time or on a bicycle or on the train or on a plane, but not all at once. We can be relaxing at the beach or working to pay for our next trip to relax at the beach. We can be at the lake or not. I think back about Tolstoy’s doomed protagonist and recognize that we truly can only occupy just the slightest bit of space at any given time. So where are you right now? How much of the stuff you own is in your sight? Do you even think about the stuff you own that you can’t see? How are you feeling at this moment in the slight bit of space that you are currently occupying and does your stuff have any influence over that feeling?
Here’s what I’m driving toward. If your hours, days, weeks, months, or even years are spent dreaming about some happiness that awaits you in another place at a future date, then you are not living in the present moment. If you are holding your current potential for well-being hostage by making happiness contingent upon your future accumulation of certain material things, then you’re in the trap. This is part of the illusion. Rarely do we stop to inquire of ourselves, have much have I let my happiness become a function of my setting? Is my happiness a function of my possessions? Is my happiness a function of my income, my job title, my neighborhood, my car, etc. Am I wrapping my happiness around what I think others believe about the stuff I own?
I know I’m filling this post with lots of questions, but this type of reflection is important. It’s something I wish my 20 year old self would’ve thought a bit more deeply about, before my 40 year old self stressed over mortgages and car payments and student loans and credit cards. Don’t get me too wrong here; I recognize we need some things. I’m not advocating we sell our stuff and move in to a hippy commune somewhere. And I feel incredibly fortunate to have been born in a country where I can get a glass of clean water from the tap without a second thought about whether or not I’ll be doubled over with dysentery within the hour. So in the spirit of Maslow, what do we really want? We want to be comfortable. We want warmth when it’s cold outside. We want to feel cool when it’s hot outside. We want to be safe from harm. We want clean water and delicious meals. We want to love and be loved. We want companionship. We want to be intellectually challenged. We want to enjoy nature. We want to be healthy. We want to breathe clean air. I think these wants are universal. When we recognize that nothing in our lives is permanent, that everything breaks down, that stuff gets old, that things crumble, that we lose things, that our precious items gets stolen, then we may just start to decouple ourselves from the gimmick that we’ve been sold; the canard that says we need a bunch of nice things in order to be happy in our lives. I mean, how much stuff do you really need?
When you go for over three months without writing a blog post, sometimes it’s best to just sit down with a blank page and start writing. So that’s what I’m doing now.
Let me start by saying I have an idea that resulted from a couple of observations over the course of a couple of days.
Here’s the first one: I was riding my bike to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park for an early evening hike and some mountaintop mediation, and was waiting for the cross walk to signal my right of way so that I might safely walk my bike across the intersection at rush hour. There was a little old lady, literally, behind the wheel of a car waiting for the turn signal so that she make a left hand turn. The timing of the light was such that she didn’t get the turn arrow, but yet she still had a green light which of course meant she could turn providing there was no oncoming traffic. In the fraction of a second that she hesitated, a middle aged man behind her furiously laid on his horn. This was a crowed pedestrian intersection at rush hour and this guy felt like he would help the situation by blasting his horn at the elderly lady in front of him. She turned, clearly frazzled, and he tailgated right behind her, his fuming face as red as a tomato. I can only hope his road rage subsided.
Here’s the second one: I was reading in my local newspaper, the Marietta Daily Journal, about a mosque that is opening in what we locals call West Cobb. If you’re reading this post from outside of the Metro Atlanta area, let me just provide some context for you. Cobb County, Georgia is, or maybe I should say was, among the most “conservative” counties in the country – the former home of such historical conservative political heavyweights as Newt Gingrich and Bob Barr it was also the county that was blacklisted from the 1996 Olympics for its county commissioner’s embarrassing and now infamous anti-gay resolution. So while the influence of a burgeoning Kennesaw State University and of corporate citizens like Home Depot are certainly bringing more progressive thought to the area, the county still remains, if not blood red, certainly a healthy shade of rose. Given that, one might expect some serious pushback to a mosque opening in this neck of the woods…but alas, this is not the case. The founder of this project, Amjad Taufique, is candid in his understanding of how Muslims are perceived and is aware of the public relations challenges that accompany their movements, so he has gone above and beyond to ensure that this mosque is a good neighbor. And if the lack of protests are any indication, what Amjad has been doing is working.
So those two ideas have been bouncing around in my brain: the quick anger of the general public and the idea that there should be places for people of all backgrounds to go and get their spiritual refill. There are a lot of angry, frustrated, deluded, stressed out, depressed, and hurting people out there and it would seem that affluence is not an antidote. The pursuit of happiness for so many has become an exercise in continued dissatisfaction. Maybe we need to try something different. In the interest of starting something, the project I’m considering is a sort of mindfulness center where people of all religious backgrounds or of none at all, can comfortably go and meditate, reflect, and contemplate without any expectation of coercion, guilt, or judgement. A place to find peace and to practice the techniques that help us understand the contents of our own minds (and the games that it plays). A place to hear talks on a wide range of intellectual, scientific, and yes, spiritual topics, unladen by any pre-existing dogmas or new age hocus pocus. A place from which to organize and spearhead meditation retreats, nature hikes, and community service projects. Ultimately, a place to practice awareness of our emotions, an awareness that helps us to avoid becoming puppets to their whimsy and influence.
Let me know either in the comments section on through the Contact page if you have a place near you that fits this description. I would love to talk to someone who has either started a mindfulness center or who attends one. Stay tuned.