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Putting a Shoulder to the Plow

Something More Beautiful and More Possible

I feel like I should begin with a trigger warning. My presentation comes at this topic from an unusual angle. For some, this may be uncomfortable. When most people think of a presentation on diversity, the mind almost automatically turns to discussions of inclusion for so-called “minorities” like the 51% of the world’s population that identify as female and the even greater percentage of people identified as non-white and assimilating them into groups that are mostly white, mostly male, mostly able-bodied, and above-average in wealth. This very narrowly-composed group is defined as ‘the majority.’ The automatic turn silences us from talking about the elephant in the proverbial room. It leaves us to discuss mitigating outcomes rather than taking an uncomfortable look upstream to the causes of exclusion and inequality. It also silences any questions, or doubts, of what people are being assimilated into. In this presentation, I’d like to touch on one set of related norms that make presentations on diversity necessary in the first place. I’d also like to offer an alternative set of norms that many consider more ethical and compassionate.

Lately, a concept has been added to the discourse on diversity known as white fragility. It describes the visceral discomfort that some people feel when listening to other people discuss race or whiteness. A similar discomfort arises when people discuss money. Since I’ll be talking about both, I invite you to take care of yourself. If you need to step away, or close your eyes, in the next three minutes, please feel free. The slides behind me will provide quotes related to the topic and a quiet distraction you can zone in on.

We had a first hand experience of these norms on our first day together when someone asked, “How much should we charge supervisees?” I don’t know if I was the only one, but I felt a noticeable shift in the level of discomfort in the room. I’m going to toss out a tentative explanation for why. We live by few societal norms that some people prefer we not discuss. first norm is we can talk all day long about how to make more money, and even how to save a little, but we’re discouraged from saying how much we personally earn or spend. A related norm is that we are to earn as much money as we possibly can; that is, to charge the highest possible price your customer would pay. We are also taught to desire to work as little as possible. Early retirement, long vacations, long weekends, part-time schedules are all something to seek and are made possible by accumulating surplus earnings. And lastly, we, as consumers, are told to spend as much as we like, even to borrow for spending today that’ll take decades to pay back. The more we charge, the less we have to work, and the more we have to spend. This is the way of whiteness and wealth in the American economy.

At the moment of the question of how much to charge, an internal dilemma was nearly faced between our compassionate spirits and the innate desire for conformity and security. Like Brian who became teary when he mentioned giving back, our spirits want to be available to those who trust us with something precious. But our conforming selves know that to do so would mean to violate the norms white America lives by. In terms of diversity for supervisees, this matters because if we take the easy route, to conform, the profession’s future counselors will disproportionately resemble those whose ancestors have found the easiest routes to success in this country. People who look like me. But if we attempt to not-conform, we may sacrifice some our own comfort, and those whose success has been inhibited, to put it mildly, may finally be able to join us in more proportionate numbers.

Only human beings conflate work and the notion of earning income. No other creature on the planet uses money as a means of exchange. Work, shorn of money, is our effort to care for each other. While doing so, we could choose to earn only what we need and spend as little as possible knowing that earning more than is necessary stresses every consumer and spending more than is necessary stresses the livingness of the planet that sustains us. In the short term, rather than always strive for more, strive for the middle. This might mean, in some cases, lowering income. In the long term, rather than strive for millions, go for zero. None of us can reach that goal in our lifetimes, but our children and grandchildren will see the results of our efforts. In the future, if we survive long enough to see it, I’m convinced the richest people will be those who have no need for money and the weakest will be those who need soooo much more than everyone else. But to get to that day, we will need to begin to discuss, disobey, and re-create our norms, because our spirits know that something is more beautiful and more possible than this. Thank you.

This is a short presentation on ‘diversity’ made to a class of counselors training to become clinical supervisors, October 17, 2019. A special word of gratitude for Shannon Gayk who photographed the image above.

From James Baldwins’ “Nobody Knows My Name”

Now I am perfectly aware that there are other slums in which white men are fighting for their lives, and mainly losing. I know that blood is also flowing through those streets and that the human damage there is incalculable. People are continually pointing out to me the wretchedness of white people in order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account of the American failure does not console me and it should not console anyone else. That hundreds of thousands of white people are living, in effect, no better than the ‘niggers’ is not a fact to be regarded with complacency. The social and moral bankruptcy suggested by this fact is of the bitterest, most terrifying kind.

The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black, rose from the slums into the big time. The existence—the public existence—of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will is rare—at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare—and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few. A few have always risen—in every country, in every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free. Not all of these people, it is worth remembering, left the world better than they found it. The determined will is rare, but it is not invariably benevolent. Furthermore, the American equation of success with the big times reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement. This equation has placed our cities among the most dangerous in the world and has placed our youth among the most empty and most bewildered. The situation of our youth is not mysterious. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. That is exactly what our children are doing: They are imitating our immorality, our disrespect for the pain of others.

“Nobody Knows My Name” by James Baldwin. Library of America, 1998, pp.172-173

“You Have to Pay to be Here”

This morning, as I made my way to the Farmer’s Market, from the top of the hill overlooking the skyline of Durham, I gazed up at the tables and chairs on the roof top deck of the new 27-story building downtown. A thought passed through my mind: “‘Separate’ is inherently unequal.” (U.S. Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education, 1954.)

In America, we used to segregate based on color. Sometimes gender. Everywhere by cultural mores and in some places, like my home state of North Carolina, those mores were enforced by law. Today, we separate based on wealth. Again, everywhere by cultural mores and in some spaces enforced by law. Today those laws are known by names such as loitering, trespassing, and theft. This separation/segregation based on wealth is ubiquitous and most acutely felt in the fields of housing, medical care, criminal justice, finance, and governance, and by most persons of color.

To say that America is equal for all so conditioned to work hard implies a well-lubricated ‘social mobility’ is also equally available to all. But does anyone actually believe that a white man of the middle class has just as difficult of a time making it in America as a black woman of material poverty? One can make twice as many mistakes, the other work twice as hard, and one will almost always end up better off than the other. The fact that I don’t have to tell you which one only confirms my point.

That access and rights, rather than a starting point, are an outcome of pulling on one’s boot straps is also a direct contradiction to the American credo that all persons are created equally and are entitled to certain inalienable rights such as Life (e.g. good health), Liberty (e.g. freedom of movement), and the pursuit of happiness (e.g. material security, self-expression, contentment, joy). ‘Conditional’ is inherently not inalienable. Furthermore, to say that all persons are actually unequal, and that everyone receives as only their abilities determine, and nothing more, as many so-called American “conservatives” suggest, is as un-American in mindset, and as short-sighted of context, as one can become.

The inalienable right to equality is a fundamental aspect of the credo of the American nation as well as of Moses, the Hebrew Prophets, Jesus, St. Paul, Buddha, and Islam. In Western civilization, we often summarize this state of equality as the Golden Rule and the Greatest Commandment. This credo includes equality and universal access regardless of race, gender, or wealth.

Those who chase the dollar participate daily in the new Jim Crow of “Wealthy only welcome here.” One may wish that everyone were as ‘white’ as they are, and as ‘successful,’ one may pity others for their misfortune, and even tithe to mitigate the troubles, and their own discomfort, but the fact is that those above the median in income and wealth are the pillars who uphold the new cultural mores of separate and unequal. The tipping point for justice in this country lies within your cohort.

No need to feel bad or guilty, however. This particular cohort are not the most culpable as they do just as everyone else has done and as everyone is taught. That ignoble honor belongs to those in the industries of marketing, entertainment, and religion who lead us to believe that luxury, laziness, prosperity, and power, or at least a little influence, are the outcomes, the corruption, we should all strive for.

Please, stand in the gap, join a quiet revolution of the heart, and break this addiction to money. Our planet, our peace, and our spirits are suffering because of it. Voluntarily spend less, earn less, burn less (gas and electricity), work hard to serve people and planet, and own as little, rather than as much, as you can. This is the path which we know by the names freedom, liberation, salvation, peace, shalom, and equality for all including you; regardless of who you may be. Please join. Many have and there is room for many more. Blessings to you and to all those you love.

The title for this piece came after the piece was written. It was said by a member of the staff at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park who was telling me to leave while I was there to perform the blindfolded hugs demonstration. He said only paid sponsors were allowed and I had not paid. He said it in such a way to let me know that no amount of money would be sufficient to permit this free demonstration.

From Gunnar Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma”

But there is, I have become convinced, a still deeper reason why Negroes are so immune against Communism. Negroes are discriminated against in practically all spheres of life, but in their fight for equal opportunity they have on their side the law of the land and the religion of the nation. And they know it, all the way down to the poorest stratum. They know that this is their strategic hold. No social Utopia can compete with the promises of the American Constitution and with the American Creed which it embodies. Democracy and lawful government mean so much more to a Negro, just because he enjoys so comparatively little of it in this country. Merely by giving him the solemn promise of equality and liberty, American society has tied the Negroes’ faith to itself.

“An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem ad Modern Democracy” by Gunnar Myrdal Vol. 1 (Harper & Brothers, 1944, p. 510

fb post, June 30, 2019

Yesterday, while walking around the Farmer’s Market, admiring all the delicious food and beautiful people, I was filled with gratitude for the process of growing older and the opportunity to unlearn the ideologies that permeate our culture of race and gender, of superiority and appearances. People become so much more deeply beautiful as I age and unlearn. Which is to say that while perceiving the world through the lens of racism, sexism, and inequality, the world appears as many marks of inferiority and ugliness. We cannot see the intrinsic good in what we have been given; of who we are. Of course, as we unlearn the old ideologies, we also see how far we still have to go and know the hope that we will get there. Jubilee is just a foretaste of the Commonwealth, the Beloved Community, that is on the horizon. Please put your shoulder to the plow and join a quiet revolution of the heart. Many have and there is room for many more. Many blessings to you and to all those you love.

A Letter Addressed to U.S. Senators Burr & Tillis

August 2, 2019

Senator Richard Burr
217 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Senator Burr:

Before writing this letter, I prayed, “If you could speak into the moment, what would you say?” I hope I have listened well.

You, Senator, are busy. I’m busy. I’ll be brief. Last year, and now this, I have held a Tax Holiday in the last few months of the year. The Tax Holiday commences once I have earned the minimum income I need to meet my rather spartan financial obligations for the year. During the Tax Holiday I work just as I always would, to serve my clients, both couples and individuals, all North Carolina constituents, to provide counseling to them. Except during this season, I refuse income, all income, until the end of the calendar year.

I explain to them that this is, on one hand, a theological demonstration of what it would be like to live within God’s Economy which, as you might imagine, is quite unlike our present economy, and which some, maybe you, deeply admire. Such admiration for money and power used to be referred to as sin and idolatry; back in the day.

The Tax Holiday is also a political protest to minimize the tax revenue paid into the hands of the current political leadership in Raleigh and Washington. Enclosed is a card I will distribute to each of my clients for the remainder of the year. I believe you will understand the point I make. I also believe you understand, at some level within your conscience, why someone, such as myself, would choose such a path as this at this time in our history. If by now you do not yet understand, take heart, many are praying and pushing against the tide of cruelty you participate in stirring up; at times with your acts and others with abject silence. We will continue to pray and push until the harm imposed upon our democracy, our people, and our neighbors is repaired.

In Peace and Equality,

Rev. Rob Womack, LPC

cc: U.S. Congressperson G.K. Butterfield

A letter with this same text was also mailed to Senator Thom Tillis. The card referenced in the letter is below:

On August 5, 2019, my second annual Tax Holiday begins. With God’s help, it will last until December 31. In lieu of fees, you may make a contribution to a charity of your choice. If you would like suggestions, they are listed below. If you strongly prefer to make a direct contribution to me, gift cards to the Durham Food Co-op are recommended. Most of all, I’d say, “Just enjoy it. This is what living in God’s Economy would always be like.”

The Tax Holiday is a theological demonstration of God’s Economy where all material, energy, and work are freely given to be equally shared by all. It is also one part political protest, in the tradition of civil disobedience, to lower tax revenue entrusted to state and federal officials over-invested in dishonesty, greed, power, and violence towards people and planet.

As always, I am grateful for your presence here and to let me walk alongside you during a portion of your time on Earth. May we all be blessed with God’s gifts of Light and Love, healing and protection, in this year and all years to come.

In 2019, I am suggesting the following charities:

  • Common Cause (commoncause.org) for their work in protecting the institutions of democracy
  • ACLU (aclu.org) for their work to protect families and reunite children with parents
  • Pastor Jose Chicas (pastorjosechicas.org) that he may live in sanctuary near his family safe from deportation.
  • Wake Forest School of Divinity (divinity.wfu.edu)for the scholarships they offer to future pastors and counselors such as myself

Our next appointment is on: _____________________________________

From Helen Keller’s “The Story of My Life”

Again, I asked my teacher, ‘Is this not love?’

“Love is something like the clouds that were in the sky before the sun came out,” she replied. Then in simpler words than these, which at that time I could not have understood, she explained: “You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. Without love you would not be happy or want to play.”

The beautiful truth burst upon my mind—I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.

“The Story of My Life” by Helen Keller, edited by Roger Shattuck with Dorothy Herrmann. W.W. Norton & Co, 1995, p. 33

A Blind Trust: An Alternative Fee Structure Towards Access, Care, and Healing

This is a proposal for a presentation written for a fall conference of licensed counselors. This piece could have been titled “Why the Birdhouse? Part II”

Four years ago, after wrestling, figuratively speaking, with sliding scales, Medicaid reimbursement, and client’s with no insurance, I began an unusual fee structure in my practice: I extended to my clients that they may determine their own fee. Rather than I set the rate they must pay, they choose what they will pay.

In order to aid their decision, on my website, they are given some data including the break-even cost per session as well as the average fee other clients pay. Realizing that under such a system some clients may feel some shame (for example, those who could only afford less than the break-even rate) I go one step further and tell my clients in our first session that they need not report how much they choose to pay; or even if they pay. Fees are monitored collectively rather than individually so no one who cannot afford care will be told they cannot come. Everybody comes. They do their best, as do I, and it all works out well for everyone. The initial impulse of most outsiders hearing of this system is shock that such a system works at all. The widespread presumption is that, given the choice, clients will choose to pay as little as they can which would turn out to be less than I need. However, my clients consistently, reliably, every year I have done this so far, contribute more than I need; not less. In modern parlance, this system is profitable. But that, as you may have already guessed, is far from the point.

The tangible changes this system has brought about have nothing to do with my income. The most tangible, of course, has already been stated: No one is turned away. The other is clients may come at the pace that feels best for their needs rather than their budgets. Surprisingly many, essentially all, come no more often than is necessary. They feel no pressure, in either direction, to come more or less often, than they need.

The intangible outcomes of this fee structure are, in my opinion, more impressive. Because sessions are not conditioned on payment, my clients understand plainly that our time together is unconditionally for them. The part which money plays in creating distance is eliminated and we are all singularly-focused on their healing. This, as you may imagine, allows a deeper trust to develop. Everyone still knows there is an expectation to pay, and of my trust in their sense of responsibility to do so, by which we generate a mutual respect knowing our reciprocal needs are being met. As such, they sense no fear, self-protection, or defensiveness on my part; as if my client’s might hold some threat to me. Due to my willingness and vulnerability, they relax more quickly, are less guarded, and share more freely. It allows us to be both more honest and heartfelt with each other and therefore, it seems safe to presume, the therapeutic changes in the scaffolding of the mind begin sooner and last longer.

In this presentation I will describe how and why this system works including practical logistics, the necessary boundaries, the nature of the relationship, and the disclosure of information. For those who are troubled by the role of money in our health care system, our economy, and our interpersonal relationships, this presentation makes a small contribution to the long process of discovery of new ways to care for others and to live well together.

This will be a simple presentation requiring only a few images (e.g. graphs), a description of the fee structure and its outcomes, followed by a long-ish Q&A conversation with the audience. One hour should be sufficient time but, if there is interest, we could take ninety minutes. I am grateful for your considering this presentation proposal. This is my first. Thank you.

From Wangari Maathai’s onBeing interview “Marching with Trees”

But I want to say that God is in me, God is in you, God is in the trees, God is everywhere! If God is everywhere, if that concept of omnipresent, is true, then God is everywhere. He doesn’t have shape, he doesn’t have size, he doesn’t have color. So we ought to see God in everyone of us. And if we did see God that way, we would have a different idea of how we should relate to each other and to the other species.

Spoken by Wangari Maathai in interview with Krista Tippet, OnBeing in episode of April 18, 2019.

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