Posted by: MC | January 8, 2011

Procrastination and a Nation’s Hostility Habit: When a Congresswoman has Been Shot in the Head

It is shortly after 1:00 in the afternoon in the Starbucks on 28th and E. Burnside in Portland, Oregon.  It’s Adam’s last day as a barista here.  He’s off for a full-time gig in a fusion restaurant downtown.  My friend Doug just walked by and came in for a chat.  He’s a bartender who, for the first time in two decades, didn’t have to work New Year’s Eve.  “Nothing more renewing than that, lately,” he said.

Two other guys stand talking and laughing just outside the door on this busy Saturday corner.  They’re part of the collection of guys who, way down on their luck because of the economy and lay offs have managed to rent a two story house up the street – a pink Old Portland.  It’s become a sort of frat house for Viet Nam vets and their age mates – a brotherhood of men keeping themselves off the street by pooling their resources.  In warmer weather, they sit out front, smoke cigarettes and listen to classics – Beatles, Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd, Jimmy Buffet.

This is what’s happening right this minute in Portland at the very same time a woman elected to the Congress of the United States by people of Arizona is struggling for her life after just being shot in the head.

It is procrastination that has given me this news – avoiding writing this blog and traipsing about the internet is what has made Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ horrifying circumstances a part of this picture here, around 1:00 in the afternoon in Portland, Oregon.

Right now in Tucson, AZ the word is that the Congresswoman is still alive, but a child is dead, a federal judge is dead, three more adults are dead, five more people are in critical condition, and Sarah Palin has tweeted condolence.  Sarah Palin who targeted Congresswoman Giffords and twenty others by name with the now infamous and widely distributed poster of a map of the continental U.S. (no AK, no HI) with target crosshair markers located precisely on the places each of the twenty live.  A suspect is in custody; an automatic weapon was used.

An internet comment posted just now by a person going by “patrickhenrynow” reads, “Americans should all stop and think.  Are we not a better nation than this?!!!”

Sarah Palin signed a poster with target crosshairs on it, with names named.  She did not pull the trigger.  Nonetheless, she is implicated, and, likely we all are.

It’s very easy for me to leap into hostile opposition based on the motives I attribute to a public figure like Palin.  It is part of our country’s culture these days to practice harsh positionality.  Limbaugh does it.  Olberman does it.  Democrats do it.  Republicans do it.

Extremism seems the life blood of social discourse qua rant as evident in minute-by-minute servings through the media.  Extremist hostility is central to the language of public officials discussing everything from nutrition to textbooks to healthcare to military circumstances in Afghanistan.

One thing we’ve learned about human behavior is that we always do what we do because it serves a function.  There’s a pay off.  So what is it with this emotional, social and frighteningly physical public expression hostility?

What are we after?

There’s power.  There’s fame.  There’s money.  All of those motivate for sure.  There’s also relationship – protecting family and community.

At times like this, that last motive seems so vulnerable in the face of the other three.  Or perhaps it is the individual fear of annihilation that renders family and the endless concentric circles of human community less urgent, less motivating than saving our own skin.

In every instance, hostility – even in retribution – is about protecting, but from what?  From being wrong?  From being dependent?

If you really think about it, have you ever known anyone to be 100% right?  And is isolated self-dependence even viable?  I mean, most of us can’t get away from reliance on other people – even if only for growing food or treating water or mining the rock used to make roads.

Thousands of questions fumble around in my thoughts with this news.

It is only January 8.  There is always a unique magnification of possibility at the turn of the New Year.  It always lasts into January making optimism just a bit more available, dreams just slightly nearer in reach.

And today, this.

We are a Nation at great risk for our tendency to identify as victims.  In all our power and privilege, we manage to make ourselves victims of anyone who seems to challenge our access to the comforts to which we’ve become accustomed.  In all our power and privilege, we see ourselves as victims to anyone who knows the world differently from the way we know it.  We refuse cooperation and dialogue and default to name calling and association only with those of like beliefs and stories.  We define ourselves as “Not Them.”  With that, we seal our dependence on the existence of “Them” to ensure our own identities.  We are a Nation of victims and our practice is hostility.

Today’s events hold up an unforgiving mirror.

Are we willing to continue in this way?  Do we simply proceed walled off in the false security of our ideological positions?  Could be.  We’ve done it this way for a long time now.

For me, the year is coming around again.  It’s the second anniversary of my taking off to drive the highways of the country asking everyday Americans what they mean when they say “change.”  The question is as relevant as it has ever been.  The dialogue and listening is as crucial – perhaps even more crucial given all the practice we’ve had over the past two years at learning to isolate in our positions of hostility toward anyone we perceive as seeing life in a different way.

Can we listen?  Can we dare to live the expression of our higher angels?

I don’t know.

But I do know the power of EX:Change – the power of hearing for myself the dreams and beliefs of everyday Americans.  We have so much more in common than automatic weapons fired at elected public officials, killing a child and six adults.

EX:Change teaches that listening, suspending usual fearful and dismissive responses, and waiting for the shared wisdom that I found consistently across my journey is both possible and worth it.

We’ve seen the alternative.

It’s up to us.


  1. A thoughtful piece, with meaningful insights and reminders. Thank you. This moment seems reminiscent, in a certain way, of where we stood as a people after 9/11. We have a choice and the moment seems pivotal in some way. I too hope we can choose to listen.

  2. thank you Mary, for inviting us to think in a new way. To examine the ‘victim’ mentality which keeps us in dualism and worse, is a brave & worthwhile effort here in Ex:Change. We must look inside not ‘ out there ‘ for both the problem & the solution.

  3. Beautifully said. My only comment would be that societies have always produced their lunatics and extremists, what is different now is that we allow everyone to have access to semi-automatic weapons. Until we can deal intelligently with that issue we will have the deranged who inflict mass causalities on the innocent. No one wants to take guns away from citizens, but weapons of war have no place in the hands of anyone but law enforcement and military.

  4. Excellent entry, Mary. I’m using an excerpt in my Sunday School class today. We’re reading one of the books in the PCUSA’s series on the Great Ends of the Church (Promotion of Social Responsibility). The paragraph about identifying ourselves as victims is surely one of the obstacles to our consistent and effective efforts at social justice.

  5. Yes, excellent Mary. Thanks for this one.

    I remember the press around the time of the Space Shuttle disaster in the 80s. The emphasis was on NASA’s ineptitude at being unable to adhere to a schedule. NASA’s decision makers were under extr…eme pressure to get a launch off, and effectively transferred that pressure to the unfortunate engineer who reluctantly gave in and cleared the shuttle for safety. Yes, he was responsible for that decision, but the management and the press share the blame. Had the emphasis instead been on the prudence of NASA’s safety program and its commitment above all to protect the lives of its astronauts, I suspect the launch would have been postponed and lives would have been saved.

    The way we speak to and about each other contributes hugely to the environment we create for ourselves and those around us. Each of us has daily opportunities to escalate or diffuse tense situations simply by the words we choose to use. Name calling and threats have become the norm and in that kind of environment, the odds of any real problem solving are practically nill. In today’s political climate, everyone’s too busy fortifying their strongholds while the infrastructure between the forts falls apart. We are in desperate need of level-headed leadership at all levels of the government and the media. We are in equally desperate need of self-regulation in the way we talk about our dissatisfaction with everything from health care and the economy to the strength of our morning cup of coffee.

  6. Beautifully written, Mary.
    While the whole piece is well stated, it is your paragraph on victimization that draws me into muse. There is a draw in situations like these to focus on the lack, the negative, the “Us Vs. Them”, as you say… and your call to all of us to go even further into ourselves to remedy this way of being inspires me. Listening comes across as difficult for many….you remind me that listening is the simplest, most giving act one can do. Thank you for taking the time to reflect on the events of this past weekend. It is good to see the ripples in the water your voice is making.

  7. Thank you for this. A reminder of just how much we need “them” to keep “us” safe. I have been in a recent internal struggle about how to negotiate a relationship with an acquaintance whose beliefs run counter to mine. We had been very friendly until the point when I learned of her ideology through a blog. From that point going forward I struggled with how to respond to her – privately and publicly. There was no comfortable position. To reject her meant responding to her in the same manner she responds to people who threaten her sense of safety. But to keep her close felt threatening to my own beliefs.
    Perhaps this is just it. These relationships are not about comfort. They are about noticing the underlying patterns that drive our divisions. In doing so, perhaps it is possible to see what connects us all in our common humanity.

  8. Now that the baby is buried it can’t hurt to add some facts.

    What many are referring to as “gun sites” in an effort to implicate the innocent are actually markers used by surveyors when mapping.

    The blame game isn’t productive. And it’s insidious when you add ignorance to insult.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Tim. You are right, the symbol on the poster Sarah Palin signed can and has been interpreted in many ways. I appreciate and agree with your statement that “the blame game isn’t productive.” Given the range of interpretations people have of almost anything, my hope is we can spend more time listening to see if there are any points of agreement — like you and me listening to one another here. The hostility seems to be fueled by always looking for the differences and keeping them as barriers to working together on the values we share. We are all ignorant of the thinking behind the worldviews of people who see the world differently than we do. We have to work out our disagreements and that is far from easy. Sometimes it feels dangerous. But, if at the same time we are dealing with differences we were also cooperating on the values we share, that might make the road into the future a little less harmful. What do you think?

      • Sorry It took so long to get back.

        Since my comments to you the blame game has gotten uglier while the victims of that tragic day are all but forgotten. I am thankful for the survivors.

        We are moving into hard economic times. I believe our differences become more visible as we move through times like this. How each of us deals with our own issues is personal and not always popular.
        I don’t have all the answers but for myself many changes have been made in order to survive. I culled my commercial ewes down to numbers that could survive on available pasture without supplemental feed due to feed cost. This year I produced for sale 25% of what I had the year before. Just an unintended consequence of burning corn(food) for fuel and forced dependance on foreign oil.
        I don’t wish to burden you with details but the reality of selling off 75% of my production animals because of fuel and feed cost is a disturbing trend. I wasn’t alone in my efforts at the sale barn.
        I fear that every person in this country will be dragged into the maelstrom before our lives begin to improve again.

        You and I can only hope that everybody involved suffers through these times with grace.

      • Yours is a powerful example of the stories we do not hear about each other’s experience, Tim. Like your words imply, all of us have stories, but we don’t necessarily hear their substance — “Our differences become more visible…how each of us deals…is personal and not always popular.” Instead of really getting a sense of what people live with and through it seems easy for American citizens to get trapped in sound bites. Especially given the way our media function, we tend to stop with information that exaggerates and inflames the legitimate feelings that come with living day-to-day in our current economic and social circumstances. I join you in wishing blessings and comfort to the survivors and families so changed with the Tucson shooting. And I join you in wishing us all grace.

  9. Wonderful talking with you yesterday.
    I have a slightly different take.
    I do think there are victims in our society and to ignore that very real fact does a disservice to the people amongst us who are suffering.
    I am all in favor of civil discourse if it is counterbalanced with policies that favor all of us.
    Many of us are careening off a very dangerous cliff with very little notice or concern. It seems as if no one is listening to the needs of the poor and our working class citizenry. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Our economic policies are not equal. There are losers and winners. For our country that is disastrous.
    We can not have a civil society with such economic disparity.
    We need a leader who has the foresight and will to work for economic justice and not base compromises on the backs of working people.
    Elegant speeches and kind words feel shallow for many of us whose lives are hanging by a thread.
    We all need a meal – not just crumbs.

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