Monday, April 25, 2011

and still...

I don't yet know what (or how) to think about Greg Mortenson. Nick Kristof's column was thoughtful, at least. And I love his title..."Three cups of tea spilled" sums the whole thing up remarkably well.

There are a host of voices out there- those who are wholeheartedly on Mortenson's side, claiming he's been unjustly framed by accusers who should be using their time to focus on corrupt politicians. Those who claim to have known he was a phony the entire time, and that the rest of us are hopelessly naive. These two groups are the loudest, and the people in the middle, except for Kristof, who's voice is powerful enough to be heard (aside: Nick Kristof is possibly the best example I can think of of a privileged individual who uses privilege to empower others) are drowned out, likely because of that uncertainty.

And honestly....all the fury in the media and blogosphere makes me more lost and confused. And dumb- how come everyone else is always so convinced about everything? Am I the only person in the universe living in a hopelessly grey muddle?
Did ALL the smart people really know Mortenson was a fake? I kind of doubt it. Vultures come out at the smell of weakness...and international confusion/outrage/disillusionment at someone who supposedly helped thousands of people? That's a lot of weakness.

And those who insists that Mortenson is still a hero, and everyone else is out to get him? Given allegations this serious, that seems delusional to me.

What does CAI and Mortenson mean? As I briefly pointed out to my students, he's changed how we think about Afghanistan, and Pakistan, he's shed light on the critical importance of education. Will potential donors write off everyone building schools in remote corners of the world now? Will people ignore Pakistan even more (remember the remarkably absent charitable donations after the devastating floods last summer?)? I don't know. I hope not. I'm afraid so.

Mortenson was doing work he wasn't trained to do - as someone who's spent roughly a gazillion hours working on program planning, evaluation, community organizing coursework and projects , do I think that could have made a difference? Maybe. Yes...if you don't know what you're doing, hire someone who does.  But do I think anyone else would have done a better job, or would they just have screwed up differently? I don't know. I'm not sure it matters. Maybe it's the only thing that matters.

Do I think we're all doomed to mediocrity? I don't know. Do I think we're all doomed to being misunderstood and misrepresented? Absolutely. Do I think there's some truth in those misrepresentations? I don't know.

In a little over two months, I'm getting married in a gorgeous Anglo-Catholic church. A couple weeks ago, the bishop who pastors this church sent out a church newsletter/calendar, with a senseless rant against the "feminization of politics" (a few gems:
" The more men turn away from their God-given responsibilities, the more women take over.  “As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them.  “Behold, thy people in the midst of thee are women:  the gates of thy land shall be set wide open unto thine enemies:  the fire shall devour thy bars.”  (Nahum 3: 13, prophesying the fall of Nineveh)  Over two generations of all-pervasive gnostic feminism in the West mean that the culture now tends to:  *Modify the English language to remove or neutralize masculine references, for a “unisex” modality, thus depersonalizing society.  Steward – stewardess become flight attendant.  The Biblical understanding of all life subsumed under the masculine is eliminated in language and life. *Avoid hard, tough, costly decisions and emphasize “therapy.”  *  Downplay sacrifice and heroism.  “Feelings” are what matter.  * Downplay, and soften, the military.  Emphasize domestic spending and safety nets at home.  Urge a soft foreign policy of appeasement with enemies.  * Legalize death for all unwanted life, so that men can shirk their responsibilities, and women can pursue careers and power, unfettered by children and the aged.  *Watch as marriages disintegrate, boys fall behind in school, prisons burst at the seams and more women become impoverished.

(That last is particularly infuriating- all the feminists I know are actively working against those things)
  I read this as being  angry, prejudiced, ill-informed. I don't know whether he personally wrote it, or if was copied+pasted from some parachurch organization. What I do know is someone who I like and deeply respect claims that I (and people like me) are destroying the world. Is there truth to these allegations? Maybe it depends on what you want the world to look like.

Maybe another example could help....my academic adviser has worked all over the world for women's reproductive rights. This means improving access to family planning knowledge and services (including hormonal contraceptives, and beads for women in villages to track their cycles) and  access to safe and legal abortion, access to quality post-abortion care. Some see this as work that's seen as good, important, life-saving.  Others (the circles I grew up in) would label her an assistant to murder, someone who destroys life,  who has launched war on human sexuality and  good and beauty everywhere.

Who is she? Who is the bishop? Who am I? Who is Greg Mortenson?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

humanity - depravity or frailty?

Two degrees ago I started blogging - as a place to throw half-formed emotional musings I wasn't sure how to process otherwise. Putting things out into a world where you're dying to know you're not crazy, but don't trust the people you know in real life to come to that conclusion. I try not to do that anymore. But right now, this is how it is.

Because of the odd mix of devastation,betrayal,suspicion, hope, sympathy, and fear swirling around my head and heart thanks to Greg Mortenson. Or- more accurately, the media storm around Greg Mortenson.

Monday AM I logged into Facebook to see Nick Kristof linking to a NYTimes piece. And then there was CBS, and finally, offering some faint hope for redemption, Outsider Online.

And maybe it's just a mark of how young I am that I've never been devastated by a public figure before...I was a middleschooler who was raised to despise the Clintons, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammie Faye Bakker were well before my time also. But Mortenson....is one of my clan. He's an MK, and was a nurse. Three Cups of Tea isn't just a book about him, it's a book about me. What drew me to the book wasn't so much the story as it was the goal- to change society by empowering and educating women. And I was pulled in by his humanity- how Mortenson freely admitted his failures and struggles, and the toll this work took, the damage it did to his health (mental and physical) and his family.This confession of frailty was married to a fierce belief that the dream Mortenson had taken on was worth the sacrifices and struggles.

I copied a sentence into my journal in July 2008: "Together, the two began the kind of conversation that flows seamlessly, unstoppably, each fork begetting another branch of common interest, a conversation that continues until this day." It's a description of Mortenson's first interaction with his wife, and for me, was one of those thoughts that made me pause and say "If I ever choose to be partnered with another human being again, this is what it's going to have to be like" (Nearly 3 years later, it's possibly the perfect description of myself and my fiance').

Memoir is a strange genre- it's somewhere between biography and fiction, and can't possibly be objectively true. (Much like research can't ever be unbiased, because there are people doing the research...we all bring our own prejudices and preconceptions to our work, be it science or storytelling). I'm okay with the events being "compressed" or some degree of literary license taken (however, this accusation that Mortenson claimed to be kidnapped by gracious hosts- that goes FAR beyond making the story easier to follow).

The far more serious aspect of this is Mortenson's alleged mismanagement of funds and misrepresentation of the work of his charity- the possibility (probability?) that the man got too caught up in his own celebrity status to actually see and serve the people he was supposed to be helping. That in spite of his early devotion and enthusiasm he became materialistic and self-serving, narcissistic, dishonest. Because if Mortenson isn't who he claimed to be, who he thought he was, who he once was...what does that mean for who I am?

If Greg Mortenson, through stress, selfishness, mental illness, workaholism, poor judgement, (whatever mechanism you want to propose) did this great damage to himself, his family, and the cause he was working for - what does that mean for me? Does the "mechanism" even really matter? Regardless of the truth of this matter, Mortenson's reputation is going to be deeply damaged, and this is going to have a devastating impact on charitable giving and people's interest in Afghanistan and Pakistan. What am I capable of, and will I someday sabotage (deliberately or not) everything I'm working for right now? What if the real lesson of the story is that there are no heros, and no one ever wins?

A dear grad school friend and colleague who's religious background is similar enough to mine (rather conservative religiously/liberal socially Church of Latter Day Saints), with my same research interests and ethics is having some of these same issues right now. We were musing on these a bit during class yesterday evening, and instead of offering anything helpful, the professor tried to take another hero (Nicholas Kristof) away (while simultaneously stating the importance of having these heroes and role models).

Part of me wants to shake this off, and say it doesn't matter so much in the big scheme of things...my usual response to questions, challenges, melancholy brooding. But this is bigger....it's wondering whether human beings are EVER capable of doing more good than harm. Because from where I'm sitting right now, I can't see a single person or institution who is NOT open to the charge that the inadvertent (or deliberate) damage they are doing to society/individual people is far greater than any good they may be doing.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Beauty, Part II

I'm hesitant to share much about my students in a public forum- mainly out of respect for them. But it seems worth noting that eating disorders and beauty were one of the things they couldn't leave alone. I can't even count the number of response journals I read saying "I never felt beautiful, because I was too thick/skinny/whatever," even from the stereotypically beautiful girls in my class. Which makes me so incredibly sad, because my students? Not only are these girls gorgeous, they're tenacious, insightful, smart. Maybe I'm a little biased because they show up in class on a cold, rainy Monday for a lecture on cancer- but maybe that's precisely my point. I've taken them tough places with this class, and they've been more than willing to go, and to look at how their lives play out surrounded by the tough issues- including how they look at themselves.

And...I'm realizing now how responsible we can be for how other people perceive beauty, how they perceive themselves...and how devastating the merger of those things can be when it leads so simply to eating disorders with long term, potentially fatal consequences. The way we talk about food, the way we talk about how great women look when they lose weight, how we would like to lose weight, how we shouldn't eat X...And I've started to wonder what children learn when we give up favorite foods for Lent. I don't have my own children yet, so I'm less directly involved with this...but we associate food with sacrifice and celebration so easily. It takes kids so long to understand church, tradition, etc, and they imitate so much unconsciously and unquestioningly (I'm remembering an episode when I was about 9 when my friends and my parents flew into a fit because we were baptizing each other in a swimming pool).

When I was a senior in high school, we had to read a Sylvia Plath poem, titled "Mirror":
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see, I swallow immediately.
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike
I am not cruel, only truthful –
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me.
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.


The teacher...who, I suppose, was in her mid-late 40s told us, with disgust, that she'd learned to empathize with that last line that year, as she'd watched new wrinkles creep in. And she asked us to let her know when we started seeing our faces change daily...something about acknowledging mortality and the shortness of our life, I think?

I remembered that statement somewhere mid-2009, because after that first grad school semester, my face did start changing. Partly because I've lost ~15lbs since starting school (mostly due to lousy graduate student parking),the crinkles at the corner of my eyes and mouth when I smile have become a bit more pronounced, and the angles of my face have taken on a different character. But it's a change that I love - because I'm not the same person I was two years ago. I've met new people, seen new places, taken on more challenges, worked harder and been more wildly successful and happy than I could have imagined (and, honestly, it's a lot easier to teach undergrads when you don't look quite so much like one yourself).

And I think maybe that's what gets missed somewhere....that what we see in the mirror reflects the choices we've made and the things we've experienced in our bodies. And if we'd focus on the real things rather than the reflections, maybe we could learn to love them both.I believe that young woman in Plath's poem drowned herself in the mirror- by choosing to stare at it rather than go live her life. So...how do we teach *that* to college students, highschoolers, children?