Changing your plans

I am 30 years old, and currently single. In fact, I’ve been single my whole life.
 
One of the reasons that I have been single for so long is because my life has constantly been in transition. When I was in high school, I was waiting until college to date (I also didn’t like myself very much and didn’t expect that others would like me, but that’s a separate issue). In college, I was waiting for graduation. After graduation, I didn’t know where I was going in life, and wanted to get that figured out. When I was in law school, I was waiting for after graduation (plus, I had hardly enough time in law school for myself, much less someone else). Now I’ve graduated and moved back to the Bay Area, but my life still feels very much in flux. And after years of moving on from one thing to another, I’m having a hard time settling down in one place.
 
I wanted to settle down before I started pursuing a relationship because I didn’t want to disrupt another person’s life. I thought that it was selfish to start a relationship with someone, only to have her change her plans on my account. That struck me as self-serving and tactless.
 
But then I remember what happened with my parents. When my mom met my dad in South Korea, she had no intention of moving to the US. My dad was coming here to study, and told her that she would have to leave her family, her culture, and her home to be with him. She said yes. Even though she didn’t know the future, she knew that she wanted to be with him.
 
I think about other friends who have had similar experiences, who have changed their plans to be with the ones that they love. While the sacrifice is real, the love makes the sacrifice so sweet.
 
And I realize that I haven’t really changed that much from high school. What I took to be thoughtfulness for others is rooted in a lack of value for myself. I thought that it would be too much to ask someone else to change her future plans for me.
 
I don’t know if my parents’ story will happen for me. I don’t know if I will ever get married. I’m glad that I can say that if I were to stay single, I would be grateful for life. But I’m embracing this truth about myself: I am worth changing your plans.

Anger and Love – Breaking down and building up

A quick thought on anger:
 
Anger is volatile. Anger is powerful. Anger is disturbing. But anger is not inherently evil.
 
I’ve heard it said that anger is “love in motion toward a threat against that which it loves” (attribution: Tim Keller, of Redeemer Presbyterian Church). Think of mama bear and baby bear. When baby bear is threatened, mama bear gets angry.
 
Anger is a useful diagnostic. When you become angry, you can ask yourself what it is that you love. You can then ask yourself if the thing you love is truly under threat. You can further ask yourself whether you are loving that thing more than you ought.
 
For example, it’s natural to get upset if someone insults you. But if you fall into a violent rage when a stranger throws you an unkind comment, then it shows that you deeply love your image. Is your pride worthy of that much love?
 
You can talk all you want about what you love, but your anger says more about your love than words ever will.
 
It’s useful to know that anger and love are connected, because it gives you something to do with your anger. Anger desires to be directed. If anger has nothing to do, it will smolder into resentment and cynicism. Sometimes it’s appropriate to use anger to tear down, break apart, unchain. But sometimes, you can’t do much with anger; the threat is too diffuse, too distant, too intangible. So instead of tearing down the threat, you can channel that emotion into building up what is under threat.
 
If you can’t use anger to fight back the bully, you can use love to build up the victim.
 
I’m not saying people should never become angry. That’s foolishness. I firmly believe that you can’t tell people what to feel. That’s not how feelings work. And anger is just as much a part of life as joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and all other emotions. But anger gets easily corrupted. Anger can turn from love protecting against a threat into hatred smashing down a victim.
 
For each of us, there will be a season to break down, and a season to build up. I hope that all of us would know the season that is set for us.

Charlottesville

I’ve been off Facebook and news for the past two weeks. I wanted to take a step away from everything going on. I can share another time about the experience of unplugging. In short, it was a very necessary break.
 
I returned this morning to hear the news about the white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, the violent clash with counter-protestors, the car attack that killed one woman and left multiple people injured, and the helicopter crash that killed two state troopers that were monitoring the demonstrations.
 
It’s a lot to take in after unplugging from the news.
 
So much has been said about what happened in Charlottesville, about the rise of the alt-right and white nationalism, about the response or lack thereof from our civic, religious, and community leaders. So much more needs to be said.
 
For now, let me say that I’m saddened, but not surprised.
 
I’m saddened at the death of Heather Heyer and the injuries of so many others in the car attack. I’m not surprised, because in the senseless violence of bigotry, innocent people become targets.
 
I’m saddened at the racism and hatred displayed by the white supremacists in Charlottesville. I’m not surprised, because such attitudes are deeply embedded in our country, and we are very far from addressing them.
 
I’m saddened because this is not the people that we want to be. I’m not surprised, because this is the people that we are.
 
I’m saddened, but not surprised. But I’m also refusing to lose hope and drift into the numb cocoon of apathy.
 
I can’t do much to change the actions and beliefs of others. So I pray that I would have the strength and vision to do what I can, to stand with those who mourn, to call forth deep abiding hope, and to work for the restoration of the image of God in every person.

Ms. Susan Burton

Today, I got to attend a talk by Susan Burton, the founder and Executive Director of A New Way of Life Reentry Project. ANWOL provides housing, legal help, and other support for formerly incarcerated women leaving prison. Ms. Burton started ANWOL based on her own experience as a former drug addict and convicted felon. She start in 1998 by buying a house and inviting women who were just leaving prison to come live with her. Since that time, ANWOL has provided housing and services for over 700 women. Ms. Burton has become a powerful voice for formerly incarcerated people.
 
Ms. Burton was joined by Dorsey Nunn, Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children who had also been formerly incarcerated. Their stories emphasize the power of advocacy by people who have been directly impacted. Professionals like myself have an important place as technical and resource experts. Yet we also must join with those who know firsthand the grueling hardships that we work to change.
 
Some people may hear that Ms. Burton had been in prison for possession of crack cocaine, and scoff. They might say that she shouldn’t have used crack, and that it was her fault. Maybe. But Ms. Burton started using crack as a way to self-medicate from the immense grief she experienced when she saw her five-year-old son run over and killed by a police vehicle. The police officer never even got out of his car. Ms. Burton never received an apology or any acknowledgement from the police department. If that were you, reeling from the loss of your son, and someone offered you something that would make you feel better, what would you do? You don’t need to condone her actions. She broke the law. But I hope that we can empathize with her. I hope that we can all applaud how Ms. Burton and Mr. Nunn have advocated for the humanity of formerly incarcerated individuals. I hope that we can see the humanity in everyone who enters prison.
 
Much thanks to The Way Christian Center for hosting the event, and for Karem Lizbeth Herrera and Jennifer Kung for sharing in this experience.

“Don’t people choose to be homeless?”

I was talking to one of my friends about homelessness. She said, “I see folks standing by the side of the freeway asking for money. But they seem fine to me. Don’t they choose to be homeless? Why aren’t they working?”
 
That’s a complicated question with a lot of issues. But one thing I’ll note is that disability can be hidden. Some physical disabilities are not readily apparent. Most mental disabilities are invisible. I’ve met folks who are able to bathe and dress themselves, but cannot work. They may have depression and miss work a couple days a month. They may have bipolar and have a hard time interacting with coworkers or supervisors. They may have schizophrenia and have difficulty concentrating on tasks.
 
Most folks I’ve met don’t want to be relying on government money. The process is bureaucratic. You could get cut off because some government employee makes a mistake or you forget to report a change in your situation. And the amount of money you get doesn’t cover your basic needs.
 
On a deeper level, humans are wired to be productive. We are made to find deep satisfaction in work. Most of the folks I’ve met really want to work, but need some help during their time of need.
 
Sure, some folks are just trying to abuse the system and not do anything. But that’s a tiny fraction of the people that I see. It’s unfair to brand an entire group of people based on the actions of a few.

Reflections from a hearing

I shadowed my supervisor to a hearing. As part of the application process for disability benefits, the applicant may appear before an administrative law judge for a hearing. As far as legal procedures go, it’s fairly informal, but still really important.
 
My supervisor Kyle and I showed up at the hearing office. Kyle’s client was already there. We talked about what to expect in the hearing, including what questions the judge may ask. The client had applied for these benefits years ago. Because of the backlog of cases, hearings take a long time to get scheduled.
 
When we were called, we filed into the hearing room. The judge said hello and started talking about some preliminary matters. The client was sitting next to me. I could hear his breathing get heavy, and looked up to see his eyes tearing up. He was crying.
 
After Kyle gave his opening statement, the judge asked the client a few questions. At one of the questions, the client started choking up. He started sobbing. He has had a really tough life, and had been living with his disabilities for a long time. He had made some mistakes and done some bad things. But he was also trying to turn his life around.
 
The judge commended the client for his efforts to turn a new leaf. He said that he had enough evidence to support a finding of disability, and would grant the benefits.
 
We exited to the hallway. With tears streaming down his face, the client reached out and embraced Kyle. He then embraced me. He thanked us for helping him get this far.
 
I became a lawyer to help people. I wanted to help those in need navigate the byzantine tangle that is our legal system. Kyle’s client did an excellent job advocating for himself. He is strong. But he also needs help. And our system is set up so that those who are disabled have a hard time getting the help they need.
 
This work will be hard. I can tell. But it’s moments like this hearing that remind me of why I do what I do.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

I saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington last night for the first time (much thanks to Lauren for the suggestion and the DVD). The basic summary is that a wholesome country man becomes a U.S. Senator and finds himself tangling with political corruption and deceit.

Lauren pointed out that she appreciates the film because of the integrity displayed by the main character, Jeff Smith. He is a man of strong ideals and integrity, whose inherent goodness personifies the best in all of us.

What’s also remarkable is how Jeff Smith’s integrity inspires transformation in others. You can see this most clearly in how his idealism moves his secretary, Clarissa Saunders, from cynicism to hope.

Yet the film also demonstrates that heroes sometimes need to be reminded of who they are. SPOILER ALERT: In a pivotal scene, Jeff Smith is ready to call it quits, but Saunders comes in and lifts his spirits, reminding him of his vision for his people.

All heroes need this kind of reminder. All heroes have moments in which they doubt their ability to make a difference. It is in those moments that heroes need community that can look them in the eyes and say, “You can change things. I’m proof of that.”

July 4th 2017: What does USA mean to me?

What does USA mean to me?
 
USA means home, the place where I was born, the place where I grew up. It informs the language I speak, the values I keep, the ideas I believe.
 
USA means opportunity. My parents came here from Korea and found opportunity for a better life. My brother and I have far greater resources than we would have had we remained in Korea.
 
USA means separation and connection. In pursuing after economic opportunities, my family became disconnected with my extended family back in Korea. I have never celebrated a holiday with my grandparents, aunts and uncles, or cousins. Yet in this country, I found others with whom to celebrate, a new extended family.
 
USA means strength in South Korea, in both good and bad ways. The US-South Korean relationship is important, but also complicated. The US played a key role in South Korea’s economic vitality, but also played a key role in the division between North and South (along with others). I still have family members in North Korea, although I have no idea what has happened to them.
 
USA also means tragedy. For some of my friends, their families did not choose to come to the US, but were brought by force. For others, their families were already here, and the US brought disruption and violence. Still others came with visions of opportunity, only to have those visions dissipate in broken promises and broken dreams.
 
USA means contradictions, complexities, and paradox, just like any group of people. It is a people of high ideals and great nobility, but also crass vulgarity and mindless violence. To extol its virtues does not mean neglecting its flaws, and to critique its weaknesses does not mean undermining its strengths.
 
So on this day, I say that I am grateful to live in the USA. I will also say that I will endeavor to make it a more just, merciful, and compassionate place. I hope that others will do the same.

Emotional anchors: Learning to grow up

I’m at the age now when many of my friends are having kids. I get to see babies grow and walk and talk, marveling at how quickly they change. My friends tell me that parenthood is hard, even painful, but also full of joy. I’m happy for my friends, and excited to see their kids grow up. My friends are also excited to see their kids get older, to see them go to school, make friends, and explore the world.

It’s exciting, but also bittersweet. Because as kids get older, parenting changes. When children are young, they rely on their parents as their primary emotional anchors. In fact, it’s natural for parents to serve as their babies’ primary emotional caretakers, just as they serve as their primary physical caretakers. Yet as children get older, their emotional needs become more complex. They enter into worlds that are completely foreign to their parents. They have experiences, emotions, and ideas that they can’t share with their parents, or at least not share fully. It’s not because children don’t love their parents; rather, as kids get older, having their parents involved sometimes makes things more complicated. For parents who are used to having their kids come to them for everything, that’s hard. For parents who taught their kids how to say “Momma, Dadda” to now hear their kids say, “Mom, Dad, I want to tell you what’s going on, but I can’t”…that must be hard.

What’s especially hard is when your kids are going through pain, but you can’t fix it. When your kids are young and they get a cut or feel sad or lonely, they come to you, and you help them feel better. But as they get older, they get cuts and wounds and pain that aren’t yours to heal. In fact, if you get involved, it would only make things harder. So you need to step back and let your kids’ friends and community and partners get involved. In that moment, you can’t help but remember when your kids were first born, when you held them close. Your friend said, “Can I hold them?”, but you hesitated, wondering if your friend will be careful. Now someone else is holding them and drying their tears, and it’s hard for you.

I’ve had to learn this for myself with my parents. I love my parents dearly. And it’s because I love them that I had to learn that they can’t be my sole emotional anchor anymore. I can’t rely on them to give me everything I need, just as I can’t rely on any one relationship to give me everything I need. I still go to my parents, but they are now part of a rich web of other relationships. If I still relied on my parents as my sole source of emotional fulfillment, then that would be a dysfunctional and disastrous relationship.

As kids get older, they need to grow up, but parents need to grow up too. Parents need to learn to let go of their kids. Because one day, sooner than you would like, you won’t be there for them anymore. There will come a day in which they will say, “Mom, Dad, I wish you were here”, and you won’t be able to hear them. You want to make sure that they are ready for that day, that they have friends and community and partners to help them. For one day, you won’t be there as their anchor anymore. On that day, you want them not to sink, but to sail on without you, carried by the love of others.

Ask Good Questions: Responding to exciting news that gets you feeling uneasy

Have you ever had an acquaintance come up to you with some big news, and you didn’t know how to respond? You could tell that they were excited, but you didn’t know what to say.

Like if your coworker, who constantly fights with her boyfriend, says that they are moving in together. She’s thrilled, but you don’t think it’s a good idea. Yet how can you tell her that?

Or a classmate with shaky finances says that he is going to Las Vegas for his birthday. He’s super pumped about the trip, and you don’t want to get him down by telling him not to go.

In these situations, you may not feel inclined to rejoice, but you don’t feel comfortable voicing your concerns. What do you say?

I find that when people share exciting news, they’re not looking for the other person to also get excited. They are looking for someone to validate their feelings. “Here’s what happened to me, and here’s how it is affecting my feelings.” Instead of faking excitement, you can say, “Wow! That sounds like big news. Tell me more.” You shift the conversation from shared emotion to interest in the other person.

This approach is especially useful for thorny situations in which folks hold deeply rooted beliefs (hoo boy). For example, if you believe that marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman, and your coworker says that she is marrying her partner, you may not feel ready to celebrate. But you can ask questions and express a genuine interest in your colleague. Or if you are an atheist and your classmate shares that he is baptizing his infant son, you may inwardly think that your classmate is telling lies to his kid, but you feel uncomfortable saying so. You can ask questions and engage.

Now, some may bristle at these examples. Some may say “You garbage person! You should feel happy for other people, regardless of what you believe!” But I maintain that you can’t tell people what to feel. Some people will respond to news with joy. Others will respond with sadness, or anger, or mixed emotion. Feelings are our knee jerk responses to events, based on our beliefs. Now, you can challenge the beliefs that undergird the feelings, but it doesn’t do much good to tell people what to feel. They’ll just get defensive about it.

Some may say, “I’m just going to speak my mind. If I think it’s wrong, then I’m going to tell them!” And if it’s your friend, maybe they’ll listen. But if you’re talking to acquaintances, how can you expect your words to change their minds? You don’t have that level of relationship yet. People will only open their hearts to you if they trust you. If you speak your mind without winning their hearts, you risk losing the relationship.

Some may say, “I don’t want to be friends with people who won’t be honest with me about how they really feel.” That’s fine, you can choose your friends. But that’s why in my examples, I referred to coworkers and classmates. You don’t need to be super buddies with everyone. But you need to get along with your team. After all, you’ll need everyone’s help to write that TPS report.

TL;DR – When coworkers, classmates, and casual acquaintances share news that excites them, but has you feeling uneasy, ask them to tell you more. You don’t need to fake excitement or walk away awkwardly. Engage, and show that you are interested in what they have to say. The goal isn’t for the other person to say “You were just as excited as I was about what happened.” The goal is to have them say “Thank you for listening.”