One of my favorite podcasts is NPR’s Planet Money. The website describes the podcast this way: “Imagine you could call up a friend and say, ‘Meet me at the bar and tell me what’s going on with the economy.’ Now imagine that’s actually a fun evening.”
Last August Planet Money produced an episode called, “The Modal American,” which took four months of data analysis to provide the content for the episode. The “mode” is the set of values that appears most common among other sets. The mode is different from the mean, which is the average, and it is different from the median, which is an actual value with half the values below and half above the median. When we talk about the “average” American based on some set of characteristics, there is likely not an actual person who fits all of those characteristics, or there are very few real people who do. For example, the average family has 1.93 kids under 18. Have you ever met 93% of a person? You get the idea …
Planet Money set out to find the modal American using eight general demographic classifications: age, race and ethnicity, sex, neighborhood type, marital status, education, household income, and employment status. To slice and dice the demographic data into workable buckets, they had to make generalizations within the classifications, such as with sex: male or female. With household income, they created a few sub-groups. With education, it was simply those with a four-year degree and those without a four-year degree. You get the idea. They wound up with more than 3000 buckets into which to place the more than 320 million Americans.
Who do you think is the modal American? In reality, according to their methodology, the modal American is a child because they don’t work, they’re not married, they don’t have a college degree, and so on, so they tossed out the children. Sorry children!
While listening to the episode I thought, surely, the modal American is a retiree because retirees share a lot in common, but I was wrong. Spoiler alert: the modal American is, for the most part … me!
I fit seven of the eight classifications of the modal American: GenX (39-54), white, male, lives in the suburbs, married, no four-year degree, $75k-$165k household income, and works full-time.
There are about two million modal Americans according to this analysis. The runner-up is a Boomer, white, female, lives in the suburbs, married, no four-year degree, $30k-$75k household income, and does not work full-time.
Toward the end of the episode, Ben Casselman, the guy who crunched the numbers said, “White, GenX men are having an unusually homogenous experience … we know that’s gonna change.”
That phrase, “an unusually homogenous experience,” really stuck with me. I have never felt like my experience was or is ever “homogeneous.” That sounds so boring. So blase. So uninspiring. So hopeless? Yet I know that I exist as a member of the dominant groups in this culture and society. You know what I’m talking about: straight … white … middle-age … male … with disposable income. For far too long our culture has revolved around people like me for numerous reasons, one of which is people like me are easy to market to as a group. Every time I hear some 80s pop song as background music in a store, I think, “They’re targeting me!” I love U2! I love Duran Duran! I’m so simple, really, to target.
Isn’t this where “we’re” at? And by “we,” I mean people that largely share my demographic classifications. We have lived in a comfort zone that is not shared by many millions of people of “other” demographic groups. I consider myself to be fairly conscious of my own privilege, but that consciousness, in itself, is a privilege, because it does not require anything special of me to do, to go beyond the bubble of my comfort zone. One thing I have learned from my relationships with people who do not share my upbringing in white suburbia is that it is exhausting to live in “our” society because “our” society is constantly “othering” people.
Casselman said, “We know that’s gonna change.” Gonna change? It’s changing, and rapidly.
LBGTQ Pride … Black Lives Matter … Dreamers … all of these people who do not fit into my demographic comfort zone are bursting our bubbles!
So, where are we, the whole society, currently at?
Society is rapidly changing. We’re not going back. A conservative justice of the Supreme Court wrote a 6-3 majority opinion demonstrating conclusively that people who are LGBTQ have the legal right to not be fired just for being LGBTQ. Gerald Bostock was an employee of Clayton County in Georgia and got fired because he expressed interest in joining a gay softball league at work. Can you believe that? Finally, in 2020, we are saying as a society that that kind of firing is wrong and illegal?
Gorsuch wrote toward the end of the majority opinion: “Ours is a society of written laws … An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”
I love following the Supreme Court. The justices are way smarter and more knowledgeable than I could ever hope to be, but I love it when they write something like that, “Ours is a society of written laws,” because they know as human beings that statement is false. A society, by definition, is made up of people. They write like that because they have to maintain the American myth that society is based on “law and order” when we know, and they know it, too, that society is based on relationships, families, economic relations, and social institutions like churches. If society was a language, “laws” would be the rules of grammar, syntax, and spelling, which change over time and are not equivalent to the sonnets of Shakespeare or the prose of James Baldwin.
Let’s go to the scriptures (2 Chronicles 17:3-6; 2 Chronicles 26:3-5, 16) of more than 2000 years ago to see how not much has changed. Jehoshaphat “walked in his commandments,” in the “Law of the Lord,” we may say. In verse 6, we read:
- “his heart was lifted up in the ways of the Lord” (KJV)
- Jehoshaphat “took pride in the Lord’s ways” (CEB)
- “His heart was courageous in the ways of the Lord” (NRSV)
Uzziah “did what was right in the sight of the Lord,” but then in verse 16 we read:
- “his heart was lifted up to his destruction” (KJV)
- “he grew so arrogant that he acted corruptly” (CEB)
- “he grew proud, to his destruction” (NRSV)
Two things have not changed much:
- Humans have a bias toward written laws / commandments as prescriptive of order in society.
- But what really matters is what is in our human hearts.
Laws get us on the “same page,” so to speak, but what is in our hearts is what really drives the changes in society, and then often the written laws (and their interpretation) need to catch up. The prophet Jeremiah: “declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33). The prophet Ezekiel: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek 36:26).
In these two passages in 2 Chronicles we read the same metaphor “his heart was lifted up,” referring to the human condition of “pride.” The result of the pride is positive in the case of Jehoshaphat and negative in the case of Uzziah. I asked my Old Testament scholar friend Will Andrews about the original Hebrew expression here. He said: “The difference is the object to which the heart is lifted. The first is ‘to (or in) the ways of YHWH’ [God] and the second is roughly ‘according to his (own) strength.’”
It’s so easy to gloss over the main point I am trying to make when we read something like “grew proud” or “was courageous,” which short-circuits the metaphor. A “soaring heart” is the author’s metaphor for pride. What makes pride positive or negative is the destination sought by our “soaring heart.” Do our hearts soar to written laws and some Platonic conception of the social order? Or do our hearts soar to the “ways of the Lord” and not to our own strength?
Of course laws are important, but society is rooted in and sustained by vastly more complex patterns and practices than “written laws.” At best, written laws codify the power structures that emerge naturally over time and preserve those structures with as little disruption as possible. What happened this month in the Bostock opinion is that the Supreme Court rightly “realigned” itself with the shift in American culture and society that is becoming, I pray, more just.
How do we “realign” ourselves, then, with the painful, yet righteous, shift toward a more just society that is currently taking place?
As an aside, it is interesting that King Jehoshaphat removed the “Asherah poles,” objects of cultic devotion, divergent from the worship of Yaweh, just as his father Asa tried to do. But these objects of cultic devotion kept creeping back into society. Sound familiar?
Paul’s words to the Romans in chapter 12 are inspirational and instructional:
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Interestingly, the word for “haughty” here in the NRSV, “proud” in the NIV, is the same root word used in the Greek Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word for “lift up” that we read in 2 Chronicles. It’s like when we say someone is “puffed up” to refer to their ego, their pride.
Please do not misunderstand what I am trying to say. I am not saying we do not need a Pride Month or Pride celebrations. If people who share my demographics are confused or otherwise upset by Pride, then I am calling them, in the least, to think of them as Humility Month, Humility Day, and Listening celebrations. If you (the generic, homogenous “you”) are uncomfortable with Pride and you are having a problem figuring out what it means from your centered experience, then view it as a time for you, and a call for you, to be humble and to listen … and that’s it.
A few weeks ago when I was driving Eun-Hye and myself to Gillson Park to visit the lake on a beautiful day, she was very happy … and then I quashed her happiness. Someone was driving very close behind us and was obviously getting impatient with my driving exactly the speed limit. I couldn’t help it. I spoke commentary about the person and how they needed to “take a chill pill.” I didn’t go on and on, but right away, Eun-Hye stopped me, “Why are you doing that? Why do you have to add commentary? Can’t we just enjoy the drive to the park?” Her heart was soaring to the lake. My heart was soaring to my own commentary of the impatient person behind us. My “soaring” to myself clipped the wings of her “soaring” to the lake.
Chris, just shut up and drive.
After all, I was the one driving, a position of privilege. You get the idea …
I want to conclude by asking this question:
When are we, the people who share my upbringing, going to stop soaring above everyone else?
We can’t keep soaring in the puffy, white clouds of the Platonic realms of “law and order” … even as we may admire others who want to soar … as long as they soar below us. At some point we have “weep with those who weep.” At some point we have to “overcome evil with good.” At some point we have to land on the ground of reality where real human hearts are beating with exhaustion as they try again and again to lift off, to soar, with proper and healthy pride. All we need to do is simply be quiet and listen.