What’s your Salamander: Confronting Fear and Discrimination

So crazy things happen in politics.  Crazier things seem to happen in Idaho politics, did you see the GOP Gubernatorial debate last May?  It went viral around the country thanks mostly to the participation of Harley Barnes and Walt Bayes who are summed up by Washington Post:

With his bushy white beard and khaki shirt, Walt Bayes looked like a slender Santa Claus on spring break as he thundered Bible verses from the podium. And then there was Harley Brown. Clad in a black leather vest, hat and gloves, the engineer biker with a more manicured white beard and missing teeth looked like a bad Santa. And he sounded like one, too. “I’ve got a master’s degree in raising hell” was one of the many gasp-worthy things uttered during the hour-long debate.

So after two years of living here I no longer get surprised with the antics of our legislature and politicians. Not surprised, but still frustrated and saddened.  It struck again this week.  House Bill 1 was being heard by the House State Affairs Committee.  This bill was attempting to have the Idaho giant salamander named as the state amphibian.  8th grader Ilah Hickman was even on hand to present why she thought this was important, and she had the backing of several voices on the committee who tried to move the legislation to be sent to the House floor… but, no.  This is Idaho.  The legislation lost – again.  And then in words I will not soon forget I read the words Representative Ken Andrus said to her:

When I grew up, when I was a young boy, in our swimming hole, there were salamanders, and we called them water dogs… and I learned to despise them. To me, and to my fellow youth, they were ugly, they were slimy, and they were creepy.  And I’ve not gotten over that. And, so, to elevate them to a state symbol and status of being the state amphibian, I’m not there yet.

Really?  You grew up thinking they were ugly, and 60-70 years later you aren’t over how ugly those salamanders were so you can’t allow this species of salamander, mostly unique to Idaho, to become our state amphibian???

This makes me almost unbearably sad.  I read this the next day and sat dumbfounded and dismayed.  This is where I live?  We are so governed by our fears and dislikes that can’t put aside a childhood impression of a salamander?  How are we supposed to address more engrained problems like systemic racism, gender discrimination, the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender neighbors, and religious intolerance?  When I was a child I had irrational fears – it’s part of being a child.  I grew up in an old Midwestern farmhouse with a large unfinished basement.  Like so many kids I was convinced that unspeakable things lived under the stairs to our basement.  We also had playroom in the basement that required me to traverse those stairs daily.  And you know what?  I ran.  Every day I went down those stairs as if the devil was on my heels… because I was CONVINCED that was exactly the kind of plight I was in.

But guess what?  The place under the stairs in our basement?  It was not a den of inequity.  It was not a place of horrible monsters or great evil – I know it, and you know it.  But little Andy didn’t.  I grew up.  I saw the world different.  I learned to confront my fears to gain new understanding and appreciation for that which was outside my comfort zone. In fact that process took me to mission work in the Philippines and chaplaincy in large public (and very urban) hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.  Experiences that became formative, if not fun for this introverted shy boy who grew up in a sheltered suburban community, because they challenged me and helped me grow.  They made me see the world differently and with much more perspective than an eight year old version of myself was ever capable of.  In fact, they made me see the world with more perspective than 38 year old me is capable of, and with more perspective than 78 year old Andrew will be able to manage.  That is why we need community and diversity to help us understand things we aren’t naturally going to know anything about.  This is how we grow, change, and become wiser versions of ourselves.  We confront the other, and become known and we come to know it or them, and our sense of neighbor grows bigger.  Our world becomes bigger.

And we all have such stories.  At least I hope so.  But maybe not.  Maybe we all have some things we can’t, or won’t, change our mind about.  Maybe we all have our “salamander.” Maybe we all have something or someone that we refuse to get to know.  We refuse to let go of our presupposed opinions and allow ourselves to be changed by them.  Maybe Ken Andrus’ statement is the most apocalyptic and helpful words that have come to me in a long time.  Because, you see, he was willing to be unveiled about a “thing” in a way he would never be about a person.  He was able to be honest, because he didn’t have to care about a salamander.  But most of our salamanders are people.  People whose faith we have judged as ugly or destructive.  People who we have decided don’t work hard or well and therefore deserve their lot.  People whose priorities are different than ours and we decide they are dysfunctional or irrational or wrong or… an abomination.  I have heard those words used recently, by a law-maker… of a person.  Talk about your “salamander!”

If there is to be hope in this world, we have got to let go of our unchecked and unconfronted biases and fears.  We have got to sit down with our “salamanders” and learn about them and let them learn about us and find a way forward together.  Most of those biases are not our fault.  They were handed on to us by instinct, by friends or family, by society as whole.  They were kneaded into the dough we are made with and they are a part of us. They are so ingrained into our being that we react out of those fears and biases without knowledge: as one wired to feel and believe certain things without thought.  We should not feel guilty because we have bias toward or against something or someone.

And yet.  Setting that guilty and shame aside, we cannot stop there.

It is when we stop there that we incur responsibility.  When we refuse to confront and learn and do the disciplined hard work of rewiring our biases?  That is on us.  I have never met a person, nor do I ever expect to, who didn’t have some fears, who didn’t have some jaded understanding of someone else, who didn’t have bias.  But I also hope never to meet people who aren’t working to address them. Walk down the stairs, maybe get a friend and go under the stairs – have a picnic there!  Meet people outside your normal network and learn how to care for them as a neighbor.  Make your world bigger, more informed, and more understood by being willing to sit down with “others” and make them companions.   Learn to appreciate salamanders!

Because fear of “salamanders” is leading us down dark roads toward a scary future.  And I don’t want to live in that future! We all owe it to each other to work toward something better: more caring, more understanding, more whole.

What and who and where are your salamanders, and what are you prepared to do about it?

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About Andrew Kukla

I am the proud father of four wonderful children, loving husband to Caroline, brother to three mostly wonderful sisters, and son of two parents that gifted me with a foundation of love and freedom. I also am a Presbyterian pastor and former philosophy major with a love of too many words (written with many grammatical errors and parenthetic thoughts), Soren Kierkegaard, and reflections on living a life of discipleship that is open to all the challenges, ups and downs, brokenness and grace, of a chaotic and wonderful life founded upon the love of God for all of creation.

Posted on January 22, 2015, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks for naming it…

  2. Nice essay, even without mention of the irony that the same House State Affairs committee that kiboshed the amphibian will be hearing arguments for (and against) adding the words this coming week. The basement stairs that were not a “den of inequity” brought that to mind.

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