“Twixt Cup and the Lip: Intent, Impact, and Stuff I Learned at the Recent Police Training”

A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
Baby, do you understand me now?
Sometimes I feel a little mad.
But don’t you know that no one alive can always be an angel?
When things go wrong, I seem to be bad.
But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good:
Oh Lord! Please don’t let me be misunderstood …

—from “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”
first recorded by Nina Simone in 1964
and The Animals in 1965


The Sermon:
“Twixt Cup and the Lip: Intent, Impact and Stuff I Learned at the Recent Police Training“

When I meet with couples before their wedding, I tell them that I will perform a lifetime of free marital counseling with every wedding I perform. I know that every couple, at one time or another, can benefit from counseling. I warn these couples that the counseling I provide is not very good marital counseling…but, then again, it’s free!

Actually, I do have a small and pretty good toolkit of pastoral counseling skills that can be quite useful. I have recently become aware of a new tool and I’ll devote most of this sermon to describing it, but first of all – briefly described – here are a few of the tried-and-true tools in my kit. Most of these tools I learned in training with the late rabbi Ed Friedman who was a pioneer in what’s called “family systems” therapy. A family systems approach looks at the context of family relationships rather than the isolated individual presenting the problem. So rather than focus on the troublesome teenager or the difficult spouse – and trying to get them to change their behavior – a family systems approach might try to figure out who in the system is actually capable of making a helpful change and, in so doing, positively influence the problematic relationship. This is a little bit like training your dog: often it’s not the dog who gets trained but the dog’s owner!

The underlying principle is to encourage people to become more self-differentiated:

• To enlarge one’s capacity to separate oneself from all the confusing surrounding emotional processes (“to put on one’s own oxygen mask before attempting to help someone else”)…not to enmesh or triangulate;
• to become clearer about one’s own principles and vision;
• to be more willing to be exposed and be vulnerable;
• and also to develop the fortitude and persistence to face resistance and sabotage.

One of recommendations I learned from Friedman is to learn to hear the sound of crap hitting the fan as…applause! (that’s developing the persistence to face resistance and sabotage).

Anyway, if ever you come to me for counseling it’s likely that I might recommend, for example, insensitivity training. It’s counter-intuitive, perhaps, but often one person is so enmeshed with another person that they over-react to the other person’s every little twitch. Parents and kids, spouses…. Sometimes couples need a little distance between them if they are to grow closer! If you want to become a better parent, one of the first things to do is to stop reading so many books about how to become a better parent! This just might help clear your head.

Another principle is that one person ought not take more responsibility for another person than that person takes for themselves. “The kids who do the best,” Friedman advises, “are those whose parents own self-esteem is least invested in their kids’ success.” The trick, once again, is to somehow stimulate each person’s innate gyroscope and healthy sense of self. Last week Megan preached about empathy and I teased her that today I would refute that sermon. I’m not really refuting it, but – you know – sometimes too much empathy is not a good thing. Instead of mind-melding and taking on another’s problems as if they were your own, sometimes it’s better to find a way for people to take responsibility for themselves!

And so I encourage people to build up their own immune system, to reduce inflammation, not to chase after people who have no interest in communicating, not to cut off relationships but to leave the door open. I encourage people to learn the skills of being what Friedman calls “a non-anxious presence.” You can be an anxious presence; you can also be non-anxious and absent; but the ideal is to be both non-anxious and present…a non-anxious presence.

Those are some of the tried-and-true tools in my pastoral toolkit, but this sermon is about another important skill and that is to distinguish the difference between intention and impact. Intention is one thing; impact can be altogether different. “Just because I didn’t mean it to hurt doesn’t mean it didn’t.” Impact matters more than intention; whatever our intentions, what ultimately matters is our impact.

Interestingly, though it applies in many many circumstances, distinguishing intention and impact is a crucial matter in inter-racial understanding and awareness. I’ve previously commended to you Debby Irving’s book, Waking Up White (and she will be speaking here in early April), and in it she devotes a chapter to intention and impact. She says, “Race need not be a factor for intent-versus-impact moments to erupt. Everyone can cite examples of times when their intentions have been misunderstood or they’ve misunderstood another’s. Recently I asked my husband the simple question, “Did you empty the dishwasher yet?” My intention was to find out if my favorite coffee cup was clean. Bruce, however, felt as if I were monitoring him. Regardless of my intention the impact was that he felt nagged and pissed off. The way I meant it, and the way he heard it, were miles apart. Race adds an especially challenging layer….”

So, although intent-versus-impact may influence our dishwasher habits and a million other things in our everyday lives, bear with me as I’m going to illustrate this by telling you about a police training that Megan, Josh, and I participated in a few weeks ago. Several others among us were also there: Margot Fleishman, Marilou Barsam, Sue Baldauf, as well as other representatives of the town and our schools.

This was an unprecedented event: police trainings, you know, are usually behind closed doors, no civilians. The background here is that, in light of Ferguson and Baltimore and Cleveland and all the rest, in the fall Massachusetts had its first-ever mandatory training for all chiefs of police in “fair and impartial policing.” Our Chief Bongiorno (who spoke at this morning’s Lyceum) subsequently – and in part in response to the repeated vandalism of our Black Live Matter banner – decided to pass along this training to all of Bedford’s police officers and dispatchers, and he courageously invited civilians to also participate. Cambridge police commissioner Robert Haas was the lead trainer.

These times are, of course, a challenging time for police. Their job, always hazardous, is under increased scrutiny and, not surprisingly, police can be quite defensive. At the outset of the training, asked what made their job most difficult, a number of officers blamed the media for an often negative portrayals of police.

And so the training took the form of case studies, and the first presented was the arrest of African-American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. Remember, he had returned home after an exhausting 23-hour flight from China. When he got home he found the door to his Cambridge house was jammed and so, with the help of his driver, they forced open the door. A neighbor who did not know Gates observed this and called the police, reporting a suspicious man apparently attempting to break and enter. The police came and questioned an increasingly agitated professor Gates.

Eventually, the police were convinced that Gates was who he said he was and that indeed it was his own house. A tired and exasperated Gates, however, persisted in loudly accusing the police of bias until, after some time, on his own front porch, Gates was arrested for disorderly conduct and handcuffed; and the entire story instantly exploded in the damn media and even president Obama unwisely entered the fray and said the Cambridge police had acted stupidly. And when the dust finally settled, there was the famous “beer summit” at the White House that brought together Gates and the arresting officer, as well as Obama and Biden.

To their great credit, the Cambridge police were self-differentiated. I don’t think they interpreted the crap hitting the fan exactly as applause, but in a non-anxiously present way, they did ask what they could learn from this episode.

When they unrolled the events, they came to the conclusion that the police had acted exactly as they had been trained. Not only were their intentions good but their every action was proper and justified. James Crowley, the arresting officer was one of the most unbiased and exemplary officers on the entire force.

There was, however, something missing in their training. Under every circumstance, police are trained – you know – to be in control and to hold their ground. Police do not retreat.

As they reviewed the incident, however, they came to realize that – once it had been determined that Gates was in his own house and when Gates was on his front porch yelling accusations against the police – the only thing that continued to inflame and provoke matters was…the continued presence of the police! Had the police strategically disengaged, retreated and said, “Have a good day,” the problem would have ended.

De-escalation and strategic disengagement is not something that has been taught at the police academy, but is now a part of trainings that distinguish between intentions and their impact.

In a second case study, we were shown a body-camera video taken when an off-duty African-American firefighter walking at night with his two young (African-American) children in Oakland, California happened to see that the door to his fire-station had inadvertently been left open. Entering the fire-station in the dark, he was confronted by an on-duty (and white) police officer who, gun drawn, harshly ordered the man and his children to put their hands up. At first ignoring the children’s tears and the man’s pleas that he was an off-duty firefighter, the police officer ordered the man to turn around and insisted that all their hands stay in the air. Only some minutes later was the man able to produce his ID and convince the officer that he was who he said he was. The officer quickly apologized and sent them on their way…but by then the firefighter and his children were traumatized. Interviewed on the news the next day the children said they feared that their father would be shot and that they were now afraid of the police.

After watching the video at the training ω, the Bedford police officers were asked what they thought. To a person, they said that the police officer had acted by the book, that the police officer’s actions were tactically appropriate. Still there was a gap between the officer’s intentions and his impact.

In the training, we then explored whether the officer could have softened the negative impact by talking with the children or by praising their father – who after all was another conscientious public servant – or maybe the police officer could have taken them for a soda or a football game…or done something to have humanized their interaction or redeemed the impact.

At the training we also discussed the effects of stress on our judgment. Interactions with police are often stressful, especially if you’ve just come home from China or you’re with your kids and a gun is pointed at you. Gates thought he was being arrested for breaking into his own house when that really wasn’t what was happening. The Oakland firefighter and his kids never really heard the police officer say he was sorry. (We don’t really hear so well when we’re stressed both situations, the police officers intended to do the right thing and they did the right things, but still they did not fully take into consideration the impact of their actions.

Police work – don’t get me wrong – is also stressful: but the police – even if we give them a badge and a gun – they are the ones we entrust to stay self-differentiated, to be, in all circumstances, a non-anxious presence.

Policing is a very hazardous calling, and yet the days are coming to an end where their authority is based solely on their badge and their gun. More and more, it is recognized that legitimate authority comes from a community that sees that their police act in a fair and impartial manner that is trustworthy and moral and justified.

At the training, Margot observed that changes in policing are similar to changes in our relationships with health professionals. It’s no longer enough for a doctor to poke and prod you: she or he better tell you what they’re doing and why they’re poking and prodding you. And it’s not enough to just take the doctor’s word for it: I may have some questions to ask and, if I’m going to respect their professional judgment, I want some good answers. We, the patients, may well be a bit stressed out: we pay our doctors to be a non-anxious presence.

You didn’t use to talk back to members of the clergy, either. Those days are gone! These days all of you are quite capable of distinguishing between my opinion on any topic and your own opinion; and when I have an opinion, I’d better be prepared to defend it. “God told me,” or “it says so in the good book” just don’t cut it anymore.

Neither guns nor badges, nor certificates on the wall, nor pulpits, nor good intentions give assurance of authority. Authority arises instead in relationships, in trustworthiness, and in accountability for the impact of our actions.

Closing Words:

I previewed this sermon last week at Carleton-Willard and our parishioner Daisy Illich said that it all reminded her of Aesop’s Fable of the Northern Wind and the Sun:

The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveler coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveler to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin.”

So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveler. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveler wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give in despair.

Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveler, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.

Kindness affects more than severity. Impact matters more than intention.