• All About Pain: The Toughness Fallacy

    I don’t know what the weather is like where you are, but it’s cold, rainy and windy here by me so I’ll use that as my excuse for being a Debbie Downer here. Cuz we’re going to talk about pain today. Then again, if you are the sort of person who only wants to read about unicorns making skittles droppings, you probably aren’t reading my blog. So just another day here in The Upside Down World.

    It seems to me that when Christians talk about pain they talk about it either very existentially, “why does God allow suffering?”, or we talk about it very personally, “let me tell you my story about being in pain”. We start from the assumption that pain is a valid, important topic, but even our most sincere efforts to address pain from either an existential or personal perspective tend to fall short. When they do, we almost always turn to attempting to minimize or dismiss other people’s pain. And let’s not even talk about the nonsense that comes out of our mouths when we try to moralize about pain or the behavior of people in pain!

    In order to do better, we need a better understanding of what pain is, how it works, why it matters. Which includes getting rid of several dangerous misconceptions about pain. Even people who are personally familiar with suffering tend to believe a lot of false, unhelpful things about pain. Nearly all of us internalize our culture’s prejudices, erroneous assumption and ignorance about suffering and when life goes south, these internalized ideas just make things worse.

    Obviously, this is a subject which could be a book, but you’ll just have to make do with a few blog posts. And I’m not even going to put them in the right order, so nya!

    Anyhow, I wanted to start today by addressing probably the most common misconception about pain. That is once you’ve been in serious pain, additional pain will not affect you as much. You will have gotten used to it. Continue reading

  • Black and White Drug Dealers in America

    Late last Saturday night, my husband and some friends were driving home when there was an accident a ways ahead of them. A piece of debris from the accident punctured the gas tank of our family’s only vehicle. Which, of course, we had used our last pennies to pay off the day before. Because, of course.

    On the upside, one of my husband’s friends has stepped up and is driving him to and from the bus stop while they work on replacing the damaged gas tank. He took my husband to buy the replacement, brought over the tools needed and has spent at least 6 hours so far on our cold, filthy garage floor helping my husband remove the damaged tank. Obviously, he’s a very good friend.

    However, about 15 years ago, he was our town drug dealer. He sold everything, but particularly cocaine and meth. And he had become a meth user himself. He says that the first time he tried meth, he felt so good that he thought, “this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.” Big ambitions.

    He was still in high school at the time and one day, just a few months short of his 18th birthday, he was caught on school grounds with a large quantity of drugs and cash in his car. At this point, his fate was in the hands of the county prosecutor.

    There were enough drugs and cash in the car that it was obvious he was the source of a lot of the drugs being used in the area. And he had been found with them on school property, during school hours. He was close enough to his 18th birthday to be charged as an adult with multiple felonies and sent away for a long time. In fact, the DA and the local police would be able to make some real political hay with the case. Plus could hold a press conference with the drugs and cash laid out on a table, announcing that they had just taken out a major player in the local drug trade. Continue reading

  • Colonizing Cities for White American Jesus

    No one likes to think of themselves as racist or prejudiced. Even the KKK denies being a racist organization. Which for some people just affirms the deeply held idea that there’s something wrong with people of color. If there wasn’t something wrong with them, people of color wouldn’t have so many problems now that racism isn’t a problem. How can racism be to blame when there are no more racists among us?

    Of course, racism and the residual effects of centuries of being raped, robbed and pillaged continue to be an issue. If we’d ever like to get to the day when there really are no racists among us, we need white people to be a lot less clueless. Like, for example, we need for this to become unthinkable, particularly for Christians:

    When I asked the white pastor of a large suburban multi-campus church to . . . reflect on whether he has earned the right to do ministry among the oppressed, he responded by saying, “Obviously, the pastors [of color] that are already in the community aren’t more qualified to minister in that neighborhood than I am. If they were, they’d have made a bigger impact by now. They’ve had their chance. Now it’s mine.”

    Or this:

    One older African-American pastor said he’s heard chilling reports of meetings, in which representatives from many of the suburban churches have gathered around a map of the city and marked each church’s “territory,” as if Buffalo was theirs to divvy up. The indigenous leaders were not invited to these meetings, nor have they been contacted by these churches. It’s as if they don’t exist, their churches don’t exist, and their expertise doesn’t exist.

    Those quotes come from a really excellent article by Christina Cleveland called “Urban Church Planting Plantations” which ought to be required reading for every suburban pastor. And for you too. It’s super good.

    I had heard talk of urban church planting and knew that most such church plants fail miserably. Often they become money holes for the church supporting them. Even relatively successful ones find that instead of ministering directly to poor, struggling communities, they are attracting a crowd that doesn’t actually live in the area the church is supposed to be ministering to.

    In fact, the last church our family was seriously involved in was an urban church plant supported by a large, predominantly white denomination. They had a long history of working for racial reconciliation and so did better than most. They hired African American pastors and ministers who were at least somewhat familiar with the community. They were even paying for additional education and training to bring the pastors up to the denomination’s standards. But at the same time, we were driving 40 minutes each way to get there. Urban ministry is much harder than Pastor “It’s my turn” thinks.

    Continue reading

  • least_of_these

    The Least Have the Answers

    Back when I was pregnant with my oldest son, I wound up without a place to live. The counselor at the crisis pregnancy center which was helping me navigate this time reluctantly referred me to a homeless shelter/half-way house for single moms as a last resort. She didn’t come right out and say it, but my sense was that she was none too impressed with the way the program there was run.

    And she was right. In the year and a half that I lived there, not one of the women who went through the program was able to move from the shelter into independent living. They were all either kicked out or ended up moving into another unstable setting to get away. When I asked the social worker who we met with regularly, she could only think of one former resident who had moved on to independent living after her time there. And that was because she had scored a section 8 voucher. Given that the stated goal of the program was to move single moms from homelessness to independent living, this was kind of a big deal.

    A few months after I moved in, the leadership of the program announced that they were re-hauling the program and the house rules women had to abide by. They asked us to write down any suggestions we had for how to make the program more effective and our lives better. Me being me, I wrote a very long, thoughtful list of changes that I thought would help, complete with explanations.

    Several months later, the board of the organization put out the new rules. Of all the suggestions I and other women in the program had made, just one was adopted; we would now be allowed to have Christmas trees. Not only were none of our suggestions adopted, but the new rules actually moved in the opposite direction of what we had said would be helpful to us.

    After the new rules were implemented, women cycled in and out of the program faster than before. I was eventually kicked out for taking on a second job without discussing it with the social worker. My now-husband arranged for me and our son to sleep on a his friend’s pull-out sofa for a few months while I tried to find someplace safe that would rent someone under the age of 25 with bad credit. I had never met the woman before I showed up with my bags and kid.

    The people who ran the program, when asked about their lack of success in reaching their stated goal, would sigh and say it just shows how hard it is to work with people who wind up in trouble. Frankly, if your program is unable to help a compliant, college educated young woman from an upper-middle class background, who doesn’t party, has worked continually since age 10 and has never been in trouble with the law to get on her feet, it’s safe to say that your program doesn’t work.

    The reason I’m sharing this story is to illustrate why it is we as a society cannot solve the problems we face. The problem with this program was the same problem that nearly all programs meant to help those in need have. It was designed and run by successful people according to their experiences and assumptions about how the world works. And that’s why that program didn’t work and why most government social programs don’t work and even why so many schools don’t work.

    We have this tendency to think that if we want something fixed, we should listen to people who are successful. It makes a certain sense. If you’ve succeeded, then you know how to succeed and can share the answers with others who would like to succeed.

    However, before I became a homeless, single mom or got involved with the man from a bad family who is now my husband, I came from a family of 2%ers. My dad and his three siblings all have masters degrees. His dad was trained at Harvard by the Army during WWII and went on to be president of a company. Two of my mom’s siblings are multi-millionaires. So, I was born, bred and raised among successful people.

    I’ve seen people at both the top and at the bottom, up close and personal. And I have a secret for you; if you want answers for how to help people who are struggling and failing, don’t ask successful people. Ask the people who are struggling and failing.

    The answers which successful people have for how to overcome adversity are the same answers that everyone has. They don’t have anything unique to offer in that respect. They also don’t have any real understanding of the problems people face.

    In fact, I can say from experience, when you are successful it’s hard to grasp that there really are problems. It’s hard to understand why what made you successful won’t work for everyone else. From the vantage point of the sort of person who makes rules, starts programs and runs things, the problem must be with the people – they just aren’t willing to do it right.

    People on the bottom have answers that people on the top don’t. They know why people aren’t doing it right. They know what the obstacles to doing it right are. They know the obstacles people face even when they are doing it right. They know what people need in order to overcome those obstacles. In fact, if you look at the few social programs which are working, nearly all of them are run by people from the bottom.

    Of course, we humans aren’t in the habit of listening to people at the bottom. They are losers, failures, suspect. What do they know about how to suceed? If they were so smart, they wouldn’t be in a position of needing help, right?

    The governing board of the shelter I was at didn’t listen to any of the opinions of the women living there in good part because they didn’t trust us. They were like multi-millionaire lawmakers who are reluctant to build a safety net, lest people lose the drive to support themselves. They thought our goal was to avoid being responsible and disciplined and saw it as their job to force responsibility and discipline on us. They couldn’t imagine that we might understand our problems better than they did. They were sucessful people with families and homes. We had failed at life before we had even started. Clearly, they knew better than we did.

    This is a common problem; even when people at the bottom can make their concerns and ideas heard, we don’t trust them enough to listen. We look for any excuse to ignore, discount and disagree. We refuse to consider that perhaps the people at the bottom are able to see things that people at the top don’t. We refuse to believe that the world is so hostile or the odds so stacked. And frankly, we often refuse to listen to people at the bottom because the problems they point to seem too large and intractible to be solved.

    The thing is that while successful people rarely understand what the problems are, successful people often have skill sets, networks and experience that people at the bottom don’t have. And those things can be incredibly valuable. Someone at the bottom often knows just what needs to be done to help people, but lacks the skills, networks and experience to make that happen. So it’s not that successful people don’t have anything to offer.

    We all know that Jesus said that his followers were to serve those in need and to consider the last to be first and the first to be last. Usually, we see this as a call to alleviate suffering, show compassion and grow in love. Which is certainly true. But I also think that these teachings are a bit of a trail of crumbs he left for us as well. That he knew the answers to the problems we face would be found among the least and not the greatest. Besides, Jesus said that what we do for the least of these, we are also doing for him. Might Jesus who says if we love him, we will listen to his words, also expect us to listen to, learn from and take seriously what the least have to say? It is very much how his upside down Kingdom works, no?

  • black faces 1224_s31

    Stuff I Appreciate About Black Folks

    Hey – want to watch me stick a fork in an electric outlet? ‘Cuz that’s pretty much the same thing as being a white person who talks about black folks, right? Or at least some would have you think so. But I’m going to do it, because African Americans are forever getting dumped on in our society and are rarely called out for all the things that are great about them.

    Now, before I get started, allow me to provide proper cover for myself. For those not in the know, I’m married to a black man. I have 5 mixed race kids and two African American stepsons. So if nothing else, my “I have black friends” creds are actually solid. (I’ve written more about my experience with race here and you can learn more about my $.99 ebook on race in American here.) Of course, there is as much variety among black folks as among any other group of people. I’ve known sweet, shy, reserved black women and loud, sassy, confrontational black women. Macho black men and nerdy black men. And the things I’m going to list here aren’t universal. There are always people who go against the grain. But as a general rule, these are things which I have observed to be common among black folk I have known that are not nearly as prevalent among the white folks I have known.

    Of course, every positive trait has a dark side when pushed to far. My goal isn’t to idealize African Americans, but like I said, we continually dump on black folks and discuss problems in the black community. For this post, I’m just focusing on things which I personally appreciate about black folks I have known. So having properly covered my ass, here goes:

    1. They respond to your problems with grace and understanding.

    Probably because black folks have had to deal with so many really serious, awful problems for so long, they aren’t particularly phased by your problems. Usually they’ve heard or seen it all before – and worse. And if your life is going to hell because you did something wrong, well, the black folks I’ve known probably disapprove of your dumb choices as much as anyone else. But they also know that you’re the one who is going to have to live with the consequences of your dumb choices, so there’s really no point in piling on. Better to help you move forward than waste time berating you much less exacerbate the problem by turning you out. In my experience, if your life goes all to shit, you’re much better off going to your black friends or a black church for support than to your average middle class white person or church. Continue reading

  • race

    The American Race and Race

    Gather ’round, folks. Auntie Becky is going to tell you a story. A metaphor really, about race in America. And about the American Dream.

    Imagine for a moment, a long relay race where for generations it has been considered acceptable and in some cases even required to break the limbs of a one group of people trying to run the race. The people thought this was OK. After all, it wasn’t long ago that this group of people had been used as horses to pull everyone else’s carts around the track. At least they were free of that back-breaking work. Now, they just had to contend with some needed cobbling. To keep the race running smoothly. Make sure the people who have been running the race so diligently for generations don’t lose any hard-earned ground. Anyone who resists the “in group’s” right to break bones is killed, so that keeps everything on an even keel. Not a bad system, really.

    Of course, people with broken bones do not do very well in the race. Pretty quickly there are people lying all over the place with broken bones and deformities from past breaks which were never set properly. Many people in that group will simply stop trying to participate in the race. Maybe even set up little shanty towns around the track to do the best that they can outside of the race. The more ambitious set up little lemonade stands along the track and play music for the people running by to keep themselves out of the darkest, scariest parts of the shanty towns. A few are fast enough to elude those who would break their bones, but these would be few and far between. The track is littered with those who tried to be one of the fastest few but got caught. Their broken bones and mutilated corpses remind the out group not to try to hard or rebel against the natural order of things.

    Now, let’s say that after a very long time, once most of the people who are able to run the race are pretty well ahead, that people start to come to their senses and decide that it is wrong to break the limbs of the out group. So they ban limb breaking. From that point forward, a person’s success or failure in the race will depend on their efforts and abilities. Continue reading

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    Do You Think I Should Send This?

    Dear Bertha*,

    I am writing to let you know that my daughter mentioned to me today that on several occasions now your daughter Suzi-Q has made derogatory comments to her regarding her half-black heritage. The poor thing even tried claiming that you had told her that you didn’t like black people too. I knew you would want to know about this right away so you can talk to Suzi-Q about not repeating every ridiculous thing she hears some ill-bred child on the playground saying. And of course, we wouldn’t want other, more credulous people to catch wind of her claim that you don’t like black people. I’m sure that she’ll never repeat such nonsense again once she understands that people will assume she is being raised by repugnant trailer-park trash who doesn’t deserve to breathe the air that the Good Lord provides us. I mean, obviously I’ve known perfectly fine people who live in trailer parks and it’s completely possible for scummy filth to reside in a lovely home like your own. But you know how people can be with their ridiculous stereo-typing and absurd assumptions based on the shallowest of pretenses. We’ll just have to hope Suzi-Q’s unfortunate statements haven’t gotten back to anyone else and harmed your family’s good standing in the community. Continue reading

  • Privilege

    The Real Reason the Term “White Privilege” Needs to Die

    Want to start a fight? Put an honest white person and an honest person of color in a room together and tell them to discuss white privilege. “White privilege” is one of those phrases that means two totally different things to most white people and most people of color. Outside of colleges and and multi-cultural training seminars it is a complete conversation stopper that does nothing to illuminate anything and everything to sow seeds of enmity between races. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s a phrase that should be abandoned altogether.

    “Now, wait a minute, Rebecca,” I can hear some of you saying, “you’re a white person married to an African American. You’ve even written a book which is enormously sympathetic to the perspectives and experiences of African Americans and quite critical of whites inability/unwillingness to deal with those perspectives and experiences. How can you speak so negatively of ‘white privilege’? Isn’t it just a reality?”

    And that’s just it. If I as an extraordinarily sympathetic white person who can offer hundreds of examples of the ways that racism has affected my husband – who is just one man! – hear the phrase “white privilege” and get my hackles raised, then clearly there’s a problem. And frankly, I really don’t think that the problem is with me. The problem is with the language involved. Continue reading

  • What a white girl knows about race

    Maybe they were right!

    I am the whitest of the white girls.  I just am.  I’m cool with that.  One of my black girlfriends told me that when she had moved to the Chicago area back in the 80′s my hometown was one of two places she was told by her mother to avoid ever being in.  Before going to high school, the only african american I had ever spoken to was working at a store.  But, one of the first people I met at the Catholic high school I attended was Elaine, an African American from Joliet, a small industrial city about 30 minutes from my home.  We were both in the honors program, so we had most of our classes together and we hit it off.  We shared a wicked sense of humor and spent inordinate amounts of class time writing long notes whose main purpose was to get the other person to laugh out loud while reading it.  I can’t believe we never got caught! 

    We never really talked about it, but there were differences.  We were BBFs (Best Buddies Forever), not BFFs.  Mostly she ate lunch with the other black kids and it never occurred to me that she would do otherwise.  It’s got to be hard spending all day surrounded by people who can’t really “get” you and may not even like you no matter how good or nice or cool or talented you are.  I’d want a break too. 

    Looking back, I realize that I was white-girl clueless in a way that a less tolerant and kind person might have been unwilling to deal with.  Continue reading

  • blk-father

    A Letter to a Young Black Man

    I hope he doesn’t mind me doing this, but I have a stepson who is going through some stuff right now.  And while on my walk yesterday, I felt God put this message on my heart for him.  I’d like to post it here as well because I know that there are so many young men who need to hear it.  I realize that young black men aren’t exactly my target demographic, so anyone who wants to should feel free to pass it on as they see fit.  I just ask that my name be included.

    Andrew, I saw your post from earlier and wanted to check and see if you are OK.  I have been meaning to write you anyways because yesterday when I was out walking, God put a message on my heart that I think he wanted me to pass on to you.  It’s about how important you are.  I’m sure you’ve been told before that you are important, but I’m also sure that you don’t actually believe it or have any idea how true it is.  You can’t.  Because no matter how often you may have been told that you are important, so much of what you have seen in real life has told you that men, black men in particular, are only problems.  You’ve never consistently seen men be important and good.  You’ve seen women raise their kids without fathers and carry the majority – if not all – of the financial load for their families.  And this isn’t to rip on your mom, but her choosing to keep your dad from playing a meaningful role in your life must have screamed to you that fathers were optional.  And if your own father is optional, then how could you not be as well?  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Not only are you not optional, you are absolutely essential.

    We talked earlier in the week about trashy girls trying to find love in ways that will only leave them angry and bitter and alone and probably with a kid or two in tow to boot.  But even with young women you know who aren’t trashy, how many of them know what it’s like to be loved properly by their fathers?  They may know that they don’t want to go the way of the bootie girls, but if they’ve never seen a man really love a woman (ideally their mothers), they don’t really know what to look for either.  They are just smart enough to recognize a particularly ridiculous losing strategy.  Even your own mother or other older women you know.  How would they be different if they knew they were loved by a man who was good and who they could depend on?  Would they be softer?  More free?  Strong without so many hard edges?  Less defensive?  Better mothers?  None of the women you know can do for themselves or their children what you can do for them as a man.  (And to be clear, this is hardly a black problem.  Whites and Hispanics and Asians and purple people are all suffering from the same problem.  Its just particularly acute in the black community.  Which simply means that the black community is more ripe and ready for young men like yourself to bring change.)

    Now, it’s not right or fair that you are coming onto the scene so late in the game that its been generations since it was common for families to work the way they need to work.  And you have no one to show you the way.  But when it’s most dark and its most desperate, that’s when the heroes start to show up.  And that’s what you are called to be: a hero.  Which probably sounds overwrought and ridiculous.  But its not.  Just by committing to being a good. loving man, you will change the world in ways that will reverberate through communities and generations and heaven itself.  Your children and the woman you commit to will depend on it.  And there will be girls who see you and know what they should be looking for when they seek a loving man.  And there will be boys who see you and know that they too can be better and do better and that they really are important.  There will be other men who are ready to quit who will see you and get the shot of courage they need to try and stay the course.  And in time, as others in this generation take up the work of being good. loving men, the rest of the world will see those with no role models and no reward doing things differently and maybe the rest of us won’t have to go as deeply down the hole of family destruction and expendable men as what has been pretty normal for you and your peers.  This is really important work that only young men like yourself like you can do.  You’re like Frodo with the ring or Luke Skywalker facing Darth Vadar; only you can do what needs to be done to set things right.

    And its not going to be easy.  Most of us have this fantasy that if we are doing the right things, the people around us will see it and applaud it and God will give us favor.  In reality, the opposite is true.  If people see what you are trying to do, they will be suspicious.  They will insist that they don’t need or want what you are trying to offer because they don’t trust it or think that they’ve been getting along just fine without you or any other man.  Some guys who don’t want to have to work that hard or be that serious and deny themselves easy pleasures will be unhappy that you’re, as they say, “raising the price of pussy”.  And you have to be really, really strong to do great things in hard times so the enemy will be allowed to interfere so that you can get strong enough fighting him off to persevere and finish the race.  It’s hard.  But we need you.  Life cannot continue as it has been.  You have suffered enough and seen enough people around you suffer to know that for life to continue as it has been is completely unacceptable.  It cannot be allowed to continue to be this way!

    I know you were brought up in the church, but I don’t have any real idea what, if any, relationship you have with God.  But I do know that God specifically offers the things that you need.  He is father to the fatherless.  In Isaiah he says, “Can a mother forget the baby she has nursed at her breast? Even if a mother forgets her own child, I will not forget you.  See, I have carved your name in the palm of my hand.”  And he’s the role model you don’t have but need.  Let me show you how this works in a way that may be helpful to you where you are at right now.  From what I have seen, you seem to be someone who feels emotions very intensely.  I do as well.  There are moments when I feel like my pain is going to destroy me.  God is the same way.  There is a passage in one of the epistles where it says that Jesus prayed with loud cries and shouts.  This is not the way that a happy, serene, untroubled man prays.  Jesus went off to pray by himself regularly (a good example) and he would be so upset that his disciples sitting off at a distance could hear him crying and yelling at God.  So, I follow Jesus’ example and bring my pain to God.  Over and over and as dramatically as I need to.  Its also helpful for me to realize that Jesus wasn’t too keen on being here sometimes.  Because sometimes, I just don’t want to be here anymore either.  It’s too hard and painful and unfair and the rewards are too meager compared to the suffering.  Remember when Jesus asked how long he would have to put up with the fools he was surrounded with after one of the disciples said something particularly stupid?  He knew what it was like to think that being here just wasn’t worth it.  God doesn’t just know what you’re going through because he sees you going through it.  He knows because he’s experienced it as well.  And you can look to see how he handled things to figure out what you can do to overcome.

    One last secret I’m going to pass on to you.  Learn to pray for the right things.  So often we are discouraged and lose faith because we are in dire need and we pray and nothing happens.  Or we are doing the right things and find ourselves in a gutter instead of at the mountain top.  I’m struggling with this right now and its heartbreaking and frustrating and I have no answers for it.  But what I do know is that every spiritual blessing or gift I have ever asked for has been given to me.  And when I needed to change some part of my character or heart, if I just kept bringing my failures to God and asking for his help to do differently, He changed me.  Which is going to be vital for you.  Because if love is what we do rather than who we are learning to be, it won’t last.  Love has to come out of who you are learning to be or it will be crushed when its rejected or too hard or you fail again.  But if its part of who you are, it will just keep coming up out of you until it has worked its magic.

    So that’s the message I have for you.  You can take it, leave it or run screaming from the crazy white lady who’s trying to tell you what to do!  It’s up to you.  But I have one last warning before I leave you alone.  A hero doesn’t do things the way that everyone else does.  So, please don’t think that what I’m telling you is the same old “men need to take up their leadership position” bullshit that people spout and humanity’s been trying for millennia.  It doesn’t work.  Your mission is to love.  Pure and simple.  And not the kind of love that says “this hurts me more than it hurts you” or “I did this because I love you.  Now be grateful” or any of the other crap you’ve seen passed off as love.  Love is patient, kind, forgiving, tolerant and rarely pushed to anger.  It is not bossy or demanding or proud of itself.  It doesn’t point out other’s mistakes, but notices what is good about them and builds people up for those good things.  And it doesn’t quit.  Which is why it always wins in the end.  Because you don’t lose until you quit the game.  And even if you quit the game, you can always go back in.  Which is why I know that even someone like you who has already made mistakes and has no role model and has been told his whole life that people like you are more trouble than they are worth can do what God has given you to do.

    Hang in there, Andrew!


    PS I would highly recommend that you head over to my blog and take a look at a post I recently wrote called “Godly Submission”.  What the church has taught about men and women and submission has done much more harm than good and I think you might find it helpful in finding a different way of understanding how to relate with women in this regard.  Here’s the link: http://wp.me/pa4Ae-93