the state of us: finding waterfalls through the mud

Good stories struggle.  They have moments when it is not clear that the good guys will win, or even survive.  They have heroines who compromise or take a stand in the service of a long-term goal.  They have heroes who persevere against all odds, getting dirty in the process.  Most of us want to be part of our own good story.  Why is it then that we often lose perspective when our journey becomes imperiled?  We tend to throw up our hands, assume the end has come, and walk away. 

The presence of hard and wonderful things are not mutually exclusive.  We need to expect the setback in the midst of forward progress, for it will always come.

We Americans like to think we are models of courage and hard work, but hiding within this narrative are cynics who give up at the first sign of discouragement.  Even though we know struggle is part of all progress—often the most valuable part—we are shocked and consider quitting when we come upon unexpected struggle.  It is not unreasonable to argue that many lack the grit required to stay the course when things seem impossible.  This is why so many schools and consultants overuse the word so often.  “Grit” is the hipster version of determination.  It is the ability to stay at it even when the odds feel stacked against you. 

This idea is problematic though, because encountering difficulty is not the same thing as the odds being stacked against you.  Difficulty is part of life.  Trials come.  Life rarely moves in a linear path of ascension.  Only a collective and sustained cognitive dissonance allows us to live amidst the sadness and decay of others while expecting sunshine and roses for ourselves.  Part of the reason we struggle when we encounter difficulty is that it often catches us off guard.  We observe others, thinking, “I am so inspired by the way she struggled through that trial, learning and growing in the process to become an even better version of herself.” Upon encountering our own fraught path though, we often utter, in astonishment, “I really wanted this dream to come to fruition, but this conflict feels impossible to navigate.  I need to recognize the closed door, protect myself and walk away.”  In recognizing the stories of those around us, we nurture our ability to anticipate and live through our own roadblocks.  In addition to grit we need to develop a greater capacity to contextualize our hopes and dreams with the stories of others.

Contextualizing set backs as a part of progress has a collective impact beyond the obvious personal benefit.  As a society, we need to develop stamina for staying the course even when it is hard.  The city of Nashville, seems committed to rolling out the red carpet to every industry, developer or entrepreneur looking for a place to land. This is mostly wonderful; however, it is hard to become the “IT CITY” without displacing many of the residents of the previously “ignored city.”  Gentrification is hard.  Affordable housing is complicated.  This doesn’t mean we stop trying to find a way forward though!  Nashville is off the growth chart, and we need the grit as a society to create health in all our new dimensions. We need to contextualize the positive aspects of our growth with housing inequities and displacement, and then find the grit to keep creatively addressing our affordable housing deficit.  The presence of frustration means neither that progress is ruined or that we are powerless to correct course. 

Immigration is complicated.  According to some, we have an employment and crime crisis in America because of it.  According to others, we have inefficient court systems, mistrust between police and immigrant communities and poor oversight of employers’ hiring practices.  Recently, a new Attorney General Sessions’ policy to enforce an immigration law in the harshest possible way, while ignoring accepted protections for those seeking asylum, led to a humanitarian crisis in which kids are taken from their parents who are placed immediately under arrest.  Voices from the left and right are coming together to decry such government-initiated depravity.  However, because immigration in complicated, and we as a society typically lack the capacity to sustain effort in the face of difficulty, I am concerned we will accept this state as inevitable, soon walking away in defeat.  In this moment we need leaders who understand that terrible mistakes are part of any success.  We must listen to voices who understand that America often finds itself in unfamiliar territory with no clear solution, and then we find the grit to stay the course and keep working together.

Only a collective and sustained cognitive dissonance allows us to live amidst the sadness and decay of others while expecting sunshine and roses for ourselves.

Last week I was hiking in western North Carolina, and it was magical to watch my kids go from grumbling-whiners-forced-out-of-their-technology-caves into honest-to-God-frolickers. They frolicked. Ran and skipped and played and laughed.  They handled the ups and downs with ease, jumping from rock to rock across rivers, crossing every root, stumbles and all.  Then we approached the final ascent to the waterfall.  It was muddy and slick, dangerous even.  Quite steep.  When we got to the top, the trail became a four-inch thick sloppy mud fest.  Our shoes sank, our steps slid, and we nearly missed the majesty of the waterfall because we were covered in mud.  Most of us overlooked the mess to enjoy the beauty, but our tween immediately started demanding I replace his nice shoes.  He said it was all my fault for taking him on this dumb hike.  Grit gone.

Where did all the frolickers go? The beautiful truth is that you can’t get to the waterfall without going through the mud!  The presence of hard and wonderful things are not mutually exclusive.  We need to expect the setback in the midst of forward progress, for it will always come.

Many of us long for an encounter with beauty.  We desire meaningful success.  We strive to find peace.  But we often think we can get there without getting muddy, without losing our footing along the way.  The presence of the hard does not eliminate the possibility of the good.  Keep living in the present, taking each step, breathing in and out, and remember that every hard moment is just that, a moment.  It is not your entire story.  If you want to live a “good story” kind of life, develop a capacity for living through hard things.  It is wildly unlikely that you will find the depth of life’s beauty without encountering pain in the process.  Stop turning back, and learn to navigate the mud before the waterfall.

the state of us: how we do the darkness

This week has been hard.  Two people some of us feel we have known or appreciated for years died through violent acts of self harm.  News of suicide tends to cause suicidality in others, so this week also brought concern for those who struggle with demons of mental anxiety and illness.  A child I love very much has been terribly ill, and I have watched his parents suffer deeply with confusion, exhaustion and grief.  I have friends who lost babies, friends whose teenagers seem determined to destroy the good, friends who ache for those marginalized by power in their cities, friends who cannot get pregnant and friends whose marriages are compilations of misfires, resentments and coverups.  To quote a hilarious friend, “What in the actual hell is happening here?”

These types of weeks usually lead me to dark places.  Why is this precious child suffering so much?  Why must parents suffer with such loss?  Why does our society reward greed and ignore those wounded in the process? Why is marriage, or adulting in community for that matter, so difficult? How can a person as thoughtful and engaging and curious as Anthony Bourdain hang himself?  How can Kate Spade, who was fighting for her health with intentional intervention, and creating a new brand that gave her energy, give up on life?  

We don’t have answers to these questions, but as we try to move through such darkness I’d like to suggest three avenues of productive thought.  First, disease and un-well-ness are with us, indeed.  Second, the way we often engage each other can lead to profound loneliness.  Third, the presence of bad does not erase the presence of good in the people around us!

We are not well.  Suicide and a host of other mental and physical illnesses are on the rise.  We are obese.  We are lonely.  We are fearful.  We blame.  And yet, I think most of us live expecting to find the “good life.”  Many comfortable Americans are shocked and appalled when confronted with a hardship or roadblock.  We spent the weekend with my fabulous inlaws, and this morning, after eating his beloved made-from-scratch-by-Jojo-coffeecake, my third child was asked to take his plate to the dishwasher.  “What?!”, he retorted, “I don’t deserve this!”  Hyperbole aside, his words voice the way many of us feel when life absolutely does not turn out the way we hoped.  People get sick.  People experience devastating loss.  People are hurting all the time.  Why do we think we will be exempt from pain?  It might be helpful to evaluate our expectations, understanding that we can live with joy and hope but that injustice and disease will likely be part of our story.  

I in no way suggest pessimism or nihilism as a path forward.  Instead, I think an honest understanding of our personal and collective histories prepares us for the hard thing staring us in the face.  Rather than celebrating only stories of ascendance, of upward mobility, take the time to know your history.  You likely belong to a family, a country, or a religion that has had profound seasons of transcendence and profound moments of grief.  We are not automatons, but human beings who live and love and ache and cry and abuse and absolve and win and lose.  Tell yourself the whole story of you, and you might find you are very well equipped to walk through the dark night of the soul you now face.

If you want to know how to walk through loss, talk to a person who lives at or below the poverty line.  Talk to a person whose skin tone is deemed suspicious in America.  Talk to a person who lives off the land.  Talk to a person with chronic pain or disability.  Talk to a person who has never expected life “to be fair.”  These warriors in our midst should become our mentors.  For generations, many have faced setbacks, injustices and illnesses with little relief, and therefore developed capacities for perseverance and patience that I do not have.  When I want to know how to forgive betrayal, how to believe God is good, or how to think creatively about healing, I go to friends often overlooked by society.  We will encounter un-well-ness, and we might be better equipped if we accepted it will come, and then asked seasoned others to help us navigate the dark.

We must next acknowledge that most of the ways we “belong” do not provide real community.  Measuring our value through followers, quantifying our lives through published stories or images, feeling loved by the number of likes…these metrics fall short when we face real pain or despair.  Clicking “like” can feel like an affirmation of another’s personhood, but is it the same as meeting for a drink, asking them about their best or worst moment of the week, and then processing that narrative in real time?  Not a chance!  I am not opposing new ways of connecting; rather, I think we must at least consider our deficits if our engagement with others is mostly through social media.

Finally, remember the good.  Just because things are terrible does not mean all things are terrible.  I have had a hard week.  Nevertheless, I spent time with a cancer survivor, texted with people whose anxiety and mental illness no longer define them, remembered that a bad diagnosis does not always predict an outcome.  An older mentor held me while I sobbed.  Friends texted who knew I was hurting just to check in.  I was part of a community coming together to love those overlooked and ignored by wealth in Nashville.  I walked with a friend who told me feeling lost and unsure of where I am does not mean I will be there forever; indeed, it is likely part of my process.  A friend called who knows I need some love. 

In the midst of grief and despair—which will surely come for all of us—there are rays of light.  There are moments of hope.  Find them.  Be them for others.  Show up. Call. Embrace the awkward and get in the mire with others.  Sometimes there are no answers, but being present, witnessing pain together, feeling your way in the dark with another, can provide even more relief than an answer could.

the state of us: in defense of context, take two

A glitch in our system prevented this essay from going out. I share it here again, because context matters....

Jon Stewart is a brilliant thinker and satirist, and in my view the public sphere is less informed without his voice.  When he ran Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, pollsters claimed that a majority of millennials looked to Stewart for primary news; he was their information source.  Many older Americans decried this as a sign of the decline of our country’s intellectual rigor, or of the lack of seriousness and discernment young people possessed.  To be fair, Stewart himself adamantly claimed he was not, nor did he try to be, a trusted source for news.  He is a comedian, and that is all he claimed to be.  However, I think Stewart regularly offered us something news agencies—and most people—lack: context.

How do we come to know the things we know? Could the answer illuminate the sources of our alleged divide?  Our fractious citizenry is a result of our inability to contextualize our unique realities.  We live in circles largely segregated along economic, racial, ethnic and political lines.  These lines, invisible though they may be, are powerful, and they keep us from interacting regularly with people whose experiences and backgrounds are largely different from our own.  We love to yell about the problems this insulated living causes. “Get out of your echo chamber!” “You live in such a bubble.” “You only reached that conclusion using confirmation bias.” The list of accusations goes on, even though our divided communities ensure many of us DO live in bubbly echo chambers. 

The work of self examination required to recognize my bias, to trace its roots, and to mitigate its impact, can be exhausting.  Nevertheless, we cannot be responsible stewards of our citizenship without contextualizing our experiences with the experiences of people who live very differently than we do.  For instance, if my view of police is based on the positive experiences of white friends who live in safe, wealthy areas, then I might passionately defend all policemen as dutiful servants who are patient, respectful and levelheaded in every instance.  On the other hand, if my view of police is based on the negative experiences of black friends who live in a part of town overlooked by investment, then I might passionately accuse all policemen of being overly aggressive and suspicious, more likely to use force than to have a conversation.  Without the context of another’s point of view, our perspectives become reactionary.  In every interaction, we need to recognize our own perspectives and then intentionally contextualize those opinions with the thoughts of others.

The way we access information also demonstrates our need for contextualization.  Increasingly, we are consumers of “the media” rather than informed citizens who advocate for important ideas and people.  We are reactive to sensation, rather than intentionally engaged in the diverse realities of living in America.  I don’t blame us for this reactionary living.  The onslaught of information to which we are privy is overwhelming.  Most of us lack the capacity to curate which information is helpful or necessary, so we give that job to trending social media feeds, and to companies who own news stations and papers.  Without knowing we have done it, we allow them to decide what is necessary, or what angle matters.  Some do a better job than others at providing context for the information they share.  However, we often consume what they present as isolated fact, rather than discovering an independent, historically rooted and thoughtfully framed context.

The point here is not to demonize “the media.”  As David Dark often says,  “there is no the media.”  Rather, we are all implicated in a system that keeps us uninformed, spoon fed with snippets that make us furious, stripping away both nuance and context.  We are implicated because we consume our news in this way, like cows huddled in a corner rather than exploring the expansive field before us. 

How might we shift from passive acceptance to actively contextualizing our views of the world? A few thoughts:

1)   Take inventory of the ways you engage news.  Do you spend energy informing yourself, or do you accept arbitrary knowledge of the school board, affordable housing accessibility, limits to religious freedom, state of welfare, and the condition of your state’s guns laws? Observe your pursuit or avoidance of “news.”

2)   Think about that pursuit or avoidance.  If you avoid the news, is it because it feels too “political” and somehow dirty? If this resonates with you then know you are surely not alone. However, consider this: The ability to insulate yourself, protected from any policy decision your government makes, is a privilege not enjoyed by many who struggle pay check to pay check.  It is also worth noting here that when you make a habit of giving your political power away, it is very difficult to get it back.

3)   If you think most news sources are terribly biased, consider sampling all of them.  Rather than repeat attacks of, “Fake News!” or “They have an agenda!”, take time to listen to a variety of sources. If you believe that a certain outlet is overtly biased yet successful, it behooves the informed citizen to spend time getting to know those powerful voices.  When you listen to disparate voices it might make you angry, but it could also provide context for you to understand the many forces at play around a given issue. Such exposure might help you communicate well with people who lean differently from you.

We live lives largely contextualized by the people we know best, and by news sources we find agreeable.  Such self-referentially rooted context is no context at all, and leads to the passionate defense of positions not fully explored.  As citizens who share a country, we fundamentally understand we share spaces with others.  As long as we value only the opinions of those who are the most like us, we will continue to react badly to those who have a different way of experiencing or seeing the world.

Note well that the forces around you do not provide context; indeed, if you are weary of today’s reactionary blaming, do the work to contextualize your own experience with the experiences of others.  Contextualize your acquisition of news with outlets who spin in service of a different power.  It is the job of each of us to build a bigger table, invite others to have a seat, and then share our experiences.  If we do, perhaps we can stop reacting with anger and blame for people who dare respond differently.  Offering your story to the stories of others will bring insight to our shared concerns.  As Jon Stewart once mocked cable news, “This portion of our program is brought to you by… Context. It’s the shit you have in your tape library that gives seemingly isolated instances perspective."