These days it feels like our normal has become chaos, our lines have become blurry and any attempt to articulate a different perspective has become offensive. Our heroes are falling, exposed for bigotry, assault, or for remaining silent in the face of power that abuses others. At the same time, our vulnerabilities as women, people laid off, immigrants, people of color and people who need healthcare are exposed and being discussed. In making sense of how we are to live in this moment of uncertainty, I remembered a morning that restored my hope in the everyday courage and beauty of the people around me, and thought I would share it with you:
I was drinking a cup of coffee, watching the smattering of humanity who passed me by. Although I was consumed with my own junk—an unexpected trip to the mechanic left me stranded at a nearby medical clinic—I quickly snapped out of my frustration when I began to see what I was seeing. Before me walked dozens of people who were beating the odds. As I started to pay attention, I was moved to tears at the resilient heroes I witnessed walking down the hallway, nameless to me but impacting me in marvelous ways. Sometimes the best way to resist being consumed with self is to simply notice the people around you.
This is what I saw: A woman, animated by her own story, cackling with a friend while wearing a scarf to cover a bald head over sunken eyes, body wrecked from chemo. A child in sunglasses, hand linked in the crook of an elbow while navigating steps with the aid of a walking stick. A parent, leading this blind child, digging in her purse for keys, oblivious to the remarkable fact that she had empowered her daughter to function in a world hard to navigate. A man, rolling his bent and casted leg atop a scooter, moving with such ease that I realized his apparatus was the distant cousin of a child’s scooter, highlight of many Christmas mornings.
As I took these resilient people in, I faced the beautiful truth that each of them—and their families—had been devastated when the reality of their illness or impairment became apparent. And yet, somehow, these unremarkable people had found astounding doses of courage and grit and determination in order to, as Raymond Williams says, “make hope possible rather than despair convincing.” They did not stop in the awful reality of their diminished and unfair lives, but found a way forward.
In a season in which my outlook can usually be described as incredulous despair, I find myself clinging to those courageous strangers. Granted, I have lived a charmed life that led me to believe in the idea that America is the land of the free, a fabulous meritocracy where everyone is valuable and has the agency to freely act on their own behalf. I have not been assaulted, and although I have consistently been undermined as a woman, I mostly believe people are kind and generous, willing to lend a hand and access empathy for others. In the last few years, however, my illusions about who we have been, are now, or might be have been exposed as ignorant delusions. Apparently we might be a people who choose greed over compassion in huge and tiny ways. We might be a people who choose to protect our own platforms instead of advocating for vulnerable others. We might be people who think we can both “respect” women or people of color and demean them for their bodies or stereotyped proclivities. We might be people who respond to a different perspective with cynicism and blame. We might be people who are so divided—indeed, isolated into likeminded tribes—that we skeptically dismiss anyone’s experience that exposes injustice, calling it preposterous, untrue and even unpatriotic.
The profound alienation I have experienced this year stems from observations I’ve made that reveal a deep conflict in the souls of Americans. Are we committed to liberty and justice, for all, or are we committed to ‘my liberty and justice trumps your access to those rights?’ Many fundamentally reject the idea that we are a country where injustice reigns as doctrine in our laws, lending practices, access to healthcare, housing, professional advancement, education, hurricane relief and criminal justice systems. Because we don’t know each other, entire communities of people live and breathe the short stick of injustice, poverty, bigotry and hatred on a daily basis, while the other half of the country swear up and down that such things do not exist. In the wake of kneeling football players, stagnant education and employment, vanishing healthcare access and assaulted women, are we a people willing to listen, or are we a people who demand that vulnerable people have to prove how bad they really have it before we will listen?
We don’t know who we are as a nation because we don’t know each other. This lack of knowing is a product of centuries of bad habits: certain types of men have power and everyone else doesn’t, but we are not gonna talk about these gendered and racial and ethnic and sexual divides because that might delegitimize the aforementioned power. Instead, we will pretend that where inequality exists, laziness or sexiness or anger or entitlement warrant the “less-than” label.
Seeing so many resilient warriors at the medical clinic reminded me that while I am crusading on my intellectual high horse about the nature of injustice and the identity crisis of America, there are millions of people who have always known that much of our country is not committed to justice and equality. Instead, we are committed to a haughty rhetoric that defends such ideals while ignoring human beings whose lives reveal a different story.
The survivors in the clinic remind me of so many people in our own country who wake up each morning to a chorus of, “You are not welcome here,” or “you and your body exist to bring me pleasure,” or “you are demonized because I fear you,” yet somehow find the courage to get out of bed, dress their kids, and go to work determined to prove their worth. Although I did not know any of the people I watched that day, I do know many others, and I am sobered by their commitment to keep going. Just as a blind child cannot spare energy wondering what the seeing community thinks about her journey, the many Americans abused, forgotten or feared by those with power do not spend time complaining about their plight. Instead, they see the reality of American power dynamics and prove themselves worthy whether the rest of us care or not.
If you also feel overwhelmed by the numbers of women claiming #metoo, by the people dying in Puerto Rico, by the kids attending under-resourced schools, by the millions who will lose healthcare, by the blame being shouted, I’d like to suggest you get to know a person aware of their own vulnerability. We are surrounded by people who know how to keep on keeping on, and as they bravely speak up about the hardships they face, perhaps we can understand our role might be to validate their experience instead of asking them to prove it. Perhaps we can learn to watch the heroic people living around us, choosing to dignify their everyday courage instead of dismissing them when they mention the courage required to function in our America. Perhaps we can stop asking what is happening to America and instead notice who is embodying American ideals. Perhaps we can stop accusing others of dividing us and actually get to know someone from whom you are divided. Perhaps we can expand our us.