all for one, and one for all...does it work?

If you are looking for a long, fabulous book to get lost in, pick up something written by Alexander Dumas.  From an exploration of revenge in The Count of Monte Cristo, to ideas of loyalty and resistance in The Three Musketeers, Dumas studies the many ways we relate to one another.  Born in the 19th century to a French nobleman and a slave woman of African descent, his origin surely impacted his view of the classist, gendered and racist society in which he lived.  Perhaps his lineage influenced his view of belonging, of what it means to trust systems that are flawed, of how one asserts value in a society that shuns.  Perhaps his unique vantage point required him to study what it means to be an insider or one excluded, to find comrades through shared experience, to expose unjust power structures. When each of my children were infants, I read long, fabulous novels that could sustain me through late nights.  I read Dumas during the infancy of my second son, whose birthday is this week.  I found The Three Musketeers luxuriously entertaining, and incredibly helpful now for those of us concerned about how we live with one another.

Dumas’ Musketeers work together to save their Sovereign and kingdom from the evil wiles of a corrupt Cardinal Richelieu.  Their cry, “All for one, and one for all!” is part of Western culture, a cry raised by children and frat boys alike.  It offers an ethic of unity, a call for a purpose held in common, and a commitment to a cause manifested through relationship.  It is also really fun. It is fun to live in a community to which one is wholly committed but for which one mustn’t forfeit oneself.  The beauty of this phrase is echoed in the long held cries of patriots that go something like: “All for God and country!”, or even the more recent pledge of my Mighty VOLS: “I will give my ALL for Tennessee today.” For the musketeers though, the cry does not ask only for total sacrifice. Instead, it demands loyalty to a cause while promising loyalty in return.  Give your all to us and we will give our all to you. 

The best American causes require the independent integrated collaboration of all of us.  Our belief that when we all work together we create lasting equitable flourishing has been replaced by the idea that the status quo is good for everyone and anyone who disagrees should be quiet.

So often our commitments require us to lose our sense of self for a cause bigger than us, but Dumas reminds us that the highest causes ensure that our best participation comes when we are “all in.”  Any cause that encourages us to divorce ourselves from our highest ethics is not a cause that promotes common welfare.  If we cannot bring our whole, integrated selves to a cause, then I would argue it is not worth pursuing. Whether about the prosperity, health, equity, safety or belonging of all, we are having conversations about how we should live together in the shared space of America right now.  Who is responsible if a member of our community falls behind?  What does society owe me, and what do I owe society? Am I my brother’s keeper? Our rhetoric often reveals a belief that I can only look out for me, because we are playing a game with one winner.  If you are doing well, I must be doing badly.  What if we listened to our musketeers instead, and started to believe that in the best societies, we can be for others precisely because others are for us?  In Dumas’ rendering, causes that protect and benefit the welfare of all do require sacrifice, but the sacrifice is contextualized by the affirmation of our entire selves, not the diminishment of me to benefit you.

Dumas’ ideal is the premise of the American ideal of democracy.  In theory, America is by and for and of the people.  It is one out of many. E pluribus unum. The best American causes require the independent integrated collaboration of all of us.  It seems to me that we have lost our way here, however. We have begun to believe that, “One for all” can only happen if “all is for a few.”  Our belief that when we all work together we create lasting equitable flourishing has been replaced by the idea that the status quo is good for everyone and anyone who disagrees should be quiet.

Perhaps we would do well to remember that we, as a nation, have protected some pretty atrocious status quos in our history.  We have learned that expanded abilities to live and speak and resist and collaborate increase prosperity.  My right to belong is not diminished by another’s right to belong.  I think Dumas might have been on to something; perhaps I am my best self when I am rooting for the interests of others.

The kids in Parkland remind me of this truth.  They are taking a terrible experience that has given them attention, and are using it to elevate the thoughtful lives of others.  They are, “all for one, and one for all.”  Last weekend, they students met with students in Chicago, who feel overwhelmed by the violence they swim around in all day.  Emma González, a Parkland student who has become a leading spokesperson for the #neveragain movement, tweeted about their meeting:

Those who face gun violence on a level that we have only just glimpsed from our gated communities have never had their voices heard in their entire lives the way that we have in these weeks alone. We all share in feeling this pain and know all too well how it feels to have to grow up at the snap of a finger…People of color in inner-cities and everywhere have been dealing with this for a despicably long time...The platform us Parkland Students have established is to be shared with every person, black or white, gay or straight, religious or not, who has experienced gun violence, and hand in hand, side by side, We Will Make This Change Together.
— Emma González

Dumas believed that the hardest, highest work requires collaboration, and that sacrificial collaboration creates belonging and purpose for those willing to dive in.  These students remind us that collaborating to resist a difficult status quo is happening all around us.  Will you willingly suspend your disbelief that all of us could flourish together? Will you consider believing the idea that it is more blessed to give than to receive?  Will you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others?  Will you join me in believing that it costs very little to be one for all, and that all for all could make America great again?

on 'free pass' people and what they teach us

Expand Your Us offers a different way to imagine ourselves and our connections to one another.  We live in troubled times, with palpable tension, easy binaries and divisiveness in the air we breathe.  Even those of us who recognize that defensiveness is destructive, that binaries destroy, or that our biases shape the way we see others fall into these traps.  If we celebrate the dignity of all others, we walk a narrow road of empathy, and the ditches of distrust on either side are large and strangely inviting.

Choosing to extend compassion and understanding to another human being is always a choice. Within our tribes, these choices are often instinctive. What if we chose kindness more often?

While this is an accurate description of who we are, it is not the full story.  We have become instinctively divisive in the way we consume news and engage others in the public sphere, and yet we continue to be good at loving our “us.”  Yes, we are often quick to demonize, caricature and misunderstand others; however, given the right circumstances, we are also quick to listen, extending grace to people who don’t deserve it.  I call them “free pass” people, because they are the select few who always get the benefit of the doubt.  Even though we are stingy with grace or understanding for people with whom we don’t agree, we all know how to care about our free pass people:

We know how to forgive instinctively, before we are asked. 

We know how to listen with empathy even when an action seems selfish or hurtful. 

We know how to lean in when we want to point a finger in judgment.

We know how to use our power to pull strings for a person who might blow the opportunity. 

We know how to be generous to people who haven’t earned it.

We love our tribe even when they are defensive, argue an irrational point, or make selfish choices.

Choosing to extend compassion and understanding to another human being is always a choice. For our free pass people, these choices are easy, even instinctive.  By observing these choices, noticing them when they happen, could we become better at intentionally choosing kindness to more people more often?  Could we realize we achieve very little when we refuse to access compassion for a large segment of society?  Could we widen our circles, extending the mercy and empathy we reserve for our tribe to others?  Could we recognize that we are part of the problem when we only value our us? 

If we blindly let our instincts decide when we choose compassion, and when we choose to demonize, we miss the opportunity to examine what empathy costs, and how it might heal.  Given our public discourse, it is easy to think we are devolving as a society.  Perhaps we need to be reminded that we already know how to care about people whose perspectives or choices infuriate us.  I have been delighted to realize that many of us are, in fact, expanding our us at an astonishing pace.

For instance, I see transformative reform in the way old divides are being erased through collaboration and resistance.  The last few years have witnessed the exposure of widespread injustice, but we are also witnessing game-changing reforms.  Black Lives Matter brought to light deep patterns of inequity in criminal justice and legal systems.  Brutality is not new, it is simply now exposed in the public sphere, and this exposure necessitated change.  While it is true that many deny injustice exists, even more law enforcement agencies are hard at work improving their relationships with ALL the communities they serve.  In fact, systems are reforming: from body cams, to prosecutors who examine their relationship to police and defendants, to engaging in restorative justice, to de-escalation training, to mental health awareness, to reforming unjust laws, to judges working with communities for fair sentencing, justice is on the move because we are listening to each other.

Similarly, the #metoo movement has exposed deep patterns of misogyny in almost every industry.  These problems are not new, they are simply coming to light in the public sphere.  Millions are teaching us that objectifying women in any way has consequences; there is no such thing as innocent locker room talk.  While some men belittle this abuse, many have listened and responded by examining their potential influence to improve the way we speak about and relate to each other.  Because of brave women and thoughtful men, behavioral norms are changing.  Children are taught differently, coaches coach differently, new staff orientations occur differently and mentors lead differently.  We are learning to honor one another.

This notion of expanding our us instead of demonizing those who dare highlight problems plaguing society is catching on.  In Nashville, a school that was chronically labeled as troubled is now being celebrated as a leader in forming community partnerships; across the nation educators have noticed the ways they collaborate with the city, families, teachers and students to reform approaches to education.  In fact, last week, the Director of Metro Nashville Public Schools and a Nashville Precinct Commander visited Pearl-Cohn, listening and partnering with school Principal Dr. Sonia Stewart, who replaces despair with hope and agency every day.  I am encouraged that our city and state officials are paying attention to our resilient students and the leaders who champion their voices!  This week, the State of Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education, Dr. Candace McQueen, publicly stated that resisting systems based on violence and fear is an important part of the educational process.  She therefore recommends that no student be penalized for participating in next week’s #nationalschoolwalkout protest.  Dr. McQueen understands that we can find hopeful paths forward when we listen to each other rather than demonizing any act of resistance.

Imagine how interconnected our society would be if we started to treat more people the way we usually treat our ‘free pass’ people.  What are the costs of expanding our “us”, so that we give others the benefit of the doubt, committing to listen, seek understanding, and extend compassion more regularly?  Granted, it might cost us our precious binaries, our approaches to others as Good or Bad.  It might cost us the chance to judge before we listen, and it will surely lower the number of people we ignore or even loathe.  I suspect that replacing judgment with generous curiosity will not just improve our connections to others, it might make hopeful peacemakers out of us all.  

look for a helper: from mr. rogers to parkland

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a children’s TV show.  Mr. Rogers celebrated neighboring and used his imagination to explore new ways of being connected to one another. Two of my favorite thinkers in Nashville—David Dark and Russ Ramsey—have mentioned Mr. Rogers in the past few weeks.  They argue, and I agree, that we can learn a lot from his neighborhood. 

Mr. Rogers’ love of imagination is evidenced by the prominent role given to The Neighborhood of Make-Believe on his show.  What if we thought of ourselves as people who share a neighborhood, instead of as defenders of a specific point of view?  What if we allowed our imaginations to fuel relational creativity, rather than giving in to social patterns worn out by despair? Walter Brueggemann talks about our need to subvert relational norms so we can find ways to live together in abundance and shared flourishing. To imagine a world where your success does not threaten mine.  Where we might grow best together.  This is the stuff of Make-Believe.

Fred Rogers recalls growing up in a world that frightened him at times.  Sound familiar? According to Russ, who recently relayed this story, his mother reassured him that when he felt frightened he need only look for Helpers.  She gave her son confidence that no matter how scary the world seemed, there were Helpers everywhere.  What a beautiful shift in perspective she provides: Yes, the world is scary, but there are always people willing to help if only we would look.  Maybe Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe needs to influence our neighborhoods today.

They have begun to believe that the way we neighbor is more powerful than what we acquire. 

In mourning the prevalence and power of guns to hurt kids in our country, I have been frightened, and despaired.  This month there was a shooting at a school I love in Nashville. The staff is phenomenal, and they did everything they could to keep kids safe.  They have grieved and cried and found hope together in the last 10 days, and students feel safe and loved in their school community.  In the words of Mr. Rogers’ mom, these students found Helpers, and help they have.  And yet, the staff are living in the tension of clinging to hope even as they know school shootings, crushing poverty and violent despair are far too powerful for a school faculty to stop.  We adults, who feel exhausted and powerless, we need to find Helpers as well.

I find Helpers in the students of Douglass High School in Parkland, FL. They are challenging the power of the status quo, shaking us awake and helping us believe again that change can come through their #neveragain movement.  The Parkland students are effective because we are predisposed to accept them as part of our “us.”  They are not jaded activists or entrenched interests; they are not pontificating with no skin in the game.  These are innocent kids offering first hand accounts of the ways in which they are victims of a society increasingly based on fear and violent defensiveness.  These are brave teenagers who don’t know the “rules”, and so they continually break them.  Like Mr. Rogers and Brueggemann, they are imagining a different way of relating to each other.  They don’t know that we have somehow agreed that a school shooting should be interpreted in a political context, rather than a human-loss-of-life context.  They don’t know that we have somehow agreed that even though the vast majority of Americans want stricter gun laws, we are powerless to change anything.  True to Generation Bruh, they see the obvious best path forward, understand instinctively that the adults around them are stuck in old paradigms, and fully, passionately believe that they can improve our norms. 

They are subverting the way we have taught them to live—in fear and despair, with a fixed amount of power—and have somehow imagined a world in which fear does not dominate, power is not hoarded by those who fund campaigns, and where the despairing world around them is only a starting point.  As in the neighborhood of Mr. Rogers, the imaginary world found its way into our perceived world, and they have begun to believe the impossible.  They have begun to believe that the way we neighbor is more powerful than what we acquire.  The reality we created burst, unwelcome, into their world through a broken and dangerous kid with a military-grade weapon; in return they are turning our world upside down by imagining a new world in which we listen to one another and act on each other’s behalf.

We are slowly edging into a new way of imagining our connections to one another. 

We find ourselves listening to them because their voices have an imaginary ring to them.  Could a kid really be speaking this kind of truth to power? Are the rules to which we adhere not rules at all, but just old ways of respecting hollow power? Could we the people actually have the power to change the way we relate to each other?  Whether we agree with their demands or not, can we be refreshed by the idea that we are not stuck in a world of defensive powerlessness?

We live in fraught times, but change is afoot because Helpers abound.  Look around and see the impact of protest, notice the subtle shifts in public discourse.  We are slowly edging into this new way of imagining our connections to one another.  From Black Lives Matter to #metoo to #neveragain, public voices are teaching us to listen to one another in order to become better neighbors.  Subtle or overt, at the very least we might notice that protest is not a vain screaming into the wind; it often offers a path forward.  If you find yourself listening to these students with an open heart, notice what it takes for you to decide to reject their perspective, clinging to the old rules you know will never work.  These voices are not political noise; they are organized counter narratives openly lamenting what is wrong and pointing out ways to change our “normal” from destructive to healthy.  These voices are changing the way we do life in America, and they lend courage to all of us who reject despair.  Imagine that these Parkland students echo Mr. Rogers, pleading with us all, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”