hello, old friend

I studied in Edinburgh, Scotland in college, during a time of life when my ethic could best be articulated as, Try Everything. Haggis, check. Scotch, check. Backpacking everywhere, check. Driving a car on as many roundabouts as possible, check. From Loch Ness to the Lake District to Brussels to the Ring of Kerry, if anyone offered me a spot, I grabbed my bag and jumped on a train.  It came naturally, then, to agree to join the Hillwalking club at the University of Edinburgh. I like hills. I like walking. I hoped to like the Highlands, which was the location of our first weekend hillwalking adventure. I signed up.

Needless to say, I was taken aback when they handed out crampons and ice picks before we left our mountain lodge for our first walk. 7 hours, a white-out blizzard and some mild frost bite later, I realized that what they meant by “hillwalking” was “ice climbing.” I wanted to walk hills, and previously even wished the club had a more aggressive sounding name, like Mountain Hiking Club. I was ready to walk, to hike, to burn and sweat. But dear reader, I was not ready for ice picks, roping in, or blizzards.

As we ease into 2019 it is helpful to prepare ourselves for the year ahead. Anticipating celebrations of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., many of us will pledge our allegiance to living lives closely aligned with his ethic of life. We will say we are committed to reaching across lines of difference, to pursuing diverse perspectives, to resisting injustice and to responding with non-violent, non-defensive patience in the face of bigotry or hate. Our memory of his work makes it look so easy, and he seems so noble that we want to join him! Many of us fervently believe we must intentionally reach across lines of difference as we big bigger tables with more seats in our effort to build a just society. The work is necessary, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Before we pledge our allegiance, it is useful to understand what we are signing up for. When I say I love diversity and want to pursue it and promote it in my spheres of influence, I am saying I love realizing I have bias, that my privilege has blinded me, and that I am often hurtful and offensive. When I say I want more diversity I am asking to actively decrease my own power and control, to increase moments of discomfort and tension as I apologize more, seeing my deficits and bad assumptions. When I say I like diversity, I am saying I enjoy undermining my own perspective.

I assert these truths as a person who actively pursues diversity, and wants to live and work in environments where diverse perspectives influence culture and policy. As such, I am interested in closing the gap between what we claim to want and what we commit to do consistently. We often talk a good game when we begin a new year or role, but it proves difficult to maintain our commitments when they make life uncomfortable or inefficient. We think our fervent desire for certain values will translate into inhabiting those values within our communities; sadly, when relationships prove difficult or messy, we give up. Because we fail to realize the ramifications of the vision to which we say we are committed, we unwittingly reinforce our own sense of disillusionment and inertia. While some dreams are indeed difficult to reach, much of our failure comes not because the dream is unworthy or unattainable, but because we give up when our naïve expectations are not met.

How can we increase our capacity to stay invested even when the dream proves difficult? Passionate reformers have many suggestions, but allow me to offer one piece of advice: If you want to be a person whose stated values reflect authentic aspects of your practical self and habits, it is vital that you honestly reflect on the commitments you make. If I understand all the decentering adjustments and awkwardness a life committed to pursuing diverse perspectives will ask of me, I can embrace such uncomfortable requirements when they arise.

When we speak honestly about our hopes and resolutions, we anticipate the sacrifice such commitments demand, thus preparing us to stay in the game even when it requires Thor-levels of grit. Such honest anticipation offers us a level of comfort, of familiarity, when the task before us feels difficult. In my own commitment to elevating diverse perspectives, I am sometimes caught off guard by how inefficient such a habit is. Now, when a meeting is not moving as quickly as I had hoped because it takes time and painstaking clarity to hear from and honor many diverse perspectives and notions of “normal,” I have a greater capacity to sit in the tension I feel. When I sense the frustration that often comes from people in this type of setting, when I feel the trickle of sweat begin to form down my back, when I wonder if tempers or accusations might soon escalate, I think, “Hello old friend, I’ve been expecting you.”

If I really intend to be a person committed to making space for diverse perspectives at every level, I must expect this moment with every fiber of my being. Such a move offers us the chance to expect our old friends—tension, misunderstanding and inefficiency—rather than abandoning the task at hand when they show up. Anticipate these old friends, and don’t run for the exit when they appear! Instead, think, “Ah yes, and here you are, just as I thought you would be.” The remarkable gifts of collaborating across lines of difference to find the best solutions are worthy of our honest commitment to stay in the game.

I am a terrible hill walker, mostly because I gave up after that one measly blizzard terrified me. If I had anticipated the cold, the blinding snow, the burning fingertips, or the uncertainty of losing our bearings, then I might have smiled inside as the winds picked up. “Hi old friend, I’ve been expecting you. Let’s walk together as I figure out which step to take next.” Let us not talk falsely now, but instead pledge our allegiance to ideals only when we have gazed them full in the face, ready for all they might bring.

learning to listen to each other: there are heroes among us

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. 

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. 

Make hope possible rather than despair convincing.
— Raymond Williams

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?

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. 

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 in validating their experience instead of asking them to prove it. 

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.