on grit, and tripping

This week, a repost (with a few mild changes), from last spring. For all of us in our wildly different contexts, it is helpful to remember that every good path presents some trips and falls.

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. 

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.” When we face a struggle, however, our response often involves foul language, throwing things, and giving up because it is too hard. If we learn to pay attention to the stories of those around us, we might 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.

Understanding that set backs accompany 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 impossible nor 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. 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 continue to demonize asylum seekers, traumatize their children, reduce Americaness to whiteness, and then walk away away in defeat, fear and isolation. 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.

Last summer my family and I went 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: 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 danger of exceptional thinking: gentrification

I helped compile a panel of speakers for a discussion on important issues facing the people of Nashville last year.  I was most excited to hear from an African American woman who is the CEO of a transformative non-profit in town.  Her organization helps kids from the inner city understand themselves as the valuable children of God.  They accomplish this by providing consistent interaction with adults who love them, celebrating the wisdom of God through academic tutoring, and the creativity and beauty of God through training them in fine arts.

Because she is an expert in kids who live in the inner city, she has now reluctantly become an expert-of-sorts in the effects of gentrification on such neighborhoods.  She has seen what happens when we decide the profits of one group of investors are exceptional, and more important, than the history, jobs, schools and livability of people who are hanging off the edge of society.  She has seen what happens when we decide the comfort level and entertainment needs of the upper class are held as exceptional in a city’s landscape.  When homes are destroyed so hipsters can take over a neighborhood and walk to dinner.  

As this panel was forming, I asked this speaker to send the title of her talk so slides could be prepared.  The organizer, responding to those of us involved, presented her title, “Gentrification, Does the Rising Tide Lift All Boats?”, and then felt the need to clarify, saying, “What she calls gentrification, most of us know as urban renewal.” His response exposes the lack of understanding about the issues that face our cities, and of the changes damaging those in our urban center.

This is a chronic problem in much of wealthy white America: If I don’t see it or know about it then it must not exist. 

A white, upper class man calls this process “urban renewal” because his notions of “urban” are that those centers were abandoned decades ago, and that only crime, poverty and homelessness stayed behind.  This type of thinking comes from a place that privileges his perspective as authoritative, or exceptional, rather than knowing the limits of his experience.  This is a chronic problem in much of wealthy white America: If I don’t see it or know about it then it must not exist.  A majority culture perspective might sound something like this: Urban centers were dead and dying after we left them behind during the integration movement of the Civil Rights Era.  Now that we want to return to these centers, we are only bringing “good” along with us.  Hence the term, “renewal.” 

From a marginalized perspective, gentrification is the result of investors and city officials who have decided the needs of the few with plenty are exceptionally important, while the needs of the many with nothing are not. 

At its core though, gentrification is about displacement and renaming.  In the same way that the organizer wanted to rename “gentrification” with “renewal,” the magical genteel transformation of a city only happens when “wealth and whiteness” replace “marginalized others.”  Wealth and whiteness, since the founding of our country, have a way of overlooking poverty, people of color, and systemic injustice.  From a marginalized perspective, gentrification is the result of investors and city officials who have decided the needs of the few with plenty are exceptionally important, while the needs of the many with nothing are not.  Gentrification does bring renewal to cities, and an influx of investment and people with money to spend along with it.  However, this practice of prioritizing the needs of a few as “exceptional”, and therefore as vital to the city, has some devastating implications:

First, gentrification necessitates displacement.  Brown moves out so white can move in.  Yes, when homes have been owned by people of color for generations, they are often complicit in selling their own property.  However, lest we get on a “their choice” high horse, remember that the vast majority of such sells are below market value and a small fraction of the expected profits when the property is rebuilt or renovated.  Further, for many families this is their only asset, and many do not possess the networks needed to demand a fair deal and then to use the windfall wisely.  It is also worth noting that many of these folks are relentlessly pestered with multiple calls, letters and visits per week from pressingly eager profiteers.  Finally, families who sell or are displaced when their rental or governmental homes are torn down are most often the very people least able to accommodate the changes such a move necessitates. 

In my urban—formally perceived as ghetto—neighborhood, there were dozens of small rental homes, multiple bus stops, good sidewalks, 5 churches, a park with a community center, 2 grocery stores, and 2 drugstores within a ½ mile radius.  For a family who can only afford low rent or to live in a home paid for long ago, who might not have a car or multiple cars, these assets are not just perks but absolutely vital!  Such urban realities are necessary to function for their kids, to get to work, to get by. 

When these folks are displaced, they cannot simply move to a new place.  When gentrification moves at an accelerated pace due to investors, these families have to move 10-30 miles away to find comparable rent.  In Nashville, the communities absorbing such displaced persons do not offer bus lines, neighborhood centers, and walkable grocery stores.  Why would they?  These communities are far outside the urban center, where such commodities are superfluous.  In short, displacement is not just inconvenient or awkward for the poor who no longer recognize their neighborhoods.  Rather, it usually initiates a cycle of loss, including but not limited to one’s job, method of transportation, dependable groceries, neighborhood school, community center, and church.  It is devastating.

These experiences can undermine the deadly grip that stereotyping has on our society, replacing assumptions based on ignorance with nuanced understandings based on real relationships. 

Second, even though this trend might be inevitable, the way in which we experience and even trumpet gentrification has devastating implications because of the speed with which it moves.  When one or two white or wealthy families decide to move into an urban neighborhood, they are typically motivated by a few common passions.  They often have rejected a life oriented around fear and protection.  They often are passionate about pursuing perspectives different from their own.  They usually have a love for restoring broken or old things.  This process, even if it initiates the eventual displacement of the majority of the original residents, can take decades.  And these decades see beautiful, awkward, hard, enlightening integration.  Slow, honest relationships with people not like each other.  New-found understandings of what neighborliness is.  These experiences can undermine the deadly grip that stereotyping has on our society, replacing assumptions based on ignorance with nuanced understandings based on real relationships.  Gentrification might indeed still dominate an area, but it takes time, and that time can foster a new foundation to society that will radically change the way we relate to one another. 

All too often, our versions of “urban renewal” in no way resemble the painstaking description above.  Instead, a handful of investors, armed with profiteering builders and real estate agents, move into a neighborhood like a swarm of locusts.  This does not produce slow change infused with knowing relationships; it is rather characterized by entire blocks being knocked down, while fast, tightly-packed houses replace them.  And then, as a reward, families with no passion for or appreciation of the urban center and its place as a refuge for marginalized people pay over-asking prices to move into this manufactured version of the American dream.  This is not slow gentrification.  This is displacing the poor to make room for the rich on steroids.  People, their livelihoods, their culture and the one place they call their own in American society is lost in the process. 

As a people who say we are committed to the common good, who believe in the power of community, we must examine how our addiction to our exceptionality results in making decisions with no awareness of our impact on others.  If we believe all people are created in God’s image, then we must consider those people when we think about where we live, how we make a living, and how we contribute to displacing others.