a leaf buckled concrete: paths of hope

Every time I spot a weed growing up through concrete, I think, “Good for you.” I can’t help myself. I am biased toward underdogs, toward wildness, toward bucking the system. One of my many faults. While I would not say that I have a pro-weed orientation in life, I prefer the natural world to concrete in nearly every instance. That stubborn little weed reminds me that persistence is a superpower.

 In faith-driven, Biblically rooted justice work, the inequity I hope to expose and reform is massive. I often teach about the systems and norms that created our unjust status quo to folks whose life experiences have sheltered them from interacting with such unpleasant realities. Getting people in the room is a battle in and of itself, but after that I have come to recognize two distinct blocks. The first is visceral defensiveness. The second is perceived powerlessness.

 To learn of such atrocious injustice as an adult who has actively benefitted from and propped up systems in the name of Jesus, patriotism or justice, can be disorienting. Such a shock, in fact, that it is easy to deny this history exists, or to shake one’s head, disbelieving. At the very least, most want to claim innocence: “I’ve never oppressed anyone! I don’t even know people getting hurt by this so-called injustice!”

 Encountering such obvious disparity, people often feel shamed, guilty, or accused…all of which lead to defensiveness. Defensiveness destroys relationships and short circuits curious impulses. We are not capable of learning from others when we are busy defending our own action (or inaction). We cannot think of solutions when we refuse any responsibility or even connection to the problems being addressed. Because I have learned to anticipate such defensiveness, I now name it as the enemy of the good in the very moment in which it occurs. Feeling defensive or attacked is not a reason to walk away. When I name the creeping posture of defense, people usually look up, exposed, but also interested in any available alternative. I encourage folks to notice their defensiveness, commit to investigate it later, and then lean in to the conversation at hand. I ask them to seek to understand before they decide who is to blame (or if they even agree).

The other block many must overcome in these moments is the completely overwhelming—I-had-no-idea—shock of seeing the reality of injustice in our systems. When folks learn to avoid defensiveness, staying invested long enough to learn about the realities others face, they often feel crushing grief. Overwhelmed at the power and longevity of injustice, they instinctively see their own powerlessness to change anything. “I hear you. I’m with you. But what am I supposed to do?! How on earth can I do anything to actually help?” While this reaction can keep relationships alive, it can lead to the same sense of paralysis that results from defensiveness. In either case, injustice remains, with no resistance from well-meaning folks who enjoy the privileges of living in the majority.

I think this is why I love that little weed. Whoever designed and laid that sidewalk probably did everything right. They scorched the earth, leveled the ground, and poured one of the strongest substances known to man on top of it. And yet. Despite all odds, that little spunky weed grew. A leaf buckled concrete. It’s a Christmas miracle! Or maybe a gardening nightmare? Either way it gives me hope that a living thing made to find the light, with enough time and determination, can crack through a system made to permanently block its ability to grow. Go weeds go!

In parenting and educational circles, grit is a new buzzword. We have long recognized the difference in natural ability and growth. Some kids achieve because they are naturally gifted to do so, while others have deficits they learn to overcome through determination, delayed gratification and belief in their abilities. These kids develop growth mindsets, to borrow from Carol Dweck, and they learn to face obstacles that seem insurmountable one step at a time. Yes, failure is likely from their starting position. But taken in small steps, small victories add up until they accomplish their goals, achieving well beyond their initial trajectories.

As a parent of teens and a tween, I now realize I would rather send a kid into the world who has grit, who has learned to slowly overcome odds, than I would a kid who has easily achieved most accomplishments. This is not to say I am against easy achievements. By all means, knock it out of the park, especially if it comes easily! Adulting, though, is hard. Losing a job, working under a mean boss, caring for sick kids or parents, having a marriage fall apart, or suffering in economic distress all require a long term commitment to stay the course and learn the new skills required for the task ahead, even if it feels impossible. Grit, it turns out, wins the day.

Here in Nashville, succulents are all the rage, and frankly, I’m uninterested. Give me a rainforest over a desert any day of the week. I know they conserve water, but I live in Tennessee instead of Arizona for a reason. I like vibrant colors, gorgeous blooms, and diversity that makes the eye hungry to take it all in. People I love who know about plants love them though, so I finally got a succulent or two. Damned if I haven’t grown partial to these little miracle growers. They are stubborn sons of bitches, and just like my beloved urban weed warriors, they stay alive. They keep growing, even in shameful neglect. I think we could all do well to take a page out of the succulent handbook. Dig deep, determine to grow, and create beauty in the worst of circumstances. Come to the table, pay attention and decide to change your part of the world. Together, let’s see just see how many cracks we can make in the system until there is room for all of us to grow.

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.