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: immigrants in America

Our country suffers from a crisis, and it is poisoning our communities, invading our border towns, altering our schools, frustrating our communication, and taking our jobs.  No, the root of this calamity is not immigration.  It is amnesia. 

The idea of “America” is defined in conflicting ways, and can represent a beacon of democratic hope or the epitome of neocolonialism to those who live within and outside our borders.  However we see ourselves, we certainly have dominant American values: Normative culture desires the right to worship and the right to improve our station in life with hard work; in short, and above all, we value independence, advancement and freedom.  Such narratives of the “American Way” dominate our thought lives; and yet, I would argue that these ideals are held and acted upon in incredibly thoughtless ways.  Many of us prize the liberties of religion, freedom of movement, and self-possession, and yet, the America that exists for many of our inhabitants is neither accessible nor free.  I do not attempt to write a nuanced approach to immigration policy here; instead, I offer crucial historical context that will hopefully encourage us to think again about the way we think about immigrants and their place among us.

We claim to have always belonged, and forget that all of us were once outsiders. 

Our country has well-documented waves of immigration, each of which were met with violence, accusations of ruining the country, and brandings of outsider status.  Indeed, since before the American Revolution, we have targeted and excluded Chinese, Germans, Jews, Irish, Italians, Japanese, Muslims and Mexicans in different decades.  We have a long history of blaming people from other countries for our own discomfort, documented by decades of legislation that prevent specific nationalities from entering the United States.  In American history, periods of stagnation and uncertainty have usually been manipulated to lead to periods of fear, fueling nativist impulses that inevitably exclude and scapegoat anyone who can easily be called an outsider.  Indulging our most basic instincts, we seem to believe blaming others will distract us from the causes of our uncertainty or loss.  Listed on paper, these laws, grouped chronologically by hatred and rejection of one country or another, seem rather silly, and quite bigoted.  The fact that this history is not referenced as appropriate context for our current immigration discussion stems from our collective amnesia.

I posit that amnesia is the root of the identity crisis currently portrayed as an immigration crisis because our country has only existed for 240 years.  This means that even the longest settled of our families have been “American” for less than 10 generations.  Among American power brokers (a group from which native peoples have been systematically excluded), immigration is therefore a part of every single American narrative.  Despite the fact that these migrating narratives are actually shared by every family, most of us whose families have been here for three generations or more instead use these narratives to create distance between “us” and “them.”  In my view, this distance, which leads to elitism, exclusivity, and possessiveness, stems from America’s favorite past time: Celebrating our own exceptionality. 

We claim to have always belonged, and forget that all of us were once outsiders. 

We reconcile our history as outsiders with our current orientation as insiders in one of two ways.  The first is outright, willful, amnesia.  We simply pretend we climbed out of Noah’s ark and onto American dry land.  We have always spoken English, loved white picket fences, baseball and church on Sundays.  We claim to have always belonged, and forget that all of us were once outsiders.  I think this commitment to telling our stories of hard work and belonging are actually the purest demonstration of American identity: We tell stories to help us articulate who we are and to whom we belong.  Most often, the narratives we tell ourselves about our histories are stories of ascension, proving that we were destined to belong.  American story-telling is crucial to our identity construction because stories help us create community.  Importantly though, the stories of our own belonging—in which we embody the essence of Americaness—purposely exclude others.  A collective amnesia allows us to embrace our legacy of belonging, even as we ignore others, denying them their stories of ascension.

The second avenue we take to reconcile our own migrating history with our now very settled selves is the doctrine of exceptionality.  Yes, my family immigrated here in the last century, but we were already basically Americans in our hearts, we simply had the misfortune of being born Irish, Italian, English, Canadian or German.  We loved church, and felt called by God to come here.  We already knew how to work hard, and we loved freedom.  We were not asking for a handout, just a chance to fulfill our own American Dream.  I guess you could call us immigrants, but we were different, exceptional, and not like those people creating today’s immigration crisis.

Instead of finding compassion for people experiencing the hardships our families once faced and overcame, we reject the noble effort required to uproot, work hard and create a new life one step at a time.  Connecting with others, finding empathy for their hopes and dreams, requires us to recognize the ways in which we are similar. 

This claim of exceptionality prevents relationships in several ways.  It destroys any chance of a shared history that connects people in real community.  It prevents empathy from shaping our connections with others.  Instead of finding points of similarity and compassion for people experiencing the hardships our families once faced and overcame, we reject the noble effort required to uproot, work hard and create a new life one step at a time.  Connecting with others, finding empathy for their hopes and dreams, would require us to recognize the ways in which we are similar.  Our commitment to exceptionality, to framing our journeys with idealistic terms of destiny, prevents us from recognizing the humanity in others. Finally, we support negative stereotypes of new immigrants and Americans in order to widen the space between us and them.  If we allow our collective amnesia to fuel our false narratives of exceptionality, then we can only think of immigrants as “them”, never “us.”

Our commitments to our amnesia and exceptionality are as strong as our commitment to preserving the American Dream and the American Way.  The great irony is that, because of American exceptionality, we are actively destroying the fabric of society made of the values we say we uphold.  As we look to pass lasting legislation regarding Dreamers and for immigrants living and working here below the radar, perhaps we should remember that many of our families came to America as outsiders who also dreamed.