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.

on bystanders and standing by

Running through a city this weekend, I found myself along a stretch of deserted waterfront. Scanning the environment, I spotted a man walking toward me. Being a female in a country where sexual assault occurs frequently can lead one to occupy a state of hyper-vigilance. Whenever I am alone, I am aware that I could be assaulted at any moment (from anecdotal conversations, I know I am not alone in this). We live in a culture in which one never knows if the man walking toward you has been taught to respect the dignity of a woman’s personhood, or to take what he wants from her.

 Running along this unfamiliar trail, I was flooded with regretful thoughts of my own foolishness: Why was I so confident that I could run through a city, anonymous, with no record of my departure or path? Why did I continue to push the bounds of independence when I could just be safe instead?

Then I saw a couple in the distance, and immediately felt safe again. These bystanders restored my peace.

 Should they have? Everything in me wanted to trust that a person—even a stranger—would intervene for my well-being. Suddenly, in spite of myself, I wondered why I trusted this to be true.

 Dr. King claimed we live in a network of mutuality, that we are all tied to one another in one garment. Jesus agreed, hitching the flourishing of his kingdom to the ability of his followers to love others well. Adherents surely claim that Gandhi embodied the best of Hinduism when he continually linked the needs of others to his own sacrificial courage. Even here in America, we claim to believe we are all created equal, that every American deserves a chance at happiness, life and liberty.

 Indeed, our public consciousness is held up by a commitment to one another, to neighboring and to the shared responsibility all communities demand. Despite the ideal that basic decency requires bystanders to not stand by when an other is harmed, we seem to have a rather large hole in the garment holding us all together. Do we still believe in noble bystanders, or have they gone the way of knights and town criers?

Well-known research has shown us that people are not always trustworthy in their efforts at intervention. When Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City in 1964, many bystanders witnessed some part of the gruesome act, and yet no one called the police or attempted to stop the crime in progress. Resulting experiments confirmed what is known as the Bystander Effect: The Inaction of onlookers due to the diffusion of responsibility. In short, the more people notice a bad act, the more paralysis—or the less responsibility—they feel to intervene. When we notice others noticing—and ignoring—injustice or a crime, we are disincentivized from speaking up ourselves.

In our American moment, active bystanders are hard to come by. There are many reasons for inaction, and I am sympathetic to nearly all of them. We are busy, and intervening takes time. Helping others is messy. We have a limited number of resources and spending them on a stranger might reduce what we can offer those to whom we are already committed. Furthermore, speaking into a situation can invite trouble or even seem presumptuous: What if they don’t want my help!? What if I do it wrong?

These are understandable considerations; however, the psychological math of is perhaps even more toxic.  The prevailing attitude goes something like, “not my people, not my problem.” Rather that everyone we pass on the street is a human, and therefore worthy of help or protection if they are in trouble, we seem to first consider if a potential victim is worth our time. Most of us want to be people who intervene to stop a bad actor, but many of us stay silent as our neighbors are displaced, or as children in public schools continue to fall below grade level, or as life is ignored from womb to old age, or as rape kits go unprocessed, or as people of color are consistently treated suspiciously, or as public housing funding is stripped, or as folks with pre-existing conditions are threatened with being uninsurable, or as people who make minimum wage cannot feed their children.

Something in us wakes when we see vulnerable others ignored or abused, and yet most of us remain silent.

What happens in the space of that comma that transforms us from engaged bystanders to passive supporters of an unjust status quo? How does the gap between who we want to be and who we prove to be grow so large? Whatever occurs in the space of that comma unravels the fabric of our society. If that comma, that pause, gave us space to find courage, more of us would live in community rather than dying alone. More of us would find hope instead of despair. More of us would experience shalom.

 We are all bystanders to acts of violence and disdain when we live in a society that refuses to care for the people who comprise it. We need not be shocked by this admission, for in many ways, this is who we are as a nation. Historically, before we decided to intervene, we decided if you were worth it. After all, bystanders looked away as native lands were stolen. Bystanders did not come running as bodies were bought and sold, forced to build wealth for others. As Jemar Tisby forcefully argues in his book, The Color of Compromise, a few Christians denounced slavery and the lynchings that followed for a century, but the vast majority remained silent, avoiding any stance that would prevent the practice from progressing.

Running along the waterfront that day, I was indeed relieved to realize there were bystanders nearby. As I put distance between my own body and the male body nearby, I realized I could only rely on my own speed to keep me safe. Bystanders, all too often, simply stand by, refusing to speak up for others around them. Each of us is a witness to those around us. Will we reweave the garment King hoped we all share, or will we continue to use blinders, only getting involved when we decide the person at risk is valuable to us? Pay attention to your surroundings, and you might just see that you develop the compassion, patience and will to stop standing by, and instead intervene to protect the strangers around you.

squishy skin and other unmentionables: a path toward belonging

Sitting on a beach near Miami recently, I was struck by all the beautiful bodies. South Florida: land of sensory overload. Bodies seem sculpted, perfected through multiple interventions. Couples look so perfect, so fashionable, that it is easy to believe every other person must be someone famous, right? In a place like that it is tempting to lose your self in the watching of others.

The striking image of one couple is seared in my mind. I have not forgotten seeing them together, and although we did not speak, they taught me a great deal about how to live a meaningful life. I was not struck by their perfect chin lines, yoga arms, mirrored glasses, bangled wrists, or loafers covered in the sheen of wealth. I was not tempted to think they were famous, and I did not envy the perfection they displayed to those around them.

In fact, they were old and flabby, and our only interaction involved me watching them as they put sunscreen on each other.

The man wore swim trunks, pulled up high, just below his rib cage in the way that elderly gentlemen often do. His wife’s face was framed with white frizzy curls, her body in a floral one piece that had seen many a season. They shuffled onto the pool deck together, like so many other retired couples in South Florida. As they began to settle in to chairs, getting out their books and bottles of water, she seemed struck by the ocean before them, and paused, taking it all in. Meanwhile, he reclined, and soon she sat and began putting sunscreen on. She used the good stuff, thick, and so hard to apply one can only hope it created a formidable block to all those carcinogenic rays. Done with the places she could reach, she handed him the bottle, held up her hair, and, without a word, turned around.

He rose from his chaise lounge, poured sunscreen into his hand, and then began to rub it all over her back. She was chunky, so his fingers squished the skin, pinching and rolling her excess, rubbing every square inch, in full public view. In a place where every body is perfect, such a scene felt almost offensive. How brave she was to stand there with her squishy skin exposed! It was a little gross, but I was mesmerized. They were so clearly comfortable together, so aware of their imperfections and their need for each other just to get through a day at the beach, that the eyeballs of the world were irrelevant to them.

It was ugly, but it was also beautiful. (As life often is).

 Here is what they taught me: if we want to be known, to walk through life growing in meaningful connections with others, we have to expose our ugly parts. Many of us can access our desire to belong, to be in easy community, to be a part of an “us.” When told it will require vulnerability, honesty, and exposure, however, most of us decide to pass. We want the easy comfort of being known and loved despite (or, dare I say, because of?) our infirmities, but we don’t want the daunting challenge of admitting we need another person to get all up in our business in order to do life.

We do though. Watching this anonymous older couple forced me to pose a hard question: If I share a lot of life with someone else but s/he never gets to lay hands on my ugly squishy parts, then what am I doing with my time? Moreover, are meaningful, life giving relationships possible if I am always mindful of how much I share, deciding when to be authentically honest and when to hold back just in case it is not safe to go all in?

If we long to be known, cherished and held onto, we have to expose our vulnerabilities.

The hard to reach places on our backs are small reminders that we were made to depend on others. We thrive when we belong, when we are reachable. Interdependency works best when we are open about the parts of us that aren’t camera ready.

As I often find in the beautiful truth of an image that imprints the soul, I also noticed that when we allow ourselves to be touched in the most embarrassing parts, we might find ourselves helped and even protected. Truth be told, the sweet old man was not particularly loving in his sunscreen application; still, he was willing to get messy, all up in his wife’s business, to protect her. The truth is that we can’t make it on our own. We need each other in ways we can’t even imagine. What a worthy thing to know, to say out loud, and to try to live by.

Of course, the best part about all of this is that those places we love to hide are also the places that long for an embrace. When we are touched there, in the spots we want to ignore, we know, deep in our bones, that we are not alone. Such a connection with others is incredibly beautiful, and worth exposing ourselves for. In ways small and large, I suspect we could all benefit from a little less curated image, a little more here I am, in all my (damaged) glory.

 Believing, as I do, that we all carry the imprint of God in our created selves, I suppose the lesson here for me is that we diminish our capacity to thrive in community when we hide any part of our being. While it is true that it is scary to expose ourselves, I suspect it also feels really lovely to be seen, touched and known.