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.

Northam, Flake and distracting ourselves with civility

A few weeks ago former Senator Jeff Flake, NPR producer/reporter Zoe Chase, and historian Jon Meacham spoke at Vanderbilt University. It was a packed house, and the conversation was well informed, if stilted at times. Flake, now known for his call to elevate our discourse in political arenas, has consistently lamented the lack of civility in the public sphere. He is seen by some as a brave maverick who stood up to forces in his party accustomed to demonizing voices of dissent, and he had to leave politics as a result.

For the past month I have explored the divide between who we hope to be and who we sometimes become. It has often been uncomfortable, as it’s hard to see our hypocrisies, to notice our lies and to trace the impact of our delusions on our selves and others. Such periods of reflection are necessary for people who believe everything matters, and yet, I am reminded of the words my mother often sends me when she reads my work: “Remember to notice the good! Don’t just highlight the bad, but celebrate the good.”

We have never more passionately celebrated calls for respectful disagreement and civil discussion. Hooray! Senator Flake issued such rhetorical admonitions, chastising those who demonized others. In teaching a course on composition and rhetoric this semester I have been delighted to remember that rhetoric is the study of how new information interacts with old information. How do we allow new ideas to impact the perspectives we already hold on an issue? A look at various media, the Senate floor, or a church hallway might reveal we are quite bad at reaching across lines of difference, at receiving the experience of another that seems to threaten the stability of an idea we espouse.

A scholar named Jim Corder argues that we are generally terrible at having our ideas challenged because we haven’t been honest about how we developed them in the first place. In other words, the narratives we tell ourselves about how the world works are deeply entwined in our own sense of self, and our positions are therefore not mere intellectual thought experiments, but rather reflections of us. We argue fiercely, easily feeling defensive or attacked, because we embody—we have become—what we believe. When a person undermines that belief or tries to toss it aside we feel as though they are tossing our very selves aside.

Can we find ways to evaluate how our core life experiences shape the ideas we esteem and the positions we hold? If we want to converse civilly, we must also examine ideas or positions that result from equally genuine and valuable life experiences, even if they are not our own. Seen in this light, Flake’s call is surely necessary, if not noble. I’m thankful he used his platform to name incivility when he saw it, but I am afraid our conversation on civility is a distraction from the policy issues that undergird it. Many of us, like a starving person offered a piece of bread, seize these critiques of how we speak to one another, consuming them with gratitude. Something in us resonates as we cry, “Finally! We’re better than this! We value character and good ideas, we don’t bully and rely on stereotypes!”

 The truth, of course, is that biases often impact our speech, assumptions and thinking without our recognizing them; however, I’m afraid that when we focus on speech, we miss the more important point. The biases that ooze out in our discourse, shocking us, heavily influence our ideas about fairness and justice. They impact the policies we support, and allow us to vote into law ideas that codify our incivility. Our discourse is surely problematic, but if we think our words are unkind, think about the policies those words produce. Our speech can be civil while our policies do violence to those with little power. I’m afraid we have all taken up the banner of civil discourse, while ignoring the necessity of civil policies.

This week a photo depicting a white man in blackface next to a Klansmen was found on the Medical School yearbook page of Virginia’s Governor. He apologized for his poor taste and begged for the right to earn the trust of Virginians. Bafflingly, a day later he claimed he couldn’t recall if he was actually in the picture, so it should not reflect poorly on him, although he did recall using a bit of shoe polish to darken his skin on another occasion. As the mounting calls for his resignation clash with his refusal to do so, many people are consumed with labeling him racist or with arguing it was a long time ago and we all make mistakes.

Our past choices—the things we thought funny or appropriate—certainly reveal much about what we valued and to whom we listened. When they surface, it is customary to argue indefinitely about what those choices reveal about us then and now. However, such discussions distract us from a better question: Has he governed in a way that rejects stereotypes, racial hierarchies, and a preference for the powerful at the expense of the poor, or has he not? Who are his friends and advisors today? Rather than arguing about whether a picture makes one racist, what if we expanded our conversation so that we examine how the actions of a person demonstrate their values?

Let’s ask more of ourselves than Senator Flake or Governor Northam do, so that we don’t lose sight of the physical impact of our uncivil speech or past jokes. Yes, we need to clean up our rhetoric, and engage others with respect. How much more important is it for us to see the devastating impact of our choice to overlook the lives of others?

I’m afraid we have all taken up the banner of civil discourse,

while ignoring the necessity of civil policies.

 My hopeful conclusion is simply this: civil discourse and civil governance are not mutually exclusive. Let’s be people of word and deed. Let’s be people who don’t just point fingers at others, but who ask ourselves how we came to believe the things we believe. Whose experience did we value when we decided how the world worked and what solutions are needed? Please do call out incivility, or past racist acts, but it is foolish to then call it a day, stopping with our speech or personal behavior alone. We must take the next step and appeal to one another for ongoing civil governance. Let’s ask our leaders to behave and speak respectfully, but let’s demand that they support policies that treat all people civilly.

nationalism isn't patriotic, just ask a confederate

On March 21, 1861, Alexander Stevens, the newly sworn-in Vice President of The Confederate States of America, rose to a lectern in Savannah, Georgia, and addressed a crowd gathered to champion the recent secession of 7 states from the United States of America. Eventually known as the “Corner-stone speech” Stevens then clearly explains the principles that undergird the Confederacy: “All, under our system, stand upon the same broad principles of perfect equality. Honest labor and enterprise are left free and unrestricted in whatever pursuit they may be engaged.” He proudly asserts the Confederate Constitution is based on the “broad principle of perfect equality and justice;” indeed, Stevens’ oratory inspires, assured of its own moral high ground. Perfect equality is inspired, but the Confederacy was based on the principles of racial hierarchy, white supremacy and fear of those deemed unworthy. Calling violent oppression equality doesn’t make it good, just like calling nationalism patriotic doesn’t make it noble.

Stevens celebrates the Confederacy when he boasts, “The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” Explaining that secession primarily aimed to protect and defend the practice of slavery, he acknowledges that most people, including the founders, believed “the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.” Nevertheless, he argues, “those ideas…were fundamentally wrong.” He then utters the lines that give his speech its name:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Stevens pledges his allegiance to the Confederacy, claiming he will faithfully defend and protect her. Waxing poetic about peace, rights and equality, he blames the North’s reluctance to grant independence as the cause for war. His noble claims are undermined by his determination that all men are not created equal, and that God created some beings with no rights at all. He sounds patriotic, but his Corner-stone speech reveals an important shift in his loyalty.

That a person could claim peace while pursuing war, claim unity while blaming others, or claim great power while stoking fear, is confusing until you realize Vice President Stevens was a nationalist, not a patriot.

This week our nation votes to elect governors, senators, representatives and council people. We have been arguing about how to display patriotism in the public sphere for years, but this election cycle reveals the slippage in the way we speak about what it means to be Americans. Are we patriots or nationalists? Is one noble, the other destructive? Does it matter what these words signify?

Stevens’ rhetoric prepares the way for his descendants in public service: Self-professed nationalists.

 Many of us love our country, our service members who defend it, the laws that shape it, and the symbols that represent it. We love our mythologies: a nation built on the ideal of liberty worth sacrificing for, that every person has a fair shot to improve with hard work and perseverance. We adore the fact that we overcame great odds, winning our independence, surviving a Civil War, slowly claiming a continent for ourselves, and rescuing Europe not once but twice. We are proud of our track record, and nationalism invites us to reduce it to a story of ascension for one group of people. From a nationalist point of view, the story of America is the story of White Christians who beat the odds. Patriotism, on the other hand, demands that we face our entire history. Patriotism leaves room for righting the course, for correcting mistakes, for challenging a status quo that damages vulnerable people.

Nationalism denotes a shift in loyalty from our evolving country to a specific group of people, united by the perception of shared genes or culture, while patriotism assumes that we can work together since we share a space and, perhaps, ideals. Nationalism boasts superiority over any group of people perceived to be outsiders or “others.” It organizes itself against perceived threats, rather than simply for a nation. Nationalist groups include American white supremacists, Hitler’s Germany, Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy, because it thrives on fear, blame and the suppression of the humanity of those deemed unworthy. Nationalism guards the door, making sure outsiders cannot bring change, while patriotism upholds ideals, and challenges us to stay true to them.

For a nationalist, making American great again very much means making America white, defining it as white, assuming it to be white, protecting the rights and culture of whites.  

A patriot, on the other hand, remains loyal to the idea of America, aligning herself to the concepts that were uttered in the Preamble to the Declaration. It is true that we have never embodied the ideals penned by Thomas Jefferson; then again, neither did he, so perhaps to be American is to strive for who we hope to be even as we wrestle with who we functionally are.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a patriot. His patriotism spurred him to force us to see the ways that we fall short of our stated ideals. He was so loyal to America that he challenged America to invite all Americans to the dinner table. King, always hopeful, did not primarily rail against our Constitution as a racist document, or even as an artifact exposing our worst hypocrisy. Instead, Dr. King called our Constitution a “promissory note,” and argued that it looms in our collective memory, reminding us that we can start to embody its best principals if only we would commit ourselves to caring about the interest of others as an act of patriotism.

Last week my passenger side mirror was pushed out of alignment. For days, I forgot, and every time I checked for traffic, I glimpsed only a skewed view of the road behind me. My inability to understand my car’s orientation on the road forced me to drive with a handicap. As long as my mirror was jacked up, I couldn’t drive with confidence. As long as our citizens ignore the damage nationalist thinking caused in the past, we can’t make confident decisions about who gets our loyalty in the present. When we mistake nationalism for patriotism, we cannot understand our orientation as Americans who share this land with many, varied, wonderful others. We live handicapped, ignorant of the very history that shapes this moment, oblivious not just to the record behind us but also to our history of thinking and ways of claiming ideals. As we vote, I pray we would take the time to know the difference—past, present and future—between a patriotism that corrects our course and a nationalism that empowers evil.