A colleague asked me the other day what my work-related hope was and it got me thinking. I want to think larger than work. I know things are beyond horrible for so so many people and there seems to be some new horror daily, if not hourly. But I think maybe there are few glimmers of hope. I wonder what we (and by “we”, I mean humans in this country, ALL of us) might see if we could collectively imagine what we might become as we move through this as a country and eventually/hopefully move beyond this horror show.
Here is what I mean: in my life, I seem to experience the most personal growth through experiencing the most excruciating pain. Right now our country is writhing in pain. We are reeling from realizing the depth and breadth of racism, racial violence, heterosexism, all forms of gendered violence, misogyny, ageism, xenophobia, homophobia, ableism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and all forms of violence on all communities that have been marginalized and demonized and harmed in recent and distant years. And here’s the thing, when I’m deep in the pain it is hard to focus on what and who I will become after. For me, I have learned to channel my pain and harness it for good, to build something different for myself, even when I didn’t know where I was going or could visualize something different. I just kept moving forward. I’ve learned this through years of heartache, struggle, and poverty. It seems so much of my life has been pain and through that, I’ve learned to channel the pain into continued movement forward. Also, poverty does strange things to a person; for me that meant I didn’t have money to do some of the things I wished I could have done. Which forced me to deal with things differently because in too many moments, I’ve felt helpless.
I’ll give a couple of examples. As my marriage was falling apart and I had no idea what to do next or how to get there, a single parent of two kids on my horizon, I focused on making mine and my kids’ futures better. I threw myself into school and my kids. I had to relearn how to balance things on a super tight budget and I often failed at all of it, miserably. The pain I experienced during this time, forced me to be a better parent and, eventually, a better student. Gradually, I have been able to maneuver myself into a position where I can better help my kids and those around me. I would still give anything to never have had to go through that; I felt like I was coming apart at the seams. No one else saw that in me but I sure felt it. However, the emotional, spiritual, and psychological growth I experienced was dramatic. Equally dramatic was my new awareness of self as part of community – myself as part of many communities, to which I am responsible. Because I believe in the butterfly effect and karma (I have seen too much for this to be coincidence – which makes me wish I understood math better so I could figure out the significance or probability of these coincidences)…anyways, because I believe in the butterfly effect and karma, I believe that what I put out into the world will come back to me and that my actions affect those around me directly, indirectly, and by proxy. Which makes me regret some decisions I’ve made. But moving on…
Two other extraordinary gifts from these experiences beyond my kids and degrees, are a few things I learned during this time. I’ll share a few things that completely changed the way I thought about my place within the world. As angry as I was with my ex, I never truly hated him. Have I said awful things about him? Wished him gone, however that might happen? Sure have, I won’t deny that. I’m no saint, I’ve just learned because of this exact experience that hate takes sooooooooooooo much energy. It is literally so depleting – emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, cognitively, and physically. That is not how I choose to spend my limited amount of energy – unless it’s big like adult men who murder 7-year old babies (I was going to add to that but there is literally nothing more horrific that adults harming children, let alone gunning them down in a car with their family), genocide (if you don’t agree with that, I don’t want to know you, for absolute real), world hunger (same), war (same – or we could study whoever Henry McChord is always citing on Madam Secretary – Aquinas?), hate – yep, I hate hate with a visceral sense of loathing, or some other things or people related to the above. So I forgive what I can after working through what I must; some things are/may be unforgivable. Other than the big things, I simply refuse to give energy to hating anyone unless they are so awful that they are harming and damaging other humans.
The other key thing I learned was that I have value as a human being and deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. I deserve to be treated as a fully functioning and capable human regardless of power relationships. Before this moment, I always made myself smaller for a man, worked to be whatever a man wanted me to be, bent my will and amended my plans for a man. And I was raised by feminists and believed I was equal to men but that indelible patriarchal socialization had my mind and soul so warped. No more. My divorce was the point where I gave that up, stopped allowing others to use me as a doormat, and just struggled through. With the help of family and friends, I was able to get a lot more done, go further than anyone in my immediate family has academically, break one familial cycle of violence, and so much more. I learned to value myself because in the end, I have to like myself because I’ll be spending a lot of time alone throughout my life. I learned to prioritize myself, my kids, and relationships that fed my heart, body, and mind. I believe we all, every single human on this planet (sans those from the list above) deserve this.
This pivotal moment in my life reminds me of the societal moment we humans in this country find ourselves. There is so much awfulness. Children are dying in the streets and in government custody. Black people are still being policed, imprisoned, and murdered at hugely disproportionate rates. People of color are being harassed and murdered at higher rates than any moment since the civil rights movement. Religious minorities are harassed, assaulted, murdered, and their places of worship are being attacked. Linguistic minorities are being harassed in public and assaulted. LGBT+ people are still being murdered at hugely disproportionate rates and the media still hugely ignores this. Women are still fighting for civil rights long earned. People with disabilities are still maligned by politicians and have higher than average acts of violence committed against them than any other group; in fact I remember learning through various credible sources that people with disabilities are assaulted at higher rates than any other group. Flint still doesn’t have water. Puerto Rico is still rebuilding. We have a presidential administration that seems hellbent on returning us to pre-Brown times. Children are still being ripped from their mothers and so many of the lost children still haven’t been found – the United States government kidnapped and lost thousands of children, in facilities, private homes, and elsewhere. Suicides have outpaced homicides and opioid-related deaths now kill more people than vehicles. And there is so very much more like the increasing white supremacy and xenophobia or the rise of authoritarianism, nationalism, and the worst extremes of colonialism globally. We are all under attack in one way or many.
With all that is going on, it is hard to take it all in and figure out where we can contribute to progress. It is easy to feel helpless and it is difficult to see opportunities in this climate. However, as we begin this new year, I wonder what kind of a country and world we might grow into once this moment passes, what kind of country and world we want when this moment has concluded. The opportunity for significant growth requires (hopefully we all see this as an imperative) that we come together across our lines of difference and start trying to figure out what the good life means to us, individually and communally, recognizing that some won’t come together and some we cannot unite ourselves with (see the list of who I hate above).
I’m hopeful that things are changing. We’ve just seen some pretty cool and significant things happen. More people were mobilized to run for public office than at any other time in modern history to my memory. This led to a record number of diverse people getting elected into the House: women, black, Muslim, Palestinian-American, LGBT+, veterans, scientists, and many more people who were regular citizens just living their lives. From school boards to Congress, regular people noticed things were bad and chose to run for elected office. Mueller has made cases strong enough to bring charges against 33 people and 3 companies. I can’t help hoping that this is a signal of bigger things to come. Bazillions of women and men came together to march around the world for basic civil rights – again. And I’m pretty certain the official numbers were in the bazillions. High school students stood up to the gun lobby and have forced a long overdue conversation about firearms, school safety, voting, voter suppression, and shined a light on inequities in other areas of U.S. life. These young people understand something that is poorly understood and practiced lately, if it ever was: a widespread movement can only be built by intersectionality. Regular citizens are making huge differences in our country.
Because of all the good regular folks are doing across this country, I’m hopeful that while we’re a bit lighter, now is the time to start thinking about what we want to be as a country when this circus show ends and the clown paddy wagon comes to take a crime family out of the White House. Eventually, the pain will lift and we will be something new. Do we want a slightly shinier old country or do we want to reimagine what we want and need and perhaps start figuring out how to contribute to that, instead of waiting for the next abominable crisis because that crisis will come or be manufactured.
So what does the good life mean?
Here is what it means to me, buckle up because it’s going to be Pollyana-ish. It means that people will have access to healthcare beyond emergency rooms. It is disgraceful that the most powerful and wealthiest nation in the world allows people to die, go without necessary and preventative care, and go bankrupt because of a medical bill. An equally disturbing disgrace is about access to quality education from pre-school through at least a bachelor’s degree. Education is the teaching a person to fish parable which one would think made sense to those making policy, constructing laws, and allocating funding. Research study after research study shows what an education is worth in terms of lifetime earnings, leading me to an educated conclusion (because this is what I study and live and breathe) that those who have access to affordable college are better able to move toward a more stable life with access to higher level resources like healthcare, childcare, housing, and better schools for their children, thus advancing the next generation.
Besides healthcare and education, I would add safe and affordable housing, world peace, a livable wage and a robust safety net for those who fall, and universal and quality mental healthcare. I also want re-investment in the infrastructure through this country: the aging bridges, the highways and byways, the fiber optic network, and investing in sustainable energy. To accomplish these things, I believe that if we chose to invest in people rather than corporations and war, people would feel happier and less hateful, they’d feel more fulfilled with their lives and lose interest in tearing others down, and if their basic needs are met and they aren’t always struggling for survival, folks would have less need for some of the old tools of oppression. Many of the programs I mentioned in this and the preceding paragraph could easily be funded if we 1) downsized our military. If people are happier, world peace would be possible and militaries and military armaments would be all but obsolete. 2) If not downsizing right away or ever, what about repurposing our military? Instead of glorifying war and murder, kids might grow up glorifying community, solidarity, and love. During WWII, the U.S. government assigned 10,000 Army Corps of Engineers men, about one third of which were African American. We could do this again on a larger scale. How do you (yes, reader, you) think this country might change for the better if we, as a nation, valued community engagement? And do you think that if the government prioritized this country’s infrastructure that people’s perspectives might change? Might this foster community and value in coming together to build something? We’ve prioritized war and murder for so long – the way history is usually taught centers on wars, what if we reoriented that thinking toward community? Also, how might that change policing, shift how we view insiders/outsiders, or help people to take meaningful ownership of their communities? 3) While we would still probably need or want a standing army, it could be significantly downsized through time while offering people other skills training opportunities. Further, 4) this proposal has the possibility of increasing the number of people in the trades which is sorely needed – we will always need masons, carpenters, electricians, and the like. It would be a strong investment in not just the future of individuals but also the future of this country and the world. A long-term investment like this is forward thinking, laying the groundwork for a re-envisioned future of peace and prosperity.
There are a number of other things like personal safety for ALL people and ending all forms of oppression toward all people. Really, I just want people, all people in our country and in our world, to have enough. I feel that should be the country we become as we move through this dumpster fire of the current moment. This would be the good life to me.