Essays

You won’t like everyone you meet.

Is there no such thing as a basic truth anymore? What I mean by ‘basic truth’ is a thing which is universally acknowledged as certain. Something you can trust all other humans to believe in no matter what. I don’t really get the impression that I can rely on people to be certain about anything. There is always someone willing to contradict me.

When I was a kid, still figuring things out, I was pretty sure that what I was figuring out was all the answers that adults already had. I figured there was a knack to this life and that when you reached a certain age you just sort of got it. Of course, now that I’m swiftly approaching 30 I realize that that is a nuts thing to think. Nobody has it figured out, everyone who has ever existed was basically making it up as they went along. Gahdi, just making it up as he went along. Thomas  Jefferson, just making it up as he went along. Elizabeth I, Saint Francis of Assisi, Genghis Khan… the list goes on and on because it includes every human who has ever existed. All people are clueless and the successful ones are basically better at hiding it than anybody else.

But back to the basic truth- I used to think that there were good and bad ways to behave and that maybe there were a few people out there who behaved badly but that mostly everyone was good. At least everyone could agree, in the most abstract of senses, what good was.

I picked this basic truth up from watching movies. The popular movies of the 80s and 90s were certainly quite idealistic. Normally some Joe-Everyman hero would stand up to some blonde a-hole and would eventually, inevitably come out on top. It just sort of seemed to me that the qualities of a movie hero, compassion for others, strong sense of justice, some code of honor, were always rewarded and that everyone would naturally aspire to emulate these qualities.

I now know that good and evil are a lot more complicated than that, but I’ve still been holding (childishly) on to the idea that compassion, justice, and honor, are qualities that every human everywhere desires and respects in one another. But it doesn’t seem like we do that anymore (maybe I’m nieve and we never did). I don’t think we trust that other humans are capable of both disagreeing with us and remaining human.  All disagreements seem to take place in a suspension of decency. We no longer value these qualities enough to maintain them when we encounter people who we consider to be our enemy. And enemies are everywhere.

All it takes to find justice in an unjust thing is to decide that injustice is fine for your enemy. All it takes to abandon honor is to decide that honor is winning, honor is whatever it takes to hurt your enemy. Compassion has become something that we expect to receive from others but refuse to exude ourselves.

Something feels different in the world. I’d like to say that my disappointment in this countries direction has nothing to do with party politics but I’m not so sure that that’s true. There’s a good chance that part of what upsets me is that the way that I think things should be done is no longer happening.

But that is only part of it, and I hope you’ll understand ( I hope you’ll believe me) that the rest of it is a disillusionment with how I assumed this whole ‘being a species’ thing was supposed to work. I thought it meant that we could disagree and still be fine. I thought it meant that we could fight but still value each other as fellow species members. I thought that basically, we all wanted to be the good guy and we all agreed what a good guy looked like, just, honorable, and compassionate. What shook me so hard last November was not the realization that lots of people have different ideas about tax policies or the ideal purview of the federal government. What shook me was the type of rhetoric we are all apparently fine with now. If it means our team scores a point, it’s okay.

I read comment sections, a lot, more than I usually read actual articles. I don’t know why I do it other than a general morbid fascination. I see more and more, in the arguments that take place there, that even the people I agree exhibit none of the qualities I considered a basic foundation of decency. I’d like to sit out. I no longer want to be associated with any of it. But what is my other choice, apathy?

I firmly believe that political activity is the responsibility of any citizen of a democracy. More than that, I am a Socialist, I believe that there are solutions to be found for societal problems that can only be realized through dynamic and responsive governance. Even in this poisonous environment, I cannot accept that debate is a lost cause. We have to get back to the point where we can disagree with respect because disagreement is good, respectful disagreement builds compromise and compromise is democracy.

I’m not complaining about the election really. This isn’t about the election. This problem could not have just sprung up during 2016 and stuck around while winners and sore losers both refused to let it go. Something this big has to have deeper roots than one presidential race. I think that the race, if anything, was the result of our loss of compassion, our ability to accept any sort of behavior so long as it meant points for our team. We are okay with all the insults because the ones being insulted don’t deserve our respect.

There’s are a couple lessons I learned as a child;

  1. It doesn’t matter who started the fight. If you hurt somebody, say you’re sorry.
  2. If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all.

The fact is, sometimes you meet people you don’t like. Sometimes these people are mean to you. Sometimes these people are mean to your friends. But the rules of human decency don’t get suspended if the other guys started it. That’s what I learned when I was young. Where did that go?

We might be giving other people too much credit. It’s easier to believe that people don’t deserve compassion if you assume that they must know what they are doing and that it’s all part of some dastardly agenda. They must know what you know about the consequences of their actions or beliefs and just not care.  How can you argue with a person who is purposefully trying to hurt you? We feel attacked and so we strike back.

But we’re all just making this up as we go along, remember? People tend to find a position and stick to it with all their might because that helps keep them orientated while they pretending to know what they’re supposed to be doing in life. If we are being attacked, it’s by people who are just as frail and lost as we are. Our responses should be tempered by the understanding that being wrong is not the same thing as being evil.

Compassion should remind you that when people are mistaken they deserve your patience, not your anger. Your sense of justice should remind you that the respect you expect from others should be given regardless of whether or not it is reciprocated. Your sense of honor should remind you that you (and only you) are responsible for the hate or the love which you put out into the world.

I miss the idealism of being a kid. I miss believing that adults had some ace up their sleeve, a secret that made the world okay, less scary. But I don’t think that the cynicism and anger of political rhetoric are inevitable when I give up that idealism. If I want change I’ll start with me.

My goal in writing this is to remind myself of a new lesson:

  • There will be people in the world who I don’t like and who hold opinions which I think are harmful to society. No matter what, the rules of decency still apply, always.

That is my basic truth. I hope it’s universal, but regardless I’m going to try and live up to it.

Fight No More Forever

Wednesday was the anniversary of the surrender of the Nez Perce at Bear Paw which brought an end to the Nez Perce War. I didn’t want to let the day pass too far by me without remembering what Chief Joseph said on that day 139 years ago;

“Tell General Howard I know his Heart. What He told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting, Looking Glass is dead. too-Hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are–perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

This speech is both haunting and incredibly beautiful, but I’ll try not to focus too hard on the beauty. Often in American culture, when we do acknowledge indigenous people, it is with a kind of orientalism. New agey myths surround the “wisdom” of the first Americans as if they only existed as shaman proffering a fun spirituality that we can pick-up in our twenties and decorate our facebooks with, then just as easily toss aside for the next culture we want to fetishize. In remembering Chief Joseph’s words, I want to remember that this was a human man who suffered great loss.

But I do think it’s important to remember these words because they, like all beautiful things, reach a place in ourselves that would otherwise be unreachable. They are a visceral reminder that this nation was built on a genocide. (And if you now want to stop reading this now because you don’t like that last statement you’re actually exactly who I want to talk to (hopefully not lecture, but talk to)). I don’t think we love our country any better by pretending history never happened. I don’t think blindness is good patriotism.

We pick and chose and borrow and steal from those parts of this nation’s history that are beautiful, affirming, and encourage us to think of ourselves as the hero of history. We get very, very angry at anyone pointing out that firebombs killed civilians in WWII, internment camps imprisoned law abiding US citizens and stole their property, slavery was an evil that made America rich (North and South), the wounds of Jim Crow have NOT healed. We get very, very, very angry when a man uses his very public stage to say that justice is not available to everyone in this country.

The outcry is “How dare you not love this country!” But if that’s how you love your country, I don’t think you and your country have a very healthy relationship. Total and unquestioning acceptance is not love. It is not loving to sit in silence while your loved one hurts herself. It is not patriotism to make standing for a song, repeating a pledge, and never ever criticizing, the hallmarks of good citizenry. Especially in a democracy where it is our duty to be vigilant protectors of this fragile experiment.

Love for America is not contingent on the belief that America is without sin. Rather, the ability for democracy to grow, and learn, and change, depends on people challenging the complacency of believing we’re perfect. That is what we should take pride in, protestors are patriots. I believe that we are strong enough to challenge ourselves and overcome, to acknowledge the sins of our past and from them learn to do better and be better. That is how I love my country. So from time to time, I remind myself of the worst parts of history so that I can find ways to make us better.

Quick thought on hate speech

Please read this article to know what I’m talking about (tldr; the number of hate crimes against the Muslim American community is on the rise.

This violence is a direct result of hate speech. It is not a coincidence. It is not just some people taking it too far. Continual statements from public figures that demonize all of Islam, that spread fear about people who think and look differently, that propose that an American citizen who practices Islam is anything other than an American citizen. Those statements create a hateful cloud of misinformation from which acts of violence are the lightning strikes.

Those that commit hate crimes don’t do so because they are ‘lone wolves’ and they don’t do so because they are misunderstanding what a politician is saying when he’s “telling it like it is.” Picking out a group as ‘unamerican,’ repeatedly making statements about the danger of this group, makes that group into an ‘other.’ (An ‘other’ is a nameless, faceless, straw-man diametrically opposed against everything that you are.) A group, once othered, is subhuman. They are not worthy of empathy, their lives mean less.

For example, look at the discourse surrounding the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust. The victims of those crimes were likened to vermin. They were said to be the enemies of the ‘true’ people. Nurturing the othering of any human is the first step in every terrible act that the human race is capable of.

That is why I say that hate speech is the direct cause of hate crimes, not the unfortunate misunderstanding of a misguided few. It is true that not everyone who spreads hate speech commits hate crimes, but everyone that commits hate crimes believes in the hate speech. Those that perpetrate violence do so because they are acting on the necessary extension of the logic laid down by hate speech, “these people are not my people”, “these people don’t belong here”, “these people are my enemy.” They feel that their actions are legitimate because those in authority repeatedly tell them that they are under attack.The repeated message “All practicers of Islam are the same. America is at war with Islam. To be Muslim is to be against ‘true’ America*.” sinks in, people believe it is true and act as if it were true. Without hate speech constructing that dichotomy of the other and the “true American” violence would have no narrative through which to legitimize itself.

Words have power. It is with words that people create their understanding of the word  and their understanding of themselves. There is no such thing as an innocuous statement, particularly from a person with power and privilege. Perhaps if we were living in a culture that valued substance over sound bites we might be better equipped to critically pull apart all that is entailed in a public statement. But until then we should recognize hate speech for what it is, a threat to peace.

* “True American” can be interpreted as “White Christian”

 

Far from the Home I Love

Okay, the emotional pitch of that allusion may be a tad overdramatic for what I’m actually dealing with. I’m not leaving my traditional home to marry a communist who’s been exiled to Siberia. But I did leave my hometown, and it is my favorite song from Fiddler on the Roof, so it’s my title.

It’s odd to leave the place you’ve spent practically all your time at 28. If I had done it ten years sooner then maybe it would feel more natural. But to commit 28 years to one familiar place then leave… I’m joining the game awful late and I don’t feel properly stretched.

I don’t think I’m homesick. I don’t want to go back at all. But I do find myself doing homesick-like things. I didn’t use to be social. I used to cancel plans about 60% of the time just for the sheer thrill of laziness. But now that I know I can’t just go out and see a friend whenever I want I find myself calling people- on the phone- having conversations out loud- it’s unlike me.

I don’t know the streets here. I’ve been driving on the same streets for 28 years and now I have all new ones to learn. The stores are different, the landscape is different. Different is everywhere. I don’t hate it. For real, I’m not homesick… I’m disorientated. My parents have lived in the same house since I was two and I’ve always lived less than thirty minutes away from that house.  I have never had to acclimate to something so unfamiliar before, so it’s the acclimating that’s unfamiliar.It’s like living your life with one color scheme, all browns and yellows, and then suddenly waking up in a world of greens and blues.

I’m making this place sound way more exotic than it is, by the way. I should be clear – I’m in Delaware.

But still, Delaware is different than Dallas and, like I’ve said, I’ve had so little different up until now.  It’s not communists in Siberia but it is grad school in the Northeast and I find that just exciting enough at the moment.

I meant to leave sooner. My plan was never to get stuck, I wanted to travel, I swore to myself I would travel. That’s the other part that feels odd. Isn’t 28 a bit old to finally start doing the things you swore you were going to do when you were 8? If this were the middle ages I’d be dead by now!

Grad school has been my dream. A dream that seemed totally unreachable when I was struggling through community college ten years ago when I should have been leaving Dallas. Now the dream is here. I’m here. It doesn’t seem real yet. I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time getting to this point. I feel like a phoney that will at any moment be recognized and laughed back to Texas.

But I am here. I’ve signed a lease. I’ve updated Facebook. There is no backing out now.

Better late than never, I suppose.

 

(Seriously listen to the song, you’ll cry.)

 

The Unhelpful Downward Spiral

I don’t know what good it does anyone to write about depression in the middle of an episode. But part of depression is not knowing what ‘good’ is…so, what the hell. I’ll take a crack at it.

The thing is,  when I start feeling better I won’t remember what this feels like. I’m already feeling good enough to write so I’m probably already losing it.

When I’m deep in it, it’s this feedback loop of every negative. “You’re annoying.” “People don’t like you.” “You will never be happy ” “You will always be alone.” My bastard brain turns that stuff up, like it’s it’s jam, and drowns out everything else.

The tyranny of negative thinking starts converting the positive too. “Your mom really loves you.” Becomes, “you are a burden.” Bright shinning lights at the end of the tunnel become the train hurtling towards you, because you have managed to mess up everything you touch so far so you’ll probably destroy that too. Besides, you’re a fraud and any good you do get you certainly don’t deserve.

I don’t know what good this does, writing this down. I know that the people who don’t get depression think that I’m just moaning on out of self pity and an inability to embrace life, and thing is… that’s almost exactly what it is. I can’t switch-off the self pity and I can’t embrace life.

But this is not by choice.  Believe me if there was any other way I could choose to be I would not be this. My whole body hurts. I feel like I’ve been up for 48 hrs no matter how much I sleep. And joy is like a foreign language I barely speak. I feel so much guilt that I am surrounded by wonderful friends and family but I cannot snap out of this bullshit misery.

I wanted to write this down because I’m in that middle spot between full blown meltdown and upswing. I still kind of understand the rationale of my meltdown. And the first thing I always forget is how self pity fuels me. No that I’m self pitying, but that the guilt of feeling sad, and not trusting I’m loved, and feeling worthless, that guilt is my negative feedback loops greatest hit.

I know that my pain is exhausting for people to have to hear about because I’m exhausted of feeling it. Other people’s pain is awkward and a burden. I feel so much shame for my social failure to be happy. Maybe it’s that guilt that makes me forget when I feel better what the downward spiral is and what it does to me.