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We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For

In a powerful conversation with journalist Anand Giridharadas in The New York Times, Krista recently said,

“Anger is often what pain looks like when it shows itself in public.”

If that’s true, and I think it is, then it leads to another question: what is the nature of that pain?

I’ve watched the “performance” of this election with, admittedly, a bit of distance — mostly because I can’t stomach the play-by-plays when I know how many other worthy subjects are being neglected. But the part of the story that has captivated me most is the American public’s response to these characters that we have before us.

Each one of them, or so their campaign managers would have us believe, symbolize the antidote to a pain that ails us. Some of these pains are practical: you dread the arrival of surprise medical bills because you don’t have an extra to spare (turns out, nearly one-half of Americans say this is the case for them). Some of these pains are deeply existential: you thought that America was a place where, if you worked hard, you would get ahead, but experience after experience proves you’ve been duped.

The first pain is acute and requires a comprehensive redesign of our economic system — more complex, I would argue, than just “breaking up the big banks.” If that sounds daunting, and it is, the second pain can only be assuaged by a task even more challenging: a rewriting of the American narrative. So much of the existential pain that we see showing up during this election is actually born of the deep betrayal people feel about what they were led to believe America is. They’re expressing a crushing narrative grief in public.

The old story is so familiar, it almost feels silly to take the time to write it down: America is a place where anyone can get ahead if they work hard enough. It’s fair. It’s limitless. It’s yours.
The real story is something more like this: America is a place where there is comparatively broad opportunity, but accessing those opportunities is determined by a variety of factors, many of which you have little control over, including what family you were born into. It’s marginally fair. Its resources — economic and environmental, especially — are finite. It belongs to everyone. Which is to say it belongs to no one.

If we were truly sober about that second story, if we embraced it, warts and all, I think our pain would show up in public quite differently. It wouldn’t look like anger, an emotion that requires an object of blame (the banks, the immigrants, the Democrats, the Republicans); it would look like disappointment in ourselves. How have we, the most resourced country on earth, with the most diverse variety of minds and ideas to draw from, failed to rehab our most critical systems to be more sustainable and equal?

Image by Pablo Monforte/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

Maybe we would even find room for a little forgiveness of ourselves. Maybe we would zoom out from the pinprick of that surprise medical bill to the long, festering wound of a country that has, generation after generation, struggled to heal its most immoral and confused beginnings. We were born of genocide and slavery. We marginalized half of the human race for centuries. We became one of the richest countries in the world largely through a profound misunderstanding about growth and limitation, whether that was pillaging natural resources without any plan for replenishment or creating winners-take-all economic games that are largely divorced from reality.

Seen in that light, we’re facing a moment of deep reckoning. Krista called it a “new Reformation.” And then there was Parker’s riveting reflection on fascism, where he pointed out that this moment of authoritarian attraction and mob mentality is not an anomaly, but actually a manifestation of deep insecurity as the ground shifts under our feet — just as it has in other watershed moments in other trying times.

We are, by necessity, rethinking some of the most fundamental questions about who we are and what our answers mean about the kinds of systems we now need to create. Some of this is corrective — it turns out that our forefathers’ ideas about the kind of governmental system that would most powerfully represent the people was off; or has, at the very least, been corrupted. Some of this is pure invention. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin may have predicted the advent of the internet in 1922 with his “noosphere” concept, as Krista points out in Becoming Wise, but we haven’t really had these tools or known what they might be capable of until now.

We’re writing a new story — one that I hope embodies some of the same beliefs in human ingenuity and determination that the old, dead American dream did, but leavened with more sobriety about our failings thus far, more rapture for the beauty of smallness, and more focus on the collective, as opposed to the individual, project of making a life worthwhile.
One of the prayers I’ve found most useful over the years is this:

“May I see what I do. May I do it differently. May I make this a way of life.”

I’m struck that the whole country needs a prayer like that right now — something to remind us that we are capable of profound betrayal, but also fierce creativity; that we are in pain, but also that we are resilient. We are, still and always, the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Image by Pablo Monforte/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

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