Monday, April 19, 2021

The Mystery of the Missing Word

It’s no secret that politics is everywhere these days, not only because of the instant accessibility of the Internet and the 24/7 addiction, but because we just lived through the horror of what happens when people (mostly white, but not entirely) think that they can either ignore it or chose a side and dig in their heels to insult and attack the other. 


Everyone has their theory about how to fix it, from abolish the Republican Party (great idea! but of course, another will spring up) to better law enforcement, both from police and the judicial system, to passing the bills in Congress that help people rather than hurt them, to more accountability for transgression in every walk of life, to better education. 


I’m in the “all of the above” camp, but particularly interested in education. But the issue isn’t that people who make bad choices, whether in the voting booth, the bedroom or the halls of Congress, are not intelligent enough. They may have done perfectly well on their SAT’S, gone to Harvard or Yale and still graduated using their intelligence to harm rather than help, to feed their greed over their generosity, to amass personal power over helping create cultural well-being, 


But from my perspective, the biggest failing is missing a name. It’s not a simple SEL label, which seems to be mostly about an individual feeling better about themselves, nor a moral issue, as the rioters are convinced that they are defending God and country, nor a spiritual problem, as many New Agers in touch with the nuances of their biorhythms and the ability to follow their breath don’t seem to understand they need to say something about policemen taking away other people’s (mostly black people’s) breath. A failure of imagination gets closer, as the ability to imagine the humanity and needs of the other, to imagine new solutions to new problems, has devolved to imagination as fantasy, the vulnerability to believing in far-flung conspiracy theories. I have an idea about the faculty we all possess that needs attention, but don’t quite have a name for it. So let me come in through a description. 


In her poem Flare, the poet Mary Oliver wrote: 


My father

was a demon of frustrated dreams, 

 a breaker of trust, 

a poor, thin boy with bad luck.

He followed God, there being no one else

he could talk to;

He swaggered before God, there being no one else

who would listen.…


Later in the poem she writes,


The voice of the child howling out of the tall, bearded,

muscular man, 

is a misery, and a terror.


How this jumped out having just read these sentences from Ijeoma Oluo’s new book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America: 


Why do these white men need to be angry at us? People of color are convenient scapegoats for white people who are disappointed by life’s outcomes. We are also the distraction that those in power point to when they want to void the blame for this country’s vast wealth and opportunity gaps. 


Do you feel the connection? Ms. Oliver’s father as a “demon of frustrated dreams,” that tall, muscular bearded man howling with his childish voice—and there were many of them in the Capitol insurrection— causing so much misery and terror to us all. And then those people in power teaming up with Fox News and hate radio to purposefully feed that anger with the lies of stolen elections and dangerous black people and affirmative action people of color coming for their jobs, all for their own power and profit and privilege.


So yes, legal action like throwing the rioters in jail and impeaching their supporters in Congress, legislation that limits Right Wing media’s power to keep feeding the lies, holding Twitter and Facebook to that same standard— all of this would help. But it doesn’t get down to the root of the cancer. 


Imagine with me that white men—and of course, all people— were given an education that led them to their own genius untethered from the fantasy of power and money as some standard of success. That they began to court failure as hints from the soul as to how to stand up stronger instead of whine like a child. That they were educated into the connections between their wounds and their gifts. That they grew up amongst caring people who would actually listen to them rather than converse with some indifferent imaginary God. These people would not be vulnerable to blaming others, to scapegoating, could see these vicious tactics from the Right for what they are and refuse complicity in the big lie that these politicians put forth and then laugh behind closed doors. The vicious trickery to poor whites that “Hey, you’re one of us. Just because you’re white, you’re better than them. And sure, just work hard and you can have 10 cars and a yacht too!” Snicker, snicker, snicker. 


But what is the name for this quality I’m trying to capture here? It’s not precisely character or morality or emotional intelligence. It’s not exactly mental health and psychological well-being, while closer, is too clinical. Finding the language for something is the first step toward understanding and needed change, but the needed term eludes me. 


But whatever the term, it is the best road I can imagine to long-term and effective healing. Once you refuse to vilify the other, reject basing your identity on fantasies of superiority bequeathed to you without any effort on your part, determine to strive harder to fulfill your promise, everything changes. For you personally and the culture at large. Everyone wins. 


But it’s not available on or by purchasing an ap. It takes a long, long concerted effort, mostly by you, but also by those surrounding you. It’s not just your individual problem, it’s a cultural collective problem that needs everyone on board. Schools, workplaces, churches, neighborhoods, wherever people gather. 


So join me in the search for the right term and then we can gather our personal and collective energies and get to work. Help me solve the mystery of the missing word. Any ideas? 

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