on letting go | part 4
the rubble of American self-righteousness
In keeping with the theme of letting go, and of moving forward, there are several thoughts that have come up with me in the wake of several (additional) crises that have played out over the last several weeks. While Marianne Williamson (yes, her) put some of them in much more succinct terms than I possibly ever could in her Washington Post column, I am sure it cannot hurt to reiterate them, and go on about them, either.
We need all the help we can get.
To start, trash. This will come off mildly humblebraggadocious (eat that, Mary Poppins), but the urge to pick up trash, bits of it lingering on the sidewalk and in the gutter, is a strong one with me. What a confession, I know. But I find it baffling and cannot explain why. It’s a reluctant urge, which I suppose translates to a compulsion, of which I have a slew in my arsenal. So, in the end, most likely I want to pick it up simply because it is there.
It’s a reflex, that said, that is much easier to bypass in my current home of Richmond, where a plastic bottle that’s been run over one too many times is moreso a part of the landscape than it is in my hometown of Sterling (aka Potomac Falls).
Sterling/Potomac Falls is a highly developed area of Northern Virginia, which is a region already defined, all told, by development. In Richmond, the pick-it-up programming can be countered by, yes-but-there’s-so-much damn trash, you-can’t-clean-it-all-up, there-are-bigger-problems, now-keep-walking. Pride, shame—I can’t say this decision makes me feel much of either, because there is only so much one can reasonably do in a city of any size, including of a Richmond-size, and I’ve come away from these mini crusades with enough questionable sludge spilled on my hands to know better.
In Northern Virginia, though, it’s curious. There, my visits always involve long walks in spaces and on trails that look overgrown, and far removed from civilization, when in reality they are about fifty feet from a subdivision. Just recently, one of those walks led me to a well-worn path I used to run up and down all the time while growing up here. As I followed it, I noticed the path, usually so perfectly pruned, was pockmarked with freshly drained and crushed Twisted Tea cans, Meyer lemon-yellow and bright against the crushed gray gravel, two of them dropped at a time at points separated by about two hundred feet of distance.
A story. There was a story there. Or at least I wanted there to be. One of, maybe, teenagers on a late-night outing, a stroll of their own; they were out of school, home for the summer, aimlessly wandering and drinking and swapping stories—
but fast-forwarding through this half-story led to the thought of, I wonder if I should pick those up.
Should, I suppose, is the operative word, and the one that stuck. Should. Another compulsion, more externally imposed this time, because picking up trash is what you’re supposed to do, what we all should do, because it makes everything look and feel better and is good for the earth and the birds and, while we’re at it, builds character, I suppose.
And, sure, it’s a meaningful should. Ultimately, I am not as against trash removal as I sound; in this situation, doing so may have served all of these purposes. But the impetus, I realized, was none of the above. It was to make it look as though the litter in question was never there to begin with. To erase this very ugly human artifact. Which is a very nicely packaged metaphor for suburbia and all of its trappings and how it came to be. And, by extension, the kind of aspirational nature of the so-called American dream.
Growing up in Lowes Island, my particular suburb of Sterling/Potomac Falls, said aspirations were, on the whole, within reach. It’s an interesting place to grow up. Like any suburban area, it is not entirely removed from the collateral damage that comes from development. Like any place now, it has a wide economic gap that seems to have grown an inch wider every time I return. Yet in spite of that edging-away, the expectations of ages ago have remained, and if they were heavy ten years ago, I cannot imagine what weight they have gained since. Expectations of surpassing a 4.0 grade point average, of following a subscribed college-to-career path, of filtering into said path by grade 10 or sooner.
You can embrace all of it or you can decidedly question it. From observation, it seems that sometimes going in one direction leads you to an opposite destination. I guess you’d call that failure, or something like that. I have not yet discovered a middle path—one of being grateful for stability and safety and a good education while otherwise saying sayonara to the incomprehensible blanket standards. But after several years of failure to integrate either way, I am searching.
To clarify, I spent most of my adolescence in a state of irritation, never really breaking rules or going against the grain of the culture surrounding me, but never really being a part of it, either. (Not a path I’d recommend, offhand.) I found a niche and stuck myself in it and didn’t voice my myriad concerns. It might have served me well. Instead, I was the girl who lived in a nice neighborhood and whose parents made decent livings but still had the nerve to sporadically interject such high-horse tidbits into class discussions as: “I think wealth just gives people a false sense of security.” (Which I suppose I still believe to a degree but, I hope, with a little more nuance. And/or empathy. Since some of that security is not false.)
(Also, I was quickly shut down by a friend’s response about money meaning you could afford a good security system, which is telling, so that’s where it stopped.)
Yet that left me with the feeling, however untrue, that for some people, this was It. And if it wasn’t my It, there had to be something else. But what?
The question I never really asked—instead of that initial, very usual one—was, what if this was nobody’s It? What then? And if it wasn’t, why not?
And I am wondering if the litter on the gravel path was offering an outright answer, or a suggestion toward one. Or, more specifically, my reaction to those off-color cans held a potential answer. That is: the compulsion to “clean up,” maybe, is often misused, even abused, and that is why this land of admittedly excellent schools and well-kempt roads was not and is not any sort of Utmost. Maybe it was meant for something good, or maybe it was meant to shelter the wealthy from the problems of urban decay. But has all been cleaned and pruned one too many times, sidestepping deeper problems and actual decay too easily, letting the experience of being fallible and human fall to the wayside in the name of so-deemed perfection. Betterment.
Which leads to another question entirely: is there a reason any of us still believes in this strangely distant/nonexistent Utmost?
Today is September 11th, 2019, and ten days ago (already) there was a shooting at a shopping mall in Odessa, Texas. The live coverage was tremulous and terrifying. Even in the wake of Saturday, August 3rd, 2019, which was, if it’s already fallen out of conscious, what some were calling a landmark day in this recent-but-stark history of American mass shootings.
Even to those who’ve become numb to it all, all of this should be at minimum, jarring. It should be a wake-up call. Or it should be a sign—a sign that the turnabout of self-righteousness, that which has become cultural currency, has reached a breaking point.
Another unintended turn: it’s been 18 years since a landmark day of terrorist violence spurred our government toward what else but further violence. And there are layers of self-righteousness in that, too. It still exists: you can still taste it in every word of the exploding-word Facebook-friendly culture that has bred more and more of the same.
Self-righteousness. That’s what it is. But, oh, how bad could that really be? Is that really so integral to these shootings? Because, with self-righteousness, all you really do is think you’re right, even a moral authority. You’re stuck in your ways. How “bad” is that if you’re still “good”? At least you’re not hurting anyone. Stealing. Breaking the law. Crossing the border without documentation.
Until you’re crushing the spirit of someone you care about. You’re taking your anger out on others. You’re judging those you know nothing about.
And then. And then. Someone kills other people with that same fuel. And you look on in outrage, but outrage that is wavering, because deep in your gut, you know that what drove them sometimes drives you, too.
The rubbish scattered on the ground all around them, and around you? That’s been picked up. It’s the shit inside that’s gone unnoticed. Outside, that paved road and that perfect school and, while we’re at it, that Porsche—they’re all still there.
But even with the presence of these trappings, it’s suddenly clear that the cost at which they come is something deep.
In 2004, Lois Lowry published a beautiful, tragic, and eerily prescient novel called Messenger. Connected to her more prominent book The Giver, Messenger features a village that has long been home to people seeking refuge from other villages and towns, those more dangerous and less welcoming. But the village also becomes a place where a strange, malevolent figure appears, and encourages all of its residents to trade away parts of themselves for things they think they want. By parts, I mean traits—of personality, of character. That which makes them human. By things, I mean occasionally, objects; other times, objects of vanity. Youth, wealth. It is all a game to this visiting stranger.
As this village is steadily drained of its kindness and vitality, it becomes a place of angrily construed borders. Yes, those outsiders who were once taken in start to be met with hostility. And the once-open-hearted villagers start to build—if you can believe it—a wall.
So it becomes, you could say, “clean” and contained. Just, in the story, without giving too much away, this so-deemed cleanliness is not without cost. The forest beyond that wall starts turning violent, swamplike, horrid and foreboding. It is as if it has taken on the natures of those who’ve lost themselves. And it is that change, ultimately, that comes with its own cost.
As it always does. It’s a simplistic metaphor, but its truth is sincere and big: we are always a tradeoff away from a new story.
There are so many layers of problem linked to the many massacres that have unfolded since Columbine, and that of gun control is only one of them. By that I mean not to take a stance, because while I have one, it’s not the point here. Rather, my point is to pose questions, because there seem to be several that have not yet been asked (except in the earlier-linked piece, of course).
Beyond that of why guns remain accessible, why are they being chosen in the first place? Maybe because they are the fastest, the loudest, the most domineering of weapons. Maybe because, not only do all of those traits translate to effectiveness, they also have come to serve as thoroughly American.
Maybe because fast, loud, and domineering have stayed ingrained as some people’s idea of freedom.
Save for family history, I have so little experience with guns, I scarcely am positioned to say much about them as objects, as tools. However, there is a family history: my great-uncle, for example, knew how to make them, and he kept them on hand for protection in his isolated hillside Roanoke home. He would certainly be, were he still living, firmly in the camp of retaining access to firearms because some people use them for those purposes. And I can see why, when I take his perspective and recall the contexts in which he lived and grew up.
But yet, in so doing, I am reminded that two separate cultural contexts have bled together, or rather, have always been blended while still at odds, and they are as follows. There is the idea of an America where everyone starts with nothing, and everything earned is deserved. And there is the reality of an America where nothing is equal but everything is supposed to be.
Not everyone has reconciled these. It is all too easy to cling to an idea. And if the competing voices are loud enough, you can bet a great many people will remain confused for a very long time, and let their confusion turn into something worse.
With the rhetoric both on and of racism that has poured forth lately, perhaps it is finally okay to say that these mass shootings both are and are not about guns. Even if it is not, I was hoping for a space to say: perhaps this both is and is not about guns.
I know how helpful that comes across. But, bear with me for a moment: for better or for worse, guns and the right to own them are very, culturally anyway, American. And for better or for worse, guns themselves serve as extensions of the self for many people, apparently. They are tools, but they are also outlets for aggression and for action, and they package and concentrate these forces and send them forth to burst out and cause whatever result they may. Sometimes that result is damage and death. They are a manifestation of the Manifest Destiny, and some people love that, and use that manifestation as a means to hunt and for sport and, I suppose, to feel alive.
Others use it to express fear.
And then a few others, as we’ve all seen, channel that fear into action. By which I mean, bloody murder.
All of this, at least when it comes to heritage, is, again, very American. And that leads to the part about why this is not about guns. Because, on a larger scale, it is still moreso about the reasons they are used. That need for force, and domination. At this point I could repeat every song-and-dance about why this group of mostly young white men believes they need force and domination anymore, and why they are seeking to grab it for themselves, but it would make no difference, because you know those rhythms inside and out, and anyway, all of those reasons have only proven to translate to racism and violence and hatred, and everyone knows that now, even if they pretend not to know.
That is the part that needs guns to survive, yes, but is not about guns.
(Do you see the distinction? There is a distinction. And both thoughts need addressed, but distinctively. Separately.)
That part of this problem that needs guns to survive is about ideology that, for a breath, for a fraction of a second, I nearly called “dead” in this sentence, before remembering it was a misnomer. It obviously has never died. Shadows, after all, loom larger when left unexamined. And most of us, myself included, can be too self-righteous to look past the surface-level trash, and the pockmarks, of which gun violence is one.
What is so terrifying about looking deeper, though?
Perhaps it is that getting to truly know thyself is a long, hard, painful process. One to which the temperament of the United States is not so accustomed.
If the supposed American ideal is little more than a superficial veneer, and such problems as this one are equal to rubbish that mars that veneer but alludes to a deeper difficulty… then there is a lot of work to be done.
But we all know this. And we all know that gun control is not the only solution thereby. Of course, to stop the bleeding from the deeper wounds, urgent action in the form of legislation is needed. That tourniquet can keep an awful thing from worsening.
What, then, is the next layer? Is it mental health? If our national discourse on mental health were not so wanting, then perhaps it could be. But there’s a defiance, seemingly, around deepening it, and freeing it of paid opinions and research, and including elements of the social, spiritual, emotional landscapes.
(Some people are actually doing this but they do not seem very accessible by the average person. There is still so much misinformation and mythology out there.)
Is it mental health, or is it something beyond that? I know and hear quite a few people talk about how central the family unit is, how its state of recent instability creates chaos in this manner.
But that comes from somewhere deeper, too. It is not standalone. It, too, is systemic.
Systemic. That’s a word we hear so much lately. What does it mean in this situation/anymore? Because systemic, by definition, means “relating to or affecting an entire body or organism.”
We talk so much about systemic racism, about making amends and reparations for the slavery-ridden past. But there is still so little action. And I wonder if that action is stalled because that long, hard, deeper look has not happened. Because there is still a majority of people saying, “I am not the problem, I’m sorry. I have to step out of this.” Because there are systemic qualities that led to slavery and racism, not unlike, mind, those qualities that are tearing people’s spirits in half.
But you cannot convince anyone that they are part of a problem until they are willing to do so. The only reason I know this is because, before I knew myself better (cannot claim to know myself as well as I want to), I was willing to absorb the beliefs of the people I thought were, I am ashamed to admit, more powerful by way of their knowledge. I thought for myself, but only to a degree. I already tend toward malleability, anyway, and a loss of self in favor of connection that can be as dangerous as it is freeing. It has taken, and continues to take, a great deal of inner work and outer growth to change that.
But, clearly, I am not alone in all of that. Maybe it is less a personality trait, and more of a survival tactic.
And no matter how much we as a people progress, in the end, survival is all some of us think we really want. Even if we have deeper needs than that.
So I do not pretend to have any answers beyond the idea of a massive collective self-examination. Or an attempt at one done top-level for the culture at large. But until there is any sort of reciprocation or return on doing so, who can say what will lead people there?
Usually—and for me, on a personal level, it was like this—it only happens when the pain of living into what is not right is great enough.
Are we there yet?