What I Find in Times of (Personal) Crisis

In these past few weeks immediately preceding and following the election, I have been admittedly rather morose about prospects for the future. Which is probably only fair, when you're hanging your hopes for change on a political process and not on the polis that the process seeks to organize and govern. In my defense, the polis has also been disappointing. But as it is closer to home and nearer to my heart, the picture they compose has more details to it than mere disappointment can convey.

"I have just seen the largest pale yellow splodge in the clouds that I shall see in my lifetime. #deeplymoved #cosmicsignificance #wordsfailme" {Andy Jones, 11/15/16}

The above lines are shamelessly reprinted without permission from a friend's recent tongue-in-cheek Facebook post about the supermoon. And you're probably going to think I'm crazy (go ahead--I'll think I'm crazy in two years when I come back and read this post), but when I read that in the context of recent events, I kind of want to laugh hysterically and maybe cry a little bit too.

Because it feels like a perfect summation of recent events. Something big happened, yes. For lots of people, it was a meaningful something, although the meaning you find in it varies by the weight you place on different factors relevant to interpretation (was that a truism? I'm sorry if it was). But at the end of the day, it's also a bit absurd and comical. This feels like an appropriately Chestertonian view of the situation: that something huge is not therefore important and, more importantly, not serious--and may indeed be quite the opposite if we're willing to look at it the right way 'round, which is to say that maybe we need to stop looking through the wrong end of the telescope, or through a telescope or microscope or any scope at all. What's right in front of our faces is what we have to work with. Let us proceed accordingly.

Now that I've got all of that off my chest, and hopefully absolved myself of the charge of being too bitter or hopeless: a happier subject.

Sometimes it's easier to turn our sights on national crises, because they're too big for one person to solve and you and I both know that from the get go. If we just throw words at those problems, well, who's really to blame us at the end of the day? What can be more difficult to face are the personal crises that come up in our day to day lives. These are emotionally charged, immediate, urgent, and blurred or distorted by how we are situated in the midst of them. They change how we see the world and how we respond to it (a good thing to remember before any of us judge anyone else for decisions made out of fear, distress, or anger). So we panic. Because I can't solve a lot of things by myself. I have needs that I can't meet, and beyond those, things that I want to do, but can't.

I was listening to a podcast recently, an episode of On Being with Krista Tippett interviewing Congressman John Lewis talking about "the art and discipline of non-violence." At one point, he mentions a phrase with which I am familiar from other discussions about the civil rights movement, but which always strikes a chord with me: the Beloved Community. The below is taken from The King Center's website, and I'm going to the trouble of an extensive quote because I feel like I couldn't say it better:

"For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

Dr. King’s Beloved Community was not devoid of interpersonal, group or international conflict. Instead he recognized that conflict was an inevitable part of human experience. But he believed that conflicts could be resolved peacefully and adversaries could be reconciled through a mutual, determined commitment to nonviolence. No conflict, he believed, need erupt in violence. And all conflicts in The Beloved Community should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill."

These paragraphs use certain significant buzzwords: nonviolence, global vision, racism, discrimination, conflict. They are a big picture. But as with all big pictures, they start here, on the ground, with individual people performing small daily acts. Sometimes those acts are not obviously or overtly about overcoming issues of race or conflicts. But they are the small graces that make a community healthier over time, that overcome divisions of class and economy or differences of opinion, that are the training ground upon which we are taught to work together peaceably and wherein we learn that our success does not lie in our individual strength, but in our shared strength as a community.

With that in mind, some things I have found in times of personal crisis (and you thought I was just pulling that title out of a hat--fair enough, I usually do):

1.) You learn how strong your support group is. I grew up without a lot of the supports that most people expect from their parents. Oh, there was a never a time that my dad didn't manage to put food on the table, but I knew that it was hard sometimes, and he made his dollars stretch with the garden and Mom's freezing and preserving, and most of my clothes came from thrift stores and charity bags. But in so many other regards, I was raised with the tacit recognition that if I didn't do it, nobody else was going to do it for me, and to expect otherwise would be to burden and trouble someone who already had enough on their plate.

So it's a bit surreal when you're confronted with a problem, you start taking stock of your options, and you think you know what you're going to have to do, but then this person out in left field says, "Well if you buy X, Y has the space you need, and Z has the skills to help you do it: does that work?" Suddenly you've gone from I alone, to I, U, Y, and Z, all working together to pool resources, skills, connections, and favors, and the bleak prospect of being forced into a decision you don't want to make is... gone.

Because the weird thing about operating out of a sense of community is that when you step up to support someone or they step up to support you, you don't just bring or get one person. You also get the full force of all of the people they know and have supported, or you bring all the people you know and have supported over the years. There has to be a pebble to get the landslide going, but once it starts, it moves an army of boulders.

2.) Money has nothing to do with it. When you take stock of what you have, list your financial resources last, even if you're actually so comfortably well off that you can make a substantial difference that way. Look at your skills, look at the people you know, look at the places you have access to, look at the physical tools that you possess, and don't be afraid to think outside of the box.

Chances are, to make something happen, to make something change, to fix a problem, you'll need a little bit of all of those. And chances are good that if you're missing something, you know someone who has it.

3.) There is no end point. When you exclude money and explicit numerical transaction values, nobody ever manages to balance the books. This comes up somewhere in David Graeber's book, Debt. He mentions an African society in which people are regularly making small loans and gifts to one another, and their social interactions are structured around these small transfers. The key here is that you do not repay someone the exact amount or in the exact kind that something was given to you. This means that the exchanges must continue, because you have never settled. It would in fact be rude to do so, because it would signal to the other person that you want nothing more to do with them. Instead, with a few pennies here or a pound of flour there, you build up a lifetime of debts and repayments, and so you continue in relation to one another.

This is not an economy of exchange with a particular destination. It's an informal system that, because of its lack of definition and precision, leaves room to accommodate the crises, both large and small, that the members of a community face. The resources move to the points of greatest need, when they are needed. I do not own what is mine to use only as I see fit (notions of property have their place, but that which is mine is mine humbly and in trust, for we all die, and our possessions do not follow us to the grave), but as a service to others.

This is where I find my warmth on the colder nights. And for the regular readers of this blog, I believe that most of you fall well within the bounds of my community. I hope that in time I can offer you hopefully more (and maybe, sadly, less), something, but never perfectly equal, to what you have given me.

No comments:

Post a Comment