THE BRIDGE - Michelle Beers
Some months ago I found myself driving north on I-95 to Philadelphia trapped in dense summer traffic on a bridge overpassing the Susquehanna River. On this particular trip I was traveling with a good friend unfamiliar with the area and my intense, and admittedly unreasonable, fear of bridges. As we inched across the bridge, idling in my stick shift between first and second gear, the only conversation I could manage was a string of predictable complaints: “Where are all these people going?” “Don’t they know we have somewhere to be?” and of course my fear stricken plea “I really hope this bridge doesn’t collapse beneath us. We’d be goners for sure!” My friend had been playing along up to this point “Yes this is an awful lot of traffic” and “It seems no one told them we were coming to make way”, but when I began to express my fear of falling off the edge of the bridge lodged somewhere in between an 18-wheeler and a Prius she paused without immediate response. I didn’t take notice right away—likely too focused on the story I was building up in my mind about the traffic jam in front of us with me at the center of it. After a moment my friend replied, but this time not with passive agreement, instead with a question: “Michelle, why must the bridge collapse?”
When I was 18 I left home as the first person in my family to go to college. I grew up poor and viewed life only through the experiences of violence that poverty breeds. My father was homeless for the majority of my young life, and to fill his absence my mom worked long and hard to raise myself and my three older brothers. Our lives were crowded, messy, conflict-ridden, and, ultimately, complicated. Any opportunities available to me were skewed by this perception of violence, limitation, and fear. Thus, going to college wasn’t a given or a natural consequence of my own life circumstances. The first option, to stay where my family was, I knew. Others who look like me and carry my name have followed this well-worn path. The second option was murky, distorted by perhaps empty promises of prosperity, and required leaving everything I knew behind me. It was the first time in my life I felt suspended over a set of circumstances, trapped above my own life, without actually being able to live it. I began thinking, feeling, and acting in fear. My high school graduation resembled an impending turning point: either I would remain in the grueling and shameful places of my childhood or I would leave them. Neither the former or the latter option was clear or laden with freedom.
In the end I left. The subsequent decisions I made, or did not make, as a result of this choice are not important. I am no better or wiser than another person, and how I have decided to conduct myself in complicated situations has not always been good, honest, or worthy of merit or glory. What is important is what fear has taught me. Fear is a simple expression and motivates us to simple thinking by leading us to ask: where is the quickest exit? And while this question may be alluring it distorts the truth which is that life does not have to be marked by a set of impossibilities. Rather, with faith, hope, creativity, and compassion we possess the capacity to see possibilities in the darkest, most fearful of situations.
I have told this part of my story many times, both in informal moments and at more formal events like this one. My persistent hesitancy in telling my story and using my life as an illustration of some greater message is that the honest emotional experience of my life will be lost. The words poverty, violence, and food insecurity—to name a few—are typically, in these settings, received objectively in an academic tone without challenge, but in reality these terms are experienced subjectively and viscerally. When I think of my father now living in senior public housing, visiting the local food pantry for meals, managing type 2 diabetes, Lyme’s disease, and PTSD, or when I think of the number of times he has given me $50 checks on my birthday which I do not bother depositing because I know they will bounce my mind does not go to the statistics that are intended to represent other men like him. My gut-wrenches into nausea, I loose my breath momentarily, and become dizzy with fear that I may end up like him because we are linked by blood, and name, and the same freckled hands, and boxy chin, and emerald eyes. And I feel shame and guilt on top of it all for having left him and a storied legacy of tired impoverishment that terrifies me.
But I continue to share this part of myself, especially with all of you here this evening, because I know your fear is not objective. Your fear is physical and paralyzing. It cannot be captured in yet another New York Times interactive map detailing which social factors contributed to the result of our nation’s last election. The only way to honestly capture your fear and challenge it is to name the moments it takes your breath away, pulls tears to your eyes, and forces you to sit down while you ask yourself “Why?” and “How?” and “What now?” and “How do I keep living?” These are moments of fear which our honest and needed, but do not capture the whole story.
Just like when I was 18, and when on the bridge this summer, seemingly stuck indefinitely, there is so much we cannot see or predict while we are suspended in this moment of our nation’s history. But we can push back against a narrative of fear, a narrative of impossibility and sorrow and paralyzation. We can do so by inviting ourselves to see past the traffic jam and find a sense of calm on the bridge.
“Why must the bridge collapse?”
“Why must we give into our fear of a false reality?” A reality which is not certain and does not hold the power to define us.
For each other’s sake, our own, and that of our collective humanity I feel that we are compelled in this moment, as I have felt at various other points in my life, to respond to our great needs as people of faith, people of hope, people of creativity, people of possibility, and people of compassion.
Michelle Beers is a graduate of Warren Wilson College with a bachelor's degree in social work. She is currently a fellow at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.