We live in fractious times. It’s all too easy to cast difference as evil, and to adopt an attitude of enmity. Certainly there are times when resistance is needed, but more often than not it is the ideologies that mold people that require our attention, rather than the unthinking products of such dogma. The temptation to personal hatred is subtle and corrupting.
I love America, but I sometimes fear it.
I dream of America, but it sometimes shows up in my nightmares. I know I'm not the only one.
Living here has brought overwhelming gifts of love, community, service, creativity and hope.
It has also stimulated feelings of uncertainty, anger, and deep concern.
In his song DEMOCRACY, Leonard Cohen wrote of the US that "It's there they've got the range, the machinery for change, and it's there they've got the spiritual thirst." We're nearly a year in to a presidency that less than a third of US Americans voted for, but many of the rest of us are still experiencing some kind of exhaustion, mild dread, anxiety, and a sense of powerlessness.
It could be useful to reflect that the range, the machinery for change, the spiritual thirst are what allows someone like Donald Trump to think he could be elected, but they also nearly got such a common good-oriented figure as Bernie Sanders to the White House too.
They're what allows ideas and events as varied, brilliant and awful as the invasion of Iraq *and* the national parks system, the Transformers movies and Schindler's List, the writings of aggressive nationalism but also of Maya Angelou and Mark Twain, the alt-right and the civil rights movement, the subprime mortgage crisis and the existence of Habitat for Humanity.
In the war diaries he later published, Whitman wrote:
These Hospitals, so different from all others - these American young men, badly wounded, all sorts of wounds, operated on, pallid with diarrhea, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia, well they open a new world somehow to me, giving closer insights, showing our humanity, tried by terrible, fearfulest tests, probed deepest, bursting the petty bonds of art. To these, to him, what are your dramas and poems?
Whitman was not forsaking his art. Rather he was recognizing that there are times when art is not enough, a time when we have to get our hands dirty, when artists need to take a stand with our bodies. This is the tension that tugs at many artists who feel the need to go inward and artfully explore while all the time there are pressing needs around; we see family, friends, and strangers suffering. These propel us out of our sanctuaries into the flesh and blood of the world we try so hard to understand. For me this often feels like a messy affair of inadequacy as I fumble to give comfort and care. While the services I offer to the grieving, the sufferer, the person waylaid by a storm or injustice does not reflect the thoughtful, polished art I so much aspire to create, perhaps this physical manifestation of my concern, the “profound conviction of necessity,” the word made flesh, is art in itself. As Whitman reveals, we can enter a process of transfiguration in which our bodies become the poetry.
To say history rhymes means it doesn’t repeat itself, but there are resonant themes that return, which, I suppose, can be a thought filled with either hope or despair. Seamus Heaney wrote a poem in honor of Nelson Mandela called “The Cure at Troy” that closes with these lines:
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
I would like to think you can hear that rhyme at dinnertime—in the food prepared, the dishes digested, and the stories shared. Everything in the garden that gives its life for that moment, that meal, gives a rich and generous gift. At the table, we find nourishment and new life.
My granddad was a scholar—and a damn good one. Born and raised in rural Oklahoma, he left his simple upbringings, and all the struggle and trauma they
contained, to pursue the world of biblical scholarship. More than once, I’ve heard my grandmother refer to him as a “giant of a man.” And it seems he was, especially for his world. For 45 years, he taught and researched at various universities and lectured to audiences worldwide. He preached to his students the importance of a relentless pursuit of truth, and he himself lost much for that pursuit. He authored multiple works on the New Testament, archaeology, and the Apostle Paul, and his sweat mixed with the dirt of numerous archaeological digs in the Middle East. He raised three outstanding, service-minded sons, and he loved his wife with a dedication and fire all could admire.
Almost everything that made my grandparents giants together is an article of the past now.
I was haunted for years by the thought that it might happen: a startling deathbed revelation that a core belief on which I had built my life was faulty. I would see in an instant how hundreds or thousands of micro and macro decisions had issued from a false premise. Scientists encounter this phenomenon frequently in research, and have to go back philosophically and methodologically to the fork in the road and choose a different direction. But I would have no opportunity to do that, and would die immersed in regret amplified by realizing my unlived lives too late.
And then it happened. I recognized that I had told myself an untrue story for years. I had indeed acted upon it in ways I regretted. The saving grace was that this happened not on my deathbed, but in my mid-forties.
The greatest misunderstanding that people have about the USA until they live here is that it’s a country. I’ve been here for ten years, and the most surprising shift in my perception has been that the place might be better seen as really fifty nations, each with their own culture and laws, connected with their neighbors only as tightly as they want to be. This fact carries tension, of course, if you value coherence; but the liberating consequence is that if the first step to healing a place is knowing it, it may be much easier to know a state than the nation. The handful of key cities and rural communities that make up a state are conceivably knowable by a handful of people who care enough to steward the earth, nurture the people, and imagine “the next stage of good.” That phrase, coined by Bob Woodward to refer to the role of US American Presidents, is spacious and inviting. It’s a way to live. Looking out my window, seeing trees, but imagining the neighborhood and the city behind them, and the region behind those is a beginning of knowing. That knowing is vital to rootedness, and rootedness is the beginning of hospitality, and hospitality will save the world...
In my homeland of northern Ireland, lament for the past is real, but we are moving beyond the cruelty and toward owning our story, in all its painful and joyful variety. We know what it was like to live in a society governed by fear and hatred. We’re not going back.
Which brings me to the present moment, as it pertains to the fifty state experiment that may or may not actually be a nation. I’d like to offer some gentle thoughts on the state of the union, emerging from my experience of growing up in a place where we thought we could dominate each other, and are only recently discovering that our needs are shared. I’m going to sketch seven principles and practices for thriving in the current moment. Let’s begin with the one closest to each of us.