The line between. A light spilling through. The friend dressed in flowers gazes up at a ceiling of filigreed wood. She describes her new love of colored pencils, writing one word across a page over and on top until the word is laced into a web of color. The expression carries her to tears. She folds her sorrow into a page stitched with threads of graphite and pigment and calling.
She can hold the prayer on the tips of her fingers. A weight anchoring her to the dark place breaks free. She lifts toward light.
We walk from coffee shop to museum together. The street teems. Tents and umbrellas, chattering trios of men in shirtsleeves, open collars, Friday casual sundresses, women leaning over bowls of greens. Outside the White House, a man in a Trump mask dances on a soapbox swinging a sign that reads, “Militarization.” In the park opposite, a pop-up protest. Another sign. “FREEDOM & HUMAN RIGHTS > GUNS.”
The energy inspires. It re-animates those among us deflated by outrage fatigue. We fuel ourselves on the protest song, the sanctuary training, the canvasser knocking on doors. Each serves as a reminder that we can stay on message despite the furious pull to distraction and paralysis. Every public act of resistance and hope – however small – stitches us back together.
We navigate this throng, my friend and I, and feel tint and tone filling our outlines. We drink in color as if passing through Oz. Our neighbors here, drawing us back into Reverend Dr. King’s single garment of destiny.
So many days, it is easier to act from scarcity. Our sense of capacity shrivels in inverse proportion to our fear of losing that last shaky hold on control. The pressures diminish us. Bleed out the color. Working folks are doing a little more with a little less every day. And while computing the ratio of demands to resources may reveal a shortage, it is equally true that conceding to scarcity keeps us small. Keeps us protecting our tiny corners of the universe. Keeps us from imagining that we have the time or the energy to reach beyond the demands of our days to connect, create, serve. To act on our soul’s longing.
Believing in abundance is an audacious choice. It means moving on faith rather than evidence, on hope rather than the calculations offered up by calendars and paychecks. In fact, a belief in abundance may be superfluous. What matters more is to act as if. Engage with the day as if plenty exists. As if there is enough, and more.
Instead of sapping the stores, bringing more complete attention to our relationships and routines energizes. Even when we’re aware the clock is ticking, when we can never afford the payout, we can open towards wholeness.
One toxic myth blinds us to this possibility. It’s a swamp of lies, and every one of us a fish without a channel to the sea. The myth is that each of us is individually responsible for the functioning of our lives. Western perspective? American? Protestant? Pioneer? Set in a certain time and place, it is far from universally held. Except in the water where it seems the only truth.
The myth says that I alone must make sure I get a good education and earn a decent living. I alone am responsible for raising my children well. Following the laws. Meeting my partner’s emotional needs. I am the one tasked with managing my own physical, mental, and spiritual health. Staying informed. Voting thoughtfully. Keeping the house clean. Advancing my skills and career.
What did I miss here?
Oh yes. It is also my job to secure safe shelter for my family, manage the budget, plan for retirement, care for aging parents, stock the fridge, monitor the content of everything my kids consume, walk more, drive less, stay abreast of the weather, and get the library books back on time.
A little distance from the myth brings the impossibility of it into sharp relief, yet we don’t give ourselves that distance. Its distortions engulf us. This lie of individualism makes us judge any inability to meet these ridiculous standards as a personal failing. I am weak and ineffective if I cannot make rent or land a better job. If I end up sick or divorced, or if the bank repossesses the car, or if the school suspends my child. When these things happen, I alone am the problem. I alone need to try even harder to fix that problem. The problem of me.
Individualism’s dangerous fairy tale obscures the institutions and public goods that grow out of collective action. It scrambles the call to protect the most precious and critical parts of our world. It relies on the power of its shadow twin, exceptionalism – the secret sense that I am special, that I am apart in some way. My true nature and my unique pain have no parallel. I know myself different than the rest. Individualism uses exceptionalism to ensure that I belong first and foremost to me.
These obfuscations let leaders and even institutions themselves off the hook for ensuring that there are effective, fair, equitable ways for people to live decent lives. In an even more insidious way, it lets all of us off the hook from caring all that much about each other.
It isolates us in a false personalization of shared struggle.
What’s the alternative? “Community” sounds right but falls short. The word serves too many masters. It is a hard fact that this friend and I, as we weave together through the summer afternoon, have few communities in common. We identify with different faiths, countries of origin, native languages, sexual orientations. One of us is a married stay-at-home mom, the other a working single parent. We share only one or two friends. We don’t even live in the same state. Yet we each have a strong sense that the other is a core member of our community.
We need a different word, or at least of re-definition of community, that recognizes variations in geography, culture, values, and backgrounds. These elements work on each other to influence how well we sense our thriving interconnectedness. We have yet to coin a word from our narrow lexicon that captures the fullness of our shared truth. A word that ties us together in our shared garment of destiny.
Whatever the word, we have the choice to live as if it exists. Because, indeed, it already does.
Maybe each of us is a lot more like everyone else than we ever realized. This is not an erasure. Instead, it is a revitalization. Swimming free of that swamp water of individualism and exceptionalism brings us into fellowship with larger circles of people. It allows for a deepening of relationship. It invites us to broaden both the ways we care and the sources of love upon which we draw.
We slow our steps, my friend and I. We are leaving behind the buzz of Pennsylvania Avenue. It has unsettled us. Awakened us. Asked something of us.
On a corner just a block from the White House lives the gray stone building that houses the Renwick museum. Inside, we weave through the Burning Man exhibit which has taken over all levels of the gallery. In a small back corner, chalkboard paint covers one room floor to ceiling. This question encircles the space: “Before I die, I want to…” On every inch of wall, responses in chalk swoop and crawl. Words upon words in pink, blue, yellow, white.
I find a small open space way up high. I write, “Forgive.”
Impossible standards of behavior govern so many corners of life and anchor us in that swamp of insidious, poisonous myths. Forgiveness loosens the grip. It expands the constricted gaze and reveals the brokenness that only we together can put right.
In my unfolding story, forgiveness is one path to abundance. It is what fills in the stark lines and lets color bloom. As I open to the spectrum of my human family, I am learning to accept frailty and failings. My own of course, and also those of all the people whose choices have left their marks on my body, on my heart. When I forgive, I make room for the fullness of each person I’ve judged as falling short. None of us is exceptional, after all. We all struggle, and we all do what we can with what we have. We all need a little grace as we find our way.
When I chalk the word into those waves of dreams and promises, I choose my direction. I choose affinity. I choose hope.
A prayer of dust on the tips of my fingers. My word laced into it web of color, a thin strand thrumming with longing. One more thread stitching together this lovely, old world.
Image: Sandy Chang, Smithsonian American Art Museum