We Are Messy and Let’s Not Forget That During Election Year
February 5, 2020
We are entering into an election year where loud, frenzied voices will take even more of center stage – reinforcing just how simple our stories should be – how obvious and justified it is to discount, ignore and disengage with the stories around us that don’t complement our own. However, our stories are much more complex and layered than the powerful voices of our day would have us believe.
The news and political leaders of all stripes can train us to summarize stories into neat, concise paragraphs – trim to one main theme, and identify the protagonist, the antagonist and plot. We’ve learned this approach of course in educational and classroom settings – but we also utilize this approach as a way to skirt some of the complexities of the people and the world around us. It is so much easier to tell ourselves an abridged version of what we see, classify a person or groups of people as “other,” to justify and direct our actions, feelings and words.
It’s no wonder that we feel exhausted, down-trodden, and hopeless – not just because we are witnessing a divisive and fractured nation, but because our stories don’t fit into a one-page template. We are in fact carrying around volumes and volumes of stories in our bodies and souls. Some that we’ve lost track of, or been lost in, some that we’ve dead-ended too soon, and some that we’ve paused waiting for the next chapter to begin – but all of our stories are complex and multi-layered. Stories that demand attention and time and patience to be fully told. And yet the resources of time and patience are scarce in the landscape we read, and survival is more an immediate tug, so we shelve anything that could grow or be unwieldy, (our feelings, our hearts, our imagination, our understanding), alongside the only things that can tame them – isolation and separation.
The story Jesus tells to “love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself,” (Luke 10:27), has made us fumble a bit as we attempt to apply our well-trained literary skills to this story. Jesus’ seemingly simple story, to “love,” is a bit unruly and gangly when applied in real life, and refuses to be summarized into a trite quip, or fall into predictable character types of “us v. them”. In fact what Jesus’ story does point to, is the very thing we try to evade and ignore in our own story-telling: that our lives and our world are messy, and when we try to press them into stream-lined narratives it actually denies the power of our heart, soul, and mind – the very sources of strength from which we love.
You may have heard me share in church services that I grew up in a small, central Maine town where people’s stories centered around and were fueled by a large paper mill. Success, happiness and loyalty were easy themes to skim off the top of this story. However, layered underneath were generational story-lines of deception, denial, poverty, weariness, and decay. These under-stories emerged as the link between the paper mill’s waste and the poisoning of its surroundings rose, (bodies of water, air, land and human bodies). But there was no place for these hard, messy stories to go, in an environment where people summarized their lives as, “just fine” and “never been better.” You see, as governing authorities began to regulate and catalyze changes, the paper mill began to close many of its jobs. As jobs were lost, so were people’s ways of living, identity and purpose – and another byproduct appeared – fear. Fear and its “twin sons of thunder – anxiety and despair,” as Howard Thurman said. (Jesus and the Disinherited, 37). Fear and isolation became the new accepted protagonists of this town’s story, writing its plot into the visible decay and suffocation of it’s human beings, town and state.
What does this have to do with our nation and election year? Isolation, anxiety and despair permeate and are killing us. “In the 1960s, Americans had among the highest life expectancy in the world. Today, we rank near the bottom of major developed nations. Neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta suggests we have an epidemic of self-inflicted deaths of despair on our hands, from drug overdose, chronic liver disease and suicide – this rise in the U.S. mortality rate can be seen as a symptom of the toxic, pervasive stress in America today.” (Gupta, “Why is the US Death Rate Rising? Dr. Sanjay Gupta Looks at the Deadly Effects of Despair”) A stress and anxiety that erodes relationships and connection and instead suggests that “going it alone,” with a story-line of isolation is survival.
We are so scared of unearthing our under-stories. We don’t think we can survive the messy stories, the unspeakable stories of our hearts; of fear, of being wrong, of vulnerability, of perceived failure. So we isolate, separate ourselves from one another. Yet we don’t realize that when we draw away – we leave ourselves in the most vulnerable of states. At the mercy of our own fears, judgement and thoughts, that grind and churn in our heads..which in isolation are the only things that grow.
It’s one long, hard, flat story.
These are stories that are very easy to write.
These are stories that permeate our nation – it’s endemic – all across America.
We see it wherever lines of difference are drawn, politically, culturally, racially, generationally, religiously, and economically
This isn’t just a story about sickness and disconnection and poverty, it’s a story about our tendencies as human beings to isolate.
It’s a story where the summaries written are, “no one cares,” and “go it alone.”
It’s a story that is a “church” story, a “religion” story, a “family” story, a “work” story – as much as it is a “mill town story”.
And it is the story that reigns as some kind of gospel – to so many who are heart-sick and “poor in spirit,” and straight up poor, those who are bereft and mourn the state of our world, who are weary from efforts of justice-seeking, who are afraid, who have just worked so hard, for so long.
It’s our story.
Jesus invites us to tell the gospel story that starts with “love” and ends with “love.” To regard the words, “love one another as we love ourselves” not just as a nice set of words to live by, but words to act, create and build upon. Perhaps these are the only words that will help us unearth the complex, messy stories of one another and give us the patience this election year, to gather at tables where we find there is no “them,” there is only “us.”