Photo by MTAPhotos
There was so much I wanted to carry on about, in a knee-jerk fashion, when I first heard the now infamous Mitt Romney fundraiser talk about the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay any income tax (and therefore, according to Romney, don’t “take personal responsibility for their lives”). I was ready to defend the 47 percent, point out all the problems with the statistic, and rant about how far-removed the rich are from reality.
But lately I’ve been trying to be quicker to listen, longer to think, and slower to spout. In other words, I’m trying on a new shade of maturity, to see how it suits me. While it’s impossible to not think what I think about issues that get under my skin, I’ve been trying extra hard to look those knee-jerk thoughts in the eye then set them aside, to see what else I might think if I look at it from another angle or through someone else’s eyes. It’s like a tricky puzzle that you eventually have to walk away from, precisely so you can later return to it with fresh eyes.
So here’s what my fresh eyes see today. It’s not so much a critique of a politician I’m not inclined to like anyway; it’s a critique of a cultural mindset that systemically breeds hurt, frustration, and anger. Yes, these are generalizations, but I also see them as cultural trends that are gradually encroaching on the pockets of good I encounter in this world. I need to put them down.
What do I see? I see a culture that’s big on demanding that people work really hard at some things, but not at others. We say we value hard work, but what we mean by that is we value work that produces sweat, that turns hours of our days into “hard-earned cash,” that keeps the Machine going. I also see a culture that loves to blame people who aren’t doing that kind of hard work—not just for their own problems, but for our problems, too.
I see a culture that’s much quicker to criticize small setbacks and failures than it is to praise small steps forward. It’s a culture that doesn’t want to get involved when people need a hand moving in a positive direction—after all, “those people” need to figure out how to do it themselves, so the lessons stick—but falls all over itself to get involved when they deem some sort of “punishment” is in order.
I see a culture that celebrates and reveres the best of history on a national level, but doesn’t weigh the effects of each individual’s personal history. It fails to acknowledge that where someone grew up and went to school matters; who was there to believe in them and offer sound advice matters; how they were treated when they messed up matters.
Similarly, I see a culture that loves to carry on about innovation, progress, and the “promise of the future,” but doesn’t seem to grasp the powerful role hope plays in the lives of individuals. It’s a culture that’s quick to write off the futures of so many, and therefore it’s a culture that’s stingy with its hope—that hoards it rather than multiplying and sharing it.
No, this culture doesn’t want to really consider an individual’s past or her future. It doesn’t want the whole story, let alone the possibility of a new story. It just wants to glance much-too-briefly at a person’s here and now, and then take that information and use it to create unfair, misshapen, categorical lumps that misrepresent truth—not just about the group at large, but about each individual that’s been dumped there.
So we want to be a nation that’s characterized by “hard work?” Let’s work every bit as hard at love and compassion as we do at our factories and corporations. Let’s throw our heads and hearts and creativity into it. Let’s put in over-time listening to and encouraging others, and then let’s value every rich reward that has nothing to do with our bank accounts. If we really admire hard work, we will admire this version of it—the truly hard work of life.
If we want to be a nation that reveres history, let’s be a nation that considers every thread of it, celebrating what’s beautiful but also mourning what’s damaged and broken. Let’s work together to repair those damaged parts, and let’s not promote things like progress and a better future, unless we’re willing to go all in. Let’s make it big and inclusive enough for everyone—a whole group of individuals moving forward together,
If we’re not ready to do all that, can we at least recognize all the inconsistencies in our value statements, and stop throwing around words like “work” and “hope” that we seem to believe only apply to some people, in some situations, some of the time?