In the last few essays, I’ve discussed the economics and psychology of American collapse. In this one, the penultimate, I want to discuss something truer. How I feel. Many of you will react angrily to this one. Fine by me. What, after all, could be more definingly American than that?
They tell me my feelings should be complicated, impenetrable, difficult, like a diamond. They’re not. They’re simple, like still water.
We saw your ugliness. You saw our truth. And right then and there, in that void, like two people in a failed marriage finally seeing each other for the first time, all possibility of really caring for another finally collapsed. By we you could say I mean minorities, of which I am one, and by you, the majority, or you could perhaps say that it’s broader than that still.
We saw your ugliness. How all the grandiose talk of American greatness and equality and freedom was just sales patter at a used car lot of human values. How the melting pot was really a cauldron simmering with hate, greed, fear. How the same old pair of hands that held the same old whip, the same old powers stooped to keep the same old power at the same old price — a soul, a heart, a moral conscience. We saw it all this time, the whole poisoned history of a nation repeated in a single year, with perfect clarity and total vision. How could we not? You chose to subjugate us, humiliate us, hurt us, this one last time. You just couldn’t let it go. That ugliness, that pride, that desperate need to be on top.
And you saw our truth, too. You saw how deeply that betrayal wounded us. You saw how it left us grasping for explanation, reason, logic. You pretend not to know how we still wonder, every hour of every day: how could they do this to us? “It’s not that bad”, my parents say, not really believing it. My little cousins roll their eyes, and their bitter irony conceals the agony of being orphaned from a society only ever even made half-hearted attempts to pretend to want them, only now even the glibly smiling pretense, that slick sales patter of some American Dream, is gone.
So now you know your power. You have the power to hurt us, wound us, reject us, fail us. And we have gained something deep, piercing, and true. A terrible knowledge, the serpent’s apple. We don’t belong to the Garden anymore. Maybe we never did belong, or maybe once upon a time in a little fairytale of prosperity, as our parents say, we did, or maybe belonging itself is dead in this age of bloodsport for billionaires. Yet the human moment is all that counts. The past is gone. The truth of it all is as simple and clear as glass. We are broken. You and us, we and you, this thing we hoped once to call if not a garden, or a family of people, then at least a country.
What collapsed in America this last year was the possibility of people caring for another, in some tiny yet genuine way. Now it is gone. How can people who have betrayed one another to the very core hope to care for another? Isn’t the very idea of “fixing” that kind of betrayal a mockery of love? Better just to let some broken hopes go. That way maybe each wounded being can first learn to be whole in themselves again.
We say American collapse as though it was a broken machine. It is not. It is a broken heart. And that broken heart beats in all of us. Yet it beats loudest in those who don’t belong to this dysfunctional, abusive family anymore — who have been disowned even from what meager morsels of acceptance, mercy, and warmth were once thrown their way. So what really collapsed, folded in on itself, shattered, was the possibility of trust, hope, loyalty, between us, relationship in a genuine sense: the idea that human hearts can connect, existentially, experientially, with one another, in grace, truth, respect, love. Can they now? How so? If we know you want to hurt us, and you know we know and don’t much care, then what is there left to share?
When two people who are never meant to be together in their truest selves really see one another for the first time, that is when an ending truly begins. The rest — the recriminations, the squabbles, the sense of unease — still bears hope. The ugliness hasn’t been seen by truth yet, and the truth hasn’t been seen by ugliness. Amends can still be made. We can still wear the masks we need to wear to be human to one another. But when those masks finally fall, then a relationship is truly at an irreparable end. All that is left then is the work of trying to gently say goodbye. And that is where we are at now, you and I, in AD 2017, picking our ways through the smoking ruins of the American Dream that never was for those us it orphaned in the first place.
We are learning to go our separate ways now. We are not a country, family, society, anymore. We are opponents, at best, adversaries, realistically, and something like failed partners who cannot stop wounding one another, emotionally.
It hurts me to write this. It probably hurts to read it, if, that is, it even makes sense. I guess that it will for those who are ready to hear it. There are things that we still have to say to another before the day is done. And if those things go unsaid, then the lesson of a people trying to love one another, and so desperately failing, is never really learned. And to me it is one of the greatest lessons of all.
They tell my feelings should be complicated. They’re not. They’re simple. Some relationships are better off broken. At least that way there is a chance to live again.