My family said all the right things when I was accepted into Columbia University at the age of 42 but there was a lingering subtext. I recognized it from back when I was 18 and left our small town to live in Cleveland, but now that I was moving to New York City it was less subdued. What could possibly have possessed me to want to live in New York City and to go to an Ivy League university?
Oh. You think you’re better than us.
No one said that. But it was there. It’s always been there for anyone having the temerity to want something other than what the arbiters of the community decree acceptable. In my case, it was the unfathomable desire for something other than having a husband with a decent job and some kids.
Silly me, I thought I left that behind me in small-town Ohio but, no. I find that the big, old, supposedly got-it-together(ish) world is rife with that kind of childish truculence. I see it everywhere. There are parts of even this town where people need to watch what they wear and how they walk. Underlying most forms of xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia and certainly, misogyny and racism is a snarling demand that you, whoever you are, don’t be getting any jumped up ideas that you’re better than us.
Festering behind too many short-sighted eyes is the certainty that life is a zero-sum game and anyone trying to better their situation is a threat.
It may be true in other places, I’m not that well-traveled, and being a lazy monolinguist I can’t attest to it. However, I suspect that wherever there are hierarchies in status there are resentful people who don’t like to see others doing well. Part of it is simple envy but I think it goes deeper than that. Underlying the envy is distrust.
For example, in this country, there is a long tradition of distrust of educated people and those in authority. It has to be said that that distrust is understandable given how breathtakingly dishonest our government has been at least as long as I’ve been paying attention.
But when that simmering resentment brought the United States its current idiot in chief, it’s very difficult not to sneer at the people who did that.
So we on the coasts sneer and those in the middle of the country, without decent jobs and often without decent drinking water, sneer back. We can’t hear each other’s positions or opinions. We’re all walled off in our securely constructed realities where “they” are the mouth-breathing pinheads who inexplicably keep voting against their own best interests. And, yet, we’re all doing it.
Hell, every time I find myself scanning a new online connection’s social media, I’m ready to hit delete/block based on what? Who. They. Voted. For.
I may not be framing it in terms of them thinking they’re better than me but I’m certainly looking down on anyone who supports what I consider insupportable (hmmm, maybe I do think I’m better than them!). Recently I read a glowing account of these amazing volunteers who completely funded and built some field hospitals in Central Park as the virus rages through the city. The organization in question is openly homophobic and anyone volunteering to assist in those tents is required to sign a statement agreeing that gays face “eternal damnation”.
Are you kidding me?
My finger was itching and my mind was racing and I was all set to point this out in a searingly-worded response to the article lauding this organization.
And then I didn’t.
I recently reconnected on social media with one of my oldest friends. Without even really digging it was apparent that if that particular friend isn’t a supporter of you-know-who then they had people posting on their page who are. Again with the itching finger, the moral outrage, the readiness to get all red in the face and call someone out.
And then I didn’t.
We’ve forgotten that we aren’t separate beings and never were. There is a convenient mythology having to do with, ahem, “rugged individualism” that is a very handy way to keep us believing that we don’t need each other, that others can fall without us going down, too.
And now, here we are, connected in our fear of an invisible microbe that’s killing us by the thousands. That virus doesn’t care who we voted for or who we hate or who we think is undeserving of government support because all the jobs went away. We sit in our homes (if we’re among the lucky ones) with our families or our cats or our computers and wait for the worst to blow over. We scan online for updated numbers. We wash our hands and deal out another game of Solitaire.
I’m not particularly optimistic that we’ll emerge from this understanding how interdependent we are. I don’t suspect that most people are realizing that we’re basically all a bunch of teensy little organs and systems of a greater organism that has gone completely out of balance with its environment. Balance will be restored.
We can all come to our senses and vote the “right” way, and stop with the insane over-consumption of resources and realize that we really are all going to survive or perish together. And still, balance will be restored and that could look very, very scary and horrifying at ground level.
Regardless of whether any of those “right” actions make any difference, we can at least be kind. Sure, I hate that those volunteers in Central Park are openly, unrepentantly homophobic, but I don’t need to trumpet it and get myself all righteously outraged.
There’s a pandemic on and the city needs more hospitals.
In the long run, we’re all going down.
I’m talking really really long run, mind you. Individually, those of us who survive the pandemic are still going to die. Collectively, the planet’s orbit will eventually erode and even our reliable old sun has an expiration date. It’s all temporary and our time here is so appallingly brief.
Let’s have something good to eat, donate to a local food bank, make sure the kids are ok, wash our hands and maybe take a nap.
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