The Beautiful Lie
A journey to distinguish fact from fiction
I’ve loved my country my whole life. Why wouldn’t I? My life was, and in many ways still is, quite pleasant. I would say I wanted for nothing, but that wasn’t quite true. I am very much the type of person who always strives for more, never truly being satisfied. So I wanted for plenty, but I think it’s fair to say I needed little to nothing more than what I had.
I grew up in Iowa City, Iowa. After some time away from my home town I’ve learned to appreciate it all the more. It was a beautiful city to grow up in. It was small enough to feel incredibly safe, but large enough that it was hard to grow bored. Opportunity seemed to be around every corner, and as a child I flourished in it.
My family is the spitting image of the American Dream. A providing father, a loving mother, and 2.5 kids between them (in reality 3, but you get the idea). We had a house, two cars (for the most part), and a dog. My older brother was the jock who went into economics just like our father, my sister was the straight A student, and I (in typical middle child fashion) was the moody, artistic, black sheep.
Still, even as the middle child it was hard not to love my life. Looking around at my family and our immediate neighbors, success in life felt more like an inevitable thing that just happened to you unless you made a mistake. There was a sense that if you were poor, it was because you messed something up during your life and you were getting the justice for your angry nature, or your drug use, or what have you.
Here’s the thing, for me at least, that’s still absolutely true. If I felt I was failing on my current trajectory at any point, I could go back to school for a more marketable skill than my Theatre degree, and simply work day in and day out, and I would be fine. I could live a life like my father and support a family. I’d have to show up and be responsible of course, it’s no free ride, but I could do it.
The reason I won’t do that is because it wouldn’t change anything for the people who don’t have that option. Not everyone has a family who can support them to go to school not just once, but twice. Not everyone can stop their two full time jobs to learn something without losing their home, or the ability to buy food for their children.
That is what becomes so hard to see in a life where everything feels like such a sure thing. Poor people stop becoming people in your eyes. They start becoming the cautionary tale for what happens to people who step out of line. Oppressed people stop looking like you because the job either goes to you or them, and it’s not going to go to someone who talks like that. The lesson seems to be “talk better”, or “dress for success”, but in actuality the only real take away is “Conform, or end up like them” and growing up “they” were terrifying.
They lived in shitty apartments with abusive families. They had problems with addiction and were too weak to take control of their lives before their drug of choice killed them. They didn’t care about school, dropped out, and got stuck with terrible dead end jobs. They stopped being people I could actually help if I wanted to. They became who should be avoided. They became criminals. They should be punished.
The idea that those thoughts formed the seeds of my racism, classism, homophobia, and xenophobia never really even occurred to me. To me I wasn’t angry at a group of people. I was angry at a specific person who happened to be black, or poor, or gay, or Muslim. I always had an excuse when someone called me out for my prejudices. I’d pick something out and say something like, “Well of course they freaked me out! I would be scared of anyone dressed like that!” As though that was an excuse. As though an article of clothing could ever gauge the value of someone’s character.
I would do the same for the way someone talked, or behaved. I would tell myself over and over again it was this person’s actions that made me uncomfortable, not their race, or class, or sexuality, or religion. That idea, from a logical stand point, was absurd. A hoodie didn’t scare me, a black man in one did. An unkempt home didn’t scare me, being in a poor home did. Being flirted with didn’t scare me, a gay man flirting with me did. The idea of having a different religion didn’t scare me, being Muslim did. These behaviors in and of themselves were harmless. The only reason they made me uncomfortable were because of my prejudices.
It took leaving the bubble of my sheltered, little world to start understanding that. Funny enough, I only had to travel thirty miles or so North to Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. There I met people who were in an extraordinary amount of pain. I made friends who had witnessed more death and suffering than I thought possible for one person to handle. On more than one occasion I secretly wondered to myself what kept some of them from having killed themselves rather than continue to face their situations.
I met, for what felt like the first time, people who had faced impossibly vile situations through no fault of their own. And yet, they were still standing. Beyond that they were doing better than me in our classes, on top of working full time jobs (which I never felt able to do on top of class work). When I asked each of them how they were able to do it, the answer always seemed terrifyingly similar, “I don’t have a choice.”
For a while I couldn’t believe it. I had been raised my whole life to believe there was always a choice. That no matter what happened, I had people who could feed me when I was hungry and shelter me when I was homeless. My friends didn’t. They lived in a world where they could either work nonstop, all day, every day, or they could starve. There was no in between. A snow day for me meant a day full of video games and drinking. For them it meant six hours of sleep instead of four.
I’m ashamed to admit I tried to ignore their pain at first. I’d ask them to hang out instead of study and get frustrated when they said they couldn’t. I’d go to their places of business asking for free things, mainly as a joke, but never even considering I was taking away their ability to serve an actual customer, which would make them actual money.
Over the years though, I couldn’t ignore them any more. The illusion had been shattered. No longer did I live in a world that I could pretend was just. I was surrounded by people fighting just for the right to survive, and I couldn’t continue to bury my head in the sand and act like just because their fight didn’t impact me directly, that meant that it wasn’t my fight.
See I was told a single lie my whole life. I was told that the United States was just and fair. I was told we were all free to be who we are, and more importantly, free to strive to be who we wanted to become. While it’s that place for me, it has become abundantly clear it isn’t that place for all.
I wasn’t stupid for believing what I believed. Nor was I bad person. How could you call me bad for wanting to live in a just society? The lie was terrible, but it was also beautiful. The lie was told to make good people complacent, but to do so, those people had to want to live a world of equality in the first place.
Beyond that, for the lie to work it had to have one thing necessary for all great lies to work; believability. The lie has to be possible. This can only mean that as a society we must be standing close enough to justice that it seems possible to most people. Even if you have never been under the influence of this lie, and you’ve been polarized enough to raise your voice and fight the lie’s influence, you must feel something similar, for no human fights a battle where there is no hope.
For those who didn’t grow up believing in the lie, everything I’ve said must feel painfully obvious. You aren’t the person I’m writing this for. No, I’m writing this for all the people who weren’t lucky like I was. I’m writing this to the people who are stuck living in that lie. This is my call to you to look around you. Its a call to remember those times where something felt wrong and you were told it was ok without any strong explanation. It is easy to shrug those moments off, but I beg you not to. They’re the glimpses of sunlight peaking through the rocks of the cave we were born in. They are the glitches in the matrix.
Even now you may want to disregard everything I’ve said. If you want to tell me I’m some crazy liberal, that’s fine. I’m not, but that’s not the discussion I want to start here. In fact I don’t need to start one at all. All I ask is that you keep what I’ve said in mind. If you truly believe in what you believe, and the world is already as perfect as you think it is, then each day will only prove me wrong. Just keep my words in your mind. One day something will happen you can’t look away from and you’ll think about what I’ve said. When that day comes you’ll walk out of the lie yourself.
I want the country I was promised. I want to actually live in the America I learned about in textbooks. I want to know when I’m not comfortable around someone it’s because they’re an asshole, not because I’m prejudice. We can live in the world that lie described, but for real. We can be that city on a hill. The first step is simply admitting we aren’t.