Saturday, February 12, 2022

Where a Wonderful Life is Not Exceptional

A topic of conversation that comes up more and more in my circles is that of grief, especially complicated and collective grief. In particular, most of us have not had much of a break to recognize and grieve the loss we’ve experienced over the last several years. The litany is long. The pandemic brought us into contact with loss both intimate, with experiences unique to each of us, and unfathomably global, with at least six million deaths ( ), a number that is already likely much greater ( ). We also need to take into account all the other losses we’ve experienced along the way, from a deterioration of democratic ideals; to the terrible strain on our education, health, and caregiving systems; to the shocking and deadly ignorance and disregard of public health; and more. 

Unfortunately, we did not enter the pandemic with nothing else to think about or do. It is sometimes difficult to remember that the first year of the pandemic was also the last year of the Trump administration. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has a timeline of that administration’s near constant efforts to aggressively “turn back the clock on our nation’s civil and human rights progress,” from the Muslim ban in January 2017 to the 1776 Commission report in January 2021. ( ) I copied and put the list into a document with standard margins and 12 point font; it required 28 pages and more than 14,000 words. This graphic is what the timeline looks like if you shrink down the text small enough to fit onto one slide. 

It is a tragic visual reminder of what we, especially any of us belonging to marginalized communities, have endured.

All of that is a lot to process, and most of us have not had the opportunity to stop, reflect, and grieve. Meanwhile, the experiences of loss continue to pile up. This is especially true when you consider that all the pre-existing suffering didn’t courteously pause so that we could focus on surviving a pandemic. Even before the barrage of the last six years, we were already – and still are - working to resist oppression and transform our selves and communities. 

“It’s Hard to Be Yourself”

The result for many people is a sense of alienation, and our broader culture doesn’t provide a clear way of healing from that. Telling the truth about the world and how it impacts us is a practice, and not an easy one. As Lindo Bacon pointed out, “It’s hard to be yourself and feel belonging in a culture that is hostile to your existence.” ( ) This is both biologically and psychologically true. We’ve known it experientially, but it’s always nice when we get scientific data to affirm it and further deepen our work. We know, for example, that marginalized communities are more likely to suffer from social exclusion and isolation, which in turn is linked to poor health and life outcomes ( ). We know that social exclusion limits opportunities in employment, education, and civic participation. (

    George Monbiot summarized some of the best documented impacts of social exclusion, and its resulting isolation and loneliness, on human health. Beyond the more commonly known associations, such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, and fear, he also noted that: 

Dementia, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, lowered resistance to viruses, even accidents are more common among chronically lonely people. Loneliness has a comparable impact on physical health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day: it appears to raise the risk of early death by 26%. This is partly because it enhances production of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system.” ( )

For a concrete example of how these health impacts are directly related to oppression, we can look back to 2012 study published in the  American Journal of Public Health titled “Discrimination and the Stress Response.” It detailed the impacts on Latina participants who anticipated racial discrimination or prejudice in an interaction. Those who braced themselves for encountering prejudice had a psychological and cardiovascular stress response. The authors explained: 

“If members of minority groups experience a stress response from the mere threat of discrimination, even in the absence of behavioral confirmation, over time, the repeated sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activation can contribute to allostatic load. This load, in turn, has been shown to be a predictor of a number of mental and physical health outcomes, including increases in anxious and depressive symptoms, as well as exacerbated cardiovascular response and decreased immunological functioning, both of which have deleterious consequences for long-term health and functioning.” ( )

Put in layman’s terms, when a participant anticipated discrimination, they had a stress response. Previous studies of that stress response linked it with a number of long-term risks for poor health. Psychologically, the response was correlated with anxiety and depression. Biologically, it was correlated with heart problems and a weakened immune system. The implication is that even when a marginalized person doesn’t have a direct experience with discrimination or violence in a specific instance, just the awareness of that possibility and its likelihood takes a toll on the person’s wellbeing.

(An important practice related to this research is to believe marginalized people when they tell you that living in an oppressive society is harmful, even when they aren’t experiencing direct violence or discrimination. Our lives bear witness to this and research confirms it. Be patient if you get called out, too - even if you think you’ve been misunderstood. The pain of being misunderstood is not greater than the pain of anticipating discrimination or violence.)

These insights help us understand ourselves and also how we can most effectively work for change. It is obvious that directly experiencing oppression, marginalization, discrimination, and violence is harmful. But this research reminds us that even anticipating those experiences is also harmful. The stress of having to be constantly vigilant and alert undermines our wellbeing, both in our bodies and our minds. We talk about this frequently, and it is one of the main reasons people who belong to marginalized communities so often move away from places like the Ozarks. Living in a place like this, where marginalization is so often present, is exhausting and literally bad for our health. This is an important part of the meaning of Lindo Bacon’s words: “It’s hard to be yourself and feel belonging in a culture that is hostile to your existence.”

Unmet Needs & Public Health

Changing this is very difficult, not least because we are often pressured to focus on – and settle for - individual changes. But self-help is insufficient. Even when individuals among us succeed in breaking free of the pattern, the pattern still exists, ready to marginalize more people. To put this another way, exceptions exist, but we don’t want a wonderful life to be exceptional. We want the good things – medical care, education, employment, housing, food, the arts – available to everyone.

    Monbiot wisely puts this social exclusion and isolation into the context of oppressive systems, particularly noting the ideological impacts of neoliberal economics: “Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.” ( ) These same ideas are intertwined with and instrumental in sustaining and perpetuating other oppressive systems, too, such as racism.  ( ) This injustice and inaccessibility creates chronically unmet needs, especially in marginalized communities. 

    In a supportive community, meeting our needs is something that occurs almost without thought. We recognize when we have a need, know what options we have for meeting it, and choose the strategy that we prefer. This is where humans flourish, feeling grateful, safe, and surrounded by kindness and care. The social exclusion that accompanies marginalization and oppression breaks this healthy cycle, resulting in chronically unmet needs. We have to create all sorts of ways to creatively meet our needs in spite of the obstacles, or try to find ways to cope with the distress when we simply do not have the necessary resources. 

    Our physical needs and the injustice of poverty are the most obvious gaps, as so many people in our communities go without adequate housing, nutrition, and transportation. However, the study on “Discrimination and the Stress Response” highlights how other chronically unmet needs may be essentially hidden by our society’s systems and cultures. But just because they are hidden does not mean they don’t exist. They do exist and create conditions that make us more vulnerable to the impacts of stressful living conditions and crises. This also means that oppression, marginalization, and discrimination are public health issues; addressing them is essential to the long-term health of all of us, as individuals and as a society. ( ) To quote Lindo Bacon again, 

“This isn’t to say that we should give up tugging on our own bootstraps or reaching for that next ladder rung. Rather, I’m pointing out how much easier it is to achieve when you have support networks. Our success depends more on our ability to leverage support and change our environment than it does on changing ourselves.” (Radical Belonging)

“To be Themselves, be Loved, and Flourish”

My modest goal with this reflection is to bring these concepts back into – or more into - our awareness. We talk a lot about justice here and advocate for changing ourselves, policies, institutions, and cultures. We also reflect on how and why social change is so often difficult and slow. Our chronically unmet needs are one part of that circumstance. The difficult reality is that many (most?) of us have spent our lives in communities that made it more difficult for us to thrive and flourish as human beings. And it is very likely that we have picked up on those very habits, learning to mistreat ourselves, others, and the earth. We add to that the exhaustion that comes from suffering from, resisting, and transforming oppression, and the odds seem to be stacked against us. Being in community is hard work, especially if we are breaking destructive patterns that have lived around and even inside us for a long time. It is just really difficult to sustain movements for change when you can’t, to return to Bacon’s words, “be yourself” in a wider “culture that is hostile to your existence.”

    And yet we still carry inside of us this conviction that it is possible for us to live together in such a way that everyone can flourish, and the aspiration to make it so. Each of us can look at our lives and communities to find ways in which we can “leverage support and change our environment” so that everyone, especially marginalized folx, get more space to feel and be safe, get some relief from the constant stress, and grow in confidence that our needs matter and can be met. The exact changes will vary according to our circumstances, but the aspiration itself is something we can each develop. For example, Bacon did not stop by observing that it’s tough to “feel belonging in a culture that is hostile to your existence.” They also invited us to:

“Think of someone you love. I’m willing to bet that when you think about the people you cherish, it’s probably your dearest wish that they have access to every tool and opportunity possible to be themselves, be loved, and flourish in a welcoming world.”  (Radical Belonging)

This is a simple practice we can cultivate in order to train our minds to pay attention both to marginalized voices and needs and to opportunities to realign resources and opportunities that allow everyone “to be themselves, be loved, and flourish in a welcoming world.” The best way for the person you cherish to “have access to every tool and opportunity possible to be themselves” is to make sure everyone has that access. We can use this standard of human flourishing to measure how well we are practicing justice, equity, and goodwill as a community. 

    Shifts like this are part of creating communities and movements that aren’t as vulnerable to burnout, internal conflict, and similar issues. The world was already difficult, filled with oppression and injustice. But we have collectively faced some of our deepest fears, anger, uncertainty, and loss over the last six years. In the midst of that pain, many of us are teetering on the edge of giving up. Becoming sensitive to and understanding the very real pain that comes from exclusion, marginalization, and its resulting loneliness is an important step in making belonging possible again. Being increasingly sensitive to and aware of both how we are hurt and how we are complicit in hurting others helps us deepen that commitment to break harmful patterns. Healing takes time and effort. Trust takes time and effort. Belonging takes time and effort. We let go of that which harms us, even us we take up that which frees us to live, love, and enjoy deeply meaningful lives. 

I began by mentioning that complicated and collective grief has been a persistent topic of conversation in my circles recently. And I have felt my own fragility as I sit with people who are hurting. I wanted to share some stories about that, but I didn’t even know how to begin. But maybe a story gives me a place to end. 

    One night this week, I sat with a good friend. After a particularly difficult (and hopefully healing) conversation processing hopelessness, loneliness, and loss of meaning, we sang folks songs by Malvina Reynolds and Leslie Fish, playing hand drums and laughing as we remembered (and misremembered) the lyrics. Malvina’s song “God Bless the Grass” particularly moved me:

“God bless the grass that grows thru the crack.
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows thru,
And God bless the grass. …

“God bless the grass that grows through cement.
It's green and it's tender and it's easily bent.
But after a while it lifts up its head,
For the grass is living and the stone is dead,
And God bless the grass.”    
( )

    By facing that grief together, we could transform an opportunity for isolation into an opportunity for connection. Moments like these are part of that process where, step by step, we learn to create communities where a wonderful life is not just for a few of us - where a wonderful life is not exceptional. Instead, we can create a world where everyone can “have access to every tool and opportunity possible to be themselves, be loved, and flourish”.  This is why we keep working together, honestly facing our losses, and moving forward, despite being bent by grief. We know that this is possible: we can create communities where each of us is lifted up and a wonderful life is accessible to everyone. Thank you for being part of a community committed to doing just that.