Happy October! The federal government is shut down. Or, at least, much of it. I hear that the military is exempt; I hear that gas and oil drilling operations are exempt, and some other stuff. I can’t imagine the calculus of deciding what our nation needs to keep moving forward, except for this: we need a government. We need one that works. One that is willing to honor existing laws — which, despite popular confusion, includes the Affordable Health Care Act. We need to live in a place where people are willing to have hard conversations and imagine that the folks on the other side are genuinely interested in finding solutions, in understanding different others, in forging a common welfare that sustains us all. Who are those people? Why are they not in government?
There are a range of obvious problems: the press eating away at anyone in public life; the unthinkably large price tags of even running for office; the broken two-party system that forces a polarization of views and a false unification of important difference. We need, frankly, common threats to make us unite behind something. If the Tea Party were a separate political party (and please! When will those radical independents get the nerve to cut the apron strings? Get off the teat!), imagine the fascinating realignments in Congress. Heck, we might even have an actual conversation about something instead of partisan bickering.
But more than all these obvious problems are the subtler ones: our failure, as a society, to understand how knowledge works, and rhetoric, and logic itself. We don’t know how to HAVE conversations, or even civil arguments. We don’t ask good questions or seek to learn what we don’t know. It’s like our fear of loss, of pain, of discomfort have left us so overwhelmingly anxious that all we can do is cling to our little bit of the world, thumbs in our mouths, rocking.
Our minds shut down — liberals as well as conservatives (whatever those terms even mean any more). Our hearts shut down — we become unable to imagine the world from the standpoint of a hungry child, even if that child is one of our constituents. We lose the capacity to even conceive of a greater good where my joy is bound up in your joy, where I genuinely cannot feel happy or whole unless I know that my neighbors, too, are taken care of, at least in basic ways. A dog-eat-dog world is scary, my friends, and I don’t see the moral virtue in pretending that since you’re a big dog, the system works. I suppose it does if you’re a dog. But then please, stop pretending you’re a human.
As I write this, the LifeFlight helicopter passes over my house on its way to the hospital with some urgently ill patient. I just came from a warm get-together of new friends and their family where, among other things, I learned that they lost a daughter, a sister, in a car accident as a child. These griefs are real and immediate and timeless and tangible. They work to shut us down, but they can’t — because we have lives to live. Other children to raise, other patients to transport, other honorable and important work before us. Shutting down is not an option. It’s a child’s choice, or an addict’s, to withdraw from the problem until the problem goes away.
This position is even harder to sustain when you yourself may, in fact, represent the problem.
I want to write the word “leadership” and the word “integrity.” I want to write “hope” and “transparency” and “faith” and “systems change.” I want to map out the solutions, not just to this impasse (I can’t even call it that. This is a tantrum) but to our whole broken society. But that’s my own form of shutting down: imposing my vision instead of someone else’s. So maybe we can ask, instead, how we can come to understand one another better, how we can try to respect a system that seems so dysfunctional, how we can begin to imagine solutions other than our own. Maybe that’s a kind of exercise we need. (The answer, of course, likes in books and careful, mediated dialogue…or so sayeth the lit-teacher/organizer. Surprise. And yes, please let me know if you’d like details on how to do this. I consult, did I mention?)