Why Our Societies Have Broken Hearts, Not Just Stuck Minds

How Does a Society Heal?

How does a nation heal? It’s a question that’s been on my mind a great deal. Our societies don’t just have stuck, squabbling minds. They have stuck, squabbling minds because they have broken hearts. Underlying all the challenges that America faces — and are spreading around the globe — lie deep emotional issues and challenges.

Do I need to explain that? In the American context, it means that public goods and a working social contract became impossibilities, since the scars of segregation and slavery and bigotry and misogyny linger, making people less capable of ever investing in one another. “Why should I fund their roads and schools, those filthy, lazy people?!” — you know the score. Result: a society bereft of human possibility, whether life expectancy, maternal mortality, literacy, savings, and so on, as healthcare, education, finance, transport, all life’s basic necessities, became, instead, unaffordable luxuries.

So. Beneath today’s easily explained economic challenges lie profound, chronic, unresolved emotional scars, that still burn, sear, and throb. How, then, is a nation to heal? I won’t discuss institutional answers with you — truth and reconciliation commissions, equality and dignity laws, and so on — because I think that getting to those, for societies as wounded as ours are today, is itself the challenge. They are ends, but what are the means?

The first ingredient for a society, as for a person, is emotional honesty — I would prefer to call it existential authenticity, but let’s simplify it. Raw. Sometimes searing. Maybe uncomfortable, risky, imprecise, transgressive. I was glad to see Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon last night, in the wake of Trump’s “shithole” comments, using the word “racist”, fighting back tears. Of rage? Of sorrow? Of despair? All three, perhaps. That’s something we never see in America much of: passion, not performativity, aching truth, not cynical talking-point-driven spin. Genuine emotions flowed, without which a society, like a person, cannot grow, because they are not really there in any real way to begin with — only an illusion of a social being is.

Without honesty, about our wounds and scars, we will never heal at all — because they will be secrets we nurse, and while maybe we hope they will go away, their pain will only cut more sharply every day, because they are never seen, held, known, revealed, discovered. So how could they ever heal? Existential authenticity — being able to speak and listen to each other about our wounds, from the most vulnerable and wounded parts upwards — is the first step to healing, then, for a society, just as it is for a person — otherwise, we are living a lie. And while it may be a pretty one, it is rarely a pleasant one.

The second ingredient in healing a society, or a person, I think, is a sense of gentle, fierce respect, perhaps even gratitude, for all the things that one has been through — instead of either puffing them up into grandiosity (“I’m the best!!”), or denying that any misfortunes or mistakes ever occurred (“That would never happen to me! I’m the best!!”). I used to ask myself, as I think anyone who’s ever been seriously ill does, “why me? why now? why this?” There are no answers, are there? We learn, with difficulty, with grace, that our suffering is itself the answer. It shapes and molds us into fuller, wholer things. Our scars, too, are our gifts — should we respect them. Then we gain what we cannot otherwise have: empathy, courage, wisdom, gratitude for who we are, liberation from the impossibly heavy burdens of perfection, destiny, fate.

Now, that brings me to England. One of the reasons that I love England is that it’s, as the saying goes, Old Blighty. It’s myth, it’s self-image, isn’t one of grandiose perfection. It’s one of a battered, broken-down place, a weathered thing, like an old leather jacket, that’s still somehow alive, present, all the more so for all its nicks and tears, all its scars and wear. Do you see what I mean yet?

Perhaps not. So let me contrast that with America’s self-image, it’s creation myth. The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. The Greatest Nation on Earth, and so on. These are the myths of a young society. They are infantile myths, full of a grandiose perfection. That is alright. America is a young society. But like all things, all people, its challenge now, though it might now fully recognize it, is to mature, grow, develop, into an adolescence.

These grandiose perfection myths — note how they contain unattainable ideals of “freedom” and “bravery” and “greatest” and so on — go on to wound us, if we cannot let them go. Naturally, no society, like no person, can live up to such impossibly pure ideals, without paying a steep price. For America, that price has been empire, slavery, segregation, neglect, and now despair.

Maybe that doesn’t make sense. Let’s explore it. The result of setting one’s self up to be the greatest is to have subjugate someone else as lesser, for example, isn’t it? To have to be the mightiest means to have power over everyone who is weaker — doesn’t it? If I am to have absolute, untrammeled freedom, to do exactly whatever I wish, then you must be in some way suppressed, held down, or restrained, mustn’t you? In just this way, America’s myths reveal precisely its emotional immaturity — and its emotional immaturity contains its economic stagnation and social fracture, not just in part, but in whole.

Such impossible ideals produce a constant atmosphere of rage, just as they would in a child who is told to be perfect, but can only be falteringly, stumblingly human. And that is where much of the world is headed today — it’s failure to accept, see, celebrate, its own humanity dooms it to inhumanity, instead.

The third ingredient, I think, in healing, is surrendering some kind of end-state that must be reached, which in life, we call “adulthood”, and for societies is a kind of blissful nirvana, a state to be reached, that we imagine always to be an election away — but never quite is. In the end, “healing” is a process, not a state. It is just synonymous with “maturity”, both for a person, and for a society. A wounded person is an immature person, and to be immaturity is a process, too: not to be able to hold one’s wounds, to have to give them to someone else, in the form of anger, rage, violence. The process of maturity isn’t “growing up” into some imagined, fixed final point — it is just growing. Not past or beyond one’s wounds, but into them. Seeing them with grace, lightness, courage, truth. When we do that, we are given a strange and beautiful gift.

We see ourselves in perspective, finally. Not as perfect or as damned, not as better or as worse, not as pure as impure — not as the way we wish to be, at all, really. Just as us. All of us, the whole of us, the truth of us, the completeness of us, even in our incompleteness. Old Blighty, remember? The English get there a little bit. When we see ourselves this way, with a little more honesty and care, what do we catch a glimpse of?

If we look carefully, we will see ourselves as we really are, at last. We are not the only people who have been through this, our struggles are universal ones, and in that way, they are beautiful and wondrous — precisely because they do not have to be impossibly grand to matter anymore. We are not alone now. But then there is no reason to pull someone down to lift one’s self up. And then we are healed, aren’t we? There is no reason to see our wounds only as things which hurt, but life-giving things, too. We are a little more alive, a little more humble, a little less alone. We walk a little taller, a little less afraid to stand up for what is right, noble, and just. Life is a little beautiful now that we are open, authentic, present to the fullness of ourselves — because it is not a thing we must hide from each other, and therefore always try to take from each other, instead of give to each other.

And then, maybe, to come back to the cold and sterile terms of economics, a society is ready to invest in itself, to develop its public goods, to transform its social contract. But without the hard work of emotional growth, all that material progress will remain an impossible distance away. To me, that missing link, too, explains why we have fail to think well about societies and economies today — but that is for another essay.

Perhaps that all sounds strange and improbable and useless to you. Perhaps it is. Still, when I think about, I wonder to myself: how else can a society, like a person, ever really flourish?

January 2018

Why Our Societies Have Broken Hearts, Not Just Stuck Minds was originally published in Eudaimonia and Co on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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