Best to Swim More Graciously

By Don Hall

Maybe it's due to the fact that just lately there is a lot of much needed talk about race and gender and identity flying around the limitless playground of the internet. Perhaps it's just that my FaceBorg feed is populated with social activists and newly christened and emboldened political voices. Whatever the case, I've been spending a bunch of my mental space contemplating and discussing, in no particular order:

• White Privilege (all whites have it whether we like it or not and are responsible for recognizing it, although I'm not sure what do now that I acknowledge it)
• Racist Systems (the entire country is built upon this and dismantling it is a S.L.O.W. process)
• Feminist Manifestos (women are finding a resurgence in fighting back the standards of a male-dominated workplace, and conservatives scheme to control them even after nearly a century of fighting)
• Transgender Rights (it's about time)
• White Fragility (what?)
• The Patriarchy (which sounds like a hair band from the eighties but is far more pernicious)
• Trump and the detestable nature of the Nazis and racists who champion him and whom he champions

A few years ago, I had, as a part of my annual birthday ritual of getting words tattooed on me that serve as reminders of larger things I need to be aware of, the phrase "This is Water" inked on my right wrist. It is the title (and point) of a David Foster Wallace commencement speech.

"If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.
“There are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.” 

The older I become, the more evolved I struggle to be, the more prescient and righteous is this speech.

I now have a podcast that is all about sharing stories from people who don't get up onstage to tell them. I believe that the more we stop and listen to one another's personal stories, the more we see our commonality. If you want me to hear your story, you must agree to hear mine—that's the exchange. Does it surprise you that if you bark your rage in my face that I stop listening? Does it shock you that if you tell me to shut up and just listen without the humility necessary to hear my tale, that I'm not interested or moved?

I understand those who feel justified in screaming out their truth to the world. After all, with the internet, everyone is equal in terms of being able to broadcast their personal grief and rage to those hungry to hear it. With age comes a bit of condescension, unfortunately, and mine takes the form of recognizing the thoughtless anger of my youth in the people who surround me. Their rage is no more compelling than mine was.

Those who surround me swim in the same water that I take for granted daily. This water is what sustains us, shapes us, makes us see each other in a prism of loneliness and rage and disappointed optimism. It is also the only fucking water we have.

Best to swim more graciously and inclusively than to seek to divide and conquer with my loud, angry tirades.