In a previous post, I mentioned that hope is a paradox because by its nature it implies that something needs to die in order for something else to live. With regard to America, that something is our culture. Over the next few weeks I am going to talk about some things that we can do to make life more meaningful and hopeful as we continue to live in uncertain territory here in the USA.
The Upside Down
If you’ve ever seen Stranger Things, you know about the upside down. If you haven’t, here’s the general idea. The upside down is some weird alternate reality that wreaks havoc on the principled and orderly town of Hawkins, Indiana. I won’t ruin the show, but needless to say, the upside down is a scary place where nothing makes sense.
As Americans, it’s safe to say we live in the upside down.
“Put yourself first”
“It’s not worth it if it doesn’t make you happy”
They all sound like really great mantras on the surface, but if you really examine those mantras, they also scream something else: self-absorption. That’s not to say we shouldn’t care about ourselves or enjoy our lives, but we should probably focus on ourselves a heck of a lot less if we truly want to live hopeful and meaningful lives.
I say this as someone who has found it incredibly difficult to give up these mantras.
Suicide is on the rise in America, and I don’t think it’s because so many more people were born with brain chemical imbalances. Sure, chemical imbalances matter and I don’t want to deny or suggest that brain chemistry isn’t part of the issue, but I’d argue that another big part of the issue is our culture. It says a lot that so many people live secretly lonely lives with superficial relationships and unfulfilling careers with the outward appearance of being happy. We’ve become a nation of individuals who have been trained to focus on ourselves so much that we don’t even recognize that it’s our culture, not us that’s the problem.
Here’s one thing I’ve learned having gone through waves of sadness myself: the last thing we need when we’re at the “self-help” stage is more “self-help.” I don’t believe any of us will find what we’re looking for in exciting/life-changing/fireworks things of life. I think we’ll find life when we give up ourselves for the boring and not immediately gratifying things.
Dying to Live
Okay, so now that we all feel painfully uncomfortable and disappointed by our culture together, let’s focus on the hopeful part.
In every movie ever, the good guys always having the losing hand at first, right? They’re smaller and less interesting. Their tactics seem impractical, downright dangerous and ineffective compared to the sexy, powerful, and magnetic appeal of the dark side. And they lose A LOT. But with perseverance and commitment, they almost always win in the end.
Dying to our old American selves feels a lot like that. And you never die all at once. Call it a quarter-life, mid-life, whatever life crisis you want, it’s a death that will always bring short-term losses but long-term gains. I won’t deny how hard that can be sometimes though, especially when culture is working against you and especially when you’re in the middle of the transition.
But here’s how I think we as Americans can reshape our collective and individual identities to grapple with the world as it is right now without losing our minds. Things are going to be different for the foreseeable future, and it’s best to acknowledge that so we can make shifts and do great things for our country. It’s possible to move from death to life, true life:
Start With Faith
I find it interesting that a common thing confiscated at the border are rosaries, and I think we could learn a thing or two about faith from the newest members of our American family, people who are actually suffering and STILL believe in God. I for one, find it incredibly humbling that the wisest people I know aren’t executives or businessmen with fantastic TED-talks and bestsellers, but extremely ordinary people of faith. Having a personal relationship with a higher power is better than having a relationship with some shapeless being in the sky – or believing in nothing at all. Jesus warned about false religion and people professing to be “Christians” who would do evil things in his name. I used to think the Bible was antiquated before actually studying it, and I continue to be surprised by its modern-day applications and by how much I thought I knew and didn’t. And yet, like everything else in America, we destroy the very things that could be sources of healing, including religion. Yes, you can still be an intellectual and a person of faith. It might seem counterintuitive to believe in God at a time like this, and yet, you might find you actually do if you give it a try. You can even go to church online these days.
Don’t Focus on Finding Your Passions
Everyone has gifts. Not perfect, flawless, Instagram-worthy gifts, but gifts nonetheless. And the less you try to discover/take personality tests/figure out what those gifts are, the better off you are. Nine times out of ten, the second you focus on your community’s greatest needs, is the second you discover your greatest gifts. You may even discover gifts you never knew you had and be able to apply those gifts in ways you never could have figured out on your own. Say yes to opportunities that don’t benefit you because in the end you won’t get mired in hopeless questions like “What can I do? There are so many problems to solve” because you’ll be too busy working on problems in meaningful ways to worry about the impact you are going to make personally. Just do your part and contribute to the collective whole. You’d be surprised what you can do with others and with your gifts.
Creating communities, especially offline, has never been more important. You never know how important that community may become later. Connect with strangers and make it a point of not befriending them online. That seems weird, but it may become more and more necessary, especially as our country gets more and more unpredictable. When you start forming these connections it’s important that the unreality of online masks doesn’t intervene with the reality of true connection and that you try to make space for people from totally different backgrounds, ages, etc. Meet to discuss important matters (both personal and collective), volunteer together, and share ways to connect to other communities.
Get Boring and Unimportant
No one wants to feel uncomfortable. And it’s especially difficult for us Americans who (compared to the rest of the world) are used to feeling fairly comfortable and important. Sure, some of us have had more challenging upbringings than others, but none of us are immune to the lure of insta-life. I truly believe that in order to feel fulfilled, hopeful, and focused on the future, we have to train ourselves to enjoy being ordinary rather than extraordinary, accepting that we may see a lot of setbacks before we see any breakthroughs. It sounds like a letdown only because our culture tells us that we’re meant to be special people who do big things and change everything right away. Life is messy and unpredictable and there’s a lot of uncertainty, but when you learn to form your identity around living a life that you’re proud of because it was in service to something greater than yourself, you won’t be focused on the outcomes as much as the relationships and people you met in the process. I hate that life isn’t a romantic comedy, with some big epic wrap-up wins all of the time, but sometimes it just isn’t, and small wins are still pretty great wins. Hope is a process. And there is life after death.
As Martin Luther King said:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!