UNRAVELING THE KNOT

ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG

The Spiritual Politics of Roadkill

It is spring in the place I call home, the animals out and about, and time to tell this story again.

I was driving home when I saw the deer lying in the middle of the road. I turned on the flashers and stopped the car so that others would have to go around.

When I got out I could see it was a fawn. She was trying to lift her head. I bent down and spoke to her in a soft voice. I didn’t want her to be afraid, although I don’t know how she could not. A few cars came by, some drivers shooting me a look, wanting to know what was so important they should have to go around, then noticing something in the road before turning their eyes back to where they were going.

Someone stopped and to ask if they could help. I said if they had a cell phone they could call the police.

Most people went on by, like I imagined the driver of the car that killed the deer, which is what this was turning out to be. She wasn’t lifting her head anymore. In a little while, as far as I could tell, she was gone. The police arrived and then a pickup and they lifted her into the back and drove away.

As I got back into the car, I wondered how many had come by before me. I wondered why the driver didn’t stop, what went through their mind, were they frightened or just in a hurry or some mix of the two. It could have been just an accident, the fawn running into the road as they will do. A possum once ran into the side of my car. Still, how do you not pull over to see what you can do, if only to make it so the fawn doesn’t die alone?

Before driving away, I looked around the woods on either side of the road for signs of other deer, the mother perhaps, but there was nothing that I could see. They’re very good at hiding when they don’t want to be seen. To her I would be just another of that species with its big machines that come barreling down the road.

Whoever it was, the most likely reason the fawn is dead is they were going too fast. There is a lot of that around here. The roads are narrow and winding and the woods come down to the edge so you really can’t see what’s standing there until you’re almost on top of it. The only thing to do is slow down, which most people do not. There is one stretch on my way home that goes up a long hill, and I can look in the mirror before starting the climb and see no one behind me for a quarter mile and by the time I’m halfway to the top, there are four cars close behind. And I can tell from how they ride my bumper that they’re wanting to know just why am I going only five miles above the limit.

You’d think they were driving ambulances with someone dying in the back.

On that day, the face of the deer still fresh in my mind, the way she tried to lift her head, it was hard not to feel angry, asking myself what is the matter with people, one of those questions that doesn’t include me, of course, except when it does.

I haven’t killed many animals with a car—a few squirrels, a bright yellow bird that crashed into the windshield on a highway in northern Mexico. Nora and I grazed a moose that suddenly ran across the road in Maine, but no harm was done on either side. I could tell myself it’s because I’m a better driver or that I’m not in such a hurry, but that would be only part of the story. The fact is, I have also been lucky. They’ve been lucky.

All it takes to bring me down to earth is to recall the school bus on that morning when the rain was coming down in sheets and I was on my way to meet a friend for coffee. I was running late and hadn’t slept much the night before. It was another of those narrow country roads, the school bus stopped in front of me, red lights flashing, stop sign coming out. I waited while the kids hurried across the road from where their mother stood in the driveway. Then the red lights turned off and the stop sign folded out of sight, but the bus just sat there with rain coming down in buckets and me wanting to get going. And then I figured the driver must be speaking to the mother standing in the driveway and suddenly I just turned the wheel and put my foot on the gas and went out alongside the bus.

Those next few seconds haunted me for the rest of the day. It wasn’t that I had broken the law or hit someone—I had not. What haunted me was my reckless state of mind in that instant when I decided I shouldn’t have to wait, as if an extra thirty seconds was more important than whatever might happen on the far side of the bus. It was how a part of my mind just switched off, impervious to the possibility of something unforseen, not supposed to happen, beyond my control—a child getting back off the bus to retrieve a lunch box and the driver not turning on the flashers soon enough—that’s all it would have taken. A life literally might have hung in the balance while my mind was somewhere else for the second or two that it takes to kill someone with a car.

What I couldn’t shake was the memory of my impatience, the anger at having to wait, at the mercy of ‘those people’ holding me up. If I had put words to how I felt sitting in the car, it would have been, “You’re in my way.” And I realized that’s just what other drivers are expressing when they ride my bumper, get out of my way, because they are in a hurry, because what they have to do is more important than whatever someone else might have in mind, including—especially a deer or a squirrel or a turtle—just living your life for one more day.

And then I ask myself, what could be so important that it’s worth taking a life for no other reason than my not wanting to slow down? Who do I think I am?

It’s one of those questions that stops me in my tracks, because I know the answer already, that whatever I am, it’s a lot less than what I think. But the question is more than that. I would really like to know: Who do I think I am? What do I have to say to the young deer lying in the road that might explain what was so important that she should be knocked down and left to die alone, like countless others before her? Or what could I have said if something truly horrible had happened that morning in the rain? That I was sorry?

I was haunted by the confrontation with my own private arrogant exceptionalism, that my life, my agenda is somehow special, more important than the person in the car in front of me or the animal in the tall grass beside the road. In an instant, everything is reduced to an obstacle in the way of what I want, what I think I deserve, where I think I ‘need’ to be and when. The car only amplifies the effect, insulating me from everything and everyone outside this bubble carrying me swiftly down the road.

I was not only haunted, but humbled to realize that in fact I am not special at all. And only the blink of an eye separates the arrogance of living my life as if it were unconnected to all the life around me and being brought face-to-face with some horror that I have done while I was thinking about something else or in the grip of my impatience.

I was humbled by the reminder that we literally exist only in relation to everything else, that the idea of humanity as something set above and apart, independent, unaccountable, superior, is not only pure fiction, but bizarre and dangerous. Not to mention that I could imagine myself as separate from everything outside the content of my little mind as ‘I’ drive ‘my’ car to where ‘I’ think ‘I’ am supposed to be.

The other day I was driving along when I saw a turtle in the road, trying to get to the marshy water on the other side. I put on the flashers and stopped the car in the middle of the lane and got out and walked over to where it stood and eyed me from the pavement.

I leaned down and grasped the outer edges of its shell just as it tried to reverse its course and scurry back to where it started. A car approached, slowed, and then stopped as I held up my other hand and walked across the road, speaking softly to the turtle which had disappeared inside its shell. I set it down just beyond the sandy shoulder, pointing it toward the marsh a few feet away.

The car went on by, children trying to see the turtle making its way down the slope toward the water. The driver waved, smiling.

I resisted the temptation to think I had just done something virtuous. It was far more elemental, a simple act of kindness, as in kin and kindred, being naturally well-disposed to my own kind, a being with whom I share important things in common, beginning with wanting nothing more in that moment than to get safely to the other side of the road.

It’s Not about You

One of these days I’m going to have a bumper sticker that reads, It’s not about you.

I don’t know why, exactly, it keeps coming into my mind. It could be just a note to myself, but, then, of course, it would be just about me.

I’ve also been wondering if it’s an accident that the country that made individualism a sacred principle, also invented solitary confinement as a form of punishment.

I find that when two things present themselves like that, one after the other, they’re often connected, which is what Roxie and I are down here this morning to figure out.

roxie5I should note that she can appear to be sleeping when she’s not. This is work, and yet she has an uncanny way of maximizing her efficiency by making rest and labor simultaneous. She reminds me of those ducks I read about who can put half their brains to sleep while the other half is wide awake.

But enough about her.

I want the sticker because it seems that everywhere everything is all about you, the universal me—your me, my me, their me—which wouldn’t be a problem, if everything was about me and you, which, in case it needs to be said, it is not.

I might mention, for example, the global pandemic of men’s violence against women, and there will always be a man protesting in an injured tone that he’s never raped anyone.

Okay, I say, well done. But so what? I wasn’t talking about you.

Which he doesn’t grasp because he cannot see past himself, as if something can involve him only if it’s about him. The curse of individualism. And the refuge.

Like the white person so earnest about not wanting to be seen as racist that it can be easy for a person of color to feel invisible in their presence. Because, in the thick of that white preoccupation, what racism does to other people’s lives is not the point.

Which is why a black friend of mine once said that the most useless thing she could think of was a white person feeling guilty, because guilt can so easily take us to that place where it’s all about me and how I feel about what I’ve done or failed to do.

My effect on you is reduced to an occasion for my own feelings, which, come to think of it, might give me reason to reconsider whether I really hurt you after all, or how much, or was it really necessary to make so big a deal of it, considering how bad you’ve made me feel.

Teenagers can be especially artful in this, countering your complaint by resenting you for making them feel bad because of what they did. If only you’d been good enough to keep it to yourself.

And who knows, maybe you even had it coming.

Slippery, isn’t it?

How making it all about you can make it not about you at all.

I’m surprised there aren’t places where you can sign up for lessons. Then again, maybe we’re automatically enrolled the moment we’re born.

By which I don’t mean just men and whites, this being a general product of our cultural madness for the individual. It’s just that systems of privilege give dominant groups more opportunity to put it to use, including those who are sincere in wanting to make a difference.

I’m recalling a group where a conversation about race turned to the subject of hope, and I said something about not believing in that, it being too close to despair. What I do believe in is faith, by which I mean our capacity to not be afraid, to not become the fear that would keep us from what needs to be done.

What I remember most is the silence that followed and the very different reaction of whites and blacks in the room, with black people nodding in agreement as they looked about, and white people staring down at the table and shaking their heads.

I don’t know what they were thinking, because I didn’t ask, not knowing them well enough and too taken by what I saw. But I have a hunch about what was going on.

Hope and despair are for quiet moments of solitary reflection when you’re free to wonder about the meaning of it all. Like depression, despair is a private thing that does not seek company, as in the middle of the night when you’re feeling helpless, that there is nothing you can do that will make a difference you can see.

Out of the darkness, hope appears as an antidote, but suited more to the feeling than the problem, for it does not so much galvanize as soothe. Hope comes riding to the rescue, its banner whipping in the wind, promising to lift our hearts, that things will work out, somehow, someday, against the odds.

Whether we do anything or not.

Which can make hope into a luxury, a refuge from despair, that does not hold us to account.

But faith is what comes of having to wrestle with the angel of fear, whose power faith would harness into action. Faith is what turns a crowd of individuals into a march and then a movement. Where hope is passive and content, faith has an agenda and makes demands.

I suspect that people of color cannot afford to spend themselves on hope, because oppression is too immediate, every day, and has forced them to pull together, to find strength in solidarity built on faith. Because they know that in the moment of confronting power, the kind that hurts and even kills, the choice is not between hope and despair, but faith and fear.

White people have the luxury of being able to watch from the sidelines, or to know that at any moment, they can withdraw to the relative safety of being white. And hope it will turn out okay.

In other words, for people of color, racism is more a matter of we and us, while for whites, sliding down that slippery slope, it’s more likely to be all about me, or not at all.

Which brings me, oddly, to solitary confinement, first introduced as a form of punishment almost two hundred years ago in Philadelphia, famous for the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell. If ever there was a place devoted to the principle that it’s all about you, it would have to be one of those tiny cells, little bigger than a closet, where prisoners may be confined for years or even decades.

Why, I wonder, has it taken so long to consider how barbaric and inhuman this is and, even now, with arguments on either side? I have a hunch that such punishment has persisted because it is seen as a natural extension of what we’ve been taught is the normal condition of a human being.

After all, if it’s all about you, what else is there? And how much room does it require?

Which sounds to me like the loneliest, most desolate place there is, the modern self, a tiny cell just big enough for me. And yet, we are supposedly the point of it all, not together, but separate—the you and the I—and this singularity is what it’s all about, the reason to exist, to be celebrated and defended at all costs, the freedom to be lonely, imprisoned by the illusion that a single human being could possibly be enough to make a life.

We are snookering ourselves into hell.

For in the moment that I make it all about me, I make you invisible, and turn myself into a ghost.

Which is not what it is to be a human being, which I know from how it makes us crazy.

Crazy in the prison cell, crazy in the frantic pace of the ‘individual’ life racing around so as not to pause long enough to see the emptiness we have become. Crazy in all the desperate measures to deny our embeddedness in other people’s lives, to escape the loneliness and insufficiency of self, with drugs and alcohol, compulsive sex, the sculpted body, the endless text, the 70-hour week, the next thing to buy. Does it not occur to us how pervasive it is, the desire to escape, to be anywhere but here, trapped inside the fiction that who we are goes no further than our skin?

Roxie looks at me, puzzled that anyone would choose to be this way. It is so simple, so obvious, and yet, why so hard, to see through the paradox that I am not the point, even of myself.

I remind her that she is a pack animal, which makes her the Queen of knowing it’s not about her, not that she won’t occasionally blow me off when I call. Still, there is always the moment when she turns and comes running, as if that’s what she had in mind all along.

Or I look up from my thoughts to see her standing off in the woods, still, intent, as she looks at me, always knowing exactly where we are.

We think we are not pack animals, the human beings, making it easy to imagine that I stand alone, autonomous and independent, when I do not. To think that what happens to you does not happen to me, that my life is a simple function of who I am, as if there were such a thing, separate and complete, that there is nothing larger than myself connecting my life and yours, that my end of the boat can sink while yours does not.

Every indigenous people has known what our ‘civilization’ would have us deny and forget, and then tell ourselves we are superior for having forgotten, which may be why we have worked so hard to make them disappear.

Roxie sighs.

What?

It’s not about you.

Hijacking the Middle Class

The recent news that the middle class is no longer a majority of the U.S. population, makes me think of the Eifel Tower.

Because the Nobel Laureate economist, Paul Samuelson, once figured that if you stack a child’s blocks to make a pyramid of the distribution of income, with each layer being $1,000, the wealthiest would be far above the 1,063-foot Eifel Tower. And almost everyone else would be crammed within just 3 feet of the ground.

Not even room to stand up. And that was 1948. A half century later, things were so much worse that he switched from the Eifel Tower to Mount Everest. But I have a nice picture of the tower, and it makes the point pretty well, so let’s stay with that.

Somewhere in that compressed mass of humanity, a foot or two off the ground, is the so-called ‘middle class.’

I don’t need my Webster’s to tell me that ‘middle’ is halfway from one point to another, and I make out the middle to be somewhere between the second deck and the champagne bar at the top, which is a long ways from pretty much everyone.

The simple fact is that the middle class is not and never was, middle. And, just for the record, if you ask people to describe themselves in terms of class, in the 43-year history of such research, ‘middle’ has never outnumbered those who identify as working or lower class.*

Still, we recognize the term and imagine it to be the middle of something. Which raises the question, of what, and why should we care.

Two things come to mind.

The first is the hopeful boost that ‘middle’ gives by suggesting as small a distance to the rich and powerful up there as to the poor and struggling down below. Which, of course, it is not, not even close. I would provide a picture of Mount Everest for effect, but something of that magnitude cannot be captured by a camera. This gives some idea of the scale of what we’re talking about, which the ‘middle’ in ‘middle class’ serves to obscure, and is why we’re encouraged in its use.

Still, even though most people identified as middle class are only a divorce, a layoff, or a serious illness from not being middle anymore, so long as they can look down at the demonstrably destitute, the struggling, the disposable, and not see themselves, they can identify with what they see when they look up, which comes tantalizingly close to imagining that they matter.

Which brings me to the second reason for a ‘middle’ class—to name that in-between place where you don’t want to be when it looks like there’s going to be a fight.

While the top of the pyramid is taking the lion’s share of income and wealth, everyone else is left to compete over the rest. This means a sizeable portion of the population always winds up with some degree of not enough. And for the wealthy to protect themselves from the demands of ‘those people,’ the unruly masses, they need a counterweight, a buffer, to keep things under control.

In other words, someone in the middle, whose belief in the status quo gives them reason to keep everyone else in line.

They need teachers, for example, to instruct kids to be good workers who show up on time and do as they’re told. They need bureaucrats and lawyers, managers and administrators, bankers and realtors, police, judges, soldiers, the FBI, not to mention politicians and professors, journalists, doctors, economists, engineers, psychologists, therapists, social workers and a whole lot more to hold it all together.

This is the middle class that politicians wax rhapsodic about bolstering and strengthening, as in keeping a levee or a dam in good repair. It’s not that the wealthy care more about the people in the middle, but that there is a middle, a solid and dependable in-between to prop up the appearance of democracy, to enforce the law and bust the unions, to suppress dissent and manage the poor, and to pathologize, therapize, and anesthetize the human inability to stand it anymore.

In short, the middle class has been hijacked by the interests of wealth and power—the power elite, the upper class, the ruling class, the oligarchs, the one percent, all of the above, take your pick. The middle has been coopted and groomed to affirm that everything is decent and fair—look at us!—encouraged to congratulate itself for its steady habits and respectability that elevate it, if nowhere near the top, at least far enough from the bottom to note the difference, as if those below, the lower and working classes, the majority of the population, are unworthy losers who have only themselves to blame.

Being superior, however, does not mean being less disposable, not to be ignored along with everyone else when push comes to shove. Because, after all, from the champagne bar atop the tower, not to mention the mountain peak, all those tiny figures near the ground look pretty much the same.

And now the data show that the ‘middle’ is being ‘hollowed out’ as the wealthy continue to enlarge their share of the pie, there being not much more to take from everyone else. A few are rising, many more are falling, shocked at how close they have always been to the ground. A recent Federal Reserve study found that if they had to come up with $400 in an emergency, 47 percent of the population could not, including many who identify themselves as middle class.

Middle schmiddle.

There are two class systems in America. There is the one contained in the first three feet off the ground, a game of musical chairs to decide who gets to eat and who has a new car and are you better off than the person in the checkout line and does that let you feel a little better, if only for a while.

But in the other, at the top, as they jockey for window seats in the champagne bar, income and wealth are not really the point. How many houses, after all, can a person live in? How many cars can they drive?

What matters at the top is the power to act with impunity, unaccountable, as if they own the world. Because, as far as such a thing is possible, they do.

And will, so long as there is a middle to hold it all together.

Which reminds me of the poet, William Butler Yeats, and how things fall apart when the center cannot hold.

____________________________

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. . . .”

Excerpted from William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” in Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921).

*In 2014, for example, the breakdown was lower class, 9%; working class, 46%; middle class, 42%; upper class, 3% (less than 1% gave no answer). Source: National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago.

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