Friday, January 15, 2010

Some Learning Curves are Longer Than Others

In recent conversation with a friend, we discussed the means by which any organization or group might best enlighten those who cling to bigoted, ignorant, or otherwise offensive points of view. It is a conversation no different from the very same ones we have in a multitude of related corners, spaces where abstract theorizing has to take the place of hard fact. As an anthropologist, my friend is constantly aware of the intersection where intellect and biological construction meet and couches her views from that point. As she puts it, evolution of any sort is a tediously slow process. We have, for example, still not really advanced to the point that we have gotten the hang of this whole walking upright issue. The human body's propensity to arthritis is but only one of those most visible examples of this fact of reality. If our skeletal construction are but unfinished business, it would stand to reason that many others are too.

This doesn't mean that we ought to be satisfied when our dreams for greater equality are not politically expedient or placed at a high legislative priority, but that looking back over the centuries, even the most modest of reforms have taken scores of lifetimes to become entrenched and accepted wholesale. Regarding the people who remain exasperatingly set in what we consider totally ignorant modes of thought, her response is that learning curves for every individual are different. While some might not support same-sex marriage, they have at least embraced the notion that the world is round, and not flat. I think perhaps she was teasing a bit, but not entirely. While this postulate might be overly simplifying matters a bit, it has given me a sense of solace when it seems that all I end up doing with my drive, ambition, and passionate entreaties is speak to an audience of fellow believers, each of which is just as frustrated as I am.

Martin Luther King's actual birthday is today and on Monday we will officially honor his legacy. President Obama is fond of referring to Dr. King's assertion about the moral arc of the universe, but what is less well-known about the phrase is its origins, which lie with 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker.

"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

We wish, quite understandably, to have visible proof that the products of our tears, toil, and sweat are having their desired impact. We wish for victories to memorialize for all time and use as rallying points for subsequent efforts. We want to enshrine our leaders forever and ever with statues, books, movies, holidays, mentions in the historical record, and all the other ways by which we denote that which is important in an effort that future generations might observe them with great reverence. While sometimes triumphant gains are granted us, for reasons often unknown, many times our striving goes without notice or faces considerable opposition in obtaining it, muting the glory of eventual triumph. But if we are to take Parker and then King's assertion to heart, we should understand how long the orbit of the universe really is and how our own faculties as limited beings prevent us from seeing the full picture. For now, as it has been written, we look through a glass, darkly.

The Promised Land lies in front of us, and though I know the road is long, and though I cannot see every twist and turn, every signpost, every marker, every unexpected hazard in front of me, I can plainly view the destination ahead. This vision is one not granted me by eyes, nor ears, nor any physical sense, but by a belief given me by faith alone. Faith is what I turn to both in good times and in bad, but it proves to be a special solace when the frustrations of advancing compelling arguments towards the reluctant or the deeply entrenched seem to make no difference whatsoever. Still, I am convinced that our ultimate destination is towards justice, be it a sensible evolutionary advance with the requisite amount reproductive stages and DNA exchange or a forceful forward march of devoted activists storming towards a sometimes elusive but always visible goal. I see it even now as I write this and be it known that the vision never wavers, nor fades from my mind nor from my conception. If I could not see it plainly, I might not be so driven to spend my time the way that I do and I bet I'm not the only person out there who feels similarly.

At this juncture, I recall what Abraham Lincoln noted in his Cooper Union speech of February 1860, the address that effectively kick started his campaign and which, of course, eventually led to his election. In it, Lincoln said, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” I believe greater purpose and faith to be a personal, individual matter, and while some might insist upon a more regimented and proscribed course of action, my belief has always been that we should preserve our own unique compulsion and desire to help, based on the talents each of us possesses. So long as we agree upon the direction in which we head and so long as we continue to keep communicating with each other in the process, we will not go astray. What has been our undoing is not the desire to right the wrongs or secure equality for everyone, but when we do not see the intersections and common purpose between each individual cause. If we were all on the same page at the same time, there is no telling what we could accomplish. When ego combined with a selfish desire for absolute control are combined, we create stumbling blocks far more potent then our enemies could ever create for us.

As we remember Dr. King's legacy from today until Monday of next week, we might be wise to not forget how his death affected the Civil Rights Movement negatively, leading to a period of radicalism and militancy that I doubt King himself would have approved. The assassination left behind a legacy of unfinished business, much of which still remains a posthumous novel, published incomplete with fragments of subsequent chapters the author was working on prior to his death. I, too, have seen the Promised Land, and all of us who dare to dream that same dream have the same tantalizing image indelibly burned into our brains. For me, personally, I cannot listen to King's final speech in Memphis without bursting into tears. This is not necessarily because I know what follows next, but because those passionate, charismatic, compelling words speak to my own struggles and in particular to a goal which at seems at times quite feasible and at times daunting to a tremendous degree.

If you'll forgive the presumptuousness, I'd like to draw a brief parallel here, if I may. As someone with a chronic illness, I know much of adversity. Indeed, when a doctor informed me ten years ago that it was highly unlikely I would ever live anything like a normal life, I felt simultaneously hopeless and quite angry at my fate and my diagnosis. When I enrolled in college after spending four whole months in the hospital, even my closest friends started to believe that I would probably never make it all the way through to graduation. Many times I doubted myself and wondered what was the point of living at all if life itself or "health" was nothing more than a brief reprise from hospital visits and new medication regimens, each with maddeningly limited success. And though I had to drop three whole terms in the middle of achieving my diploma to return again to the hospital, I did graduate and no one can ever take that away from me. Lasting health took years, not months, and indeed I am constantly reminded of my own fragility when I contemplate that without medication I would be a semi-invalid, full of potential, but unable to push past the effects of disease. I suppose I could lament four years of my life rendered completely subordinate to the progression of the disorder, or the fifteen or so years before that where its impact was less pronounced, but still troublesome and still very evident.

But even in my own darkest hour, I saw the Promised Land before me. I was too stubborn to concede defeat and in so doing I summoned an inner strength which fought to stay alive and never allowed me to give up. The memory of that experience, painful though it is, gives me the ability to put certain goals I have in a proper context. Even today, I still have to take into account the occasional set back, the occasional bad day when even accomplishing the minimum is an effort, and the unforeseen challenges that no amount of planning, structuring, or strategizing can prevent. My Promised Land in this case is health, but in my life as an activist, it is an attempt to keep my Eyes on the Prize. The moral arc is long--longer than we might like to admit. Like Dr. King, we might not get there in our own lifetimes, but we as a people will, I am convinced, get to the Promised Land.

Speaking directly to that speech made in April 1968, King's assertion in his final address has often been interpreted more in a prophetic sense than in its the original context. While it was true that much progress had been made, King must have known that it was not especially likely that one lifetime or one leader would overcome centuries of racism and all of its by products. Though an impressive portion of the battle has been fought, my Anthropologist friend again reminds me, most change is subtle and takes time. Our impatience to leave a mark is understandable, but perhaps we might ought to consider not necessarily aiming lower, but aiming for that which is achievable within our relatively limited lifespans. The irony of reform is that the subtlest efforts, efforts we might not even be aware of, are sometimes the most successful in the end. It is often only at the conclusion of life that we recognize just how finite we really are and always were. Speaking from a purely biological standpoint, once we reach our early twenties, we technically begin to die. Until that point, cellular growth exceeds cellular death, but after that, cellular death exceeds cellular growth. Naturally, the progress is subtle, but the implication is undeniable. If almost everyone who reads these words is already dying in some sense, perhaps we might recognize that the time for squabbling has long passed us.

We are in the beginning stages of a very deliberate, but undeniable march towards homogeneity. The rumblings we see before us are the abject fear that something largely intangible, but still perceptible will be lost if we all embrace a more or less standard identity. With globalization and with a planet that continues to swell in size, we aren't a world of isolated homo sapiens living in isolation on separate continents. With time, we will begin to resemble each other physically, and one can only assume, ideologically as well. I have to tell you that I kind of lament this development, even though it will be in force eons after my physical existence ceases to exist. I imagine a world of people with only one hair color, one eye color, the same basic height and weight, the same essential build, the same diet, the same customs, the same religion, the same cultural expectations, and the same essential temperament. In a purely visceral sense, I find a great deal of pleasure in observing the diversity of expression one finds from place to place, and it's a big reason why I and other people love to travel. Still, if it takes something like this to put us all on the same page regarding progress, then perhaps this is an inevitable evolutionary step I should welcome.

In the meantime, it is up to us to find strategies that straddle this tension between our status as animals and as sentient beings. We are granted, for reasons we might never know, the ability to look beyond ourselves and our immediate environment. This has been the source of much in the way of positive change and also much in the way of negative, destructive change. The disconnect between the two will always create problems, just as sure as we are that there will always be issues before us that clamor for revision and transformation. Some of us put more stock in socialized customs, a product of our cerebellum, and some of us look first at our biological imperatives, but the most fundamental tension of all is a means to span the gap between the two. It may be centuries before this appears anything less than clumsy and inadequate, but perhaps we need a reminder from time to time that we are imperfect beings striving for perfect solutions.

Perhaps Walt Whitman put it best in Leaves of Grass.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

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