Growing up, I didn’t think of myself as an “American.” I was a missionary kid. I went to a missionary school, and studied Spanish and the Bible alongside English and Math. I loved Jesus, and volunteered with the prison ministry, with the soup kitchen ministry, teaching Sunday School. And I was socially awkward, an outcast, a loner.
My feelings about the country in which I was born were confused: some mix of awe, distrust & resentment. I was endlessly “other” in my family and among my peers and in the cultures of the countries we were on a mission to “save”. And I blamed my country for my lack of belonging in the homes I came to love.
Because I was American, I was in danger, or so the narrative was spun, and my experience affirmed the narrative. I remember, at 9 years old in Mexico being stopped by the police and my mother lying, telling them we didn’t have any money in the car. She told me later that they would have invented a reason to take it all from us, because we were American, so they would think we were rich even though we weren’t. At 14, in Ecuador, my friend’s father was arrested for no reason, I was told, other than that he was American and they wanted him to pay lots of money to be released. He was in prison for a month. At 15, I was forbidden from going to Colombia, because my nationality made me a likely kidnapping target.
The vendors at the markets in Quito, where I spent the better part of my tween and teen years, had two price lists: one for gringos and one for locals. I didn’t have an issue with this – they were welcome to charge the Rich Americans whatever they wanted…but I wanted to be treated like a local.
I didn’t see, then, how the very idea of a missionary life inherently others and demeans its objects by attempting to influence them into a paradigm that may or may not be in support of their thriving. In choosing to say “we know better than you what you should believe and how you should live,” we set ourselves apart from the culture we encountered, rather than finding our way into mutual respect and experiments with collaboration. I see it now, but back then? I blamed my own nationality for my feeling of separation, of otherness.
The USA to me, then, was a place of extravagant, wasteful wealth. Of an entire aisle for juice where three or four choices would do. Of mansions and feasts and shopping and television. I both loved and hated the every-other-summer my family would spend traveling the US, visiting supporters. These were the Americans whose donations made our lives and ministry possible. We traveled from place to place, my father preaching the same sermon again and again until I and my sisters could recite it word for word. And these people, these supporters, doted on us. Cooked for us, housed us, tended to us. I loved them, and I hated the experience.
These were people who had my picture on their refrigerator. Who read about me in newsletters my mother sent out. Who prayed for me in church on Sundays, and maybe every day during their devotions, their time of intentional practice. I felt my otherness keenly, wearing my Ecuadorian soccer jersey to the fourth of July celebrations. My family was seen as set apart, somehow; worthy of all these people’s money and energy to sustain our lives. I saw this as a standard to live up to, a necessary righteousness as the representatives of God. A righteousness that I, a hopeless sinner, was utterly incapable of attaining.
I worked harder. Read the Bible more. Prayed diligently. I became class chaplain. Yes, that was a thing at my school. I answered so many altar calls. We called it “Rededication” – when you’ve already been born again, but you’ve strayed from the straight and narrow, you confess your sins and give yourself back over to Christ. There’s something very lovely buried in there about the idea of taking responsibility for who you are and what you do, and choosing to bring yourself into integrity again and again…but that is not at all how I was living it.
I was living it as guilt and shame. I was living it as a pattern of shaming myself for my sins (which were numerous, including anger at my father and anything having to do with sexuality, from watching sex scenes in movies to touching myself), begging to be cleansed of said sins, and working enthusiastically for Jesus until my own uncleanness crept up on me again, driving me back into self-shaming. I was living it dramatically, violently.
Part of the hard work I put in was, quite naturally given the values of missionary culture, toward the salvation of others. I volunteered in several ministries that did some gorgeous work, never seeing that the gifts we offered were so transactional: food or clothing or medical care or fun and games all in exchange for a person in need’s willingness to listen to us tell them that they were going to hell unless they believed what we believed.
I was passionately against abortion. I was passionately against gay marriage. These things were a given, they were part of the culture. Everyone knew that they were wrong. I remember in 8th grade, when that “awful sinner” Bill Clinton did…well I was never sure quite what exactly, but something very very bad having to do with sex, which made it inappropriate to discuss…with Monica Lewinsky. (Hillary was, of course, righteous to stand by him, because divorce is a sin). I wrote a poem from the point of view of an aborted child as an avenue to express my outrage at the idea that giving birth could be a choice. I wept – literally wept – as I prayed for my “poor cousins” who were “subjected to” gay parents.
I prayed valiantly for Christians who were being persecuted all around the world, always aware that, the way things were going in the US, with all those babies being aborted and gay people allowed to get married, someday soon probably Christians in the US would start getting persecuted too — I’d even heard they already weren’t letting people pray and have Bible study at school!
And I strove, endlessly, to honor my parents like the Bible said to…in the midst of their more-than-typically-dysfunctional parenting. My relationship with my parents, especially my father, was, to me, the ultimate proof of my own badness, because I couldn’t deny what I saw as their badness, and seeing them as bad wasn’t honoring them. I associated their badness with their American-ness, attempting to distance myself from it, make it “other” than myself, since I didn’t identify as an American.
And through it all, this thread ran that I had this obligation – to the supporters in the States – to live up to my role in my missionary family. Because everything I had came from them, from the Americans. I was sure, if the supporters knew what bad people we were – not just my own sins, but the shadows within my family, too – that we would lose everything and be out on the streets. So I was grateful to the US, for funding my life, appalled at what I saw as its extravagance and waste, and resentful about the standards I felt I had to live up to that I associated with the States, angry at the danger I felt it put me in, and very confused about the feeling of Otherness I had both in the US and overseas.
I moved back to the US when I was 17. As it happened, that was a catastrophic time in my life; a time of facing the abuse I’d experienced, and I don’t use the word “abuse” lightly. In a time of beginning to recognize just how wounded I was, I ran away, from both my family and the Church, and began to speak of what I’d experienced. I was enraged – most especially at my parents and at God, and I lashed out. I took actions that I told myself were for my own protection, but in actuality were about my anger and my pain and my need to act in a way that expressed my feeling state. I filed a report as my exit strategy, and my family locked the door behind me.
Suddenly free, suddenly alone. Suddenly nothing I knew made sense. And all those values I’d been so passionate about – sin and Jesus and salvation – suddenly they fell away, replaced by the utter terror of uncertainty, and the grief and rage that are its bedfellows.
I began to explore the other side of things, and my values began to shift. As I came across people who were different from how I’d been raised, I asked them endless questions about their lives and their beliefs. I watched all 7 seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and (probably as a result) bought books on Wicca and started smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol and dating women. I came to the realization that, while I don’t see myself as ever having an abortion, I would never want to deny that choice to another woman.
In the spring of 2007, I moved to the Washington, DC. That’s where my feelings about America began to shift; where I first caught a glimmer of what America could be. My aunt (one of the gay ones whose children I’d so earnestly prayed for and whose family I was now living with in Alexandria, VA) brought me along with her when she testified on Capitol Hill. She was there in her then capacity as the Executive Director of the Women’s Business Center of Northern Virginia, speaking about a micro-loans program. I caught a bug of excitement, that day, about government. About the grandeur and majesty of DC. About the idealism and beauty of this idea of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
The 2008 presidential election was my first, and Obama was the first president I voted for. I stayed up late to watch the election results come in. I danced and screamed with joy when he was elected. I wept during his inauguration, overcome with hope, and with a brand-new feeling I’d never before experienced: patriotism. I was filled, for the first time, with love for my country.
By the time of my second presidential election, I had moved to upstate NY. I had married a woman and was in the process of getting divorced. I was pursuing a liberal arts bachelor’s degree at a totally alternative, awesome college that let me write my own curriculum and study according to my own passions. And I was still so proud to cast my vote, to participate in the electoral process. So grateful to the suffragettes who worked tirelessly to earn me the privilege. I wasn’t quite as full of hope as I’d been at the first election, there seemed so many causes to fight for. I was writing letters to advocate for trans- rights. I was changing my profile picture to a rainbow flag. I was protesting fracking, and GMO’s, and starting conversations with strangers about cultural appropriation. My political pendulum had swung, fully and completely, from the right to the left.
This most recent election really brought home for me the polarity of the two narratives I’ve lived in. As I’ve wrestled and grappled and thought and written for the past more-than-a-year as I’ve followed along, I’ve seen fear emerge as the predominant theme on every side of this thing. Everyone is afraid. Everyone feels like someone who isn’t considering everyone’s well-being is making decisions that impact all of our lives. And it’s probably true.
I keep coming back to the commonality of it. I’m so aware that, even though I’ve changed so much and my values have changed so much, and my politics have jumped from one extreme to the other…I’m still the same me I always was. I still have an internal compass that points to “good” and has always pointed to “good”. It’s just my definition of “good” that has changed.
I love this country. And I respect the hell out of the ideals it espouses, even as it falls short of them time and time again. So I have an American Dream. I believe that there is great potential, here, for true collaboration between disparate cultures and perspectives. I believe that we are actively moving toward this kind of harmonious, creative living….and that we aren’t there, yet.
But I think we’re closer than we think we are.
We are a nation divided. Polarized, even. We have two distinct narratives playing at all times – one liberal and one conservative. There are nuance and variance within each of the two, and plenty of conflict and disagreement as well, but within each narrative even the conflicts stay true to the narrative; the disagreements arise around what the nature of the response to the agreed upon narrative should be.
Each side will provide you with a set of facts. Certainties. Things “everyone knows” that are beyond dispute. And those two sets of certainties disagree with each other, wildly.
Two separate narratives could be a terrifying prospect. How will we ever communicate with one another? How can we ever bridge such a divide? These are valid, and important questions, and we need to find our way into the answers, stat. Not theoretically, but as lived experience.
But the thing is, I’ve been a believer of each narrative. I’ve experienced them both. And I believe that each side also has an internal compass that points to “good”…and that it’s really just our definitions of “good” that don’t line up. So I choose to embrace two separate narratives as an exciting moment on the journey toward collaboration: we are now distinct enough from each other to turn and face each other; to begin to explore the idea of what a meeting between us would look like. To begin to find our way into letting our differences enrich our collaboration, rather than hinder it.
We are at a choice point: we can continue to further our separation, by playing the game of “us” and “them” where “they” are for whatever reason inherently less worthy of respect and compassion than “we” are…or we can decide that the narratives are separate enough, now, and start to move toward connection.
I can’t tell you exactly what it looks like because it will be its own thing. But I can tell you that in my life, movement toward connection often looks like finding common ground, extending a generous hand or a friendly smile, or expressing genuine curiosity about the other. It looks like listening, and listening to what lies under what is expressed. It looks like empathy and understanding, even for those who’ve wronged me — without betraying myself, or pushing myself into connection more quickly than my system is ready for it.
I can tell you that we all have a couple of things in common: each of us has a body, and each of our bodies is designed to feel emotions. We can probably all think of a time when we were scared. We probably all have things we’re afraid of, right now. We can probably all locate at least one moment of actual delight in our lives, too. And anyone who can’t deserves more of my compassion, not less, even if the lack-of-delight in their experience has left them enraged, and they are taking it out on me. We all yearn for love, for both connection and autonomy.
And we all want to be good people, each of us according to our own value systems.
So I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, whoever you are, and whatever you’ve done or are doing. I’m going to trust that you want to be good. I’m also going to trust that you probably aren’t meeting your own standard for “good”, and that even if you are, you probably still think you could do “better”. Because that seems to be the human condition, at least as I’ve encountered it in myself and others. What I’m not going to trust is that your definition of “good” and my definition of “good” are the same thing. Because they might not be. In fact, they probably aren’t. But I think if we can understand that, we can still work together.
Let’s just start by saying, you want to be good, and I want to be good, and we have this in common.
Then let’s look at what we each mean by “good”, and where our definitions overlap, and where they don’t.
Let’s work together for the good of all. Let’s work together to figure out what “the good of all” might mean, remembering that what’s good for me might not be what’s good for you, and that each of our thriving is equally important. Let’s collaborate in a grand experiment of mutual respect, mutual curiosity, and mutual generosity, and let’s see what we create.
That’s my American Dream. What’s yours?