I have spent the better part of this last year thinking almost exclusively about two concepts: home and worth.
Just after the election I spent a few lonely days in in the mountains working on the book and waiting for snow and wondering what was the point. In the face of such a devastating outcome, in the face of such blatant racism and misogyny and human failing, what did my small words matter? But I kept writing. I kept writing because people smarter than me told me that it is in this way--when we stop living our lives--when we stop doing the work that we think has value—that the other side wins. And so I continued on.
And this what I’ve got:
In the face of what is happening in Aleppo, these concepts mean nothing—we are so far beyond the theoretical. In the face of what is happening there, there are no words. There is only a heartbreak so monumental and so devastating that the roar of silence is unbearable.
But here, here in this country, here in America, I think home and worth may just be the thing.
I live across the street from an elementary school and every morning and afternoon children play in the field outside. In rotation, group after group, children of all ages, colors, creeds, and nationalities tumble and scream and race. Girls with legs up to their armpits, colt-like in their movements, and boys who race from one end of the field to the other, so sure of where they are going. It is cold in New York so they are all, for the most part, wearing jackets, but I can still make out the young girls who wear hijabs. I watch these children, these perfect creatures, in their different dress, with the skin color so unlike mine, and I marvel at them and I think, this is America--all of it.
Eight months spent writing about home and this is what I can tell you with relative confidence: home is larger than any one person’s ability to define it. It is made up of small things and large things and in-between things and blue things. It is constantly changing. We don’t get to define it, so much as live in response to it. So America isn’t what you thought it was? It isn’t as white or as male as you’d like? So you can no longer define it in a way that feels comfortable and familiar? Okay, but that’s what America is. It’s larger than one race and larger than one story and it is ever-growing and ever-changing and you don’t get to say otherwise. You don’t get to make it smaller. Your job is to see it for what it is and to rise to the occasion--your job is expand in response to it. Because to abandon the value system on which this country was founded is to wake one morning and find yourself homeless in your own land having just elected a demagogue because you so selfishly, and so small-mindedly voted to make a thing tangible which never was, and was never meant to be. America is not yours to define. And it is not mine. It is not a perfect country, it never was. But when it is at its best it is striving in the direction of that which is good.
With brings me to the subject of worth. I spent the decade of my twenties in pursuit of that little sucker. And what I came to understand is this...it was there all along. Of course--of course, it was. Worth is not something we accrue, so much as something we unearth. Which usually requires a little dirt under the fingernails. Much like the notion of home, it is larger than my ability to define it, or point to it, or hold it between my hands. And worth, while--yes--dependent on many things, is, nonetheless, an entity that exists separate from all of its moving parts. Worth is singular and does not exist in relation to others, and it is not dependent on the best job or the best school or the most impressive resume. My worth is my own and it makes me no better or no worse than anyone else—and yet owning it is the best and healthiest thing about me. This is actually an issue I have with both political parties in this country—during the conventions people banged on and on about America being the best country in the world! And okay, maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t, but why must we define it in this way? Is our national psyche so tenuous as to need this validation? The hubris of this statement is deeply unsettling to me, but it also feels flimsy. People who are actually the best at something tend not to announce how great they are—mostly because they don’t need to. Saying something does not make it so, and as writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichieso brilliantly penned in the New Yorker, now is the time to talk about what we are actually talking about. We must have honest conversations about our failings without threat of being deemed unpatriotic or anti-American.
I understand that it is a scary time to be a white man in this country. For the first time (in recent human history?) they are feeling their value questioned. But what they need to understand is that value was always borrowed, and always bound to change. Which, I suspect they’ve known (on some level) all along, which is why they constantly project feelings of personal-precariousness onto everyone and everything else. (post-edit: I want to clarify my point on this. It isn't actually a scary time to be a white man in this country. They are the one group that actually has the least to fear. Which is why they were able to vote exactly as they did. It seems to me that the people who voted for Trump were overwhelmingly the people with nothing to lose because their personhood is now not in question by the United States government. My sympathy for white men and this death-rattle of their supremacy ends where my thinly-veiled rage begins. I am white. I come from an extremely privileged background. And yet, every day something happens that reminds me that because I am a woman I am viewed by the people in power as not as important or even as human. And that is demoralizing and frustrating and hurtful in a way that words cannot touch. So to white-men who feel their value questioned I say this: welcome to the smallest sliver of what the rest of us have always felt. Now get to work. And not for nothing, but you want to feel valuable? Start using that inherent privilege to help others--that's your job and that's your burden).
The GOP won this election by trading in their value system for votes. And that worked. But it is not sustainable or feasible—right now they are a party without a home. What the Democrats needs to remember is that they fought for what they believe in and that is exactly what they need to continue doing. They need to remember that their worth, ultimately, is not dependent on whether or not they won the election, but on the values they believe in (that’s actually true of any party). Many people will read this statement and say that’s ridiculous, a party is only as good as its ability to get things done, but that has to do with power and not worth, and at what point does morality come into play? The GOP won the election, but at what cost?
Donald Trump is a man who hates himself. He hates himself so deeply and so totally that he has to throw huge rallies just to create external validation to distract from the quiet of his own self-loathing. He does not believe in his worth, and instead of cultivating some—any—he has spent his life tearing others down and banging on about how great he is—he has spent his life externalizing success so that he might never have to deal with who he actually is: a man of devastating and destructive self-loathing.
I think what I’m trying to say is this: it is the responsibility of all of us to tend to our worth, but if our worth is based on something that can easily be lost—a job, a relationship, health, our rank in the list of world-powers, or a static idea of America’s makeup, then it is too tenuous—too susceptible to easy attack. Worth is a quiet thing. And it’s time we all start digging.