How do we come together?


Levin, at the end of the novel Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, thinks the following:

“I’ll get angry in the same way with the coach man Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately,…even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it,… –but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!”

I have read this book five times now. Every time I learn something new about the human condition. This time, I understood the liberating thought that no matter how many mistakes we make every day going about our lives, no matter how often we repeat the same faults, even though we have vowed to change, to reform, to be more patient, we can still consider ourselves good people. Because life is messy. Life is big and amorphous and if we cannot keep up with it in all its complexity, it is to be expected. It is easy to feel a failure at one thing or another. It is easy to give into inevitability, the feeling that there is no hope of change.  That is a melancholy place to be, often leading to cynicism or paralysis in the larger arena of social change and in the smaller sphere of interaction with those we love, and those we don’t. Yet what if we said that setbacks are to be expected but don’t have to be decisive? My older friends change and illuminate world perspectives that sharpen my own. My relatives come through for me in ways I would not have expected, given our last encounter, our last disagreement. While life is messy, messy can be re arranged, cleared of irrelevant detail. We can resume our friendships at new levels, in deeper ways.

I am not an easy person to be around if you disagree with my politics. And there are some things I won’t back down on. So don’t get in my face about how we need assault rifles and thirty round clips after young children have been gunned down with terrible efficiency by these weapons. Don’t try to tell me that we live in anywhere near an equitable world when it comes to race; when every week we see examples that point to a contrary conclusion. It would not be good to try and convince me that our country has no history of a grave and deep injustice and shame in our very founding. I will tell you that until we ask for redemption, until we work toward true reparations to those we have enslaved, killed, sent to reservations, conquered, humiliated, we will not be at peace in the United States and in our psyches. Please don’t come to me with bootstraps theories of poverty, or manifest destiny or “anyone can make it in this country if they just work hard enough” philosophies. They don’t take with me, as I watch a child in a school I recently visited talk of his sister who is in a coma after being shot in her own home.

I am coming to think that when we have disagreements over things we feel certain of, in education for instance, we can still be friends. When I make a mistake or jump to a conclusion and someone points out to me assumptions I made that were false, I can back up, regroup and rethink. Because, thank god, life is messy, right?  We can rush to judgment. I can be wrong.  I may make a similar mistake in six months, and regroup again. My sister may point out, after I have made a huge generalization about southern states and their conservatism, that in Arkansas where she lives they are doing some good work in education. My friend who sends her son to private school may read the discomfort on my face, and mention to me that she is lucky to have the money to send him to an exclusive school and she means to do that if it will mean he will have a safe place to study, to work, to make friends. If I am a true friend I will cease judging her and we will laugh remembering something we did together years ago when we worked in Minneapolis classrooms.

Even if I still find that my facts are right, and you and I disagree about the state of education, we might find common ground when we talk about painting, the image I am trying to put on the canvas, your new abstract work, so different from your former realism. We can disagree about political candidates (although this is harder for me) and have a decent conversation about the beauty of a finely written historical novel.

If we take Levin’s realization to heart, we begin to understand that given a similar basis to our beliefs about humanity and compassion, given the “unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in [our] power to put into [our lives]” we can do wrong, do right, fail, succeed, alienate and include— be it on a bad day at the job or in talk around the dinner table. We can  come back and reconnect, re evaluate.

This realization is not easy for me. It is not just the times I find out I am truly in the wrong that bother me. Those times are actually when I learn more and more about how limited my perspective can be. It is when I know deep in my heart I am right, and someone comes up against me that I struggle the most. Levin would urge self -forgiveness when I have become belligerent in those conversations, alienating some people in the room. Yet the problem is, I harbor a secret desire that even my adversaries like me. I have a strong need for acceptance. So I brood on these exchanges for weeks. Lately, though, if I repeat the mantra, “life is messy, life is unsettled, life is anxious,” I can let it all go. I can acknowledge I will never be  everyone’s friend. 

Adopting this recognition of the complexity of our lives does not have to mean we become less passionate about what we believe. It does not mean we sacrifice principles of love, fearlessness, or hard work for those causes we are engaged in. It does mean that our relationships may be more nuanced than we thought all along.  It does mean we can listen instead of simply waiting to respond. It does mean that those we love need not be afraid of our passion: we do not intend to alienate.

We  acknowledge that life is big and capacious and can take us all in.