It’s a shame that birds always fly away when I walk nearby. Do they remember, somewhere in their unconscious hive-mind, that day at Mama’s house when I was 8 or 9 years old, taking her BB gun from its usual resting place, pointing it up in the tree and firing it for no other reason than I liked watching the dozens of resting, chatting, playing birds scatter to the four winds, never meaning any harm (was just making my own TV show of sorts), but eventually after doing this many times over the summer months I managed to hit one of the birds and it fell to its death, a BB-sized hole in its skull with its little brain exposed, lying still as a post on the stubble of grass of Mama’s yard a few feet from where I was standing? I’m not sure if I actually never touched a gun again after that, or if that’s just a story I tell myself as an adult because the moment has been, through active and sustained storytelling, loaded with a significance it may not have actually had in the present moment. But today, as I walk out onto a porch, or stroll through a forest, the birds always fly away, the fear of a million deadly encounters with humans, including this human, etched in their DNA. It’s kind of sad to think that this is evolution.
Well, folks, it’s almost that time again! Election season is in full swing, and it won’t be long until 60% of eligible American voters abstain from voting!
We hear a lot about America being divided into Red and Blue states, but states don’t walk into a booth and cast a vote; people do. Or they don’t, as they case seems to be.
This is what the 2008 presidential election results looked like on a county level, and with just two candidates to choose from, the colors run from hemorrhagic red to hypothermic blue, with lots of purple mixed in there to remind us that, hey, we’re not so different after all.
Below is a map more familiar to most voters, the results of the 2008 presidential election. It shows all of those millions of individual voters aggregated into states and assigned a color based on two factors: the majority of votes cast in that state, and the candidate the electors chose. Where’s all the purple? Where are all the individual voices? In this system, states speak; people don’t.
What neither of these maps show, however, is how many people didn’t vote at all. In 2008, there were 45 million eligible voters who failed to show up to the polls. The United States Census Bureau wanted to know why, so they conducted an in-depth survey to ask these people why they chose to stay home on Election Day.
Interestingly, the survey divided up non-voters into two categories: voters who registered but didn’t cast a vote, and eligible voters who didn’t register at all. Among registered voters who failed to show up to the polls (15 million people), 26.4% just plain weren’t interested because they didn’t like the candidates. Other responses, like “too busy,” “forgot,” and “out of town” indicate some level of disenfranchisement or disconnectedness from the process. After all, being “too busy” is just another way of saying “voting wasn’t on my priority list;” absentee ballots exist for the very purpose of allowing out-of-town voters to cast a ballot; and “forgot”…that speaks for itself. This combination of disenfranchisement and apathy accounts for over 8 million souls.
Among eligible voters who didn’t even bother to register (30 million people), a majority of respondents said they either weren’t interested or they knew their vote wouldn’t make a difference.
I’m no mathematician, but that’s over 24 million people who specifically avoided voting because they were convinced it wasn’t important enough for them to do so. 24 million American citizens who are so disconnected from the democratic process that they refuse to take part in a pivotal national election. Let that sink in.
Why does any of this matter? If people choose to sit at home, to not exercise their right to have a say in the political process (a right that many people around the world would literally die for, are dying for), that’s their problem. They are disenfranchising themselves, after all. Right?
Kind of. You see, Americans disapprove of Congress more than at any time in history (a whopping 15% approve of the job Congress is doing), and that disapproval is, according to recent polling done by Gallup, nonpartisan. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican…you simply do not trust Congress. And let’s be clear, here: Congress is made up of human beings, and these are perhaps the only human beings Americans prefer to be sitting at home collecting unemployment than to be working. One-fifth (22%) of all poll respondents said the best course of action is to simply throw them all out and start over with a fresh new batch.
Is there such a batch available to voters, though? Or has the system fallen so far down the rabbit hole that voting for “the other guy” is, as my Nana would have said, about as useful as tits on a boar? There is plenty of precedent in recent American history for a wholesale throwing-out of the current political party and bringing in a group with different ideas. How has that worked out for us so far? Did the 2010 endorsement of the Tea Party candidates make anything better? How about in 2006 or in 1994 when one party was exchanged with another due to dissatisfaction with the nation’s trajectory? This method has proven not to work to produce the kind of results people hope for when they cast their votes.
What options do we have? We can’t vote for the other guy (aka, the lesser of two evils) and expect things to change. Doesn’t work. We can’t just abstain from voting and wait for the fruits of our non-efforts. First, 45 million of us already do that, to no avail. And second, if that worked to inspire positive change in the voting system, we’d have the greatest representatives the world has ever seen (considering we have one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the world). What we need is another alternative…a way to let our frustration with the current system be known without playing into the system we are frustrated with. What we need, my friends, is a write-in campaign.
The Plan – Using the Write-In Option
Ballots differ slightly among jurisdictions, but a basic ballot looks like this. There is an oft-ignored but ever-present option available to write in your preferred candidate, assuming that person is not present on the ballot.
The write-in option has been utilized with some amount of success in the past to elect candidates into office. But amassing enough support to elect a write-in candidate nationally is tough, and the write-in option is as likely to be used to vote for “Lizard People” as to vote for “Ron Paul.”
I don’t advocate using the Write-In option to vote for a particular candidate. Instead, I advocate using the Write-In option as a way to officially make known our dissatisfaction with Congress. Voting as a method of protest. Voting as an act of civil disobedience. Voting as a way to change the country for the better…who would have thunk it?
Here’s how it works:
On Election Day, we walk into the voting booth. We skip over the Republican Party candidate, the Democratic Party candidate, the Libertarian Party candidate, the Green Party candidate, and the Independent candidate, and head straight for the Write-In option. In the blank provided, we write “One Step.”
Why write “One Step”? What does it mean?
“Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.” – Henry David Thoreau, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” 1849
“One Step” is both symbolic and concrete. It is a clear statement that Americans are taking the first of many steps to achieve the kind of government that will command our respect. By writing in this common message instead of casting a vote for another politician we know won’t properly and honestly represent us, we are sending a strong message to the powers-that-be that we will no longer take part in a system that isn’t working in our best interests.
Sounds nice, but how does writing in “One Step” change anything?
Writing “One Step” shows solidarity…a solidarity that is sorely lacking in our politics today. It displays strength in numbers, which, with 316 million Americans and counting, is by far our biggest asset. The current two-party system serves to divide Americans into competing factions, pitting us against one another, hiding the forest of our commonalities within the trees of our differences. When 85% of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, it’s clear that the issues Americans feel are most important go beyond partisanship. What if that 85% all refused to vote for a single congressional candidate, instead writing in “One Step”? The message that very simple act would send would be more powerful than any vote for any candidate you’ve ever cast.
So that’s one step. What’s the next step?
While there are millions of voters who are apathetic or convinced their vote doesn’t matter and thus abstain from voting, there are millions more who are legitimately disenfranchised by all of the institutional hurdles they must jump over to cast a vote. Then, once they cast a vote, their voice is swept up in the Red or Blue parade and assigned a value according to whatever importance their state holds in the electoral college. Comparatively speaking, the United States voter turnout rate is far lower than most other established democracies.
For democracy to be most effective, citizens must be actively engaged in their government. The American political system has been designed, in a myriad of ways, to limit voter turnout. Other countries have higher voter turnouts, not because they’re just so much more democratic than we are, but because they use a combination of tactics to increase turnout (Election Day is either held on a weekend or is made into a national holiday; same-day voter registration makes meeting registration deadlines a thing of the past; online voting makes it easier for people with limited transportation options to cast a vote). In the Census Bureau survey I mentioned above, I specifically noted the number of apathetic voters, but I glossed over the other millions of Americans who may have voted had it been easier to do so (accounting for 38.5%, or almost 6 million registered voters, and just shy of 40%, or 11.6 million non-registered voters).
Institutional disenfranchisement is a real problem, but it can be fixed with a few tweaks of the law. As this study shows, states that have an Election Day registration option have significantly and consistently higher voter turnout than states that do not allow same-day voter registration. Understanding that hurdles like these exist, we can work to dismantle them, effectively enlarging the voice of the American people, of each American.
I advocate utilizing the write-in option in every single national election until these changes are made. We need not take part in a system that no longer represents us, that actively disenfranchises us, and that pits us against each other. By writing in “One Step,” you are taking the first step towards a solution.
I, like you, feel like I’m not being properly represented by Congress, but I can’t just not vote for a candidate. Doing so means that the fate of the election will be decided by a small portion of the population.
Unfortunately, it already is. During the 2012 presidential elections, 43.5% of voting-age Americans refused to cast a vote. The average congressional mid-term election sees 60% of Americans staying at home. And, even worse, local elections feature a whopping 75% of Americans abstaining from the ballot box. The fate of our nation is being decided by a smaller and smaller slice of the population, despite the immense challenges we face today.
By continuing to do the same thing you’ve always done (casting a vote for the lesser of two evils), you are ensuring that this disappointing and undemocratic trend will continue. By the simple act of writing in “One Step” instead of casting a vote for a politician, you are effecting real, substantial change. You are making democracy work.
There are lots more problems than just low voter turnout. What about money in politics? What about the two-party system? What about state and local elections?
All of these issues are important, and all can be addressed within the One Step movement.
Money in Politics
One Step believes that numbers are what should count in elections, not dollars. A Reuters survey from 2012 found that 75% of Americans feel there is too much money in politics, and 76% feel that money in politics allows the rich to have a greater voice than the average American. Just like there are numerous ways to increase voter turnout numbers, there are numerous ways to ensure that, in the future, numbers matter more than dollars. One Step acknowledges the feeling of the majority of our fellow Americans, and we aim to be a leader in the effort to rid our election process of the corrupting influence of money.
The two-party system is a direct result of our plurality, first-past-the-post, ‘to the winner belongs the spoils’ voting system. It is not a matter of convincing enough Americans to vote for a third party…just like with voter turnout, there are institutional hurdles that have been erected to make sure the two party system remains entrenched. These can, and should be, dismantled to ensure that more voices are represented. One Step aims to foster a dialogue on this issue and propose solutions that will serve to increase the number of Americans who feel their views are being adequately represented (only 15% of Americans surveyed in 2010 felt the two-party system was doing so).
State and Local Elections
The voter turnout rate for local elections is, by any measure, abysmal (the rate for state elections is affected by the national turnout rate, since state elections are held on national Election Day and presented on the same ballot). The outcome of local and state elections presumably affects the lives of Americans more directly than national elections, from potholes to parks and schools to clean drinking water. Despite this intimate relationship between peoples’ day-to-day lives and the local and state elected officials entrusted to plan, build, and maintain these services, most eligible voters choose not to take part in electing who will direct these vital subjects (one study of 340 mayoral races around the country found that the average voter turnout was 25%).
Most media attention is directed more towards national elections than state and local elections, so it is no wonder that people turn out to vote accordingly (when they turn out to vote at all). It is the belief of One Step that when confidence rises in government at the national level, that celebration of democracy will manifest itself in local elections. People will want to get involved and stay involved, because they will see that their involvement, no matter how small, makes a difference. Conversely, when people demand that their local government be responsive and representative of the community, that expectation will filter itself up to the state and federal levels. All levels of government will be affected positively by the One Step movement.
The State of Nevada has a “None of the Above” option on their ballots. If this kind of thing worked, Nevada should have a far more representative government than the other 49 states, but it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work for one state, how will it work for the United States?
It’s true that Nevada’s ballots feature a “None of the Above” option, the only state ballots to do so. When chosen, it acts as a protest vote…a way of showing the voter’s disapproval for all candidates appearing on the ballot. So, what happens if a majority of voters choose “None of the Above”? Does the candidate selection process begin anew, requiring new candidates to appear on a future ballot? Does the office remain vacant until the next election cycle, or until a new election is held?
None of the above. (See what I did there?) The next-highest vote-getter is selected as the winner. Voting for “None of the Above” has literally zero effect on the outcome of the election.
Nevada’s “None of the Above” system doesn’t work to create a more representative government because it’s not designed to create a more representative government. It does not serve as precedent for this movement.
Let’s be crazy here and say that One Step carries the day throughout the country and not a single congressional candidate receives a majority of the votes. What happens next?
American congressional elections are characterized as a plurality-majority system. What this means is that the candidate who garners the most votes wins regardless of if they win a majority of the votes. When there are only two candidates vying for an office, a majority is easy enough to get…just get one more vote than the other guy, and you’re in! When there are three or more candidates running for the same office, however, it becomes less likely that one will receive 50.1% of the votes. In that case, the candidate who received the most votes (a plurality), wins.
On Election Day, millions of Americans skip the proffered candidates and write in “One Step.” The beauty of this idea is that, regardless of whether One Step actually wins the election, the message will be received. One Step will be recorded as receiving x% of the vote. It will have made its voice heard, it will have made its presence known.
If One Step achieves a plurality, though…if One Step actually wins the election, what happens next? It’s unclear how the electoral system will handle this outcome as it has never happened before. Certainly, write-in candidates have won plenty of elections in the past, but those candidates happened to be, you know, human beings. The most likely outcome (since procedures are already in place in case of resignation, impeachment, or death) is that a special election will be held sometime before the newly elected representatives take office in early January.
Let’s say you’re Candidate Jane Moneybags and you’re running against Candidate Joe Greedman for a seat in the House of Representatives. The election results come in, and both of you lose to One Step, which receives a plurality of the vote. One Step (i.e., the American people), in solidarity, in one voice, has just stated loudly and clearly that it demands better representation, a dismantling of the institutional roadblocks that have been put in place to make voting harder than it should be, and a legislative body that represents people instead of dollar bills. Not only does One Step demand that, but not a single vote will be cast for a single congressional candidate until it happens. Would you, Candidate Jane Moneybags, all of a sudden be all ears? How about you, Candidate Greedman? Would you feel keenly motivated to push for those very legislative changes that One Step proposes? You would if you wanted to ever wanted to hold elected office again.
This is why One Step works. It puts pressure upon our representatives and would-be representatives to listen to the voice of the American people, which is calling in unison for better, fairer, more responsive elected officials. Let’s say on November 4, not a single soul writes in One Step and either Candidate Moneybags or Candidate Greedman wins the day. What would incentivize them to make the electoral process fairer and easier for Americans to take part in? Why would they opt to change the very system that got them elected when, no matter what they do, people will still cast a vote for one or the other?
When people stop playing into a system that is designed to be unrepresentative and unresponsive, when people stop rewarding candidates who have no desire to make the system more representative and responsive, that’s when you will see real change.
Who is behind One Step? Who is funding One Step?
As of now, just me. I’m a 32 year old female who grew up in a suburb of Dallas. I studied politics as an undergrad (receiving a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Dallas in Government & Politics), and received a Master’s degree in International Political History from Southern Methodist University. Aside from studying politics in school, I worked at the local, state, and federal levels during my professional career. In school I learned the theory, or the way government should work; in my career, I learned the reality.
Growing up, I was taught that you can let the world change you, or you can change the world. I prefer the latter. I saw the reality of our political system at all levels of government, and it was, in a word, disconcerting. And so I’ve constantly asked myself: how can I make it better? How can WE make it better?
One Step is my proposal for how we can make it better. I hope you’ll join me in spreading this idea far and wide. I believe it’s time has come.
Election Map used above created and published”ElectionMapPurpleCounty” by Mark Newman – http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/2008/. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
“I don’t have enough hours in the day” is a popular lament in modern times. People respond to anyone uttering this exhale with knowing, sympathetic nods and phrases like “you can say that again” (a fun retort to that might be, “I would, but I don’t have enough time to repeat myself”). “You have too much time on your hands,” by contrast, is often accompanied by a tsk-tsk or an exhortation to get a job, depending on what level of asshole you’re dealing with.
Be not fooled by the deceptively woeful nature of the first refrain; it is uttered behind a self-congratulatory smirk and is never wasted on an empty room. A social equivalent among my generation might be, “I had 10 shots and 3 beers last night. I was sooo wasted!” Translated, it means: look at me, I’m really something.
Imagine someone saying to you, “you don’t have enough hours in the day!” and you responding with “Au contraire mon frère, I have too much time on my hands.” Then you both have a big awkward laugh, each inwardly wondering what the hell just happened. We don’t talk about time in this way because our culture doesn’t value time in this way. While people in other countries are enjoying siestas, three martini lunches, and mandatory six-week holidays, we are pissed that we have to take a couple hours off work once a year to let the cable repair guy in.
I remember hearing “they have too much time on their hands” tossed about when the Occupy Wall Street protests were in full swing. The protestors were accused by the media and the media devourers of being lazy good-for-nothings, as directionless as the forlorn mission of Occupy itself. Dedicating oneself to a cause one believes in is honorable if it’s volunteer work performed during one’s “free time,” less honorable if it is one’s free time. Apparently a far more egregious sin than making it your life’s work to swindle poor yokels out of their savings or mortgages is to not have a life’s work, or at least not have one that people can put a monetary value on. After all, at least the swindler has a job. He is almost guaranteed to have too few hours in the day.
Recently, I was told by a friend that I have too much time on my hands. It was uttered in the usual accusatory fashion, of course, less likely out of spite than a lack of familiarity with the concept: large chunks of time where no one’s needs must be fulfilled except her own hasn’t been a part of her world in so long that, when she does have a minute, collapsing into the nearest couch is a prayerful luxury. Were she not bone tired and were presented with that same newfound freedom, she might choose something different, but being bone tired, I’m told, is part and parcel of being a parent. Where do I sign up?
Now, she has three children and I do not purport to understand the harrying nature of such a lifestyle, but I lived most of my life in a similar exhausting manner. Work from 8 am to 5 pm, school from 5:30 to 9:30, homework until my eyes couldn’t stay open a minute longer. I also managed to find time to play in a tennis league, take my Nana to doctor’s appointments, go out with friends, and travel. It seems unreal to me now, but 24 hours can fit a lot of stuff in it when your goal is to pack it as chock full as possible.
When people say, “I don’t have enough hours in the day,” what they’re lamenting is a lack of time for themselves. But if a friendly fairy (the storybook kind, not the Pride parade kind) were to produce an extra hour out of the end of her wand, most of us wouldn’t know what to do with it. Likely we’d spend it texting or flipping around on our phones, or maybe we’d call up a friend and let them know we had been miraculously gifted an hour and would they like to grab a drink and catch up? Or maybe we’d do like my friend above and just collapse. Time for oneself isn’t valued because having time for oneself means, quite simply, that you have too much time on your hands.
I am currently trying out a different path in life, one some people like to refer to as “being a bum” but I prefer to look at as “being free.” Freedom isn’t free, however, and I’ve spent plenty of time questioning the sanity of my decision, made almost 2 years ago, to quit my job and roam the world looking for where I fit. Interestingly enough, I’ve found that I fit almost every place I go, almost everything I do. We truly are our environments. Have I maximized my time, my potential? I dunno. Depends on who’s making the call. I personally saw sitting in an air-conditioned fluorescent-lighted office doing shit I didn’t care about for the majority of my waking hours to be a colossal waste of time, one that I couldn’t abide anymore. Most of my family and many of my friends think I should have just stuck with it. It allowed me to travel (though only 18 days per year), it paid me well (though $24,000 per year less than the person they hired to take my place), and it contributed towards a stable financial future for myself (barring another market crash, that is).
I chose to value my present (the only time that ever exists or ever has existed is now) over my future (by the time I get there, it’ll be now). That choice gets less traction with each coming year, as the lengthening shadow of old age creeps ever closer to the sunny spot I’ve chosen to rest on my laurels. There may be many days that I could be accused of misusing my limited time upon this earth. There are many days when I’m the accuser. But I suppose I prefer to direct the misuse of my hours instead of having someone else take on that task.
Then again, what is a ‘misuse of my time’? What does that look like? It really depends on me, doesn’t it? I personally have no desire to sit in front of a television set flipping channels or watching a football game. But I love to read, and while I don’t spend 5 hours per day reading (the average amount of time Americans devote to watching television daily), I definitely prioritize it over other things I could be doing. And that’s the thing…we all could be doing any number of things that we’re not. We’re doing what we’re doing because it’s what we value, or it’s what we believe is expected of us. I know what is expected of a 32 year old single woman with a Master’s degree and excellent workplace references. I’ve heard it, I’ve thought it, I’ve lived it. I prefer, these days, to do what I value instead of what society thinks I should.
“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought into focus.” – Alexander Graham Bell
I was fortunate to visit Egypt in early 2012, a life-changing trip for me in numerous ways. Crossing the streets by foot in Cairo was, in a word, treacherous. At least it felt that way to me and the people I was with. There were very few traffic lights or stop signs, and no discernable lanes that I noticed. Just car upon car upon car zooming by, honking, changing “lanes”. We watched person after person walk amongst the cars, calmly and effortlessly crossing from one side of the road to the other. The cars cascaded across the pavement at varied speeds, a series of honks of differing lengths and patterns being exchanged amongst them. The person on foot would look directly at the oncoming drivers as she began her purposeful, steady stride across the road, never slowing down or speeding up or moving any direction except forward. Approaching cars could anticipate her next step accordingly, moving to the right or left or taking their foot off the accelerator and applying the brake as needed. Those little things on our steering wheel that are usually employed when someone cuts you off in traffic were being used to communicate the driver’s intentions, and the pedestrian, by maintain a steady and determined pace, was telling the drivers exactly where she’d be at any given moment along her journey.
We fancied it our own real-life game of Frogger, and we were terrified. But emboldened by the countless successful attempts we had born witness to as we stood frozen in fear on the street corner, we decided to go for it, as a group. And go we did, beginning our journey with something approaching dignity, though as a car in the middle lane seemed to come upon us too rapidly, voices as varied as a 13 year old boy’s and a middle-aged Mexican woman’s went “squee” and ran for it in a panicked moment of groupthink. As the cars passed, I’m sure the phrase “stupid foreigners” was being whispered in Arabic inside several of them. I think we were all still yelling “squee.”
If you’re wondering what the point is of that story, it’s this: Cairo drivers and walkers alike can navigate traffic that is nothing short of chaotic because they are focused on what they’re doing. The pedestrian can count on the driver to be focused on driving, and the driver can count on the pedestrian being focused on crossing the street. Were one of these elements to break down (say, if the pedestrian was texting while walking, or the driver was fiddling with his radio), the entire system would crumble.
I wonder how many people who “don’t have enough hours in their day” are actually intensely focused on each task that they’re doing, and how many are doing three things at once because that’s the only way they could hope to fit it all in the 24 hours the Earth and Sun have conspired to allot us? If you’re doing three things at once, you’re likely not doing any of them well, certainly not doing any of them to the best of your ability. What’s missing is focus, and what focus requires is being intensely present in the moment and the task set before you.
I’ve changed my life considerably from the way it was just 2 short years ago. As I’ve wrestled with my choices, as I’ve tried desperately to make sense of it to myself and to others, I’ve come to understand something about myself: I aspire to a greatness that only I can define. Part of my unhappiness with my previous life was a certainty that I would never be great at it. How could I be? I was mired in a bureaucracy that preferred reaction over action, consumption over creation. Opposites don’t always attract, especially when one party commands far more power than the other.
So while my life today may seem, to those lacking enough hours in the day, to be little more than an excuse to shirk the responsibilities that come with adulthood, I see it differently. I have guidelines upon which I set up each of my days. Every day, I must accomplish three distinct things. At least one of those things must be writing: a part of my book, a blog post, an article. Another must be business-related: updating the website, working on a client’s project, advertising the business, etc. The last can be whatever I dream up, whatever suits me that particular day.
Aside from these three tasks, every day I must walk, and every day I must read; these are activities that will never produce a cent but that fill me with pleasure, help me to clear my head, to gain new insights and ideas, and to remember that there’s a great big world out there beyond my notebook and my computer screen. Lastly, and most importantly, I must be 100% present with everything I do. If I am writing, the internet and phone are turned off. If I am reading, my entire mind is focused on the book in my hand (ok, maybe I’m sipping on a beer too). When I’m walking, I allow the music of the landscape, rather than the music in my headphones, act as my guide.
Unlike before, when I was just working, today I’m working on giving it my all. “It” being everything I do. That means doing one thing at a time, doing it with attention, with purpose, with patience. That means seeing life as a practice rather than a series of forks in the road. I think it also means being able to forgive myself when I get distracted or when I have convinced myself that my focus isn’t paying off.
I don’t need any more hours in the day. Neither do you. Distill life down to what matters to you, then do those things with a clarity of focus. When you’re no longer sighing “I’m doing my best” in defeat, you can begin to focus on actually doing your best. You can’t be the best mom when you’re answering every text or email or Facebook post as soon as it comes in; you can’t be the best worker or friend or spouse when you’re constantly thinking about what you have to get done next. It’s not about being the greatest mom/spouse/employee/cook/driver that’s ever lived; it’s about being the best you that you’ve ever been.
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
At the crack of dawn on May 23rd, 32 years ago, I sucked down my first gulp of air in this world and thus started my life. Not my life story. That’s different. Your life story is the narrative you give to others when they ask you who you are and all variations and sub-categories of that question. My life story begins at different points depending on what you’re asking. If you ask where I’m from, my story begins in my Nana’s house in Forney, Texas, in those days a one-stoplight town of 2,000, give or take a hundred souls. If you ask how I got here, my story usually starts with the deep unhappiness I felt with my career in Government Relations and a transformational trip to Egypt that changed the game for me.
We all do this. I was talking to a girl a few months ago; we knew each other through a mutual friend, who told me we had a lot in common and should meet. I brought up the mutual friend’s comment, and she began to tell me her life story. Lots of dark, selfish, inexcusable things happened to her at an age too young to comprehend the injustice of it and too old for it all not to sink into her marrow. The story, the authenticity of which I do not doubt, struck me as polished. This was a story she had told many times, and she had gotten real good at hitting the high notes and keeping it all under the five-minute mark so as to avoid surpassing the average American’s attention span. Her life, then, was one of neglect and betrayal and survival and perseverance and success. In her narrative, she had overcome the odds and taken control of her possible futures. In her story, history was everything.
So, I’m in California now; not in the Cali you are probably most familiar with, but in an unincorporated mountain community in the northern part of the state (home of an active secessionist movement, in fact). I’m living on the 20-ish acre property of friends, truly exceptional people who opened their home to me when I was looking for a way out of the rat race in Dallas. About a week after I arrived, the friends I’m staying with hosted a picnic in this ridiculously scenic meadow where a bunch of the brightest colored flowers in existence decided to plop down right there together and bloom all at the same time. So a bunch of people I’ve never met and I are in this beautiful place, and I’m having a conversation with a couple who are mid-50ish or so. They are both artists. I ask them what kind of art. I tell them that I really admire and respect artists and that I’ve never been artistic but wish I was. The woman said, “that’s just the story you tell yourself.”
Since I’m living here rent free and being fed some really damn fine food in the process, I do projects around the house and gardens; I help keep the house tidy; I play with the kids (9 year old boy, 5 year old girl, and a newborn about to pop out at literally any moment); I run errands. Whatever needs to be done, I try to earn my keep by doing it. As I’ve been learning about gardening and performing such brainy tasks as “fill wheelbarrow with dirt via shovel, walk wheelbarrow downhill, dump dirt in greenhouse, push wheelbarrow uphill, repeat” and “water plants,” I’ve been reminded by just how un-handy and downright dainty I am. Whenever I get dirt on my hands (constantly), all I can think about is taking a shower. When I truck the dirt up and down the hill, I pray to the hand model gods that I don’t develop callouses. I’m about as useful as a bucket of wet hair when a wheel inevitably comes loose or the water spigot won’t turn off. I was confessing all of this to my hosts one night. The guy says, “You’ve told yourself you’re not good at this kind of stuff, and so you’ve become your story.”
I came here without a single book, having sold all 300-something of them previously. I was eager to check out the home bookshelf, and have been hungrily making my way through it. “Move Into Life” by Anat Baniel was one of the books I was drawn to. Its basic premise is that the brain creates tons of new pathways when we are children, but, once we learn things to a point we feel is sufficient, our brains will fall into patterns because doing so makes life a lot easier (think, for example, if you had to re-learn to drive every time you got in the car). These shortcuts become our life stories, and right now you can probably think of a dozen examples relevant to your life. For myself, I know that I do not like to run, I’m not good at math, I will pick every onion I see out of my food (and curse the person who put them there, because I sure as shit didn’t!), and I cannot begin to fathom how people can text and drive (not in the “how dare they!” way, although, “how dare they!,” but in the “how is it humanly possible to be able to pull off such a feat of coordination?” way). I also know that I was raised by my great-grandmother which is apparently super rare, I am intelligent and enjoy debate and discussion, I get bored with routines and like to change things up often, and I enjoy traveling and cooking and eating and all three at the same time. These are some of my life stories.
Some context here: in an attempt to hone my skills as a writer and maybe, just maybe, make a career out of this hobby of mine one day, I decided to create a challenge for myself. I asked friends and acquaintances on Facebook to post topics, any topic, that they’d like me to write about and I would randomly choose a topic and attempt to produce something readable. Out of the 20 or so responses I received, I wrote them all down on a slip of paper, jumbled them up, and picked three. Out of those three, I chose the topic I would write on, and that topic was “Suicide.” With that context in mind, I present my ramblings below.
Take a random group of Americans and ask them their thoughts on suicide. The first word that will inevitably pop up is the word “selfish.” It’s selfish to make the decision to end your own life when so many other people count on you and love you. The second most common descriptor will likely be “cowardly.” It’s cowardly not to work through the bullshit we all must slog through, to dig yourself out of the hole instead of putting yourself permanently down in it. These two judgments are intertwined…you had to be a coward to make such a selfish decision.
But is suicide selfish? Is it cowardly? These are the issues I hope to explore in my writing today.
Selfishness and Americana
The word “selfish,” outside of Wall Street and corporate boardrooms anyway, is used as a pejorative in America. Selfishness, by definition, is placing your own well-being ahead of the well-being of others. Immediately I wonder where the negative connotation comes from in a country that prides itself on individualism, on the development of the individual above all else (even our military ads, an organization not exactly known for its celebration of individuation, feature slogans like “be all that you can be”), and a nation that views with suspicion altruistic public policies (the Ayn Rand-ers). Seems that selfishness is the ultimate American ideal…that thing around which the American economy and psyche orbits.
So where is the disconnect between all of this, this cultural celebration of selfishness, and the use of the word ‘selfish’ to shame those with suicidal thoughts, to condemn those who’ve gone through with it (successfully or no), and to shout at the world (just for the record!) that you’re not ok with such a thing?
And here’s where my very undeveloped theory comes in: I think the only time Americans can understand selfishness as a virtue instead of a vice is when money is involved. If you’re spending nights away from your family because you’re trying to make that green, that’s not selfish…that’s progress, that’s dedication, that’s sacrifice. The fact that your family doesn’t actually need any of the shit you say you’re working for isn’t questioned. If you’re buying your clothes at Wal-Mart to save a few pennies, pay that no mind…after all, you’ve gotta look after you and yours before all else. If your kids were working in sweatshops to make those shitty garments for middle-class Chinese to buy, it wouldn’t be so kosher, but hey, there are all sorts of excuses and explanations you can come up with if pressed to explain why the Chinese do so. Not your problem. Keep on shoppin’! If your government wants to increase taxes to subsidize college education for low-income students, it’s perfectly acceptable to argue against it using some variance of the argument “it’s not my job to pay for others’ educations; if they want to achieve what I’ve achieved, they can do it on their own.” The fact that college graduates are more likely to be employed full-time and less likely to depend on public assistance doesn’t have to factor in to the argument to be seen as relevant; the social good of having more people in society gainfully employed has less resonance than the selfish, individualist view.
Selfishness is part and parcel of our economic system, but outside of that limited sphere, it’s seen as a vice. And suicide, while sometimes motivated by money troubles, lies outside of the realm of the economic. It’s a personal choice, it’s an individual choice, it’s a choice that is come to without the consultation of friends or family, it’s a selfish choice. But again, that selfishness inherent to the decision to end one’s life is, in some magical way, different from the selfishness that is inherent to the decision to work 80 hour weeks or buy toys covered with Chinese children’s finger dust.
Mental illness. Drug abuse. Failure. Protest. Terrorism. Honor. Off the top of my head, these are the main catalysts for suicide, the 10th most common cause of death in the world, claiming about 800,000 lives per year. Whether Genghis Khan visited you while you were riding the bus and told you to kill yourself (in perfect modern English, of course!); you overdosed on pills prescribed by your doctor (kinda by accident, kinda on purpose); you cannot see how your life can ever recover from the depths of despair you feel you’ve always lived in; you self-immolate in front of a military tank in defiance of the disastrous state of politics in your country; you strap a bomb to your chest in the middle of a crowded market to strike fear in the heart of your enemies; or you would rather die on your own terms than fall into the hands of your mortal foes, these are the most often stated reasons for suicide.
Take a look at Wikipedia’s page on “Suicide notes.” While just a selection of the most famous (infamous?) suicide note snippets, it’s a fascinating and arresting look inside the minds of people who saw death as a gift more precious than life. Depending on various factors like demographics and culture, 15-40% of all suicides leave a note. In an act so inherently selfish, why explain yourself at all? Perhaps it’s done in anticipation of the judgment your act will receive? Perhaps with the aim of helping others understand your motives?
Whatever the reason, writing a note of explanation displays a deeply unselfish component to the act…an acknowledgment that your action will inevitably affect others, hopefully to be smoothed over somewhat by an act of confession…of explanation. It says “I will make a decision for me and me alone, but by doing so, I recognize that nothing affects just me and me alone.”
That being said, between 60 and 85% of suicides don’t leave a note. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t believe they owed society (or friends and family, or whoever) an explanation…it just means they didn’t provide one (at least by note, anyway). Does that make the death any more or less selfish? We’re pretty high on judging the motives of people who make decisions differently than we would have, so I’m sure you have a ready-made answer to that question.
The Cowardly Lie-on
Life is precious. Life is a gift. There are no take-backsies, sorry. We, as a culture, do everything we can to stay alive. We put ourselves through the torture of chemotherapy (and the financial ruin that often accompanies it) to have the chance to live a few more months, a few more years. We fear death, as inevitable as it is, and when pressed, we can’t really explain why. At least I can’t. Maybe you can.
What kind of person wouldn’t fight for every minute of life they can get? Who wouldn’t want to squeeze every last bit of life out of this world?
Lots of people, that’s who. Over the past week, I’ve probably spent a total of 5 hours watching TV. Literally staring into a glowing screen that offers no recognition of my presence; it doesn’t engage me in a conversation or care whether I’m a human with the capability for complex views and rambling diatribes, or whether I’m a cat with the capability to lick its own balls and clear an entire room with its epic shits. It’s all the same to the ol’ Idiot Box…it just yaps and zaps and I just sit there, like a fucking zombie, or like a cat that can’t lick its own balls and whose shits aren’t quite as epic.
In the same amount of time, I’ve eaten some truly terrible food. I’m not talking about taste, here. The food tasted superb. I’m talking about minutes-off-my-life shit-for-food. Biscuits and gravy; those little pre-packaged sausages made from the toenails of piglets; salsa so hot it ruptured my spleen; beer and wine and liquor and soda which I guzzled with abandon. And I don’t exercise, unless you count walking to my car (which I do, by the way).
I waste plenty of life, every single day, on inane tasks and activities that bring me no great pleasure, that contribute absolutely nothing lasting to my life (except, perhaps, cirrhosis of the liver), and meanwhile, Old Father Time is ticking away.
We talk about living life to the fullest, but if we really spent every moment as jazzed as we are when we first feel the pangs of love, or as inspired as we do when we figure out what our “purpose” in life is, we’d die of a heart attack by age 30. Lives are full of highs and lows, ebbs and flows, and a hell of a lot of boredom lying in the middle.
So, what’s so cowardly about a person not seeing those highs as moments worth dealing with all the lows, all the boredom? Maybe their highs aren’t as high as your highs, and their lows are far lower? Maybe inspiration has never ignited, and being in love has always been an unrealized expectation? Is it possible, then, that making the decision to just be done with it is less an act of cowardice than trudging along, than sticking it out?
That’s up to you to decide, cause again, we’re really good at passing judgment. I only present the questions.
I’ve been told that I had an unique childhood. Always hard to feel unique when you’ve never known any different, but statistically speaking, not many people are raised by their great-grandmothers. Even fewer were raised by both their great-grandmother and their great-great grandmother. And even fewer had a childhood lacking in any consistent adult figure under the age of 60. But that was my childhood.
To say that there was a generation gap is a vast understatement. Perhaps ‘generational chasm’ is a more appropriate phrase. I grew up playing Dominoes and Gin Rummy and Old Maid with women who knitted winter scarves and potholders and men who returned their empty Coke bottles to the corner store for the 5 cent refund. If I wanted pecan pie (and I always wanted pecan pie), I was told to go out back with a bucket and grab all the fallen pecans…we’d sit on the back steps and shell them. Well, Nana would crack the shells with her strong, calloused hands and I’d separate the nut out with my tiny fingers.
On school days, I would ride the bus to Mama’s house where I would stay for a few hours until Nana got off work and could take me home. Every single day (there are no bad weather days in my memories of her house) we would grab an empty trash bag and set off for our walk. We would walk up and down streets and pick up aluminum cans that people had carelessly discarded. Mama was a collector of oddities and, if she saw something worth having (and practically everything was worth having to her), she’d send me running down into the ditch or between the trees to grab it. We found many dolls missing limbs and toy cars missing wheels in this way. These prized possessions would get cleaned and then displayed in her garden. She had the best garden. I drove past her house a few weekends ago and the new owners don’t share her penchant for oddities. Or gravel driveways. Or fruit trees. Or porch swings. Or anything worth a damn, apparently.
There’s a separate story about the aluminum cans we would collect. Unbeknownst to me, there was a purpose apart from picking up litter. Mama died when I was 17 and when I graduated high school at 18, Nana gave me access to a bank account that Mama had opened for me when I was born and was only to be given to me upon graduating. It was approximately $3,000, and there wasn’t a cent in there that hadn’t come from selling those cans. There’s a Greek proverb that says “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” I’m not sure my society is great, but hers sure was.
And so I was raised by the two most beautiful women on earth, because any vestiges of physical beauty had left them long ago and all that was left were their souls. They were strong southern women who would be unable to comprehend the modern concept of a “struggle to find oneself” because how the hell did you lose yourself in the first place? They would never have proudly declared Pinteresque sayings like “find someone you can be yourself with” or “find your happiness” because, in the first instance, who would you not ‘be yourself’ with, and in the second, happiness isn’t something you find, it’s something that lives in your skin (or, it doesn’t).
And so in this no nonsense way I was raised. And modernity has had its way with me because I do not know joy the way that they knew joy. I chase happiness but am jealous and suspicious of it once I get it. Is this true happiness I’m feeling, or will it be gone as soon as an angry driver flips me the bird? I question and dissect it and misunderstand it constantly. I say ‘to be truly happy you have to do things that make you happy’ but when I think about what made Nana and Mama happy, I think of everyday things. Their lives were mundane by my standards, but big whoop. They were fucking joyful creatures and I am finally starting to understand why. And it goes against everything I have built the last 12 or so years of my life on, so that accepting it as a fundamental truth requires some element of demolition. And this, of course, means that moving forward with this truth as a central tenet of my life requires some element of building anew. But there are only two outcomes when you bury something: (1) you toil and sweat until you dig it back out again; or, (2) you never find it. I guess there’s also a third: (3) you forget that you should even be looking.
So today, I’m committing myself to Outcome #1. And here is what I am going to start digging up…the crux of the joy that Nana and Mama had in their lives:
They never sought to understand where the source of their happiness came from, because they were too busy enjoying it.
Here’s to not trying to understand. Here’s to living happiness instead of searching for it. Here’s to Nana and Mama.