“New Yorkers are just so provincial,” said the retired Jewish-Studies professor, Eric Friedman, Z”L, with a smile. He and I were enjoying a collegial lunch, discussing his impending travels to New York City. I had recently returned back to Ohio from an eleven-year stint in Princeton, New Jersey, and before that, a couple of years of private school teaching in LA.
My husband and I were reeling a bit, being in small-city life after over a decade in metropolitan cities. It took me years, for instance, before I could hear Ohioans complaining about traffic without laughing aloud. “Provincial?” I repeated, incredulous. “Oh yes,” he said. “New Yorkers surround themselves with each other, and none can live anywhere else. They’d never survive out here in Ohio, for instance. They’re absolutely provincial.”
In the decade since, I have thought often of his words to me, with their subversion of expectation. Of or concerning the regions outside a large city, especially when regarded as narrow-minded or unsophisticated, lacking the polish of urban society. New Yorkers (or any urbanites) as narrow-minded, unable to adapt to any location or life but their own. The longer I have lived here in Ohio, the more his words ring true for me.
New Yorkers can be narrow-minded and presumptuous, unable to perceive or welcome life abundant not in their city. Many I know (and love dearly) struggle to ask questions about my life in Ohio, mostly because they have so little experience with small-city living. New Yorkers can even be unsophisticated about life beyond their purview, presuming they know a hell of a lot more than they actually do. What most think they know comes from cinematic portrayals or the life they used to have before they moved to the city decades ago. So… I see the truth in Friedman’s goad of my own assumptions. New Yorkers are provincial, of a sort. Particularly when it comes to the broad expanse of life in ‘the flyover states,’ as they name many of our fine United States of America.
Friedman’s words haunt me too, especially in highly-charged national political seasons like the presidential election year upon us. I remember standing in line to meet some of the cast of The West Wing campaigning for Hillary Clinton in the fall of 2016 at a local Dayton Democratic headquarters, standing-room-only in a small parking lot between historic buildings.
I loved hearing their voices, witnessing their banter with one another, getting my picture taken with Allison Janney, a Dayton girl in her earlier years. I also felt something in the pit of my stomach, realizing for the first time just how wide the gap was between the worlds of this cast and the worlds Ohioans inhabit. Their speech and tone suggested to me that these East/West Coasters had little idea where they were, nor how to connect with the broad swath of Americans before them. Which actually weren’t the breadth of Ohio anyway, given the event was scheduled for a Sunday morning, when so many in Dayton would be in community worship services (various denominations of Christian on such a morning). Naturally, the cast spoke to the mostly secular, liberal, Democratic folks who were going to vote for Hillary anyway. I was still shell-shocked that November of 2016, but I had already felt something I knew was a fundamental problem facing us, our We the People.
The Soil of the Common Good, our common life across these 50 states, has lost its earthiness, its rich loam of compost and moisture, its generativity, and grounding for interdependent relationships, including the irritating insects that pollinate new life. Speaking as a woman disheartened and dismayed these last four years, I can even say there is a ton of composting to be done, pulling out the very real detritus that will never be broken down for the renewal of the Soil. We the People are facing challenges of (seemingly) unprecedented proportion for our fragile democracy/republic in a global-media age.
Many of us argue it is because our public life is unprecedented, which I cannot deny. John Mulaney’s quip remains cathartic in my own household these days: There’s a horse loose in the hospital! But Trump is mortal and is only–in my humble opinion–the weed that our Soil has produced.
Elected leadership is part of the picture, of course. But he’s not the problem as much as the symptom, in the long view. Our public sphere, our inability to see one another without disdain, to listen to fragmenting suffering all around us is the depleted ground around us. This Soil left untended by all of us will continue to invite invasives and weeds, completely toxic for the diversity of native plants, locally thriving and nourishing. What does it mean to tend the Soil… together… each doing his/her part toward the richness and deep loam renewed? Nodding to Parker Palmer and his work, Healing the Heart of our Democracy–what does active citizenship look like for each of us, in our unique contexts yet all within the American experiment so fragile within us?
I have a couple of practices I am beginning to live into, rooted in all I’ve seen and heard in my years of metropolitan living and the last fifteen years in small-city Ohio. Each arises as inner work, honoring that I cannot change anyone but myself. The first one, perhaps the most difficult, is a renewed cultivation of curiosity: to get curious and remain curious over time about those whose politics or religion or expressions make my blood boil. There’s a woman at my local CrossFit box, for instance, whose FB posts regularly astound me with extremist language and ‘clearly duped politics.’ (Hear the disdain?) She frightens me, to be honest, even though working out next to her (in our socially-distanced, colorfully-taped-spaces) has been fun and collegial. How do I get curious about how she landed there? How can I behold and honor her human dignity without disdain or disrespect?
A first attempt: I joined a virtual ‘event’ she was hosting–a FB ‘birthday party’ project supporting another’s independent faith-based small business selling home-and-travel goods. I participated daily in the FB postings and ultimately supported it with cash. Was this an authentic, relational connection to transform her politics like I wish I could? Of course not. But it changed me, on the inside. Her FB posts still startle me, even frighten me, but I feel differently about her now. I am curious about her fears now, with a sense of care. What experiences has she had that incite her fierce feelings and protectiveness of the police while neglecting or even exacerbating the suffering of our African-American brothers and sisters? What was the avenue to her accusatory presumption about choice/abortion, or her fears of the ‘other’? Can I remain curious and more connected to her human predicament amidst my own?
It was a small action, really, but it mirrored to me how my action and investment can change perception and openness. I care now in an active way. Even before she reached out to me in gratitude. Second, I saw how easily I, in my self-presumed virtue, regularly disdain and disrespect anyone who gets too close to my own fears or dread. Life is easier in polarized distances because to really get close to that much vitriol, about things I hold dear? Utterly daunting. Curiosity without an agenda other than to companion, encounter, listen is costly. There is no guarantee the ‘other’ will venture into common Soil space at all.
So how do we know if/when the cost of such curiosity is more than we can pay–emotionally, spiritually, physically? It’s more costly for some of us–African Americans, for instance, or Indigenous or People of Color already struggling to be seen/heard outside of the ‘white gaze.’ But this will be costly for all of us, needing discernment for entering in… and self-compassion when we just can’t for a while. There have been times over these last twenty years, for example, when I had to maintain no-contact with my own sister. I simply could not breathe in her Christian fundamentalism, nor was she willing/able to breathe in my expansive sense of Great Mystery and the More that awaits us all. We are back in touch now, gently, with care, but I need to discern each time.
The second practice for me now is rooting out the disdain within me by recognizing the sensations of it when it arises. Disdain is at the root of provincial, remember. I knew it in myself when I felt pleasure at Friedman’s words about New Yorkers. The enculturated disdain I have experienced, growing up in Ohio, yet living in big cities across our country, was unexpectedly met in a ‘proportionate response’ of a gentling, Midwestern disdain of New Yorkers. Something in me felt vindicated. That now seems interesting and significant.
Could this smug sensation be a signal of this deeper cultural wound in the common Soil? What is the organic counter-agent to culturally embedded disdain? Disdain of all kinds is damning all of us to the worst in us, fueled by fear, pain, sadness, suffering. Why do we pit Coasts and Heartland against one another? What is the gift in honoring the distinctiveness of each, the needs of all, stronger together? What is it about disdain, disrespect of another’s human dignity, that poisons our Soil so?
Various diagnoses emerge with consideration. What bleeds leads in our global media, which each of us easily ‘supports’ by reading it. The inevitable functions of money in education, the increasing gaps between public-private-haves-have-nots. As a longstanding contributor in higher education, I claim a mea culpa for my part in the ever-present intellectual disdain that governs so much of our public sphere. Very little fuels the pejorative sense of provincial like the status-hiking, competitive chains of higher education. Most of our public discourse is posited on the notion that understanding will provide certainty and connection. It never will. Disdain is at the heart of so much of our public speaking, it is depleting what few nutrients of connection we have left in our crumbling institutions.
So I guess I have let go of understanding active citizenship as ‘staying informed via the New York Times’ and ‘engaging in conversation toward political gains.’ I no longer engage others in attempts at ‘rational discourse,’ particularly those who do not value science or reason, as our institutions of higher education craft it. All news sources are biased and my own inner constitution simply cannot digest the toxicity of contemporary news. (I do read a weekly that summarizes the major stories and how the news covered them… but even that is difficult to digest healthily).
Instead, in the grocery store and about town, I am choosing indirect routes of encounter, companionship, and curiosity… to deepen my own accessibility, compassion, and civic engagement. I have taught in a freestanding seminary for over fifteen years, with students arriving from largely rural Heartland communities. When I first arrived into this calling, I remember being astounded, even embarrassed, at ‘where we had to begin’ for what I knew as rigorous critical reflection toward a Master’s degree. The disdain in me was palpable and fairly deep, considering my formation in institutions of higher education I still value.
Today, I’ve learned to sense and honor the deep pain, the longstanding grief, and anger that resides in our students who are coming to pursue a more meaningful life. Can I stomach most of their politics? No. Do I feel a responsibility to hold spaces for them to awaken to the More of being human together (while I do the same)? Yes. Can I come alongside them to let our world grow to a better union between us? I am trying to learn how, every day.
More of us in every portion of our political spectrum need to awaken to the relentless depletion of our common humanity, even as we work tirelessly for a democracy/republic that is imploding from within. Perhaps this is why the words of Dr. Amy Acton resonated so deeply with me at the start of this global pandemic. “I am not afraid,” she said directly to the hearts of the Ohioans who would listen, “but I am determined.” This fearless determination needs to be directed now to seeing each other, honoring the human dignity in each of us, which only truly comes into being when we presume it in ‘the other‘ in actively expressed ways.
What is one action of curiosity you can enact today, presuming goodwill in an ‘other’ from whom you feel disconnected? It begins inside of you, even as We the People need to re-learn this anew, every day. And soon.
Lisa M Hess, PhD is a companion, poet & scholar at United Theological Seminary (OH) who has delved into community organizing through Circle-Way wisdom lineages (PeerSpirit and Women Writing for (a) Change). She is also a Presbyterian minister (PCUSA), preacher’s wife, spiritual director, and avid Crossfitter who blogs at www.crossfitatmidlife.com and Reconsidering Citizenship.