A Relief: the Decline of American Exceptionalism

Ten years ago at this time I was living in Russia, the result of my having won a Fulbright to study in Moscow and learn about Russian culture and perfect my language capabilities since I was teaching Russian at UC Davis. It was relaxing in Russia. The plants seemed softer, the light more vibrant and yet also gentler, and the people more independent, as though they didn’t have to live up to impossible standards. When people worked hard to do well, you could tell it was from personal and cultural pride, but it wasn’t out of arrogance. There was a cultural humility that was so unusual for me to experience as an American. It wasn’t poverty that I was experiencing at all, though other parts of Russia featured poverty and desperation. It was purpose and humility, infused with dignity. I think it came from the general hardship of living and making a living in the country.

For the past month or so, as Covid has spread across the US and our racial traumas have taken center stage; and as our health care injustice and inequity has grown more and more obvious to those of us who usually forget about such matters, – I have had the emotional experience of rediscovering Russia. But this time in the United States. We are not the amazing country that we portray. Sure, there are some aspects that are exceptional, but there is a lot that is not. And as our country groans, I find myself being able to breathe more freely, because there is no longer an impossible standard to live up to paired with the sense that I’m failing by having a disability.

Disability is more obvious in a country that idealizes individualism and exceptionalism, which is what the United States does. And it is a more painful burden as a result. But with the widespread health problems in our country, and with our struggle to educate our children right now, and with the exhaustion and teachers’ burnout, I kind of feel like society is grinding to the halt that I was experiencing when I was struggling and everyone else was “flourishing” (read: when the White upper and middle classes were not threatened with death and pain; BIPOC were, as a group, suffering greatly, and I don’t relish that now, they are suffering even worse).

It doesn’t mean I’m glad that fellow white people are struggling along with the rest of the US right now. Far from it. But I am glad that people are seeming softer, gentler, and that they are giving each other more grace. People seem less uptight even though they are more stressed, and I think that this comes from the fact that we all have a good excuse for failing at perfection right now.

The sad part is that it is a difficult time for mental health. I am very glad that I have discovered the right medicine and treatment before Covid hit. I continue to take my medicine dutifully and I exercise and have started a yoga practice. It is a time, however, for me to catch up with the art of living rather than to feel like I’m behind. It is a time to breathe. I am relieved that I am normal when I suffer. I am relieved to be reminded that suffering is human. And I am relieved to create culture and space for wholeness as a writer, thinker and speaker in a country that can no longer pretend that it is invincible. The next step is that we stop punishing the vulnerable for the vulnerability that we have thrust on them.

Exhaustion and COVID-19: Carrying on Anyway

Having a mental illness is already isolating, and so in many ways I am more prepared for the COVID-19 social distancing practices that are being implemented around the world. Somehow the community that has always surrounded me, feels more real and accessible. For once, there is a sense of us all being in this together, while usually with mental illness I feel like I’m alone and will therefore support people who actually are able to be integrated into the day to day living of life in the 21st century. From the sidelines. My role is still important, but, as I mentioned in a recent post, it is okay not to be consistent in it.

One thing that does not lend itself well to my mental health condition is the sense that I have no choice but to stay home now that COVID-19 is on the loose. Usually I go to the library or tutor a student.

Usually I’m happy to stay home and it feels special.

But now I feel trapped.

Furthermore, I like to substitute teach, – and now I cannot do this. All of the schools are cancelled.

This means that my sense of purpose is not as strong as it usually is. Luckily, I can rely on my CRM processor to remind me of the earlier clarity I had of what I was doing, why, where and when – which I spoke about in a different post. Thanks to this I’m actually continuing to work on my professional commitments even though I am doing this from home and have a lot more unstructured time.

It’s all about building up continuity through touchstone supports to keep me poised and ready to serve in the midst of this crisis. I have made all of my tutoring and editing services free, and am now offering them online, too – only to those who need and cannot afford. More about that here. And there is no greater purpose than to serve those in need. There are many people in need at this time. I try to remind myself that I don’t have it as bad as many others at this time.

Contribution: Is it Possible without Consistency?

I read something recently that said that to be a meaningful contributor you have to be consistent. This is certainly true to a point. But I think it is important to realize that if you try your best, and make it clear up front that you have a disability that keeps you from being consistent and that therefore you want to know how to be involved in a way that plays to that… I think that if you do that then it is possible to contribute without being consistent. Just don’t sign up for roles that require consistency.

Don’t forget: you are always a contribution, just by existing – you matter. God created us all equal and we are all fully human, no matter how broken we may feel.

Don’t forget: sharing your story, when it is safe to, and when it is not traumatic to do so, is a contribution that will allow for others to feel like they can share theirs. I have made myself ill with worry after sharing – so go easy on yourself. But once you think you have the right balance, share. It brings hope, and it heals.

Don’t forget: if you can’t share, you can be a listener and support others in prayer when you hear of their needs. You are a contributor and you matter, every time you pray for and think of others.