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.