Sunday, November 13, 2016


In the wake of the presidential election, I look at everyone differently. I had mistakenly assumed that we all agreed that Trump was a joke, not worth our time, and definitely not worth our vote. But now that I realize that over half our state’s voters—including a smattering of brown people, Muslims, immigrants and more—chose him, I look around and wonder, was it you? did you vote for him?

I’m wondering, not to blame, but to understand. The fact is, we’ve all been participating in a broken, oppressive system resulting in our current fascist state. What I want to know is why did “you” vote for Trump?

One Facebook friend mentioned with a broken heart that her Chinese immigrant mother was a Trump supporter. Why? She didn’t fit the stereotype in the least: rural, white, conservative, racist. This friend realized it was because her mom felt scared, alone, anxious, and wanted some semblance of change and hope, regardless of how unlikely the source.

Larry Sparks, a longtime presence at the Boggs Center, often remarks that most of us are “living lives of quiet desperation.” Like my friend’s mother, most of us feel alienated, economically strained, frustrated, with little relief in sight. In such a state, we will fall for almost any snake oil.

In the last decade of her life, Detroit’s transformational visionary, Grace Lee Boggs’s mantra became “Grow our souls.” Instead of trying to replicate the old structures of the 20th century that no longer are feasible or relevant in the 21st century, we need to develop a radical inner revolution, that requires major changes in lifestyles and values, Grace iterated over and over.

But what does this mean?

I heard an interview with an iconic elder Detroit artist and activist, John Sinclair. He described how he coaches young artists who ask him for advice. He gives them the unwelcome message of “you need to take a vow of poverty.” He went on to describe that any artist or activist committed to their work needs to prioritize it, and that it will probably require significant economic sacrifice, if they are to have enough time and energy to develop and live up to their vision.

This sounds harsh to most of our ears. I mean, we’ve been coached in capitalism’s properity gospel, and made to believe that our success and self-worth are based on our financial prowess, and that abundance is defined by dollars. Even on the left, we’ve been taught that the good fight is for resources, and more equal distribution of wealth. The Occupy Movement was based on wresting the wealth of the 1% to give to the 99%. Even Bernie Sanders’ revolution was based on restructuring government and economics on a material level.

These may be worthy goals, but they don’t address this “grow your soul” business. What Grace meant, and what Sinclair may be alluding to, is the need to wean ourselves from dependence on old, outdated systems and structures.  I would rephrase Sinclair’s advice to say, if we are determined to integrate our values with our lifestyle, we need to redefine wealth.

Growing our souls may very well, to the outsider, look a bit pathetic, or foolish. I mean, I drive a 2001 Honda Civic with a smashed rear bumper and rust-eaten front end. My friends and I affectionately call it “Gigi.” I did get an insurance settlement when Gigi was rear-ended at a red light, but I didn’t spend the money on body repair, because I decided it was better spent on housing, food, and other expenses to sustain me for a good half-year in Detroit. After all, although the car looked like shit, it ran great.

Capitalism tells me that at my age, I should have accumulated a hefty retirement portfolio, be at the peak of my career and earning power, and be well-settled in my own house that is growing equity. Well, I have no retirement account whatsoever, live pretty much hand-to-mouth, and have just enough savings to replace Gigi with another 100,000+ mileage car when she finally gives out. Yes, I’d say I’m at the top of my game as a 20-year veteran in my career as an Iyengar Yoga teacher, but this does not translate financially, in a low-income city like Detroit.

I live modestly in one room, on Medicaid and food stamps. If I am fortunate enough to live another 20 years, I hope to be able to die at home, wherever home may be, with some level of autonomy, and in the company of loved ones. I will not string out my life in long-term medical care or an institution. If Gigi still runs, someone come and get her! That may be my only material residue.

I also readily admit that the reason I am able to live on less is because I have spent most of my life in middle class comfort and security. I don’t have an economic security net, and as a person of color, will remain outside mainstream America, but I will always have my educational and social privilege.

Those who have for generations been denied financial rights by white supremacy understandably want their fair share, and may find the privileged person’s “vow to poverty” insulting and offensive. They should absolutely pursue their American dream to whatever extent they can muster, and only they can define what that looks like.

But a great many may find—if that dream involves an enjoyable well-paying job with benefits, built without exploitation, and granting enough time off for other pursuits—such jobs are few and far between. It’s not their fault if they cannot find favorable work conditions. Many businesses and even nonprofits are doubling down to make ends meet, and requiring more and more of employees. Some folks are recognizing that our society’s emphasis on jobs as the cure for everything is misguided, and that the physical and emotional toll paid for financial security is too high.

And so we circle back around to “growing our souls,” when outer conditions will not meet our most important needs, and we need to “make a way out of no way,” as Grace also actively coached.

“You are very brave,” Grace used to tell me, whenever she asked me about the intentional community I was involved in building a few years ago. I wasn’t being brave at all, I was just trying to integrate my needs for community, shelter, and livelihood. Others would say I was incredibly foolish, hubristic even, outrageous, and just plain stupid. I would describe to her how we were coping with limited heat and electricity, unfinished plumbing, harvesting rainwater for toilets, while building enterprises that we hoped would sustain us.

I ended up leaving that intentional community after a year, for the usual kinds of obstacles that ambitious projects face: lack of resources, differences in priorities, interpersonal strains…. But even after the first cohort largely disbanded, that household continues and develops. That is, we may not see or directly benefit from the fruit of our effort, but hopefully others will.

Growing your soul will look differently for each person, and mean something different for each of us. It involves relinquishing that which is holding us back from leading our most meaningful, fulfilling lives, renouncing our former desperation and replacing it with something constructive.

For many people, it may mean quitting stifling jobs, and learning how to live with less money. It may mean moving out of houses that guzzle fossil fuels, or bicycling, walking, or taking public transit instead of driving. It may mean we replace shopping with gardening and swaps, eating out with potlucks, and entertainment with community-based art-making. It may mean leaving relationships that do not support our new lives.

Growing your soul may very well involve renouncing social capital, not just economic capital. That is, I’ve needed to put myself in the position of learner moreso than teacher. I’ve needed to apprentice myself to folks much younger than me, or who have radically different life experiences, who have important lessons for me. I’ve needed to hold my tongue and listen instead, and not just listen with my ears, but with my heart, silencing the shouts of my ego that tell me I am right.

Growing my soul also means silencing the shouts of my ego telling me to be quiet when it’s necessary for me to speak up. Ego flares in both directions: taking up too much space, AND sometimes taking up too little space in a gesture of false egotism. Growing my soul has meant being visibly vulnerable, making and admitting mistakes and shortcomings, and asking for help.

As we grow our own souls, we will attract and connect with others on parallel paths. And this is where Trump supporters come in. If many of them voted for him, not because they are secret KKK members, but because they are looking for something, someone, anyone, who promises to lead them out of their “lives of quiet desperation,” they may be willing to open their hearts and minds to a new way of thinking and being, that has more to do with connection than hatred.

I’m thinking of my Facebook friend’s Chinese mom. I’m thinking of the 45% of white women, the people of color, queer folks, Muslims, who, voting against their own self-interest, fell for Trump’s message, because they want and need some path of hope. Unless we look at the bigger picture of the 21st century—globalization, technology changing the nature of industry and labor, and the depletion of natural resources, including our capacity to grow food—we may very well want to point our fingers at any convenient “other.”

The next step of growing my soul will be to reach out to family, especially the folks who think I’m nuts, and the ones I avoid. I avoid them because I don’t want to get into ideological arguments, or listen to them gloat over material achievements, or get sucked back into definitions of success that I’ve rejected.

Instead, let’s reach out to one another, discover our common struggles, and support each other in growing our souls. What does that look like for you? Let’s get concrete, specific, real, and day-to-day. How do you expand your inner capacity for change? How do you evolve yourself? Beyond your silo? How do you lovingly engage with family members, colleagues, neighbors, and acquaintances who voted for Trump? How do you take yourself out of your comfort zone, and navigate this new territory with courage and compassion?


Theresa Marks said...

I've been inspired by your writing for close to a year now (we shared the Bellur experience in December) and never more than today when I read your latest post. I've mused on the "quiet desperation" of the masses as well. And the harsh slap in the fact that Trump's election shouldn't have been a surprise at all. Beneath much hatred and bigotry is deep fear and deep pain. My challenge is to be strong enough to respond instead of reacting with labels (they're stupid, they're racist, etc.) Hard to do but necessary, especially if I hope to find my way out of my own despair. Thank you for putting clear words to so many of my jumbled thoughts.

wendy brennan said...

Well said Theresa. I have been reactionary in the wake of this political process. Looking inward has calmed my knee-jerk feelings; compassion has come. It is a healing salve.

Hong Gwi-Seok /Peggy said...

thanks for your comments, theresa and wendy. connection is the antidote to alienation and despair. this election was the reminder that we cannot isolate ourselves in our micro communities, and that our choices affect everyone. we heal together or we don't heal at all.