Modernity Has Failed Us
(Note: This essay was originally published in Windrose’s weekly newsletter in November 2018. You can sign up to receive our newsletter & free digital copy of Windrose issue no. 1!)
"As long as we have stories to tell to each other, there is hope."
Author and priest Henri Nouwen wrote this, and that’s probably the only thing that I can anchor my hope into when it comes to looking at the injustices of the world these days. (That, and my go-to neighborhood taco spot with the words “Mexican Restaurant” lit up in neon on the facade).
Politics won’t save us. In the words of the great lyricist Matty Healy (yes, The 1975 is GREAT but please don’t ask me about their latest album), “Modernity has failed us.” This is unsurprising: History is simply a cyclical account of the rise and fall of great nations—“modernity” to those who lived it.
“The system is broken,” I like to say on repeat, especially when it comes to things like health insurance because HELLO my insurance friggin’ wouldn’t pay for my $800+ prescription meds for WEEKS because of a clerical error on Walgreen’s part. (Very cool!!!!!!) All systems are broken, imperfect; they can do their best to allow us to live freely, but they cannot, no matter what, save us.
Don’t paint me as a “let’s just go live off the grid among the wolves and chipmunks” advocate just yet. Systems are important for order; this isn’t a rally cry to take up pitchforks and torches and proclaim anarchy. We should still get our “I Voted” stickers; we should still call our senators; we should still work actively within our institutions to demand justice. These are good, important, necessary things that we are called to do. But if we seek absolute safety in our systems, we will be disappointed.
Systems are not strong enough to hold our hope.
I’ve written a lot about love over the last year, mainly because if 2018 has taught me anything (and it has taught me a whole hella lot, let me tell you WHAT), it’s that no matter what I do, if I don’t have love, “I am nothing.”
Love is not the watery butterfly feelings and bluebirds singing narrative that pop culture has claimed it to be. “Love is a verb,” sings John Mayer in a song that I don’t particularly care for, but it’s true: love is action, not feeling. Based on how long it’s been since I’ve had a meal or a good night’s sleep, I can easily feel lots of feelings that are nowhere close to love, but what matters in those moments are my actions. I still need to offer the stranger water when they ask for it, answer the phone when a friend calls, reach out to apologize when I know I’ve hurt someone. I fail at this, often.
I’ve been in the Intro Course to Love for like, 5 years now, and I’m no expert on how to actually live it out as action other than to say that the entirety of life is a moot point without it. Ask my roommate Chelsey how many times I’ve laid on the floor in our apartment whining to her about how much I DO NOT want to be love to people in my life, especially when there’s tension or hurt present, and she would have to pause and think about it before answering because it’s been too many times.
Love is messy and often it doesn’t feel that great and always there will be sacrifice. As I’ve said before, this is annoying to me, but them’s just the facts.
If systems won’t save us, and love is way hard, then what?
“All that is holding us together is stories and compassion,” said author Wendell Barry, and there’s the truth: Change can, and will, come through story.
We no longer live in a time of even discourse (read: debates that are actually well-reasoned on both sides), but that doesn’t mean hearts can’t be transformed into love—love for the people who are easy to love and love for the people who annoy the hell out of you and love for the neighbor across the street whose lawn is covered with signs promoting a political candidate that you can’t stand. And maybe even love in a “hey, you’re a human being just like me” sense for that political candidate you can’t stand, too. (Again, don’t look to me to be the Valedictorian example of this—I’m just putting my face up to the glass to peer into the hard truth of love and cringing a bit like the rest of us.)
But how are hearts transformed into love? Through story.
Hannah Brencher wrote in her book If You Find This Letter, “The professor taught with confidence that books change you. They mess up your insides. They make you drool over the prospect of being a better human and a better lover and a better friend. They pull at your stomach and leave you raw and open and naked. Books can straight up mangle you and sometimes it’s better if you let them do their work.” (Related: I was able to interview Hannah for Windrose issue no. 2!)
The same is true of storytelling in all forms—books, poetry, art, music, even a conversation between two people both committed to listening to one another.
“Cool, Ally, but where’s the practical advice in this?”
We make the decision to be open to the stories of others. We then make the same decision again to remain open as we listen to someone’s story, even the ones that make us tense and uncomfortable and bumper car their way into our personal views—whether it’s no-filters-whatsoever Aunt Martha at Thanksgiving or that co-worker that you struggle to find anything in common with or that neighbor you see when you walk your dog in the morning or even a stranger on the Internet.
You listen and you stay open to letting story do its heart-changing work in you. Little by little, story changes you to love—the real kind.
Systems cannot save us. Stories can. Love will.
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