The first thing I want to say is: I love Michelle Obama. After her speech, when Eva Longoria said, “This is what we missed”, she spoke for me.
Over the past four years a lot of people have asked me, when others are going so low does going high still really work? My answer…
Going high is the only thing that works, because when we go low, when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others, we just become part of the ugly noise that’s drowning out everything else.
She goes on to say that going high doesn’t mean that we smile and make nice when we see injustice, when we see wrong, because going high doesn’t mean closing our eyes.
The reason Michelle Obama — who hates politics — has always given stellar speeches is that… she’s not just giving a speech. Any of the speeches I’ve heard her give, in front of audiences of any size, could be given… in a living room, with an audience she cannot see but trusts is there, regardless. She opens up her heart. She is … herself.
Her speech was perhaps the first time I truly remembered that Republicans and Democrats are all American. That they occupy the same country. Is she happy with the state of the US right now? No. And she makes that clear. But she makes it clear without stigmatizing the people who have brought us to this juncture. Except for one.
She asks us to do, but it’s not a condescending ask. She’s reminding us that we have agency, that we can exercise the agency we do have. Even if we’re not billionaires or, in our own minds, powerful.
I want to talk a bit about power.
No, I want to talk about the perception of power.
Every single one of us has had experience with feeling powerless. Every one of us. As children, we have no power. The power we might have is lent us by the power our parents possess, and for the most part, our early lives are not lived in a tiny democracy.
Our parents make the rules. Sometimes – not always – they follow the rules themselves. But we have no say in the rules they make, especially when we’re younger. We follow their rules.
These rules can be as simple as what we eat or can’t eat, and when. But they continue: how long are we allowed to stay awake? How much play-time are we given? When are we given it? How many chores do we have to do? How much time can we spend with our friends? With our significant others if we’re even allowed to have them? What can we wear? Etc. Etc. Etc.
We have no say in whether or not we have siblings; we have no say in whether or not our parents divorce – or remarry.
We are all raised in conditions that are not democratic; lack of democracy in the context we feel as young children is, in fact, our first experience with power structures.
So: none of us start with personal power. We can, in some cases, call in the power our parents have in their social context when we enter the wider world (school), but that’s later.
None of us feel powerful. All of our context is small; our parents are the powers.
Many children feel this lack of power most strongly when they want something and they are told they cannot have it.
Sibling interactions can complicate this, because there is often comparison, and there is a strong sense in children of zero sum game: either they are loved more or… they are not loved.
These play out internally. Parents have something that we want, and they won’t give it to us. Also: Parents should love their kids equally and treat them equally – treat them the same.
Again, this is something that the children themselves have no say over, and the conflict of contexts between parents — who need to work and pay bills and keep the household running — and the context of children who do not have to do these things can build a lot of misunderstanding.
And it’s true: children are not responsible for themselves. They are, especially when young, entirely the responsibility of their parents. Their resentments for unequal treatment are built on that lack of responsibility, because they have no experience with responsibility. Their parents do.
I won’t devolve into the question of abusive parenting, because abusive parents are still the people who have all the power.
With power comes responsibility. We’ve heard that before. But in this microcosm, we can see the truth of it clearly: our parents have both the power and the responsibility for us. The roof over our heads. The food on our table. The clothing on our backs. The shoes on our feet.
We do not clearly see the responsibilities as children. We have grown up in a world in which all of these necessities are… just there. As if by magic. We can see what our friends have that we don’t have – and some can really resent it because we do not see the weight and the burden of the responsibilities our parents carry. Not when we’re four. Or five.
But we can see our parents struggle when money is tight. We can see the choices they make. The seed of understanding is planted by the actions of our parents, because what our parents do seems “normal” to us. It seems like the way the world just works. Do we always become our parents? No. But kids learn what they see far more easily than they learn what they’re told, at least in my experience.
We come to our truest understanding of our parents when we have those responsibilities ourselves. We begin to understand some of the weight our parents carried because we our now carrying it ourselves. The things that seemed the Most Important Thing in the world when we were thirteen lose power to drive our behaviour because the anxieties of those things are replaced by other anxieties: work (or trying desperately to find work), among others.
There are some people who somehow manage to never see the responsibility. They resent their parents for… not having as much money as the parents of their friends. They are angry that their parents didn’t make better choices.
…in fact, they blame where they are and their own choices entirely on their parents (which may or may not be fair), and that experience eventually translates outward, to others. Their parents were terrible. Their teachers were terrible. Their boss was terrible. Their next boss was terrible. Their co-workers were terrible. In all of this, the only person who was not terrible was… them.
It’s as if they are not adults, have not become adults; they still retain that kernel of lack of agency. And there’s truth in the root of it: when they were children, they had no power.
But on some visceral level, they rely on that kernel; they navigate their world without any sense of their own consequence because if something is not their fault, it is also not their responsibility. They do not feel as if they have any power.
Even when they do.
I have tried for years, because I have two sons, to pinpoint the moment when they crossed the barrier of childhood. (My younger son feels the need to remind me, when I’m worrying or fussing, that he is not a child anymore. I have made clear to him that he is correct – but that regardless of our ages, he will always by my child. And then, when he looks skeptical, I point out my mother, and he surrenders.)
I have tried to see, ultimately, what might have moved them to become the people they are now. They can take hits from life, and then get back on their feet, dust off their knees, and keep moving. They understand that they can’t control everything – so they focus, instead, on what they can do.
They’re not worried about not fitting in or of being alone; they have things they’re interested in doing and they do those things. They exist as themselves in the spaces they occupy. They are not loved by everyone – and that’s okay with them, because rationally, that’s what they would expect given observation of the social world in general; they know literally no one in real life who is loved by everyone. They don’t assume it can happen.
They don’t focus on the wrongs done them (and of course they’ve experienced those; we all have); they focus on themselves. On what they can do. They have no control over what other people do.
And they pitch in at home, they help out.
They understand that, in our house, we’re all in this together.
Michelle Obama understands, in the end, that we are all in this together.
And for today, having listened to her speech again (I did watch it as the DNC was streaming), I am reminded of this as well. There’s not a lot a Canadian can do. I have been donating the money I make from the short stories that are otherwise free to food banks. I cannot vote in the US elections.
I remembered this when a candidate I know only from twitter was asking for donations because he has decided to run for congress. I did not follow him for this reason of course; he was an openly muslim voice who answered questions – even angry ones – calmly and with a hint of humor. He talked about his life, his son, movies, and the difficulties that people like him encounter, and I found his lack of open rage and his willingness to connect with people – even those who were on the edge of offensive – helpful.
So: I clicked through to donate to him when he decided to run. I could not figure out why the donate button remained greyed-out.
…yes, I know. I am a foreigner. There are entire laws about foreign contributions to US campaigns and because I’ve seen his posts on twitter for a long time, because he’s part of my feed, I had forgotten. I thought he would be a great rep, given the work he has done pro bono — and, well.
But: I am reminded that there are things I can do. Because Michelle Obama’s voice has always resonated so clearly with me. That it’s not just about sit at home and hope and pray; that it’s not about — I think it was Beto who said it — waiting for the cavalry, but becoming the cavalry.
I am reminded that I need to look at what I can do, no matter how little that might be, rather than become paralyzed about what I can’t do. I can’t vote. I can donate to food banks or the ACLU, but not to political parties or candidates.
And I can write, which has become increasingly difficult in the past few months; the anxiety, the edge of despair, have permeated almost everything I do. I have just gone back over the emails that I keep from people in difficult situations who found my books as if they were a lifeline. As if it’s permission to consider what I need to do anyway somehow necessary, even if it’s not Saving The World.
Because, in an odd way, that’s what Michelle Obama reminds me – or us – of: The weight of the whole world is not on our very singular shoulders; it’s a shared burden, and we each contribute what we can. We are all in this together – and we can hate each other, we can hate the people who have put us in this situation, we can continue to feel powerless, or we can look at the often small actions we can take and take those actions. One – the most important action – I cannot do: vote.
But that doesn’t mean that I have nothing to offer, no avenue to somehow help. And I am reminded again (did I mention I love Michelle Obama?) that I can believe in people, and that’s the thing that’s been hardest in isolation.