The Impossible Thing
When what might save the world is the last thing we want to try
A song’s been ringing in my ear while I’ve been writing you this letter. It has taken a while. To write it, I mean. Six months, maybe seven. I’ve gone slow because I want to get it right, because there’s something in it that I really want to give you. Or, that I want to give the part of you that wants to save the world.
I don’t mean anything flashy by that. The part of any of us that wants to save the world is probably just the part that feels a little giddy when it rains while the sun is shining. Or that gets head-to-toe shivers when biting into a perfect peach. It’s the part that might occasionally still feel like being alive is a strange, wild miracle-chance, and may also be reeling a bit over the scale of suffering we see.
But the song in my ear. Called The Dream Before by Laurie Anderson, I first heard it on a mixtape that a cute boy in my sophomore high school History class made me. It always gave me goosebumps at a part that goes like this:
She said, ‘What is History?’
And he said, ‘History is an angel
being blown backwards
into the future.’
He said, ‘History is a pile of debris.
And the angel wants to go back
and fix things…
to repair the things that have been broken.
But there is a storm
And the storm keeps blowing the angel backwards,
into the future.
And this storm…
is called Progress.’
In the mid-90’s with braces and a perm, before I associated the word Progress with any political party, I loved this little song because it named the thing that scared me most about growing up, and which I didn’t otherwise have words for.
At sixteen, what scared me was that I felt like I could see that Angel of History in every adult I knew. Teachers, aunts and uncles, my parents, friends’ parents, and adults on TV all seemed to have a sort of sad-eyed part that would like to go back and mend the broken things that lay behind them: things like relationships, physical hurts, dreams, their own hearts. But they couldn’t take time to do that repair work because of some endless and invisible race they all seemed to be running: that Storm of Progress that kept everyone too busy to go back and clean up their own Piles of Debris.
I’m not sure where this perception of adulthood came from. I grew up in a pretty relaxed southwestern town, and the adults in my family weren’t particularly rat-racey. This is was pre-AI and internet-everything, so the cultural race to claim and build the future hadn’t yet kicked up to the warp-speed velocity it has now. My foreboding sense that American adulthood would be a race that wouldn’t let me slow down enough to mend anything, was a general one. But maybe teenagers are allowed to feel the world in generalities. Maybe that’s our job, before our own races start and we still move slow enough to sense the tides that push and pull populations.
Twenty-some years later, I want to give a time-traveling high-five to my teenage self and tell her she was right. Because almost everyone I know is running now. Whether they work in the gig economy, as teachers, artists, farmers, corporate executives, innovation leaders, middle managers, delivery drivers, lawyers, or health care workers. The people I love from the top to the bottom of the economic ladder were exhausted before the pandemic. During the pandemic, the pace of some of our races increased exponentially, while others’ races suddenly and unfathomably stopped.
This extreme acceleration and deceleration of individual races made clear to me how much our personal races are pace-set by our national one. Which has left me wondering in the wake of it all if… maybe, a reason it can be so hard for American adults to stop running and tend to our personal Piles of Debris, is because we grew up in a country that is running from its own.
Mix-tape boy and I were lucky. Our high school U.S. History teacher, Ms. D, taught us about proud, bright moments in American History, but she also had us look at our nation’s historical Pile of Debris. After a few pages to cover headline events, we’d softly thump our massive textbooks shut and listen to her tell us stories not contained in them — about the Doctrine of Discovery, the Sandy Creek Massacre, Indian Residential Schools, the Clotilda and Jim Crow and Strange Fruit, The Tulsa Race Massacre, “lunatic asylums” for women in the 19th century, The Page Act, Executive Order 9066, Enola Gay and the Little Boy, Buck vs. Bell, the S.S. Saint Louis.
Ms. D talked fast, like she was rushing to get us the info before someone silenced her. A deeply respected teacher, I’m sure her superiors knew what she was up to. But my classmates and I took turns shaking out hand-cramps as we raced to fill notebooks with facts that felt like contraband.
Learning the gruesome parts of my country’s history was gutting. But an unflinching tour of it made me less inclined to spend my life running away from it. Knowing these parts of our history, I feel less bewildered by the pain that still hangs over some buildings, neighborhoods, families (including mine), and parts of the land. Learning the shameful parts of American History also helped me trust the capacity of my own mind and heart: I know that I can hold both the brightness and darkness of things, and that Americans don’t have to run from painful truths in order to love each other, or our country.
I’m a teacher now. But not of History. What I do is a little unusual and I sometimes find it hard to explain, but here’s a try: I use the rare and lovely tools of applied improvisation and storytelling to help adults recover from the race. I use exercises that feel like fun games, but that were designed to help people recover trust in themselves, and in each other. Because this work helps with creativity, communication, and cooperation, a lot of my teaching happens in “innovation spaces” inside business schools and companies. There are good people inside these institutions, working out how to protect life inside of systems that were built to burn it up.
In these places, the word “Innovation” gets used to describe two different and polar opposite things, both the Angel and the Storm. When some people say Innovation, they mean that they are making the heroic effort to face the destructive parts of a company’s past… like corners cut around safety, the exploitation of workers, and materials and methods that have poisoned the natural world. They’re the Angel that wants to clean up that Pile of Debris, and proceed in brand new ways that protect and prosper every bit of life that a company touches. Such an honest reckoning with the past is as diffitult for a company as it is for a country, or for any adult. But it is necessary.
Others use the word Innovation as a euphemism for the Storm of Progress itself. They use it to mean invent-more-stuff-to-sell-more-stuff. And in that case, Innovation is just a name for our mindless race for the future, leaving a bigger and bigger Pile of Debris in our wake: overflowing landfills, oceans brimming with plastic, rising sea levels, kids working as slaves for our fashion abroad, unlivable minimum wages at home, and people losing jobs to machines, and family farms to big agra while a tiny few blast off in rocket-ships as their warehouse workers pee in plastic bottles. All that.
Racing for the future without any willingness to first go back and mend the harm that any of us has done in the past, just exhausts life.
Lots of people I love feel like our Pile of Debris is too big to clean up now. And so they resign themselves to a quiet, collective mourning: watching our conditioned appetites for what’s New and Next burn up the planet. We easily complain about Jeff Bezos hoarding wealth and exploiting workers, but… we gotta have our Prime. We lament rising sea levels and climate disasters, but also reeeaally need to burn a bunch’a gas to fly cross-country for a quick vaycay. We can’t seem to stop overworking ourselves, or buying products that require the exploitation and poisoning of others. We come to believe in the inevitability of all of this, and so we just… go with it, and then sometimes cry quietly in the shower.
It is lucky for us, then, that there are things in each of us that are deeper and truer, older and wiser than this mess. There are forces of mystery and grace that grant us occasionally profound sleeping dreams, clear-eyed awe in nature, and the impulse to care for others even after having been treated ourselves for years with more aggression than tenderness. Language evolves to serve commerce, and so there aren’t many names for this part. I’ll just call it the part that wants to save the world.
That’s the part of you I’m writing this letter to. Because I want to give it a small tool. The tool is simple to use, but can feel so difficult to wield as to seem impossible, so I’ll enclose some user-instructions. The tool isn’t something I found in a professional training program, or educational setting, or personal growth workshop. I found one part of it on the ground under a table, and one part falling out of the sky.
I grew up in the Arizona desert where water flows underground. Above ground, there are empty river-beds that wind through town like ribbons of soft beach sand, lined with cottonwood and mesquite. Underneath these dry beds, rivers flow. You can’t see it, but somehow you can feel the water running underneath you. If you sit in the soft sand of a river bed, you can feel the same gentle breezes that play above regular rivers. And if you really pay attention, you can get some of the same nourishment you get from fishing or rafting all day.
Like this, the desert taught me that some things I can’t see are still there. And that being in denial of those things is dumb. Because playing in an empty river bed when the snow melts in the mountains and the water table rises, means being in the way when a massive wall of water and branches and broomsticks and pitchforks comes crashing down a canyon like a freight train. Where I grew up, people in denial got killed by flash floods on the regular.
Also where I grew up, argument was common. Well… that was more native to our little brick house on 7th street than to the desert in general. I used to hide under the low, round wooden coffee table whenever a Mormon or Jehova’s Witness pair rang our bell, because that was the best place to listen to my dad try to talk people out of their religion.
My father never lights up more than when he sees a chance to argue, which he’ll openly tell you is something he finds in most places, so he is alight a lot. Warm and easy at engaging, he’s also quick to expose fault-lines in people’s premises, and can pretzel anyone’s logic to make them feel a little dumb. The topic he loves to argue about most is religion. Not because he’s an athiest… he feels awe, wonder, and reverent gratitude. But he grieves the violence committed in religion’s name, and uses his debating superpowers to try to logic religious people out of their faith.
Hiding under the coffee table, I’d listen to my dad welcome our proselytizing guests with a glass of water and shelter from the crispy Arizona sun. Then I’d hear him ask questions designed to draw them out, establish their rationale, and find agreement on premises that he’d later use to expose errors in their thinking. Knees pressed into carpet, I’d hear him lead them down rhetorical alleyways they couldn’t back out of, point out logical inconsistencies in their philosophy, and then delight in their inability to defend their positions. And, as soon as they realized he was only about converting them and not at all about to be converted, the proselytizers would politely be on their way.
And that’d be it.
By the time I couldn’t fit under the table anymore, I realized that for all the skillful debating I had heard, I had never once heard my dad change a Mormon’s mind. Nor an uncle, cousin, or family friend. Even when he “won” his arguments with religious friends, it didn’t change their views. And I noticed the same in myself. My dad’s tendency to find flaws and faults in all my thoughts and feelings was dispiriting, and it left me with the resting heartbeat of a wild rabbit. But it didn’t change my mind. It just made me feel lonely and sad. When he only wanted to argue, it just made me feel like I was failing to convey something well enough that I wanted to show him.
By high school, I’d noticed that arguing about ideas wasn’t only popular in our house. It seemed like it was popular everywhere: in public school speech and debate classes, on the news, daytime talk shows, at election podiums, in the halls of congress. Meeting difference with combat instead of curiosity seemed like our actual national pastime. And this baffled me, because I’d learned as a tiny child under that coffee table that arguing beliefs — even skillfully, even passionately — doesn’t bring about change. It just seemed to leave people who enjoy argument feeling riled up and victorious, and leave people who don’t enjoy it, feeling angry, hurt, or misunderstood. And almost always, arguing seemed to leave everybody even more entrenched in their views than they were before.
In highschool civics class, I learned about the critical value that argument has in a courtroom — having mostly to do with the fact that, in a judge and jury, there are designated listeners and empowered deciders who the argument is performed for. But without that designated audience, watching politicians and family members and elected representatives try to solve critical problems by using the blunt, antiquated tool of argument, always felt like watching a bunch of dim-witted doctors try to perform open-heart surgery with a croquet mallet. Especially when there were critical issues to be solved. People trying to argue each other into submission not only seemed to waste everyone’s time, it seemed to make everything worse.
These past six years, I’ve seen my fellow Americans’ devotion to argument bloom in direct proportion to the number of critical problems we need to solve together. And I am struck again by our dimwittedness. During this first pandemic year, when the stakes for understanding and cooperation couldn’t have been higher, the U.S. lost hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods because neither we nor our Representatives could stop arguing long enough to agree on a course of life-saving action. One of the most powerful countries on earth lost a lot of lives, and small businesses, because we all couldn’t stop bickering. We just kept fighting amongst ourselves, while a tiny few monopoly men ran away with the world.
Maybe there was one moment when we were stunned enough to stop arguing and act in unison, and then we were able to make a little progress. Seeing our collective power in that moment, it occurred to me for the first time that, perhaps, this is precisely why we are brought up to argue endlessly: because it keeps us from accomplishing anything together.
Wondering why this would be, I turned towards history again this year (thanks, Ms. D), and I found myself reading a lot about “Divide and Rule”. I had heard those words before, but never really understood what they meant. In case you don’t either, I’ll share what I learned in a nutshell: when early European explorers wanted to claim new land and resources (and manage the people who already lived there) they learned that a united population could resist occupation, while a population divided along the lines of religion, politics, and other identities, could not. So, early generals cooked up some mind-bogglingly sinister long-game social engineering to implant very a specific idea into the public’s minds and hearts.
The idea was this: embracing and protecting the well-being of people who are different from you is a terrible betrayal of people who are more like you. Early colonizers believed that a diverse, harmonious, and cooperative public is a threat. And so they worked to teach the public that to be loved by your “own” people, you should meet “others” with hatred and fear. And this brainwashing of Us vs Them was astonishingly effective.
At a quick glance, it’s shockingly clear that Divide and Rule tactics were applied in every single part of the world where long-lasting and “hopelessly intractable” conflicts still exist today. And in the U.S., Divide and Rule tactics have also been used: to delay the abolition of slavery, to prevent workers from unionizing, and to keep people in faraway lands where we want resources embroiled in conflict.
And so lately, I wonder if Divide and Rule conditioning is why we Americans are so deeply and early trained to argue. I wonder if it’s why our hatred and fear of our neighbors is regularly being stoked. U.S.ers are assigned new enemies along the lines of ethnicity, nationality, immigration status, and religion, on the regular. With regard to politics, a million neon signs and pundits preaching and bull horns blaring tell us daily that half of our own country are our enemies. Across media, we are explicitly told that those with views different from our own are Stupid, Crazy, Evil, or all of the above. And many of us came to believe that this year — regardless of which “side” we’re on. It is successful propaganda when parties and flags and skin colors blind us to our collective goodness. (And if we think it’s just the “other guys” who have been brainwashed to fear and hate… well, the belief that there are “other guys”, means we’ve swallowed it, too.)
As gross as it feels to admit this, I’ve noticed that my own demographic’s feelings of goodness often depend upon having someone else that we see as worse than us. I am white and middle class, and I’ve noticed the comfort my people take in having a neighbor, an awkward friend, a scapegoated family member, or members of another religion, political party or nationality to feel just a little better-than. I also notice that white folks are regularly fed new enemies. Long ago, we were told that Native people were our enemies. Since then we’ve been told to fear black people, Japanese people, Vietnamese people, Russains, Cubans, Middle Eastern people, and on and on. We’ve also been pointed toward other white people with different faiths and politics as enemies.
Perhaps our willingness to so readily accept new enemies in order to feel good about ourselves, has something to do with our own Pile of Debris. Maybe our inability to honestly face the pain white Americans have collectively caused and benefitted from is what keeps us needing enemies in order to feel okay in comparison. If we can’t turn around and face the harms our fore-bearers caused, and begin to repair them, we might just keep fighting and running forever.
So maybe there is some mending to do. Because cutting back on our number of enemies, and laying down our fear and hatred of each other would be a pretty good thing. A diverse population that can value differences, identify shared interests, and cooperate to solve large-scale problems is actually no danger to anyone. The truth is, it is not even a danger to those with consolidated power, who might like us to be Divided and Ruled. That’s antiquated thinking. The old idea that ‘a united & cooperative public is dangerous’, was born in the minds of those whose ONLY aim was to steal, exploit and control. Had there been any other intent — to advance society, sew peace, save an ecosystem, end a pandemic, create systems that protect and nourish life, innovate artful and life-saving inventions — then a peaceful and united public would have been a m’er-f’ing boon.
Our natural ability to care about each other’s well-being, and to move collectively for the common good, is not only beneficial to every person at every economic level, it is the only thing that will let us save what needs saving.
The tool I came to share with you is just one small way to stop the fighting and the running. The first piece of it I found underneath that table: the discovery that fighting doesn’t work. The part that fell out of the sky also came from growing up in the desert. Each summer afternoon in Sonoran Arizona, a churning, upside down, anti-gravity ocean moves in over everyone’s heads and then it just hangs there, roiling and toiling for a couple of hours, until suddenly, all at once, it decides to fall.
Growing up there, I found that fall astonishing. Warm raindrops the size of eggs splattered in the dirt, and you could stand anywhere and instantly be under a waterfall. Sheets of rain like giants walking in slow motion swept across the land, accompanied by sky-shattering lightning and technicolor sunsets. Being reminded of nature’s power via a daily aquatic anti-gravity miracle for 3 months every year left me in awe.
That yearly experience of awe opened me to the fact that life is miraculous. Which has made it harder to be picky about which parts of life are miracles and which parts are not — including people. This goes for people with politics, religions, cultural backgrounds, and social identities that are different from mine. I tend to look for the goodness in people. Sometimes that’s hard: it can be easy to forget that a mean, combative, condescending person is a miracle. But when I can remember that they are, this orientation is the only thing I have ever seen bring about understanding and improvement. Instead of meeting someone who is very different from me with a fight, meeting them with some reverence for the miracle of their life, and being genuinely curious to understand them — even when I deeply disagree with them — has surprising positive effects.
[A quick qualifier: I’m only in a position to recommend this listening tool to people like me who aren’t marginalized along the lines of cultural background, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Anyone in the privileged position of not being a regular target of hatred and fear can listen with less danger. We can just listen to our BIPOC and LGBT+ friends, and also just listen to other straight white people who confound us. Even Republicans. Even Democrats. Even around the hardest subjects like vaccines, immigration, abortion, climate change, union rights, homophobia and xenophobia and systemic racism. Even around crazy-sounding conspiracy theories. I am absolutely suggesting that we just listen on the subjects where what we most want to do is fight.]
Listening with real respect can foster a small bit of openness in a person who has been taught their whole life to fear those who are different from them. Letting someone be in my company without having to argue their views, or defend against my attack, goes a long way toward dialing down their fear. It can also sometimes bring an angry, defensive person to be curious to hear how I feel, too, and that curiosity is the only thing that has ever let another person hear me.
Listening with compassionate attention while someone shares fears, hatreds, and prejudices, also sometimes lets that person hear their own voice. A few times, someone I have listened to like this has reached out later to say, “I realize how I sounded when I said all that, and I don’t like it. I’m sorry. I don’t want to be that person.” That kind of unguarded self-reflection isn’t possible when I am busy attacking someone.
If you are in a position to do so safely, listening like this is a way to stop running and fighting. It is also a way to stop freezing each other out. On January 6th of 2021, we learned that freezing-out half of the country by blocking and disowning them, doesn’t work. We saw clearly that day that denial does not make pain disappear. What freezes always melts, and when it does, a tidal wave of broken trees and broomsticks and pitchforks and flag-poles crashes into the Capitol Building.
As impossible as it can feel, honest reckoning and open listening may begin a new trajectory of genuine repair and improvement. Or… they might not. We will only find out if we try.
If you want to try it out, here are those user instructions I promised:
1. Like the person. If you’re with someone who has views that upset you, look for their goodness. Look in their face for the kid that they were, and keep sight of the part of them that is life. Remember most people have survived decades of being exploited and abused, and you are probably correct to assume that about the person in front of you — especially if they are hateful and afraid. People of all orientations, ethnicities and genders have also survived being made the agents of cruelty and abuse to others, and are still reeling from it.
2. Be open about your differences. If you and that person feel differently about a critical issue, say so honestly. You can say something like “I want to be up front and tell you that we feel really differently about this. But I like you, and I want to understand where you’re coming from. Are you willing to tell me, if I just listen without arguing?”
3. Only ask questions to better understand. If they say yes, just listen. Do not ask questions to point the person towards their own irrationality, or hypocrisy. Don’t lay questions like traps. Don’t disguise an opinion as a question. Only ask non-adversarial questions that help you genuinely understand the person better.
4. Be interested. Don’t pretend to be interested. Actually be. A person with views different from yours who’s trusting you to tell you how they feel is like a wild creature eating out of your hand. Be reverent. Be respectful. Listen.
5. Don’t offer your views while they share. Just listen.
6. Remind them that you’re not arguing. If the person tries to engage you in argument, say that you’re happy to share what you feel later on, but right now, you just want to listen to them. If the person is combative, disrespectful or mean, ask them to stop, or leave.
7. Listen until they’re finished sharing. Don’t rush to your own views. Don’t interrupt to correct them or “educate” them. Just listen until they’re finished. This can take a few minutes, or a few days.
8. When the person is finished, thank them. They just did a bunch of work to help you understand something they feel deeply about. If there’s anything new you learned, tell them that.
9. Do not offer up your views, even after they are done. This can be hard. Some of us only listen to earn our turn to talk. But that isn’t what this is for. This listening is to understand somebody else. If they don’t ask for your views, that’s completely fine. Don’t share them.
10. IF you earn that person’s trust and IF they do ask for your thoughts, speak from the heart. Don’t speak to influence or persuade them. No manipulating, educating, or coercing. Just tell the truth about what you love, what you fear, what you want to protect, and what causes you pain. Because when someone is genuinely listening, you don’t have to argue your points. You can just tell the truth.
For some of us, resistance to listening is based in a quiet fear that if we listen, we will understand. Understanding someone with views we find abhorrent may cause a mute, electric terror that if we understand them, then we must be like them. It is worth staying put, and facing that fear. Because underneath all this trauma, buried beneath the piles of debris, is the ground of our common, essential goodness. We all inherently want to be close with each other, and want each other to be well — on any side of the artificial lines that have been drawn to divide us up. It is possible to remember the essential goodness of ourselves, and of others, and of the world. And it is also necessary.
Mostly for the rule-of-threes’ sake, but also because it’s a source of hope for me, I’ll share one last weird thing that water does in the desert, which is that it makes fantastic and frequent rainbows. At the quiet end of a day, after all the build-up of tension and drama of summer rain, the leftover water still hanging out in the sky regularly takes the rays of the setting sun and mixes them with dust to make prismatic light that spreads across the valley like peace.
There’s another old bit of old propaganda, that says you can’t get to the end of a rainbow. But one day in high school (probably around the same time as the mixtape) after dropping my brother off at basketball practice, my mom and I decided to try.
With nothing else to do for an hour, we drove out into the rain-soaked desert when we saw the foot of a big rainbow touch down nearby. It just looked really… near. So we forgot whatever it was in us that normally heeds the rules of physics and proper behavior, and drove down a wet desert road that made a bee-line to where the rainbow looked like it touched down.
We drove fast at first, but slowed as we got closer, because, well… it looked like we were getting closer. The rainbow looked bigger and bigger until it seemed enormous, looming in front of us. I can remember leaning my head out of the passenger window, seeing the massive arc of it bend up into the sky.
This is naturally beyond explanation. But I have a good friend who sometimes holds out her hand to wild birds in the tempered hope that one of them will flutter over and land on it someday. I love this about her, because who knows if one ever will, but hopefully holding out her hand is the only way it’s ever going to happen. I think it’s the same with all miracles: you have to be willing to hope, and try, unattached to the outcome, for impossible things to even have a chance of being possible.
Right when my mom and I reached the place where it should feel like entering some crazy waterfall of color, or sound, or leprechauns or golden coins or alternate dimensions, the rainbow vanished. Just like the myth says.
Or maybe not really.
Because as we drove slowly with the windows down, hearing our tires press sand and rain water into the blacktop, my mom commented that the air around us was sort of sparkling. And it was. Like dust-moats lit up by a shaft of light in a dark room. Like glittering gold. And then we noticed that the sky beyond the mountains to our right was green, then blue, and deep purple behind us… and then pink, rose to our left, orange, and bright goldy-yellow up ahead. Surrounded by that color-wheel of sky, it occurred to both of us at once that maybe we were inside the rainbow, but it encompassed the whole valley now, and not just us.
Whatever it was that happened that day, it was one of the nicest impossible things I’ve ever experienced, and it never would have happened if we hadn’t tried.
So, you know, my point is that we probably can save the world, you and I. Even if all the silly pundits and politicians try to keep us fighting, running and freezing, we can slow down instead, and start mending, and listening, and start seeing the goodness in each other.
My Dad argues with me less these days. When we talk on the phone, I listen to him like I’ve always liked listening. But now, he listens to me, too, without arguing everything I share. He seems interested to hear things that matter to me, just to understand. And this is maybe the biggest, strangest miracle of my life. Maybe even bigger than that rainbow. If there’s anything I’d wished for, it was this. Being treated like an ally instead of an adversary.
Getting off the phone with him tonight, after reflecting on some political quagmire, he said jokingly, “Well, it’s time for us to let this rest. But tomorrow, we’ll put on our capes again and try to save the world!” He said that before he knew about this essay, or it’s self-serious world-saving theme. And I love him for that. Because I know that even though he’s joking, he also means it. I know that my Dad wants to save the world, like most of us do. Even though he often feels hopeless and bitter about it… and still mostly thinks that fighting about things is the right way to go. What’s nice is that, now, he wants to save it with me, rather than against me. Because that’s how we’re all going to have to do it.