Walk With Me (#24): What Do We Owe Each Other?

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.

Dear Asha,

I’m angry all the time, and I don’t know what to do.

Here’s my story: I’m not saying I’m a Broadway star, but I haven’t had to have a “day job” in about five years and until March worked steadily all year round — -sometimes in big regional theaters, sometimes small shows, and I’ve even started choreographing and staging my own dance work with a small company of my friends and colleagues.

I made it — I am a successful actor and dancer. Or, I was. In March, everything disappeared from under my feet and the feet of all my friends. It’s not like I quit my job or got injured; my chosen profession of live performance literally disappeared and we have no idea when it will come back and even IF some theaters will ever come back.

Here’s why I’m angry. I lost everything that meant anything to me overnight. I don’t see my elderly parents. A friend of mine canceled his wedding. But there are people everywhere, even in my big progressive city, who are acting as if this pandemic never happened. They ignore the rules and have parties, they accuse teachers of being “selfish” for not wanting to teach in person, they drive to another state to go to bars and then come home to ours. It’s like the election started to show me how ugly people can be, and then the pandemic made it worse. And these are people I KNOW — my little brother, my partner’s family, my high school classmates, even people I thought were my friends. Now that all this ugly selfishness is unmasked, I walk around furious all the time. I want to be productive and be an activist and work on all the ways our society is broken, but right now I don’t know how I’ll be able to look any of these people in the face again even after it’s safe to.

What do I do? Help!

R

Dear R,

I think the issue you’re illuminating so beautifully in your letter is the foundational issue of our time, but I also think it’s an issue that we have always struggled with in this country. It is the issue of the “rights” of the individual versus the needs of the group.

Do the “rights” of the individual always get to trump the needs of the group?

Do some people get to be individuals, while some are not afforded that privilege?

What do we owe each other in a society that has built its identity around the idea of individual freedom and individual achievement, while ignoring the basic needs of the community?

When I was in my 20’s I went to Cuba twice. There I found a society that was the inverse of the individualism so inherent to our American narrative; what was championed were the needs of the collective. As someone raised in a collectively-oriented religion, Quakerism, who had always felt like I was swimming against the tide in my own country, it was a relief. I found people looking out for each other, people having a sense of obligation to their neighbors and their fellow Cubans, in a way that I had never seen in the United States on any kind of mass scale.

In fact, more often I had seen that when communities mobilized collectively for their own uplift and safety, like the Black Panthers and the MOVE collective in Philadelphia, they were actively targeted by the government. If you’re unfamiliar with those stories, I encourage you to look up both the Black Panther Party’s Breakfast for Children Program and COINTELPRO, and the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia in 1985.

The first time I went to Cuba I was, I will confess, a bit starry-eyed. I witnessed mass literacy, active combatting of systemic racism, an extensive national health care system, and the blossoming of creativity around issues of food insecurity in the face of decades of U.S. policy that cut Cubans off from access to world markets. It was inspiring and beautiful.

The second time that I went to Cuba, however, I was there long enough (and unofficially enough) to see the flip side of Cuba’s collectivism. I met artists and journalists who wanted nothing more than to tell their stories and the stories of the individual people they knew, to creatively express their individual truths even if those truths didn’t fit the collective narrative, who were honestly and appropriately fearful for their safety. Some of those folks, who were young enough they had never known anything different than the Revolutionary government, were convinced that news on state media about homelessness in the U.S. or the lifelong debt young people took on just to attend college were fictions spun to keep them in Cuba. They could not imagine a government that would let such things happen to their own people.

I realized that neither system was without winners and losers. It was simply that both systems were so skewed in one direction or the other that there actually had to be winners and losers.

I tell you all of this for two reasons. One, because I am honestly sorry that you have lost everything due to this pandemic, and that you are swamped with anger at all the people around you who do not honor that reality; who are, in fact, making things worse. I don’t blame you for your anger, nor do I think you are alone in it. Between the folks who have lost livelihoods and loved ones, and the folks who have been sacrificed to our toxic individualism — sent out into harm’s way to work in health care, grocery stores, classrooms, and other essential settings without adequate protection or compensation — there are a lot of us that are swimming in that sea of rage with you.

But there are also many of us for whom awareness of this toxicity is not new news. There have always been losers in this system — the poor, the non-white, the queer, the disabled, the female. Anyone not so bolstered up by privilege that they could imagine their accomplishments to have come solely from their own efforts has known for a long time the ugliness that lies just beneath the mask of the American dream. Welcome to the club. We have been making a way out of no way for a very, very long time, and you will too.

The second reason I tell you these stories about Cuba is that I think they point to the answer to our dilemma, and I think you, as a performing artist, will understand this deeply. As someone who makes their living as a performing artist, I believe you embody the necessary balance between the individual and the collective already.

If not for the audience, the collective, for whom would you be performing? They buy tickets and thus aid in funding your individual creativity, but it is not simply a commerce exchange with a product and a consumer. The collective also bears witness to your creation. They provide a space where your expression meets their experience and becomes elevated into something else, something larger. You need each other. You serve each other.

I believe that this balance point is what we have to find right now, this intimate understanding of how much we need each other, how our ability to access the true and the beautiful depends on each of us bringing the best of who we are into the community and offering it in service to be received and elevated. And I believe artists — performers, authors, painters, photographers, poets, and all others who help us meet and witness each other outside of the isolating confines of our individualistic egos — are our best hope for finding that balance point.

I hope there will be an explosion of post-pandemic art and letters, a creative Truth Commission that exposes our ugliness, confronts us with our own darkness and then helps us find our way into the light, out to each other.

There is no way around the fact that you will have to decide how, or if, you are going to re-integrate people who have behaved so selfishly back into your personal sphere once we are able to be together more freely. The harsh reality is that you may not be able to welcome everyone back in again. The kind of loss you have experienced strips us down to what is most essential, and maintaining relationships with people who can’t prioritize the needs of others over themselves may not be essential anymore. If you set those kinds of boundaries for yourself some folks will respond with hostility. It will be hard. Only you can know if that kind of hard is required for you to live in your integrity.

But I would encourage you, also, to use this to spur your creativity. Maybe you don’t know how to express in a face-to-face conversation with individual people your anger, your grief, your fear, or your hopes for the future, but you can dance it. You can sing about it. You can put it on a stage as an offering. You can make the conversation into something larger, something transformative, and you can begin creating right now.

That’s the thing about making art, ultimately. We take our insides and put them on the outside so that we don’t have to carry the weight alone, so that no one has to carry the weight alone. Don’t just sit in your anger and let it eat you up. Use it as fuel and make something angry, something beautiful, something soul-shattering. I cannot wait to witness it.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.

Want to walk further together? I’m launching a subscription newsletter on Substack in January called “Let Your Life Speak”. Come join me there in the New Year!

Asking questions, telling stories, giving my people information they can use to make change happen.

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