In Search of a Party
Notes from a political identity crisis
I'm an over-packer.
"I like that about myself," I insist, if anyone gives my giant suitcase the side-eye. "It means I'm open to any possibility!"
The truth: I'm defensive about it because I'm self-conscious about it.
I don't know if I actually like it about myself. I travel a lot, and you'd think that I'd have packing down to a science by now?
Expert travelers, apparently, lean into the science of packing: orderly cubes and a system of one pair of jeans and rotating wrinkle-free tops. A three-week tour through Patagonia can fit in a light carry-on, they say.
Me, on the other hand...Over time, my bag has gotten heavier, more stuffed, more cumbersome to roll down cobblestone streets.
So what does that tell us?
Well maybe I don't see packing as a science, but as an art. Art is a lot less tidy than science. There's a mess involved with art. Scientists make messes too, but even their messes are neatly contained: There's a shower in the corner of the lab devoted to a specific type of mess, the type of mess that's allowed.
I was never good at science in school, despite a raging curiosity about the subjects at hand (space! animals! photosynthesis!) because there was always too much order, and too many ways to mess up. I mess up all the time. I always gravitated toward subjects with more leeway for spilling and erasing.
These days, there are a lot of signs in my neighborhood with variations on theme:
In this house, we believe science is real.
In the thick of the Climate Crisis and the desperation for fellow citizens to take covid seriously, I get what they're referring to. Though I have such a natural allergy to dogma that signs which say "BELIEVE [anything!]" get my spidey senses up. (After all, trusting science has led to some of the ugliest collective beliefs in history.)
Or maybe I'm getting defensive again. I was never good at science.
I used to admire light packers because I used to admire certainty. I was embarrassed that I carried so much with me; it made it look like I was unsure of myself. Light packers were sure, with plenty of facts to support their suitcase science.
I used to admire sureness. I wanted so badly to be certain that I searched for it around in the world: in megachurches, mosques on four different continents, more synagogues than I can count, an Antiochian Orthodox cathedral, the Hare Krishna temple, a storefront church with four-hour services and lots of fainting, Young Democrats, the hospital chapel, Philosophy Club, and Oprah interviews.
And thus I've been a part of many groups who believed they were superior to other people. "Those poor people who aren't us," they agreed.
Those outsiders won't get to heaven. Those outsiders aren't as happy as we are. Those outsiders are idiots.
It's wonderful to feel like you're better than others...until it starts conflicting with the exact thing you all claim to believe. I longed for someone to give me the answers, but the people with all the answers seemed like the most insufferable. Church started feeling like science class: no room for mess.
It didn't feel right to pity people who weren't in our group, when our group wasn't even fun. We just gave each other impossible rules and then judged each other for not following them.
I got stuck on the many stories of Christ pointing to the people who were outside of the circle and saying "I'm going to go hang out with them." Between the Pure and the Impure, Jesus always chose the messy.
Now I actively seek out communities that say, "Maybe we're not right about everything. Maybe we have room to grow. Maybe others have something to teach us."
Or, as Andrea Gibson succinctly put it in their fabulously articulate essay on The Cost of Call-Out Culture, The key, for me, is to be guided by a deep reverence for others, and to never ever assume I know more about any group of people of which I am not a part than they know about themselves.
The problem is, I'm having trouble finding this type of community when it comes to political beliefs: one that embraces wonder and curiosity toward those outsiders. And while my progressive peers seem to get more and more sure, I become less and less.
I like to think that over-packing is a sign of a good imagination. I'm dreaming of all the possible scenarios that will happen during my trip: If I stumble upon a cliffside dinner party under the stars, I'm going to want to be dressed for it.
When I was a teenager, I traveled very lightly. I only needed one pair of shoes and a few t-shirts for a volunteer trip to rural Guatemala.
I also kept my beliefs neat and convenient. I was sickened to hear my fellow high schoolers gossip and trade makeup secrets when there were severely underfunded schools and hungry immigrants in our neighborhood. I organized a lunchtime discussion about gun control and hung up posters next to flyers announcing parties, and rolled my eyes at the contrast.
"Are you excited about Homecoming?"
100,000 innocent civilians have been killed so far in the Iraq war, I'd think, because how could anyone get dressed up and dance at a time like this?!
I was strict with myself, becoming vegetarian the moment I was handed a PETA brochure on the street, and equally strict on others. "You know those strawberries were picked by underpaid and overworked laborers, and the shipping of produce massively contributes to global warming?"
(I WAS A LOT OF FUN!)
It was easier to be strict than allow for change. It was easier to judge people than have compassion. It was simpler to travel light; it required less imagination.
Yesterday I took an online quiz: What are your political beliefs?
This is a funny tendency of our current use the internet, asking it to tell us something about ourselves that only we can know. The internet can confirm any news we're hoping for; how many times have I googled "Expiration date for..." and believed one Reddit comment over a thousand articles by medical professionals. "Ok I guess these eggs are fine!" I conclude.
The political beliefs quiz didn't come up with any shockers: You are progressive, it said, surprising no one who's seen the collection of political buttons I've been wearing on my jacket since middle school.
But the fact that I was taking it in the first place was more significant than the results themselves. Why was I looking to a quiz to tell me what I think?
I was almost disappointed in the results; I was hoping that this random site would provide me with new vocabulary for my inklings, the way that Mysticism offered me a completely new experience of religion free from the tyranny of certainty.
I suppose my stances haven't changed too much, but my comfort in the party has. I'm noticing a disturbing trend that I used to see in many evangelical churches: a group sense of superiority that dehumanizes anyone who isn't with us, and far too many ways to mess up within the group.
Or maybe I'm getting defensive again. Sometimes I feel like I must have missed a few days at school: The day where every Progressive learned enough about the complex system of capitalism to casually and confidently critique it, the day when we all decided that you're not allowed to interact with people who vote differently than you do, the day that cynicism became popular.
More parallels to evangelicalism: An emphasis on Us/Them, and an agreement that the world is depraved, awful, and coming to an end.
I know that so many people are feeling neglected, unheard, and let down right now. Rage is a stage of grief, and there's so much loss all around. Throughout the past, grief has been a necessary portal to the greatest movements and most magnificent changes, bending the arc of history toward justice indeed.
But when grief starts to look like unchecked arrogance and the relentless other-ing of anyone who isn't on our side, I think it stops allowing for movement. The arc snaps, and all the possibilities merge into One Way Only.
I thought that getting older meant that I'd be more sure and unwavering about where I stand, but the issues seem to be getting more complicated.
"It's not complicated," I can hear my peers say, "You care about people, or you don't."
But which people? Just the ones who think exactly like us?
So I've been conflicted. I don't feel at home in progressivism anymore, and all my baggage gets bulkier by the day as I schlep around searching for an alternative.
I still maintain faith in the world's abundance and humanity's grace, I still want to feed the hungry and abolish the prisons, but I don't want to do it within the rules of a science lab and the egotism of a megachurch.
I'm a messy, rebellious over-packer who, unfortunately, can usually see every side of most issues. Nothing about me fits into orderly cubes or the overhead bin. Who will have me?
These days, I attend a messy little church in a messy little neighborhood in Manhattan. My beliefs are as chaotic as the crowd; you could maybe say that I'm an agnostic mystic Christ-enthusiast with Buddhist proclivities who prays all day long to a God I've nicknamed Meryl? I go because the congregation is the greatest representation of the Divine I've ever seen: fully weird and fully welcoming.
There's a crew of older women there who tell stories about their many decades of service to the community: walking with flashlights in the dark through dirty rising water up thirty flights of stairs after Hurricane Sandy flooded affordable housing complexes, calling out on each floor to see if anyone needed food or a helping hand.
None of this was documented on social media, and they would have offered meals to absolutely anyone who needed it.
I have never done this, and I have a long way to go before demonstrating that level of devotion to my neighbors. But I hope against hope, whichever communities I find myself in over time, they value that: deep reverence for others, and a willingness to allow for the mess of dirty water and possibility.
Welcome to Out of the Blue, a weekly reflection on something that's caught my attention, and an attempt to learn deep lessons from the shallow and light wisdom from the dark. If you haven't subscribed yet, sign up for free here!