Great-ing. Grating. I’m not sure what great means. It’s a stock-character of language; someone you’ve met a bunch of times and still don’t know. But as a response to leadership, to the climate crisis, to threat of war, to caged children, to mass incarceration, to a broken education and healthcare system or anything that matters, great isn’t good enough. It isn’t anything. It’s a dodge, an avoidance, a mockery of meaning.
Here’s a screeching, possibly grating detour... I just spent two and a half months working on a new play in New York. And even though I lived there for twelve years, went to school there and started my career there, it was a new New York for me. A lot has happened since I left and this return, a chance to be on an Off-Broadway stage, felt auspicious. Honestly, the whole experience made me feel a lot of everything. Doing the play was kind of like riding a horse. The horse’s dandruff gets up your nose, you feel the horse’s lungs move under your thighs. You saddle and try to ride it but you bounce and jostle, you shift your weight to try to keep your feet in the stirrups and don’t always succeed. You slouch, you sit up tall then slouch again. And you ache, but with any luck, you relax and start to daydream and ponder your existence and the horse’s and you feel animate, alive and small. I left New York thinking Bess' play knew something about the greatness that just is, not the greatness that is made.
Ruby Sales, the Civil Rights leader and spiritual activist, said in an interview with Krista Tippett that she discovered a question through her work that changed her and the lives of others…
Where does it hurt?
It takes my breath away – the proximity of this question. It’s radical closeness and intimate concern. I find it a true antidote to Make America Great Again, the slogan of exclusion and avoidance. MAGA is a catch-phrase that clamors not just for a wall but for a mindset of separateness. It’s the ubiquitous password for a clubhouse with rules against subtlety, complexity, mercy and asylum; an ideology with no room for hurt, no room for room, for compassion, humility, forgiveness, creativity or any of the real agents of change.
Where does it hurt? It hurts on the border. It hurts in the present, the past and the future of this gruesome reality. It hurts to see anesthetizing greed and swift cruelty in action. It hurts in the palm of my shaky hand, in my shoulders where I carried the hopes and the tension of my work in the play. It hurts in my teeth when I grind them over news articles and in my heart, it hurts in a persistent, throbbing way that won’t go away until every cage is unlocked and every child freed.
Can we - as a nation - acquaint ourselves with where it hurts? In language that respects, rather than masks the pain? Each of us has personal failures, hopes, expectations and experiences that need Ruby Sale's question too. I keep saying to myself, take it in, take it in. Take in the hurt, complexity and nearness of all of it. Otherwise, I’m great.