The System is Broken

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public”  ― Cornel West

Hello. How can I help you? How can I help myself? We say, I just can’t help myself. But we can help ourselves by not not helping ourselves, by rejecting the notion that self-care — by which I decidedly do not mean self-help — is an indulgence.

Do you follow me? Don’t. Follow what you know to be right and good and true. Because at this point, I am making all of this up and not sure where I’m going exactly, only that this list — 10 Things That Have a Damaging Effect on the Brain — kind of got to me this morning, and I want to understand why.

Let me indulge you. No, scratch that. Indulge yourself. Enjoy something forbidden. Crack the coconut and drink. Tap the taboo and trip the wires of tyranny over self and other, a story at best boring and at worst destructive, strapped to a moment in time, in the accepted parlance of a twisted culture where self-denial is celebrated and the backlash of excess inevitable, where helping oneself is heaped with helpings of narcissism and helping others hides inside the book jackets of big business that doesn’t exist in places where the words “self” and “help” don’t conspire against the very selves they’re said to help, for a cost.

Help me out here. Look for the helpers. Let me help you with that, carry one of your bags to the car, get the door, sit and listen and when I do open my mouth to speak, realize I have nothing helpful to say, because you have just said it all, your own answers speaking themselves through the very questions you’ve asked, the very helplessness you’ve expressed encasing the pearls of wisdom polished by all the rough ways you’ve brushed again your own days or the world has worn you raw.

Help is on the way. And it is probably obvious and most definitely free, like that God story about the single pair of footsteps in the sand on the beach, or the choice you could make to lace up your sneakers, go to bed earlier, bring a meal to an unwell friend, do one thing at a time instead of six or ten, turn off your phone at night, tell your children the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God, and stop helping yourself if helping yourself means not helping yourself to the things that slow you down or bring you pleasure. Unlearn the schooling that you don’t deserve to feel good or that you can’t feel good or make a difference until you are in some way better.

Better comes by leaving the whole racket curbside on Tuesday morning along with the trash and recycling. Better comes with clearing the shelves of everything you can’t pronounce, drinking a glass of water and taking a breath in and out. Better comes from asking for help when you need help and offering it freely where you can. And radical change comes from connecting, not from dogma or industry or tyranny over self or other.

I help myself by burning the list of all the ways I may be damaging my brain and instead living the list of all the ways I’m loving well, giving enough, doing my best, and being myself. We all have something to contribute, and it begins not with a “share” button or a polemic or a protest but with a hello, with the story of our names, with acknowledging our biases and agendas and fears and with disarming ourselves of all the dividing lines. A boy walks home in the dark. A woman defends herself. A child thinks she’s fat. An employee’s hard work goes unnoticed. A man’s blood pressure rises. A system is broken. A system is broken. A system is broken.

And so yes, we have to be better, but it’s not about eliminating sugar from our diets or balancing our budgets. It’s about gun laws and institutionalized racism and the cult of thinness and everyday misogyny. It’s about what goes on in our kids’ classrooms and in our own homes and in our own hearts. The noise of self-improvement has got to be one of the greatest decoys ever invented. Will getting enough sleep and doing one thing at a time help me change the world? Probably, because we can be more present to the needs of the world when we’re taking care of ourselves. But not if I’m busy focusing on all the things I’m doing wrong and could do better.

Maybe the catch is not making the care-of-the-self such a solipsistic project that it eclipses our real purpose here, which isn’t to fix our human flaws but to repair what is truly broken.

In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer,Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” May it begin with you, and with me.


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