Watching a favorite video, 'Where the Hell is Matt?' something came to me. Maybe because I was washing dishes at the time, I saw in it a metaphor for an important aspect of culture change. What scholars like Peter Levine refer to as the 'messiness' encountered in relationships developed in civic engagement. The uncomfortable reality is meant to be engaged, even embraced---definitely NOT avoided. An important part of relationship and change--without which little meaningful progress can be expected.
The ebullient video shows the powerful shared experience created of different people in diverse places. It acknowledges that choas, messiness and unpredictability are needed for authentic outcomes.
You see it in the sagging canvas roof in Mumbai, tattered prayer flags in Bhutan and barefooted children in Madagascar, Tagaytay and Yemen. The producers didn't edit them out, precisely because each indicates authenticity. Even the rain in Montreal and blowing sands of Australia, so wonderfully textural on a video, indicate unique issues locals must contend with.
There's more to be seen in the people populating the un-choreographed crowds. The controlled officials in Istanbul, exuberant headhunters in Papua New Guinea and barely-a-smile guard in the Korean Demilitarized Zone. The precision of East Indian dancers in their brilliant saris, chaotic abandon in Tel Aviv, Fiji, Madrid, Buenos Aires; self-conscious connectedness in Kyrgyzstan, the Solomon Islands, Munich and Japan. And unfiltered glee in East Jerusalem, Soweto, Brussels, even Washington, DC.
Each embodies and defines palpable human realities -- if only a hint.
This colorful randomness in the collage of characters and landscapes all connected together is what makes the video so visually stimulating.
What's less clear, though, are uglier, unseen but entirely expectable truths. Experienced by all in the normal course of real lives. In millions of other moments, layered throughout lives--not all of them so sublime. All exist amidst a good deal of messiness, seen or not.
This got me thinking about our aversion to untidiness -- certainly endemic in the US.
We try to avoid messy realities. Like those we encounter with people we might otherwise appreciate, if we didn't find their look or their lifestyle so off-putting. Or the kind found in relationships where we'd like to treat the other more like a product. Something we 'invest in' expecting it in return to 'make' us happy. Knowing if it doesn't we can just shop around for another. Perhaps we'll buy botox to bondo a few imperfections. More likely we'll trade down or up. Kind of like adding a new car to the fleet, or new pair of shoes for the collection.
We all know people who loathe having the unkempt lawn, cluttered house, unsightly scar or interfacing with the complicated friend or familiy member. When what they fear more is admitting to the unhinged heart, unkind soul or unkempt integrity hiding behind their otherwise calm, cool, clean facade.
Haven't we, too, tsk-tsked after the neighbor who's left their garbage out for too long, doesn't keep up with the dandelions, yells at their kids or seems a little socially awkward? Or the spouse, partner, child or co-worker who's disorganized, distracted, depressed?
We're often so disaffected we don't stop to think what more meaningful reality hides behind the surface we see.
Could it be they don't have the same needs for order or appearances or whatever we have? Or are so wrapped up in caregiving, career, studies -- or an addiction or ailment of other, to notice? Is it possible they're anxious, stressed or overwhelmed?
Would it be useful for us to look past their facade to understand something more essential, important, appealing about them?
Just Their Way
Maybe it's their warm way of greeting people. Or lending an unseen hand. Their way with the neighbor kids or elders. The art or music or other they create. How they listen, or quietly observe. Or love. The way they make people laugh. Or help people breathe. Always show up, somehow.
Or, maybe it's something that's not so easy, inviting or pretty. A reality, lets admit, that we all experience at some point. Whether others see it or not. We're not always perfect. A point we know so painfully at times.
We have a troubling knack for missing all this 'stuff of real life' -- both the light and the dare -- while obsessing about the superficial.
But if all we look for is the external evidences in immediate view, we're missing the richest, most important stuff---all that makes us such perfectly imperfect people---a fact that's well supported in much social, relational, envionmental and economic research. And, nearly every thoughtful novel, poem and piece of art out there.
Like the video, above, for example.
Judgers were Judged
The irony is we've all been judged in moments and times. We've all felt the sting of being measured by metrics no matter how convincingly conveyed, can't possibly capture who we really are. I know I have. It hurts.
The hurt in fact, is exactly why we're so quick to criticize--which beats the heck out of being the focus of scrutiny. Or so we think. Often we're meanwhile turning equal contempt this inward. Privately critizing ourselves, too, for failiing to meet whatever high standards we judge others on. The flaws, embarrassement and humiliations we don't dare let others see.
Why? It's easier. We don't like to be in the spotlight. So we shun our own incongruencies, uncertaintaties, complications. They seem too much to deal with on a day-to-day basis. They trigger discomfort, demand empathy. If not more. We feel unsettled, out of control, afraid, angry -- any number of so-called negative feelings.
Only they aren't as much as we think. They're normal. You heard it hear first. Unless we repress or resist or rationalize them. And oh, how we do. We sanitize the visible issues, insecurities and complexities with a socially 'normal,' faux-happy facade. As if there were such a thing.
Like children hiding from an invisible boogeyman we burying our heads and hearts in denial. Which conveniently blinds us from seeing anything beyond the easy and immediate. But that's a big problem---a behavioral contagion of pandemic proportions.
So bad we've lost touch with reality while, ironically, usurping our ability to achieve what we want: health and happiness. Niether can survive on the surface without a rich relationship with the dark depths of body, soul and Self.
This is an uniquely 'first-world' habit we Western-hemisphere folks have. With the means to effectively gloss over our emotional, psychic, physical and ethical messes. Perhaps with a pill or a new purchase, or by projecting them on others. So it seems we've really got it together.
We're afraid this truth will somehow hurt us. But this 'humanness' of ours won't if we authentically acknowledge it--and not only in ourselves--but in others, too. In fact, it can enliven and enrich us in the most beautiful ways.
Revisioning Real Life with Relational Change
Which is all why civic engagement practitioners are eager to point out that such real-life 'messiness' is really so important. And urge people to work at understanding the related realities and re-visioning them--just a bit.
What if when we feel the urge to judge another’s messiness, we first did an assessment of our own? What if we asked ourselves: Why does theirs make us so uncomfortable, even disgusted or angry? Why does it make us want to distance ourselves? What about it do we fear?
We can do this assessment when we're triggered by what we see as problematic in other people and places, near and far. But to be clear: if we don't relate it in our own lives, communities and relationships we're not being real. So, though it's harder to do it's best we start with ourselves, and immediate environment first.
What we'll first have to face is our own figurative messiness.
What if when we feel the urge to disassociate from someone's 'messiness,' be it economic, lifestyle, physical or other-derived, we instead associated it with our own? What would we want others to know or feel if we left our garbage was out too long? Or our house over-cluttered? Our lives complicated? Or our problems too much?
Lets hazard a few guesses.
I think we'd want understanding. We'd want people to see beyond it, to who we really are. We'd want support if we were struggling. Help if we were overwhelmed. Patience. If we could ask for only one thing, we'd ask for patience, at least.
If we could hope for more, we'd want to be embraced and engaged. To be seen and treated as a fellow and equally worthy human, for all our foibles. To be invited into the problem as solvers, to be asked what we know and offered due credit for our efforts--however humble or not they may be.
If we dare dream, we might envision a world -- or heck, lets be realistic: at least a small part of it -- where we fit in perfectly. Just another of so many different dancers who, no matter how skilled, is trying to make beauty with and in spite of so many personal and public realities. One who's willing to try to accept his own flaws by accepting others, too.
We’re one who looks and acts and is different. But who, for all our messiness who is an intrinsic, essential part of a bigger, more complex, more chaotic-- but also more beautiful narrative. One so random, so lovely in expression with others. Sometimes serious, sober, sometimes clumsy, cluttered, sometimes gaudy, gleeful, whatever. Sometimes in those rare exquisite moments, sublime.
One who in those powerful times can transcend our messy reality and see a snippet of the something unexpected: our symbiosis with others.
We'll see it when we get real and show our authentic sides.
Music and dancing might help but, again, lets be real. They aren't always available. Sometimes not welcome. Others not appropriate. And in any case, aren't required.
We'll see it in and with others full knowing --maybe even celebrating, the hidden realities each of us harbors. Including especially that universal truth: that none of us is perfect. Far from it, if we're being honest.
Most of all we'll benefit by breaking our bad habit of judging anything and anyone based only appearances and whatever assumptions we impulsively make.
If we're lucky, we'll remember that beyond those rare moments lies a liberating reality if we look for it. That perfection is only superficial. That what makes us beautiful has nothing to do with sanitized appearances. That our most profound, poignant expressions of ourselves have everything to do with the unexpected, unpredictable, asymmetric beauty we transmit in our most authentic realities---especially, often only---when created in relationship with others.
Our challenge, I think then, is this:
TO SEE LIFE as a messy dance shared with others, who we might or might not know.
TO LOOK beyond self and social boundaries created by sanitized superficialities.
TO EMBRACE the authentic. Which is often actually quite profoundly beautiful.
But this beauty can only be seen, experienced and truly expressed if we're brave enough to accept and associate with the messy truths. Both others' and ourselves'.
We'll know it when we see it. But we'll have to beyond the surface.