Wherever I found religion in my life I found strife, the attempt of one individual or group to rule another in the name of God. The naked will to power seemed always to walk in the wake of a hymn. – Richard Wright
Nestled between the land masses we call Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan, there is a body of water so vast that it can contain all of the dreams and possibilities for a person’s life. I sat night after night, year after year after year, letting the water lap my feet with its hope, while I peered across it, knowing that somewhere directly on the other side was a city pulsing with everything that I wanted in my life but didn’t have.
I stared across the water as I grew up, knowing the world was bigger and more exciting than my small-town life. I loved the city and wanted more reach out and grab it, look at it, and carefully put it down on paper.
My life was filled with constraints, but the breadth of Lake Michigan dared me to imagine a world without them.
I live surrounded by the mountains now. In every direction I turn, there they are. Protecting me. Containing me. I wonder what it would have been like growing up with them. Would I have found them comforting? Isolating? Or would climbing to the top and looking out at the expanse of hills and valleys have filled me with the same desire to want more?
My mountains are blue. Drive a mile or two out and look around, and there are layers and layers of aptly named blue ridges. If I didn’t know any better, I would think that all mountains are this way. Tall, but not intimidating. Blue and silent. If I had grown up here, I would have judged all mountains on the basis of these.
But I have been father south, where every time I’ve seen them, the mountains are not silent. They speak in soft, white whispers that rise. It’s easy to imagine the hills are filled with log cabins releasing heat from all their chimneys. Seeing them is cozy and comforting, and somewhat shocking to realize that they really are smoky. If I had grown up there, I would think all mountains should be more green than blue and I would find the lack of mist rising from the mountains around me disappointing.
I am very particular about my bodies of water. If you take me to a lake, and I can see across it, then I’m sorry, but what you have is a large pond. I have seen some very large ponds, but there are only 5 lakes in my world. Possibly 6, if I ever make it to Utah. The only thing to top my lake is the ocean, which is wider and teeming with more life than I can even imagine. I love it because it tosses pieces of itself at you, waits for you to find it fascinating, and hopes you will bend over, pick it up, and keep it.
Imagine a world in which all the lakes are Great. Or in which all the lakes are ponds. Imagine a world where the mountains smoke, and you go over them, not through them, the tunnels in the Pennsylvania and New York mountains no longer needed. Imagine a world where everything and everyone is the same.
Is that what we mean by unity? Everyone agreeing? Everyone listening to the same people, the same news, reading the same books, excluding the same types of people? What a boring way to live. In that kind of a world, there is nothing new to learn, nothing to see, nothing new to experience.
If I had grown up anywhere other than I did, I would have a different set of assumptions about how the world is supposed to behave, and if I turned the whole of my life experiences into universal expectations for everyone else, why what a narrow and isolating way of life that would be for so many people! 35 years of living my own life doesn’t make me an expert on the lives of billions of others. Why do so many people judge the validity of other lives based on their own? The day my life started to transform was when I started to believe that other people were telling the truth about their own lives.
What is unity when the group with the most power and privilege is actively hostile to so many other people? Who is supposed to be unified with whom? Where does love start and hate end? The onus for change cannot be on the marginalized and despised. The ocean is not going to reach out and drag us in, laughing as if we were a toddler Moana. It cannot force people to explore its shores.
If I had never traveled outside of my own world view, I never would have found a country so diverse and fascinating. I never would have known that mountains can be so varied, or that there is water far more interesting than Lake Michigan. I never would have known that there can be unity with diversity, and I never would have known how shallow and harmful my life was without it.