I tried not to be offended when she called me “Forrest Gump”.
A colleague of mine was standing in amazement as I was recounting my time with Tutu.
My story was prompted by the death of the Arch, as he was known. We were at a meeting of a group of organizational development (OD) coaches, gathered to plan an exciting retreat/learning format in the post-pandemic.
She said, or charged “You are Forrest Gump! You know more famous people than Forrest Gump!”.
Stupid is as stupid does.
Her comment prompted me to conjure my own take of Forrest’s best-known line that he learned from his Mama: Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
There is deep truth there, obviously.
In a nano-second, my take was: Life is like a box of chocolates…that the heat melted. We are all connected.
I said it more as a “wish” as opposed to a description.
The division that we are experiencing is not the first time in our nation’s past. As a Civil War student, I often wondered what it was like to live in a time of a conflict, when brother squared off against brother, all over an issue that had the power to divide. Now, I think I know.
I rewatched the Ken Burns Country Music documentary. One episode was dedicated to the raucous year of 1968, marked with racial riots, political assassinations, and cultural conflict. The divide was profound, extending into the conflict over the war of Vietnam. We emerged from that, but I’ll be damned if I know how. I am desperately trying to figure out how do you pull a country out of a death spiral as it loses altitude and spirit quickly, with the ground rapidly approaching.
The heat of the moment seems to be causing the delicate mixture of our country to separate like that of an emulsion gone bad. The culinary chemical magic that holds together two or more substances, yields to the heat as the oil and water divide. In the culinary world, it’s known as “breaking”, and it’s a mess. In a marriage, it’s known as a divorce. An irreparable split that will not recombine. Usually.
One of the recalcitrant legislators from my home state, actually had the temerity to call for a “divorce” within the country, which should be gathered up with her other idiotic rants about Q-Anon and such. I would say that she is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but she doesn’t even qualify for the identity of a common utensil…like a spoon. Early on, her colleagues would laugh at her disruptive antics, but now they are finding her appealing as she is aligned with some of the crazier portions of her party. This is not a good sign. Now, you can catch her accusing her enemies of using “gazpacho” tactics. I would double-dog-dare Flannery to write a character of her kind and keep it believable.
Perhaps we are like a box of chocolates that got over-heated, the heat causing us to separate. This image of emulsion caught my attention and sent me to my culinary shelf, looking for some help. Julia is my go-to, but Jacques is the master of technique. Virginia Willis is my teacher who I could call for a quick word, with a Southern accent and sense of humor. Alton Brown appeals to my theatrical whimsey, and lives in Marietta. But time to go to the real science dudes. You remember “science”, right?
Michael Ruhlman’s The Elements of Cooking provides a literal dictionary of culinary terms. “An emulsion is a homogenous mixture of two substances that don’t naturally combine, or, more precisely, a suspension of one substance within another…Understanding the chemistry of an emulsion is useful in making them, maintaining them, and repairing them when they break. A fat-in-water emulsion is composed of countless microscopic bits of fat separated from one another by sheets of water via an emulsifier, such as those in egg yolk. The water keeps the countless particles of fat from grouping together, which is what happens when an emulsification breaks (ironically, breaking is actually a coming together) p.119.
In thinking about our Union as an emulsion, we are bound together by an idea of respecting the worth of every person, regardless of differentiating adjectives such as race, gender, or religion. Truth is, we have been in a process of making that real, with many stops and starts. That was a political ideology that provided the birthing cry of our nation, and was an emulsifying agent that held diverse backgrounds and perspectives together.
That carried over in the Anglican faith tradition as even there we struggled with the lofty sound of such an affirmation. In 1979, wrestling with the fullness of equality in the ordination of women, my American version of the Book of Common Prayer was intentional in our hopes, putting it the vows that all baptized persons affirm. I love the way we framed it in our baptismal rite. One is asked to commit to respecting “the dignity and worth of every human being”. The truth is that this has been an aspiration that we have stumbled on and fallen over in our attempt to achieve in reality. A number of folks seem unwilling for us to look squarely at this journey toward justice in our land, acknowledging our historical messiness. But their unwillingness to face this historical reality does not change the facts. It’s just basic history, not conspiratorial strategy.
The “juice” that keeps us together is this drive for democracy that would value each person’s dignity and worth, which finds pragmatic expression in the right to vote in our decision-making. Again, our country must face the checkered past of withholding the vote from those we don’t think deserve it, repeatedly played out for those who don’t look like us. It is damnable that a country founded in “unalienable rights”, lives with a history, a tradition even, of denying those voting rights. We are a history of contradiction, as the very author of the famous word of independence was a slave owner. From the get-go, we were birthed out of slavery but somehow willing to admit, at least in our rhetoric, that we were better than that. But it is simultaneously admirable that we have been willing to learn, though the cost was high with bloody conflict, even lynchings. Anyone who wants to deny this checkered history, written indelibly, in stark black and white, is trying to break the emulsion, the secret substance that has held us together.
What seems to be the catalyst to this break we are currently experiencing?
Ironically, the very means by which I am communicating with you, social media, is a significant culprit. The emulsion breaks as we glob on to others who are “like” us, like-minded, or more accurately, like-prejudiced. We roll easily, downhill, to sites that confirm our views. Algorithms are formulated to tickle our fancy and throw us fish as if we are seals in training. Social media has bifurcated a diverse population with native diversity into amalgams of conservatives and liberals, red and blue. We glom together in thought covens where we conjure images of our “enemies” that baste them in contempt, the ultimate separator.
In the past, our common commitment to the Union kept the primary identification as a citizen of this country front and center. It’s not been easy with a steady stream of strangers coming into our country, Irish, Italians, Jews, Mexican. But that was our goal, the very statement on the statue that greeted folks coming into the New York harbor, with the promise of a future, together.
Now, we break and then form globs of people who will not force us to think critically, to deal with the diversity that defines us. It was the base of our original mixture, am emulsion, immigrants from all over this planet, each bringing a gift of differing perspective. Now, the diversity is just too much work, so we opt for the magnetism of those who agree with us, because it’s easier. It’s simpler to fall into the dualistic world that most folks seem to prefer. This kind of simplistic thinking merely acts “as if” the world is not complex, when you only have to pause, look closely to see the complications that go with life on this planet. But we opt for the simple. It is a fatal flaw that history records without prejudice. But we don’t want to do the hard work of study.
The quote of Oliver Wendell Holmes nails this for me. I have lectured on it, preached on it, whispered it, attributing it wrongly to George Santayana. I probably even proclaimed that Hemingway uttered it on his boat, Pilar. But it was Holmes, before Larsen ever came up with his cartoon.
He said, “For simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity of the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.”
In our consulting practice, it’s one of the slides in our PowerPoint to make this clear. I always use a scribal gloss by saying “on the Far Side of complexity” for it seems to make the connection with people better, and makes the spatial dimension clearer.
I sometimes throw up another quote: To every complex problem, there is always a simple solution….and it’s always WRONG. There are various versions of this basic statement. “There is a solution to every problem: simple, quick, and wrong.” “There’s always an easy solution to every human problem- neat, plausible, and wrong.” You get the point.
And it’s attributed to a variety of folks, from humorist Mark Twain, to business guru, Peter Drucker. Who knows, who cares. The Truth is in the rocks and stones, in our blood and bones. It grabs you by your heart, brain, and soul, screaming its truth. Life is complicated, and when we get up in the morning, we are faced, as James Hollis frames it, with two gremlins at the foot of our bed: fear and laziness, both conspiring us to remain in bed, reclining. Just…taking…it…easy.
In fact, we are facing one of the more complex times in our history. Some urge us to turn back the clock to a past that never really was, but seemingly offers us the seductive illusion of safety for me, and my kind. Others offer visions that lack the reality of planning and execution. Saying “it’s complicated” does not get us out of jail free. We must pull ourselves together and commit to work harder, with one another, WITH one another in this mixture called community. That’s easier to say than to do.
I went to a meeting here in Glynn County the other night. It was refreshingly mixed with races, economic position, and occupation. We talked honestly with one another about a variety of subjects including healthcare, economics, education, environment as close as the air we breathe from a smokestack we can see, and race, which again is on full public display in a Federal hate trial in our district.
People found the courage to stand and express their opinions. People disagreed with one another without demonizing the other. We had moments of pain, of laughter, of tears, of celebration. There was a spirit present that smelled of hope, of making progress together. That hope, seemingly missing in action for a time, acts as the emulsifying agent, to bring us together again, This was democracy in full, messy force.
As I left the meeting, an almost full moon shone over the historic, might I say, romantic marshes of Glynn, and I had a feeling of possibility, even in the wake of problems, violence, and contempt. I am ready, again, to go to work to make our community, our country a better place for ALL people. I was schooled in the black-white emulsion of Atlanta’s civil rights drama, learned how to make it real in the fresh mix of Latinos, blacks and whites of East Texas, and now I find myself in, of all places, south freaking Georgia.
Just call me “Forrest”.