I recently had a dream that I almost drowned in the ocean shallows. I was floating when a massive whirlpool formed beneath me. I tried to get my bearings but I couldn’t swim against the current, pulling me down, down, down. I started to panic when I heard a splash behind me and felt a hand pull my shoulder. Strangers from the beach had expertly formed a human chain to reach me. They pulled me, slippery and shaking, along the line until we could all feel the shore. Steady. At last.
My research of the prosperity gospel often illuminates the American mythology that we decide who is deserving of life’s blessings and who is not. Who deserves a human chain, and who will be pulled under.
Wes Moore, author and community activist, calls this categorization of worth “celebration and castigation.”
Wes recently reminded me that everyday life is a series of constant decision making. We make hundreds of decisions every day, but we cannot usually know until later which decisions were the important ones. Sometimes this manifests in super dramatic ways: if only I hadn’t gotten in that car, if only I’d tried again, if only I hadn’t overslept, if only I had apologized. If only. We live in the land of regret and speculation, cataloguing each quick decision under Profitable or Damning. We think that if only we had walked on the other side of the street, everything would have happened differently. We imagine that we control every outcome of our lives – good and bad. And it’s true that we have responsibility over our fate. We can choose who to befriend, what we eat for breakfast, how seriously we take our jobs, where to go on Saturday night or Sunday morning.
But we are not the dictators of our fate. When I sat down to plan my life at eight years old (professional figure skater/doctor/professor/actress), at eighteen (marry the man of my dreams and be wildly though humbly successful), or at twenty-eight (esteemed professor with effortless charm and shiny hair), I certainly did not have a category for stage IV cancer. The life I had meticulously charted for myself seemingly went up in smoke, and I feared I was about to drown.
We live in a thoroughly interconnected society. When pain visits one of us, it visits us all. The aftermath of my diagnosis was a paradox of feeling shattered yet completely loved. Everyone gathered around me to fill in all the cracks. And I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t come to the end of myself.
My conversation with Wes Moore gave me the vocabulary to describe the incredible community surrounding me in those blurry times: empathetic love. A sympathetic love, Wes said to me, is doing things for others because you feel bad for them. An empathetic love declares, “I do this because your pain is also mine.”
Join me in learning from Wes on how we can live in loving community, and why his life is proof that everything might really happen for a reason.
Wes Moore is the author of the New York Times Bestseller, The Other Wes Moore. Wes is also CEO of Robin Hood, New York City’s largest anti-poverty organization, a television producer, political analyst, and decorated US Army officer.