You need two wings to fly, Van Jones repeated to my graduating class. His message was impactful yet a tall order: It’s your generation’s responsibility to restore civility to society. He reiterated the need for us to work across the aisle, across markers of difference, to find common goals to spark social change. His speech was both impassioned and pastoral, an inspiring call to action and a prescription for cultivating grace. What we did not know on May 29, 2016 was that Jones’s address was also prophetic, a warning of the world my class was to inherit. We did not know that in the coming months—amidst us all finding our sea legs in the ‘real’ world—that the rifts in American life would be revealed in such startling ways.
The day of my graduation from Middlebury College was hellishly hot. The temperatures were near 100, which wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the black cap and gown and for sitting in direct sunlight among 500 other dehydrated graduates all radiating body heat for four hours. The harsh sun beat down upon our backs, and I squinted to see the stage from behind a layer of sweat and smudged sunglasses. As I listened to Jones speak, I wondered, then, if I was ready to hold pieces of the world and repair them. Admittedly, it sparked some anxiety.
As we lined up to process, most conversations I overheard described the innsaanne parties from the night before and the particulars of hangovers. It resembled the chatter I’d heard every Sunday morning in the dining halls over the past four years. I watched some of my fellow classmates walk with immeasurable pride as they were the first in their family to accept a college diploma, watched others walk with relief and joy for all their hard work, and watched a portion act as if graduation meant nothing at all, as if the parties the week before had been more interesting and important. It didn’t help that I was seated behind the Economics department (the most popular major at the college), which was comprised of predominantly white male athletes, several of whom I noticed fell asleep during the ceremony. I worried we weren’t ready to answer Jones’s call, some of us too green, the others uninterested.
At Middlebury, I studied English and American Literatures, which is to say I studied the human condition and literary theory. When I declared the major, I told my advisor, “I want to study mosaics of human life.” In many ways, I accomplished this. I examined case studies in love, war, friendship, loss, transformation, heroism, et cetera. But as Van Jones continued speaking, I wondered, “Was I equipped to act? To heal divides in tangible ways?” You need two wings to fly. Yes, but how?
Jones’s “two wings” paradigm drew upon the American political dichotomy of Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, liberty and justice. As I reflect upon his speech now, I see the two wings also represent the dichotomy between the philosophical and the practical. We need wings of wisdom and action. We need one wing for clarity and one wing for compassion, no matter our political ideology.
As a Middlebury student, I certainly strengthened one wing. As I walked across the graduation stage, I was confident I had spiritual, intellectual, and theoretical tools to examine the world. However, these tools can seem fragile over time without practical strategies to bolster them, especially when the world surprises you and if you are invested in healing the world.
On the morning of November 9, 2016, five months post-grad, I woke up after two hours of sleep to a dusty light pouring into my bedroom. The earth has shifted backwards on its axis, I thought. With puffy eyes and a throbbing head, I was walking through cement. In the eight months since the election, I’ve been walking through wilderness. Dread, indignation, rage, anxiety, and passion have swirled and swelled within me. I’ve marched on the streets of New York. I’ve ranted with great passion, as my brother kindly and ironically pointed out, at people who already agree with me. I’ve felt overwhelmingly helpless and deeply angry.
In April, Charles M. Blow of The New York Times called this administration’s first few months “100 Days of Horror.” I can think of no better language to encapsulate what has transpired since January: the global rise of fascism and xenophobia, new rashes of racism and cruelty, signs of deep corruption, a leader who brings nothing but embarrassment, divisiveness, and shame upon our country. Looking out at the global political landscape, the suffering I see is incomprehensible as well. The senseless violence –including that enacted by our own government upon citizens of our country—is too much to bear, too much to hold at one time.
Every morning, I read the news. I take in the reports of the ways in which our country is divided; the ways in which it seems our world may be falling apart; the rapidly deteriorating condition of our earth. Most mornings, I want to scream. As I read, I feel my heart begin to beat like it has a tacky quality to it, like the valves are struggling to open and take in more of humanity and its despair. I know part of this fear—that feels permanently buried beneath layers of my chest—is rooted in confusion around how best to act and be of service. One year beyond my Middlebury incubator, I feel like a yearling still struggling to stand up, claim space on the earth, and make a contribution.
The liberal arts taught me to pay close attention. It is hard to look closely at our world. It is painful, but in this climate, it is also a radical act. Like a true student of literature, I look at the world’s signs and signifiers. I see human suffering, and I ask first what it means. Though, now with more practical direction, I ask how to alleviate that suffering with more acuity than I could have nestled in the mountains of Vermont one year ago.
This is not the world our generation would have ever envisioned. We did not create this world, but it is the one for which we are now and will be responsible. You need two wings to fly. That’s something to revisit each day. It is an invitation. I’m learning now, that sometimes, good questions are enough to grow faith and keep moving forward.