Cigarettes, Saints and a Bernie Sanders T-Shirt

When I met Dan Campbell- an incredible songwriter and one of my personal heroes- it was at the Vans Warped Tour in 2015 underneath the tarp of the Acoustic Basement tent. He was wearing a Bernie Sanders t-shirt and played an acoustic set under the name Aaron West, which is a pseudonym he assumes when he performs songs from his character study Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties. That day, I was fortunate enough to catch both that set and his band The Wonder Years play only a few hours later. While his music holds a very special place inside of me, it was a song that wasn’t played that day that I have been reflecting on the last few days.

The Wonder Years have a song called ‘Stained Glass Ceilings’, which describes the anger and frustration that accompnaies the struggles of growing up poor in the United States. It goes on to talk about gun violence and racial discrimination- essentially, the most visceral problems that exist in the United States. The song exists as a larger collective of songs on ‘No Closer to Heaven’, a concept album that explores the shortcomings of religion when it comes to death. One word to describe the theme of the album would be ‘unattainable’: that both heaven and the American Dream have become intertwined and are largely out of reach for an overwhelming percentage of the American people.

Now that the dust has somewhat settled after the American election, I have been thinking about that Bernie t-shirt that Dan wore that day, and about that song and about what all of this means for so many Americans. I write this as an outside observer; born and raised in Canada, I am not directly affected by Trump’s nomination in almost any capacity. However, I can’t help but feel connected to the issue because of how much those songs resonate with me. While I am a proud naturalist and atheist, I spent a good portion of my adolescence in a church basement being told that I needed to be saved. Every Friday night- and even some Sunday mornings, when my guilt was stronger than my desire to stay in bed- I was told that I needed to invite the Lord into my heart so that I could be saved, but I couldn’t help but wonder: what am I being saved from?

While I wouldn’t consider my family to be exceedingly wealthy, we were never decidedly poor either. I never went hungry, I was constantly bored (a status which almost exclusively applies to children with a wide variety of things to do) and I grew up in a happy, loving home. I consider myself extremely lucky, but I know that many people do not have the luxuries that I did growing up. I could understand why some people might feel like they need saving, but I always felt like life was pretty good to me.

I’m not writing this to gloat, to say that I have it so good that I don’t need religion to comfort me. In fact, I’m here to discuss the problem with relying on religion too much because I think that many Americans are finally starting to recognize the flaws in touting the Bible and the American Dream when it comes to defending the rights and privileges of the American people.

The main problem being that both were once a one-size-fits-all blanket that could keep people warm at night, the promise of something incredible if you just made the effort to reach for it. The ideas of prosperity and eternal life were carrots dangling in front of anyone willing to bow their heads and trudge towards them with their eyes closed, unwavering even with the stick resting on the backs of their heads. The mantras were one and the same- work hard, follow the rules and you will be rewarded.

What I feel compelled to ask is the following: which part of that is true anymore? In a society where Biblical law condemns one in every four Americans and a university degree can’t guarantee you anything better than an entry level job at best, where is the motivation to work towards those unattainable dreams? Why would people continue to reach when the destination is nowhere to be seen anymore?

I would assert that both heaven and the American Dream never truly existed in the capacity that they were advertised, but now roughly half the population of the United States is starting to come to the same conclusion. The Bible doesn’t speak for them anymore, the American Dream doesn’t seem real to them anymore and they have every right to believe it. The problem is that the other half of the country still stands on a soapbox and reminisces about the glory days where they could still wrap their fingers around the things they were promised.

John Wayne with a God complex
Tells me to buy a gun like shooting a teenage kid
Is gonna solve any problems,
Like it’s an arms race,
Like death don’t mean nothing.
To know the heavy price of living poor
Walled in by red lines
Backed into a corner.
Not knowing, growing up,
What it’s like to belong here
In America. – from ‘Stained Glass Ceilings’

Fast forward to early November, when the words ‘president-elect Donald Trump’ became more than the punch line of a nervous joke between democrats who were too busy to vote on election day (or on any of the early voting days). That is now the reality that Americans have to live with: the democracy that their government has force-fed to countless nations across the globe has failed them so completely that a blatantly misogynist, racist demagogue can get elected on a platform of what could easily be misconstrued as neo-Fascism.

I’ve been watching this whole thing unfold from my front row seat on the Canadian border, constantly reminding myself that all is right in the world and that he couldn’t possibly get elected. Yet here were are, devastated at the outcome and voicing our outrage through the political forums of Facebook and Twitter as if it will make any of this go away. What we forget is that half of the country voted for him, supporting/in spite of his abhorrent platform. The part of all this that scares me beyond all measure is that a country could be so viscerally divided and not fall apart altogether.

The truth is not hard to find: the American Dream is dead and God is buried right next to it. The problem in America is that a large portion of the country is leaning even more heavily on both of those notions now that they are seen to be in jeopardy, under siege by the “supreme evil” of liberalism. They reject science and proper intellectual debate in favour of ignorance and hatespeech, encouraged by their now-President who has done nothing but follow through on his promise to “make America great again”. The problem is that the greatness he refers to harkons back to the days where society was still racially segregated and women were still kept out of the workplace.

It took me a long time to write this essay; I started it shortly after the election results were decided and am only now finishing it, roughly a week into Trump’s presidency. I’m still not quite sure what my message was and I don’t know that I had a specific point to prove. I’ve expressed my concerns and my frustrations, but I suppose my true message is that America seems to be stuck in limbo between their traditions and their aspirations. They are torn between the supposed golden age in the first half of the 20th century and the bright future they hope to have as they make progress, as they keep stride with the rest of the world. Yet, here they have elected a man who threatens to tarnish and destroy both of those.

What I am working towards is the idea that America is now misrepresented: not only by its government, but by its own people. It is a country struggling with split personality disorder, with one side trying to move forward from the racism and misogyny and violence and the other side reveling in it. If it were possible to do so without inciting another civil war, it would almost certainly be better for everyone if the States were allowed to disband and not feel forced to decide between one of two polar opposites. You can almost see their borders fraying like an old rope, pulled to its breaking point.

I think back to that Bernie Sanders t-shirt, to a time when there was hope for millions of people who were unable to afford education and healthcare and felt like there was a glass ceiling on the dream they were supposed to be living in their country. There was hope that their problems could be fixed, that their country could make progress again. Now we’re living in a completely new reality, where their hope for progress has transformed into a fear of oppression, where women and immigrants are terrified that their lives and their futures have been forever diminished and cast aside.

Just yesterday, there was a mass homicide enacted by a French Canadian at a mosque in Quebec City that killed six innocent Muslims in their house of worship. It was on my side of the border this time, not far from my own home, and it made me realize that we are not impervious to the infectious hatred, racism and xenophobia that Donald Trump has been spewing into the air. It disgusted me that someone from my country could do such a thing, and then I realized that I can now empathize with the American population.

For we are not the racists, just like Muslims are not the terrorists. I am not the person who kills innocent people based on their religion, just like nearly all Muslims living in America are not the ones who were involved in 9/11. We cannot let religion command us and divide us anymore and we certainly cannot use it as a justification for violence and discrimination against innocent people.

I can feel the pain of the American people, the shame and the anger towards their fellow citizens and the fear that comes with all of their uncertainty. I empathize with the people who wish they could end the violence and the hatred, who wanted education for their children rather than oppression for the people who moved to their country under the delusion of living the American Dream. The American Dream was hope for a better life; it was freedom, it was progress, it was a heaven on Earth that would reward the diligent and the innocent.

The American Dream was a Bernie Sanders t-shirt… and now it is nothing at all.

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Fractured Eyes: The Fine Art of Loving Someone Who Doesn’t Love Themselves

I haven’t dated much.

I know I’m a little young to be saying that, at least based on what other people have told me. I’ve been repeatedly reminded that I’m only twenty-one, and that I have a lot of time ahead of me to find the right person and that there’s no pressure. Perhaps I’m just impatient to find ‘the one’, or maybe I just can’t stand being alone. There’s probably a bit of truth in both of those possibilities.

I’ve been a hopeless romantic for as long as I can remember, but it only really became evident when I got into my first serious relationship. I guess what really opened my eyes was just how much I was willing to do for the person I love: the sacrifices, the extra effort, the swallowing of my pride and admitting when I’m wrong. Obviously it was the big things, like moving out of my parents’ house into an apartment in the city, that gave me the largest doses of reality about love and relationships. However, it was the little things that were the most poignant reminders that love is not easy, nor is it something you can sustain without putting in the effort every single day.

It’s about cuddling each other to sleep. It’s about kissing them, even when they’re sick and make a fuss because they don’t want you to catch their cold. It’s changing your plans last minute to make room for them in your day. In my case, a big part of my past relationships has been taking long trips on public transportation. Even when I would finish work late at night, or when the weather was less than optimal, I would hop on a bus and travel over an hour to see them. To me it was never a big deal; I did it because I wanted to, not because I felt obliged.

All of this to say, love is a very complicated system of give and take. That applies to everything: money, trust, who gets to pick the movie, etc. You win some, you lose some. If you’re the man in the relationship (male or not), prepare to lose more than you win. Don’t get too upset by our assigned gender roles though, because that’s not what I was trying to say. I just meant that the key is finding someone to whom you are willing to lose a few battles. In fact, let me rephrase that: find someone who you will, on occasion, lose to on purpose.

If love is a cycle of reciprocation, it is not a perfect circle and there are a lot of kinks that need to be worked out. For one, people tend to be stubborn and selfish and that alone is enough to throw off the balance in a relationship. So now you realize that you can’t be too hard-headed or self-centered if you want a healthy partnership. Now you’re going down the list of things that a relationship needs in order to function: trust, honesty, loyalty, all of the things in that verse of First Corinthians that they read at weddings. All of that is very important- absolutely, no doubt- but it forgets one often overlooked aspect of being emotionally connected to another human being.

It is hard enough to be in a healthy, loving relationship when both of the people involved have their mental health under control; but when you love someone who doesn’t know how to love themselves, it can feel like trying to keep a newspaper dry in a hurricane.

I’ve been in long-term, committed relationships with people who struggled with depression, anxiety and chronic insomnia. To be clear, I found out very early on that they were sick and it never stopped me from falling in love even a little bit. I knew what I was getting into and I thought I was ready for the challenges that I was to be faced with. For the most part, I was well-equipped to handle the basic stuff: the doubts, the insecurities, the lack of motivation. I would bend over backwards just to get a smile sometimes, but it was worth it. It was hard sometimes, especially when the bad days came along, but I always tried my best. It wasn’t the amount of work that bothered me at all; it was the fact that sometimes there was nothing I could do.

The most absolutely excruciating part about loving someone who struggles with depression is the feeling of inadequacy that comes with not being able to make them feel better. There are some days where you talk to them, comforting them for hours, and they just keep crying and shaking and it seems like it will never end. Sometimes they don’t even know why they’re upset, they just get hit with a bad day and can’t handle it.

“If only she could see herself the way I do,” I thought to myself. It was a thought that passed through my head on an almost daily basis. I would always come up with new ways to try and cheer her up: building pillow forts, movie dates, leaving love notes stuck to all of the walls. It would make her smile, she’d show her appreciation and I would think that I did pretty well for myself. “If I do this enough, eventually she’ll come around,” I would convince myself, almost daily.

I learned the hard way that you can’t fix someone by loving them- the love has to come from them.

I’m not trying to perpetuate the worn-out saying that says you need to love yourself before you can love someone else. Speaking from experience, that’s completely false. You can be drowning in self-loathing on a daily basis and still give your whole heart to another person. You can be caring, patient and understanding and be there for someone else even if you yourself are broken. The problem with loving someone who is fighting their demons doesn’t lie in their inability to love.

The problem lies in their inability to feel worthy of being loved.

In Stephen Chbosky’s classic novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie writes in one of his letters that “we accept the love we think we deserve”. This applies to the people I have loved and to anyone else who tries to balance a love life against their mental illness. The problem with depression is that it corrupts a person’s feeling of self-worth and, by extension, their perception of other people’s feelings towards them. When someone feels worthless, it’s near-impossible for them to understand why someone else would care for them, let alone love them. As a result, they either reject or dismiss any and all attempts at an emotional investment.

Love is about sacrifices, right? It’s about being the big spoon and sleeping with hair draped over your mouth and nose. It’s about running to the store in the middle of the night because she wanted ice cream. Those are the sacrifices that are easy to make, the ones that you make because you know it makes them happy. Knowing that you can put a smile on their face is a pretty good motivator. When that’s gone, you stop giving up your time and your sleep and start having to relinquish parts of yourself- your confidence, your emotional well-being, your motivation.

Maybe it’s just me; maybe I’m not as well-suited to deal with someone’s illness as I thought. I know for a fact that I take it too personally. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been told that it’s not my fault, that I’m good enough, that I’ve done more than enough just to feel like I’m failing to do the simplest task involved in being in a relationship: making them happy. When you give and you give and you give and they’re still sick, when you feel your heart drop because their last text message seemed off, when you see the scars on their skin and wish that kisses were a cure-all- that’s when the real sacrifices happen.

I’m not trying to say that healthy relationships are not hard, because they are. The reason love is so difficult is because it leaves us vulnerable, in the hands of someone else. I’m not saying that loving someone who goes through bouts of incurable sadness is somehow more noble or more difficult. No matter who you are or what you’re dealing with, love is the single most vital human experience we have. It is what unifies us, what gives our lives meaning and what comforts us when the world gets dark. Being in love and working to maintain a healthy partnership will always be hard, sometimes even impossible, because making sacrifices is not easy.

All I’m trying to express is that being sick doesn’t mean being unable to love. I have been loved gently and wholeheartedly by someone who couldn’t even look at herself in the mirror. I have been loved passionately and incomparably by someone who put on a mask every day to avoid being thought of as broken. I have had beautiful, loving, relationships that ended for other reasons, but mental health was always the elephant in the room.

What can I say? You win some, you lose some. In my case I lost quite a bit, but I did so with good intentions. It wasn’t easy making those difficult sacrifices on an almost daily basis, but I never thought twice about it because I knew that creating even a moment of happiness in her life would make a difference. While she may not have accepted the love that she deserved all of the time, getting that newspaper inside with even one dry page gave me an overwhelming sense of satisfaction.

 

Take what’s left of me, if you must.
It isn’t much but it’s enough
To keep the darkest days at bay.
I’ll light the lantern every day
To keep the shadows from your mind.
Despite the life I’ve left behind,
Your love endures and occupies
The thoughts behind my fractured eyes.
With nothing left but love to give, I need you.