The wise don’t blame the sword that pierces them or the brick that falls on them. They seek the cause of their misfortunes in their own imperfections.
— Chuang Tzu
Not long ago, a friend of mine wrote something that has stuck with me since I read it. In the course of musing over certain words and phrases — “fine,” “fair,” “supposed to” — to which we sometimes default automatically, without the slightest thought of their actual meaning, or their relation to our actual lives, she mentioned one in particular that not only hit home, but in fact has taken up residence.
The word was “deserve.” Here’s something of what my friend wrote about it:
People — you, me, all of us — don’t “deserve” a whole heck of a lot of ANYTHING. We EARN it. We earn a vacation. We earn the respect of others. The choices we make — or DON’T make — earn us a happy life. And if someone has earned a harsh punishment for something they did, they absolutely should receive it.
More often than not, the word “deserve” is spoken with entitlement. It’s spoken with the sentiment that the world owes us something. Well, in the great scheme of things, not one single person “deserves” anything more than anyone else has or gets.
Now, I could spend the rest of this column talking about why and how my friend’s particular words about that particular word caused me to “come to myself” — to use a term favored by the great Walker Percy — in ways that have been, and continue to be, both essentially reassuring and foundationally jarring. I could do that, which some might welcome and even enjoy, as it necessarily would involve some lengthy meditation on the very worst of my personal shortcomings and transgressions.
I could do that. But I’m not going to, other than own up to the level of self-examination to which my friend’s perspective has helped to propel me — and the bracing awareness it has kindled of what is required of me to earn things that will bring true and lasting happiness and fulfillment. Feel free, if you’re so inclined, to consider my stopping here a small favor from yours truly.
Instead, I’m going ask you to join me in considering this idea of earning what we receive in the light of our fair (or would that be “fine”?) community and its prospects for the future. To pose it in the form of a question, What are we earning in Birmingham?
To hear many in our community tell it, Birmingham’s prospects have never been better. This view is not without some substantive justification (though, I am compelled to add, with a great deal more justification that is of the superficial variety), as I am happy to stipulate whenever I find myself in conversation with someone who wants to know why I’m not as happy as they over the sheer blooming greatness of Birmingham.
If I can boil the general position of these folks down to a single composite quote, it goes something like this: “What’s your problem with progress? Look at downtown. Look at Railroad Park and The Rotary Trail. Look at Avondale and Woodlawn. These are great things. Birmingham is on the move.”
On all of which, I tell them at this point, I am in agreement. Even the “on the move” part, though, along with others, I find various points of divergence over the idea of just what it is we’re moving toward. Still, I understand and appreciate their enthusiasm.
Than they start talking again. That this proclivity is innate to us humans makes it no less vexing at times, the kind of conversation I’m reproducing here generally tending to be among those times.
“And you know what?” they’ll continue. “After all we’ve been through, Birmingham deserves it.”
Oops. There’s that word. The one my friend associates with the foolish notion that some of us — by virtue of our economic or social status, our country of origin, our religious beliefs (or lack thereof), our political views, and even that most superficial of all qualities, the color of our skin — are more entitled than others to the fruits of our labor, the blessings of liberty, and the pure joy of living in relative safety and comfort.
Now, if you know anything at all about Birmingham, it probably is not necessary for me to tell you that, here in our fine (or is it “fair”?) city, the phrase “what we’ve been through” has specific reference to Birmingham’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. From those employing this phrase, it is meant to be understood that while, yes, black people in Birmingham had plenty to be upset about back then, well, that all happened a long time ago, and Birmingham isn’t like that anymore, and besides, who wants to know about Birmingham’s unique role in leading America down the path of human progress when you can go mountain biking this afternoon and dine in one of our many fine restaurants tonight?
All of which is my cantankerous way of suggesting that, while I like (or at least appreciate) hiking trails and bike lanes and good food and locally brewed beer as much as anybody, Birmingham has an unhealthy attitude about its history in general, and the Civil Rights era in particular. If you want to start a list of things that haven’t changed in Birmingham, there’s one that should go at the top or very near it.
If you look at it, the story of Birmingham is nothing short of epic. It is a tale of meeting one existential challenge after another, and of coming through each one, though strangely and tragically unchanged by the experience. It is a story with compelling villains and even more compelling heroes. Ours is a uniquely compelling civic biography that could have been — and, yes, yet may be — the foundation for building a uniquely compelling civic success story.
Birmingham has a legacy — and, with it, certain obligations — like no other.
But we don’t embrace it. Never have and, I’m beginning in earnest to fear, never will. And not so much because we don’t want the acclaim the legacy brings us — acclaim which, indisputably, prior generations of Birmingham residents earned on our behalf — as because we don’t want to accept the obligations.
What are Birmingham’s obligations? How do we go about claiming our civic legacy? What must we do to earn it, as opposed to feeling that we’ve somehow come to deserve it?
I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions. In fact, my contention is that none of us know the answers, because we haven’t, collectively speaking, given any serious consideration to the questions.
Had we done so, then the most visible product of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham would be a city thriving on its diversity — a city in which capital and natural and human resources are put to their best and highest uses, and in which equalities of access and opportunity are achieved and maintained as a matter of course.
Instead, the most visible product of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham is a mostly black city surrounded by mostly white suburbs. It is a mostly poor city surrounded by suburbs that are generally — and, in some cases, decidedly — richer.
All of which creates some interesting intellectual quandaries — and, for those so inclined, some moral and ethical ones as well — that, for our purposes, may also be boiled down to a series of rhetorical questions (with sincere apologies to Mountain Brook, where any number of people that I know, love, and respect either live currently, or hail from, or both, but which also tends to come in handy as a rhetorical device):
Do kids in Mountain Brook deserve a better education than kids who live in the city of Birmingham?
If the answer is “no,” of course, that starts to raise some rather interesting questions about why — by and large, at least, and certainly on average — kids in Mountain Brook receive a better education than kids in Birmingham. Questions that we — this community, as a whole — would, from the best available indications, rather not answer.
And so we don’t. Instead, we press on, content to accept superficial signs of progress as a validation of Birmingham’s incipient greatness, even as the signifiers of equality illuminate the inadequacies that have always held us back.
History is Truth, and the truth sets us free. Except that in Birmingham, the truth has continued to hold us captive. Rather than embrace the truth of what makes us what we are, we spend our time trying to escape it — and marginalizing those who take it upon themselves to remind us of it. We go to great lengths to deny it, and even greater ones to avoid learning anything from it.
And we go to greater ones still to perpetuate the same conditions, to prop up the same structures, to ensure that the same barriers to transformation that have always prevailed in Birmingham continue to do so. The more we change, the more we remain the same.
I thought about this very thing just a few days ago, driving through downtown Ensley with the same friend whose writing set me to thinking. She’s not from around here, as we say, and she was mystified at how such a place could have been allowed to decay to the point that it has — and more than a little dismayed to hear my off-the-cuff explanation that the decline of Ensley is a direct result of Birmingham’s failure to come to grips with integration.
“So, that’s it?” she asked. “It’s just that simple?”
I was about to answer in the affirmative, when I thought of an answer that was even simpler than that. It was something that former Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington said to me a few years back — something I’ve quoted often, but am not sure I understood or appreciated fully until I was confronted with the question of whether Birmingham has earned the right to redemption — whether we will ever, at long last, become willing to acknowledge and confront the imperfections that continue to shackle us.
“Birmingham is a status quo town,” I quoted the former mayor. “We are accustomed to fighting about things we differ over, so much so that we don’t spend enough time finding ways to cooperate on the things we agree about. That mentality has been detrimental, and it’s the main reason we don’t have the sense of community we need to move forward. We don’t take much risk, and we pay the price for it.”
That’s paying, as opposed to earning. Until we reverse that, we’re going to keep getting what we deserve.