What are the assumptions and conclusions about the Murphys you formed as you watched this video?
The Imaginary America
There is the America in your imagination, then there is an America of flesh and blood. That America is is a place of millions in poverty who are out of work. Until our flesh and our blood are seen and felt as a national flesh and blood, there will be a “we” and “they” division to the American dream.
What is that dream? Unless you feel that dream deep in your core, the phrase has a diabolical emptiness. The dream is as deep or as shallow, as close or inaccessible, as the understanding of the person holding the dream. Is it home ownership? Is it a respectable job or owning a business? Is it a lawnmower for your little piece of earth? Is it a hedge fund and fat retirement? Is it station and status? Is it generosity and sacrifice? Is it that vague recollection of something you experienced in your sleep when you first awake, but cannot remember the details?
What is the dream for the Murphys? Poverty has a language. The words from Ms. Murphy express a strange mix of persistence and resignation. The house is emblematic. It was beautiful. We were working. Then my roofer husband fell and broke his back at work. My sister was on drugs with 4 children, and I had to quit my nursing job to take custody of the children. Our one son is mentally ill and hallucinates. Could you hear the whooshing pull of financial stress?
The Real Story is The Story You Tell Yourself.
I had mixed feelings and thoughts as I watched the Murphy story. I’m wondering how you might have processed the story.
- How did you feel about Mrs. Murphy’s twang?
- What did you feel when you saw Mr. And Mrs. Murphy kiss? When you saw the baby kiss and hug Mr. Murphy?
- How did you feel about the physical size of the Murphys? Did you form judgments about that?
- What conclusions did you reach about why the house deteriorated?
- How responsible do you hold the Murphys for their current situation?
- How much credence do you place with Ms. Murphy as a “reliable narrator?” That is, are her explanations for what’s happened to the family over the years satisfactory statements of truth for you?
- How do your answers to the above questions reveal your unexamined assumptions? [Oh yes, we all have them, including a bias that we are unbiased.]
The Murphy Story Through Another Lens
I have a Korean-American girlfriend. She is a grandmother. She owns her own little business and owns her home. She was 45 years old with two dependent children when she immigrated to this country as a divorced woman with a small savings. She had English speaking capability learned in Korean, but a heavy accent. She is now over 60 years old, and one of her daughters and her husband came to live with her recently when the husband lost his job and the family was forced to sell their house at a loss. A household of one became a household of five overnight. There are some parallels of this story to the Murphy family story, but also some differences. The Korean immigrants are all college educated. They all have a vision and hope for prosperity. They see their current circumstances as transitional. They are all healthy. There is at least one source of income. They live in a prosperous county with and have transportation.
When I told the Murphy story to my girlfriend, I asked: “What is the central ingredient that holds your family together?” Her answer was education and a strong mother guidance that conveyed ambition to advance in life. I see that drive to do more and be better in her family. The unemployed son-in-law recently found work and is taking online classes to obtain his CPA. The children are pushed to excel at art, music, sports, and school work. You feel this central passion to reach for something better. Eventually, they will transition out of their current living arrangement.
My girlfriend’s story and the Murphy story are part of the American story. Poverty and hope are part of the American story. So is generational despair. So are drugs. So is a global economy taking low-skilled jobs out of the country. So is the fabulous accumlation of wealth for the top 1%, while the middle and lower strata stagnate. After the 2007 crisis and the banking bailouts, we are trillions in debt. There is no money left for a war on poverty. Instead we fight wars to implant the American dream in the Middle East.
Poverty as a Celluar Disease
When a virus strikes, it attacks at the cellular level. When a nation grows sick, it suffers from attacks at the level of the family. We are an economy that has pressed the American family to own and spend more. Families often rely primarily on heavy debt to chase a false version of the American dream as property ownership. Mothers and fathers are exhausted financially and emotionally. Therein is the precipice. Children do not receive guidance, encouragement or discipline. Living at the edge, a family implodes in poverty with a job loss, lost health, or drug addiction. The cell is sick, and maybe dies.
A cellular illness calls for an intervention at the cellular level. Government is only an impersonal system. It cannot operate at the level needed for healing. There is an economic and moral imbalance in the body politic that can only be addressed by personal involvement. Change begins with people engaging in the lives of other people, and community organizations working in neighborhoods caring for neighbors. The best way to overcome bias, ignorance and prejudice is to know intimately the person you dismiss as “the other.”
“Be the Change You Want to See in the World” — Gandhi.
A prosperous neighborhood needs to move out of its boundaries to become acquainted with people in a poor neighborhood. For health to move across a celluar membrane, people must get to know people very different than themselves. It may mean suspending judgments, and spending time with people like the Murphys. Or maybe it means become acquainted with a person of another race and economic status, and really listening, being genuinely open and curious, and ready to see deeply into that person’s history. It may mean being visible and transparent to the stranger as well.
When I identify with someone outside my own circle of racial, economic, educational or cultural circle, I begin to see what we have in common. I develop a sense that the differences I’ve focused on are the minor things getting in the way of connecting with a fellow human being who is traveling this road with me.
I’m ending this piece with a story my girlfriend shared with me. A favorite Korean story is of a boy who was in poverty. He hoped for a better life, but his family had no money for education. He wrote a letter to God. He dropped his envelope addressed “To God” in the mail. A wise postal clerk delivered the letter to the local church. The community responded, and the boy received enough funds to be educated. That boy eventually became the Dean of the School of Theology at a major university in South Korea.
People did not just donate funds for that boy. They not only identified him, they identified with him. They cared for him personally. They communicated with him. They inspired and encouraged him. They stayed connected over time to track his progress. They held him to standards. They expressed their expectations and hopes unapolegetically. He was inspired to justify their faith in him.
You and I are the answers to our prayers. We are substance of things dreamed. We are one family of Americans who, the words of Benjamin Franklin, either hang together, or hang separately. Learn something today by listening deeply to someone you seldom encounter.