It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

There comes a point in life when you realize: the government isn’t real. It’s a collective delusion. We have all agreed to respect it. Its enforcement may be real; it is not.

It’s the difference between table and wooden rods supporting a flat plank. It’s road, not static river of asphalt, something we have drizzled on the earth to make it smooth for wheels.

Degree, not series of actions that we have decided render you more capable of making good decisions.

But the thing is: it doesn’t have to be this way.

My mother—two-legged organism in whose body I grew—used to tell me this years ago when I stayed up too late doing homework. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” she fretted. Meaning: there’s another way to do high school, do life. There’s a way to do it where you can sleep enough, and a grade—letter representing number representing competence?—doesn’t matter. It’s not that the letters didn’t represent ‘real’ actions. I went to a school where these letters meant something, changed people’s behavior, resulted in kindness from teachers and admiration from peers. “Grades” were abstractions that started the domino chain that ended up with the degrees that we received, written out in Latin on pieces of vellum, last spring.  

The pieces of vellum signify: This person did a number of things, and they were meaningful, and because we recognize that they were meaningful, we will write her name on this piece of vellum, and prove to the rest of the world that she did these things and that they were meaningful. Remarkably, the rest of the world believes it.

There are now words on our résumés that capture all of those little abstractions, and dictate where we find ourselves at 10:44 on a Thursday morning: behind a counter, at a desk, on a bus, scooping yogurt out of a big tub in the fun, mural-adorned office kitchen. We decided, collectively, that a letter measures success. Ten years later, the tiny leap of faith has compounded, like the mercury atoms that slowly accumulate from plankton to aquatic insect to sculpin until they nestle in the muscle cells of a massive salmon.

We decided, collectively, that there exists America. At this point it is not so much a decision as an axiom. In eighth-grade Civics, we filled out worksheets on Montesquieu, separation of powers, the New Jersey plan. We defined the social contract. Even now, reaching back to that classroom in my mind, I’m surprised that it didn’t alarm my fourteen-year-old self: Government isn’t real.

After the first lesson, social contract acquired a meaning like table. It was more than the combination of social and contract. Suddenly it was a noun phrase, a unified entity like newspaper and computer and breakfast. We know them as distinct mental objects, not papers with news, or entities that compute, or a meal that breaks the fast.

Perhaps Mrs. Duncan should have mentioned, as we wrote out terms like independent judiciary on our worksheets: it doesn’t have to be this way. We were so close to having a monarchy. There are still kings on earth, the whole concept of which is alien to me at a basic level. Why choose to believe that this person should be in charge? What right does he have? Yet that collective respect shapes a country. A fracture in it can take away everything you know.

There are places where paper money is worthless and leaders are not agreed upon, where decisions are not made collectively at all. We talk about them, learn about them, visit them. But if you have lived your life in a place where the collective delusion—contract—agreement—is the law of the land, it is unimaginably hard to comprehend its absence.

It is hard for me, a white woman, to feel, at a deep and real level, that a police officer who pulls me over may threaten my life. It’s hard for me, someone who has (with few exceptions) always had an insurance card, to comprehend that I may not be able to get medicine when I am sick. It’s hard for me to truly, terrifyingly comprehend that the collective delusion might mean that someone I have never met can tell me that I must become a mother, a two-legged organism in whose body another will grow. It’s hard to slap aside every mental structure that defines the world.

But I have to. We all do. It doesn’t have to be this way. I am starting to fight with my entire universe to say: very soon it may not be this way. The unease started when I found myself considering a hat that read: Not My President. Something juddered.

It comes up in tiny moments. When someone makes a joke, and I think, for a millisecond: What if this weren’t allowed? I’ve started to go out of my way to remind myself: it doesn’t have to be this way. It could be other ways. This is not an abstraction. This is how train is really metal tube on wheels and wires. This is not calendar but words and numbers with which we have agreed to describe the past and future. This is not America but the thing we call America, which we perceive as constant but which is a leap of faith.

Some people say they don’t get married because they want to choose, every day when they wake up, that they want to still be with this person. It prevents complacency. Every day I wake up and choose to believe in America, but for the first time in my lucky, lucky life, I catch myself hesitating.

Originally published in Ripple Journal