April 16, 2018

This isn’t us

Sam Smith – Trying to figure out why I keep watching the often troubling series, This is Us, it dawned on me that the characters – despite their imperfect and often failing ways -  were at least trying to resolve conflicts involving ethnicity, gender, age, and weight. And after working long enough and making enough mistakes, they often did.
Thus, this family assemblage harboring the real father of a black son they had adopted, the son (later as a father himself) attempting to hold on to a relationship with an adopted girl seized back by her real mother, an obese sister in love with an obese man, and a white actor son wrestling with alcohol – grim as it may seem – actually does better at dealing with real problems than we as a nation seem to be doing these days.

As Entertainment Weekly said of the first season. “It is a refreshing respite from the relational violence and pessimism that marks the other buzz soaps that have bubbled forth from a culture of divisiveness.”

The difference between this small group of characters on the screen and the larger nation of which we are a part, is not that the former deny problems but they attempt seriously to resolve them.  They use - sometimes awkwardly, sometimes well -  kindness, decency, love, humor, and respect – tools we could be using far better to solve our national differences. 

Instead, in recent years we seem to have adopted the habits found in dysfunctional families where some members are forever trapped in anger and futility by the mistakes of the past and unable to build a new way for themselves or others around them.

I have noted, for example, in recent years what was once a civil rights movement seeking positive change has turned into an endless critical analysis of where the wrong came from and why it exists - but is increasingly unable to promote change. I suspect that part of the problem is that the leaders of our movements are more frequently products of an academic training that allows analysis to substitute for social alteration. But in any case, the underlying optimism of, say, Martin Luther King’s efforts  to transform problems into progress seems far weaker today. We condemn rather than convince, despise rather than redirect, and scold rather than sensitize.

As a journalist I confess to being part of the problem. But even if my work is weak on the possibilities for change, I try to emphasize the facts of our condition, and not just rail endlessly against them. And I try to give a plug to those who find a better way like, say, Yes Magazine or the Center for Court Innovation, and regret I don’t do a better job at it.  

Which is why I thought I would give a plug to This is Us because even though it isn’t us, it could help us move in that direction.

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