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Still Working on Kind

Most weekends for dessert, I choose a movie to watch on Netflix.  I was pleasantly surprised to see Divergent as a 'new' option.   No second guessing.  No scrolling.  No 'you might like this' trailers.  This was an obvious pint of chocolate ice cream waiting to be consumed on a late Saturday afternoon. 


I settled in immediately to listen to the well-known premise of Divergent read aloud as opening narration. 


"They divided us into 5 groups, factions, to keep the peace.  The smart ones, the ones who value knowledge and logic, are in Erudite. . . Amity farm the land.  They're all about kindness and harmony, always happy.  Candor value honesty and order.  They tell you the truth even when you wish they wouldn'tAnd then there's Dauntless. . . Bravery, fearless and free. . . Abnegation. . . Selfless, dedicated to helping others.  It all works.  Everyone knows where they belong."

My stomach clenched a bit at the last line.  In my Peace Corps site in Guatemala, I started a nonprofit to fund library books and activities.  The successful years of my library project were later years of living in Guatemala.  Words like "selfless" and "good" were slowly losing their meaning or being lost in translation.


When I promoted the library project in the U.S., I often heard, "They're so lucky.  You’re doing so much.”


I deflected, shied away.  Something about my feelings about my actions didn’t match the perceptions.  Something was lost in their descriptions of my actions.  My initial purchases were picture books.  The catalog grew with trends.  Graphic novels that retold fairy tales and great moments in history, board books, math fiction.  Young Adult purchases were last, alongside enough money to hire a librarian who was a young adult.  She had enjoyed Twilight.  Then, The Hunger Games.  Finally, Divergent, which was new enough that I hadn’t read it in English.  I bought the copy in Spanish, read it and finally donated it, as the library's copy. 


Like ‘true’ definitions of my actions, so too, the names of the five divergent factions were new words to me.  I had to translate each from Spanish to English with a dictionary and several I still looked up in English.  


I read a lot of YA literature, and I identified with a great majority, but mostly as an outsider, as an adult.  Divergent, at the time I read it, had a unique impact on me.  It returned me to a still unanswered question about who I was or who I thought I could be. 


Erudite was what I valued most about me, what I didn't want to admit I prized, because it felt like the wrong answer, like I didn't belong with my colleagues who made choices to ‘help’.


Amity fell to the bottom.  Always happy, I couldn't fake it.  I didn't want to fake it, but I didn't feel it.


Candor became muddled with Erudite.  The right answer, the logical answer was too often the answer people wished you wouldn't share.


Dauntless was not me, not ever.  Despite living thousands of miles away from home by myself, I didn’t see brave in the mirror.


Abnegation was the one I wished I wanted, like Tris the main character.  Somehow it seemed the 'right' answer.  I had chosen it often, relying on outsider opinion to make it ‘true’, but it was never quite the truest description of me.   

I desperately clung to each poignant moment in the movie, because I knew too well that I wished I had stopped reading after book one.  Of the three fad YA series, Divergent was the only one that didn't choose a tied-up ending.  I put another chocolate in my mouth and read the inspirational saying.  All things were possible in the slow moments of Saturday afternoon.  I cradled my phone, listening and breathing, slowly.  I continued to consider the five descriptions.  I reflected on how youth would choose or understand the premise of the story was the problem and see the value in not choosing. 


We do often choose one way to show up.  As white women, we give ourselves limited choices.  A coworker shared a book with me, White Women: Everything You Already Know About Your Own Racism and How to Do Better by Regina Jackson and Saira Rao.  The Table of Contents didn't take long to identify my Divergent tendencies and tensions. 


Chapter 1: Your Quest for Perfection is Killing Us. And You.  


Author's words: "Your endless quest for perfection is a trap.  You will never be pretty enough.  You will never be thin enough.  You will never be smart enough or successful enough or rich enough.  Yet white women will die trying (2) . . . Your quest for perfection is a prison—for you and for us. Walk away." (11)


My choice: Erudite vs. Amity


Chapter 2: Your Nice is Actually Evil  


Author's words: "The enemy of this white nice?  Honesty.  Authenticity (23). . . When you wonder how being nice hurts you, this is it.  You are feverishly trying to appear to be good to each other because you know that, in reality, you are awful to one another. . . Your white nice is cover for white rot. . . Wouldn't you rather be honest with yourselves and each other?  Wouldn't you rather trade in your fake white nice for authenticity and genuine kindness?" (28)


My choice: Amity vs. Candor


Chapter 3: Your White Silence is Violence 


Author's words:  "You understand that silence is not support, right? (34) . . . Your silence eats away at you. . . All because you are not honest and authentic in the moment, choosing to be silent.  On the rare occasion that you do speak up, you are called angry or crazy or divisive. . . Your silence is, quite literally, killing you and us.  Maybe it's time to start speaking up, for everyone's sake." (40)


Candor vs. Dauntless


Lastly. . . Chapter 9: White Allies, White Savior, White Violence 


Author's words:  "So, what is a white ally? Here's our definition: a white person who tries to stand side by side with BIPOC against white supremacy, racism, and xenophobia.  A white person who thinks they are doing the right thing, on the right side of history.  A well-intentioned white person.  Sounds good in theory.  In practice, it often sucks.  The impact of your actions always outweighs your intentions.  And yet you are so wedded to your good intentions that you are unable to see how your actions are harmful even when we tell you that they are.  to your face.  Repeatedly." (133-34)


My choice: Dauntless vs. Abnegation


Four, a respected member of Dauntless, was the character who explained why divergence was positive.  He said, "I don't want to be just one thing.  I want to be brave and selfless.  Intelligent and honest and kind.  I'm still working on kind." 


I had never considered choosing Dauntless.  I wasn't fascinated with its outward fearlessness climbing buildings and jumping from trains. I hadn't been sure it was that valuable. It was the last option I had considered.  Few others had expected this choice from Tris, and she herself doubted that she could give as much as she would as a member of Abnegation.  This doubt I understood too well.


Except, both Tris and Four are divergent.  Years ago, I understood this as a message of belonging, that no matter what, you could always belong and should define yourself as you chose.  Characters that defied category lead youth through this exercise in self-esteem.  Last Saturday, instead of Tris’s closing narration, Jackson and Rao’s words echoed underneath the fading music of closing credits.  "Now we're asking you to get up and fight because your lives—and ours—depend on it." (141)​.

It was not the idea that I would HAVE to be one thing, but the mislabeled definitions of what I chose that needed work.  "Kindness requires speaking up" which wasn't often perceived as nice.  But, it was brave.  For the first time since the first time I read, Divergent, I understood what it meant to choose Dauntless. Kindness required bravery. I, too, needed to work on kind.


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