To be “made whole.” The phrase has always taken my breath away, even though I understand nothing of the common law and personal injury disputes in which it is invoked. How lovely, to be, in a single gesture, made whole. It sounds effortless, an act of grace, a wand waved over my head. Just imagining it relaxes the little ball of angst that travels in my stomach as I move through the world, searching, fixing, trying. Completion would bring serenity; I am somehow sure of this.
We all walk around with holes, places where enough stuff was not poured in. Confidence, reassurance, love, hope. There is never enough, for any of us. We are black holes of need and fear. The universe itself often feels to me like something whole that got busted up into a million shards. Slowly, the pieces coalesced again—but not all of them fit, and a few got lost. Now we live in one of my Ikea projects: crucial nuts and bolts missing, angles skewed, legs awobble. Is it any wonder that Christianity speaks of the brokenness of the world and Judaism urges tikkun, the repair of the world?
How would wholeness even feel? My mind turns to absences—no pain, no cravings—but there must be more to it. Imagine the synergy, with every part of you complete and content. We only see glimpses—we use the word for fleeting and partial experiences—but they are always happy. A “whole-body experience,” “whole” foods, wholehearted delight. Conditions that are not fractional, fragmented, factionalized. A state of integrity.
And yet, when it is time to think, we break things apart, dissect them, because that is how we have learned to understand the world. The method is powerful—look what happened when we split the atom. Look what happens when we divide people from one another in order to persuade or conquer them. Even in conversation, we present ourselves as a patchwork: “A part of me thinks that….” “ Not that there is anything wrong with separating something to understand it; analysis is a clean, sharp tool. The problem is that separation and differentiation have become our default, and we are lousy at putting things back together.
Though I dread conflict and disaster, I have always cherished the way people come together, everybody offering whatever they can for the common good. Forced into cynicism by our fragmented, fractious response to the pandemic, I roll my eyes every time the disembodied voice at the grocery store ends its cautions with “We’ll get through this together.” No, we obviously will not.
And now, as if that were insufficient disappointment, the entire nation (“entire,” a complete entity and therefore capable of wholeness) has chosen up sides, abandoning e pluribus unum to shatter into separate tribes.
Resigned but scared, I page through an old dictionary, looking for wholeness. It is defined as “free of wound or injury”—or recovered from wound or injury. Intact. Someone is whole when they are physically, mentally, and emotionally sound and healthy. Wholeness refers to a total sum, an undiminished entirety. It is undivided.
What would it take for the nation to be made whole, to recover? Ask me, and I will rattle off a hodgepodge of dreams, the first a lifting of racial and ethnic hatred or resentment and enough justice to heal centuries-old wounds. Then, an intact middle class with job opportunities between fries-with-that, geriatric care, and information technology. Socially responsible companies that do not throw their employees away to make a profit overseas. A rapprochement between evangelical religion and secularism. Leadership strong enough to explain a rapidly changing world and our place within it—and inspire enough cooperation that we can avoid the plague and heal the environment—all the while honoring the checks and balances of democracy. A broad disavowal of demagoguery and manipulative lies. Media outlets that are not driven by clicks; politicians who are not beholden to donors. For a second, I dream up a newspaper version of PBS and NPR, and then I remember that they, too, are branded as biased. I only forgot because I do not agree.
Nearly everything in our culture, including companies and music and social media sites, is now forced to choose sides. I am right there keeping score and applauding, because too much damage has been done to talk fatuously of unity. We are not even willing to be part of the whole right now; our language is about taking back, stopping, getting rid of. We need a good scrubbing, a test of the evidence, and a return to facts and common sense before integrity can be restored.
The danger, after that? Reasonable, concerned, questioning citizenship will seem both exhausting and humdrum, stripped of the elation and adrenaline rush of banding together with the likeminded and waging a war that makes you feel like you matter. Has this country gotten too big and heterogeneous for individuals to feel they matter simply by being citizens?
Ask the holy people and the shrinks, and they will tell you that loving is what fills the emptiness, whether we are genuinely loving ourselves or a divine being or our family or all of humanity. At the national level, love of country used to do the trick. Now we talk of living in two countries—and you can multiply that, because there is a separate country if you are not White and a separate country if you are poor and a separate country if you are not Christian and a separate country if you are not a cisgender heterosexual. Or it is still one country, but to understand all the injustice and hurt, we split it apart, the way a woman I know once decided that her husband had multiple personality disorder, because there were times he seemed like a stranger and not the man she loved.
Across those divides, our definitions of “American” do not even match. As the category expands to include more people, those who felt their way of life was quintessentially American feel diminished. Short of an invasion by Martians, I am not sure what will make us whole again. Except wanting it.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.