There are many different kinds of religion. There is the kind of religion you are forced to observe as a child and that makes you feel shame. There is the kind of religion that lights you up for God as an adult and makes you want to believe. There is the kind of religion — I am good or I am bad, I am this or I am that — like routine prayer inside your head. There is the kind of religion — Let Go and Let God — you adopt to try to ease I need this or I need that. There is the kind of religion that spreads across the cubicles, break rooms, and happy hours where you work, and there is the kind of religion you practice with your body on a mat, on a mountain, or in a pool. There is the kind of religion you openly reject as extreme or on the fringe, and then there is another kind of religion. It is the kind you don’t think of as religion at all, because it is all around you but not named.
Ten-year-old Wilson tilted away from me on the two back legs of his chair and balanced there with the ease of a water buoy. He was studying, as I’d begun to notice was routine before he ate after-school-snack, the haphazard collage of our photos I posted to the bulletin board on the adjacent wall. I leaned toward him from across our kitchen-cum-dining room table.
After a moment he plunked down on all four legs and stripped off his favorite white Stanford tee, then seemed to focus on the image I never switched out: a year-old picture taken during a launch celebration at my office. In it my husband, Noah, my younger son, Ben, and Wilson and I are shoveling huge chunks of what looks like bright pink wedding cake into our open smiling mouths; in the background, my co-founder, my employees, my family and friends — nearly everyone I love in my Silicon Valley circle — are grinning at us, blurrily displaying teeth tinged pink with sugar and wine.
“That was a good cake,” Wilson reminisced.
“It’s good I’m home now,” I said, mostly to myself, though I nodded at the premade burrito I’d managed to heat for him. He looked at me with his deep blue, diving pool eyes.
“I kind of wish you had a job still,” he said.
“Why…” My stomach sunk and my voice caught, “…do you say that?”
Wilson looked down, poked the burrito, and then his neck lengthened somehow. We had surprised one another, but he was an honest boy. He gazed up at me. “Because then our whole family would be successful.”
“What,” I said, and I wanted to add, the hell did you just say? But I dutifully refrained.
Wilson was assessing my reaction, watching my shoulders, which had begun to droop. “Mom,” he said. “It’s not bad.” His regret was elephantine; I knew I should rescue him. He was ten, and a patch on his smooth white neck was beginning to flush cardinal. His collarbone seemed to curl around his sternum and cave his chest inward, as if in an attempt to protect his whole heart, and he glanced across the floor at his shirt, as if he just wanted to put it back on. But I was angry. Not at him, but at everyone.
“I mean your company was cool,” Wilson said. “I liked it. And Dad’s is cool too.”
“I know,” I agreed. “But I like this, too.” And I did like being with him. But I hadn’t known it would feel so much like shame.
In the past 20 years, I’d studied engineering, traveled the world training men on Internet routing technology, and co-founded three companies. In the past 30 days, I’d been ousted from my own company, and learned that inhaling hot bacon and salty lard runoff as the sun rises on a well-deserved weekend morning is comforting and heady, but smelling residual animal fat coagulate like candle wax in the dirty glass jar by the microwave as the lunch hour approaches during what used to be a work day with nothing to do and no decisions to make is, for me, oppressive and dire.
This was not real oppression, and to use the word “dire” is too bleak. I had ample choice in the matter; I could afford to stay home. I also could have gone right back to my striving. And yet, I vaguely knew getting another tech job would just make things worse. I wasn’t yet sure why.
Wilson nodded. “Sorry,” he said. “Why’d I say that?” He duck-dived beneath the wave of tension I hated myself for having formed, and brought his face down to the burrito instead of lifting it up to his mouth. He took a bite, and I stifled a sob.
The sign on the wall behind Wilson’s head said, “Work Hard and Be Nice” in big white letters on dark gray wood. This passed for art in our house, and for religion. I had chosen it on a lunch break years ago and hung it in my home’s most visible spot like a cross.
I knew that we need to hold these values in at least equal measure; that success in life is about personal striving, but it is also more importantly about being kind. As an entrepreneur I was known mostly for my hard work: a limited virtue. Once home, I worried that I would be known only for being nice, although I so often felt pissed off at myself and unlikable.
“It’s okay buddy,” I said, thinking I’m sorry, Wilson. I could see that he knew I was lying and he didn’t like it. I wanted to tell him it was not a lie but a half-truth. What he had said was okay. But increasingly, I was not. Because although I so badly wanted to feel good enough, my gut said he was right. I was newly forty, and a failed entrepreneur. Without a title or a paying job, I felt as if aside from my life with my family, I did nothing. I produced nothing. I only consumed. This made me feel both worthless, and extravagantly self-centered. I was not enough for Silicon Valley, and motherhood was not enough for me.
Here is what I imagined Wilson innocently asked of me: Why don’t you have a job like Dad? I thought you were good at it. I thought you loved running a company. So tell me, Mom, if you’re not working and happy now, then what was it all for? What are you now?
“Come on,” I said, “eat.” Wilson had soccer practice in an hour and I needed him to feel strong.
I wondered how long that sign would haunt me. There was no fucking chance I was taking it down.
It’s possible that when Wilson said he wished our whole family were successful, he simply meant he wished our whole family were accomplished. But later, I began to wonder if it was something more generous, and also more alarming. I began to think he could see that I wasn’t feeling good, and he didn’t like it. But instead of saying he wished our whole family were happy, he said “successful.” Maybe he chose “successful” because achievement was what he identified with most as making me happy. Maybe the kind of extreme striving for success we worship in Silicon Valley today was already the main thing he’d attached to what would make him happy, and define him as good enough.
That is what scared me.
I asked my children to work hard and be nice, an ethos in which I think I will always believe. But in the context of my culture, what did that sign really mean?
The American mythology is: work hard and follow the rules and you can achieve “the good life” dream. But while we often equate this ethic with the optimistic sounding platitude “Work Hard and Be Nice,” and a moderate life, it’s worth examining where this ethic actually came from, and the fact that it often isn’t associated with doing particularly good work, or with being kind.
Manifest destiny legitimized the idea that God had ordained the white protestant male as worthy and good with a boundless right to pillage and conquer. “Our national faith so far has been: There’s always more,” the American cultural critic Wendell Berry writes. “Our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism.” This limitlessness inspired a long tradition of dichotomous either-or thinking and the construct of the original good/bad binary of white and black race. If you happen to be white and able to amass increasing land, power or wealth, you’re good. If you’re not, then you’re told you’re bad. But truly being kind — to ourselves, to our children, to others — requires being open to the fluidity between good and bad; it requires real compassion, and more than a single definition of what success, and “enough” means. The high moral code of Manifest Destiny was and is instead less generous, more circular: keep the momentum of white protestant imperialism going. And be polite.
White politeness is rooted in the fact that white people in the US have the most power and control within our systems and dominant white culture. It refers to the fact that the construct of whiteness demands we all follow the value of being “nice,” to appear peaceful and comfortable, under the guise that it is “uncomfortable” and thus inappropriate or impolite to discuss race and racism. This policing of politeness perpetuates white dominance and prevents us from having the conversations necessary to dismantle the systems that oppress people of color and harm us all. It also perpetuates white striving, insecurity, and shame.
Female politeness is rooted in the fact that white men have the most power and control within our systems and dominant white culture, and also that men often have the ability to overpower our bodies. When we are cat called or complimented on a fine ass or pretty face, we know that if we smile and say “thank you” rather than defend ourselves with our words or silence, we are often more physically safe, or safer at work, or at least less likely to be called an ungrateful bitch.
When looked at through this lens, what effect might it have on my privileged white sons to stare daily at a sign that demands that they “work hard and be nice?” What effect had it had on me?
Where do religion and culture intersect? Religion is a set of rules and expectations one must meet and promised rewards if one believes. A cult takes these expectations to the extreme.
The word cult has most often been associated with extreme religions and, at least to me, it signaled great danger. Cults were mentally-ill zealots like David Koresh and the highly publicized and controversial Branch Davidian government raid in Waco, Texas, which is said to have sparked the Oklahoma City bombing two years later, and Jim Jones and the mass 900 person Flavor Aid (Kool-Aid was too pricey) suicide, and Scientology, a religion started by a science fiction writer based on ranking systems, size of monetary donations and a code of silence reinforced by threats of legal retribution. Cults were Charles Manson, who ordered his followers to kill and preached of Helter Skelter, when black people would rise up in the finale of race wars and kill all the whites except Manson’s (all white) followers, who would be safe underground and then emerge to rule over the blacks, incapable of ruling the world because of their inferior race.
I thought of people who were in cults as the opposite of the American ideal. I thought of them as brainwashed and insane. They were inextricably attached to something that, at least in the most well-known cases, harmed them or others.
But no one in a cult ever thinks of themselves as in a cult, and I wonder if any of these beliefs are more “insane” than the Christian idea of Heaven and Hell or our constructed and culturally reinforced good/bad binaries of gender, sexuality, class, or race. The origins of the word “cult,” and even the most prominent definitions of it, don’t specify that participants live outside of conventional society, or under the direction of a single charismatic leader, or a religious one at that. And today, we hear “cult” most often in reference to allegiance and behavior in service to a specific company, self-improvement technique, or other such neoliberal capitalist ideal that makes us feel as if we are good enough, or belong. Cult: An instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers.
What ideologies do we venerate in America, perhaps especially in Silicon Valley? Whom do we admire?
I always presume it’s hard for people who have not lived in Silicon Valley to understand how radically independence and achievement factor into our local culture and identity, or how steadily the dead-alive two-step of conformity (despite our pioneer and rock star myths) and aphonic need beats.
Silicon Valley is an extreme example, but it supplies my unique flavor of the American illness Wendell Berry calls our “disease of limitlessness.” The New York Times calls America a “Binge Nation,” and Silicon Valley psychologist and author Stephanie Brown, PhD says we have become a culture addicted to conquest, achievement and speed. We want all or nothing, and our religion, image of beauty, idea of race and privilege, and political views are either utopian or apocalyptic. We save the world with medical innovation, at least for the privileged few, watch X Games, champion eight-year-old super-chefs, and forge technical frontiers to the moon. We also shoot and lock one another up in masses, nominate Donald Trump and pass around Nudz. We sprint and strive and binge and purge and try our best to beat the sun.
I don’t mean to suggest that any human’s striving to reach their full potential or pursue their passion is bad. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with success or hard work. But what if, even in this land of ubiquitous connectivity and achievement, we could stop racing once in a while, not to deride all progress or drive, but just long enough to question what we’ve gone and done by making the quest for superiority and “perfection” our national religion, our God. Just long enough to question what happens — to our hearts, to our culture, and to our children — when we believe we need to numb out the nuances and complexities of “imperfection” otherwise known as all that does not fit within the white patriarchy’s heteronormative construct of “nice.”
It’s still possible that when Wilson said he wished our whole family were successful, he meant he was already worried he needed to be, too. But a few years later, I began to wonder if it was something even simpler, and more hopeful. Maybe his words weren’t loaded at all, and in saying the first thing that came to his mind he was just being open: his most vulnerable and authentic. Maybe the anger I felt pointed to my own hurt ego and fear — of failure, and of other fears that ran much deeper and held the construct of my identity in place.
I started to ask myself: Who would I be if I didn’t believe my achievements proved my worth?
“This is the mythography of America, progressive, where you have this idea that everything moves upward, and people are always on the journey to improvement,” the since “fallen” Junot Diaz once said. “The transcendence myth will just do you in, in the long run.”
I have witnessed this undoing. My dear friend in an ambulance after her suicide attempt. My husband curled in a fetal position, paralyzed by fear of failure at Amazon.com, on the couch. Clusters of children and adults dead on the Palo Alto and Mountain View train tracks where suicide guards now stand round the clock watch. Friends lost to addictions to drugs, technology, and sex. Countless other children and adults I love hospitalized and medicated out. And me. I came undone.
What if, I even wondered for a time, I wasn’t good enough for motherhood either? As a white mother, especially a white economically privileged mother in a place like Silicon Valley, the message I consume, whether I want to or not, is that I am both superior to others and not enough as myself. But how often do white folks like me recognize the enormity of our schizophrenia? If we don’t see what’s wrong how can we make change?
When Berry writes “there’s always more,” he means there’s always been access to more for “nice,” hard working, heteronormative white people like me, or, especially like my sons. Of the fifty richest people on earth today, twenty-nine are American. Of those twenty-nine, all are white, and all but two are men. In the US, over the last thirty years, the growth in the incomes of the bottom 50 percent has been zero, whereas incomes of the top 1 percent have grown by 300 percent.
When Berry writes “our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism,” he also means that for hundreds of years, and for generation upon generation, white America has been duped into trading our humanity for privilege. This is our “disease of limitlessness” — the disease at the heart of American culture today.
We want success, of course we do. We want success, power, money, fame — we want it all! — or we think we do, but the true heart’s desire is connection and love.
I don’t just mean romantic connection or filial love, which is where we often get stuck. I mean the liberatory self-love necessary to discover and be the self we each desire, which is where we must start. I also mean collective action.
It took me three years, but I took down the sign. I saw that I had a different, much harder kind of work to do if I wanted to stop perpetuating schizophrenia and passing shame down the line. To begin with, I had to sit and talk with my sons often, and I had to tell the whole truth.
I know that the dangers of excess are real and present for my family and me. But it is rarely only ourselves we do in when we live in the extreme. This is especially true on the privileged side. With privilege comes the ability to set expectations and culture, and increased power to affect change. So whom else do we mother, or parent or care for by extension, when we mother our daughters and sons? For whom else are we setting expectations? Who are we setting up to fail, and whom are we failing? How was my white heteronormative narrative of good motherhood dangerous and flawed?
I don’t mean to suggest that other cultures are dependent on privileged white strivers to thrive or to lead full, successful lives, or even to make change. But what happens when those of us with systemic and economic power continue to push a single unreasonable definition of success and raise the bar for our own children and for ourselves, and to strive — even to cheat — to make this fantasy real? We do harm to our own children, and to others.
There is no shame in our socialization. We didn’t ask for it. But there is guilt in denial and inaction. It isn’t our fault, but it’s our responsibility. How can our mothering be at once more revolutionary and less extreme?
How do you leave a cult? Is it possible to live in one and still raise children to question and even change it?
I want this to be true. I want my sons to keep talking to me. What I want most, what I mean to say is this: I want my fucking humanity back. I want this so much that sometimes, I even pray.