Misfit Redemption: Escape from the Cruelty of White Liberal Innocence

“She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

– Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man Is Hard To Find

…the Radical approach…defines a sphere which is outside the reach of scientific investigation, and whose value judgments cannot be proved… this is the traditional sphere of art and morality….any movement like socialism which aspires toward an ethically superior kind of society is rooted in that sphere…of human, personal interests, in this sense[the human being is the root.]

– Dwight MacDonald, The Root Is Man (sic)

77 days into the NYS Pandemic Pause that included Upstate NY where we live, I’m beginning to suspect once the crisis has passed I’ll be genuinely, even tearfully grateful for the social layer of life of which I’m so deprived. In fact – only a slight exaggeration! – I fear I’m losing my ability to remember the reality of other people! This indicates to me that I need other people in ways I have never imagined, that I cannot be fully me without these people-to-people interactions. So out of this terrible deprivation, perhaps I will gain the sense of profound gratitude I want so to feel. That is, like many people, I express thanks frequently – in pre-pandemic days, frequently, in all kids of instances. But that other social gratitude – like the Haudenausanee practice of opening ceremonies and tribal gatherings with very long, very inclusive thanksgiving – that places one’s immediate group inside of a larger, interdependent and eternal reality – mostly eludes me.

Those who are looking at the truth of approaching collapse – politically, economically, environmentally – who are aware of the rising fascism of late capitalism, Trump’s crowds demanding re-opening in the pandemic, horrific racist police killings, might say, are you kidding? What’s to be grateful for? Though I joke about being a “glass-half-empty” kinda person, in order to be clear I’m not condemning myself for it, I’m still convinced that this incapacity for gratitude is not just a personal problem. In the George Floyd riots we good white people are being told, “To be white and silent is to be compliant.” Surely this blunt truth-speaking reveals to us our invisible liberal bubble, the inadequacy of our making one more attempt to elect lesser evils, or even to “put black faces out there” (Cornel West). If we are to “paradigm-shift” ourselves out of the culture of banality and obedience that is keeping this cruel and doomed neoliberal nightmare afloat we desperately need the imaginative capacity that, through gratitude, links metaphorically this world with the spiritual reality of “Truth, Beauty, Oneness.”

Lately, amid the disturbing silence of the pandemic, I’ve had (speaking modestly) a breakthrough in my personal problem with gratitude. Not quite at the level of gratitude, it’s coming to me that I’m lucky. Though this is a personal story, I believe it addresses the fact that only by means of imagination reawakened to that larger inclusive, interdependent context will we turn around, if not the global capitalist economy directly, then our own individual capacities to continue serving it, and follow “what ought to be” instead (Dwight MacDonald).

We might think of luck as gratitude’s seedier sister. In liberal society her associations are unsavory: the tackiness of gambling, lotto tickets, self-interested social climbing and escaping a hangover after excessive drinking. New Agers, whose commitment to spiritual transformation I share, disparage the term for different reasons. I gather that thinking in terms of luck negates one’s own intrinsic goodness and deservingness of the abundance offered freely by the Universe. Though I, too, thirst for the well of spiritual wisdom, oftentimes translation of that wisdom into the bourgeois neoliberal idiom turns it into another form of obedience to the ongoing destructive capitalist order. In the white bourgeois world, where everyone’s born – or elects to have been born – at least on second base, ( a stroke of luck that must ever be denied), the downgrading of luck fits easily into the social convention (in many ways a fantasy) of upward mobility. In this context, where actual luck is denied, deservingness of life’s goods functions eerily like the puritanical sense of being among the predestined chosen.

But, importantly, luck means something different. It’s truly understood only by those on the bottom who lack bourgeois benefits and rewards, where being saved, miraculously, from the unremitting harshness and undeserved cruelty of life has meaning. It’s buona fortuna. Those who disparage the role of luck miss this point. The prizing of luck comes from the perception life is skewed unfairly, a perception not easily shared by those to whom life has been more than fair; or for whatever reason, who prefer the more complacent, bourgeois view.

Many people are familiar with Flannery O’Connor’s much-anthologized short story A Good Man Is Hard To Find, in which the Grandmother and her unlikeable family, worried by newspaper reports of a killer on the loose as they journey to their vacation destination, end up meeting up with him and being exterminated. Who can forget the sociopathic Misfit’s own proclamation of life’s unfairness: “I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment”? The Misfit and the Grandmother form the moral “bookends” of the unredeemed world; he the bad guy who’s confounded by the indifferent harshness and cruelty of life; she the “good” woman blind to the harshness and to her own lack of a loving heart.

In the modern (neo)liberal reality, in which our lives are existentially separate and isolated, if a child, say, experiences unfairness, or exclusion that does not fit into recognized social categories, it is experienced only privately; as a “protest” against a wrongdoing that cannot be confirmed, it must be repressed. Invisible to others, the injury never socially confirmed or legitimized, it will be a personal pathology and not a social problem. In America today, where the serious collective dream of a society in which all are included has disappeared, there is little-to-no hope that one who has such a sense of being “mis-fit” can be socially redeemed. Under these circumstances, redemption becomes an individual undertaking. This is not necessarily a bad thing; you could be lucky! That is, you might find the personal pain of being excluded or mis-recognized leads to a vision of that truer, longed-for world, where one will no longer be outcast but fully and meaningfully fitting. Though it is a very long shot indeed, this redemptive path of the artist and of the lucky may be the way by which white liberal society can be re-humanized, no longer tolerant of its own cruelties.

Up to its mid-point my life in liberal society followed the trajectory of an unconscious (non-criminal) misfit, perfectly suited for membership in the obedient, conforming, passive and existentially isolated, apolitical amorality that is the white bourgeois world of liberal goodness. That world requires for its continuation a cadre of the unredeemed and misfitting like me. Because we were born on second or third base, we can conceive no other choice but to conform to, rather than critique, the one reality with its determined march forward to salvation by progress. (Additionally, we’re naturally attracted to the desirable attainments of the bourgeois techno-wonderful life ways, which can mute the pain of misfitting).

For most of my life, had I been able to articulate my existential dilemma (which I wasn’t), I’d have puzzled like the Misfit as to what I’d done to feel so perpetually askew – the ineluctable, inarticulable “fault,” the original sin that I can’t recall committing, somehow mine. However, being a well-brought up middle-class misfit, solidly socialized to the virtues and values of that class even though my family was on its lower end, sociopathy was not in the cards for me. I desired single-mindedly to belong in the world I found myself in, the one that blossomed in supermarket abundance, television’s entrancements, glamorous movie stars, AM radio’s top 40, the ethereal Kennedy’s. Even though as a child I was a prodigious and even precocious reader, great books weren’t sufficient broadening to help me resist being spoiled into expecting a pre-paved path to the good white liberal’s life.

Neither did the social winds of the 60’s dislodge me from my quest to be “the same.” I identified more with the hippie “drop outs ” than the “get ahead” crowd, but was a misfit even among hippies! Feminism, when it found me in college in the early 1970’s, brought me a little closer to a personal identity by suggesting a meaningful role for me in the progressive unfolding of history. However, the “golden thread” of my own individual identity, of which I was still ignorant, continued to elude me; even among the sisters, I was a misfit. Ditto for the last-ditch effort to jump on a professional identity at 25 (like in the nerve-wracking game of musical chairs – the clock was ticking!), that of the liberal clergy.

Existentially separate as people are in uniform liberal society, how are we to know if others are not, at some unseen level, also unwitting misfits? Like me, perhaps others are ever-striving to fit, at whatever the cost to that precious thing we know of as “individuality!” But there is hope for us! Not, of course, in achievement of belonging in bourgeois reality – which, no matter how powerful its attractions, presupposes never having attained that truer and truly subversive thing – one’s individuality premised in the individual soul. On the contrary, hope, for a misfit, is precisely in misfitting. It has taken me most of a lifetime to realize my extravagant luck in never having fit!

I have been granted an escape from the trap of liberal goodness, and from its loathing for all otherness (those that mis-fit), epitomized in the otherness of race. To the rigidly rationalistic mind, the other implies what is hidden and unknowable; this cannot be good. The disturbance otherness makes implies the dark truth that is anathema to bourgeois complacency: i.e., the harsh revelation of human life as a no-win catastrophe. With no access to the imaginative, metaphorical powers of the soul, white liberal reality offers no way to respond to such intolerable truth and at the same time retain one’s humanity. The rationalist liberal world can only be dismayed or stunned at such a Misfit revelation; unprepared for the reality of intrinsic unfairness, it cannot respond and so must tolerate it.

By luck, I was graced with crisis (recall the misfit’s gun to the Grandmother’s head!), that forced the freeing of my imagination, allowing me to regress from the second or third base to which I was entitled by birth, back to face risky reality in the “batter’s box!” I have had to think, risk, imagine, dream, outside of closed neoliberal conformity – supreme luck indeed! Now that I am conscious of my luck, I can look back over the “long body” of my life and see all those events and choices, so weighed down in ambivalence and self-blame, behind/beneath which existed that inner “archetypal pattern” which grants the authority to be positively a misfit – i.e. redemption as oneself.

Importantly, redemptive misfit luck cannot be separated from the individual who has it, in light of her having been saved personally from the deep misery of misfitting. That is, for “misfit redemption” there’s no one-size-fits-all. O’Connor’s Misfit claims he could have been saved if he knew Jesus was the Messiah and thereby fit himself into the “one size” of Christian redemption. But we misfits have to find the size that fits. For us, there’ll be no ads on our screens showing us the way to find our “fitting,” no billboards enjoining the misfit to enlist in the vision quest of one. Most misfits will remain in the inner condition of unredeemed misery, because they can. Some will be sociopaths, some will be Trump-followers, some will be good liberals and even exemplars of goodness.

My imaginative soul was restored to me by the mental illness that was like a gun put to my head 25 years ago, and by my great good luck in finding healers in provincial upstate NY whose treatment lovingly emphasized healing over medication. Their tricksterish willingness to “play” the insurance company for over 7 years so their services could be paid for, the fact my husband and I – despite our lack of zeal for the salaried professional life – happened to be covered at that time – for all of this luck I can unhesitatingly – despite that gratitude defect of mine – be deeply, everlastingly grateful. In my daily writing practice, I give thanks, misfit-redemption style, in creative expression.

Because misfit redemption is a process rather than terminable achievement, it is, like misfitting itself, invisible in liberal society. Consequently, misfit redemption is “nothing” when measured by standards of achievement in professional careers, or the success of fame, celebrity, fortune. Most people wearing liberal blinders will not understand this kind of subtle misfit luck, invisible and marginalized – the luck of having found one’s “fit,” not within the unconscious cruelty of white liberal goodness, but in the “not-yet” world informed by the soul’s unerring and unwavering vision of unity and interdependence. I’m lucky to be among those who see, misfit-style, the harshness of white liberal innocence, and even amid the deprivations of pandemic, to be free to choose the not-yet world that has enough love to include me – all the others – in it.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: kodomenico@verizon.net.