An Etch A Sketch Life

Shake it Until You Make It

Sixty years ago, the Ohio Art Company introduced the Etch A Sketch. It was a toy invented in France by French engineer, Andre Cassagnes in the late 1950’s. It was first called, L’Ecran Magique, (The Magic Screen). In its first year 600,000 units were sold. The Etch A Sketch has since sold over 100 million units world wide.

There can’t be many Baby Boomers who don’t remember the Etch A Sketch. Millennials were introduced to it though scenes in Toy Story I and II, which gave the toy a new burst of interest by the toy buying public.

The Etch A Sketch is basically a plotter with two knobs. Turning one moves an internal stylus vertically and the other knob moves it horizontally. Turning both knobs simultaneously created diagonal lines. The stylus also did not allow the user to stop a line and pick up at another spot, thus everything was connect in an Etch A Sketch drawing.

A unique feature of the Etch A Sketch is that when you wanted to erase your creation, you gave it a good shake. This cleared the screen and it was ready for your next creation.

What if life was like an Etch A Sketch? What if you could give it a good shake and you could start over, but each time retain what you had previously learned about yourself and the world? What would you do differently? What choices would you make or not make? How would your life be different?

Memories of past traumas, hurts and disappointments can have a devastating effect on our lives. They can reverberate on and on into our adult lives long after the original events. They can cause us to make unhealthy choices, mistreat ourselves or others, limit our chances of personal or career fulfillment, inhibit our ability to fully enjoy life and cause a myriad of other life problems. Those memories continue to affect our lives as if they are still happening in our present life.

When I see clients who have experienced very difficult events in their lives, I will often tell them that we can’t change the past but we can change our relationship to it. I invite them to look at past events from the perspective of where they are now. You can change your perspective on your earlier life because you are not in the same vulnerable position you were at the time of the trauma. You do not have to continue to react to the world from the position of that earlier vulnerable being. You can see your past life from a new perspective where you are safe and stronger than when the original event or events occurred.

This re-visioning of one’s life can be very empowering to us. We can free ourselves from being at the mercy of our torments and tormentors. In some ways, it it is like viewing our lives on an Etch A Sketch screen. We can give our memories a good shaking and create a new picture of how we see ourselves. We can keep creating and erasing until we get the picture that matches how we want to see our lives.

What if we could do this as a nation? What if we could look at our history, knowing that we can’t change it but we can change how we see it? Currently, Americans are being challenged to look at our relationships to racial injustice, economic inequality, power, gender inequality, and sexual orientation. Our past has reared up before us as demonstrations and violence, along with a pandemic, rocked our cities. The narrative we have told ourselves about being an American has come into question. The traditional story line how America was founded and built is under the magnifying glass and the gaps are more visible.

We’ve always known that Columbus did not “discover” America but he has persisted as the progenitor of the New World. There are probably dozens of statues erected in his image across America and numerous cities named in his honor. What has also been known but not nearly as acknowledged as Columbus’s “discovery” is that the arrival of Europeans and others from the, “Old World” to the “New World” was the beginning of the end for the indigenous people’s of this “New World”.

The narrative we have preferred to pursue has been one of the creation of a, “Shinning New City on a Hill”, a beacon to all who sought a better life than the “Old World” offered. We have chosen to focus how we created a nation where anyone who worked hard could achieve financial success. We have told ourselves that everyone is free to pursue their dreams regardless of who they were or where they came from.

I think it would be wrong to say that America has failed in all aspects of this narrative. It has offered to countless millions a better life than the one they came from or escaped from. Where it failed, is that it hasn’t offered to all men and women equal opportunity. It has excluded many to the advantage of some. In the process, it has failed to acknowledge who was displaced, eliminated or exploited to create the new nation.

Just as I tell clients that they can’t change the past, I would say the same about America. We cannot change our past but we can change our perspective on it. The harm that was done to create the nation along with the beautiful ideal of democracy are all part of our past that cannot be denied. We cannot undo the racial injustice, the lynchings, the violence toward Native Americans, the Jim Crow laws, the Trail of Tears, the red-lining of neighborhoods to preserve segregation, the assassination of civil rights leaders and all the other injustices and violence perpetrated on segments of our population that benefited a power elite.

We can look at our history and own it, the remarkable and the horrible. We do not have to be in reaction to our past, flailing about trying to protect some antiquated and inaccurate vision to, “Make America Great Again”. The narrative we tell ourselves and our children needs some serious fact checking. America has done some remarkable things. It also has some serious flaws that, if not honestly acknowledged, will only lead to more cities burning and more citizens being denied their, “inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

To accomplish the formulation of a new and more accurate narrative of who we are as Americans, we have to, in my opinion, do two essential things. The first is to look inside ourselves and ask if we truly believe in democracy, equality and justice for all citizens. The second is to develop and select leaders who remind us of our higher values, who can challenge us to accept our differences and our common humanity. We need leaders who do not derive their strength from dividing us but who draw their legitimacy from uniting us.

The pause in normal life that the pandemic has caused, along with a renewed call for justice and equality, is an extraordinary time in our history. We have an opportunity as individuals and as a nation to rewrite our narrative that honestly acknowledges our failures and our highest qualities. We can start a new chapter in American life that we, our children and our children’s children, can be proud of. Let’s have an Etch A Sketch moment and shake it until we make it.

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