I owe Carol a huge thank you for introducing me to Courtney as we had a really lovely time together. It will likely not be our only visit and I am already looking forward to the next. We chatted in her kitchen for a short time, surrounded by her daughters and their neighbor friends and the productive sound of renovation work coming from the other side of the house. We eventually made our way into Courtney's work space and dove into some very great conversation. After over an hour of chatting, I had to insist on firing up the recorder - and the beautiful interview below is the result. Courtney's perspective is so refreshing and provides us all with an example of the grace and compassion we should be striving to interact with. There are nuggets upon nuggets of wisdom below, so I hope you enjoy. Interested in hearing more from Courtney? She is actively working on a new project.
Who are you and how would you describe yourself?
My name is Courtney Christenson and I am a writer and activist - I think I would call myself, actually. How would I describe myself? I would actually probably fall back on the way other people describe me, which is probably passionate and driven. I believe very deeply in things. And I believe very deeply that we can make a difference in issues that matter to us. So, I've dedicated my life to helping people make a difference in the things that they care about and discover what those things are in the first place.
What matters to you?
That's a good question. I think what matters most to me is that people are living in such a way - and that I, myself, am living in such a way - that we have a positive impact on the people around us and the planet. I just think it's easy to go through life and accidentally have negative impact on every one and every thing. Because I think the way that our world is set up right now... if passivity leads to negative outcomes - in American culture in particular - even if you just go with the flow, you're still gonna have a really negative impact, unintentionally, on people in the world and on the planet itself. So, I think the thing that matters to me most is that we think a little bit more about that and we are more intentional about the impact that we're having. Both on the small scale - on the every day impact that we have on our family, on our children, on the people that we interact with from the barista at the coffee shop to the people that we see in the grocery store - to a much bigger impact of how we buy and how we live and how we dispose of our waste and all of these things and the much greater impact that that has on the world around us. So, I think what matters most is being intentional about the impact that we have.
Where does that care come from?
I think it comes from two things. I think the first is kind of innate to who I am. I think that there is... I'm driven to do something bigger than myself. And I'm not entirely sure where exactly that comes from, but it's just who I am. I think that the second piece of that is I spent a lot of years trying to ignore the fact that I care about these things and it led me to a place that was really dark. I tried to live the way I was supposed to live for eight years. And - I have two little kids - and I tried to do all the things that I was supposed to do and, at the end of the day, it felt so meaningless in so many ways and I didn't understand why I was waking up every day to do these things. I was like, What does it matter? In 20 years... if I've done this for the next 20 years, what do I have to show for it? I have my kids, but they're not gonna be that awesome (laughs) because it's just like so very baseline. It's just keeping them alive and it's making sure they have the right clothes and it's making sure they have the right opportunities and it's not actually creating people that I will want to be around. So, I think trying to ignore that sense of purpose and that sense of these are just the things I'm passionate about - things I'm interested in - and I tried to ignore it for a long time and fell apart. And I think we all have those things. And I think they're different for everyone - what it is that we can't not do. But I think we've all got something that we can't not do. And I think those are the things that if we pursue them, we'll not only be happier and more fulfilled, but we'll also make an actual difference in the world. Rather than trying to shove those things down - whatever it is that gives us a sense of purpose or, I don't know, a sense of whatever we feel called to, for lack of a better word. So, I don't know if that's a good answer, but that's my answer.
Why is there reward for the way your "supposed" to live versus living in a more intuitive or productive or passionate way? Do you have a theory?
Yeah. The system as it is (laughs) has no value for people. Because of the way the system is set up, people are assigned value according to their economic value. And so, our humanity actually has no value in the current system unless you have dollars to back it up. And so, because of that, our system needs (laughs) you for your money. And so, it dehumanizes you. And it strips you away of all your meaning and your purpose beyond your economic contribution. And not only does that create an emptiness inside of us because we know that we're more than our money - we feel that - but there is nothing in the world that actually assigns value to us beyond our money or beyond a commodified use. Whether it's likes on social media or something like that, but that's also just monetized, right? They need your likes in order to get more money. And when you boil people down to their economic contribution it's gross on a lot of levels and it also just feels terrible. And so, we try to mask that by fixing it, by getting more things that feel valuable or make us feel valuable, but that just requires more money. And so, we're contributing more into this system that continues to devalue us trying to find more value, but we're just further devalued. So, it's this really awful system that's a lose-lose for us and a win-win for sort of the economic machine - large corporations and things like that - the very few that benefit from it. But really it just strips us away of everything that makes us human. It strips us away of everything that really makes us feel valuable and feel meaningful. The only way, then, to recapture - to take back - that value is to find it elsewhere. And I think that value lives inside of us and the thing that gives us purpose - we all have that thing - and so, if we can find it and pour our resources into developing that thing - whatever it happens to be that we are passionate about - that's when we start to feel re-humanized. And it's when we start to see the humanity of others, too, is when they're doing their thing. Those are the people that we admire - the people who are full of value outside of their economics. So, by investing more into those things it gives more value back. It's a win-win. And it not only changes us, but it changes the world around us and the people around us.
What do we mean to each other, individual to individual?
Hmmm. That has a lot of depth. I know what we could mean to each other and what I think we ought to mean to each other. I think humans and our fellow people are the fullest expression - when they're healthy people... even when they're not healthy, maybe - of beauty, maybe, of meaning. Is what we could be to one another. I don't think that's what we are to one another at this point. Again, there's very little economic value to relationship. And I think that's why we tend to devalue it as a culture. But there's so much meaning and purpose and transformation. You get to know yourself by knowing others and there's a lot of value in that. There's a lot of meaning in that. And by experiencing someone else, you get to experience more fully the world because we are all a reflection of our story, of our past, of our experiences. And those things shape us and so they're transformative. We are transformative, valuable, value-adding things - I think people are what make life meaningful, purposeful, and valuable.
What does community mean to you?
I think community is finding other people who value you for who you are and finding other people who you value for who they are. And I think it's recognizing the best in each other and culling that further out and challenging the parts that are less valuable, less meaningful, maybe less true. And so, a community is a group of people who build up what needs building up in the really beautiful parts of who you are and they help you heal from the parts that are broken and they help you move past the parts that aren't helpful. And they, thus, make you a more beautiful person and you make them more beautiful and that's how the world changes.
What concerns you?
I think the emptiness of people and the way that that's exploited and becoming worse is the most concerning thing to me. It's like a kind of poverty. I think in America - and I can really only speak to American culture because it's my culture - there is a poverty of soul that is deeply concerning to me. A poverty of personhood that isolates us into me and mine and me first and isolates us from true community, which is what we're talking about, right? And becoming more and more isolated and then finding your value in things - in consumeristic pursuits - it just makes us emptier and emptier and emptier. And when we're empty, we don't have resources; we can't possibly invest in those around us. We can't possibly pour anything out into anyone else because we are so devalued by everything around us. We're devalued by people around us and then we're devalued by ourself and it creates this poverty - of mindset, of culture, of soul, of experience, a poverty of community, of belonging. It's all the things that matter; it's all the things that lead to change; it's all the things that give us purpose, so then there's also a poverty of purpose. And the emptiness spirals. So, I think that's, to me, the most concerning thing and it's the thing that has to change if we want a more equitable world.
We're becoming more and more reminded of the different social injustices. Why do you think social justice has to be a thing to work towards? Why aren't we living in it?
You know, I think there's several ways to answer this question. Part of the issue, honestly, is human nature. For our own survival, right, we are tribal beings. And part of being a tribe is knowing who's in and who's out because you need to know who to fight with and who to fight against. And so, our basic understanding of who's in and who's out requires humanizing some people and dehumanizing other people. And this is just basic human psychology - we need to know who's in and we need to know who's out. And that's created a hierarchy over time. Right? Of who has power. And it's much more comfortable to say you're out and you're in than to say everyone's in - we're in it together. And we have the technology now to be that way - to say we're in this together - but we're fighting against human psychology and we're fighting against power. We're fighting against the fact that there is an unequal distribution of power and in order to create a just society, the people with power are gonna have to give some of that up or we're gonna have to take it from them (laughs) and neither of those are pleasant. Because once you have power, equality can feel like oppression. Right? So, we're not there because power has been taken. And power has been taken, I think originally, because it was just part of life and then we have created ways to justify that unequal distribution of power over the centuries. And it's often done with religion; it's often done with race; it's often done with gender. It's easier and safer to - and it's more natural, maybe - to fight for your own well-being and to maintain your own well-being because worrying about someone else's well-being is expensive; it's costly in all the ways that matter to us. It costs time; it costs resources; it costs energy; it costs money. To worry about someone else's well-being, it's just easier to maintain the power and our own well-being. And the only way that you're gonna be willing to expend those resources on other people is if you are filled up yourself with value for yourself and value for them. But with the poverty of soul that we have here, there is no resources left to say, You are just as important as I am. We're empty of those values; we're empty of that purpose. And so our purpose becomes get more and perpetuate my own well-being; get more power and get more money. And it's the individualistic nature of our society. The power structures of our society not only allows that, but actually validates it; justifies it. We're even in a place - and I think maybe this is changing - where it's not only what is done to maintain power, but for a lot of people, it feels right. And to not uphold those power structures feels wrong. And that's how twisted things have become. That's where the poverty has really done a number on us. And that's where the tribal mentality also maintains that - of, It would be wrong to betray my tribe to help them. It's only when you expand those borders and say, There is no us and them; there's only we. And my well-being is wrapped up in your well-being. And I can't be well while I'm harming you. And you can't be well while I'm harming you. And so, the only way to stop is for me to give up. And, again, that's expensive and we don't have the resources - mentally, emotionally, spiritually maybe - to be willing. And even we ought to be eager to make a world that's more just, but it feels like oppression to the people in power.
Instead of removing power, is it possible to just redefine it? And I'm also wondering if there's much difference between Us vs. Them and Me vs. We and if the Me people are going to be upset with the We people coming together.
You know what's interesting? I actually think that even the Me people - they have a tribe; they're not alone. No one's actually alone. So, I had an interesting experience... it must have been in April. I went to a NRA event here in town. There was an NRA foundation gala. And some people were protesting it. And I decided to engage with it differently. This was my third attempt to engage in a protest in a different way. Because I just don't feel like it's very productive, often times. I have no problem with protesting or demonstrations, but I think there surely has to be a more sort of constructive way to go about opposing things. So, I went to try to talk to people - to engage the people at this event 'cause I wanted to understand them. I was like, My perception of them is one thing, but if that's actually the truth, I don't know why they'd be here. So, I think I'm misunderstanding them. And I think they think that I'm against them. So, let's go have a conversation - see if we can find common ground. Because everything in culture is telling me that I can't find common ground with these people and I take that as a challenge. (Laughs) If someone tells me something's impossible, I'm like, Oh, watch me! So, I showed up at this event with a table with a sign that was like, Here to listen. Come talk to me. Tell me why you're here. And it took a little while. The protestors were really upset that I was there and made me move away from them. Which was kind of sad; that kind of bummed me out. But they were like, Well, if you're not with us, then you're against us. And I was like, But what if we're all together? And they weren't having that. So, I talked to three people - men, all of them - that were at this event. And it was really interesting; they all thought that we were enemies. They thought I hated them; which I do not. I don't even know them. And the first guy that walked up, he came up super angry. I'm big into non-violence and non-violent communication. So, he came up yelling at me and I was like, Hey, I'm just here to listen. And he was like, What? No, why are you here?! And I was like, No, I just want to understand. I'm just here to listen and understand. And he goes, You're shitting me. And I was like, Nope. And he goes, No one does that. And I was like, I know! But I do. Will you help me understand where you're coming from? And his whole demeanor changed. Whole thing. His name was Johnny. He was a rancher. And he felt like the NRA was the only one that had his back. And he's, you know, the America first type of guy. And I think a lot of us see people who say things like that and he, you know, for all intents and purposes, has a lot of power - socially, economically - and you would perceive him as someone who's maybe trying to maintain power structures and maybe as a me first kind of guy. But he has a we. Right? He is just trying to find his people. And so am I. And, actually, we had a lot in common. And when we got down to it, we agreed on more than we disagreed. And that shocked him. It shocked me, quite frankly. But, at the end of it, he could not walk away and say, All people on the left are evil. They hate us. He can't say that 'cause he met me. And I didn't hate him. And I'm not evil, by most accounts. There isn't an Us and there isn't a Them. It feels like it, but that's not reality. It's just... you have to wake up and see that reality because that's not how it feels most days. And I think the only way to do that is in person. It's to re-humanize the other through conversation by shaking hands, by telling him about my kids and him telling me about his grandkids. 'Cause that's why he was doing that. He was like, I'm afraid my land's gonna get taken away because, in this country, if you don't have guns, you can't protect your lands. Look at what happened to the Indians. Which is an odd argument and I never would have expected it from him, but he was concerned about that. And you know, it was one of things where it was like, Well, we both want a country where that can't happen. How can we make that happen? By shifting, you kind of re-spin the social set-up. And it's so disorienting that you have to find a new place to land. And I think that's really important - to disorient people. Because we all live in our bubbles where everything makes sense. And it's Us vs. Them and they're the problem and we're the answer. It's just not true.
What do you want more of in your life?
I want... hmmm... what do I want more of in my life? I want to spend more time on people and things that matter and less time and energy and money on things that don't. And I want to surround myself with other people who want that same thing.
Do you have anything else you'd like to put out there?
I think the only thing that I would say is that the only place to start change when you feel overwhelmed or when you don't know where to start is with what's right in front of you. Whatever skills and gifts you have, whatever resources you have in front of you. If it's a camera - for me, it was a camera and it was a keyboard - whether it's connections, whether it's dance, whether it's art, whether it's construction, I don't care. Start with what you're good at or what you care about and just go deeper into it. Take a step towards it and then take another step towards it. Away from what you don't care about and toward what you do. 'Cause I think that's where change lives.
I'm tempted to try an experiment. Would you like to ask me a question that I'll answer in writing after the interview?
Sure. Okay. Let's try it. In a perfect world, what change would happen because of your work?
Hey, Courtney. Thanks for your question.
In a perfect world, I might not be all that necessary, as this project might come across as mundane and completely unnecessary. But, in this world, ideally, I would like for people to begin to get out of this what I get out of it. These interviews remind me of the things that the greater WE have in common. They are reminding me of what we share. And they are shining a light onto my own shortcomings and highlighting the areas of my life that I need to work on. These lessons present themselves to me in business dealings, in traffic, in line at the grocery store, while I'm waiting for someone else to pump my gas (something I am still very confused by here in Oregon), and in myriad other ways. There is room for improvement in my compassion, my empathy, my patience, etc. I hope that as more and more people encounter this project they will begin to find their own connections in their daily lives; that each of us will become less another thing that happens to us and more an experience and a potential friend and something to be cherished. There are too many days for me to count that someone's simple act of kindness has been the thing to give me the hope that it's not so bad as it seems.
A few weeks ago, I went to a local park called Good Dog with my dog and my partner. It was on the Solstice and we wanted to do something intentional that evening. So we made some tasty food at home and then went out to the woods to watch nighthawks - this really cool bird that performs all kinds of acrobatics. A number of people walked by and commented on our cozy scene and we engaged in a few conversations. Then, as night was falling, we made our way back to the car and discovered that one of the women we had chatted with left a little package containing her business card and a dog treat on my car. He card had her cell number on it, so I sent her a message the next morning. She later wrote me back and thanked me for thanking her, essentially, and said that I was the only one to do so as of yet. Okay... so that left me feeling pretty heavy. What has happened to us that we can't even send a text message to thank someone for their act of kindness?
I am loaded with shortcomings, so I don't mean to preach. But our relationships are the only thing we have. They are much more important than our car or our bike or our new outfit or our job or our address and on and on. We have to start paying more attention. I make this project to remind me and everyone who will ever encounter it of that.