Our Common Ground
Today I went for a walk to enjoy what was an unusually bright and sunny Seattle winter day. As I walked, my mind slid into its usual routine of mulling over all my anxieties about the current state of affairs in our country. That’s how I’ve spent a lot of my time over the last few months. All things political have crept one by one into my consciousness and taken up a permanent residence there (probably near my right temple, because that’s where the headaches always start). It’s exhausting, but just as many of you have probably done, I’ve settled into playing unwilling host to the parasitic worries and despairs that have bombarded all of us for months.
I don’t know if it was the sunshine or the music I was listening to or the inevitable snapping at a point of tension, but all of a sudden two things happened. First, I felt a sweeping sense of hope. The second thing was that I started to cry. I cried because I was tired. I cried because I couldn’t do it any more — the fear, the apocalyptic, existential dread. The hate. I cried because, for the first time in months, I knew I was ready to stop being angry.
The thought that materialized in front of me as I cried and walked was one that has been articulated more elegantly than me by great leaders and speakers across the ages, but is one I hadn’t yet fully accepted: anger will not defeat anger. The only thing you get by fighting fire with fire is a bigger fire.
What I know is this: it’s easy to be afraid. It’s easy to be angry and indignant. I know these truths all too well — I’ve gone down some dark roads ever since the election season began. It’s easy to point out others’ hypocrisy. It’s easy to believe that now is not the time for compromise. It’s easy to read or watch the things we agree with and ridicule the things we even suspect we don’t. Again, I would know. In a matter of months I’ve learned just how easy it is to spend more time judging and even hating those who think differently than myself than I spend trying to understand them. Worse still is when I fail to understand them.
So conversely, with these months of anger, I’ve also learned just how hard it really is, how impossible it can seem, to love. It’s so much harder to practice forgiveness, compassion, empathy, and hope than it is to practice suspicion, revenge, rage, and pessimism. We tell each other and ourselves that our opponents don’t deserve our love, our apology or our forgiveness. They haven’t extended that hospitality to us, so why should we give it to them? Isn’t that giving up? Isn’t that weakness?
What we don’t realize is that compassion is the most difficult and strongest thing we can do. Our weakness lies in letting our fear and anger get the best of us, because fear and anger are how our enemies control us. Fear and anger are how we got to the point where we don’t even pause to ask ourselves how we came to consider the friend or neighbor or colleague sitting in front of us as our enemy in the first place.
I grew up under the paradigm of the United States as a giant mixing pot; a massive experiment to prove that people from different backgrounds can come together to build a prosperous, cohesive, and powerful society. We are all different, the lesson goes, but we are all Americans. The thing that binds us together is our love for our country. But what is a country if it is not our fellow countrymen themselves? And so what binds us together is love for each other. Compassion and empathy are the glue that puts our disparate pieces together. I am your country, and you are mine. We are all each other’s home.
We are not each other’s enemies. Our enemies are the things that drive wedges between us. Our enemies are fear, scapegoating, misunderstanding, silence, violence, and hate. My enemy is the conviction that a friend from high school who voted for Trump is a racist and sexist who wants to control women’s bodies. My enemy is the conviction that a woman protesting outside the White House is nothing but a vulgar, free-loading feminist promoting the in utero murder of babies.
My enemy is the pervasive distrust of Hispanics, Muslims, and people of color that is perpetuated by certain parts of the media. My enemy is the portrayal by other branches of media of all conservatives as uneducated, racist rednecks.
Our cultural shaming of religion and faith is my enemy. Religious dogma and extremism that promotes inequality, discrimination, and violence is my enemy. The anti-Trump fear-mongering that has taken over the internet is my enemy. The demand for blind loyalty to Trump that pushes back is also my enemy.
My enemy is the belief that all Trump supporters hate America. My enemy is the belief that all Clinton supporters hate America.
These things are our enemies because they pit me against you, each of us against friends, family, fellow Americans, and country. They turn our anger inward when instead we should be looking outward, together.
Fear is always the enemy. Hate is always the enemy. But we, no, we are not each other’s enemies. By tearing each other down we are doing the work of our common enemies who want to see the great American experiment fail. The question is, will we continue to take the bait?
None of this is to say that I won’t stand up for what I believe in. I will fight for the things I know to be just and right: the protection of human rights and freedoms, scientific integrity and dissemination of truth, and economic policies that enable all of us to thrive. I’m not proposing complacency or surrender. What I’m doing is adopting a new strategy in what is, what must be, a fight to save our country.
I don’t know if I can succeed. I don’t know that I won’t fall back into the easy habits of anger and despair and indignation. But I have to try. I have to look for our common ground, because I know that the only way we fail as a country is if we fail to come together. And I’m so damn tired of being angry all the time.
We’ve reached a stalemate — our weapons are pointed at each other’s chests — and if we’re going to survive then some of us have to start putting down our weapons and calling for a truce. This is me disarming. This is me at the mercy of my fellow Americans, asking if we can try something else.