What I Want to Say to America (We’re Better Than This)

A friend asked me this morning how I’m doing. Though deeply disappointed with the outcome of the presidential election, I can’t help but feel that this time in history could be a powerful opportunity for us as a nation to make strides where before we may have felt frustrated, incapable and even apathetic. In a world of increasing danger, can we really afford to do otherwise?

Americans have spoken loud and clear not only at the voting booth, but also through organized protests, on social media, in heated talks with colleagues, within opinionated essays, and in endless emotional interviews on mainstream media. From the Rust Belt to the inner city, college campuses to the local Applebee’s, churches to mosques to synagogues, Americans from all walks of life are at this very moment in time, engaged in voicing their opinions (and biases) like never before. And this time, we are simply not shutting up!

This election cycle both stirred up our individual hostilities and fears, and forced us to see that, across this great country, we really don’t understand each other. And, we continue to live with anger toward and in fear of people in our cities and towns who are different from us. They aren’t our race. They don’t practice our religion. They don’t empathize with us over gender issues. Instead, we see them as people to fear and mistrust. And they feel the same about us.

It’s not like racism, sexism, homophobia and religious bigotry just sprung up with this election. Feelings of rage toward others has been bubbling just below the surface, waiting for the opportunity to surge forth. Hate crime statistics rise and dip, but have overall increased in number over the last 25 years. What this election did was to rip off a Band-aid, and open up deep old wounds about race, gender, religion and nationalism.

Each of us has entrenched biases. Isn’t it better to get them out in the open and have honest and heated discussions, rather than continue to whisper behind closed doors when we think the offending race or culture isn’t listening? I’m not condoning violence — quite the opposite: When we are afraid, we react in offensive, impulsive ways. When we are afraid, we buy guns, put up gates and walls around our communities, and congregate with people who feed us reasons to dig in further with our beliefs. When we are angry, we riot, we vandalize other people’s property, we use violent language against them, we assault. We all do this — white or black, male or female, Christian or Muslim.

Now that we’ve opened this can of worms, let’s keep conversing. Let’s hear from the factory worker who is frustrated by low wages and business going overseas to non-white, non-Americans. Let’s listen to the inner city mother who is tired of being accused of living off welfare just because she can’t get ahead without a high school diploma. Let’s talk to the police officer who is frustrated by a combative public, and to the young black man who just wants to drive home from the club but is afraid of getting pulled over and harassed.

Let’s pay attention to the Iraq veteran with PTSD who isn’t getting the mental health care that he needs and to the provider who wants to help, but doesn’t have the resources (veterans are committing suicide at a rate of 18–22 per day). And to the Muslim wearing hajib who loves America, and to her neighbor who is afraid she may be living next to a sleeper cell. And please talk to us transsexual teenager who just wants to be understood. We want to hear from the teacher who wants to be paid full value for her work, and the farmer who’s terrified that one more drought will put him so deep in debt he can never dig out.

And what about the college student who was sexually assaulted and is afraid to tell anyone lest she be ridiculed, the homeless family who suffers from a parent’s Meth addiction, or the young man paroled from prison who winds up right back in court because he can’t find a job and resorts to stealing?

To those who are protesting, keep protesting. It’s your constitutional right to assemble — peacefully –

and to speak your mind (again, non-violently). Write letters to your newspaper, Tweet, contact your elected officials. Remember the enthusiasm you have today, and vote when the time comes around again. Consider running for office yourself, or volunteer for a cause that you care about.

And most importantly, our youth. What do protesters, gang members, rioters, and even members of ISIS have in common? They’re largely young. Very young: In their teens and twenties. They barely know anything about life and yet, like me, they are tired of being angry and afraid. If we listen, we can help our youth of all races and creeds understand that life doesn’t have to be as dangerous and frustrating as they believe. We don’t have to resort to violent talk and brutal acts to get our point across. But this is what we are teaching them, all of them — white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Middle Eastern — that the best way to resolve our differences is through rioting, cross-burning, mass shootings, arguing, shaming, name-calling, gangs, cults and terrorist groups.

Can we really afford to be so splintered? Hatred begets hatred, not the other way around. Anger and fear cannot be chased away with more anger and fear. Can we really expect to survive as a nation by continuing to alienate each other? What does a Muslim registry, a wall between us and our neighboring countries, and the mass deportation of Hispanic refugees do but increase the chances that we’ll have more groups like ISIS who hate Americans?

I would hate for us to overlook this incredible place in time. Let us not lose sight of how absurdly close we are to truly being able to dialogue toward having the America that each of us yearns for. If we genuinely listen to others while continuing to articulate what we believe in, we could quite possibly pave the way for years of prosperity.

Here are some topics we can all agree on:

· Working toward less tragic deaths due to gun violence in the inner city, opiate overdoses in the suburbs, suicides among our veterans and Meth addiction in rural areas.

· Keeping with the momentum of the making health care more accessible and affordable. (Here’s an idea: If we change the semantics from “overturning” the Affordable Care Act to “adjusting” it, we just might be able to appease both parties and make heroes of our politicians.)

· Acknowledging that we rely on people of all cultures to keep our country running. Many people not born in the U.S. bring low-cost labor, great intelligence and steadfast patriotism to our nation. We literally cannot afford to lose them.

· Focusing more money and manpower into the mental health of so many Americans suffering from depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, Alzheimer’s, PTSD and suicidal thoughts.

Yes, there will be outliers who want to harm us because we are black, because we are white, because we are Muslim or Jewish, because we are women or gay (or both). Yes, the media will still exaggerate, under-report and distort the truth.

Though unwieldy at times, we are one nation under God, even when we call him Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah, Universal Intelligence. Our ancestors consciously emigrated to this country, whether escaping for a better life or brought here against their will as slaves. We are the land of opportunity, full of wealth and beauty. When we put it all together, we are America.

Despite our recent turmoil, ours is the same country today as it was yesterday. As President Obama said, the sun will set tonight and rise again in the morning, only to set and rise all over again. We have fought each other in the past, and have come out a better nation. I have to have faith and believe most people are well-intentioned. There are reasons why each of us has the beliefs and biases we have, and we need to consider that about each other. And in light of the danger we face on our soil from terrorism, both external and home-grown, don’t you agree we need all the friends we can get?

I’m just worried that many think that by voting and speaking now, their work is done, when it’s only just begun.