Shifting from despair to hope
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” ––MLK quoting Theodore Parker
In 2004, a college friend wrote about his reaction to Bush defeating Kerry. It was, he said, less an election about issues and more “a referendum on ideology.”
That’s understating what I feel right now. The values I hold at the core of my being–those I built my life around and endeavor to teach both my children and my students–seem beyond mocked. It feels like a direct and violent assault on what I believed is best about America.
“Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media. People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids – all while the very rich become much richer.
To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.” –Senator Bernie Sanders
Any of my students will tell you that I
am obsessed with really like quotes. One of my former students even messaged me today, asking what quotes I’m reading right now to help me process the results of this election. One, she said, that usually worked for her but was not working today was this:
I have been trying to imagine others complexly. My initial reaction was to wonder how the hell this is the America I know and love. However, if the election had gone the other way, half of this country would be wondering how the hell this was their America.
Who are we? What do we value as a nation? What do we stand for? Although documents exist that seem to make those answers clear, the nature of human interpretation of old texts muddies that clarity. There are many versions of the One True Explanation for the Constitution.
Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, which my students just finished writing essays about, says in a lecture about his work: “I’m especially skeptical, having returned from a place like Vietnam, of Truth-with-a-capital-T…Those fanatical, self-righteous, zealous, I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong declarations of what’s true.” I tend to agree with him: that life exists in the realm of gray between the Black and White extremes. We do not typically give credence to the gray; it’s too hard to live in the complexity and mess and far easier to assert hard lines of division. It’s easier to take sides.
From what I’ve read, it seems like fear has been driving both sides in this election: fear of the Other. Meanness, exclusion, anger, resentment all stem from fear of something. Fear of losing what you have, or fear of change, or fear of more of the same shittiness that you’ve been experiencing.
Fear is not helpful here. Fear is not hopeful. Fear gets things done but often at great cost.
I have been afraid. I have felt for much of the past 24 hours like Jem after Tom Robinson’s guilty verdict:
“How could they do it, how could they?” Atticus responds, “I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it—seems that only children weep. Good night.”
And then I went back to an earlier chapter in To Kill a Mockingbird, where Atticus tells Scout:
Maybe there is hope. Because despite the fact that the Canadian immigration site crashed last night, this is still our home. For all of us who are proud to call ourselves Americans. This country is big enough and resourceful enough for all of us.
This is what I will tell my students tomorrow:
Your voice, your identity, your story matters.
Your family–given and chosen–matters.
Your heritage–your culture, language, traditions–matters.
Your membership in this country–whether from the Mayflower or as a recent immigrant–matters. You are us. We are the U.S.
You are valued. You are worthy of respect. You are loved. And don’t ever let ANYONE tell you otherwise.
We all carry in us the capacity to be kind or cruel. Choose kindness. Choose openness and curiosity over fear. Over and over again. And when you do choose cruelty–because you will, because we all do sometimes–then choose kindness and openness and curiosity again. Ask for forgiveness. Forgive yourself. Learn how and when to compromise and when to hold firm. Engage. Question. Grow.