Louise Thayer muses on how we can be more accepting at a time when division defines our politics.
I’ve been watching this drawn out election season unfold with a mixture of horror and morbid fascination. First of all, let me say that as a Brit who holds Permanent Residency, I’ve lived in the States for 16 years. I call both places home.
When I return to Wales I have just as many conversations about politics with friends there as I do here. There’s a sense of indignation we all share, fueled by the seeming ineptitude of our supposed governing bodies to rein in corporate influences and to ensure that the “little people” have a voice. We are the people after all, little or not, and corporations are just that.
Many of us know, or rather we feel, that throughout the globe, people are reaching their breaking points and are gathering forces, like tiny community-wide volcanoes, poised to become a whole cascade of uniting lava if the balance continues to tip in the favor of injustice.
I also feel strongly that the reason we’re hearing so much hateful and racist rhetoric this election “season,” is because we really need to address, (at first on an individual and then more universal level), why it is that we continue to highlight our differences especially along the lines of race and culture, instead of our similarities.
Maybe it comes down to the simple fact that we get too locked up in habitual behaviors and beliefs. I know I do. I know I have far more tolerance for people who are already “like me” than I do for those who I’m having an issue communicating with.
I admit that I still allow my buttons to be pushed when I react to things I feel are unjust with anger or scornful condemnation. I don’t have any right to judge, but I fall prey to my own comfortable preferences on a semi-regular basis. I try instead to place emphasis on living with that discomfort … on seeing that people have countless reasons for their opinions and who am I to say that they’re wrong?
The more I allow for the fact that none of us has a clue what anyone else has been through or how they feel on a daily basis, the more I see simple humanity.
I was having a conversation this week with someone I very much respect for her equilibrium and grace under pressure. She made the point I often forget, that we are only in control of the way we ourselves respond to any given set of circumstances. That’s it. The rest is out of our hands. We can’t do it all. We can’t fix the world in one fell swoop.
When I hear about conflict and wanting to build massive walls I want to cry. I could easily succumb to a toxic mixture of rage and frustration. I could also easily start to feel powerless in the face of the growing wave of remarkable intolerance—like political rallies that look more like bad B-movie versions of *jeering crowd scene 101*.
I choose not to. I’m more useful if I keep my own faith in the inherent goodness of people.
There’s a way through this current societal impasse and onto something much better. We’re just not there yet. As a species I feel as though we’re incrementally shifting away from selfishness and towards selflessness, even if those on the lunatic fringes want to convince us of something else, to keep us controlled and afraid.
I recently went to work dogs on the South Texas border with Mexico and, while being driven to lunch one day, I sat quietly in the backseat and took advantage of the down time, to really see the land and its inhabitants.
As we drove further south, the conversation took on a sinister tone—started in the form of an almost throwaway comment about not wanting to be outside after dark here. I was looking out of the window, seeing small, gleeful children playing in a daycare that advertised progressive, Montessori-style learning.
Of course I also witnessed the poverty and clear signs of a hard-scraped living. The view of decaying and abandoned gracious red-tiled haciendas was almost obliterated by pieced-together wood and tin, much more common building materials for the homes I saw with occupants actually in them.
It made me wonder how much it would take to restore those buildings to their former grandeur and to somehow offer them up as affordable homes to those people wanting to live in and improve their own communities.
I saw a church that stopped me in my tracks with its simple profundity, and as much as I enjoyed its ruined and dramatic statement against the otherworldly landscape, I would have preferred to have the money to give to fill its restoration fund.
This was once a center for the community and just as we need our hearts to keep beating to stay alive, so these places of communal gathering need to keep going in order to foster a sense of belonging. Without that, yes, lawlessness and corruption can creep in, but the decay isn’t irreversible.
The border is a place artificially created by a clash of culture and maintained by concern about inevitable evolution. I sat at lunch, idly listening to the diners all around me speaking in Spanish. I understand a lot of the language and so I got to hear the commonplace and distinctly unthreatening talk of how the kids were doing in school and who was looking after Tia Sofie next week.
It’s so easy to say “they should learn the language.” I’ve lived in small Texas town for long enough to see that while a lot of integration occurs, there’s still a literal “wrong side of the tracks,” and while that exists, there’s always going to be more than just a mental barrier to complete cohesion. I’ve hung out on that side of the rails and I like the way that every neighbor waves to every other neighbor as they drive slowly down their road.
Unlike other species, humans seek connection first and foremost through speech. When language or some other learned behavior is a barrier between people, all it really takes is a little conscious effort to acknowledge and make peace with the situation. Eye contact is a start. I’ve lost count of the amount of times that people startle when you meet their eyes but soften when you smile. It’s too easy to become self-absorbed and to ignore and turn away from the plight of the dispossessed or underprivileged. Why not instead invite them in with your willingness to be a gracious human being first and foremost. That’s where rebuilding really begins.
Photo courtesy of author