When each side believes themselves to be “the good guys” and all attempts at communication only deepen the chasm of misunderstanding, what is our responsibility to one another?
For half a year, the mind of my 3-year-old son has been consumed by superheroes. He prefers to dress in costume, existing as Iron Man, Spider-Man, or Captain America, running at lightning speed and wielding unparalleled power, fighting bad guys. When, one evening, he declared that he was Captain America and I tried to explain to him what America is, that it is the country where he lives, he said, “well, um, I live in super hero space!” With this I could not argue.
All day, every day, he moves through the world in an ongoing monologue of fantasy play, yelling things about “good guys” and “bad guys.” An irony for a mother who’s spent the majority of her years actively resisting and speaking out against this or any binary view of the world. I can recall specifically a conversation in a theology professor’s office in which I detailed my argument against the existence of good and evil all together. Now I manipulate the concept for the behavioral persuasion of my toddlers, “good guys say please, bad guys say give me,” and so on.
Good guys, bad guys, around this my life now revolves. This divide. What are we to do with this polarized nation? When each side believes themselves to be “the good guys” and all attempts at communication only deepen the chasm of misunderstanding, what is our responsibility to one another?
It was a change election, they say. These people had legitimate concerns, they say. Listen to them, feel for them, show them some respect. I say to that, I am aware of their concerns. I feel for that. I have tried to understand. Still, I say, there is no concern that could excuse voting so brazenly against your own interests; no excuse for the moral failure of such a dangerously irresponsible vote. No excuse for the privilege and lack of empathy it takes to dismiss the bigotry, the blind faith it took to buy into the propaganda.
I have never imagined it my responsibility to save souls. There is a condescension in that isn’t there, in soul saving? I am not a missionary for my cause. I wrestle now with how to lead with kindness, now that I am faced with such unabashed willful ignorance, with closed ears and hearts. But I do not see it as my job to reach into anyone and open them up, for this would be impossible, at least for me. We will not win this with millions of micro-debates. This is not the way I will be of use.
I will be of use by standing with the vulnerable. They are owed this. The unity we must create is through solidarity with the disenfranchised, with the groups targeted by our new administration. And if you think that my choice to abandon you to stand with them is a sign of hatred, you are mistaken.
To be hateful is to be void of empathy, and this I am not. Let it be known, if you are wondering where you fall on the spectrum of anger and hate, you may ask yourself, if something bad were to happen to any of these people, would you feel for them? If you find a way to tell yourself that a victim brought it on themselves, if you are able to make excuses to keep from having to experience the pain of empathy, then you are among the hateful; those who close themselves off to feeling for other people because this is easier, because they are lazy with their minds and hearts. It is a challenge to recognize that other people are just as real as you, to recognize all the suffering in the world that is out of our control, to recognize our own vulnerability, to accept that others have experiences to which we cannot relate that are still as valid as our own. This is not a challenge all are willing to take. And so they shrink.
Empathy is an expansion. It may hurt to love the world, but the point of life is not to avoid suffering at all costs, but instead to create meaning through connection. The wider we open ourselves, the deeper we connect. Hate clouds our humanity, obscuring our ability to recognize the humanity in others, further removing us from the truth we seek, if we are seeking truth. Those who choose instead to settle for what they have been told and close themselves off to all questioning, they succumb to hate.
I do not hate those who gave us Trump, I see them for the flawed humans they are, as we all are. I give them the dignity of their own moral responsibility, the respect of holding them to the same standard of character.
Why would so many settle for only that which validates their own beliefs and identities? Well fear, of course. So it is a lack of courage, a lack of bravery, a weakness, that inhibits our empathy, that makes us haters instead of lovers. I don’t know how to make them brave. I don’t know how to teach them that vulnerability and love is what strength looks like. That it is the adaptable who survive. So instead I march in the army of the lovers, of the open. This is my chosen family, this connection runs deeper. I think the best we can do is radiate with our own uncompromised existence, radiate this truth so bright it consumes all it can.
November 9th, the morning we awoke to face the first day post-election, I took my children to the National Air and Space Museum. At one point my 2-year-old spotted a statue of a big dog beneath a desk. She felt afraid at first sight and said, “No, no, I’m scared of the doggie, I don’t want the doggie,” and so we began to walk away. As we turned she said, “Wait, wait, I want to give the big doggie a big kiss,” and that is just what she did. She ran back to the statue she feared and she blew it a big noisy kiss as she smiled with excitement. She did this again and again. To face our fearful instincts with love, what is more perfect and beautiful than that?
Everything my children do feels full of meaning to me, so profound they are in their simplicity. Now more than ever. My son runs round and round fighting bad guys and I project and I imagine us as fighters of this good fight and I am empowered.
Life is just supposed to go on as usual? Tell me how. I see no way. I see only a new world in which my role has changed. I see a world of reactionary leadership and a revolutionary majority. I see fear and I see love and I see a fight for the future. I see people who continue to insist politics is just a dirty word; a trivial matter best ignored by decent people. People who would rather return to programming as usual, who will stop following you if the political shares and posts persist.
It is politics that make our lives possible. To think yourself unaffected or exempt from the issues is to occupy a position of great privilege and to take that privilege for granted. I for one am not too cool to care. And I have not yet resolved how to compartmentalize who a person reveals themselves to be. At the same time I see a new energy brewing in friends and family and on social media, a political awakening, a new found awareness of our need to be better engaged as citizens, more actively devoted to our communities and to our values. I see an opportunity for a shift out of our comfortable complacency and into conscious agents with a cause. These are my people, my chosen family, my “good guys.”
In the days post-election, as my son spent hours in “superhero space,” I spent hours in cyberspace, all my energy drawn out of my real life and into the outside community of news and concerns and conversation on organizing. Among his exclamations I caught a little string of words that stilled my heart, “I’m going to save the day, with all my might, I get bad guys!” Yes, I thought, we will. We will.
Lee Laielli is a writer and stay-at-home mother to two toddler superheroes, currently residing in the DC metro area. She holds a BA in Anthropology and Psychology from Fordham University. You can follow her on Twitter @LeeLaielli.