I hate election years. I’m sure there was a time in our country’s history when the potential of democracy created an air of excitement–hope even, and I mean real hope, not just words on a campaign poster–but I feel like that time is long past. That train stopped running years ago and the tracks are overgrown with the weeds of our vitriol and hate-filled personal agendas. The conversations that are meant to happen between prospective candidates, and even average citizens, about the issues in our world have turned into shouting matches and hurtful name-calling. From TV ads to televised debates to Facebook threads, the scene looks less like an election trail and more like a bullying contest where everyone wins, and everyone also loses.
I’ve never been particularly political, and I admit I don’t always feel like my opinion matters much in the national and global arenas, but the older I get the more personal it all becomes. Sure, I want my kids to have a better world, but–and maybe this is just my cynical Liz Lemon voice talking–I really do not think backing or not backing a particular candidate is much more than a drop of water in the ocean when it comes to bettering the society our children will inherit. That is not to say I don’t vote–I do, sometimes for a candidate and sometimes against one, but I use my tiny Who voice and hope the whole of us are heard somehow. I take my kids into the booth with me so they will understand this small opportunity we have. It’s something. But it’s not a lot when the world outside the booth is a perpetual playground brawl. I know there are more problems that need repairing than I can list here, in our country and beyond, but We The People are never, ever going to agree on their solutions. Ever. History tells us this again and again. Ask JFK. Lincoln. Moses. Leaders we don’t like will get elected. Laws will come into being that we despise. People we don’t trust will get to speak for us and make decisions that will affect us. It has always been this way. As frustrating as this is, it’s not the problem from where I’m standing.
The problem is also not the media, neither social nor mainstream nor independent, even though we like to place a lot of the blame there. Sure, it spans more area than it once did, but the origin of every viral news story and Tweet and Facebook post has been around since the dawn of time. And therein lies the problem: it’s us. People. Human nature. “Things happen,” I heard in the lyrics of a song recently. “It’s all they ever do.” It’s all they’ve ever done, and all we have ever done is talk about them. It’s what we do. Which is fine, except…inevitably our focus shifts from the issue to the person we’re talking to, and it may only be a tiny crack from where you’re standing, but consider this: the source of the Mississippi River, in Minnesota, can be crossed safely on foot. You can walk from one side to the other and barely get wet. But follow it south and it will engulf you. You cannot navigate it safely without help. Our words have a similar progression, so it only makes sense to make sure you’re prepared to watch the distance between you and others grow wider and wider in the wake of your poor choices.
Because ultimately this is all about choices. I said recently that every post we publish, every 140 character statement we Tweet, every well-crafted Instagram and its accompanying caption and hashtag parade, is an opportunity for unity or division. We may not set out to divide, but not being deliberate about the words we use and how we use them will serve that purpose whether we intended it or not. I grow increasingly uncomfortable about running across things my own friends and relatives have posted on Facebook, because every difference of opinion feels like a judgement anymore. Louis CK recently said, “When I was growing up, liberals and conservatives were friends with differences.” What a concept. Now we are all branded by our beliefs and opinions. There is no middle. There is Them and there is Us, and there are lines being drawn in the sand faster than the waves of change can cover them. Go look at Facebook right now: someone you love and care about and maybe even respect has posted something that will make you feel that sick tightness in your chest. No matter which side of the line you’re on, you will read it, or watch it, or examine it, and you will feel smaller than you did before–and that might make you angry, and maybe you will want to post something in retaliation, something to make it right, or maybe you will stop talking to that person, hide him from your feed, stop inviting him to your potluck. Listen to me: you have a choice, too.
It is only March, and already we are inundated with campaign trashing and issue bashing, and come November, most of us are going to be devastated by the results, and then, God willing, the checks and balances our country established two centuries ago will get a grip on things and we will survive…this. Whatever it turns out to be. But there is something we cannot continue to survive, and it’s quite possibly the one thing in our power to change: we have to stop this hate lifestyle that has become so commonplace in our daily interactions with other people–with each other and with strangers on the internet and with people out there in the world whose situations we will never fully understand. Stop it. Stop blindly re-posting every picture, article, video, and blog that supports your particular brand of fury. Stop getting all of your information from the same one-sided news source (and I’m talking to all of you, so if you identify as a liberal, do not assume I’m just referring to the Fox News club–blinders don’t care who they are blinding, as long as they keep you from seeing the whole picture). Stop assuming there are only two ways to read an issue, YOUR way and the other way. Stop calling people names because they think or live or act differently than you do.
And please, please stop invoking Jesus and God Almighty and Ghandi and the Buddha and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa and all 40 contributors to the Bible in your daily spew of hate, just because he/she/they said something that supports your issue du jour. I can promise you, whoever it is you’re quoting also said something that supports the side you’re arguing against. You are using love warriors and peacemakers to divide people, plain and simple, and it is disgusting. I don’t care if you are a hard core atheist or a proper Easter Sunday worshiper or a Bible-beating southern baptist–you do not get to judge me, or that cop on the news, or your grocery store clerk. You don’t get to judge to Caitlyn Jenner or Ellen Degeneres. You don’t get to judge the Pope or Jesse Jackson or Jerry Falwell. Those are people, plain and simple, and I can assure you, it’s possible to disagree with them and not declare abject hate for them. Maybe you think you are making an important point, or carrying out a mission to educate the rest of us about something, but that Bible verse you posted, that race diatribe you shared, that photograph you took out of context and ranted about for three paragraphs, did nothing but widen the space between our opposite shores of the river. At a time when we so desperately need love to throw a line, the river is overflowing with stones of hate.
Except, it’s not really hate, is it? It’s fear. Because I don’t hate my friend who has posted so, so many articles about how I’m most likely doing wrong by every black student I’ve ever taught because I’m a privileged white lady who will never understand, any more than I think my uncle, who is hellbent on making life miserable for every liberal in the US, hates me. The problem is that we are all terrified. Terrified of God. Terrified of loss. Terrified of change, of difference, of moving too far forward or too far back. Terrified of violence and sickness and oppression. Terrified of being misunderstood. Terrified of other. And it’s out of fear that we enact words and actions that look a lot like hate. What a missed opportunity, people. What a chance to practice what we think we are preaching with our MLK quotes and Jesus memes and Bible verses and scholarly articles.
What if, just one time, you didn’t react in kind to everything you find deplorable on your social media feed? What if every word you put out into the ether was motivated by compassion? What if you said what you think is right, instead of saying why everyone else is wrong? There’s a difference, see. There is a difference in participating in a conversation where everyone has different opinions, and shutting down any potential for conversation before anyone else gets a chance to speak. We have a choice. We are mostly choosing poorly.
I don’t talk much about faith or politics or legal matters, because I am limited in my understanding of these things. They are ever-changing and nebulous to me, and I never really feel like I am clear enough on most things in these categories to speak of them. But I will say this, here, today, because I have a choice: I am a Jesus follower, and one of the things he told us to do was LOVE PEOPLE. Pretty simple. Not “love certain people,” or “love the people who are like you.” Just people. He also told us repeatedly, because we are often slow learners, not to be afraid. Period. So while that certainly applies to things like cancer, poor drivers, and nuclear war, it also applies to gay people, Muslims, and displaced populations whose lives have been destroyed by terrorists. There is not an exceptions list. Love people, and don’t be afraid, He said. Democrat, conservative, Christian, agnostic, pagan–we are all failing at this on some level. Even “liberals” like me–because apparently that is the only label available to someone who sees disparity in the way our citizens and lawmakers react to gun violence abroad versus here in our own communities, who is saddened by how we treat those who are different or disenfranchised, and who is dismayed by the contrast in who we claim to be and how we actually are. It is who we are that is important. Who are you? What is your choice in this matter? Because you have a choice.
You can choose to post that photo that makes all Democrats look like terrorists. You can share that meme that implies all Republicans are extremist bigots. You can cheer for a law passed yesterday in my state in the name of “protecting women and children,” even though some woman or child you love will invariably suffer in its wake. You can declare cops the enemy. Or blacks. Or gays. Or Muslims. Or Christians. You can stand your ground and cling to your ideals, wherever they fall on the current moral ruler. You can make demands and quote the Bible or the New Yorker or the Advocate until you’re blue in the face. But until you–no–until WE step outside of the shoes on our own feet, until we take off whatever blinders we’ve been wearing, and look long and hard at this broken, sad world, all of it, it won’t matter if Trump or Hillary or Mickey Mouse gets elected. Because at the end of the day, as long as we are acting out of fear and not love, nothing changes. We have a choice.
Last week on the eve of the NC Primary, I was trying to explain my feelings about voting to my husband, and mostly failing, and the next morning I came across this on Twitter: “Voting is important. But what we do every day matters much more than how we vote every few years. We vote EVERY DAY with our lives —@NathanHamm.” This, you guys. This is important. It might be even more important than which candidate you’re supporting. This is your legacy. This is the fingerprint you leave on everything your life touches. If a series of Facebook posts and Tweets and YouTube videos served as your autobiography, what would your story be? Would it be a love story? It’s not too late. You have a choice. Cast your vote today, and tomorrow, again and again, with this one life you have. Do it for your kids. Do it for mine. For all the kids who will inherit this broken world, make the right choice. Let love win.