“These are the times that try men’s souls.” So said Thomas Paine on the eve of the American Revolution. As the world looks on, America once again stands on a precipice: will she fall into the abyss of fear and darkness, or will she build a bridge to a new era?
As I write this, I’m sitting safe and warm in my kitchen, at home in Vancouver, Canada. Friends, colleagues and a great many others are navigating unexpected emotions in the wake of America’s national election. Heart-aching sadness has overtaken some. Stultifying fear sends its tendrils into the souls of many. And rage is frighteningly close to the surface. Each of these is an understandable reaction when Canada’s national neighbor, the globally influential country that so consistently holds itself up as great, rewards a troubled, tangled tempest of narcissism, misogyny, and cruelty with the keys to the most powerful office in the world.
Can you imagine what it must feel like to be a Muslim in America? To be Hispanic? Black? Indigenous? The sad coincidence that I woke to the news of Trump’s election on the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht is not lost on me. It all feels like a little bit of history repeating.
Others will write eloquently of attacks on civil liberties and social justice, of racialized rhetoric, and of inane climate skepticism. Of course, I care deeply about these things, and I have shared in the grief that has consumed so many of us. But this is not what I’m thinking about on this quiet, cool morning.
I find myself returning already to a question that has always driven me: What’s next?
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
— Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Will fear and frustration dominate our dialogue and our decisions? Will we continue to allow our civil discourse to be framed by the grand metaphor of warfare—‘attacking’ every policy, ‘fighting’ every day to ‘advance’ competing agendas? If so, I fear the worst is yet to come, for in this frame, to win requires the other side to lose. It’s a zero sum calculus, an endless squabble to divide the scarce spoils of a finite world. Played to its natural end, it’s a game we all lose.
It isn’t merely theoretical. In the days after the US election, I read this: “I don’t think I have ‘friended’ anyone stupid enough to support Trump, but if I made this grave mistake, kindly unfriend me as you disgust me and are what’s wrong with the world.” I urge you to consider, is it really that simple?
When walls are built between us, how can any of us move forward?
Nearly 60 million ballots were cast for Donald Trump. That’s 60 million Americans that are dissatisfied, perhaps, with their lot in life, and almost certainly with the ‘status quo’ they believe is dominated by those ‘inside the beltway’ who have a degree of access to the halls of power that’s unavailable to most. What is it that drives them to accept the seemingly blind misogyny and racism of their President-Elect?
Those we on the political left so readily and easily dismiss as “ignorant,” “racist,” and even “deplorable” are not all the caricatures we ascribe to them. I make no excuses for Trump’s abusive approach and dangerous demagoguery when I say a great many well-informed, educated people voted for the only change they felt was available to them. No, there’s something much bigger afoot here than can be dismissed with expressions of “disgust,” or by indulging in frustration and anger. Those are simplistic approaches at a time and in a circumstance that require the very best of us all.
In the days, weeks, months, and years ahead, our ability to extend our empathy, our conversations and our love to those who see the world differently than us will be essential to stepping back on to the path of progress.
This is true for the self-labeled ‘progressives,’ and it is also true for those who are excited about the new regime America elected. The ballot count was so close that these two perspectives are in near-perfect balance. They are the two Americas—one that occupies the magnificent coasts, and one that occupies the ‘heartland’ in between. They are the yin and the yang. The work ahead begins with understanding how these apparent opposites can be brought into synthesis to build a bridge to a new era.
Can Americans—and indeed the citizens of the world, as this conversation is not exclusively America’s—more deeply respect our shared, unifying values? Can we step beyond the failed frameworks of neoliberalism, austerity, and globalization, honouring instead our neighbours, our shared and splendid cultural tapestry, and the planet we share? Can we seek a more generative calculus that respects the boundless abundance of human imagination and capacity?
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
— Leonard Cohen, 1934 – 2016
I don’t have the answers. And the picture is far from clear. But I want to ask the questions. I want to be in the conversation. I want us to step boldly together on to a new bridge to a new era, catching and holding those who would step off the precipice of fear and rage.
So for now, yes, continue to mourn. To cry. To seek comfort from friends and allies. To those on ‘other side,’ celebrate the emergence of the path ahead that you see. And to all of you: as your emotions settle, as you decide ‘what’s next’ for you, I implore each of you and all of us, ‘seek first to understand.’
Know that until we can step into conversation together, we remain ‘othered,’ apart, opposed. And that, friends, simply will not do. For we all are in this together, riding “on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.”
Be well. Be love.
See you soon,
Mike Rowlands is President & CEO of Junxion. He has been described as a “peace warrior” and thought leader on issues of social importance. This is the first of a series of letters he will be writing as he seeks to embrace transparency, step in to courageous conversations, and be in service to a new era. You can reach him via firstname.lastname@example.org.