From time to time you have to drive on a hilly, curvy, rural two-laner with dotted yellow passing zones. And it was a little scary, wasn’t it, when you first realized they put the dotted line on only the flat, straight sections for a reason. When you go up a hill you can’t ever be 100 percent sure someone’s not breaking the law and going the wrong way in your lane coming up the other side — say, a frustrated trucker eager to pass an elderly woman.
But isn’t it also incredible that every time you drive up a hill on a rural two-laner, you essentially admit you’re willing to bet your life that all but a statistically insignificant number of people on the planet are good, sane, happy to abide by sensible and beneficial regulations that a flawed but well-intentioned government made up of flawed but well-intentioned people has put in place, and not hurrying somewhere, like their daughter’s deathbed? And that everyone else is locked up. That’s your bet. Because, if not: Whammo.
We all vote with our lives, hundreds of times a day, despite the solemn testimony of all the drunk driving crosses on the side of the road, in favor of the core truth that mankind is essentially good.
This is not a political piece. I’m sick of the presidential race, shamefully angry about it, and grateful it (should) all be over soon. Instead I want to address something much more significant: myself.
Because like I said, I’m angry and I don’t like it.
We all have an abyss inside. We normally have no idea about what’s actually in another person’s abyss—there’s no evidence of what someone else really wants, believes to be true, judges. We only get glimpses from time to time. But at the same time we all have faith that it’s good stuff in there. We have to practice this faith every day. It’s not explicitly religious, but it’s sacred.
It’s a faith that needs two parts to work. It’s a two-laner. Our interactions along this two-lane road—the infinite part in us and another’s recognition of its vastness and goodness—are what reaffirm us as being human.
I’ve been angry about this election for a long time. I won’t tell you what you already know. I’ll take it on faith you feel the same, no matter which candidate you support. (I will vote for Hillary Clinton.) But even if you’re angry, too, I bet you feel the anger is ugly and strange. As for myself, it took me a long time to realize my anger wasn’t about Trump. It’s not about the racism or sexism or sexual assault or xenophobia or taxes or emails or lies or hate. It’s not anger about anger. And at the center it’s not even really about his supporters, whom I find as incomprehensible as they probably find me.
No: In order to live, we have to assume that deep down all people are good. When we talk about Trump, we’re really talking about each other. The conversation has dragged a secret and sacred part of us out into the light, and we reel when we’re confronted with it.
And the truth of it? I just feel rejected. Like, middle-school level rejected. Not just for my beliefs or values or whatever. I feel rejected as a person. My abyss, what I feel to be my deepest self, has been dismissed. I’m not a person.
Social media, where we literally aren’t human, makes this particularly easy.
I haven’t had a conversation with a Trump supporter or watched a rally or debate that ends with me not feeling this way. And I spent six years living in West Virginia and rural Georgia. I know a lot of Trump supporters. At first I would listen and respond reasonably and warmly with evidence and logic and try to repeat to them what I hear them saying to me. But at some point this bridge hits their wall. Every time. It’s stunning. I’ve never dealt with this. And what’s weirder: It only happens when we talk politics.
At some point Trump conversations always veer from politics. It turns into two people revealing their true selves, the parts we take for granted that are pink and vulnerable but suddenly seem bilious and vindictive.
Their deep part is not good. Or at least that’s what a guy in my abyss yells up to me. (By the way, you’ve also shown them your abyss, maybe in the form of, “No, Hillary should not be hanged,” thereby revealing yourself to be insane.) And this fundamental difference between me and that other person is so incomprehensible it hurts. How can I inhabit the same planet as this person, let alone claim to share the same basic American values? It’s irreconcilable. I get very, very angry.
I get scared, too. I wonder how thin the veneer of civility is in America. Or even the veneer of peace. And I wonder how thin it’s been all along.
Walt Whitman, in 1871, six years after the Civil War, when writing about politics, wrote this profoundly apolitical statement: “The fear of conflicting and irreconcilable interiors, and the lack of a common skeleton, knitting all close, continually haunts me.”
And here are some of the irreconcilable things people I once thought were rational and good truly believe:
—White people like me are persecuted and oppressed but “the blacks and the Hispanics and illegals” have unfair advantages.
—These unfair advantages hurt minority groups by making people dependent on others because they won’t know the value of working for blah blah blah and in fact liberals like you who support these advantages are the ones who are really racist.
—White people are superior to other races, empirically proven by the dominance of Western civilization.
—Our Communist Muslim president from Kenya has a secret plan to destroy “our” country and establish martial and/or Sharia law.
—We should deport 11 million people today, 99 percent of whom are earnest and creative and tenacious and smart and trying as hard as I am to take care of their kids and keep their heads above water.
—We should ban 1.6 billion others because many of them are bad and want to destroy our country based on a faith I don’t understand.
—Clinton is a criminal and traitor who should be jailed. Hanged. Shot.
—Michelle Obama might be a man and the Obama kids adopted from another country, “possibly Morocco.”
None of this makes sense to me. None of this is good.
And if it made sense to you, for a while I simply said, “Fuck you.” If you believe this stuff, then fuck you. Let’s talk about Willie Nelson or marriage or caring for your sick sister. Let’s drink beer and watch Dumb & Dumber. I love you, but also, if you vote for Trump, fuck you.
Viewed this way, I actually considered “Fuck you” to be a gift. An act of love. A shiny penny from me dropped with a wish into your abyss. Your abyss will of course respond, “Fuck you, too!” And, lo: We agree. Fuck you.
But wait. Fuck you is in my abyss. My abyss thinks your abyss is not good. I have lost faith in my brothers and sisters. I’ve rejected their humanity and dishonored them. Fuck you is not good, and I have shown myself to be not good.
We’re all bad somewhere. It’s not our fault. But if it’s the same feeling on all sides, that means there’s just one side.
Of course there’s the opposite: There’s peace and grief and love on our collective one side. MLK: Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. Agreed, but those are long-arc discussions. Plus, they aren’t the problem. If we focused only on them we’d continue to ignore our common badness, our guilt, and would just smear that thin veneer of civility a little further into the future.
For example, in the middle of an argument I was having with a Trump supporter, she suggested we both go buy socks and donate them to charity. It was a great gesture that shocked (and shamed) me back into reality. We felt a lot better about ourselves and about each other. Socks: Let’s start from the bottom up. But it didn’t solve the fundamental problem, which soon resurfaced. (Plus, when I told her I did my part by giving to Goodwill she said “Goodwill is a huge corporation making millions off your kind free inventory.”)
MLK: Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Maybe we need to drag our dark bits into the light, or, like roaches, they’ll continue to thrive, until in the wrong people they’re flushed out by anger and vengeance and a psychotic break into the real world. If Whitman’s words still make sense today, it’s safe to say that in an ideological sense the Civil War never ended. Love can drive out hate, but love can’t stop a hateful man with a bullet. MLK might have told you that, too.
But if we can all admit that in flitting, unbidden, impoverished moments we harbor fundamentally bad thoughts—about each other and about ourselves—perhaps that would be a first step. Then we can finally begin the real work, tracing our shared horrible root—because we’ll all know where it is. Maybe we can sever it. Maybe not. But if we start with the worst in us, we can only get better from there.
Maybe we need Trump after all, because we need to talk honestly about each other. We need to restore faith not in “the system” or the country or our politics or politicians, but in each other as human beings with the capacity for infinite goodness.
After all, that’s what makes us human. And that hope we hold out for each other is the true heartbeat of America. All roads in America are connected. (Sorry, Hawaii.)
And so I’ll end there, asking you, whoever you are, to give that a little thought: All roads are one road. How else would we get anywhere?