How Do We Move Forward?

Like so many others, I am still reeling from the unanticipated and disappointing presidential election results. As a woman, as an immigrant, and as a sexual assault survivor, I feel deeply and personally wounded. I feel fearful for the rights and safety of minorities, other immigrants, members of the LGBT community, and women.

I am struggling to forgive those close to me who have condoned Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric either explicitly or by voting for him. But I am determined to move forward. Because regardless of who is in the White House, The United States belongs to all of its citizens. And I believe that if we let the results of this election harden our hearts, if we lose sight of our shared humanity, we contribute to the prejudices that helped pave Trump’s path to the White House.

It is easy to extend compassion, understanding, and grace to people we perceive as having been wronged. It is infinitely more difficult to extend those things to people we perceive as being in the wrong. But it is so important to try, because holding onto bitterness, anger, and resentment towards those we disagree with and feel wronged by does not change them, it changes us. Those feelings can calcify and become a part of how we see the world and everyone around us. It is up to us to safeguard our thoughts and our hearts against that.

I worked in the service industry as an undergraduate and graduate student. I worked long shifts, holidays, late into the night, often covered in food and spilled drinks. The overwhelming majority of the people I served were kind and generous, but there were also those that treated me with disdain and disrespect. I am not in the service industry anymore, but dealing with the latter group of people provided me with enduring lessons about professionalism and what it means to be a decent person.

When people sit down at a table to have a meal or at a bar for a drink, they will either engage or largely ignore the person serving them. Sometimes the conversation is pleasant, sometimes it is not. Sometimes as a server or bartender I had days when I was happy to be ignored. In any event, I figured out that my satisfaction with my job was largely governed by how I chose to react to the people who walked through the door.

When I took every bad tip and rude customer personally, it destroyed my morale and ultimately made me have a pretty low view of humanity. I found that the trick to staving off negativity was to imagine the different motivations and circumstances of the bad tippers and rude customers. Perhaps they’d had a bad day, didn’t have enough cash, or had gotten into an argument with their partner and were taking it out on me. Maybe on any other day they were the kind and generous customers you hope for. Maybe my service wasn’t that good. Maybe it was great, but they just didn’t believe in tipping and decided to come into a restaurant anyway. None of those things excused their behavior, but it occasionally allowed me to see even the rudest customers humanely, with compassion, because I’ve had bad days too. And even though I’ve never stiffed my servers or bartenders on a tip, I might have done something on a bad day that had a comparable emotional impact on another person.

I should say that this pattern of thinking never came easily or naturally and that I failed at it constantly, but I never regretted trying. It taught me the value of examining and challenging my assumptions about other people. It empowered me. It made me realize that I get to have a say in how other people make me feel.

I was introduced to this idea by David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. In his address, Wallace talked about how the trouble with the way most of us experience each other and the world around us is that we are motivated by a subconscious self-centeredness that is not immoral so much as it is automatic:

“...it's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”

What still resonates with me about Wallace’s address is the connection he made between the default assumption that it’s all about us and the frustration we feel when others have inconvenienced or wronged us. That unlocked something for me, and I’ve learned to try and imagine the thoughts and feelings that might be motivating someone’s behavior toward me rather than automatically assuming that it’s about me. I still fail, frequently, but trying has deepened my personal relationships in ways I couldn’t have expected.

None of this is to say that those of us who hoped for a different outcome from the election shouldn’t feel hurt, angry, and disappointed or that those feelings are rooted in self-centeredness. I’m also not equating the petty annoyances I experienced as a server with the visceral dangers of a Trump presidency. Because the election results are personal.

The fact that Republicans maintain majorities in the House and Senate, to be led by a deeply phobic and conservative White House, makes it likely that we will soon see legislation that limits affordable access to reproductive healthcare and extends protections to those who would seek to discriminate against minorities, all under the auspices of ‘religious freedom’.

Policy issues aside, a huge chunk of the electorate has sent girls and women a message that a person can brag about sexually assaulting women, can make a mockery of trauma that has robbed the quality from years of life for many women, and still be qualified to hold the most influential and powerful office on the planet.

As devastating as this outcome is, as terrible as the consequences might be, I want to challenge myself and others to examine our assumptions about others and the world around us and to try and imagine what motivates those we don’t agree with. Furthermore, I’d like to suggest that as we move forward, we endeavor to extend our compassion, our understanding, and our grace to those we disagree with, even if they do not always extend those things to us. Not because I think we will necessarily change anyone else by doing those things, but because I am certain that we will change ourselves. That it will make us stronger and braver.

I don’t think that there is any denying that a portion of the voters that elected Trump were motivated by bigotry, fear, and prejudice, and I expect that we will see more of all of those things in the coming years. But I am choosing to believe there were at least some voters for whom Trump represents a vision for America that, even if terribly imperfect, is better than the alternatives they saw on the ballot. I am not saying that I understand that vision or that I ever will, but I know that I have to make a conscious effort to try and see those whose political views differ from my own as motivated by a genuine desire for good, even if that good does not extend beyond themselves and people like them (which I think may be a problem many of them have failed to wrestle with).

Otherwise, my default assumption will lead me to subconsciously see them as ignorant or even evil, in direct opposition to me personally. If I don’t labor to see their humanity, I will only get entrenched in my anger and my own view of the world. The danger of that type of intransigence, of being convinced that you are absolutely right, is that this conviction will allow you to justify any means of imposing your view of the world on others. History has shown us again and again what that looks like. If we truly want to make the world better, our means must be worthy of the ends that we seek. We have to seek compromise. We have to work for peaceful solutions. The alternatives come all too easily.

We have so much work to do. We must strive to not only protect reproductive freedoms, LGBT, minority, and immigrant rights over the next four years, but also to have productive and respectful conversations with coworkers, colleagues, and family members who either do not prioritize these issues the way that we do or who understand them differently. We must work to foster compassion even when it is hard, because the other danger of not looking for the humanity in others and getting entrenched in anger and your own view of the world is that you will burn out.

There is simply no way to maintain hope and anger inside of yourself at the same time. We have to choose one over the other, over and over again.

Public Filter:

This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at publicfiltermilk@gmail.com.

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