I had a conversation this past week with an older woman who is more politically conservative than me. We got along well, however, in spite of our differences: besides our political differences, I’m young and healthy while she’s older and in chronic pain. It’s always good to talk to people who do not share your exact views: conversations like that always seem to shape and sharpen perspectives more than a continuous chorus of agreement…as long as everyone remains civil, that is. I just wish I had initiated the conversation in a more graceful way.
A TV was on in the background, and of course, the news of the hour was Donald Trump’s transition team. More specifically, they were discussing whether or not Trump’s appointment of men with close ties to white supremacy movements means that this administration will be racist. I don’t remember giving my mouth permission to open, but nevertheless, a certain comment that has been ringing around inside my head somehow made its way outside.
“Well,” said the woman, “I guess I know who you voted for.”
Damn. Way to be subtle there, Hannah. I sighed and trotted out the explanation I’ve been using since the November 9th (the very same explanation I would have used had things gone the other way): “I voted for clean energy initiatives, the preservation of the environment, and for the dignity of all people to be respected and upheld. I felt that those values, at the very least, stood a better fighting chance with her than with him.”
“That’s probably the best argument I’ve heard for voting Democrat this election, but I just couldn’t stomach her,” she said in reply.
There was silence for a few moments…and then the news switched to coverage of the Hamilton/Pence/Trump on Twitter drama.
“I just don’t understand,” she went on, “why all these people are so frightened. I just want to tell them not to be afraid; there’s nothing to be afraid of. They should just calm down. Everything is going to be alright.”
There’s three possible answers to that kind of statement.
1. Make some non-committal sound, and change the subject.
2. Disagree violently: “Don’t you dare tell me it’s going to be okay!”
3. Try to explain your viewpoint in calm, respectful tones.
Of all the above options, I think #3 is the hardest…which is of course why it is the option I committed myself to. You know, that pledge I’ve been struggling to keep.
“Well,” I said slowly, taking in deep breaths around the word and willing myself to be calm, “I guess it almost doesn’t matter.”
Judging from the puzzled look she gave me, I guessed I wasn’t doing a very good job explaining, having been so focused on staying calm.
“I mean,” I hastened to add, “that whether or not there is actually something to concerned about, you can’t just dismiss someone’s fears out of hand. It’d be…it’d be like me, a young woman who hasn’t lived a single day in non-stop pain, telling you not be depressed by the chronic pain you live with. ‘Keep your spirits up, you’ve got to remain cheerful! That’s the important part!’ You’d probably stop listening to me, because I’ve just demonstrated that I really don’t know what it’s like to be in chronic pain. It would seem like I’m just not interested in putting forth any effort into understanding what it’s like for you to be in constant pain––I’ve just offered a glib little cliché. I’ve basically just told you that you don’t have the right to your feelings about your own body and the pain you suffer.”
“I hate it when people do that,” she said, very quietly.
I nodded. Working as a CNA has given me front-row seats to the way people react to another’s pain, and the anguish that many of those approaches leave on the one who can’t walk away from the nursing home…or walk at all. If I’ve learned nothing else in my six years in Long-Term Care, I ‘ve learned just how damaging it is to deny people the validity of their own pain. “Telling people not to be afraid, or concerned,” I continued, “isn’t going to erase or ease their feelings of fear. It’s just going to make them feel ignored as well as threatened, angry as well as afraid. What we feel is very real…at least to us…and to just dismiss those feelings…”
After a long pause, the Republican turned to face me fully and asked: “So why do you feel concerned? What is it that makes you react as strongly as you do?”
“I’m just afraid he’s let the genie out of the bottle,” I replied softly. “This was a very emotionally charged election on both sides, but the rhetoric he used was pretty fear-based…and the fears of one particular group over all others. I just worry that now the vindictive expressions and extremist attitudes have been, well, normalized to an extent they weren’t before…Genies don’t usually want to go back into the bottle. Once they get out, they tend to run amok. Hate-speech is hard to control, once it has got a foothold. And I don’t like what I’m seeing, where compassion is being equated with weakness. If we can’t be kind and show empathy towards one another without being labeled a security risk and a dangerous flake…God help us all, but what do we have left?”
“We won’t let that happen,” she said firmly. “Even if he tries to do all that, which I don’t think he will, we won’t let it happen. You’ll see.”
I smiled back at her, a bit sadly. “I hope so,” I said.
The conversation was over and we each had to go our separate ways. During my drive home, I wondered if I should have made her stay longer, cited historical precedent for the populace allowing acts of oppression against minorities to be carried out by their government. Argued longer, better, more forcefully. Perhaps I should have––after all, those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. But talking about genies and bottles put me in mind of another myth: Pandora’s Box. In that story, the last thing to be released from the box was Hope. Hope was smaller than everything that had been trapped in the box with it, but Hope was also the only one that could make the new world bearable.
Among my many flaws is impatience: I want things to change, and I want them to change now. That’s the crusader part of me, wanting to be united with the dreamer; the two extremes of my being desiring to be reconciled, knowing they can only do so in a world where justice and mercy dance in harmony.
But change, lasting change…that doesn’t usually happen overnight. It doesn’t happen in a single conversation.
In all the great stories, the ones I turn to for both solace and strength, there is a common theme. What is it that defeats the darkness, that turns back the tide of hate? It’s never just one single act of defiance. It is always the innumerable tiny acts of kindness, the little loves and minute mercies we offer to our fellow human beings every day. When it comes to kindness and courage, there’s no such thing as a wasted effort or insignificant gestures. All our small gestures run together into a stream that trickles through the dam until finally, one more act, the culmination of all that came before, smashes through.
Nothing I do, say or write is ever likely to be that culmination. That’s not an excuse to shut up, sit back and swallow my words. I may never be the culminating act…but I might be the catalyst for other small gestures of kindness. Ending that stimulating conversation with hope…doesn’t feel wrong. I gave her something to think about. You can’t really expect more from a fifteen minute conversation.