“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.” Perhaps those of you old enough to have taken a typing class in high school will remember this sentence, as we had to type it repeatedly during drills and timed tests. I always thought it was a quote by someone famous during a particular time in our nation’s history. Turns out I was wrong. It was coined by Charles Weller, a typing instructor, for use as a typing drill. However, the sentiment is apt for the times we are facing as Americans. Perhaps it would be better stated as “Now is the time for all good citizens to come to the aid of their country.” I don’t think anyone would argue that we are in a time of crisis, a crucible for responsible citizenship. In Japanese, the symbol for the word “crisis” is a combination of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity.” It is often helpful to explore what opportunities a crisis is presenting to us, and I think this is crucial to navigating the next four years, no matter which side of the political divide we are on.
One of the biggest opportunities is to stop taking a back seat and letting our elected officials drive the bus. We must get involved! The number of registered voters who chose not to vote is a shameful commentary on how many United States citizens have abdicated their responsibility to this nation that was founded on a democracy, of, by and for the people. The truth is that in order for the democracy to stand, we cannot sit back and let our legislators do the hard work of governing. We cannot rely on them to create a nation that upholds our values for inclusion, generosity, peace and justice. Because mostly what Congress is good at is maintaining the status quo. So it is incumbent on us to bring about the conditions we desire, a government that values every citizen, no matter what color, race, religion, sexual identity, income or social class.
In order to do this, one of the things we must conquer is our fear of the other. The divisions between us must be bridged. We have become so accustomed to the pendulum swing of government, the regular shifts of ruling party, that we have failed to recognize that the pendulum is now swinging farther and farther to the edges of partisan politics. And the wider that swing becomes, the less we feel like talking to each other. We settle into our comfortable encampments and only venture out when we absolutely have to. There’s no need to build a wall on the border, we’ve already built one, an invisible line between ideologies that keeps us from ever having to venture out of our comfort zones. And from within the walls of our fortress, we label everyone outside or different from us as “other.”
As it turns out, this “us versus them” mentality has been around for a really long time. As in, since the beginning of humankind. Think back to what you learned in school about prehistoric times. There were constantly warring tribes that threatened the territory and lives of the “other.” In order for a people to survive, they had to be wary and distrustful of strangers. Strangers could belong to a tribe that wanted nothing less than to slaughter your families and communities and take your land, your food, and your tools. Civilizations have been lost by such events. Cortez demolished the Aztec empire in his zeal to claim Mexico for the rulers of Spain. The early settlers of America soon set their sights on taking all the land “from sea to shining sea” in a vision of manifest destiny that denied the native Americans any right to the land they had inhabited for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.
Through these kinds of experiences, humans learned to be distrustful. The suspicious ones survived when others did not. In a sense, through survival of the fittest, fear of the other became hardwired into our DNA. The most primitive part of our brain, home of the fight or flight response, which drives our need for safety, is also the part of the brain that is not connected to the parts that developed the capacity for emotion and logical thought. It is an instinctive and automatic response to those who are different.
Of course, I am not suggesting that we are incapable of change, just that it takes a lot of work to overcome our most basic human instinct. We have to be courageous enough to reach out, to learn about the other, to dare to be vulnerable in the name of finding common ground. We have to believe in the basic goodness of the other, at least enough to start a conversation. We have to challenge the voices that tell us that the person on the other side of the political fence is a horrible person. The thing is, both sides do it. And yet, I know many people who voted differently than I did who are good, caring people, people who believe in equality and who feed the hungry, support the poor, and practice radical hospitality. You might be surprised at their capacity for compassion. No political party has cornered the market on compassion. In fact, compassion is not something that can be legislated. Compassion is shown by those who follow a law of the heart rather than strictly abiding by the laws of government. Our country will become a better place, not when the “right” political party is in power, but when all of its citizens act with compassion where they are. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all work together toward that day? Administrations come and go, but the heart of a compassionate people never wavers. May it be so.