Living Life Well – Our diversity reconciled
The complex, rich diversity within these United States of America makes our country especially unique among all the others. Over the centuries, perhaps no other nation has drawn as many different kinds of people from as many corners of the planet, each with their own languages, skills, and beliefs. And yet – thanks to the blunders of this last administration – we no longer need to suffer the delusion of American Exceptionalism, nor struggle with the burden of worldwide admiration.
My travels throughout America when I was young wore down my assumptions about our country, and taught me the many differences of our landscapes and our peoples. I remember the damage to my shirt when I left a fountain pen in my pocket as we drove up the Colorado Rockies, and the foolishness of combing my hair with water before setting out to explore Manhattan one freezing February morning. And the people! Regional idioms and dialects have made of the English language a fascinatingly rich and diverse lexicon, with cultural nuances wonderful to discover. For the most part it was only the most adventurous and inventive, hopeful people that came to America, bringing their many religions, perspectives, and traditions to add into the stone soup they found already bubbling away here.
And then there were those who had been taken from their homes against their will to somehow survive, laboring for those who were building a better life for themselves by denying it to others. And then again there were those who were here originally, only to become displaced – the indigenous folk who were also amazingly diverse, living life well in terms of the land in all its variations – mountains and plains, waterways and deserts – all across the breadth of the continent. The rich, complex diversity of all this requires that we do not stereotype anyone according to our naive opinions, forcing them into polarized baskets of the ballyhooed or the deplorable. It would be absurd to believe that everyone of any political party or denomination will have identical ideas and feelings, nor the same agenda. Each person is best encountered without opinion, and with curiosity and respect for how they are who they are – and how that had come to be.
We stereotype the people we do not know for our convenience, rather than go to the effort to appreciate what makes each one of them special and unique, and we focus instead upon some absurd caricature of them. We all too quickly avert our eyes from what makes strangers human, and so they become the monsters that inhabit our own darkness instead. I myself may be stereotyping here, but it seems to me that what separates idealists from those who believe in conspiracies is that they are curious and aspirational, while conspiratologists tend to be suspicious and cynical – and often more frightened. I think about the Proud Boys, and those who identify with Antifa, and wonder about each one and why they chose to join their groups. I’ve studied childhood trauma enough to know there are unique reasons that people react the way they do, and have to believe there are for each one of them good reasons for doing bad things. To stereotype them is to miss those reasons, and to misunderstand who they are and what they do – and to become confused about what to do about who they are and what they do. As I write this we are still navigating political ins and outs, as each state certifies its election before they are all validated and confirmed by the Electoral College on Dec. 14. Meanwhile our days, like our tempers, are getting shorter – and our nights are growing longer as seasonal darkness increases with winter’s approach, and we watch Trump flail and rail like Lear against the stormy destiny that he created for himself – and for us.
Meanwhile Biden has methodically begun rebuilding the traditional democratic institutions Trump demolished. And yet, before reconstruction is possible, a certain amount of demolition is always necessary to get back down to a solid foundation, so we can at least thank Trump for accomplishing that. Our attention can now be brought to the dry rot that crept incrementally into the structures of our government over the decades. We can recognize the hard work to be done as we discern what is worth saving and what must be replaced by something better. In 1996 the new government of South Africa, under the direction of Nelson Mandela, established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – a court-like restorative justice body in which victims of human rights violations during the decades of apartheid were able to be heard, for which they were awarded compensation – as were perpetrators of such violence, who were allowed to ask for amnesty from prosecution. Forgiveness was the goal, made possible only by the sort of acknowledgment and abject apology that brings a final end to such violence, and makes possible a better world for everyone.
The restorative justice that needs to happen in America today will recognize the crimes that have been committed in which, ultimately, all of society is the victim – and all of society, in its complacency, is likewise the perpetrator. We tend to focus upon a particular crime by an individual criminal because it draws our attention away from ourselves – but we need to understand our own part in the crime. To identify a specific victim is to deny our own injury, and to identify a specific criminal is to deny our own culpability.
With the coming solstice and the next New Year, with the imminent decisions of the election – and that of Georgia – and with the eventual, inevitable return of the light, with the passing of the dread that was brought about by the old administration and its emblematic pandemic, there will be much to celebrate. But there is also much work to be done throughout the years ahead, throughout this varied and complicated land, and within and throughout the rich complexities of each and every one of us.