Benefit of the doubt. Accountability. Forgiveness. Grace. Understanding. Compassion. Kindness.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about A Time to Kill, the book by John Grisham that was made into a movie starring Samuel L. Jackson and Matthew McConaughey, the former as the black father who kills his ten-year-old daughter’s white rapists and the latter as the white lawyer who represents him in his murder trial. There is no doubt that he shot the men in cold blood as he did it at the courthouse after he realized they would probably be set free despite their crime. The trial ignites racial tensions with protesters and counter-protesters, media frenzy and strong feelings on both sides.
Wikipedia describes the closing argument that McConaughey’s character uses to turn the tide for his client: “During closing arguments, a deeply-shaken Brigance tells the jury to close their eyes and listen to a story. He describes, in slow and painful detail, the entire ordeal of Tonya. Brigance then asks the jury, in his final comment, to ‘now imagine she's white’." In the deeply divided and racially-charged atmosphere of Mississippi where the trial takes place, the all-white jury can gain another perspective through this exercise, even though it is a sad commentary that they can’t find the same empathy for a black ten-year-old girl on their own.
This example has been with me since I originally read the book twenty years ago because it illustrates one aspect of something important that seems to be slipping away from us more and more each year – the ability to empathize with, or even give legitimacy to the opinions of, someone we consider an “other.” And our othering has reached entirely new proportions as we allow more and more categories of humanness to divide us in deeper and deeper ways - racial, religious, cultural, political and gender just to name a few. Seeing entire categories of people as the enemy, no matter who they are, weakens the very melting pot idealism upon which this country was founded.
We have gotten to the point that we give no credibility to anyone with different political views and are even are willing to cut people out of our lives entirely if they see things differently from us – including family members. A Facebook friend posted a meme that went something like this: You can’t purport to love me and then vote against my best interests. That sounds simple and straightforward, but is, in fact, a false choice. What if your best interests and mine clash? I’m supposed to vote for yours instead? Even though I totally understood and empathized with his reasons for posting it, it doesn’t promote coming together, only blame.
A member of my family works in the health insurance industry and Obamacare was going to hurt his bottom line considerably. Without it, as a four-time cancer survivor, I wouldn’t be able to get health insurance at any cost. It is easy to see that one of these may take precedence over the other (I certainly saw it that way at the time), but can I really fault him for seeing it from his own perspective? I can understand that his position wasn’t a personal attack on mine. That’s all any of us can really do. The NPR show Hidden Brain did an episode called Red Brain, Blue Brain that explored the role biology plays in our politics. It gave me an expanded view of how our political opinions form and more empathy for those whose beliefs differ from mine. If we are all born with certain traits that make us more likely to be liberal or conservative then how can we demonize each other for our beliefs?
I have to bring it up, even though everyone is sick of talking about Ellen and George W. Bush. It is such a great example of what I’m talking about. Ellen was called out by some in the GLBTQIA community for laughing with and being friendly to the former president. Because of the policy stance he took against gay rights, some in her community thought she should have ignored him when they were thrown together at a football game. Let’s just imagine what our world would look like if, in order to be ideologically pure, we couldn’t interact with anyone whose beliefs were different from ours. How would that even be possible?
What if the principal at our kid’s school has different beliefs? Do we have to find a new school? Is it really necessary that our bakery, coffee shop, dry cleaner all share our political leanings, and if it is, does everyone who works there have to share them? Just the owner? It’s easy to see how quickly this all becomes untenable. We do have the ability to vote with our dollars for what we believe in, and I have participated in boycotts of certain brands and establishments in the past, but even that is fraught. I love the example from one of my favorite shows, The Good Place when Eleanor says, “There’s this chicken sandwich that if you eat it means you hate gay people, and it’s delicious.” Chik-fil-A has recently changed who they donate to based in part on the protests as they expand beyond the southern US, and they are getting flak from the other side now.
Ellen was 100% right when she said, “I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different and I think that we’ve forgotten that it’s ok that we’re all different. When I say be kind to one another, I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”
I recently joined into a discussion on Facebook – no, not about politics. I do my best to avoid those like the plague because I truly don’t believe any good can come from them, though occasionally, I too get drawn in. This one happened to be about how to treat shingles naturally. Since I have some experience with this, I offered my suggestions about essential oils that I had used for this same malady. Another participant in the discussion chimed in about how incredibly painful this virulent outbreak can be, and added, “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy . . . well maybe the democRATS.” I told her I was a Democrat and had offered a suggestion, and reiterated my belief that it’s important to be kind to everyone, even those – perhaps especially those – who don’t agree with us. I don’t know this woman personally, but we had a brief exchange on this thread, and it turns out she had been verbally attacked recently by a liberal on her own Facebook page and had ended up blocking him. I have had the same experience from the other side and took the same action. Name-calling and vitriol is so easy online that it can numb us to the very real feelings of the person on whom you are putting those labels.
It is difficult to understand sometimes how we can see things so completely differently, and it can be even harder not to take it personally. But it’s not. It never is. No matter how much it may hurt that everyone in your family, or carpool or office thinks differently than you do, making them “bad people” or deplorables for believing the way they do simply doesn’t serve anyone. It doesn’t serve our democracy either. When our personal beliefs become more important than our common good, we’re in trouble, and it’s time to find common ground, meet in the middle and unite around shared American values again. I like what this organization is doing and there are others too.
Meanwhile, we can only ever really change ourselves, so I challenge you to start there. Thanksgiving is coming up. It can be that time when we argue about politics over the turkey. Or, instead, we can ban political talk this year and talk about what we are thankful for about living in a democracy instead. I know it’s not easy, and I challenge you to reach for kindness even when you are uncomfortable or even triggered, or when you find yourself taking it personally. Instead of lashing out, go within and find some peace in your own circumstances. When we control our own thoughts and emotions around politics or any other differences, we literally create peace within ourselves that ripples out into our families, our communities, our world.