Oh hell: Thoughts about a country

I – like many of us – have just witnessed the first debate among two men who want to be named president of the United States in five weeks and a moderator who deserves a quiet walk in the park and a beer. Or a taser.

Nobody won. No one American won from that display. Not you, your neighbor, the elderly man who bags your groceries, your mom, me or my kids and peeps. Civility … civil discourse sure didn’t win. And I guarantee that folks from other countries – allies and cold war enemies – are not in awe of “American exceptionalism.”

Remember after 9/11 when we – as a nation – pulled together?

Except we didn’t completely, did we? Sikh friends, Jordanian Christians, anyone with brown skin – people who looked more like historical Jesus than the pasty folks overrunning the Indigenous Americans’ homelands – were often abused, taunted and made to feel unwelcome. Flags were waved and a “Go back where you came from!” was slurred from snarling maws.

Though many Americans embraced strangers, too many were left uninvited to the “community table.” Since then, the fortressed ones who chose rhetoric and fear over community got louder as they discovered more blame to assign and a catalyst that leveraged their fear and chronic uncertainty for personal gain.

And then in the last year – and tonight it was fully on display – we saw what amounted to a schoolyard bullying among two men who are aspirational towards the presidency. What we saw was less Commander in Chief, and more Biff Tannen, from Back to the Future.

This does not surprise me. It breaks my heart and kneels on my hope, but it does not surprise me.

At 244 years old, America is still a young punk on the global playground. We’re thousands of years younger than Ethiopia, Greece, Japan, Portugal … China and older than several new countries – “rebranded” old cultures in Europe, an island nation (Palau) and South Sudan. We know things and have stuff, but we lack maturity. Wisdom to ask, “even if we can, should we?”

Think back to the junior high courtyards of your youth. Are we that mouthy feral kid who has to be right and has to be the center of attention because no one has taught him/her manners or consideration for others yet? That kid who has to get louder and meaner because facts are harder to understand than fear and bullying?

If this debate among aspirational presidents (let’s be honest: that was not a presidential debate) demonstrates anything, it is that we are a very young country and still playing our short game.

The stress, loss and isolation of the pandemic, and the summer when historical grief/anger is lighting up the public square again has revealed our character, as trauma tends to do. And this election – if what we keep seeing is the trend – may be our winnowing.

Do you remember what tended to happen to the careless mouthy bullying kids? Eventually, the bill on their talk and intimidation came due. Like an after school special or that scene from A Christmas Story where Ralphie finally has his fill of Scut’s hectoring and let’s loose on Scut’s face?

In America right now, maybe we are whaling on ourselves. Or our neighbors. The vulnerable and “essential” workers who work endlessly to feed their families. Or Republicans and Democrats. Scientists and charlatans. A little social media engineering from “bad actors” and we are ready to body slam each other – other Americans who love the land, the people and the name we share.

Just a thought: If you have kids, you know that because you love them, you call them out on their posturing and hold them accountable. The goal is not to reinforce external motivation, but an internal lean toward what is good, noble and true; personal responsibility and community. We don’t skimp on loving and leading our kids – especially when it’s hard.

So when people call out issues with this country we call home and are willing to put forth effort and time and sweat equity into dealing with those issues, than perhaps they are doing it in the same spirit as we do with our families – out of love and a keen awareness that a house divided cannot stand.

Instead of continuing to armor up and reinforce our fortresses of “RIGHT” and “WRONG” and “my way or highway,” can we attempt a long view of this time we are in? Recognize it as part of our growing up?

We still have a chance to grow up and grow together rather than grow increasingly divided in a schism among states instead of the United States.

A little humility. A little effort and perseverance in the uncertainty and a whole lot of civil discourse, action and leaping out of our comfort zones, may just move us closer to the place, the country and the people so many of us imagined we were … until we finally learned how our fellow Americans experience this nation. Every day.

I love America. It’s an amazing place with a rich diversity of people contributing to communities and ideas; mountains, fjords, meadows, prairies, biodiversity, and resources; and a coming of age that needs to be addressed. By all of us.

It’s not a red state or blue state issue. Not a donkey or elephant. Not even a faith-agnostic or coffee-tea issue.

It’s us. And it’s time we began to govern with integrity and compassion – first ourselves and then together for our communities and country. Yes, I am a “people over profits” and “there is no planet B” person. I don’t have all the answers, but neither do you. It’s going to take all of us to work together and call for something better than what we have allowed to happen to our country and what was on display in the debate tonight. We can do better.

We deserve better.
Our children deserve better.
What’s it worth to us?

… … …

We don’t need to have all the answers – not even one answer – really. We need to be willing to consider the wider picture, the longer view than just “us in our time.” With such diverse people, we have so many opportunities to merge our different approaches into something that works for the long haul and for all Americans.

We’re not weenies. We’re up for the challenge.

“I’m not here to be right, but to get it right.” – BrenĂ© Brown, researcher and storyteller


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