May you never forget exact moment our nation’s polarization got personal. You were floating in a friend’s pool in southwest Michigan on Monday, July 11, 2016, when the rumble of helicopters broke the lazy stillness of the steamy summer afternoon. Since said friend lives near the local hospital, we at first assumed that there had been a major accident of some sort. Only when we realized that 1) the helicopters weren’t landing, rather circling; and 2) we assured ourselves that we hadn’t done anything of late to attract the attention of the paparazzi, and 3) her cell phone exploded, only then did we begin to suspect that something else was going on.
Self, remember that moment. The moment before the moment when we learned there had been a shooting at the courthouse nearby. At least three dead. Several injured. Remember that moment before your brain was forced to assimilate yet again the awareness that some form of our nation’s polarization had struck earth right in our own back yard, almost literally.
Remember that moment, because it is a moment you shared with the two bailiffs who thought — no, expected — to have the next moment, the next hour, the next day to live. To love, to work, to play, to float. None of us has any reason to expect anything else. No person at the Dallas shootings, nor Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, or Philando Castile of St. Paul, Minnesota.
My friend and I got out of her pool, dried ourselves, and rushed to our phones to track the news. We lived. Those others? Self, not one of them in that next moment took their next breath. As their hearts raced to that last beat, with their adrenaline-fueled feet on the gas pedal of their entire beings, they died. No. Next. Moment.
Self, what can you do? It is no longer enough to simply write about how wrong it is. You can’t hide behind this column, or any other writing you do, and take comfort that you have done something. Because that is both inadequate and superficial. And yet no other thing you or anyone else does will ever be enough. This is a monumentally ugly but pervasive thread in our country’s fiber. Is there truly anything, Self, worth doing?
Instead, am I recommending throwing in the towel, wringing your hands, and crawling into bed with the covers over your head? Of course not. But doing the familiar stuff, the comfortable stuff, isn’t working. It’s the hard stuff, the painfully gut-wrenching work, that you need to get yourself about. And now. Do it now.
Self, realize that no one alone is going to solve the multi-textural, multi-generational, and multifaceted issue of the polarization of our country. What egocentricity it is to assume that one law, one protest, one speech, one sit-in will spark a sea change of altered behavior and chastened thought. But Self, the realization of the enormity of this battle can no longer be an excuse for not doing the back-breaking work.
At the memorial service for the five Dallas police officers slain in the line of duty, former president George W. Bush spoke of the importance of cutting our hearts open with our eyes clearly focused. He said, “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions. And this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose.” Former president Bush, I couldn’t agree with you more. What you describe is an all too often deadly shortcut to decision-making at the expense of rigorous thought and dialogue.
At the same service, President Barack Obama drove the point home. “But America, we know that bias remains. We know it, whether you are black, or white, or Hispanic, or Asian, or native American, or of Middle Eastern descent, we have all seen this bigotry in our own lives at some point. We’ve heard it at times in our own homes. If we’re honest, perhaps we’ve heard prejudice in our own heads and felt it in our own hearts. We know that. And while some suffer far more under racism’s burden, some feel to a far greater extent discrimination’s stain. Although most of us do our best to guard against it and teach our children better, none of us is entirely innocent.” President Obama, I agree with you, too.
And we, Self, are not entirely innocent. The most honest and agonizing step to take is that first one. We must rip off the scab that covers our own vestiges of polarization of thought, latent though I pray they are. And when we look into our heart for evidence, Self, we must own up to the times we — to use former president Bush’s words — have judged people, including police officers, by some of their worst examples. We have sometimes assumed people guilty when it would require more patience and perseverance in the pursuit of truth to learn the whole story. We chastise ourself when we catch it, but there have been too many times when we haven’t.
Self, we raised our fist when all teachers were painted with the same brush many years ago. We knew then the truth that most teachers, in fact nearly all teachers, were smart, dedicated, compassionate professionals. And you know now that most officers of the law, every day, evidence those same qualities. Then we asked teachers to do it all. I suspect we still do. And now, according to Dallas police chief David Brown, we are making the same structural failure with those we depend on to keep us safe. We are asking them to do it all with dwindling resources and the nearly smothering stress of expectations society imposes on them.
Remember too, Self, that those police officers who do pull a trigger, every one of them, have lived up to that moment in a world of good and bad experience but with that same expectation that the next moment will not be qualitatively different from their last moment. They will be alive, yes, but they too will be forever altered. The bias is to assume they were somehow fated to kill. The reality is that until we thoughtfully inquire, we will never know.
And, Self, when you respond to labels put on people rather than evidence of truth of spirit, that is also a time when your biases have rendered you not entirely innocent. Again, Self, you know what I mean.
Self, we must be committed to a long haul. We will make missteps. Our thoughts will get twisted up in the rhetoric of others. Our actions, even those we calculate to be motivated by the purest of purpose will miss the mark and go shooting off into unintended consequence. You will get tired. We will get discouraged. We will get angry and we will continue to get old. It will be oh so tempting to revert to hiding behind words in the shortcuts of biased thought, well disguised and mostly unintended.
But Self, the time is now. In fact, the time is way, way past now. We must make a soulful commitment to doing our share to influence the course of our country’s boat as it passes through your own minuscule patch of the ocean. Make ripples based on a dedication to the belief that none of us can survive alone. Make ripples of reaching out and up. Make ripples that rock gently the people near you. Be ready to unite your ripples with the ripples of those who are also gently rocking.
Self, national polarization has the ugly potential to swallow up the country we know we could be. We’ve seen our country’s character chipped away each time our fellow citizens die in senseless tragedy. We must act now to save what we know to be true. In this I also agree with President Obama. I know we can be better. I know, Self, that you must be better.
Good luck, Self. Never give up. I’ll be watching.