If you practice law long enough cynicism is difficult to avoid. If you litigate, as I did for 16 years, it becomes an armor you slip into to keep from feeling your clients’ conflicts too deeply. I suspect the same is true of politicians. It is very difficult to live at a junction where opposing views of the truth clash.
Of course, one of the reasons I love President Obama is his insistence on hope, compassion and every person’s ability to affect small changes. I personally believe that Obama won his high office because of his message of hope and his steadfast unwillingness to turn his bully pulpit into a weapon for bullying. Don’t get me wrong, I know Obama had moments where he lashed out. None of us get to be perfect. But I got the sense that he tried sincerely to maintain a calm and open demeanor even in the heat of political battle.
The other thing that happens over a legal career of any length is a need to clearly articulate for yourself, and sometimes for others, your personal values. By what stars do you steer your ship? One of my own strongly held personal values is in the power of “relentless optimism.”
What do I mean by this? I mean choosing to find the opportunity in each struggle. I am no Pollyanna. I get mad, sad and anxious like everyone else. But one of the lenses I use when looking at a challenge is “What is the opportunity here?” I simply take it as a given that all struggle bears a nugget of opportunity.
I humbly submit that we liberals might want to apply this relentless optimism to our own internal debates about what we do now to move through these trying political times. More importantly, I suggest we consider relentless optimism as we engage our political rivals in what I hope is authentic and heart-felt conversation about what is best for us all. With that, I’ve penned this open letter to liberals on our way forward:
I feel you. I understand how disappointed and sad you are that our country elected Donald Trump president, despite his hateful rhetoric and behavior. I am sad and disappointed too.
I also understand that you are scared that we will move back as a nation to a time where hate and bigotry were normal. I am scared of that too.
Fear is a bitch.
She hides herself in the costumes of anger and pettiness. She is not always easy to see. I know in my own life that when I find myself mentally rehearsing self-righteous tirades, nasty one-liners or publicly shaming someone, I’m really just very scared. I don’t always know it at the time. But in hindsight it is almost always the case that I’m angry because I’m scared.
It is very tempting right now, given how scared I am of President Trump, to be mean, angry and resentful. I want to type super nasty Tweets. I want to show up at town halls and really let somebody, anybody, have it. I have to breathe deeply through my nose 100 times a day not to do that. Right now, relentless optimism is hard.
I also value compassion. I believe that we human beings, including Republican human beings, have a really tough row to hoe. Most of us are doing the best we can in an increasingly complicated world. I have to remind myself that those with whom I disagree are also doing the best they can. If I want them to see and understand my story, then I have to do something hard. I have to build relationships with them, which, let’s be honest, is scary and vulnerable.
Want to know the only research-backed way to “cure” racism? Relationship. Bigots change when they form relationships with the “other” that is the subject of their bigotry. It isn’t a Paul on the road to Damascus change. It is small, incremental change born out of recognition of shared humanity. Real change, lasting change, happens one relationship at a time.
This means we have to talk to Republicans. And we have to listen to them. I don’t mean wait to talk. I mean listen, think, and respond from a place of compassion. When we listen deeply tiny islands of common ground begin to appear and it is on these islands that we can build a common future.
Fear-based anger and lashing out is tempting but it will not move change. Yes, it discharges our intense, uncomfortable feelings when we really let somebody have it. But when people feel attacked they get defensive. Their nervous system goes into high gear and their brain cannot actually process what we are saying. Instead of moving toward us, someone who is attacked moves farther away, to where they feel safe. We also lose new allies, new soldiers for our cause, those people who have largely ignored politics until now, if what they see when they engage is behavior that defies a sense of common decency.
I know. I watched it happen in court rooms and conference rooms for a decade and a half. I watched small conflicts become big conflicts because fearful people lashed out and opponents became entrenched.
Please, please fellow liberals, we need to stop attacking conservatives. Stop “yelling” at them on Facebook and Twitter and at Town Hall meetings. Think twice about mean memes. Some of us are shouting so loud that it is hard for anyone to be heard.
To be clear, I do not mean “let’s all just get along”. This is not a message of capitulation or normalizing. We liberals have important goals to achieve. It is right and just to speak truth to power. And we must speak our truth and advocate for our positions with passion and tenacity. March, protest, write letters and make phone calls. But as my dad told me years and years ago, “You will be heard if you learn to question without being questionable.”
Question. Speak. Be who you are, but the stakes are too high for us to indulge in desperation. Love attracts love. Hate attracts…well, you get the point.