Living In This Guy's America

Originally published 2/25/2017

I recently had lunch with a dear friend of mine.  He is the most giving, generous person I know, and I was very curious to hear about how he’d been doing with all the recent events that have occurred during the early days of Trump’s presidency.  We had a long, thoughtful conversation about what is happening and where we’re going as a society, and I came away with a sense of hope for the future for the first time in months.

If you’ve ever met me, you’ll know that I never hesitate to express my opinion about a topic, even if it’s a sensitive or controversial topic (or maybe especially then).  I am easily bored by talk of the weather, so I try to segue as quickly as possible into something meaningful that will allow me to really connect with another person.  This isn’t to say we have to agree on everything for me to feel connected.  In fact, I often prefer for someone to present a novel or contradictory view to mine so I may discover a new way of thinking or approaching a topic.  But I don’t belligerently hold onto my opinions simply because they were the beliefs I had when I woke up this morning.  I am a big fan of the phrase, “It is good to have strong opinions, loosely held.”  I try my best to remain open minded and consider other perspectives before making up my mind.  I’m not afraid to nudge someone out of their comfort zone, nor am I afraid to be nudged out of mine.  I also don’t believe there is anything wrong with changing your mind or position on a topic after you’ve been presented with new and different information.  If you have thought critically and considered all sides to an argument, changing your mind is simply a sign that you are able to reason and adapt.  Change is not a sign of weakness, but of strength.

All this is to say that my outlook on recent events has changed over the last few months.  If I had written about Trump the day after the election, I would have written about my hopelessness and despair (I wore black on November 9th to signify my mourning in what now appears an overly dramatic gesture).  I still do not like Trump, and I have not heard him utter one sentence I feel I can wholeheartedly agree with (despite the fact that he contradicts himself regularly).  I vehemently believe a position of isolationism and building walls, either figuratively or literally, will only hurt us in the long run.  This being said, I’ve come to see some good in our current situation.

Most growth and change occurs during crisis.  As Ryan Holiday discusses in The Obstacle is the Way, we must not only learn to accept that bad things will happen in our lives, but actively look for the lessons and opportunities in these experiences.  With everything that is happening right now, we have the opportunity to reevaluate our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.  Maybe we’ve gotten comfortable with where we are, too comfortable.  Or maybe we realize that the differences we used to separate ourselves from another person or group are actually insignificant in the grand scheme of things and we can choose to come together to fight for the same cause.  It can be good to shake things up and ask ourselves what changes we can make as we move forward.

I believe the way forward is not to dig my heels into the sand and surround myself with people who only parrot my beliefs or confirm my biases.  The biggest problem I have with many of Trump’s statements regarding people who are different from him in some way is that he grossly over generalizes many groups of people.  Muslims are not terrorists any more than all Christians blow up abortion clinics.  The majority of refugees are seeking safety, fleeing from countries where their homes have been destroyed and they fear for their lives.  By in large, the people coming into the US from other countries are adding value through hard work and diverse perspectives.  The last thing I want to do is lump Trump supporters into some pejorative, over generalized group, becoming the very thing I find so hurtful and counterproductive.

If we fight fire with fire, everyone ends up burned.  In these trying times, I want to show empathy and compassion to everyone.  I understand that in order for us to get where we are, many people in this country feel as if their voice has been taken away and nobody understands them.  As humans, our strongest drive is to connect with others and be seen.  I don’t want to try to silence those who do not agree with me.  I think it is only through thoughtful, often uncomfortable conversations that we can find a middle ground to move forward together.  But when I say “thoughtful conversations,” I do not mean yelling over one another until the other person has to shut up and listen to you.  I do not mean latching onto something the other person says and tuning everything else out while you bide your time until you get your chance to speak again.  In a recent article, Daniel Dennett describes the only circumstances you’re allowed to criticize someone else’s view.  You must first genuinely hear them and try to understand their perspective.  Ideally, you then repeat back to them the points they’ve made to make sure you get where they are coming from, explicitly calling out the points you find to be valid.  Only then can you present your contradictory views.  Continuing with an “us vs. them” mentality will only isolate us further.  We all have something in common, and I’d suggest seeking out similarities before jumping to differences.  At several events I’ve attended, the ice breaker activity is to put 3-4 people in a group and see who can be the first group to list out 5 or 10 things everyone in the group has in common.  This is a great way to humanize the person you’ve thought of as an opponent, and hopefully gives you a foundation on which to have real dialogue.

I certainly don’t have all the answers and I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.  What I do know is that if we want to have any hope of making a better future, we must learn our lessons from history and past atrocities.  As Ryan Holiday encouraged in a recent post, we must learn to look past the sensationalist media to what really matters.  If you find yourself disagreeing with the opinion of a friend, family member, or those expressed here, take some time to think critically about why you disagree.  Is it just because your spouse or friends believe something, or do you truly believe in your stance?  Once we can articulate the reasoning behind our positions, we can come together to listen to each other with the intent of creating a better future, together.