The news slapped me awake. After hours of tracking the US presidential race, I’d dozed off close to 3:00 a.m. here in our home in central Europe. Now my husband was tapping me on the shoulder, whispering, “Honey, it’s looking really bad.”
From demi-snooze to straight up in a millisecond. Shot through with adrenalin, I lunged at the glow from his cell screen. Two breaths and the unthinkable. Just as he had said: really, really bad.
Predawn. Postelection. Preposterous. I was apoplectic.
Was this my country? Had the US actually elected a platinum-plated demagogue, a caricature of every last thing that defines “The Ugly American”? I could neither stand it, nor could I understand it.
During our 25 years living outside its borders (and paying its taxes), had the US I’d described to the rest of the world as diverse and large-hearted turned into the xenophobe’s fortress Donald Trump endorsed? Had the country I’d told others was not driven by wanton hedonism, racism, or misogyny now shrugging off those evils by picking a commander-in-chief who embodies and emboldens every one of them? Our country’s hallmark traits of global leadership and multipolar cooperation, where were they? A president nixing NAFTA and NATO? Building WALLS?
Days later, my head still thick with grief, I was rattled yet again when Trump announced his first cabinet appointments. With each new name my dismay turned to dread, then my dread to disgust, and finally my disgust to despair.
I’ve been fighting back despair because, however justifiable it would feel right now to slump into a mound of gloom, life has taught me that despair deadens. Hope, on the other hand, animates. Hope is spiritual fuel. It keeps you moving. And heaven knows, these days we need something moving.
Few speak with more authority about despair and hope than does Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Holocaust survivor, and author. His voice cries to us as we stand in a precarious crossroads witnessing a detailed recap of many of the factors that led, only 80 years ago, to the scourge of a world war. Were Wiesel still living, (he died this past July), what watchwords would he offer us in our present turmoil?
Wiesel has written that “We are moved by despair, but we must never be moved to despair.”
If we despair, if we abandon hope, we will be immobilized, anesthetized, our humanity even deadened. Maybe you’ve observed that when injustice hits hardest you might rally, but you might also slump, then shrug, and finally you shut your eyes, roll over, and burrow into your slumber. It is, ironically, a deceptively small step from despair to indifference. And indifference is as much an enemy of the good as is injustice.
“The opposite of love,” said Wiesel, “is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
To guard against the numbing effects of indifference, we keep our eyes riveted on the political landscape. We watch with heightened scrutiny for any signs that intolerance, extremism, injustice, discrimination and violence are normalized or even celebrated in the media. We respond with alacrity, gravity, and dignity. We hound news sources that wink at that which is unpresidential and unlawful. We give Mr. Trump “a chance” (as the democratic system requires us to do), but never do we grant him impunity.
And we act. “Action,” said Wiesel, “is the only remedy to indifference, the most insidious danger of all.” How, specifically, do we act? We begin by disciplining our own political discussions, refusing to mimic Trump’s itchy Twitter trigger finger and his attacks – verbal or otherwise – on anyone of an opposing opinion. We open up our echo chambers and engage in respectful dialogue from multiple angles, knowing that the most important angle is often the one we not only never saw, but had never imagined existed.
Stand Up and Speak Out
When we respond to wrongs in society with alacrity, gravity and dignity, even if our voices are not always heard and changes we seek are not always made, we have at least maintained our integrity. A meager triumph? Not according to Wiesel, who in his Nobel acceptance speech said, “One person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death.” At a time when there appears to be a vacuum of integrity at the chief level, our private integrity might indeed be our greatest public service.
Which reminds me of a parable Wiesel once wrote (and I will paraphrase) of a young man who wanted to save Sodom, the most decadent of all cities. The fiery activist wore out his life warning Sodom’s inhabitants of the falseness of their ways. At first, folks listened, but only because this man was an oddity. Soon, they stopped listening altogether. …
Years passed, and the man, who’d grown old, was still relentlessly trudging through town yelling, “You are destroying yourselves and each other!”
A child stopped him one day and asked, “Why do you keep yelling if they don’t listen? Isn’t this a waste of time?”
The man nodded, “I know. It’s not changing them.”
“Then why keep doing it?”
“Because,” the man said, “I know I’ll never be able to change them. But if I keep shouting and calling and warning, it’s because I don’t want them to ever change me.”
While I set out today to write a hopeful message about US politics, I realized that task was many times harder than I’d imagined. There are thorny times ahead. Still, they are not without hope.
It’s too early in the process, perhaps, to be full of hope. But I’ve concluded that it’s never too late to not become hopeless.