“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy
12 years ago I was home from college for the summer, and took in the 2004 Democratic National Convention with my parents. I wasn’t particularly interested in politics (I was 21 and hadn’t yet had an opportunity to vote in a presidential election) but it was something to have on during the evenings that week, and a conversation topic for me and my folks. I didn’t find the messages all that interesting or relatable to me. Many of them felt redundant, and the speakers glorified cheerleaders for the crowd.
But then this young guy with an odd name gets up and I remember thinking that his message wasn’t even about politics. He spoke of a collective higher purpose, a call to unity (not red states or blue states but the United States!), hope and optimism for the future. Maybe I was just a naive college kid, a sucker for a good speech, and I’m sure the party leaders had a target on my back and people my age (“Bring Obama out for the youth vote”) but that’s fine. This message and this person had me hooked, and inspired to start considering the world and the people outside of my “bubble” – a middle-class, suburban neighborhood in KC, and a college campus in Columbia, MO – in a bigger way.
Soon after that night I couldn’t wait to find out more about this guy. His books crystalized his beliefs in a way that only built on my enthusiasm. The notion of the “Audacity of Hope” resonated with me in a profound way, and a couple of years later, my friends and I were hitting the phones in Chicago to help him get elected as the President of the United States. It was the first time I felt like I was a part of something bigger than politics, something important, a virtuous movement that could very clearly impact the country and the world.
Eight years later I couldn’t be more of a believer in the man; proud of the way he represented me and my country to the rest of the world, regardless of any specific policies or programs. But more importantly, the cause that he opened my eyes to and inspired me to act upon lives on. Those of us who were involved with his campaign felt a responsibility to support the candidate but even more so the cause. And that cause, that belief in all Americans first and foremost, still energizes me and leaves me hopeful, optimistic for the future in so many ways. Because the cause is bigger than any one individual.
I won’t pretend that I wasn’t devastated by Tuesday’s election result. Not necessarily because of my candidate, though that certainly was part of it, but because of the impact that decision might have on the legacy of what so many of us rallied behind and were so inspired by eight years ago.
For the first time I can remember, I felt like an outsider in my own country this week. Or as my friend Lydia explained it, I felt like the butt of a joke that everyone else was in on but me. The country had changed and I was being left behind. But the facts are that the people spoke decisively, I believe in democracy, and democracy is bigger than any one individual.
So as painful as it’s been, I’m going to remain hopeful.
…that the people who were as inspired by President Obama a decade ago remain energized in all we were inspired by then. The belief in finding common ground, common goals and beliefs, and lifting each other up as Americans – not Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians or Independents or natives or immigrants or blacks or whites.
…that the millions of supporters of the current President-Elect feel as inspired by their candidate and their movement as I was with the outgoing President. Because it’s a special thing. I hope that they feel listened to, and better understood today. I hope that their movement is one with the spirit of all Americans at heart, and I hope they feel a responsibility to that cause as much as I do.
…that we start listening to each other more, and take a stand against closed-mindedness. For me, it starts by looking in the mirror. It’s too easy to get distracted by a handful of soundbites from our candidates, then make blanket assumptions about millions of people. I don’t honestly believe that millions of Americans aspire to the reprehensible things that one candidate says or another candidate is accused of. People have their own unique problems and dreams, and if I’m honest with myself, I didn’t take the time to understand those problems more. Hopefully by listening to each other more, it can lead to more substantive conversation about the issues, goals, fears and beliefs that we share rather than things we feel threatened by.
…that we start truly considering the media we’re consuming and messages we’re haphazardly sharing on social media. And I hope that making a concerted effort in that direction will lead to change that holds our journalistic institutions accountable in some way. In the days after the election, their divisive click-bait strategies were more apparent than ever. As I was seeing endless Tweets, headlines and Facebook videos detailing every possible catastrophic scenario surrounding a Trump Presidency, my Conservative friends were sending me headlines about protests and violence, which they understandably view as a clear lack of respect for our Democratic system. The point is, all of the content on both sides of the political spectrum seems solely focused on making us angry, and it’s flat out exhausting! So I hope that in the wake of this election, we all recognize this more and refuse to be victims of, and minions for, the greed and self-interest of our overwhelming number of 24-hour “news” outlets. Unfortunately stirring the pot of judgement and prejudice is leading to big ratings and big bucks for cable news, and I hope we can collectively affect that for the better.
The President-Elect called for the country to come together early Wednesday morning, and I certainly agree. Unfortunately it’s difficult to bring the country together after repeatedly driving home our differences – people who shouldn’t be in the country, allies we shouldn’t work with, organizations that shouldn’t exist, services that aren’t important – and behave in a manner that many people find out of touch and offensive. Words and actions matter, and those types of hateful, undignified messages pour out of a fire hose, not a faucet. But if we still believe in hope for our country, which I do, then we have a responsibility to come together.
We’re so quick to call America the greatest nation on earth. That phrase is thrown around as freely as any in our society, but with that great proclamation must come some great responsibility. And in the wake of this vicious election, I hope we all consider what that responsibility means for each of us. Because just as a democracy is bigger than any one individual, so too is hope. And that’s what keeps me optimistic for the future.