I'm surprisingly good at being ignorant, and other lessons from the 2020 election.
Updated: Apr 26
Election day, 2020. Big day for people on both sides. Tonight, some will feel victorious, others defeated.
I’m not a big fan of the winner and loser model. To me, to have a divided nation is for us all to lose.
Our nation is handicapped right now. Not just by injustice and centuries old wounds demanding debridement, but by something far more insidious.
Judgement and ignorance. The nasty twins of dissension. The breeders of enmity and blame.
I’ve seen it everywhere. I’ve pointed my finger of blame all around. And then, as these things tend to go, I realized I was as guilty as anyone.
Classic irony. I was ignorant of my own ignorance.
Ignorance is often used in a derogatory way, an accusation, a slur. But at its core, ignorance simply means that we don’t know what we don’t know. We are all ignorant about something. We cannot possibly know or understand every perspective.
The key is being aware of our ignorance and refusing that primal urge to judge what we do not understand.
As this pandemic has unfolded, I have become painfully aware of the ease with which I can judge other people. I’m so good at it, I can judge you without even knowing anything about you or your situation. I’m so slick, I can judge you for your bumper sticker or your hat. I can make up a litany of unfounded facts about you- without even noting your honey-colored irises or the way your mouth tips up more on the left when you smile.
Perspective is hard to come by up there on my high horse, so dazzled am I by my own opinions, so blinded by my shiny righteousness.
A few months ago I heard this: just because you haven’t experienced it doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
Just because I haven’t experienced racism doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Just because a man hasn’t experienced sexism doesn’t mean it’s a exaggeration.
Sixteen years ago, when I was pregnant with my oldest, I developed a hum in my legs. Sometimes it made my legs physically twitch. Other times, it just gave me an unsettled feeling, like I was hooked up to an electrical current. It made me jumpy and anxious and became increasingly hard to ignore.
I’d heard of restless leg syndrome years before and had denounced it as ridiculous. It sounded like a mind game, an errant worry that needed to be knocked back in place. I laughed it off right until the night I was watching Friends on the couch with my wife and my legs wouldn’t stop buzzing and jerking.
We do this all time. We dismiss depression as a poor attitude, suicide as a selfish escape. We ascribe poverty to a choice and racial inequities to a lack of drive. We blame the victim, assume the worst and stack our opinions up brick by brick.
We judge the actions of people whose lives and circumstances we have never come close to experiencing. We do it as people. We do it as parents. We do it as children and partners and siblings.
In place of empathy or kindness, we let ignorance navigate us toward the easier road of judgement. From the safe vantage point away from someone else’s pain, we take stock, form opinions, and offer definitive (and often inane) solutions.
I think I know what is best for you. I think I understand. I think I am being helpful or constructive.
Why, oh dear me, do I think this is my right?
This year has been a humbling one for most of us. The life and world we assumed we could count on has shifted without our consent. In the U.S., we as a nation are also revealing our past, our present, our failures and our pain.
I have never lived during a more divided time. I’ve often found myself furious at people who do not think like I do, standing firmly on the “right” side, arms folded, chin jutted out, glaring over at those on the “wrong” side, blaming them for the state of affairs.
True confession: I am guilty of questioning whether or not I can be friends with someone on the other political side. I’ve questioned what peoples’ votes means about who they are at their core. Without bothering to remember the kindness and equality I have seen in a person across years of friendship, I have allowed a political endorsement to nullify all their goodness.
I have made up entire stories about people who are my friends and neighbors and fellow citizens, dismissing people on this single detail, shaking my fist at lawn signs and letting polarization build in me.
I did this until I became so angry and justified that I was reminded of the Buddha quote: Holding on to anger is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.
This madness had to stop. This us vs. them mentality has become larger than the problem from which is was born.
Our opinions aren’t what separates us. It’s our opinions of each other’s opinions. And it’s our fear.
Because whichever side you’re on, the us or the them, each side feels just as strongly about their beliefs. Each side is afraid of losing what is most crucial to them. How can anyone win when desperation is on the ballot?
Here’s the thing - I’m not suggesting that we care less. I’m not suggesting that we don’t stand up for what we believe.
I am suggesting that we shift our focus and root ourselves in humility.
Because I, for one, could no longer afford to feel this way about other people. It was not good for me. It was not good for them. It was not good for the world.
My antidote has been curiosity. I often say to my kids, “People have opinions for a reason. You can’t just say people are stupid for thinking the way they do. Work to understand their reason.”
It was time to take my own advice.
I’ve tried to read and understand where people on the “opposing” political side are coming from. I’ve dipped my toe into conversations that simply allow people to express how they feel without arguing with them.
Most essentially, I’ve worked on seeing past the ideology and into the person.
Back in 2012, the state of Maine held a second referendum vote for same sex marriage. (In 2009, the Governor had signed same-sex marriage into law after it was passed by the legislature- a law that was then repelled in a referendum vote five months later.) Given its history in our state and its significance to us and our family, this second referendum vote was very emotional for us. We spoke out publicly and had a lot of difficult conversations with people to educate them about why marriage equality mattered to us and to our family.
The only way I can describe what it was like to have other people vote on your rights is to say it’s rather like walking around naked for four months.
A lot of people opened their hearts and minds during that campaign. It was a beautiful (and exhausting) thing to be a part of.
I had one friend who, despite his love of me and my family, voted against marriage equality. I can tell you that forgiving him, and separating his vote from who I know him to be in his heart, was one of the hardest and realest things I’ve done.
I chose to love him anyway, to trust the years of friendship that had come before this singular moment. I chose to separate the person I cherish from his politics, even though his politics deeply affected me and my life in that moment.
Because it is this panic- the fear that people on the “other side” are going to take away our autonomy - that drives this division. It is the single least effective way to move forward. It is devoid of hope, of compromise, of possibility.
Almost always, the answer lies somewhere near the balanced middle.
We can choose to hold up our swords and keep our feet planted on our side. We can even choose hate if we want. We can choose anger and blame and judgement. Some would even say it’s valid, justified, warranted. But at what cost?
I cast my vote in favor of owing our own ignorance. It is the most powerful things we can do to understand ourselves and our neighbors and to help our nation heal.
And so my hope today isn’t for victory. It’s for unity. It’s for understanding. It’s for curiosity and acceptance.
My wish is that we could step into the space of what we don’t know and be humble enough to discover. That we could germinate the smallest specks of our shared humanity and grow it until we remember our kinship with each other.
This is what I have tried to foster in myself as this presidential campaign hits its apex today. Because, in the end, we are all just human beings, souls living in a physical reality that tempts us to believe it’s all there is.
Let’s say it together: There’s much I don’t know. There’s much for me to learn. You are my fellow human. We are in this together. Tell me about you.