There was a big election upset, and “upset” is how many of us feel. Sad, sick, shaken. Angry. And here come the holidays. For most of us, there are people with whom we share the holidays who say they love us, but who voted for someone whose policies and promises threaten us and our beloveds. That’s hard to understand and forgive.
Do we beg off this season? Do we say we just have too much going on, or do we tell the truth, that we have not yet figured out how to sit at a table and eat with people who actively participated in bringing about a situation in which we or our beloveds are suddenly more endangered, even more vulnerable?
How do we talk to those we love, those who claim to love us, when they have chosen to vote for “change” (the kindest word I can find for this conflagration of American Constitutional values) in spite of a cascade of racist statements and stances and confessions of sexual assault?
It’s going to be really difficult. Awkward at its very best.
I’ll tell you what I know today, and that’s the best I can do.
Go back to basics when things get bad. Our Unitarian Universalist basics are our Principles. I’m thinking about the third one, where we covenant to “affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations” (I like to add “and in our homes”).
Acceptance of one another means acceptance of the people who have different ideas from ours. Acceptance of the people does not mean or even imply acceptance of all of their ideas, because some ideas are destructive and lead to injustice. We accept the people, though. I accept that you are who you are, and I trust that you will be you. I may need to protect myself or others from you. I may need to limit what I talk to you about, but I accept that you are who you are. That’s being a Unitarian Universalist.
What is this “encouragement to spiritual growth” part, though? Well, spiritual growth is where you get clear about your values, and you live those values, so your spirit’s water runs clear and doesn’t hurt anyone downstream.
Do we encourage spiritual growth through argument? I imagine there are some people who have grown through being harangued or shamed, through a well-written article shared, an incisive meme posted, but not many. Most of us grow spiritually when we feel a dissonance between our values and our actions, and when we can deal with that dissonance in an atmosphere of curiosity and respect. Not safety, necessarily. Change is hard. Not comfort, but curiosity and respect.
Maybe we can encourage spiritual growth in ourselves and in our Trump-supporting companions in some of the following ways:
- Figure out what you want for you, what you want for them, and what you want for the relationship. That’s what the Crucial Conversations people suggest.
- Listen deeply. Listen with focus, suffused with curiosity, until you can almost see how they got there. That’s what the FBI hostage negotiators suggest when you’re trying to get someone rigid with certainty and grievance to put down their weapon and come out peacefully.
- Give your own internal “weather report.” No one can argue with you saying, “I feel afraid for my people who are black, brown, undocumented, queer, differently-abled. I am sick and sad, and watchful for signs of autocracy. I love this country whether it’s right or wrong, and that means that sometimes it’s wrong. And I love you, even though I’m hurt by your actions right now.”
- Don’t despair. This may sound harsh, but despair is a privileged response. Folks in marginalized communities and populations have been struggling forever. There is life and joy in the midst of struggle. Just because there is a struggle doesn’t mean you did something wrong. Not everything can be fixed. Life is struggle, and we can’t afford to give up.
- Resist at every turn. The time to be nice and silent is not now. Don’t shame individuals, but condemn public policies, actions of the government, contempt for the press and the judiciary. Lobby. Write letters and call our representatives and get to know their staffers. Make noise. Those of us who are disrupters, disrupt, and those who want the power of respectability, use that power for good.
- Challenge. A good long stare is sometimes enough: a full minute of silence. Count it off in your head. You haven’t said anything, you can’t be kicked out of the family or friend group, but the Dowager Countess face with a full minute of silence will go far. Let’s practice that now.
- Engage by asking questions. Questions are powerful. Most UU ministers have preached sermons about asking good questions. “Help me understand this.” “How did you come to this view?” “What is your favorite thing about this?” “Do you have any concerns about this?” “Tell me your vision of a fair country.” Watch Van Jones’s The Messy Truth videos. He is a black man, a commentator on CNN, and he spoke at General Assembly a few years ago. He gets in a room with a politically and racially mixed group and engages with strength and kindness until he gets to the common values people can agree on. So can we build on strengths instead of clawing at differences.
We cannot afford to be squeamish here. We cannot be separatists. If you don’t have the spiritual strength to get in there and find common ground with people, that’s how it is, but if you do, you can build on people’s strengths, on their values.
If we talk to our friends and relatives who were Trump voters, if we find shared values with them, we strengthen them and ourselves for times of trouble. Most of them don’t want to see hate crimes. They don’t want to see school children bullied. If we can all agree on that much at least, that’s something.
Most of us, after eighteen months of the most astonishingly vulgar and shocking campaign rhetoric, feel battered and wounded. Many of us are triggered and traumatized. Many among us do not have the strength yet to do anything like have a curious conversation with Trump supporters. To those among us who do, here is my advice: build on strengths when you can, listen deeply, and rest afterward with those who hold your heart and your spirit with understanding hands, but hold your ground.
An abridged version of this essay appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of UU World (pages 18–19).