This is not a cry for help. It is, hopefully, a tool for understanding.
I am, despite all appearances, a fundamentally sad person. This does not mean that I don’t have fun, enjoy my life, love my family and my work, or want to end my time on earth. It just means that, under everything, there is always an undercurrent of sorrow. That, when truly bad things happen in my life, I just sit in them. The truth of the matter is that sometimes it is easier for me to sit with sadness than with happiness.
It’s really no big deal, and not terribly interesting, to be honest – it is just how I feel. I also feel all the good stuff, have no problems getting up in the morning, and rarely have trouble going to sleep at night. I’ve just felt this way for as long as I can remember – certainly since I was in 3rd or 4th grade.
What is interesting, to me, is that I have no rational reason for feeling this. I grew up in a remarkably functional, loving middle class household. I am white, comfortable in the gender I present, part of the majority sexual orientation, with no physical handicaps (beyond being a curséd ginger). I went to solid public schools, an excellent private high school, and the college of my choosing. I work in the business I chose, and, while I don’t make a lot of money, I earn a living, own my house, and enjoy the challenges and triumphs of my job. I have a brilliant and loving spouse, and, sorry all you other parents – the best kid in the world. There is no rational reason for me to be sad. There are millions of people who have it way harder than me, whether the challenges they face are social, economic, civil or physical. I am awash in privilege, and I know it.
And yet, I do feel this sadness. You can’t talk me out of it. No one can. And that’s not only okay – that’s just accepted as a given by lots of modern people. And that is what I’m actually interested in exploring.
We progressives often feel as though we can solve any political issue by talking it out. We want to explain why it is that Planned Parenthood serves the very communities trying to destroy it, to talk about how the Affordable Care Act truly is lowering the barriers to health, to discuss common sense gun reform, civil rights, social welfare, privilege, the civil war, even white supremacy. Spalding Gray, in Swimming to Cambodia, speaks for us progressives when he says, “…and like any good liberal, I should question EEEEEEVERYTHING…” And I wonder if that’s just it. I wonder if the definition of liberal is basically “one who questions” and if that’s really why, as the years pass, we are capturing fewer and fewer votes and representatives in our government. Because, instead of offering simple answers, we are always asking “Why?”
And, follow me on this – if that’s being liberal, is being conservative a lot like my sadness? Is it quite simply a state of being that cannot yield to conversation?
It’s much easier to long for the old days or to claim that you’re going to “Make America Great Again” without answering any questions. Bring jobs back by making it harder to make things abroad. Make families feel secure again by simplifying gender roles. Make us safe by sounding strong and investing in weapons. Find someone to blame for what’s gone wrong in America, and then you don’t have to look at change as inevitable, at society as plastic, rather than fixed. You don’t have to ask why things are going wrong, just trot out simple solutions that might have worked in the past.
Whereas we liberals – we constantly ask – is this way right? Or that way? Is there a “right” answer at all? What is the cost/benefit breakdown of renewable energy? How did old family models serve some folks and not others, and is there a way to extend those benefits to all members of all families? Did desegregation truly serve the African American community, or did the damage done by removing all school jobs from that community and role models of the same color from those students actually do more harm than the good of racially integrated schools? Do we need STEM or STEAM? Should we be eating farmed fish or is that even more reckless in terms of the antibiotics used in farming? Speaking of antibiotics, do we use hand sanitizer or not? Is there REALLY anything to this whole vaxxer business? Are the omnivores morally inferior to the vegans? If the Zombie Apocalypse happens, do we create a Lockean or Hobbesian society in the ruins? We open the doors to possibility, and uncertainty. And we expect conservatives to be interested in the conversation. We try and hold a debate, and but we cannot win, because they’re not actually interested in a discussion. We have questions, and they have answers.
Believing that Donald Trump is qualified to lead our country is like believing that the earth is at the center of the Universe, or that those who protest violence are as much at fault for the violence as those who commit violence. These aren’t rational beliefs. They’re just emotional beliefs, and, in the past six months, I’ve found no one who can rationally explain them – just millions of people who will stand by them no matter what.
But – what if – what if we finally think of being conservative in the same way we think of depression? The world’s come to accept that we sad people are sad because we’re biologically predisposed to be sad. And you can help us feel better – you can take us to therapy, or give us medication, or just be there and be a friend. But you’re not going to talk us out of what we feel.
What if being conservative is simply a way of being, and if no amount of discussion can change that?
There is an approach that does work – I’ve seen studies. Conservative beliefs change when exposed to empathic connections. First-person relationships and connective works of art are the most successful tools for changing fixed mindsets, because they are based on belief, not reason. And empathy is how we speak to belief.
Maybe it’s time to stop arguing, stop listening, stop explaining, and just start connecting. Maybe, for us to have any hope, we need to listen to that creative writing teacher from 8th grade who told us, “Show, don’t tell.” Put our money and energy into producing plays, TV, movies, songs and visual art that leaps past the talking heads and into the beating hearts. Go into communities as the people we are and change them by getting to know them. It’s harder work. But it might be the only way. Because, as much as we might want to try and win this battle on Twitter, or Facebook, on the news feed or the debate stage, maybe the real way forward is to double down on actual human connection.