Friday, November 10, 2006

After the Rise

It was an interesting moment. I was elated at the election results, when I saw a photo of the crowd at George Allen's concession speech. There was a young woman in the crowd, young enough that this may have been her first time voting, and she was heartbroken. She looked the way I felt as I stayed up too late and too long two years earlier, watching what felt like the bottom falling away from everything I thought I knew about faith, compassion and our democracy. I felt so sorry for her, knowing the pain, the disbelief -- pondering the question, "How could the rest of America be so wrong?"

The divide we have been living with for the last six years rushed back into what had quickly become my idealized impression of what had happened at the polls this time. Americans have not suddenly snapped to their senses, finally seeing things my way, and now everything I've always dreamed we could be is just over the horizon. We are still a divided nation, only now many of those folks I so vehemently disagreed with on so many important issues are now disillusioned, sad, and lost. I know that feeling and I don't wish it on anyone.

I have always been of the belief that our democracy, though far from perfect, has cared for the needs of most of our people by gently swinging from right to left and back again -- teasing the fringes of total compassion with FDR's New Deal, and the fringes of bootstrap individualism with Reagan's trickle-down economics. I wonder now if these swings have become too extreme, destroying too much hope in the people who live on the side the swing does not favor.

Or maybe it's a good thing that more of us feel disenfranchised. As I wonder if my phone is being tapped or see the suspicious eyes of the police as I leave a free speech zone, maybe I have felt a small piece of what people of color or immigrants feel in our country every day. Is this what it will take for those of us who are privileged to understand what it's like to wonder if we will be caught up in a net of stereotypes and distrust? Will this bring us more compassion, or will it drive us away from each other, each to our own corners, ready to come out fighting for what we think is right?

In the social circles most familiar to me, compromise has become synonymous with surrender, and any talk of finding common ground, a betrayal of our cause, yet I'm seeing a middle ground -- a path that can't be spoken of for fear of losing my standing, my place at the table. Am I moving to the center the way many old friends did back in the 80s, as business and profit replaced the idealism we grew up with in the 60s? Or is it just that I am in my sixth decade of life and have seen too much conflict? There has to be a way to get this huge, dysfunctional, and disparate family that is called our nation to sit down and talk and find their common ground, and agree to disagree.

I am reminded of a story used to describe the difference between heaven and hell. A person dies and sees an angel who first shows them a picture of hell in which there is a great banquet table filled with the most glorious food. All the people there have three-foot long spoons and forks attached to their arms so that their arms cannot bend. Each person is desperately trying to feed themselves. Then the angel reveals the picture of heaven, and surprisingly it is exactly the same -- a great banquet table filled with the most glorious food and all the people there have three-foot long spoons and forks attached to their arms so that their arms cannot bend. Only in heaven, each person is reaching across the table, feeding someone else.