Late last week, my phone lit up with a late night text message from my mother with the usual laundry list of questions. “How was your weekend? Do you and Mack have any thought of coming to the lake for a day? How was Emily’s ultrasound?…”
I admit, I am selfish with my nights, and I don’t always answer texts or calls after 9:30 p.m. Even from my mother. But the last two weeks have been so vastly different from any week of my 37 years on this earth I desperately wanted to connect with my mom… so I picked up the phone and called her back.
After getting through the usual updates — which are longer than usual in this time of Covid-19 and self-isolation that my family has chosen out of an abundance of caution for my pregnant wife and unborn child — the conversation turned to the current events I hope nobody is avoiding.
“I just don’t know what to say,” I started… “I know that I’m now in the public sphere as a candidate for office and probably expected to offer my thoughts, but I just don’t know what to say.”
A bold admission from a writer.
“Yeah, and no matter what you say, you know your words will probably be twisted at some point,” Mom replied.
“That’s not what I’m worried about,” I said. “I decided when I first signed up to run that I would always think hard about what I say, but always say what I believe and if that ends up hurting my chances of getting elected, so be it. I don’t want to win by being inauthentic.”
That’s as much certainty as I can offer right now. And as much as I know I should be focusing on my campaign and fundraising, all my heart wants right now is to be out there, on the streets with the vast majority of Americans who recognize like I do this is a turning point for humanity. (I am not out in the crowd only because of high-risk health concerns related to Covid-19.)
Is that overstating? Isn’t this just an American challenge? I don’t think so.
I am a firm believer that this world is more interconnected than our five senses give it credit. What other explanation is there for why the world is uniting to demonstrate in solidarity against the racism and baked-in inequality that took yet another black life?
My beliefs shape how I view what I’m seeing and hearing, so perhaps the best thing I can do right now is share what I believe and why I believe it. I am not a good self-editor, so I can comfortably say what follows is unlikely to offer much in the way of answers or direction. But it will be honest and sincere, and that is my strongest selling point as a candidate… which is the last mention of my “political ambition” you will read here.
I believe we are all one. It’s hard to say that out loud because such an altruistic and, I would argue, basic belief has been denigrated and mocked as too basic. Too simple. Too hippie. Too unrealistic. Too… equalizing? There is a connectedness in community that is undervalued and too often unacknowledged.
I believe we are all one because of my uncontrolled, subconscious, natural reaction to images and sounds of pain emanating from those with whom I have no earthly connection.
For example, recall the image of the dead child laying face down in the sand after his body washed ashore from a boat of migrants seeking escape from whatever hellish experience drove them to crowd into a dinghy and risk their lives in the open ocean. I cannot look at that image without tears flooding my eyes. But I didn’t know that child. I didn’t know the family. I don’t know if anybody still alive even remembers his name. So why do I cry?
We are all one. That is why I cry.
When I watch the footage of Philando Castile’s girlfriend being comforted and consoled by his 4-year-old daughter in the back of a squad car after they both witnessed him getting shot as he reached for his identification, I can’t get through it without crying. I didn’t know him. I don’t know his family. So why do I cry?
We are all one. That is why I cry.
When I listen to George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter, Gianna, proclaim while hoisted towards the heavens on another gentleman’s shoulders “Daddy changed the world” with a courageous smile on her face, I am overcome with gratitude for her resilience and innocence. But still I cry. I didn’t know him. I don’t know his daughter or his friends or his family or his coworkers or anyone in his sphere of influence. So why do I cry?
We are all one. That is why I cry.
We are all one, and that is why I believe we are seeing such an unrelenting ferocity of determination to make a change. We are all one, and that is why I believe this is a turning point for humanity and I am grateful to be alive to be a part of the change. Even the most hardened hearts of hate feel this connection. I believe that. But I also believe they are scared, for reasons I cannot quite explain… and another belief of mine helps me grapple with that question of fear.
A favorite podcast of mine once posed a question to artists: what is humanity’s first fear? As in, what fear(s) are we born with… no nature vs. nurture argument, but what makes us afraid from the moment we are born. The agreed upon answer was darkness, and the reasoning was persuasive. Our ancestors were naturally afraid of the dark, when predators could pounce out of the shadows. Therefore, the podcast argued, that is why we see such a predominant “fear of the dark” among children.
The logic makes sense… but then I played through my memories of when my soon-to-be five-year-old was learning how to express himself and would shout for us to return to his darkened room at night. He never verbalized any fear of the dark. He wasn’t afraid for his life. He was afraid of being alone. What he wanted was to know we were there for him. He wanted connection.
So, my belief based on my experience — including my own recalled childhood memories of wanting nothing more than my mom to snuggle me or my dad to rub my back until I fell asleep — is that our first and most basic fear is that of being alone. Loneliness. Even Henry David Thoreau left Walden Pond on occasion… or so my terrible memory of English Lit leads me to believe.
And I see these two beliefs of mine as mirror images. We are all one… and, therefore, our greatest fear is disconnection. Of being alone. For me, this framework helps me understand the fear-based anger, as well as the community-driven responses we’ve seen.
Another study I read — and wrote about before — helps give credence to my beliefs. In the study, famously known as the “rat park” study, researchers discovered that environment and connection plays a large role in addiction. When isolated and given the choice between plain drinking water and water laced with cocaine or heroin, the secluded rat will dose itself to death almost without exception.
However, when given the same two choices amidst a “rat park” of wheels, obstacles, toys and — importantly — other rats to play and bond with, the rats may trip on a rare occasion, but will otherwise go on to enjoy rat paradise with its friends. Community, connection, love and shared experience overpower the lure of chemical intoxication.
So is racism about the inability to connect with others? Social isolation? Or is it the fear of being alone? I am hesitant to even pose the questions, as I have no grounds to make such an assertion… but it helps me think about the challenge in a different way. And that leads me to a final thought gifted to me by my more-educated and more-thoughtful partner: my wife, Emily.
In her grad school studies, a line stands out to her to this day: the most powerful and tangible sign of privilege is not having to know.
Privilege is ignorance, in other words.
How inescapably true those words have become these last two weeks as I listen, read and pay attention to the stories of our black and brown friends, neighbors, coworkers, caregivers, teachers and family members.
As a parent, I will never have to teach my two sons about how to act to protect their lives should they ever get pulled over by the police. I will never have to teach them about how to keep their hands out of their pockets in the company of the police… or white strangers, for that matter. Aside from the usual gun safety lessons, I won’t have to beg them not to play cops and robbers for fear their toy guns or sticks in the shape of a gun will be mistaken for the real article.
My privilege is laid bare by all the rules of life I’ll never have to follow simply because of the color of my skin.
We are all one, and we see it on the streets… even now, weeks after the murder of George Floyd. We are all one, though the power systems have so far not recognized or accepted that fact. We are all one, and that is why I believe this is a turning point for humanity and urge us all to not waste the inertia others have fought so hard to ignite. As I teach my son whenever we go pick up groceries (pre-pandemic times, anyway), it’s easier to keep a full cart moving than it is to get it to budge.
We are all one, and it’s time we act like it. It’s time we elect leaders who actually believe that. It’s time to BE the turning point.
So don’t let the cart stop. Keep protesting. Keep speaking loudly. Keep listening. Keep learning. Keep challenging the fear in yourself and others. Keep pushing, no matter how heavy it gets… or we may never get it to budge again.
Curious about where to throw your financial support? Check out “A criminal justice expert’s guide to donating effectively right now”