Be who you are, be the change

I remember Election Night 1992 very well. My sisters and I stayed up late to watch Rocky IV (as you do) while my parents were out at a party, and we switched it off to hear the final results.  We heard the newscaster read the percentages and say that Beverly Barnhart had won our precinct, and that my father had lost.

As a kid, the word “lost” only seems to matter incidentally when you’re playing Clue or watching baseball or running a race. But when you’ve just spent the last several months, including an entire childhood summer, helping run an underdog’s campaign – stuffing thousands of envelopes with literature, walking hundreds of miles canvassing, squirming through painful debates, posing for family photos, and being told in no uncertain terms by neighbors just how much your father was hated – hearing the word “lost” tends to feel a lot more dramatic.

President George Bush also lost that year, to Clinton, and I remember feeling a sense that nothing was right in the world anymore.

Still, my family was not beaten. My parents continued to campaign for others they believed in, mostly Republican, sometimes Libertarian, or Constitutional parties. We walked in parades.  We put leaflets in people’s doors. We listened to Rush Limbaugh in the morning and watched Crossfire at night. We listened to patriotic music in the car on our way to Homeschool Legislative Day in Helena. From a very young age I got used to marching with a giant sign every year for Right to Life, and volunteered hours at their Winter Fair booth, handing out pins and plastic fetuses and balloons, even though I didn’t really understand it.  As a tween, I manned Republican Headquarters when it was housed in an empty shop on Main Street, though I seem to recall I spent more time pushing the wheeled office chair across the hardwood floors than answering calls or handing out bumper stickers. And when I was 11, I sent Ron Paul $50 of my own paper route money to help with his senatorial campaign in a state in which I did not live, just because I knew how much my parents believed in him.

As a teenager, I worked as page in the Montana State Senate. I studied the founding fathers and Adam Smith. In the summer of 1998, I went to Summit Ministries in Manitou Springs, CO, to further my political education.  Even though I really just went to meet boys, I came away with the knowledge that the three worst things a person could be in life were – Democrat, Gay or Atheist. I proudly spent my entire flight home trying to convert a poor British man (who was well up for the challenge).

(I hope I haven’t lost you yet.)

It wasn’t until college when I took a break. I found, when I shut the door on politics ruling my life, I could breathe again. The anxious, stifling, NOISE of it all could be shut off, whenever I wanted. Friends of mine campaigned for Mike Pence (now Trump’s running mate) and I wished them well, but I was, for once, selfishly enjoying being part of the background. I still called my dad when November rolled around and asked him who to vote for on my absentee ballot. But it didn’t hurt so much. It didn’t really hurt at all. (Interestingly enough, I did join Anderson’s Model UN team my junior year, and went to the Harvard National meeting twice, representing Portugal and Bulgaria, respectively.  While more “fun” than serious, it did give my USA-exhuasted brain a little more insight into the clouded political climate of Europe, anyway.)

Fast forward to 2008, and friends and family were arriving in Ireland for our wedding, the first week in November, right after – yup, you guessed it – President Obama was elected. Our friend, Trampas, got off his plane in utter jubilation, sporting a bright green “O’Bama” t-shirt. My parents got off their plane looking decidedly more beaten and joked that they might have to go into mourning.

The Irish loved Obama.  They would have preferred Hilary Clinton (as President Clinton did a lot to aid the peace process between the North and the Republic, which I only learned after living abroad), but they loved Obama.  When he came to speak in Dublin in 2011, he had the crowd in the palm of his hand.  Three years into another crushing Recession, the Irish population found themselves invigorated and inspired by the young visionary and his promise of “Is Feidir Linn!” (“Yes we can!”)   I confess, I too, found this new, young President of my home country a fresh and hopeful alternative to a future in doubt. And it was actually the first time I felt inspired all on my own. It was the first time I really wanted to believe what a politician was telling me.

It’s funny that only happened five years ago.  Everything is so different. I am so different. I guess you could say I’ve become a variation of the “worst” person I was warned against – I’m liberal (though I don’t identify with any political party), I’m pro-gay and I’ve married an Atheist. A lovely, caring, honest, steadfast, Irish Atheist who is probably the best person I have ever known. In Conservative Christian terms, I guess I’m one of the failure statistics.  That’s OK – I never really fit in anyway. But here’s the kicker – I still believe in God and I don’t hate anyone! Ha! Win-win, as far as I’m concerned.

However, looking back on my life’s experience with politics, and even my more recent visceral distaste for them, I feel sad.  I think about how polarized the parties were in the ’80s and ’90s, and of all the horrible things I grew up hearing people say in the name of what was “best” for America. I feel uncomfortable when I think of my own involvement, as an innocent child only wanting to please her parents but not really understanding why everyone was so angry, so judgmental. I am sad when I think of the last few elections, and how many like me want to stay as far away from politics as we can, voting privately, quietly, perhaps, and avoiding any conversations where conflict might arise because we don’t want to be identified with that “us versus them” mentality.

But most of all, I am sad for this year.  I am sad that I don’t even want to vote, I want to hide my head in the sand and move to Canada.  I am sad about what the world is seeing, as our country is more divided than ever, more fearful and emotional and angry and hopeless than ever. I am horrified on behalf of my children, that elections like this might become the new norm, and that the hatred and violence going on in the world, related or not, only seems to be escalating. I wish I could return to my innocent idea of what elections meant, where you vote for who you believe to be the “good guy” and everyone is respectful even if they lose.

So what’s the answer? Is there an answer? I hate that people are basing their votes solely on who they DON’T want elected. It sort of feels like we’ve lost no matter who wins.

But I guess, in the end, it’s up to us. All of this life – who we marry, who we work for, who we vote into office, who we follow – it’s our own free will that brings it to pass. I don’t think the sun is going to stop rising depending on who wins, even if I wish it would. Because, you see, I still don’t want to be political.  I can’t quite believe I spent the last two hours writing all this, actually. But I do believe in standing up for goodness and right in the world. I believe in teaching my children that bullies shouldn’t be rewarded. I believe in teaching them to work hard – even though sometimes it’s not fair, and sometimes you work a helluva lot harder for low income than you might for a higher wage. I believe in teaching love and kindness and fortitude. I believe in treating all people equally and tearing down walls. I believe in non violence. I believe all lives matter. I don’t always believe in today, but I will – I need to – believe in tomorrow.

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