Like approximately half of the people in the United States, I woke up today bitter and disappointed that last night’s election, which I had every reason to believe was going to turn out the way I wanted it to, turned out the other way instead. I knew that approximately half of the country was going to feel exactly this way this morning, but I sincerely hoped and believed that it would be the other half.
This is, of course, a common and predictable feeling in a well-functioning democracy. We are supposed to be disappointed about half the time. We are supposed to spend a good deal of our lives being governed by those that we do not support, did not vote for, and do not approve of. For eight years, I have had a president that I deeply respect and admire. Now I don’t. I pressed hard for the other side to vow to accept the legitimacy of the election if it went the other way. It went against me, and I accept that.
I still persist in feeling that it was different this time. I am deeply concerned that the winning candidate has now normalized a kind of rhetoric that splits us apart—that pits the perceived interests of some of us against the very real interests of others. I don’t believe that everything is OK, and I am not sure it is going to be. I am frightened and sad that real people that I care very much for are going to be hurt in tangible ways over the next four years.
But I also know that there are good, decent, intelligent people who would have felt exactly the same way if the election had gone in the other direction. I can see a little bit of what my victory would have felt like to them. I can start to understand.
One thing that I am certain of is that I cannot, and will not respond to the new political reality by increasing the divisions that produced it—by insisting that there is a huge and unbridgeable gap between an imaginary “us” and an equally imaginary “them.” I refuse to allow this election to make me a person who thinks like that. I refuse, in other words, to be unkind.
I have been thinking a lot about kindness today. We tend to use it as a synonym for “niceness,” but that’s not really what it means. To be “kind” means to perceive other people as belonging to the same category as oneself. To acknowledge that we are all of a kind. The same kind of people. To refuse to buy into any theory that says otherwise. The word “kind” is related to the word “kin.” To treat someone kindly means to treat them like kin. Kindness is not something that we choose whether or not to do; it is something that we choose whether or not to acknowledge: that we are essentially the same sorts of beings and that our lives have something to do with each other’s.
Whichever way this election had gone would have produced a lot of unkindness—a lot of people believing that half of the country was in a different category of humanity than the other half. I have to reject that idea. I have to commit to kindness. I have to pledge to abandon the rhetoric that tears us apart. This does not require retreat or submission. It does not mean that we accept the unacceptable, or that we stop trying to create a better society through the political process. It just means that we do it without categorizing anybody else as irredeemably evil or irreducibly other. It means that we do it with kindness.
In 1939, as Europe was on the verge of another great war, W.H. Auden wrote the following words:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
In every sense that matters, this is prophecy. I want to scream. I want to despair. I want to give up. Sometimes, I want to hate. But I HAVE to be kind.