November 9, 2016 will be my 52nd birthday. Many of my familiars are concerned that the outcome of the election will ruin it. I am not.
For one thing, I’ve been through it before. I can remember a birthday back in the 1980’s when I wore all black. But mostly, I’m not so concerned with what happens before my birthday this year as I am with what happens after and what I can do about it.
I think it’s safe to say that everyone of us has felt a growing sense of dismay and bewilderment about the division and pain that has piled up during this election cycle. By now, the sheer exhaustion of it makes me reluctant to even write this – to create one more link that will appear in your network feed with a friend’s urging: “A Must Read.”
We all seem to be standing on opposite sides of a one-way carnival mirror. Regardless of what side we’re on, we’re enraged by the certainty that those across from us are dumb suckers in the thrall of a lying, cheating monster who will usher in Armageddon. Just these past three weeks or so, the end seems to have already begun, with fire bombings and promises of violent putsches and menacing open-carry stalkings.
I stand on one side of that mirror, and I could spend the rest of this space arguing why my side is the rational side and how the other side is responsible for this mess. But it seems like that has ceased to be the point. The point now is, what is going to happen if we stay on opposite sides, wishing to destroy everyone across from us?
I’m not alone, I’m sure, in worrying that the nightmare will never end, and that results of the election, rather than bringing it to a close, will just pour gasoline on the fires of hatred and division.
I don’t believe that is entirely true. Although this election cycle is, above all else, unprecedented, and the damage it has done will take a long time to undo, I also agree with Matt Taibi’s recent point in Rolling Stone: Election cycles by definition create animosity and division and force us into a dumbed-down binary frame of mind where everyone who chooses differently from us is our enemy. To some fundamental extent, that division, and our almost unspeakable tension about the decision, will end on November 8th.
But then what? What are we left with? Even now, it’s clear that it will be very difficult to sort through the rubble. It’s hard to imagine that we will learn any lessons, achieve any realignment, see any shift in the way our fractured government, or our expectations of it, will change for the better. How our new president will get business done is a depressing question.
But for better and worse, our real lives are not governed by crude, hyperventilating binary conflicts. Our real lives are much more complicated. We often have one foot on either side of the mirror, or we move back and forth, or we find ourselves in mixed company on either side of multiple mirrors. And, even when we do stake out a comfortable spot on one side of the mirror, we can understand – sometimes – that the people we stare at are our mirror image: we are worried and angry about the same things.
My real life, working with children, families and educators, seems light years removed from election illogic. My work is governed by one basic truth – everyone wants what is best for their children and family. Everyone is trying to help each other get by.
My work has also helped me understand how the brain works. One thing we know about the brain: when it is confronted with severe anxiety or stress, it short circuits. Instead of using emotional stability to allow clear thinking, hormones send brain activity backwards into survival mode – fight, flight, or freeze. When the brain spends a lot of time in survival mode, the hobbled cortex – the thinking center - looks for objects (or people) to blame, distrust and attack. We rationalize fight, flight or freeze. It becomes our worldview.
But I know from professional experience, too, that with empathy, nurturing and partnership, people can help each other interrupt the short circuit and return brain activity to its healthy functioning, where comfort produces emotional stability, which enables creative group problem solving.
Educators of very young children, it seems to me, are poised at the center of this opportunity. Not only do we know how to help distressed groups of people regulate and solve problems, but we also have been trained to support people of all political stances, cultural systems, personal, social and moral values, to come together and partner over one thing we all care about: our children. We know how to find trust and respect for people we disagree with and maybe even mistrust slightly over major differences, because we want to do right by their children.
I can’t speculate about the chances of reforming our congress. But the phrase, “Educators Across the Aisle” keeps appearing in my head. What if educators, in whatever small ways they can find, resolve to take our community-building and problem-solving model out into the community? What if we, and the families in our care, established a relationship with government to work together for policies that benefit children and education?
We’ve all wished that our political opponents had received a better education – that must mean that everyone, on all sides of this grotesque circus of vilification and enmity care about education. Right?
What if we all learned to insist that anyone who wants to be a public servant and have some say in how our tax dollars are spent must establish a track record of bipartisan partnership? Educators, and the families they serve, could show congress, or their local board of supervisors if you prefer, how to find one topic for consensus and collaboration. And that topic could be children and families. Because we all want what’s best for our children.
I don’t know if I’m talking about an organization, a movement, or just a passing idea. Maybe I’m just saying it would be an effective balm for what we’ve been through to find some way to work with people on something we actually agree on. And I know that, even if we agree on what we want to accomplish, there will still be many conflicts over how to get it done.
But I do believe there is a chance that educators could start some positive change that would ripple out. I don’t know how far. But even if your example affects your next-door neighbor, it would greatly increase our chances of coming out of this bleak episode in our history together.
This means cooperating with people whom we may deeply disagree with and even distrust. I ask myself, can I work with someone who I think has been part of the problem? With someone who believes in things I think are harmful or wrong? Whose beliefs and values are so opposite to me in some areas that I doubt their intelligence or sanity?
I’m just like you – I don’t know. But I feel pretty certain that if I can’t, and if you can’t, and if we can’t, brain science tells us in what direction we as a collective consciousness are headed. And at some point, it will be too hard to turn around.
So I’m not worried about how I will feel on my birthday. I plan to reap some rewards either way, by giving my trust and respect to everyone around me, and by looking for someone with whom I violently disagree to become my partner.