Our better angels


Yesterday afternoon I dove off the end of a dock into a glass lake. November water closed over my toes and squeezed the air out of my lungs. I came up sputtering and breathless. The smell of fear didn’t wash off me until I made three trips between the hot cedar sauna and the freezing lake.


Every room I walk into in the clinic has a smell. Soap, sweat, flowers, teen, woods, stress, urine, feces are bold strokes overlying individual smells that aren’t good or bad. I walked into the room last week and the smell was stress, sweat and tobacco. I haven’t been working in Ely long, but we had already met. Underneath the tattoos and anger, there was a sweet woman managing mental and physical health with polypharmacy. She was terrified and stuck between a mountain of medications and a fetus in her womb. HowdidIgethere whataremyoptions Iwishitweredifferent Whyme I’msoscared.


I could still feel the tension that the room left in my body hours later as I listened to ‘Start Anew’ by Chook Race and made my way to the sauna by the lake. That feeling of wanting to start over again and remake the past is universal at one point or another. I wanted so badly to tell her that it was all going to be ok. That kind of fear is terrible, but at least there some answers and steps we can help people take to address it. However, there is another subtle kind of fear up here. It’s creeping across America but finding its way most profoundly into poor white rural towns like Ely.

The people of Colombia just voted against peace. Great Britain voted against unity because of fear towards a mirage. The United States is on the precipice of electing a demagogue who rose by stoking fear and hatred against that same mirage. These are not aberrations and our flawed systems can only shoulder so much blame. What happens when the ‘will of the people’ is morally bankrupt? The Crusades, the Renaissance, the Inquisition, the Truth and Reconciliation Commision, the World Wars, and the Christmas Truce, human history is littered with greatness and horror. I believe that we need to begin to lay bear most shameful weaknesses along with our greatest achievements if we hope to discover a better way.


I ran in the woods today, weakly shielded from bullets in my blaze orange t-shirt. I felt no fear as my footsteps padded down pine needle carpets. I felt no fear when I scrambled up rocks wet with rotting leaves. I felt no fear when I was lost at dusk, scrambling through foot trails as darkness made the woods around me black and unknowable.


I still feel have fear, but that fear has changed. When I was little I was deeply afraid of death and what lies beyond my consciousness. When I was little I was afraid of what and whom I didn’t know. The depths of infinity can still rip the ground from underneath me and I’m sure there are things that jump in the night that could still make me pucker. However, the twin gifts of education and exposure have taught me that I have much more to fear from my own follies than the deep woods and dark unknown.


What frightens me today is the possibility of time misspent, people maltreated, and opportunities wasted. I fear that my own weaknesses could prevent me from becoming the man I want to be. I’m afraid that I’m not smart enough, not good enough, and not hardworking enough. I’m afraid that the signposts of time will tick by faster than I can see them and I won’t be able find my way.


The average ‘white working class’ American man is not fighting to put food on the table or a roof over his head. We live in a country where jobs are on the rise and the economy is rebounding, but we are terrified and massively discontented. By no means am I saying there isn’t crushing poverty and that we don’t have an obligation to do better by one another. However, this white male rural fear is deeper than economic and social mobility. One might argue that old and potent racism underlies the current rage. I believe however, that ‘fear of the other’ forms the foundation of racism, and therefore it’s essential for us to try to understand it. Without education and exposure, grappling with existential questions about your place in society has historically led to bigotry and violence.


Now watch these ‘fears of the other’ become kindling. The first seasoned log is our segregated society. The second log is an explosion in technology which numbs our thoughts and perpetuates our biases. In a landscape dry of quality education and cultural awareness, all we needed was the demagogue spark to ignite a raging wildfire of ignorance and hate.


My dad always told me that the post WWI Germans who allowed Hitler’s rise weren’t bad people, they were just afraid. I hear the same language now from people whose friends and family support Donald Trump. However, no one ever argues that what followed WWI wasn’t horrific and that everything that could have been done shouldn’t have been done to stop his rise and prevent that from ever happening again.


We must be better. We must engage our better angels and make a better world. Stopping Trump will only put out the current fire, (Of which I am not minimizing the importance of, fuck Trump), but I believe it is contingent on those who are fortunate to try to understand the real fear in America and meet it head on. We have an obligation and opportunity to build a better world.


My mom is my own yardstick in this regard. I’ve never watched her spend one day without thinking about how to better our world. She is the bravest person I know. She stood up to a faux-liberal South Minneapolis to fight for what she believes in. She put her career and reputation on the line in order to take a stand for just and equitable education. Her peers and colleagues used to disgust me for their cowardice, but now I’m trying to understand their fear. They were some of the people who raised my own friends and peers, so again, good people. Beyond her career, she walked the walk in the way that she educated her own boys. She taught us to be good instead of great and never pressured us to be anything more than kind. I watched her stand tall.


As I pulled myself onto the dock yesterday, I rolled onto my back and felt the unseasonably hot sun steam lakewater off my skin. My heartbeat radiated up into my skull and the whistling pines were the wind instruments in my symphony. Life can be grand sometimes.


Burntside lake

I’m going to finish this off with a post from my cousin Megan, I couldn’t have said it better myself:


Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, Trump does not nor ever will represent me. I decry his hateful, violent, bigoted, and racist rhetoric. My Muslim neighbors, I stand with you. My Somali neighbors, I stand with you. My Latino neighbors, I stand with you. My immigrant neighbors, I stand with you. My Native neighbors, I stand with you. Women, feminists, LGBTQ individuals, I stand with you. We must do better. Vote for Hillary on November 8th.




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