“You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and mastery — not of nature, but of itself,” Rachel Carson challenged in her final farewell to the world. “Therein lies our hope and our destiny.” And just as Carson warned then, we face many of these same challenges today. With a divided nation, again people need to choose whether to face reality with courage or find solace evading the truth. We need to decide whether we’re going to rise to meet the challenges of the future together or continue to invest in the chaos and division that’s defined so much of the past four years.
With this crossroads in mind, it was with deep relief that I saw the Trump Accountability Project’s decision to shut down. Choosing to follow President-elect Biden’s call for unity as opposed to AOC’s suggestion to archive Trump supporters is an encouraging step for the nation. Making lists of Trump voters for future scorn and vengeance is the opposite of what we need. While it’s an unhealthy sign in any democracy, more importantly, I cannot envision any scenario where this ends well for the country.
Let’s be clear. For anyone that tries to take an active stake in delegitimizing our democracy, there should be consequences. If you’re willing to stand in front of a landscaping business and try to lie your way towards panic and chaos, you should be held accountable for that decision. You’ve justifiably lost all credibility and demonstrated a complete lack of even the most basic integrity. No one should forget that.
And for anyone who’s spent the past four years lining their own pockets at the expense of the people of this country, there should be legal consequences. Handing out pardons as going-away presents is a reprehensible practice — one that cheapens our entire system of justice. None of these crimes should be excused or forgotten.
But for the 70 million Americans who voted for Trump, there seems little value in creating a long-term walk of shame. Life’s complicated. I won’t presume to understand the motivations of this group. After all, the assumptions we make about others tend to reveal much more about us than the targets of our judgment.
Yes, there’s a shockingly large amount of bigoted views out there. And there’s no doubt that there are groups that don’t warrant our time or consideration. Oprah’s decision to cut short her discussion with white supremacists is one such example. Deborah Lipstadt’s experience with Holocaust deniers qualifies as another.
But these thoughts only prevail when we mistake them for the norm. Applying them to 70 million Americans doesn’t help the country move forward. Few things cement people into outdated beliefs like scorn and derision.
It also sounds exhausting. Does anyone really want to continue this same divisiveness and incessant bickering for a minute longer?
That’s the choice in front of us. We can continue to remind people of the past. Or we can focus on the future.
We can continue assuming the worst of people. Or we can start looking for the best.
The last four years have focused on the former. It doesn’t seem likely that another four years of the same tactics will yield a better result.
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl went through experiences and trials that most of us can’t begin to imagine. In a 1972 lecture, Frankl emphasized the importance of embracing hope in difficult times, as a critical component to perseverance and living fully, saying:
“If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him … we promote him to what he really can be. So we have to be idealists, in a way — because then we wind up as the true, the real realists.”
People’s behaviors mirror the expectations that they either rise, or fall, to meet. Give people a higher standard to live up to and they’ll often surprise you by living up to it. We see this everyday when people choose to look for opportunities to lead and be positive role models in the world.
Not only that, we see the benefit in our own lives as well. The views we keep in our minds are always real. Fact or fiction, they influence our outlook of the world. In doing so they influence our actions.
If you focus on seeing the negative in people, you’ll find it. There’s no shortage of negative evidence in the world to help feed those views. But this web of cynicism doesn’t lead to progress. It only promotes further divisiveness and strife in a time when the world needs neither. William James described it well when he wrote,
“My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”
I’m not advocating wide-eyed optimism. Blindly hoping that everyone will get together and starting singing Kumbaya isn’t a solution. It’s a naïve delusion and nothing more. In this way, optimism is no more helpful than the cynicism we’re trying to counter.
Looking for the best in people doesn’t mean denying reality. It simply means that we choose to focus on people’s capacity for good and contribution rather than the short-sightedness of their past. It means that we choose to bias our attention towards the possibilities of our future rather than obsessing over the past.
Most importantly, choosing to see the best in others moves us from victimhood to agency. It focuses us on developing a solution rather than a resignation of today’s problems. As Joseph Brodsky warned in one of the great commencement speeches of our time, “At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim. Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed figure is a victim’s logo — the opposite of the V-sign and a synonym for surrender.”
When we embrace hope for the future, we focus on the future.
The challenge of bringing the country together will not be an easy one. It’s not one that we can do with only half the population. And we’re destined for failure if we insist on continuing to promote divisiveness instead of unity.
Perhaps Albert Camus described the situation best with his 1940 essay The Almond Trees. Written at the height of WWII, in one of the worst times in the our history, he calls for hope and implores people to rise to a higher potential.
“We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks [we] take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.”
The job of unifying this country belongs to all of us. The choice to see the best in others and promote unity may not be a natural one. But if we expect to meet the challenges ahead of us, it is a necessary one.