My political consciousness began to develop at age 13, when my middle school held a mock presidential election during the campaigns of George W. Bush and Al Gore. Though it was a close race, if it had been up to the eighth graders at Barre Town Elementary and Middle School, Gore would have won. The next fall, as I worried about braces, boys and being cool, two planes flew into the World Trade Center and began a cycle of fear that has fought to control the US political climate since.
Now, at 23, I am still learning the repercussions of 9/11, still trying to understand the massive shift it caused, still trying to comprehend the fear, hatred, and loss that has ensued as a result. Because of both this act of terror and my country’s reactions, which have caused more terror, I have grown up in a time of fragmentation that would have us believe that conversation and compromise are for the weak, and the “other side” (whether it be republican or democrat or any religion that we are not) is inherently wrong or evil or both.
My personal experience holds a different truth. Despite my encounters with division, more often I have found connection.
In the fall of 2006, when the newspapers were filled with threats of North Korea and battles in Iraq, I found peace in the Adirondack State Park’s Massawepie Lake and forest trails lined with red and white pine, tamarack, hemlock, maple, birch and spruce. As a few people prepared for war in one place, a few more people prepared for ecology lessons in another. When the weight of the media began to push me down with sorrow, I’d paddle into the middle of the lake and sit quietly, listening to the chickadees, squirrels, osprey and insects. In these moments, there was no doubt that this part of the world was in harmony and kept alive by the interconnections of species.
Who is to say that war outweighs ecology? Who is to say that violence and division trumps happiness and harmony? Why must the news of our world be filled with the negative extreme?
Looking back at all the moments in my life that held confusion, anger and sadness, I see that the places I escaped to are what brought me back to peace. I wonder how this world might be different if everyone had a place of wildness to retreat to with enough space to breathe clean air and hear the rhythms of nature.
When I was in Hobart, Tasmania last December, I saw the Dalai Lama speak. The University of Tasmania hosted him, but the Chinese government prohibited the University from bestowing an honorary degree to the Dalai Lama, and since such a large population of its students are Chinese, the University complied. When His Holiness sat in his chair on stage, he smiled and laughed, and to a group of 2,000 people this joyful being who lives in exile from his country said, “It is a very serious danger to lose compassion.” What happens when we lose it ? Hate, anger, and all those emotions that arise out of fear take hold and build walls to keep out any voice that may offer something different.
The news this week showed us what happens when one has lost compassion. The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, her staff, and bystanders is a consequence of extreme fear. A commentator on the BBC World News Report on NPR said that this act of violence differs from those of the 1960s, a time of multiple political assassinations and violent riots, because the American people do not have a promise of hope to balance it out, like the promises of equality or money or jobs that the 1960s held. This comment may weigh us down more. I see hope. I see hope for Giffords, for the families of the victims to heal, for the political climate to shift towards communication and bi-partisanship, for finding space to grieve and forgive, and for transforming fragmentation into connection.
In her book Finding Beauty In A Broken World, Terry Tempest Williams writes, “Social change depends on love.” Let us look for love as we heal. Let us change not with blame or fear, but with love and consideration. This event offers us the chance to reunite our country as a community—not necessarily one that agrees on every bill passed by congress, but one that is willing to truly listen and communicate openly. As the healing process begins, I offer this:
Standing quietly by ourselves may help us remember the sanctity of silence, the power of unity, and the strength of compassion in the midst of an ever-changing world.