Social Commentary

Essays concerning a wide range of societal issues, regarding topics such as the environment, racism, marriage equality, etc.

A Pox on Both Our Houses

Rome fell for falling

A victim of conceit

If we won’t rise to mend our ways

At last our ends will meet.

The fall of Rome passed us by

Although we share its fruit

We take no heed in what was lost

Or what we gained in loot.

For now, the Empire’s come and gone

The ruins left to roam

Descend upon this tourist spot

And then return back home.

Are we to see ourselves in them?

A culture far from us

They lived – they breathed – they die no more

Returned back to the dust.

If there’s a lesson in Rome’s fall

America’s Exception –

Is liberty and freedom

And have been from inception.

Those we brought from far away

Wear masks that grin and lie

They have to keep their faces hid

Or happy pain belies.

Meanwhile those that die by day

Weren’t killed by masked assailants

They died from fighting selfish neighbors

Who boasted breath free from ailments.

Rome fell for failing to stand

Just as we will fall ourselves

If we can’t come together now

They’ll read our demise from shelves.

A house divided cannot stand

A nation is no stronger

If we don’t rise to mend our ways

We won’t be here much longer.

“Fake News (2020)”

If oceans were puddles and puddles were men

We’d live to be twenty, but wish to be ten.

Our questions would end before they began

Like ships to a shore that hadn’t left land.


Splendid sun cannot well show

Before the moon is down

If son is born before dad’s voice 

Then mothers have no sound.


Silly mind, you use yourself

To nudge a slumb’ring snail

It’s wrapped itself a riddle

Your ship has long set sail.


What’s to stop a probing mind?

Curses of poor breeding?

If you can’t stand for truth and facts,

You’ll fall for anything.

I Have #nofilter

I have a friend who writes the hashtag, #nofilter on EVERY single picture she posts on Facebook. I don’t quite get it. For one thing, this person probably doesn’t need to write it anymore. We’ve got it. You don’t use filters. Brava!

You see, I don’t quite understand the hashtag, #nofilter. Professional photographers and filmmakers have been using filters since film was invented. And now digital. There’s absolutely NOTHING wrong with using filters. That is actually the test of a true and professional photog. The ability to choose filters is art itself. It is a creative process, like editing a film. I think that those people think we’ll all be more impressed that they took a picture that turned out so amazing without digitally manipulating it at all. And I understand that. Occasionally. There was a stunning sunrise in Boston last week. I saw a LOT of my friends post it, and they all used the #nofilter hashtag. And that’s understandable. The colors of the sunrise were so stunning, it honestly did not need a filter. But every picture? That’s excessive.

Conversely, I have another friend who CLEARLY uses extensive filters for every shot. This person de-ages themselves, making herself look significantly thinner and about 15 years younger, and it is SOOOO obviously filtered. I mean, she’s my age, but in all her photos, she looks about 22. Kind of. In reality, it takes away so many wrinkles, it actually makes her look like some Japanese anime character. Very unnatural looking.

Facebook and social media are so funny. We all meticulously curate our pages, and only show all the best parts of our lives. And we all do it, so don’t lie and tell yourself that you don’t. Bullshit. None of us have the courage to truly live out loud. Warts and all. I sure have tried though. I’ve talked VERY openly about my mental health struggles. But even I am a victim of vanity. Notice that I haven’t posted many pictures of myself in the last six months. After losing 85 pounds, I put back on about 40. But that doesn’t fit my narrative. So I just post lots of landscape shots. Haha. Honestly, though, I’m nearly 45-years-old and I just don’t care anymore. When I was younger, I was quite good looking and never had a problem getting women or charming guests at a party. I usually WAS the party. I stayed up all night, and always closed down the bar. It was fun. But these days, I’d rather read a book. Listen to a podcast. Or watch TV. I never was a tall man, but as I get older, I find myself shrinking. Ahh! No! I can’t afford to get any shorter! Of course, I’m growing wider in the other direction. Haha. And losing my hair. And growing hair where it doesn’t belong. And on and on and on. But fuck, I’m almost half a century years old. People age. Not even the most beautiful model in the world will likely still turn heads at 60…80…

People age.

So if you wanna use a filter and fool us all, so be it. You do you. Or if you don’t want to use a filter, and tell us all that you are emphatically NOT using a filter, that’s cool too. Me, I’ll just be over here aging with grace…

Yeah right! 😛

What the World Needs Now is Love Sweet Love

I watch a LOT of news on television, and read the New York Times and The Atlantic every day. You could say that I’m pretty well informed.

But I can understand the impulse to withdraw from the world and avoid news altogether. I have a friend who I just learned has never heard of the musical ‘Hamilton.’ I could not believe it. She was also unaware Trump was being impeached or that he had ever been impeached a first time. Honestly, I’m surprised she even knew that Donald Trump was ever our President. She doesn’t vote.

“What have you been living under a rock?” is an expression perfectly suited to this woman.

She’s a friend, and we actually do have a lot of other things in common. I genuinely enjoy spending time with her. So yeah, I like her a lot.

Having said that, her lack of engagement with the world and a society she inhabits actually exasperates me. She has severe ADD and an anxiety disorder. I understand her not wanting to let the troubling news of the world make her overly anxious and depressed. That’s just good self-care and a fragile person protecting themselves. I get it.

But at some point, people like her are actually just as dangerous as these QAnon nuts. An uninformed, apathetic, and disengaged citizen is almost as bad for our democracy and country as a Confederate Flag-waving white supremacist. Both can do great harm to our nation.

My friend is a sensitive and compassionate lefty artist who teaches young children art every day. Which is awesome. She is a passionate dreamer and innovative and creative thinker. We need more people like her in the world. But at some point, that child she’s teaching may make some racist remark or say some sexist thing, because they heard their last President say it, and this young woman might not even know what that kid is talking about. Of course, she would redirect the child and turn it into a teachable moment because that’s what all good teachers do. And she is a good teacher.

Personally, I strongly believe that we also have to engage with the world around us. We must be in the world, not just of it. The only way racism is going to be solved is by entering into dialogue with others – those who share our opinions, and yes, even those who don’t. How will they ever learn?

Several of my radical leftist friends refuse to ever talk to a Trump supporter again and are now saying “FUCK them! They can all die.” I’m sorry, but that’s not helpful. Are they suggesting 74 million Americans die? Because that’s nearly a third of our country and the last time I checked, they were still our neighbors, teachers, acquaintances, coworkers, family, and friends, to name a few. Good for you. You’ll never speak to another person who voted for Donald Trump. Haha. Don’t make me laugh. As if you ever did before. These people live in a liberal echo chamber on Facebook where all their progressive liberal friends “like” all of their thoughtfully indignant posts about keeping immigrant children in cages and separating families at the border.

Great. I think that’s bad too.

I’m a liberal too. Or at least, I used to think I was. These days, I get in more fights with my radical liberal friends than my Republican friends who voted for Trump. I guess I’m more of a center Democrat, because some of these radicals come off as Maoists to me. I thought I was liberal, but I’m getting “OK, Boomer” vibes from half the people I know under 35. I want all the same things that AOC, Bernie, and Warren want, but I guess I’m not angry enough about it. Or I don’t talk about identity politics like I should. It’s not enough to support gay marriage these days. Now, I have to marry a man in order to be an ally.

Kidding.

Bur seriously, I hate the hypocrisy on BOTH SIDES. Our country is so divided, and both camps are so entrenched in their own ideologies that NO ONE is talking anymore. There’s no middle left in this country. And if there’s no middle, where the hell are we all supposed to meet?

The point is, I feel like the only way we’re ever gonna make this a “more perfect Union” is for all of us to actually talk to one another. And above all, to LISTEN. There is no greater gift you can give another person than your undivided attention. To actually listen to what they have to say. That is truly what it means to LOVE.

I have friends who I love who would vote for AOC or Warren for President in a heartbeat. I also have friends who would change the Constitution so that we could elect Donald Trump President for life. Seriously. No exaggeration.
And people of all stripes and everything in between.

Because I LOVE people. Not political parties. People.

I wish my friend would engage with the world more, and maybe talk to a Trump supporter sometime. But she clearly suffers from mental illness, and needs to protect herself. As she should.

So what’s your excuse..?

Color Blind: The Virtues and Pitfalls of Cross-Racial Casting, Part I

Last night, I decided to finally succumb to the buzz, and watched the new Netflix show, Bridgerton. All that I knew about the show was that it is set during the Regency period and that it was quite steamy…i.e. lots of nudity and sex scenes. I have always somewhat reluctantly enjoyed Jane Austen, and the novels she set during that era, so I figured I might enjoy this new show as well. And it is well-crafted. And easily addictive. I found it begrudgingly satisfying in the way all guilty pleasures are. To some, that’s watching trashy reality television. For me, it’s apparently binging on Regency soft-core porn. 😉

Like Austen, writer Julia Quinn invents a protagonist who is a headstrong and stifled young woman whose sense of fierce self-determination is seemingly at odds with her predestined station in life and the established mores of the age. As you might expect, she wants to find love and true companionship, but being a young landed woman of a certain age, must also find a husband as soon as possible. In Bridgerton, the young protagonist’s name is Daphne, and her older brother (Anthony), is bound and determined to find her a suitable match. In this case, the eldest brother is overly picky and cannot bring himself to approve of any of her would-be suitors.

Enter the newly-minted Duke of Hastings. He is an old college friend of Anthony’s and dutifully mannered, classically handsome, exquisitely dressed, and obviously, London’s most eligible bachelor.

And Black.

Wait. What?

If this film were being made in the late ’60s, it would be called Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? That classic movie stars Sydney Poitier as Dr. John Prentice, the Black fiancé to a young (headstrong and free-thinking) white woman named Joanna, who brings him home to progressive San Francisco to meet her otherwise liberal parents – played by Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn. In that film, the lefty white couple’s attitudes are challenged when their daughter introduces them to her African-American fiancé – a doctor, no less – and their true veneer and liberal hypocrisy and is exposed for all that it is. The movie was of its age, and at the same time, also timeless and far-sighted. You might even say, ahead of its time. How are we still having these conversations nearly 55 years later?

In 2017, visionary actor, writer, director, and producer Jordan Peele completely turned Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? on its head, and injected horror and menace into the premise, mixed genres and allusions in a lovely postmodern pastiche, and produced Get Out. In doing so, he effectively created his own genre of film – social justice horror. Or Racial Thriller. Or whatever film historians will ultimately call it. Essentially, it is a movie about relationships between white America and Black America, and the horror that can arise out of the collision of those two forces…particularly to African Americans, who have been historically abused, maligned, oppressed, and traumatized by systemic racism in this country for over 400 years. This racism is systemic because it underlies EVERY institution in America, from our criminal justice system to housing market to education system to…well…EVERYTHING. But in these films, that racism translates to real people, whose relationships are not merely transactional, but rooted in a deep-seated racism that permeates our very words, thoughts, and actions. The true horror is that we (WHITE AMERICA) are finally seeing what Black Americans have lived in this country since they were first brought over in chains. Peele’s film arrived just three years before the George Floyd murder and subsequent Black Lives Matter summer of protests, but it wasn’t necessarily prescient. Because as a Black man, Peele had already lived this reality his entire life, as every African American has for centuries. It was merely that white America was finally seeing the cell phone videos for the first time. Those images have undoubtedly been imprinted on Black peoples’ minds for generations. OUR eyes have opened, not THEIRS. And yet, if you look at the number of people who reject BLM or deny the existence of racially-motivated police brutality, it seems that only a half of white America have opened their eyes. There is still a LOT of work to do. And that is why there is nothing more urgent or timely than the work Jordan Peele is producing right now.

But what does any of this have to do with Bridgerton and my enjoyment of this light-hearted romp through Regency England?

TO BE CONTINUED…

Camera Obscura: How We Lost Our Way

I find it funny that I sometimes ask, “Who gave these people a camera?” I actually seem to ask that of nearly everyone on the planet today, and especially those on Facebook and Instagram. I remember a time when pictures meant something and people invested time in setting up shots. I’m not advocating we go back to the old flash pot explosions and the hour long exposure time of yesteryear.We don’t need to bring back the daguerreotypes to appreciate pictures again. (Although, I have no doubt hipsters would love that! Ha!

Nowadays, every idiot has a camera phone, and somewhere along the way, that person was led to believe that 104 of the same selfie was a good idea – replete with sucked in cheeks, duck lips, reflection in the bathroom mirror, and from above with gratuitous cleavage. That’s 104 to add to the 4238 on Facebook already. All of the same thing. Or the filters of dog’s tongues and whiskers that Snapchat allows you to do to your photos. There’s no such thing as scenery anymore. Landscapes have been usurped by the far more interesting…US. You can’t properly tag a mountain after all. And thanks to Instagram, we’re all graphic designers, carefully trained in blurring the edges or adding a sepia tone to that shot from last night’s club. We have become a nation of self-professed photographers and self-pomoters, while we somehow devalue the serious artists who have been trained and spent years working in the field. I’m not saying that in order to own a camera, everyone should have to go through formal photography training. Camera phones have democratized the pastime, and if anything, it’s encouraged a whole new generation to pursue a career in the field or become more serious about their art.

And what’s wrong with everyone being an amateur photographer? That’s like discouraging people from doing community theater, even though they may be bad actors and the shows are likely terrible. Even if it doesn’t cultivate a love of the theater that leads to a career, those people are having fun and doing something they love and enjoy. What’s wrong with that? We need to allow people to have their pleasures and actively pursue whatever interests them. Life is cruel and unpredictable in so many ways, so why should anyone deprive themselves of a pastime, however poorly I may think they are at it? And why am I – or anyone else – the arbiter of taste?

In truth, my frustration and blame does lie with the ubiquity of cameras and the staggering explosion of amateur photography, but with the deeper and more insidious effect those realities may be having on our collective psyches. The information age has irreversibly imprinted itself on every aspect of our lives. Unfettered access to high speed internet has changed the way we interact with the world around us. Since everything’s faster online, we were forced to speed up the pace of our lives. Since the internet allowed us to access unprecedented amounts of raw data, seemingly everything was at our fingertips. And certainly at the snap of them. Such instantaneous data retrieval undoubtedly made our lives easier, but it also bred unflattering new behaviors in us. We were now spoiled by access and ease, and we demanded our computers get faster, our connections got speedier, and websites be designed for maximum efficiency.

Our prayers were ultimately answered, but at what expense? We now anthropomorphize the internet, and see ourselves in its functions and maneuvers. Conversely, we began to assign computer traits to those we loved, the people we worked with, and the people that served us in some way. We were not only driving ourselves even faster, but we held those around us to unrealistic standards of success. Our bartenders had to be skilled in small talk, tend bar quickly and efficiently, possess encyclopedic knowledge of mixing drinks, and flawlessly craft the perfect martini. Why? Because the internet can do all those things in a fraction of the time. Metaphorically, if nothing else. Our colleagues at work must draft blueprints with expert precision. The Priest must deliver the sermon you’re meant to hear and grow from. Your husband promised your anniversary would be exciting and romantic in ways it never has been. Your best friend better not invite that girl he’s dating, because you don’t like her, no matter how happy he may think he is.  This is your special night, and if he’s truly a friend, then he’ll know better. You’d be hard-pressed to make it in this world without the help and support of others. Some of those people are going to be the rock and foundation you plant your feet on. They are steadfast and true, and worthy of your trust. The reality is, the majority of people you meet in life are going to be apathetic to your existence, and take no active interest in your life—however nice and/or exciting you may be. A small portion of people jump from the don’t care list, to the mildly interested and just enough to make modest efforts at connection. These people are often referred to as acquaintances, and they make up the lion’s share of your friends on Facebook, and likely every other social networking site. They may only make contact once a year – to wish you a happy birthday, but then again, they may not even do that. These are liminal friends, waiting on the doorstep, but not entering your home. We look at our friends list, and boast that we have over a thousand friends. But honestly, how many of them would attend your mother’s funeral? Loan you money? Donate to your GoFundMe campaign? Or go beyond wishing you a happy birthday, and actually buy yo a gift? When you count your friends in quality, as opposed to quantity, the numbers dwindle to less than a dozen.

With cameras at our fingertips, we seem to capture every moment of our lives, but never truly live them. How present are we in a transitory moment in time, when we’re too busy setting up the shot and trying to capture beauty that we only can enjoy through a screen? Not to mention the thousands of people who die while trying to capture the “perfect” shot. We live our fast-paced lives at the speed of the Internet, and then when we have genuine moments to reflect and take in nature’s beauty, we feel the need to immortalize the moment in a picture. As if we have no faith in our memories and our “mind’s eye” as Shakespeare coined in Hamlet. Even the expression, “Pics, or it didn’t happen” perfectly encapsulates the mentality of a society so obsessed with images and capturing every moment of our lives – like collecting ships in bottles for our future selves and for posterity.

We use social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram because we want to chronicle our lives, as if they didn’t matter or had no substance if they aren’t documented online. We use pictures to help us create a narrative of how we want our lives perceived by others. We curate our lives, so as to choose the perfect selfie, the ideal family portrait, and the most picturesque holiday photo to tell a story we want others to hear. We rarely talk about our bad days, and when we do, we rarely get likes. Perhaps some virtual hugs from time to time.

They say that a post with an image is 75% more likely to get comments and likes than one with just pure text. Instagram is so popular because it doesn’t allow its users to write much, and never in the body of the post…always as a comment underneath. IG is a visual medium, and it’s wonderful for photographers and artists, because it allows them to showcase their art and network within a vast community of consumers.

Lately, it seems that Facebook is becoming more like Instagram, and turning into a depository of pictures, memes, videos, and occasionally articles. It’s rare to see people write anything anymore, and when they do, it’s almost always short and to the point. When I write a long and thoughtful post, I’m lucky to get three likes. There have been times when I’ve posted a verbose story and not gotten a single like. My friend, Jeremiah, often tells long and entertaining stories connecting history to his personal life, and weaving contemporary society into events from the past. He’s lucky to get ten likes, and he has over 3000 “friends!” No one wants to read anymore. I absolutely detest the notation: TL/DR. Too long, didn’t read means that you’re too lazy and/ or don’t have the attention span to digest anything longer than a three sentence Facebook status. As a society, we have been moving away from books for decades. We no longer want to read anything of length, so we warn others if an article or essay is too long by slapping ‘TL/DR’ on there. Sometimes, some brave soul will read an entire article and write TL/DR and then provide a cursory summary of what the essay was about. As if an eight sentence summary can capture the voice, the art, and the wordplay of a well-written essay. We have lost our ability to pay attention, and I cannot help but blame television, the Internet, and the technology sitting in all our pockets right now.

Having said all this, I am just as guilty as the next guy. I take tons of photos and post them on Facebook and Instagram every day. I see a thing of beauty like a sunset, and rather than take it in and reflect on the moment, I pull out my camera to capture it. I chronicle my life through carefully curated pictures, and always try to show my best side. I often write comments that demonstrate how liberal and open-minded I am. I post articles that show how egalitarian and non-racist I really am. My articles, posts, and pictures all tell the story of a progressive and tolerant citizen of this world, who strongly believes in social justice, climate change, women’s reproductive rights, equality, and more. And those are all genuinely held believes that I have. But they don’t tell the whole picture.

President Theodore Roosevelt


The truth is rarely black and white. We live in a time that has become so divided and polarized that if you don’t tow the line of your party’s orthodoxy, you are somehow an enemy of the cause. The expression, “You’re either with us or against us” has never been so true as it is today. People rarely see in shades of grey today, and rarely embrace the nuance and contradictions inherent in human nature. I can support Black Lives Matter AND still recognize that many of the victims of police brutality were committing a crime when they were assaulted and/ or killed. That doesn’t take away the impact of their murders. It just doesn’t lionize them as victims or demonize the police as pure evil. The truth is almost somewhere in the middle between these divergent narratives. To praise a man like Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, or even Abraham Lincoln doesn’t mean you cannot accept and process their flaws and shortcomings. TR was an imperialist and bigoted brute in his younger days. Jefferson had the audacity to write “All men are created equal” while owning slaves and believing in their innate inferiority. Lincoln initially wanted to preserve the union more than outlaw slavery, and for many modern critics, was too slow to embrace abolitionism. What we fail to do when we put these men (and women) in boxes, is embrace their multitudes, as Walt Whitman once said. We don’t allow them their complexities or peccadillos, as we either paint them as Gods or Monsters. Human beings are complicated specimens, and rarely – if ever – fall into one convenient box. We are neither all evil or all bad. Hamlet says, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” And that’s true. We assign blame and strip humans of their nuances and layers when we try to distill their personalities down into cookie-cutter categories.

Another problem with lionizing or demonizing figures from history is that it divorces them of their times, and we fail to provide cultural context. Teddy Roosevelt’s early attitudes towards Native Americans in the late 19th Century was abhorrent, but hardly unusual for the time. And that attitude changed and improved over his lifetime, as he grew and matured. What WAS unusual for his time period was his progressive politics. In the 1912 United States Presidential Election, Roosevelt ran under his own third party – the Bull Moose Party. Despite the limitations of his time, his party’s platform called for suffrage for women, universal healthcare, a protection of federal lands, a livable wage, free education, and many more of the same things we are still fighting for today! Bernie Sanders essentially ran on the platform proposed by TR over a hundred years ago!

And yet, we have many liberals who want to cancel Teddy. And Jefferson. And astonishingly, even Abraham Lincoln. Statues have been removed, and schools renamed. At what cost? Who will be next? Who will be left? Even Martin Luther King was an unrepentant womanizer. Shall we cancel him next? If we have no figures from our past to look up to, how will we learn from their successes and failures? Isn’t it more educational to learn the full complexity of a man in order to understand that kind of nuance and depth within ourselves? We cancel our forefathers/mothers at our peril. If we have no giants to stand on the shoulders of, how will we ever see past ourselves and our own shortcomings?

As I wrote in my essay on cancel culture, we risk losing our very soul as a nation if we continue to throw our ancestors under the bus and refuse to place them in the context of the time periods they came from. We need to stop making those that came before us or our own contemporaries into “heroes” or “villains.” Humankind is too smart to be doing that. We have come too far, to backslide into such adolescent behavior.

Our technology has sped up our lives, but has it improved them? We can capture a sunset in seconds, but can we even take the time to enjoy it? We refuse to read anything of length and substance, but rather choose to watch 30 second clips on Tik Tok. Our attention spans have been irrefutably altered by the media and our technology, and its creating a society full of people suffering from severe ADD and the inability to focus on anything textured or profound. What happens when everything becomes so superficial, and we are so entrenched in our divided camps that we refuse to even talk with our opponents? If a picture is worth a thousand words, the portrait of America right now is not pretty to look at. We need more grey in that picture!

The Devil You Know: How Half the Country Could Have Voted for Trump in 2020…Even After Getting to Know Him!

ID 84237747 © Doddis| Dreamstime.com

It sincerely troubles me that nearly half the population of the United States voted for Donald Trump in 2020. Can it be true that one out of every two Americans is a Trump supporter? That means that our family, our friends, and our neighbors may very well have voted for this wretched man. As I ride on the subway or see a car pass me on the highway, I can’t help but automatically wonder if the person inside is a Trump supporter. Much to my consternation, I find myself judging people’s clothing, their speech, and their level of education. I can’t see a pickup truck with an American flag without assuming that the driver is a redneck Trump supporter. 

It’s devastating to me that our country’s flag – the enduring symbol of America – has been savagely appropriated and grotesquely twisted into a hateful symbol of the Right and the toxic brand of masculinity, jingoism, and authoritarianism that is embodied by Trumpism. This past summer, I was camping on Cape Cod and I had forgotten my camp chair. When I went to Dick’s Sporting Goods to buy a cheap replacement, the only ones they had left were covered with an enormous American Flag and were sickeningly patriotic. But I was desperate and they were cheap. I bought the chair but all weekend long I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious about my purchase. The campground we were staying at was filled with lefty hippie-types. The entire trip, I felt the unmistakable stare of the same judgmental eyes that I had been employing for the last three and a half years. They saw my chair and naturally assumed that I must be some jingoistic Trump-supporting bigot. It saddens me that I wasn’t simply mistaken for a proud American with a modest love of my country. The American flag has become corrupted by the Right and it started long before Trump, but it became a hyper-inflated symbol of his toxic nativism with his ascendency.

I find myself drawn to the flags of other countries these days. I recently put a Great Britain decal on the back of my car. I love the UK, and in many ways, I can identify with the British more than the Americans with whom I’m sharing my country. Although, given the recent affirmative vote on Brexit, it’s quite obvious that many Britons are xenophobic themselves and seem to favor a brand of authoritarianism made popular by OUR President. Trump might have brought it back, but this take on fascism is running rampant throughout the world and we are currently seeing a wave of right wing strongmen from Brazil to Hungary. 

How did we arrive here?

I find it deeply disturbing that given the progress we’ve made in this country over the last sixty years, half the nation does not actually buy into that concept as “progress” and instead see us heading down a path of wickedness and deceit. The remarkable strides we’ve made on racism, sexism, homophobia, and other social injustices are actually seen by those on the Right as incompatible with an upstanding Christian society. As if Jesus ever mentioned homosexuality or condemned another human for their very humanity or who they were fundamentally as people. And yet, what the Left sees as inclusion and egalitarianism the Right sees as a society in decay – arbitrarily condoning twisted and aberrational behavior and granting legitimacy to “sinful” lifestyles. Many conservatives see the ascendency of people of color as a threat to their power and as a cause for alarm. An educated and compassionate Black man like Barack Obama is not an ally, but an adversary who must be vanquished at all costs. In their eyes, Obama was an “upstart crow” (to borrow the term used to admonish Shakespeare) and was what racists like to call an “Uppity Negro.” Or worse.The 44th President was an enemy because they saw him as a symbol of change, and for them, change is a zero sum game. Whereas Obama might suggest that by uplifting his race or by empowering the LGBTQ community, he is simply leveling the playing field and ensuring EQUAL rights. Many on the Right see those groups as threatening the white male hegemony and ultimately, eroding their hold on power. In their minds, there can be no shared power. 

In 2008, I naively thought that this country had turned a corner. Barack Obama was promising  “hope and change” and I sincerely thought that’s exactly what the country wanted. After eight years of warmongering and conservative politics, it seemed that the nation wanted a change. Craved it. At the time, I thouht George W. Bush was the worst president we’d ever had and likely ever would have. Little did I know. Obama seemed to appeal to the working class as much as the educated elites. Much like the Reagan Democrats, he seemed to woo traditionally conservative voters and capture votes from the Right. It’s no coincidence that Barack announced his candidacy on the capitol steps in Springfield, just as Lincoln (another young lawyer from Illinois) had done 148 years earlier. Both men ascended the national (and world) stage at a time of cultural crisis when the country was deeply divided over race and politics and it seemed that the very soul of the nation was at stake. 

Admittedly, most voters probably don’t have these grandiose ideas in their heads as they vote. As we’ve seen time and again, it seems that most voters tend to vote for the person they’d most like to share a beer with. In 2000, that was Bush. In 2008, that was Obama. It didn’t matter that W no longer drank; it was the idea of “shooting the shit” with a guy you felt you could relate to. Someone that you could talk sports with or have a sympathetic ear to vent about whatever. That certainly wasn’t the egghead, Al Gore or the policy wonk and teacher’s pet, Hillary Clinton. As qualified as both of them were, they were wooden and unrelatable, and therefore, fundamentally unlikable. Clinton was a woman, and given our patriarchal and sexist society, she stood an even lesser chance of being liked than Gore did. Who would want to sit down and drink a beer with either of them? 

But how in God’s name would anyone want to drink a beer with Donald J. Trump??? 

Again, “The Donald” doesn’t drink, but the concept is the same. Half of the American electorate saw Trump as a “straight-shooter” who, like them, wasn’t always polished and politically correct and certainly not “Presidential,” but who spoke his mind and invariably messed up sometimes. They actually appreciated his stumbles and his rude rants even when they didn’t always agree. They saw him as strong and triumphant over traditional politicians, the mainstream media, and the Hollywood/ Tech elite. When he called people degrading names and blasted the media, he was echoing their own frustrations with a system that had condemned their own feelings and concerns and had made them feel like outsiders in their own country. Trump was the ultimate outsider who promised to “drain the swamp” and use his business acumen to fix the economy and get people their jobs back. After all, he promised to build a wall to keep illegal immigrants out and make Mexico pay for it! 

Just over five years ago, Trump announced his candidacy after dramatically descending a golden escalator in his characteristically theatrical fashion. He was greeted by a slew of American flags and was standing in front of a “Make America Great Again” sign. Then Trump proceeded to give a speech we’ve heard quoted a million times since then. It was shocking in its boldfaced honesty and unvarnished xenophobia. Sadly, the speech was just a taste of what would follow, and in retrospect, is totally consistent with the man we’ve come to know all too well. In the speech, Trump said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” 

Right out of the gate, we knew exactly who Trump was and what he stood for. Or at least, what he stood against. It was the first of many dog whistles and immediately caught the attention of his soon-to-be supporters. Apparently, for a great number of Americans, they saw a man who spoke bluntly and unapologetically and said what they had already been thinking. 

For eight years, these Americans had felt marginalized and alienated by the country they love. They had been burdened by a Black president who had, purposefully or not, ushered in an era of “identity politics” and ubiquitous “political correctness.” They had been censored for eight LONG years and had been forced to bite their tongues and keep their mouths shut. Over the years, they had witnessed their jobs being shipped overseas to be worked by brown people in foreign lands. LGBTQ people had been allowed to marry, betraying their deeply-held religious beliefs and shattering their idea of traditional marriage. Affirmative Action had allowed seemingly less qualified colleagues to be promoted ahead of them all in the name of equality and filling a minority quota. In their eyes, crime had overridden their cities (some of which they had never even visited, but saw on Fox News) and that couldn’t be divorced from the fact that it was unequivocally tied to an increase in minority populations and immigrants “infesting” those very same neighborhoods. Although Roe v. Wade had legalized abortion over forty years earlier, the Pro Life movement had gained supporters and capital in recent years and there just weren’t enough conservative SCOTUS judges to overturn the landmark abortion case. They may not have had a problem with women in the workplace, but suddenly, those women had power over the men and their innocent teases and dirty jokes were now seen as sexual harassment. Some of their favorite celebrities and authors were now being “cancelled” because of their politically incorrect words or the jokes they made. Starbucks had declared war on Christmas by adorning their coffee cups with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Colleges, universities, and even public elementary and secondary schools were indoctrinating their children with liberal politics and encouraging students to question the traditional history that they were taught as children. Liberals like Barack Obama hated America and blamed slavery and sexism for all the strife in our country and attached titles like “White Privilege” to honest, hardworking, poor Americans. Conservatives felt under attack when they tried to practice their religion openly and freely – especially when it came to issues like abortion and contraception. 

The battle found its way to the SCOTUS and a conservative majority allowed rulings allowing religious organizations to deny women access to contraception and family planning services. Clearly, another Republican president could shore up the SCOTUS and deliver at least one or two more jurists. Men and women without college degrees felt like the Left had left them behind. For years, these working class blue collar workers and union members had supported Democrats and their agendas. They felt that the Dems had their backs. That has changed over the last 40 years as more and more uneducated American workers are defecting to the Republican Party whom they see as better protecting their best interests and embracing them for who they are and what they do. Democrats were now seen as “Ivory Tower” elitists who turn their nose up at the “working man” and try and shove “Identity Politics” down their throats, lecture them on how these workers’ preferential skin color gives them privilege, and how bigoted they are for hating immigrants and POC for taking their jobs. The Dems left them behind and forgot the valuable men and women who were once the backbone of this party. 

These beleaguered citizens were fed up. They didn’t want a politician telling them what to think and how to live their lives. America is built upon the idea of freedom and liberty, and Obama had infringed upon their “God-given rights” as Americans. They wanted a plainspoken man to give them permission to air their grievances. Someone like them. Not a fancy Ivy League-educated elitist, but a man who had pulled himself up by his bootstraps and made something of himself. They wanted a man who spoke their language and didn’t mince words even if that meant he was rude and unpresidential at times. They didn’t want the same kind of Republican the party had been running for decades. They wanted someone unpolitical who would wipe away the Washington detritus and start anew. Someone who wouldn’t just promise change and not deliver, but actually return their country to its fundamental condition: white, male, Christian, and rife with guns. That was the American way. This country was founded on those principles. They needed a savior. 

And they found one. 

“Make America Great Again” was not just a slogan, but a way of life. It encapsulated everything many Americans saw wrong with this country. Ever since the Civil Rights era of the late ’50s and early ’60s, the nation had steadily become corrupt and was decaying with each passing day. For many Americans, they were seeing their country disappear before their eyes. 

Boomers have been especially egregious in their assessment of the “good ole days.” For many of them, the nostalgia associated with the 1950s was palpable and they longed for a return to those simpler days. Of course, this “Halcyon Era” never actually existed. Or at least, not for everyone. If you were white, male, and Christian, it certainly was a beneficial time to be alive. Dwight Eisenhower had made their lives easier and raised the average American standard of living. Thanks to the GI Bill, men could afford homes for their families and the average American could buy their very own car. Their kitchens were furnished with modern appliances and their streets were safe to walk. Shows like “Father Knows Best,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “The Andy Griffith Show” all cemented the memory of a time and place that was idyllic and aspirational. The “Mayberry” of their youth was not merely a fiction but a place to return to. 

Of course, most respected scholars and historians (as well as the average person-in-the-know) would tell you that those years were not ideal or nostalgic for many. For women, gays, lesbians, transgender, Blacks, Asians, Native Americans, and other minorities, the 1950s were a deeply oppressive time where rights were curtailed and the ability to live proud and openly was just not a possibility. For instance, to be an openly gay Black woman in 1955 would have been unthinkable. A fierce and progressive queer feminist like African American writer, professor, editor, and social commentator Roxane Gay would most likely not have existed during that period in American history, or at least, she would have certainly been a marginalized and ostracized voice. Gay’s very presence is predicated on the work of thousands of Civil Rights icons who fought for her long before she was ever born. Like many of us (and she undoubtedly knows), she stands on the shoulders of giants. 

The liberal SCOTUS of the Warren Court (1953-1969) had pushed integration and upheld minority voter enfranchisement legislation, among other things. Even though Justice Earl Warren retired in 1967, his court laid the groundwork for the Roe decision in 1973 and even compelled conservative judges like Justice Harry Blackmun, a conservative appointed by Richard Nixon, to write the majority opinion on the case. In fact, seven justices voted in favor of Roe. For the Right, the ascendency of Ronald Reagan in the ’80s briefly returned America to its greatness, only to be spoiled again by Bill Clinton in the ’90s. After all, Clinton had instituted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”in the US military, allowing gays to serve – albeit, not openly. 

These baby steps set the precedent for later leaders – specifically Obama – to open the military up for gays, lesbians, and transgender Americanswithout the shame of having to hide their true identities. For many constituents, this was a bridge too far. They predicted the collapse of the military and that morale would flag if LGBTQ soldiers were allowed to fight alongside their straight and cis counterparts. They warned of soldiers not willing to sacrifice their lives for each other and that homophobia would prevent meaningful relationships (essential to combat scenarios) from thriving. As we found out, this was all speculative nonsense and the military has never been stronger or more unified. Apparently, soldiers don’t care what your sexuality or gender identity is when you’ve got their back on the battlefield or carrying a wounded soldier to safety. 

As we all know, Ronald Reagan shifted the American electorate dramatically and suddenly, blue collar working men and women began to slowly defect to the Republican Party and have ultimately abandoned the Democrats altogether by now. Mostly. Obama’s message of “Hope and Change” inspired these “purple voters” and they turned out for him in large numbers and Democrats recaptured red districts previously thought lost to the Left. Obama soundly defeated Romney and also did quite well against McCain. Perhaps that’s when I first thought that the country was shifting and becoming more liberal and that NOW was the time for us to make real change and progress on issues like the environment, Institutional Racism, and economic inequality. After all, Obama had the mandate of the people. 

Then Trump came along. 

I knew things were bad when I saw my mother and stepfather slowly get pulled into his web. In full disclosure, my mom and stepfather are wonderful, lovely, caring, empathetic, and loving people. They are two of the best souls to walk this earth. That said, they are also Evangelical Christians and quite conservative in their beliefs. Although my stepfather was a union letter carrier his whole life, his politics are firmly in the Right column. They care about Supreme Court Justice appointments because ultimately, they would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned. I also think they wouldn’t object to gay marriage laws being reversed. They are devout Evangelicals who have Fox News on their television nearly 24 hours-a-day. They loved Bill O’Reilly and were devastated and angry at what happened to him at Fox. I think they are big fans of Sean Hannity as well. And maybe Tucker Carlson. 

You see, I can’t say with any certainty because my parents and I don’t talk politics. Or religion. Those are the dreaded “third-rail” topics that complicate our family dynamic.  In the past, these were the very things that led to screaming matches, silent routines, and the unraveling of our happy home. I learned many years ago not to talk politics or religion with my mom and stepfather. And we are so much happier now that we don’t. I love them unconditionally and I know they feel the same way about me. We may not agree on politics or religion, but I know them to be good and decent people, with strong morals and deeply-held principles and beliefs. I DO NOT ACCEPT THAT THEY ARE BIGOTS. These people don’t personally agree with abortion because they think life starts at conception. They don’t believe in gay marriage because they believe that a traditional marriage should only be between one man and one woman and that the Bible expressly forbids homosexuality in the Old Testament. They are Fundamentalists and believe in the inviolability of the Bible and its teachings. No matter how contradictory the Bible is on everything from love to poverty to marriage to slavery to EVERYTHING. 

I have pointed this out to them in the past and my parents’ answers will NEVER satisfy me. But I am satisfied now. I am satisfied that these two morally sound and loving individuals have something that they believe in, and that something sustains them and gives them strength. It makes them happy. Not because they are trying to curtail other people’s lives; they don’t think like that. They just want everyone to live by the “WORD OF GOD,” and in doing so, society will right itself and return to the path of righteousness. That is the groundwork that needs to be laid before Jesus Christ can return to the earth and take us all (or some) to Heaven. These people support Israel not because they fundamentally believe in the Jews right to exist, but rather, because dogmatically, they need the “Chosen People” to inhabit Israel at the moment of the “End of Days” in order for prophecy to be fulfilled and for Christians to fight a battle led by Christ for the souls of humans everywhere. That apocalypse will only ever be fully realized once the Jewish people are the sole occupants of “their” land and no one else contaminates the well, you might say. This is truly Biblical proportions. This is what they believe. 

So as much as I deplore some of my parents’ beliefs and stridently disagree with them on so many things, they are my parents after all. Like it or not, I’m stuck with them. I’m joking, of course. I love them. AND respect them.

Honestly, I would not be the man I am today if it had not been for the struggles of my mother, and all that she sacrificed to get me to where I am today. My mom raised me as a single mom for 18 years with no one but her impoverished parents to depend on. And they were great, but they were nearly as poor as we were, so no one could truly take care of us. My mom did that. By herself. She sent me to college where I ultimately went on to earn three university degrees. SHE did that. Not me. I learned it all from her. She only had a high school degree until I was 15. Through sheer willpower, my mom worked her way through college in her 30s and 40s and eventually earned a business degree from a small college in Bangor, Maine. SHE did that. When she married my stepfather during my freshman year of undergrad, I knew she had found her soulmate. They may not have similar personalities; quite the opposite, in fact. They may not have similar interests. Also, quite the opposite. But what they do have is their shared faith. They read the Bible together and highlight passages that mean something special to them and to their struggles. They are lifted up through their Bible study classes and the work they do with recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. They are strengthened by the food bank they volunteer at to help the poor and needy in their town. 

My mom also happens to believe in climate change and cares deeply about the environment. That’s when she says to me, “I’m not strictly a radical Republican. It’s complicated. There are things I disagree with them on.” And I usually don’t respond, trying to cleave to our previously mentioned “bargain.” I love them and I know they love humanity. They don’t hate Black people, but they don’t support Black Lives Matter. They don’t hate immigrants, but they don’t support DACA or allowing more refugees into the already overburdened country and sagging economy. They don’t hate gay or transgender people, but they don’t support their right to marry. They simply wish those people would find Christ and learn to live by his “rules” again. As they say, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” They do love these people. Truly. My mom has never said one bigoted thing in her life. EVER. She raised me right. I happened to discover the theatre when I was ten and suddenly all the religious adults in my life were replaced by older and MUCH more liberal actors, playwrights, directors, techies, and other progressives I met through the theatre. I drifted away from religion, she didn’t push me away. I found my new Church.

I still maintain that I believe in God. I believe the universe is too complex and layered to have just been random. When I look at a painting, I think an artist painted that. When I look at a cathedral, I think an architect designed that. When I read a book I am passionate about, I think a writer wrote that. Why wouldn’t it be so in the universe as well? You may call that “Intelligent Design,” but I choose to call it God. I sometimes even still go to church. These days, it is a Unitarian Universalist church with a strong emphasis on social justice, but I feel comforted there. The people that attend have a strong fellowship and a shared goal of social justice and environmental regulation. They read passages from the Bible, but incorporate other religions and philosophies as well. The very first sermon I heard at my adopted UU church started with a passage from the Bible and ended with an excerpt from a Kurt Vonnegut book. I knew then and there that THIS was the church for me! 

The point is, Democrats can be religious. Conservatives can be atheists. We are all human beings on this rock, fighting to survive and to love our families and keep them safe and protect them from those elements that may seek to destroy us. From others who may try and bring us down. In my opinion, liberals are right. They are on the “right side of history,” because, as Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And it bends towards love. Justice cannot be achieved without love. We must truly “love” our “neighbor as thyself” as the God in the Bible wisely commands. If you compare the Old Testament with the New, they might as well be different books written by two different religions. One is dark and punitive; the other is hopeful and reliant on love alone. I believe we must follow Christ’s teachings. Not because I necessarily think that he was the Son of God, but because they are morally sound and graspable concepts that will make the world a better place. You may have already found that in Buddha. Or Muhammad. Or Wiccan. Or Secular Humanism. Or wherever. The point is that you found it. And if you have not, then we cannot truly sit down at a table together and talk. As one world. One nation. One state. One city. One town. One family. We need to all acknowledge each other as human beings with MANY shared similarities and work to try to understand each other better as fellow members of the same planet. And when that work is done, maybe we’ll be better “armed” to tackle our seemingly intractable differences. But it all starts with love. 

I thought I knew who Donald Trump was in 2015 when he called Mexicans rapists and murderers and promised to build a wall in his very first speech announcing his candidacy. I thought he was pretty transparent and that my fellow Americans would see right through him as I had done. Although I think Hillary Clinton was probably the most capable and qualified candidate for president we’ve ever had, I also know that she is hated and reviled by many and that ultimately she probably wasn’t the best candidate to pick in 2016. I liked other candidates better. But no matter what I felt about her chances, I was committed to seeing her beat the Republican – whomever that would be. Chris Christie. Yup. Marco Rubio? Even more. Ted Cruz? DEFINITELY. Donald Trump? Doesn’t stand a chance. 

And many of us liberals felt the same way. Boy, were we wrong. 

As I watched the election results that night – all the way back in 2016 (seems like a lifetime, doesn’t it?) – my heart slowly sunk as the bitter results came in and state after state went to Trump. On Facebook, in real time, I debated my ultra-liberal friends who were still in denial and who guaranteed a Clinton win. By the time it was all over, I was sick. How could we all have gotten it so wrong? Hillary was ahead in EVERY poll. How could nearly half of America vote for a monster like Donald Trump when to me he was so painfully a narcissist who whipped up support from fringe militant groups, white supremacists, and the electorate derisively referred to as “poor white trash.” I would never say that to anyone’s face. And I beat myself up every time the term even enters my consciousness. It is an awful epithet. NO ONE is trash! (Remember that thing about love and recognizing each other’s humanity?) But one way or another, Donald J. Trump had won the Presidency of the United States of America. And we had to live with it. 

As I mentioned earlier, in 2016, these conservatives and marginalized working class voters felt left behind and truly without a home. They were sick of Washington and all the partisan gridlock. They needed a savior. They needed an outsider with a clear agenda and a list of “bad hombres” whom they could hate and blame for all their woes. They needed a populist demagogue who could lead them to the “Promised Land” and out of their abject poverty and poor health. That manwas Donald Trump. He promised to “drain the swamp” and bring back coal. He promised them a lot of things. And he made America HATE again. Apparently, he had the mandate of at least half the country. 

By 2020, we had had nearly four years of this guy. We had seen him attack, dismiss, and excoriate over half the people he hired – THEN fired – and how easily it was to become an enemy of “The Donald”. We had seen him make fun of a disabled journalist with a crude and abhorrent impression of the man. We had seen him ban Muslims. We had seen him shockingly dismiss Senator John McCain as a war hero, arguing that, “I like people who weren’t captured.” We had seen him start to build his ‘wall.’ We had seen him withdraw from The Paris Agreement. And the World Health Organization. And nearly NATO. We had seen Trump belittle the parents of a slain Muslim soldier who had strongly denounced him during the Democratic National Convention, saying that the soldier’s father had delivered the entire speech because his mother was not “allowed” to speak. We had seen him call soldiers “suckers and losers.” We had seen half his associates arrested and thrown in jail, and even then charges were dropped and sentences commuted, as in the case of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. We had seen him roll back environmental regulations and open pristine federal land up for oil-drilling and fracking. We had seen him aggressively abandon, overturn, strike down, and change course on nearly every one of Barack Obama’s accomplishments while in office. We had seen him stack the Supreme Court with three reliable conservatives: the relatively untainted Neil Gorsuch, Kavanaugh (an alleged rapist), and now, Amy Coney Barrett, a devout Catholic woman with an unshakable opposition to abortion and gay marriage, and a jurist even more conservative than her mentor: Antonin Scalia. We had seen Trump call white supremacists who had just killed a peaceful protester “good people” and repeatedly send dog whistles out to his “underground” supporters, who it now seems were right beside us all along. We saw him condemn Black Lives Matter and label them and Antifa domestic terrorists while embracing law enforcement and admitting no racism problem in this country. We saw him call for the NFL Commissioner to fire Black athletes who knelt during the national anthem and suggested that they be deported for even raising the cry against police brutality. We saw him deny that Covid-19 was dangerous or that it had arrived in the US, frequently refer to it with a racial overtones as “The China Virus,” refuse to wear a mask, catch Covid, and then refuse to wear a mask afterwards. He fiddled while Rome burned. 

And on. And on. And on. 

We had seen Donald Trump for who he TRULY was: a man devoid of all empathy, compassion, self-awareness, morality, curiosity, intellect, or sense of decency. He was the most un-Presidential President in American history. Suddenly, we were rewriting history and looking back at presidents like Nixon and George W. Bush in “kinder and gentler” ways (as George H.W. Bush implored), almost longing for their relatively uncomplicated administrations. 

And yet, despite ALL that, we still narrowly defeated Donald Trump in 2020. One in every two Americans may still support this man even after all they’ve seen over the last four years. How do you reason with people like that? We can’t seriously consider that 50% of America is filled with unrepentant racists, bigots, and haters can we? Even acknowledging that all us white folks are inherently biased and privileged, we still cannot paint half our electorate with such a broad brush. These people may not even like Trump personally. I suspect that my parents do not necessarily like Donald Trump, the man, but support some of the things he does stand for…most notably, his penchant for appointing Supreme Court Justices. I think it’s incumbent on all of us progressive liberals to give people the benefit of the doubt and suppose that this theory goes far beyond the vagaries of my own parents and it can be safely assumed to represent the various shades of the Republican Party in general. They don’t all love Trump. 

But they need him. They need him to get this legislation passed. To strike down that legislation in the Courts. To pull us out of this treaty or to impose sanctions on that country. To appoint this judge and to fire that partisan hack. You get the point. With Donald Trump, it’s a la carte selective memory. You like what you like and you forget or deny the rest. We all suffer from Confirmation Bias. If they watch Fox News and they are told that the President is under attack from the “lamestream media” and that journalists are our enemies, then they are going to believe it. And if the mainstream media, Hollywood elites, and lefty tech giants are against Trump, then they are against America. It’s pick-and-choose politics and they like that Trump is “strong and unapologetic.” 

So where do we go from here? I wish I knew. There are enough rumblings about Trump making a comeback in 2024 to make me nervous all over again. He’s certainly the Right’s most popular figure. After all, he did garner more total votes for President than any other Republican candidate in American history. Long after Donald’s gone, Trumpism will live on in this grossly appropriated and radically altered party and we will still be left questioning the guy driving by in the pickup truck and the lady yelling about facemasks and overturning displays of them at Target. This is 50% of America. And it’s not easily divided up. We can’t simply have the South secede this time. There are red swaths across every state and liberal bubbles surrounding every major city. “Fly over country” simply doesn’t exist anymore. These are our families, friends, and neighbors. 

Love. Empathy. Compassion. 
That’s where it’s gotta start. Where we go from there, I have no idea…

A Tapestry of Tales: How Storytelling Weaves Culture

Introduction

When we envision a tapestry, it is easy to see how many threads join together to create a beautiful new and cohesive fabric, pleasing to the eye—and yet—also functional and utilitarian. It has an aim and intent. It is, at once, a thing to behold and entertain, while also having a purpose –whether to cover a wall, provide insulation from the cold, or to add color and panache to the interior design of a home. It takes many different colored threads to weave a tapestry that is pleasing to the eye, and in some way, it also tells a story. A tapestry tells a tale of the people who made it, and of the people it was made for. The color, design, pattern, and style all reflect the aesthetics and tastes of a particular group of people. A tapestry tells a story.

In much the same way, our society creates a tapestry of its own, as it weaves stories together, and creates a narrative of its past, present, and future. Since the first human beings began to speak and communicate, they have told stories and crafted tales that connected them to their home and environment, and linked them together as a community. The content, form, and function of these stories throughout our history reflect the morals, attitudes, mores, tastes, and belief system of the people who told the stories, and for the people they were intended for.

From Cave to Stage

Perhaps the first stories ever “recorded” were cave paintings, also known as parietal art, which were painted drawings on cave walls or ceilings, mainly of prehistoric origin, beginning roughly 40,000 years ago (around 38,000 BCE) in Eurasia. The paintings are the earliest known examples of storytelling in the world. The exact purpose of the Paleolithic cave paintings is not known. Evidence suggests that they were not merely decorations of living areas, since the caves in which they have been found do not have signs of ongoing habitation. Some theories suggest that cave paintings may have been a form of communication, while other theories posit that they were intended for a religious or ceremonial purpose. The paintings are remarkably similar around the world, commonly depicting impressive animals. Humans mainly appear as images of hands, mostly hand stencils made by blowing pigment on a hand held to the wall. Whatever their purpose, the cave paintings were a form of storytelling and were a distinct form of communication and expression.

Since humankind first began to communicate, it is obvious that passing down stories was important to the culture. Storytelling is what connects us to our humanity. It is what links us to our past, and provides a glimpse into our future. Since human beings first walked the earth, they have told stories, before even the written word or oral language emerged. Through these cave paintings and over fires, humans have told stories as a way to shape our existence.

Our Lives As Stories

In our lives, things impact us and we experience events that may seem random or unexplainable. It is natural that we would seek to relay our story to others and try and remember the events as they occurred. Things happen to us, which are inherently the elements of a story, but as humans, we have unique perspectives, biases, and beliefs, which naturally shape how we retell that story. Unlike the other animals we share the Earth with, human beings have the ability to think and to make meaning out of the events that shape our lives. Therefore, it is understandable why we as humans would try and attach meaning and create a narrative out of seemingly unconnected and random events. These are the building blocks that make for a story. To further the tapestry metaphor, these life events are the diverse and disparate threads that must be woven together to create a cohesive and engaging tapestry of a story.

Storytellers learned early on that people like to hear stories with a beginning, middle, and an end. We seem to be drawn to stories that have characters that look like us—or at least share characteristics we can relate to. We also desire to be drawn into a story, and enjoy when a story builds up to a thrilling climax, followed by a satisfying conclusion. Often, we want to use our imaginations, but sometimes we don’t, and prefer to passively have a story told to us. Many of us enjoy being moved by a story, either emotionally, or viscerally, like in a good action film or a tender tale of humanity and redemption.

A Visceral Experience

Throughout history, storytelling has served many functions, and continues to do so today. Perhaps the most basic and straightforward purpose of storytelling is to entertain and to distract.  When we go to see a movie like The Fast and the Furious, we are not going for the purpose of being educated, enlightened, or moved. When we watch films like that, we are there to be entertained. Entertainment can be delivered in various ways, and has naturally changed over the decades and centuries. However, the fundamentals of what entertains and diverts us have relatively stayed the same, even as the mediums, technologies, and methods of delivery have evolved and matured. Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare was writing plays that entertained us through humor and laughter, and action and horror. Not a lot has changed in the centuries since. Just as we draw inspiration from Shakespeare, the Bard himself drew inspiration from the Romans and Greeks, who had entertained through comedy and tragedy over a millennium earlier.

Throughout history, we can see humor and action used to divert our attention away from the tragedies, stresses, and discomforts of our own lives. Many people go to plays or to movies to be distracted from the stresses and realities of their own lives, and prefer to “turn off their brains.” These people do not wish to be educated or enlightened, but want the visceral thrill of being made to laugh or to watch action unfold on the screen. With major advancements in CGI, audiences today are being entertained at a higher and more sophisticated degree than ever before. It is possible to go see a movie and watch intense battle scenes and car chases that are completely manipulated or created digitally, and are viscerally thrilling and used to maximize excitement. Just as watching action sequences onscreen can distract a person, so can comedy. Both can function at a deeper level as well, but at its core, action and comedy are intended to entertain and distract us. Some of us prefer our stories to do no more than function as diversion, while others seek something deeper and more meaningful. These higher level thinking attributes of storytelling are deeply embedded in our culture, and are just as important to how we receive and incorporate stories into our lives. These elements serve to do more than entertain and distract us, but provide a more integrated and lasting impact on our society.

Our Emotional Connection

One of the significant ways that storytelling serves a society is through the use of emotion and empathy to build a rapportwith an audience.  When people attend the theatre or go to a movie, some are looking to get swept away in the action. For some people, that is as simple as watching intricate CGI action sequences play across the screen. In those cases, there doesn’t necessarily have to be a lot invested emotionally in the characters or the story. For many people, action and comedy can exist untethered from the emotional lives of the characters, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, for many people, they go to see plays, read books, and watch movies so that they can learn more about themselves through exploring the emotional lives of others.

The great Greek Philosopher, Aristotle, wrote at length about the purpose of storytelling and theatre. He spoke of catharsis, where an audience would be purged of all its guilt, shame, fear, etc. by watching something awful unfold, like a Greek Tragedy on stage. When people watch a movie, for instance, they often want to be taken on a journey of emotion, in which they feel the same excitement, fear, anger, thrill, and other emotions that the characters experience onscreen. The film is therefore a tool by which an audience can live vicariously through the characters, and experience what it’s like to be terrorized by a serial killer or explore outer space or do any other number of things they may not have ever experienced, nor may never experience in their own lives. Watching a play or a movie allows an audience to feel the emotions of a character, and take a trip with that person, without ever having to experience the very real effects of that journey.

In watching a film or play, people have access to a wide variety of emotions that they may have experienced in their own lives, never experienced before, and very well may never experience even once. The beauty of storytelling is that it allows people to empathize and relate to characters who may share a similar story as our own, or experience people who look nothing like us, and may have a very different life than our own. The power of storytelling is that it creates empathy in the viewer, who finds an outlet in order to channel their emotions into the characters in a story, and allows them to feel for the characters and feel LIKE the characters. This emotional connection is what invites people into a story, and motivates them to become emotionally invested in the characters and the storyline. Perhaps greater than dazzling action sequences or transitory moments of comedy, is the ability for a story to captivate its audience through raw emotion. When an audience is invested in the emotional lives of a story’s characters, they seem to be more devoted to the story and its outcome in general.

There are two primary types of emotional connection to a story. The first is to be engaged with the lives of characters who are feeling deep emotions and experiencing nuanced feelings like we have never felt before. In this case, an audience member is moved to feel what another human being feels, even if they have never experienced such emotion in their own lives. An example of this might be a person with money and prestige moved by the plight of a poor and dejected member of society, and their struggle to overcome poverty. Through storytelling, we are able to weave stories about people who may not look like us or come from where we come from, but are still able to engender pity and empathy within the viewer. In that case, the spectator becomes so invested in the character, they feel compelled to momentarily live another’s pain, joy, heartache, love, etc. This is the very definition of empathy.

The second type of emotional investment is when we see ourselves on the screen. These are the kinds of stories that are told about people like you and me, and people we know well. We are able to see ourselves in these characters, and can easily be moved by their stories, because perhaps they are enacting our own lives, and exploring the complex range of emotions we each feel everyday. When we see ourselves onscreen, we see all our hopes and dreams, triumphs and defeats, and all the nuanced emotions that surge through our bodies everyday. When we watch stories about ourselves, we can emotionally connect to what other human beings feel that we may have felt, in order to feel not so alone and to reaffirm our own humanity. In many ways, seeing ourselves onscreen or onstage is consoling, and allows us to claim a piece of our community, and reaffirms that we are all members of the human race. Whether someone is emotionally identifying with those who look different from them, or whether they feel they are looking at themselves on stage, it is difficult to imagine a more intimate experience than becoming invested in the emotional lives of the characters who populate our stories.

Building Character Through Characters

Another significant way that storytelling is important to a society is the way in which it creates role models and characters we can identify with. As human beings, it’s important to identify with certain types of people, learn behaviors, and become socialized as individuals. Just as our friends and family influence us immeasurably, so do the characters we read in books, see on stage, or watch in the movies and on television. From our first glimpse of television and movies to the first bedtime stories we hear, we are constantly exposed to characters who have professional lives we may someday aspire to. It is not uncommon to be introduced to doctors and lawyers, firemen and police officers, and truck drivers and astronauts. When we are exposed to these professions, it’s not unusual to develop an affinity for one job or another. Again, we relate to who we relate to, and it’s often easy to see ourselves in a story, including the jobs we have, the jobs we’d like, or the jobs we left behind. Storytelling is a way to introduce people to professions, and explore those careers right from the comfort of our own home or a seat in a theater.

Along the same lines, storytelling allows us to envision ourselves as somebody else –for good or for bad. It allows us to see ourselves as who we’d like to be—perhaps as an action star, a double agent, or a dashing romantic lead. Or perhaps just someone more confident, more outspoken, or more successful at love. We are able to measure ourselves against the characters we see onscreen, and that can be a motivating factor in making real and lasting change in our lives. Perhaps we are inspired by the stories we see, and are moved to take action in our own lives. Conversely, storytelling also has a cautionary function, and can depict characters who are cruel, gruesome, evil, and despicable in many ways. These kinds of antagonists can allow us to envision what we don’t want to be, and the kinds of people to stay away from.

In creating complex and engaging characters in the stories we tell, we are creating types that fulfill our needs in our personal and professional lives. When we see two friends on screen, we can look for those traits in new friends, and cultivate them in the relationships we already have. When we see romance on screen, we can aspire to have the same romantic relationships in our own lives. Naturally, we have to be cautious and realize that the stories we see are not always realistic and may be unattainable, but nonetheless, they can serve to inspire and motivate us in our own lives. What we see is often aspirational, and we can learn a lot from the characters we’re exposed to in books, on stage, and onscreen.

Morality, Socialization, and the Education of Youth

Since the first stories were ever woven, one of the major purposes of storytelling was to educate, as well as to entertain.  Storytelling may or may not have grown out of religious rituals and ceremonies, but either way, there has always been an aspect of storytelling that was meant to enlighten and elucidate. For instance, stories have been used for centuries as a cautionary tale to remind us what dire consequences there are for various actions we take. Stories serve to enlighten and prompt us to act, for when we forget the humanity of others, we risk losing our own humanity. There are many books which fall into the genre of dystopian fiction, which serve as reminders as to what can happen when we allow dictators to rule and authoritarian regimes to rule a nation. Several of these books have been turned into movies, and include 1984,Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and A Clockwork Orange. Each of these books are cautionary tales, to remind us of the dangers of fascism – in all its many forms.

In many instances, stories are written in order to teach us morality and the difference between right and wrong. The characters often face tough moral challenges, and are forced to choose between the easy and convenient decision, and the difficult, but moral one. The book and film, To Kill a Mockingbird,is a prime example of a story that is intended to teach morality and to shape and change societal prejudices.  At the time it was written, the country was just beginning to emerge from the Jim Crow laws of the south, and the Civil Rights movement was challenging segregation and longstanding oppression. Author Harper Lee crafted the character of Atticus Finch to be an upstanding and moral southern gentleman, who would go on to defend the accused African American man, Tom Robinson, and fight racism wherever he saw it. Atticus’s children, Scout and Jem, were taught lessons about how to treat each other with kindness and empathy regardless of skin color, and we, the audience, were taught through his fine example.

A Lesson in History

Years later, Stephen Spielberg would make the haunting and arresting film, Schindler’s List, also based on a bestselling book. Through shockingly realistic depictions of concentration camps and fierce Nazi brutality, Spielberg weaves a cautionary tale for us about man’s inhumanity towards man, and the depths of depravity our brethren have sunk to. The film is intended to educate generations of people who never saw the Holocaust firsthand, and to remind us that we must “never forget” what happened there, and what could easily happen here, if we ever allowed a man like Adolf Hitler to gain power again. Like many important works of art, Schindler’s List is a story that educates us about our own history, while pulling us in with its characters and engaging story. We become emotionally invested in the characters, and are moved by their plights. While most of us may have never experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, and can only imagine the cost of such brutality, we are pulled in by the humanity of the characters, and are forced to empathize with their experience. A movie like Schindler’s List is successful on many levels, because the film manages to draw us into its story through action, good acting, an engaging plot, superb direction, masterful art direction and design, and emotional investment, while also educating us along the way.  We are taught a history lesson, a lesson in morality, and entertained all at the same time.

Storytelling can serve to educate a society about itself, and to provide a history lesson about where we all came from. We can learn invaluable things about who we once were, and be reminded of who we want to be.  Even science fiction serves the purpose of education and allows us to explore the possibilities and potential of the human condition. For example, as a cautionary tale, science fiction can warn of the dangers of technology run amok, without any thought to its moral implications. A movie like Metropolistells a harrowing tale of a future overrun by machines and the horrifying technology we have created to make our lives easier. However, if the human race is in fact evolving physically, it stands to reason that we are also evolving towards a more peaceful and moral society. When Gene Roddenberry created the original Star Trekseries, he imagined a future where humankind was equal and peace had been achieved on earth. Despite the racial turmoil going on in America during the late 1960s, Star Trekdepicted an egalitarian future, where all the races lived in harmony and had overcome such petty squabbles as skin color or gender. The story was set in the future, but many of its themes and ideas were rooted in the strife and struggles of mid-century America. Again, the show was intended as a cautionary tale, but not one as dark and hopeless as 1984or Brave New World. Star Trekprovided a hopeful and optimistic future of where we are going, or at least, what we can aspire to.

The Next Generation

Finally, storytelling is a way to teach our children, and the generations that follow us. This essay has already touched on how storytelling is used to socialize people, and introduce them to various professions, demonstrate positive and negative relationships, and to explore our wide range of emotions. It’s important for children to learn these skills, in order to be effective communicators and productive members of society. Storytelling also serves to entertain children, while also educating them about the past and the present, and allows them to imagine a brighter future—one which they can shape firsthand. Stories manage to use morality tales and parables to teach children about the atrocities that have come before them, and can guide them to make better choices in the future. Storytelling serves to inspire and give meaning to our lives, and allows us to make sense of an often chaotic and random world. When we are young, storytelling helps contextualize our lives and create a narrative not only for our own lives, but of our society as a whole. When we are able to create narratives, we are able to attach meaning to what has happened to us, and we are able to make decisions about how we want the future to be. When we are able to recognize that bad things happened as a result of poor decisions, we can minimize future bad decisions, and can take proactive steps to better our lives and the lives of those around us. Storytelling functions as a cautionary tale, an inspirational and aspirational tool, an education lesson, an entertaining diversion, and an emotional investment in people who may or may not look like us. Children are exposed to cultures they may never have seen otherwise, and our planet becomes smaller and can celebrate its diversity, rather than fear what makes us different. Just as a tapestry is woven by threads of all colors, the stories we tell are populated by diverse characters who make up the world, and who each have their own story to tell. Stories inspire us, and give meaning to our lives, and are an essential ingredient in the human experience. Without stories, our lives would be barbaric, primitive, and utterly meaningless. We need stories to tell us about who we’ve been, who we are, and who we hope to be.

Conclusion

Shakespeare’s Hamlet once said that a society passes on its values and uses stories to “..hold a mirror up to nature” to show us our reflection, however hard it may be to look. Yet, it also shows us where we came from, and to where we are heading. Storytelling is how we make meaning out of the chaos of human existence. It provides a shape, so that our own lives have a beginning, middle, and an end, and we can feel like we’ve meant something, and left our mark on the world. If each one of us could tell a piece of our life story, than we have a narrative, and suddenly, we are the protagonists in our own life story. Yet, that is what storytellers are there for. They serve to tell their own stories, and the stories of each and every one of us. This is why we create stories, and this is why we NEED storytellers. They entertain AND educate us. They are what make us human, and not savage beasts of the wild.

A Letter to a Fellow Sufferer: One Bipolar to Another

Dear T,

I am moving to Boston in just over a week, and I just wanted to say a few parting words… Although we are still technically “friends” on Facebook, we never actually got close in person. I can’t help but think that that has something to do with the things you’ve heard about me. It’s true, I don’t have a good reputation in the theatre community in Bangor. I directed at Penobscot Theatre Company, and I fell out with J. I. and B. N., I acted for Ten Bucks Theatre Company, and I fell out with J. L. I was set to direct at the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft, ended up hastily resigning, and alienating your good friend, A. B. I am not proud of my behavior, and it is just one of the many reasons why I am leaving Bangor and moving back to Boston – where I have a stellar reputation and am much respected in the theatre community. I don’t want to make excuses for my poor behavior, but I do want to put it in context.

We both suffer from Bipolar Disorder, but apparently your affliction does not cause you to have severe mood changes and sometimes be an ass hole. I have noticed you are a beloved member of the community, and everybody loves working with you. That’s terrific. Disagreeable and anti-social behavior is one of the many symptoms of Bipolar, but apparently you have been blessed not to suffer from that debilitating part of the disease. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, I did suffer from that. DID is the operative word. The stories you’ve undoubtedly heard about me all come from 2011/2012/2013. These stories are over five years old! When those people knew me, I had just been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, and my meds weren’t adjusted correctly. I was on all the wrong medications, and I was grieving for the life I had lost. I was cycling between intense depression and mania. I also became addicted to Ritalin, and was snorting quite a bit of it. I was in and out of the emergency room, and I attempted to take my life on several occasions. And yet, I thought I could still do theatre. I couldn’t. I was miserable to be around. I was hardest on myself, but then incredibly hard on the people around me. I had unrealistic expectations of people, and inexplicably took my wrath out on them. I was not a pleasure to be around.

That being said, I can’t tell you the remarkable journey I’ve been on since then. I took a life-changing trip to Portugal, and came back a new man. I started working out, lost over 80 pounds, began to practice Yoga, delved headlong into my recovery/ therapy, took DBT/ mindfulness classes, started to eat healthy, and most importantly, got put on all the right meds, which balanced my moods and all but eradicated the mania and the depression. I quit Ritalin, and have been VERY healthy ever since. I rarely get depressed, and haven’t been manic in years! I am a very different person than I was five years ago.

Sadly, the theatre acquaintances we share can’t see that. They refuse to see that. I’ve tried apologizing on multiple occasions, but they refuse to hear it. They have unfriended and blocked me on Facebook. That’s fine. I understand that I didn’t treat them well, and I can understand why they’d reject me outright. Unfortunately, some people don’t believe in forgiveness and redemption. But I do. I believe in second chances.

My first suspicion that you may not like me was when you turned down my invitation to the Star Trek viewing party at my house. Ever since then, you haven’t once liked or commented on any of my posts, and I haven’t spoken to you in years. But I hoped that we could be friends. We are both actors. We are both writers. We both love Star Trek. We both have Bipolar. And we probably have many other things in common. I’ve found a publisher for my upcoming book, and I hope you’ll eventually read it. Although we’ll be separated by over two hundred miles, I hope you’ll consider truly being my friend. I am here to support you, and I want to be your friend. I just hope that you’ll come to your own conclusions about me, rather than rely on past impressions. Those days are thankfully over, and I look forward to having a second chance at life. I know that’s something you can get behind. I hope you can understand where I’m coming from. Sorry for the long message. I hope you are well.

A Brief History of Disability: A Response to the Teen Vogue article: “Saying Stephen Hawking Is ‘Free’ From His Wheelchair Is Ableist “

I recently read the article, Saying Stephen Hawking Is “Free” From His Wheelchair Is Ableist published in Teen Vogue. Initially, I had very mixed feelings about this article. In theory, I understand the spirit of saying, “The fact of the matter is that Stephen did all of his amazing work with his disability — not in spite of it.” We shouldn’t try and erase someone’s disability, and it is certainly part of them. I fully understand the idea that Ableism makes people unnecessarily ashamed to have a disability, and we must embrace the whole person, not try and strip them of their disability. However, as someone who is ON disability and LIVES with a disability, I would also challenge most people who have disabilities to honestly ask themselves whether they would choose to have that disability. I have no doubt that Stephen Hawking embraced his disability, and was successful with it and not in spite of it, but if given the choice, I wonder if he would have chosen to stand up and walk out of that wheelchair at any given time.

I know I would not choose to live with debilitating mental illness. Obviously, I don’t like the sentiment that death is a noble escape from disability. That’s reductive and diminishing. Clearly, disabled people can achieve nearly anything an able-bodied person can. But there are great obstacles. Huge challenges. I think its disingenuous to assert that people with disabilities would PREFER to have been born with, or develop a disability. Let’s be honest with ourselves. And yes, I’m sure this post will come under fire, and some people may even assert that I don’t have a qualifying disability because I’m not in a wheelchair. Yet, I still qualify as disabled. Doesn’t that qualify me to speak on the subject?

In this increasingly fractured and divisive time of identity politics, I sometimes wonder if  we take these movements too far. To say I’m disabled, and proud is great. You should be. But is saying, “I’m disabled, and proud” the same as saying, “I’m black, and proud?” There’s nothing innately broken, disabled, or wrong with being black. Yet society seems to suggest there is something wrong with being disabled. Granted, no one chose to be black, just as no one chose to be disabled. But in our society, being black should be life-affirming, proud, and wonderful. Obviously, we live in a society plagued by Institutional Racism, and being black is unfortunately a liability much of the time. We live in an inequitable age, where women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and minorities still face unenviable challenges. Many of them would rightfully suggest that racism, bigotry, and discrimination is a prejudice not unlike being disabled.  However, for those of us who can rationally analyze what it means to be any race (as much as any of us can, given our pre-conditioning and stubborn socialization), we would embrace the fact that there is no inferior race, and that we are all human and blessed with an ineffable beauty. The same can be said about gender and orientation. And yet, in many people’s eyes, being disabled is somehow a state of being “half-formed” or “broken.” How could we not feel that way? Why would we be spending billions of R&D money trying to fix us? Being disabled is a social justice issue, just like being black in America is, but it’s not exactly the same thing. It’s hard not to feel inferior when your disability is trying to be fixed. Sure, there are plenty of people trying to “fix” black people or trans people, but no one worth listening to. Those people are just right, just the way they are. And we want to say that disabled people are too, but it is challenging, when to be disabled also means something or someone in need of a fix. It’s hard to directly compare disability with other social justice issues. No one in their right mind would try to fix being a woman. Or being born black. (although many people have tried) Yet, every day, we try and fix being disabled.

If we are truly honest with ourselves, we must also acknowledge that few people – if given the choice – would actually choose to have their disability. That may not be true for all, but I would venture to guess that a good many of us would. At the same time, I also allow that this thinking might be considered “Institutional Ableism” and that I have been socialized to see disability as “lacking,” “inadequate,” or somehow “broken” or “incomplete.” I accept that. I suppose there is a certain degree of self-loathing when it comes to having a disability, and many of us with challenges are “blessed” with the ignominious defeat of shame coupled with low self-esteem. I don’t deny that. I know that I am plagued by shame and guilt. Much of this undoubtedly stems from my disability. (A challenge, I might add, that has undoubtedly been with me since adolescence, but only recently diagnosed.) Does this ingrained and internalized guilt and shame manifest itself in self-loathing ways? Undoubtedly. I have no doubt that society’s view of disability and being in some way “broken” has worked its way into my subconscious. Hell, it’s right there in my conscious mind. I know what it feels like to feel broken. To be half-formed. To be somehow incomplete. Am I part of the problem?

I’ve sometimes wondered if developing a disability late in life may be more challenging than being born with one. That’s not to say that it isn’t as difficult dealing with the challenges from birth. However, I wonder if those who were born with a disability, and have known no other life, have an easier time accepting themselves and their circumstances. I sometimes wonder if it’s like the famous saying, “Time + Tragedy = Comedy.” Does Time + Disability = Acceptance and Self Love? For those of us who developed these disabilities after having lived a life without them (or without being diagnosed with them), it may take getting used to, and there may be an extended period of denial and/or shame. And grief, at the lives we perceive we lost. I may very well fall into that category. Perhaps I haven’t fully embraced my disability, and I am still entrenched in shame. If I truly felt blessed with my disability, perhaps I wouldn’t be so quick to try and shed it or profess the desire to have been born without this debilitating disease. Maybe I wouldn’t naturally assume that those with disabilities would choose NOT to have them, if given the choice. If my disability has in fact shaped me – as has my intellect, my height, or any other characteristic I have no control over – than perhaps I shouldn’t see it as a deficit, but rather, a trait not unlike the others. It is inescapably and indivisibly a part of me, and my identity. Maybe I would choose it.

In truth, Ableism is the stigma that keeps us from talking about mental health or averting our eyes from those in wheelchairs. It is the proverbial albatross around society’s necks, and one thing that prevents us from talking honestly about the emotional toll our averted gazes, furtive glances, and hushed whispers truly betray. As a society, we must grapple with the paradox that as we try to find cures for diseases like ALS or Bipolar Disorder, we are not trying to unduly cure the person suffering from those diseases of being who they truly are. How do we separate the person from the disease? Or do we? Can we love the whole person, while simultaneously attempting to cure them or their “disorder?” Is it even proper to call it a disorder? If “order” is normal and preferable, than surely disorder is broken and in need of a mend. I suffer from Bipolar Disorder. Am I in need of order? Probably. But is my life broken beyond repair, or is my condition just one of the many traits that make me unique and unquestionably loveable? I don’t know the answer to that question. I would hope it’s the latter.

The point is, the words we choose do matter. My initial reaction to this article was wrong. I was wrong to have a knee-jerk reaction to someone insisting it was Ableist to imply Stephen Hawking might choose death over his disability. Perhaps he might have. Perhaps he wouldn’t have chosen his disability. But he had one, and he chose to live his life fully and in a meaningful way. Maybe none of us would choose our disabilities, but for reasons unknown, they chose us. We weren’t cursed or smote by God, but by genetics, heredity, fate, circumstance, randomness, or whatever else you want to call it. It happened to us without our control, and we can either wallow in shame, or embrace what we’ve been given. Should we reject ourselves because of this? No! Is it okay to wish we weren’t burdened with these diseases? Yes. It’s okay. It has to be. We didn’t choose this. But we can choose how we think about our disability. Maybe we wouldn’t choose the disability. But it must stop there. The words we choose to describe our disabilities matter. We must be careful not to assume that someone would choose death over a disability. Or even that they wouldn’t choose it. Maybe they would. After all, it has made them who they are. Those are strong people, and something I aspire to.

What I do know is that I have a difficult time accepting my disability in its entirety, and I would find it surprising if anyone who suffers from a disability truly – in their heart of hearts – would choose to suffer with their disability or live without the pain, inconvenience, and accompanying heartache that disability inevitably brings. Maybe they would. I long to be that person who is so comfortable in their skin, that even their perceived deficits are seen as unique advantages. Perhaps one day, I will accomplish all the things I hope to accomplish not in spite of my disability, but because of it. With it. With all of me.

The words we choose matter. To be disabled is not to be broken. Even if deep down, I still harbor those hateful thoughts about myself. Even as medicine and science tries to cure us of our disabilities, we must cure ourselves…from the inside out. We must learn to embrace our disabilities, and accept ourselves for who we are. Only then, perhaps, we will choose to stay in the chair. Or learn to walk on our own. Society must learn to see us WITH our disabilities, and not be so hasty to change who we are and what we represent. The stigma is real. And if we cannot love ourselves first, it’s hard to imagine how we can expect others to see us fully and embrace us wholly. It’s a reciprocal relationship, and society needs to change, while we need to embrace our disabilities.

Maybe Stephen Hawking would have chosen the chair. Maybe he wouldn’t. But it’s not for us to decide.

We still have a long way to go. Perhaps me more than anyone.