In the midst of the election aftermath, I admittedly feel a lot like I’ve been thrown into one of those impressionist or baroque paintings on the walls of Hogwarts. I can see everything happening around me, as though it’s happening in a world I don’t belong in or understand. And I can do little more than observe.
Especially when I walk the streets of New York City, those towers of wealth hanging – no, looming now – overhead. And the people below running around all that hidden steel to where they need to be; it just feels a little like a blur. Blue collar. White collar. Black, brown, white, and the different shiny grays and blues of glass and concrete. All muddled together. A gorgeous mosaic, yes, but so sadly separated by the cement walls between. I must walk by a few hundred of my fellow human beings every day – and never say a thing. But you catch passing comments, murmurs, cell phone conversations, sighs, exasperated moans, hopelessness. So, lately it’s felt almost as if those Hogwarts paintings somehow grew legs and started walking about. And I’m no longer sure whether the painting or the world I’m walking around in is real.
I tried to climb out of the painting this afternoon. I had to. I work six blocks from Trump Tower, and I needed to see it. I needed to see the building, the second home of our president-elect, with my real eyes. I needed to see the supporters and the protesters. I needed to see the wealth – and the poverty that exists alongside it. I needed to look at those painting-people and beg one of them, any of them, to come out of the painting with me, if just for a moment, and please for the love of God find something human in this catastrophic season of American divisiveness.
It happened when I walked by three guys – one white, one black, one brown. One of them was dressed for construction work, the others for janitorial work. As I walked by, I heard the white guy saying to his friends, as they nodded in agreement, “It’s not racist. I want all immigrants to go home, all of them, right now, send ’em back to where they came from, even the white ones. It’s got nothing to do with race.”
I walked by at first. Then just stopped dead in my tracks. This was it. This was what I had been looking for so I turned around, and I engaged.
I won’t rehash here all that was said. For once, I don’t think the substance is entirely what matters. But I’ll say this: I started with a smug comment, the guy responded with smugness. I backed away and tried a different approach. I tried to figure out if there was anything, at all, we could agree on.
I told him I’m scared for our country. He agreed.
He told me how he’d watched jobs taken away from good people of different races. I listened.
I told him that I understand it’s been hard, the economy (that I’d job searched three years with a Master’s degree, so I can’t imagine how hard it would be for others), and that though we have different views about how to fix things, I do love him, and I didn’t want him to be down in the dirt, and I believed with every fiber of my being that things could get better without having to send people packing just for who they are. He listened.
I told him – and I prefaced it with, “I know this will make me sound even crazier, but” – the reason I fight for immigrants and refugees is because, really, as someone who considers himself ‘Christian,’ whatever that means, I don’t believe in borders at all. Immigrants, ‘illegal’ or not, are as much my brother and sister as anybody with a belonging here, especially if they’re refugees escaping guaranteed death elsewhere.”
And then he said something that hit me hard. He said he agreed that’s a beautiful ideal and would wish for that in a perfect world. He continued that it didn’t make sense practically, of course, but I need to just pause the conversation here and say how huge it is to me that this particular Trump supporter at least agreed on something fundamental: which is how things should be in a perfect world.
I guess that should come as no surprise, that age-old argument between what’s ideal and what’s pragmatic and which is the greater good. But I was flooded with this momentary glimmer of hope that if we can start somewhere, anywhere, with common ground, maybe – just maybe – there’s still something positive and worth seeking in all of this after all.
I want to say, now that I’ve shared that story that I do not wish to validate any particular immigration proposal. This was a conversation with one guy outside of Trump Tower and his two friends nodding in silent agreement to everything he said.
As I walked away and back toward First Avenue, I just kept thinking, though, that this – this – is the kind of conversation we should’ve been having all along. We aren’t hearing each other. And while I don’t think we should ever give bigotry a platform to be heard, there has to be some way to validate the person, the human being – even those with much more bigoted views than the man I ran into today – without validating what he or she necessarily believes. That is an art; it’s tightrope walking to the max, and I don’t always or hardly ever even know how to do it, but is it worth trying to navigate?
I want to believe in this moment, recognizing this could change, that we are so much more than our politics. We are soulful beings. We are hurting and crying out. Dear God, we are crying out, all of us! Hear us! Help us! We are the ashes of the dirt and we are the steel of the towers and we are the clouds of the sky, blown about by the wind of change, and we are here, together, now, all of us, stuck in this mess, this one planet, tasked to care for it and each other. That is actually really, really simple. It’s not politics. It’s not religion. It’s just about as basic, human as it gets. And we have to talk to each other with that very basic, human perspective in mind.
When I turned to go, the Trump supporter smiled almost shocked: “You know,” he said, “Thank you for not being one of those liberals who just yelled at me.” I shook his hand. I smiled. I thanked him for listening. Did I change his mind? Probably not. He certainly didn’t change mine. But we both walked away with a little added perspective. And right now, that’s the very best, that tiny smidgen of hope, that I can offer myself or you.