Dear Fellow Americans,
You love this country. You’re frustrated. I love this country. I am frustrated. We share that, if little else.
Though my political beliefs are distinctly different from yours, we both want the same thing: a country in which the American Dream is still possible for us and for our children. We have been taught—and we are teaching our own children—that we live in a place where dedication and hard work result in success and financial stability. Yet we both see that slipping away, and we take turns being angry with our leaders, particularly those in the opposing party, when Congress makes decisions that affect the people we care about.
For me, living in the D.C. suburbs means that the political news of the day is unavoidable. I could turn off my computer, turn off my television, leave the newspaper on my doorstep, and listen only to my own playlists during the commute, and I would still hear the latest political crisis the minute I encounter other people. To shut it out, I’d have to retire and become a hermit more secluded than J.D. Salinger on his worst day. (I now know how he felt in one of the few extant photographs from his last years, where he is standing, crazed, behind a grocery cart, trying to run down the photographer.)
Ten years ago, my husband and I moved farther out to put some distance between ourselves and the madness. It didn’t help. I still have to commute in to my work—my vocation, really—trying to teach children to become literate adults. I work hard to help students from widely divergent cultures reach what the Common Core describes as “actively seek[ing] to understand other perspectives and cultures through reading and listening.” It’s crucial work, and I believe in it, but it isn’t always conducive to inner peace when I’m trying to teach them to do what we adults can’t seem to do.
A few years ago, to save my sanity, I began getting up at 5:00 a.m. and taking the dog for a walk through the neighborhood. In the utter silence of the moments just before dawn, I look up, imagining a world of people like those stars—each twinkle distinct but stunning only because they peacefully inhabit the same dark sky. That helped. It’s become a routine for me, though no one who knows me would ever call me a morning person.
Still, I needed more. Two years ago I moved my clock back ten minutes more so that I could read the Common Lectionary—a list of paired readings generated by the World Council of Churches as a three-year approach to reading the Bible. Somehow it brings me comfort to know that, all over the Earth, people read these same texts on the same day, asking for discernment about how to be God’s presence in our very needy, very frustrating world.
That, too, has helped. It has changed me. It has helped me understand that raging anger rarely ends in constructive results. I still believe in social justice, and you would probably still characterize me as a “bleeding heart liberal.” But I have reached a place where I think I could work productively with others whose views are different to find a third way—solutions to our problems that neither side has yet tried because we can’t get past seeing one another as opponents in a cosmic battle.
That brings me to why I’m writing. This morning, after the walk and the lectionary, I poured a cup of gingerbread coffee and opened the Washington Post online to see stories about the budget trailing down the home page. The first and most prominent detailed how banking regulations and limits on campaign donations would be scaled back, giving more power to the wealthy. The second, in tiny print beneath the main story, described how Pell grants to disadvantaged students would be cut.
Anger surged into my throat along with the acid from my morning coffee. When my husband got up a few minutes later, I blurted the news to him in a flood of frustration and tears. Pell grants made up a significant part of the financial aid package that allowed me to be the second of my grandparents’ 52 grandchildren to graduate from college.
We are being used, you and I. The wealthiest 2% of Americans need our anger to feed their endless need for more wealth. As a person who grew up in poverty, I understand the need to be financially secure. But when you’ve amassed more money than you and your family could spend in three lifetimes, how much will ever be enough?
I don’t know. I have a hard time seeing the world from that perspective, though I try to understand them. But what I do know is this: Two percent of the electorate, even with the help of the upwardly mobile class, are not a large enough percentage to elect politicians whose decisions would ensure that the wealthy get wealthier.
Our anger keeps us at the two extremes, voting for candidates who are incapable of compromise. And because 64% of consistent conservatives, as opposed to only 14% of consistent liberals, do not believe in compromise, the wealthy know that the key to success, as they define it, is to stoke the anger of working class conservatives—on social issues, on taxes, on race—to be sure that very few voters fall in that middle ground of the electorate that can sway an election.
You need only go to the comments section of your media outlet’s latest headline about politics to see the result: Anger—the kind that makes a voter feel impotent to do anything except rage against President Obama and anyone who dares to share even a hint of his views.
It’s working. This government funding bill will take away most of the restraints on campaign donations and on banking regulations. And, for now, it’s probably too late.
So instead of letting your rage explode, I’m begging you to take a walk, to read the holy texts—to do something, anything, that will center you and diffuse your anger. I don’t think it will change your views. It hasn’t changed mine. But perhaps it will make us able to be more rational, to evaluate more constructively the issues that face us.
If we can do that, then the wealthiest 2% will become just that. 2%. Statistically insignificant. And, unless they choose to work together with us for the common good, culturally irrelevant.
That is the power you have—better than anger, better than wealth. Tell me a story. What will you do with it?