Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Holiday Lights Project

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

On September 11, 2011, I was sad: haunted by memories of the events of ten years ago, grieving for my country's lost innocence.  I felt like I needed to do something to remember the friends, colleagues, and classmates who died that day, to brighten a world that seemed to darken every time this date rolled around on the calendar.  I needed to find a way to fight that darkness.

So I walked into a nearby IHOP and I asked for the manager.  When she walked up, wondering what anyone could possibly be angry enough about to actually come back in to complain about, I said, "I'd like to buy everyone's breakfast.  Could I do that?"

She was shocked.  "Everyone?"  She gestured at the restaurant full of Sunday brunchers. "Everyone in here?"

"Yes," I said.  "Can you help me do that?"

"Um, sure!"  Then began a chaotic process of printing bills, adding them up, and explaining to waitresses why their customers' balances were disappearing from the system.  Eventually, we gathered up everyone's breakfast bills and I paid it, adding a healthy tip for the by now completely confused wait staff.

As I handed the signed credit card slip back to the manager, she asked, "Why?"

Holding back tears, I said, "Because someone needs to spread some joy today."

Then I left.

It's been a little over a week since what I've come to call "The Tuesday Surprise."  Our country is reeling once again, but this time the damage is self-inflicted.  The 2016 election has polarized America more than any other election, the ugly culmination of over 20 years of progressively escalating bad behavior on the part of our elected leaders.  People are confused, angry, and, in many cases, genuinely frightened about what the next four years hold for them and their loved ones.  And these feelings aren't limited to the "losing side" in this election.  A majority of Donald Trump's supporters cite "anger at the establishment" as one of their primary motivations in voting for him, and many moderate voters who chose him as the lesser of two evils now find themselves painted as bigots, racists, and misogynists because of the broader platform they received as a package deal with their chosen candidate.

Right now, we are a nation divided.  Fear, anger, current events, the news, social media, all of these forces are pushing us away from our fellow citizens, driving us into ideological armed camps populated only by people who agree exactly with everything we've decided is true.  When we look at each other, we see stereotypes instead of people, labels instead of personalities.  We've forgotten how to be civil.  In fact, civility and an openness to discourse are starting to be seen as a sign of weakness, as witnessed by the backlash against people seeking a middle ground between the factions in this post-election climate.

The darkness is spreading and we're running around turning out all the lights.

I think it's time we changed that, and I'm starting with the only thing over which I have any real control: myself (and, with my wife's permission, my family).  We've grieved, we've reassessed, and now we're heading back into the fight, but probably not how you think.

We're going to fight hate with love, darkness with light, random acts of violence with random acts of kindness.  And I'm inviting you to join us.

For the next six weeks, now through the end of the year, my family and I are going on a Blessing Tour.  We're going to buy coffee for strangers, send gifts to distant acquaintances, and pay for people's groceries.  We're going to raid the Community Giving Tree and buy ALL THE PRESENTS FOR ALL THE POOR FAMILIES!  We're going to open our eyes, look beyond our own worries, and see the need around us.  Not just the obvious needs, like homeless people on the streets, but the hidden needs, like the mom quietly worrying about her gay daughter while she goes shopping, or the coworker at the office dreading the holidays because it's his first year alone.  We're going to turn on all the lights and send the darkness fleeing wherever we go.

We can't do this all by ourselves, so I'm inviting everyone in America to join in.  Yes, even you.  Will you look away from the news and Facebook and Twitter, step away from your outrage and fear over what "the other side" -- whoever that may be -- are doing and just try to make life better for the real people sitting right next to you?  Will you turn on one light and make the world just a little bit brighter?  And if that feels good, maybe another, then another, and maybe even another after that?

It's easy to start:

Do something small for a stranger.  Anonymously.

Why a stranger?  Two reasons:
  1. It's a complete surprise.  If you ask for your check and the waitress says, "Someone already took care of it," then you get a moment of pure joy and gratitude, two things that we all need right now.
  2. There's no way for them to pay you back, so there's no strings attached.  It's kindness for kindness' sake.
Why anonymously?  Because it's not about you.  It's about letting someone else experience a moment of feeling loved and cared for, even in a small way.  Bonus: no awkward conversations with strangers!

Things you can do:
  • Buy dinner for someone who's eating alone at the same restaurant.  Just ask the waitress to quietly add their meal to your bill, then skedaddle.
  • Pay for the car behind you at a drive-through, then take off before they can get your license plate.
  • Pay for the groceries for that old lady at the store who always takes ten minutes to find exact change.  This is harder to do anonymously, but it does have the added benefit of getting you though the checkout line more quickly.

Go wide.  If you can, go big.

You don't have to learn the life stories of everyone around you before you can help them.  If you cast a wide net by doing a bunch of small things, then you increase your odds of giving someone that, "This is exactly what I needed!" moment that can change a life.  If, like me, you don't really enjoy talking to lots of people, this is the perfect approach.  If, also like me, you might also get teary when trying to explain why you're doing something like this, then this is also the best way to avoid making a scene at Starbucks.

I find that the best way to do this is to find some small luxury, like a cup of coffee, a treat, or a movie ticket, that offers a real jolt of pleasure when someone is surprised to learn that it's free.  This gives you more bang for your blessing buck.  If you have the skill to knit scarves for everyone in your neighborhood, then you can do that, too.  I just can't knit.

There's also something special about giving extravagantly.  Anyone can drop a few cans into the food drive bin, but when someone shows up and fills that bin, then stacks more food beside it, that act helps more people and touches the hearts of the people working the food drive.  Again, you're getting more positive impact for the same amount of energy, and I'm all about efficiency.

Things you can do:
  • Buy a gift card at your favorite coffee shop, then hand it to the person taking orders and ask them to use it to buy everyone else's drinks until it runs out.
  • Tell the bartender at your favorite brewpub that the next round is on you, but don't let them tell anyone who's paying.
  • Rake your neighbors’ leaves this weekend before they can get to it, or shovel their driveway when it snows.
  • Grab a bunch of small gift requests for poor families at your local community center, Salvation Army, or church and go shopping.
  • Hit Costco and show up at your local food bank with a carload of food.  Involve another family and make it two carloads at the same time.

Or, go deep.

Extroverts who are into probing conversations, this one's for you.  Instead of scattering your seeds all over the field, look for the needs right around you: the coworker who's gone quiet, the neighbor who says she's worried, the new guy who doesn't know anyone.  Find people who have nowhere to go for Thanksgiving and add them to your chaotic mess of a family dinner.  Ask someone how they're really doing and wait for the answer.  Look beyond your worries and give someone the chance to share theirs.  You may be exactly what they need to avoid a downward spiral between now and New Year's.

Things you can do:
  • Seek out “holiday orphans” and invite them to join in your celebrations.
  • Look for people around you who are "faking it" and invite them for coffee or a meal so they can talk.
  • Find the perfect gift for that friend who doesn't seem to have anything going right in their lives right now.
  • Volunteer at a counseling center or in some other role where you think you can help.

Just do something.

My point here is simple: it's time for all of us to stop fretting and start acting.  We'll have plenty of time to fight more battles once we know which battles actually need fighting.  In the meantime, people all around us are hurting, angry, and frightened, and they need someone to show that love still exists in the world.  We need to remind ourselves that we still have the power to do good, to affect the world around us in ways that our elected officials can't.  We need to move, to take action, to do something that doesn't just fuel our fight-or-flight instincts.

Whether you're happy about the election or not, whether you're funding your ACLU war chest or waiting for Trump to fix Washington, you're still surrounded by people who need your help.  When the time comes, we can and will hold our elected officials accountable to the will of the people they're supposed to serve.  In the meantime, we need to come together as good-hearted people and take care of each other.  We need to see and show that good still exists in the United States of America.

Go out and show some kindness today, and then post a comment below or on your favorite social media platform using the hashtag #turnonthelight. Describe what you did or share a picture. If you think this is a good idea, share this post with your friends and dare them to outdo you with their good works. Let’s see if we can get something positive trending.

It's time to turn on the light.  Will you join me?

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Trump won. Now what?

President Tr--.  Nope, I still can't make myself say it.  Maybe in a year or two.  Or four.

Like 48% of American voters, I'm... let's go with "disappointed" by yesterday's election results.  This wasn't how I expected it to play out.  I thought that we had better taste in leaders, I really did.  But, there it is.  The votes are in and our candidate lost.  I was upset, I didn't sleep well, and I was a little distracted at work today, but the sun still came up and the second Civil War didn't start overnight.

From the angry and overwrought messages in my social media feeds, I'd say that quite a few other people are upset, too.  Since I've carefully curated my feeds to eliminate views that I find obnoxious, rude, or crass, I can safely say that 99.9% of people like me -- I kept one conservative friend from college to prove that I'm open-minded -- are pretty pissed and scared right now.

I already asked everyone to take a deep breath last night and take a break from the hysteria, but what do we do now?

Like my middle-school health teacher taught me to do in any emergency, let's start by taking stock of the situation:

First, this isn't the Apocalypse. I checked the book of Revelations, and while it does describe the coming of a horny monster, this isn't the monster you're looking for.  We'll have to wait about 3 1/2 years to be sure, but I'm pretty confident that Donald Trump's election isn't one of the Seven Signs.  Besides, when the Antichrist comes, my sources tell me that he'll run as an independent.

If you watch TV or open Twitter or Facebook, it's easy to believe that the United States is about to be overrun by toothless Neo-Nazis waving Confederate flags and wearing "Make America Great Again" hats.  It isn't.  Forget what the news is telling you: they profit from drama.  "Election Apocalypse" brings in more viewers than, "Huh, the other guy won."  Forget the cartoonish Trump supporters you met on The Daily Show, Full Frontal, or Last Week Tonight.  While they are real people, they still live on the fringes of society and don't accurately represent the 47% of America that voted for Trump yesterday.  Normal, sane people don't make for good comedy, so they ended up on the cutting room floor.

America is stronger than one bad President (see also: Andrew Johnson, William Henry Harrison, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush).  It's a country specifically designed to contain the whims of its leaders, with a series of checks and balances specifically designed to render a tyrant impotent (and if there's anything that should give you a cheap giggle today, it's the thought of anyone calling Donald Trump impotent).  America isn't dead.  It isn't even on life support.  It's working exactly the way it's supposed to work, every year in November.  We just lost this round.

Second, America is not divided into armed camps.  While the colors on the electoral map are a binary red or blue, Americans inhabit a wide continuum of ideas, beliefs, and needs.  Why, in New York City alone you can come across an ultra-rich, fascist-leaning banker, an immigrant street fair, and a Gay Pride parade on the same day.  We are a rich tapestry, and when you get past the voting labels, most of us live right in the mushy middle of political and social beliefs, somewhere between the pot-smoking socialists and the Alt-Right Nazi trolls.  Where we fall on a given day has a lot more to do with our personal experience, family situation, and how much sleep we got last night than it does with a hard-line political agenda.

Twitter and Facebook are not America.  This may be hard to remember right now, but humans are far more complicated than 140-character shouted slogans or snarky comments.  As a white, Christian male from the West Coast who married into a Jewish family and raised two children in New England and Colorado, I can't possibly express the complexity of my feelings on gay marriage to you through a tweet, not even if I made it a series of five and used emoji.  Neither can you, on any topic, and neither can anyone else.  Social media is great for generating sound bites and sharing cat-based memes, but it's a terrible forum for complex discussion.  It boils all of us down to simple caricatures and it enforces a binary worldview.  Don't mistake it for reality.

Despite what your fears are telling you today, Trump's election isn't a validation of racism, xenophobia and misogyny.  It isn't a sign that 47% of the people you pass on the street are closet Nazis.  It's a sign that, when given the choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, more people chose him.  That's it.  Your monster is someone else's lesser of two evils.

Finally, like it or not, he won.  I don't know how he did it, or how he caught everyone by surprise.  Some guy in an orange wig kept saying it was rigged.  However it happened, when all the votes were counted, we ended up with a real-estate mogul/reality TV star for a President.  You can kick and scream, you can #notmypresident until your hands cramp, you can threaten to move to Canada.  The reality is that, from January 2017 until January 2021 (or until he follows his baser urges one too many times and gets himself impeached, whichever comes first), legally speaking, he's our President.  So what are you going to do about it?

“Happiness at the misfortune of others? That is German!”

You can choose to sit on the sidelines, smugly waiting for Trump to fall on his face and embarrass himself in front of the world.  Indulging in that kind of schadenfreude ("Happiness at the misfortune of others? That is German!") might make you feel better in a stomach-twisting way, but it's missing the point.  When Trump fails, we all fail.  When he looks stupid on the international stage, the United States looks stupid.  You can say, "Don't blame me, I voted for the one in the pantsuit!" but how does that make you any better than the poor losers who complained about President Obama for eight years?  It just makes you a progressive poor loser.

Let's put that energy to better use.  Instead of spending the next four years putting orange wigs on Grumpy Cat, let's start making America a better place, regardless of whose face we put on the front of the package.  But how?

Step 1: Stop typing and start talking

You can have the rest of the week to keep commiserating with your Facebook friends and Twitter followers, but after that you need to step away from the screen and start talking to some real people.  And like it or not, some of them are going to have to hold different opinions than you do.  Here's your assignment: go out and find 5 people with varying viewpoints and have a conversation.  Ask who they voted for.  Don't roll your eyes and leave if they say, "Trump."  In fact, as part of this assignment, you must find at least one Trump voter and ask them "Why?"  And not a whiny, self-righteous, breast-beating "Whyyyyyyy?" that really means, "How could you?"  I mean a curious, open "Why?" that says, "Help me understand."  Because you need to understand why someone is different from you and what motivates them.  You also need to see that, beyond the superficial differences, you have more in common with them than you realize.

Now, if you come across a Green party voter you can whine at them all you want.  Those people are just idiots.

I kid.

Step 2: Now, listen

If you thought Step 1 was hard, you're going to love Step 2.  Now that you've started the conversation, shut up and listen.  No, really: Shut.  Up.  Don't prepare a response, don't start mentally gathering statistics that prove that whatever the other person is saying is the most asinine idea since Tesla first licked a Van de Graaff generator.  Don't judge at all.  Just listen and try to understand.  Seek common ground. Ask yourself, "If I were in this person's situation would I think or act any differently?"  This isn't about being right or changing someone else's mind.  This is about understanding what motivates them and recognizing that, while the results might differ, our drives are almost always the same.

Wait until they're done and they ask you what you think.  Now it's your turn to talk.  Be open.  Lower your defenses a little and explain what motivates you, what led you to think the way you do today.  Talk about your grandfather who fought in the war, or the other one who refused to because he believed that all life was too precious to waste.  Explain what drives you and what "making the world a better place" means to you.

Be human together.

If you try this, there's a small chance that you might stumble across someone in that small percentage of the population whose beliefs are absolutely abhorrent to you and any rational person.  It's OK to move on.  You don't have to try to understand everyone.

Step 3: Stop worrying about what's out of your control and start owning what is

Donald Trump may turn out to be the worst President in history.  He might repeal the Constitution, start a nuclear war, and declare that immigrants are now a legal food source for rich people.  More likely, he'll turn out to be an old guy with a huge ego who got in way over his head and was kept out of trouble by the career politicians surrounding him.  No matter what happens, though, it's out of our control.  We don't work in the White House and our Twitter rants aren't fixing anything.  Worrying about it, obsessing over worst case scenarios, and feeling sick and angry also aren't doing anything but hurting your health.  In the immortal words of Adele Dazeem: Let it go.

You can't control Donald Trump.  I'm not even sure Donald Trump can always control Donald Trump.  You can't go back in time and change the results of the election.  You can only look ahead, look around, and see what needs to be done right around you.

You're concerned about women's rights?  How many women in your town are living below the poverty line? Buy them some groceries or offer your skills to help them find a better job.  

You're concerned about racism?  How many families near you have members of a different race?  Invite them for dinner, cheer alongside them while your kids play sports together, or ask if they want to grab a beer.

You're concerned about social justice and poverty?  Well, the holidays are here and I guarantee that a lot of kids aren't expecting any gifts this year.  Go grab all of the gift requests off of the local community giving tree and go on a shopping spree for someone else's family this year.  Bring your kids and say, "This is how we share with people who have less than we do."  Volunteer at a food bank, your church, or a homeless shelter.  Don't have time?  Give money so that someone else who has time can do the work.  You still get partial credit.

You think people are ignorant?  Educate them.  Think they're afraid of the wrong things?  Show them love so they don't have to be afraid.  Think they were fooled by a charlatan?  Show them how a real man behaves, win or lose. 

If you're afraid of the dark, don't yell at the night.  Turn on the light.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Let’s take a break

OK, Blue America, time for a hysteria break.

This isn’t the end of the US or the beginning of the Apocalypse. We won’t repeal all 27 amendments to the Constitution tomorrow. We still live in a diverse country of immigrants with more institutional freedoms than most of the rest of the world enjoys. We can still dissent without fear of arrest and work through our differences compassionately and reasonably.

The people who crawled out of the darkness to celebrate the worst aspects of human nature haven’t taken over, nor are they suddenly multiplied a thousandfold. They were always there; they always have been there, lurking in the dark corners of humanity since Cain killed Abel in a fit of jealous rage. They have crept out into the light again because they think that this is their time, but it isn’t. They haven’t been given the keys to the country, they have just been given a slightly louder voice by a man who seized an opportunity to win by whatever means necessary. When this election is over, the voices of hate can be, once again, drowned out by the voices of love, of reason, of compassion.

Love beats hate.

Every time.

Without fail.

We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but we didn’t know that before this election took place, either. All we can do is face our lives one day at a time and do what is within our power to lift up the people around us, regardless of their race, nationality, or political affiliation. The showman will dance around on the stage, but we don’t have to pay attention to him. This is one election in a long series, stretching back into the past and far into the future. Our country will survive. We will survive, and we can continue to make our world a better place, together.

Breathe. Pray. Go on. This too shall pass.