It hits you in the stomach, seeing the traits of a dictatorship appear in your democracy.
Like many others, I was having physical symptoms during the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of the U.S.’s 2016 Presidential Election. Sleep wasn’t coming easily. I was stunned to be witnessing such impoverishment — psychological, intellectual, spiritual — across our land, even if mostly at a distance, through my phone, computer, television.
It didn’t matter, though. It was all real.
When Donald Trump won the presidency, it was hard to react. But I Resisted, capital R intended. I marched in the streets. I yelled across social media. Yet I felt ineffectual to the point of paralysis…and also began to feel my body simply wasn’t up to all that protesting. So, after years of self-neglect, I checked in with my doctor. She said that if I didn’t do something about my weight, I was staring down the barrel of a heart attack.
I then started exercising. Started eating less. Resistance, for me, became about self-care. After all, what good was my Resistance if it was only bound to make me collapse?
In the meantime — like so many other troubled Americans — I just…looked away. From Trump. From D.C. It was all too disturbing. I think a lot of us swirled around this cycle: React-Resist-Relent-Crash. But no matter how long you stay at Crash, eventually you will have to React all over again…
Autocracy is here in America. It hasn’t seeped into our every community or institution, but it’s flashing all over like a dark red siren: Witness the president’s travel ban against Muslim countries. Witness the president’s banning of transgender people from the military.
Witness what’s happening right now at the U.S. border.
According to a Department of Homeland Security report, between April 19 and May 31 of this year, approximately 2,000 children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. The broken families were not only attempting to enter the country illegally, they were in many cases committing immigration violations, or other criminal acts. Since adults can be charged with crimes but children cannot, the children have been extracted from their parents’ care, then housed in pens and cages within warehouse-like structures.
The report’s span of coverage was a six-week period. Within that period, the U.S. celebrated Mother’s Day, and, just two days after the report’s release, we celebrated Father’s Day. Ostensibly, these days exist to honor parents, but in stricter truth they honor the greater family unit, for it’s the rest of the family that celebrates the mother or the father.
Indeed, more specifically: I am only fit to hear the words “Happy Father’s Day” because I have two sons.
And they are beautiful sons. They teach me more than I can summarize here. But one of their main daily lessons, for now at least, is that innocence isn’t some far-off concept. It truly exists, in the here and now. It’s a real thing, and such a special one. They are young, and therefore innocent, and even rather simple, despite their many underlying complexities.
And as a result, of course, they are gentle.
Being gentle, and innocent, these kids require routine. You can read about this need in the parenting handbooks: They note how healthy routine is for a child’s development. Whenever I read or remember this fact, my heart always breaks just a little bit, for the truth is (as only the less-than-innocent are aware) routines are such very delicate things. So easily interrupted. So randomly subject to interruptions, upheavals, chaos.
And so my heart breaks all the more for the children who have been robbed of their parents, and of the stability that those parents tried to offer. Their trauma is absolute, irreversible. And so all the rest of us go on, seeking hopefulness.
Where can it be found?
Certainly, if eligible, we can vote. Likewise, if we’re in a hiring position, we can be mindful of offering opportunity to the generally disadvantaged and/or overlooked. And if we have people in earshot or eye-shot who pay us any attention, we can raise some consciousness around the issues that command our care.
And though of course it sounds trivial, and perhaps even futile, the truth is that autocracy demands that its freer citizens be kind. Not “nice”, mind you, for that denotes a superficial attempt at peace. To be kind, in contrast, is to do what’s right, and to work hard each day to act from a place of honor.
Ours is a wonderful community. One glance at our public spaces reveals our robust immigrant heritage. We work hard, we prosper, we live in peace and good health. And we know, now more than ever, in light of the impoverishment not far from here, that the rewards of our lifestyle are privileges and luxuries.
The U.S. state has turned sour. The country which those would-be immigrants came searching for is not here any longer. For our own mental and emotional preservation, many of us yearn to look away. Yet we’re smart enough to know that when our backs are turned, all that we value can quickly disappear.
Lest our backs themselves end up taking the blade.
The other night, ignorant of the tragedy unfolding at our border, and forgetting about the coming Father’s Day, I had a dream about my sons. We were in some endless suburban landscape: sidewalks, streets, trees, lawns, street signs. Suddenly, I lost both of them. I found the older one (age 6) quickly; he had gone into a store, where his mom awaited. The other one (age 3), I could not find. So I searched the streets, breathing hard, panicking, eyes wrenching left to right and back again. So much emptiness. No people.
And so much space. I couldn’t find him. Buckling under the weight of my own futility, I stopped moving and screamed out his name.
Right then I woke.
I was extremely lucky.
For so many mothers and fathers, the nightmare continues.