What we have in common is vastly more than what sets us apart…

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

I worked for six years at my local rescue mission. I taught “life skills” and basic GED preparation to adults who had signed up for an 18-month addiction recovery program.

These men (there were a few women, but the ratio was about ten to one) had filled out an extensive application detailing their use of drugs and alcohol, their legal record and a few other embarrassing and incriminating aspects of their personal lives.

It was their surrender, if not submersion, into drug use that brought them there.

Some had a drug of choice, perhaps meth or cocaine, while others used anything they could get.

In other words, some were something like connoisseurs in search of a specific feeling. Others just wanted to get blotted out.

Their use of drugs did something for them nothing else could.

And yes, a few looked (and lived) the part of the jittery drug fiend. These had stolen from their own parents, had lived years looking for nothing but the next fix and several were on the run from the law, local gangs or angry relatives.

To put it mildly, their world was not my world.

But as I got to know them, the labels slowly peeled away and I began to see them as people, fellow human beings not really so far from myself.

Yes, they had done horrible things, but in the logic of the addict’s world, it was beginning to make sense to me.

These were not stupid people. They were not evil. They had, thanks to a variety of “bad choices” – but mostly bad associations or situations – washed up at the rescue mission.

One woman, perhaps in her mid-30s, told me that her mother had taught her how to properly shoot up heroin. The daughter was twelve years old at the time.

I mention this background because we, as a society, are at a similar point in 2020 – and presumably the years beyond.

Virtually everyone I know demonizes those they disagree with politically. And in the politically rabid atmosphere of 2020, everything from food to music to our clothing has taken on a political texture.

If even a heroin addict can be recognized as a fellow human being after only a few conversations, surely someone who has a differing political philosophy can be seen as a fellow human being.

But we all know friendships and families that have been fractured over politics lately.

And my experience is that neither side is willing, perhaps even capable of compromising – or even acknowledging the humanity of the other side.

Our fear of “the other” has become so ingrained in us that even our old friends or family members are suspect.

So let me put it bluntly, even though it seems obvious; not all liberals/conservatives/Muslims/Catholics/ Jews/men/women or democrats or republicans, Hollywood celebrities or suburban soccer moms are all good or all evil.

We all do the best we can to make sense of the world, and base our beliefs on our life experiences and those around us.

Each one of us, like those addicts, got where we are with thousands of small steps, decisions and conversations.

And like those addicts, within the context of our lives, our values and beliefs make sense.

And maybe, also like those addicts, we are doing the best we can to keep our lives from turning inside out from the craziness around – and maybe even within – us.

You don’t have to be a social scientist to see that we are all a little unstable right now.

We have apostles of instability and deception bellowing at us – or whispering to us – constantly.

Acknowledging our fellow humanity has become the ultimate sign of weakness – but we are lost for certain if we don’t do it.

Oddly enough, in our search for “connection” or even our own “tribe” we have become disconnected from our own people. We have become isolated, not because of any virus or outward threat, but because of our own walls – doubled and echoed by the walls of those around us.

“United we stand and divided we fall” was the rallying cry early in America’s history.

It’s still true, but the difference is that we don’t want to be “united” with “those” people; only people like us.

But it turns out that, at one level, there are no “people like us” and on a more foundational level there are only “people like us” – people we have not recognized beyond the labels and categories we have put on them and over ourselves.

It turns out that long before we were ever liberals/conservatives/Muslims/Catholics/Jews or democrats or republicans, we were human beings, not so different as babies, children and maybe even as adults before we became so ossified – if not defensive – in our beliefs.

What we have in common is vastly more than what sets us apart.

“Breaking bread together,” the simple and basic act of eating together is what makes relationships. It does not matter if what seemed so important was the color of our skin or the books we read, the act of eating together reminds us, in our hands and in our minds, and maybe even our hearts, that we are not so different after all.

But there are some it seems, who profit by or are amused by our divisions and our fear.

As any of us look back on 2020, we will see the year as a time when many of us seem to have lost our will, our minds and our common decency.

We allowed our distrust, suspicion and anxiety to prevail. Fantasies and disheartening, disempowering and dehumanizing conspiracies framed the thoughts, dreams and actions of too many of us.

We didn’t know where to go, but we couldn’t stop running. We didn’t know who to listen to, so we listened to everyone. Or no one.

We some became convinced, or convinced ourselves, that politics – especially wrapped around and obsessed with Donald Trump – was the only thing that mattered.

We forgot, as if in a spell who we are and what we believed in.

We forgot that we were a liberal democracy – not liberal in the narrow, partisan sense, but liberal in the widest, distinctly American sense of that word: the belief that everyone is equal – and has equal opportunity – because each one of us is created in the image of a common Creator. The belief in the sacredness of the individual over the group or the tribe or even political party affiliation. The belief that the rule of law—and equality under that law—is the foundation of a free society. The belief that due process and the presumption of innocence are good and that mob violence is bad. The belief that pluralism is a defining source of our strength as a nation, as a culture; that tolerance for differences is cause for pride if not celebration; and that freedom of thought, faith, and expression are the bedrocks of democracy and enduring civil society.

What became, we might ask of those elements that truly did, without irony, make America great?

Those perhaps idealistic basics like due process; political compromise; the presumption of innocence; free speech; even reason itself.

The past few years and the problems they have laid bare have rocked our faith like no others before. But the ideas this country is based on truly are exceptional, worthy of our relentless defense and more. Slogans, memes and tweets throw us off our stride and sap our courage and our vision when we need it most.

The idea that we should judge each person not by their station or their family lineage but by their deeds; that human beings have agency—these are revolutionary ideas that are central to the vision that formed our culture. We dare not lose track of them.