Reflections on Commitment, Listening, and Free Speech

On Saturday Jan. 21st, I got up at four-fifteen in the morning to drive through heavy fog to meet a bus with thirty-four other riders on it and found that so many people wanted to travel from this one small Virginia city that there were two buses at this site. More buses loaded at other locations. All over the country, people made trips like this, and many rose earlier and traveled farther.

On the trip, I sat with one of my yoga students, a retired teacher with years of experience herding middle-schoolers on field trips, and she was an inspiring as well as organized and helpful traveling companion. She has coped with her profound sadness about the election outcome by getting active, not only with calls and letters and donations, but by volunteering to help resettle refugees and to help feed the homeless. Every week she does something to remind herself that the world can be made a better place. Wherever we went Saturday, she radiated gratitude. She thanked the police and National Guard who were on security duty. She thanked the employee of the portapotty company who was cleaning a row of units where we stopped. She hugged our bus driver at the end of the trip.

A series of signs quoting Martin Luther King Jr. greeted us in almost all the front yards we passed as we walked from RFK stadium to the national mall. “I have decided to stick with love. Hatred is too great a burden to bear.” “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” And many more. People waved from their yards. One played motivating classical music on speakers from upstairs windows. When we were dispersing later in the day, some residents came out in support again. One man brought a keyboard out in front of his townhouse and played for us.

Sometimes people give up and think their vote won’t matter or their voice won’t be heard, but the march was a visual illustration of the fact that every person does count. Hundreds of thousands of people decided, “I’ll show up,” and went to great lengths to do it. A Native Hawaiian group came all the way to D.C. If large numbers of the marchers had had said, “My presence doesn’t count. Someone else will show up and that will be enough,” the impact would not have been the same.

I’ve never seen so many people in one place with the same purpose, moved by their ideals and convictions. The pussycat-ears hats were ubiquitous, on men and women (and one very happy baby). Maybe that’s part of why everything was so upbeat and peaceful. Sending a message by wearing a funny-looking pink hat may keep you from acting like a big bad warrior. The major themes of the signs protesters carried were women’s rights, respect for all people, inclusiveness, opposition to bigotry, support for the Affordable Care Act, reminders that climate science is real, and inspiration and humor.

Inspiration: They thought they buried us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.

Without follow-up action, this is just a parade. No. Today is day one.

Build bridges, not walls.

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” (A quotation from Voltaire.)

Love trumps hate.

Humor: There’ll be hell toupee.

Putin Free.

I’ve seen better cabinets at Ikea.

My personal favorite: Remember facts?

It can sound clichéd to say how diverse a group is, but this one really was. It included men and women, people of all ages from children to elders, people with disabilities, members of all races, people who were gay, straight, trans—you name it, they were there, and harmonious in each other’s company. I saw no uncivil behavior even when we got stuck in human gridlock on the mall for I don’t know how long—two hours? No violence, no arrests, and an amazing level of patience in a situation that could have brought out the worst in human nature. I was too far from the stage or the Jumbotron to hear a word the speakers said, but those of us on that part of the mall stayed upbeat and engaged. Aside from occasionally chanting “start this march” when we didn’t yet know we were too numerous to do it as planned, we passed our gridlock time making friends, reading the signs around us, singing and dancing and stretching and laughing. A popular call-and-response chant went like this: “Show me what democracy looks like.” “This is what democracy looks like!” This is what America looks like, too.

 People who disagreed with us were civil. Real life isn’t like the hostile land of social media. I didn’t notice any harassment. Non-marchers just walked on by. A group whose banner proclaimed they were Bikers for Trump had set up a small stage on a green off Pennsylvania Avenue. They didn’t have more than twenty people in their audience, mostly young women in the pink pussy hats who had—unwisely, I think—chosen to debate with them. We older and maybe wiser folks observed that the young women should just have left those guys alone. The bikers had as much right to be there as we did and they weren’t attacking us, just having their say. A genuine conversation with them could have been worthwhile, but understanding-focused dialogue is a learned skill.

Unskilled argument digs opponents in deeper. Maybe what the country needs next is a massive rally for listening, in which people from the various political islands can build bridges and have constructive dialogue. It would take courage. Participating in the mean-meme world of Twitter trolls takes no courage at all, no critical thinking, and no real attention, but meeting a fellow human face to face with commitment to show respect and compassion does.

One demonstrator’s sign bore a message I think all sides could agree with: Read More Books. The young man holding it was smiling.

 

 

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