As elections draw near for all of us, I’m going out on a limb and saying what I’m not supposed to say:
Which is that the best of humankind has never been determined by a formal process. It’s never been legislated, upheld in a court of law, or spun from a series of campaign ads. The best of humankind starts before all that, before any governing body intervenes or eager politician shakes a constituent’s hand. It starts with that magical moment when humans somehow come to understand that change is nigh, indeed it is ordained, and moving forward is the only option.
It’s not even a conscious decision. Collective humanity doesn’t wake up one morning and while in the shower, declare loudly: “I am deciding right here and now that this issue shall have a new outcome!”
Rather, as with The Hero’s Journey (thank you, Elizabeth Gilbert, for reminding us), it is a quiet call. For just like individuals, humankind as a whole is also on a journey toward greater understanding. Along the way we may stumble and squabble and hurt each other, we may lie in idle despair for decades at a time, playing games of war and destruction and poverty and corruption, distracting ourselves with technological advances and medical breakthroughs and the latest in social media, but the tectonic motion of that journey we are on brings us forth—quietly, insistently—to greet our best selves. It doesn’t stop. In this, we do not have a choice.
That’s why, though it might take hundreds of years and enough sidesteps to invent a new Scottish reel, eventually humans do the right thing.
But what is the right thing? Don’t the people on each side of an argument think they are in the right? Isn’t that why the argument exists? And who, exactly, is right, then?
This is what I think: the answer is that both sides are right. Because even on the “wrong side”—whatever that may be, whatever history will unfailingly uncover, either to our delight or consternation—is a kernel of truth and rightness. Even if it’s a molecule—even if it’s the size of an electron spinning around the nucleus of an atom that no one can see—there is that piece of truth that must be considered by everyone, because that is what keeps us in balance and that is what keeps us in check. If a human dreamed it up, it must be part of our collective fabric and therefore cannot be denied. And once we are done with our egos…after we set aside our self-importance, stop congratulating ourselves for being right and the other side for being wrong, after we let go of the shaming and quit wagging our fingers, once we get out of our own way…life here on this planet lifts.
It lifts. You feel it. You know.
And the thing is, we know, before anyone can muck it up with a group of lobbyists or a television debate, what the right thing is. And when we know, we strongly and silently agree to let it happen.
Look around. You can find examples right now where humans got it right, even if you would never admit it out loud to anyone else, even if it is at odds with the script you personally subscribe to.
Go ahead, look around. Our proving grounds are social change and the environment, because those are the only things we have: how we deal with each other and where we live. The rest of it we made up. We made it all up—economic systems and currency and industry, profit and loss, the stock market, classes and religions and social norms, the highest offices in the land and the people hired to prop it all up or tear it all down, even our supposed enemies. We made it up. All we have is ourselves and each other and this planet. And we know, deep down inside, what is right.
The only question is, then, where our journey will take us next.
So go ahead and vote if you want. Participate in the system in which you have decided to put faith. Do it to the best of your ability—or don’t participate, because there may not be a current system that represents who you are. Do what you can and be who you are and know that often “the right thing to do” comes disguised in the state you may live in, delivered in the familiar forms of your politics, spoken in the raucous voices that echo the gift of passionate discourse all humans were born with. But you will know it when you feel it, and you will know beforehand, and it will happen unimpeded because it’s supposed to.
You’ve heard it before: the most important thing you can do is to live the life that’s right for you. But the second most important thing? To learn to recognize the sound of your own heart. And when you do, you are tuned into the collective; your humanity is shining through. Change happens. And somehow it doesn’t matter anymore who is wrong, and somehow the idea of wrong slips away completely. Because we have simply moved forward on the journey and we are all better for it.
For my dad, who taught me to think politically and debate passionately, but whose immense and abiding humanity taught me more than anything else about the kind of person I want to be.