Commentary: Can there be union after this wreck of a year?

By Mark Harris

By all accounts, 2020 has been a wreck of a year.

It has been a time of extended battles in the body politic with very little to show for it, save cuts and bruises. The pandemic, the economic crisis, social injustices responded to by the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements, the constant barrage of voices shouting about greatness, the gaining or loss thereof and a campaign season that heightened vitriol, all have flooded through this year like a tsunami. There has been the sense that a kind of national madness has possessed us, in which we are so divided by death and destruction that a sense of wreckage pervades, and a national gloom has settled in.

Mark Harris

Now, we hear a lot about our need to become more united. I, too, long for the end of division, if only to conclude the sense of despair. Still, I wonder, does being united require that we end our divisions first? Or is there another path forward? I think there is.

America is hard work because the idea of forming a unity from the ragtag mix of peoples, and from the communities and states that formed the United States, is an ongoing and not yet completed task. We hammer out ways to deal with our differences, not necessarily to erase them. There is no agreement that our divisions should cease, but we keep trying to either dissolve or live with those differences. America is a work in progress. We work to keep the wide range of differences in enough union to be the United States of America.

It is said these days that our divisions are now too deep for there to be a sense of being a “United” States. The lines of division are many, and while we may think of the Republican and Democratic parties as representing these divisions, that is only the surface of the problem. Disunion and division grow from many sources and are expressed in a variety of organizations.

Most political parties and organizations have proclaimed that their opponents are going to destroy their freedoms, their rights or their livelihood. Opposition is viewed as an existential threat and, at the same time, is a rallying cry for group cohesion. As a result, we have a politics of opposition, in which our identity is justified and grounded in fear.

Opposition politics uses fear as a motivation. The key to change to a more perfect union is to move beyond the motivation of fear. Fear has to be deflected, turned aside, by some greater force, some larger motivation.

Sages and prophets through the ages have said that what deflects, casts out or overcomes fear is love. They are right. But love is not easy. The problem is that we find it almost impossible to love those who we see as a threat. Our opponents, those who hold to social, economic or justice principles different from our own, are viewed as the enemy. While loving our enemies may be the goal, in the moment, that seems impossible. So how do we begin?

Where we might better begin is to deflect fear and, therefore, start the process of overcoming division, by falling in love with the world. If at first we cannot love our enemies, perhaps we can begin by loving the world in which we all live. By falling in love with the world, I mean experiencing a love for the overarching, expansive canopy of experiences that are available to all of us and are a source of thanksgiving. They are mostly simple or certainly simpler than the complexities of our fears.

The love that is found in the experience of a crisp fall day, a quiet moment by the bay or a lake, food shared with friends, a moment of intimacy with one we love, all these and many thousand more, are all experiences of that love that deflects fear. And, unlike the fears that divide, these experiences are common across the widest of separations.

If we want to heal the nation, the place we need to begin is to replace being afraid with being in love with the world. And having fallen in love with the world, I think we will find avenues to unity that will surprise us. Across the red-and-blue divide, across the divide of those who demand justice and those who want freedom from control, across the divides of faith and political position, it turns out there is common ground in the ground itself, common cause in being in love with the world.

Perhaps if we turn from what we fear the most about our current condition to what we love the most about living, there can be avenues to greater unity. Conversation and engagement about our being in love with the world is the beginning of acting not out of fear, but out of thanksgiving, not being reactive but being active in our love of life. If our politicians want to stress coming together and unity, the place to begin is with a new sense of thanksgiving for the simple blessings of daily life.

This coming Thanksgiving is an opportune moment to begin.

Mark Harris is an Episcopal priest living in Lewes. An artist/printmaker and poet, he writes on social and religious issues and is a social and political activist.