I have friends who voted for Trump. Some of them were deeply hurt economically; others thought they no longer had a voice. I do not discuss whether they were entitled to feel this way. I would rather say that they were experiencing pain and their vote was an expression of this pain. Now, they are deeply hurt that others do not see their pain, that they consider them racists and sexists when they often speak against racism and sexism themselves.
I also have friends who voted for Clinton. Some of them were deeply hurt by the comments of the Republican candidate concerning women, minorities, or disabled persons. They believe words matter (and I also do), and they cannot understand how a man with such discourse can be elected president. Their wounds were deep during the election season because every malicious word came straight to their core. Now, they are deeply hurt because others, those who voted for Trump, do not see their pain, and they are certain that their pain cannot be understood.
How can we possibly “come together as a nation” in such conditions? How can we come together when there is so much pain? Together as what? As a body? Against what? Forgetting all of our differences? Coming together to support views that are so foreign to us that make us sick?
In 1990, immediately after communism fell in Romania, Ioan Ratiu, one man who had lived in the West, in England, came back home and became one of the candidates for the presidential elections. He was mocked by many because of his very elegant way of talking and behaving toward others. I do not remember him ever responding in the same manner. With his always present bow tie, he was just smiling and continuing his work of educating people on what “being free” means. During one of the debates, he said something that many of us did not understand back then; he defined democracy: “The essential element of democracy is not who has the largest number of votes. This is not democracy. Democracy means an understanding that man is at the center of society, and all institutions are for man’s sake. Democracy means that you listen the other and then you reject his point of view. The quintessence of democracy is expressed in one phrase: ‘I will fight to my last drop of blood (perhaps a Romanian expression–to my last breath) so that you have the right to not agree with me.’ If we are able to do this, then we begin understanding what democracy means. My role, if I am not elected, will be to bring democracy in this country to the best of my abilities.”
Ioan Ratiu received 4.29% of the votes, but he remained in the history of Romania as the one who had the courage to say the truth even if people were not able to hear him.
If we consider the definition of democracy above, we may see something that we have forgotten. In order for democracy to be healthy, we need to remember that the other, as wrong as he or she may be, is more important than me. That his or her pain is more important than my pain. That the only way in which I can be cured is by attempting, to the best of my ability, to take care of his or her wounds.
You may say, but how can we respond to bigotry? Perhaps by remembering that a soul who thinks this way is already in much more torment than I am.
The world is not divided into righteous people and wicked people. We are just that, people in pain, more or less muddled, as Alyosha tells his father in The Brothers Karamazov (see here), or maybe covered with more or less mud. Or consider Solzhenitsyn, whom I have mentioned before: ““Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart–and through all human hearts.”
I cannot tell you that we should pay attention to the pains of others. I profoundly dislike moralizing. I most often have no idea what the right thing to do for me is, and this disqualifies me for giving moral advice to others. Even more, these days, the only thing that I see is pain, regardless of who people voted for–yes, pain, even in those who celebrate Trump’s victory. But since the world is still wicked, perhaps we don’t embrace others without paying attention to their world views, but we embrace them only if they share our pain. This narcissism produces the best field on which tyrants and self-proclaimed saviors appear. If people elect someone like this, I am responsible for it even if I may not participate in voting. How am I responsible? Well, it is because there is too much pain in the world that I have forgotten. But perhaps my disease, my forgetfulness, my narcissism, so my inability to perceive my neighbors’ suffering, is largely enough spread in the world that wickedness is all around us. Perhaps these surreal elections would not have been possible if we were not so narcissistic, so in love with our pain, that we have forgotten the pain of others. And that pain, justified or not, is experienced as real pain.
Coming together as a nation? We are already in this together, not only as a nation, but as the entire world. A body filled with diseases. But we cannot feel together as long as we believe that the disease is manifested in those who disagree with us only. The only way in which coming together makes sense to me is by taking care of the wounds of this body. And this happens when we forget our wounds and we try to understand and heal the suffering of those around us, whoever they may be and regardless of whether their pain is justified.
Nicolae Istrate, who spent many years in the Gulag (the translation of his and other testimonies just came out in the volume Do Not Avenge Us – see here), was contemplating the possibility of him being a communist who would persecute others:
“I do not regret that I went through this experience of the prison. If I did not go through it, I may have been a totally different man. I may have become a communist, or who knows what other things I may have done. How can I know what I could have done… Who knows what may have happened to me if I did not go to prison? If I think about my situation before the first prison, when I was a school principal, I may have gotten married, joined the communist party…
“When I came back, I found that all my colleagues who were like me, teachers, professors, those of the same age with me who had not been to prison—they were all directors. They were already heroes of the socialist work, had cars and all kinds of things. I may have been the same way if I did not go to prison.”
Nicolae Istrate does not say that people are not responsible for their beliefs. He rather says that I am responsible to understand them.