At a stoplight yesterday, I rolled the window down to breathe deep and take comfort in the sun’s rising, even after a divisive election. On any normal day, I’d have been singing along with the radio and having a (modified) dance party on my way home from work, but yesterday was different. Yesterday, I drove in silence. Having consumed so much noise and punditry and social media commentary last week, I relished a moment to digest, or begin to digest all that had transpired. At least until a small voice broke the silence.
“Hi!” said a young boy in the car to my left, waving wildly at me. He had broken my personal space bubble for no apparent reason, catching me off guard. We didn’t know each other, but he hadn’t learned yet to be afraid of me – a stranger of a different skin color. So I waved back. “Hi! How is your day going?” I asked.
“So good!” he said, showing me the chocolate bar that smudged his face. “This is from my Halloween candy. I was a dinosaur for Halloween. What were you?”
Laughing, because I’d almost entirely neglected Halloween this year, I made something up. “I was Princess Leia.” (I’d actually dressed up like a young professional going to work, but no kid wants to hear that).
“Oh cool. Did you get a lot of candy?”
“No. I’m too old to go trick or treating.”
“Oh no! You can have some of mine,” he said. As he broke his melting chocolate bar in half, the light turned green. His little body, poised in my direction, fell back into his car seat as the car pulled forward. “Ahh!! Bye!!!” he screamed.
When I was three years old, I, too, would roll down the window and talk to a stranger. My mom reminds me that I could “talk the ears off a brass monkey” and that when new neighbors moved in, I’d waltz over and invite myself in for a snack. If they had a dog, I’d stay until they kicked me out. I talked to everyone in the grocery store (especially older men- not sure what that says about me).
But to know me now is to know a very different person – a guarded person. I listen first. The once spontaneous and chatty girl has grown into a calculated and reserved young woman (not to be confused with shy or submissive. If you cross me, I’ll put your right back in your place). Despite my adult confidence, gone are the days that I roll down the window to ask a stranger about his or her day. Not even a little boy whose window is already rolled down.
I’m not sure when love turns to fear, but we aren’t born with fear in our hearts. Maybe it happens at different times and in different ways for different people, but I have to believe that fear of our differences is learned, not innate. Children in a sandbox don’t build walls between each other, they build castles together. Sometimes they fight and cry, but they also laugh and reconcile.
They default to unity. Humanity defaults to unity.
Hate and fear are learned. They are also easy to embrace, toxic to all and stem from ignorance more often than not. Campaigns, which divide by their very nature, thrive upon hate and fear. Campaigns make us choose. They impose fear by exacerbating, if not fabricating, differences. But if we are willing to tear down the bipartisan wall that divides us and build a bridge instead, we will discover that we are more the same than we are different. We all have bad breath in the morning, we all laugh at cat videos, and we all cry when Mufasa dies.
We’re all human.
To strive toward unity and understanding sounds Utopian. I know that. But I met a stranger yesterday whose innocence restored my faith. Whereas I saw a boy decades younger than me and of a different race, he had met a friend to share his chocolate with.
He reminded me of our innate inclination to build bridges instead of walls, friendships instead of enemies.
Fear builds walls. Courage builds bridges. Choose courage. Because the path to unification isn’t easy, but it is right. No matter whom you voted for in this election (and I hope you voted), we have embarked on a new chapter in history, of which we are all contributing writers. We need not throw caution to the wind, but we need not be governed by caution either.
Maybe you’re not comfortable starting a conversation. That’s ok. But you can still be open to one. Roll the window down. Smile at a stranger. Just say, “Hi.”
If a boy in a car seat can do it, so can we.