The Better Angels of Our Nature

Three weeks ago, at the dentist’s office, as the final bitewing x-ray was carefully being removed from my mouth, the dental assistant decided it was the perfect moment to ask a simple, light-hearted question to help pass the time:

“So, what do you think of the election?”

I recoiled and nearly swallowed the plastic x-ray. I let out a grunt of disapproval, which could roughly be translated as, “Don’t you know it’s 8:30 in the morning on a Monday, I’m caffeine-deprived, and you just forced me to suffer through 15 minutes of bitewings being placed at awkward, uncomfortable angles throughout my mouth?”

Whatever happened to “How was your weekend?” or “Your teeth look horrible – do you floss every day?” All perfectly valid, reasonable questions for useless small talk.

“So, what do you think of this election?” 

In case she didn’t get the memo, I supplemented the guttural noise with a piercing stare. I took a sip of water for dramatic effect.

She took the hint.

“Ahh, yeah, an aggressive question to ask at 8:30, huh?” she replied with a canned laugh.

Eventually, since I didn’t want to come off as a total jerk, I started mumbling half an answer about how it was a complex question. I almost blurted out an exasperated “Do you have all day?”, then thought better of it in case she closed the door behind me and said, “I do! I’m here ’til 6.” Thankfully, before my rambling had a chance to turn into coherent thought, the dentist arrived in the nick of time to begin the exam.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for civic discourse, and I appreciate the assistant’s candor in cutting through the conversational fluff meant to put the patient at ease. But the last thing I needed at that moment was to be tilted back in the chair, blood rushing to my head, with the voices of the candidates echoing in my mind as I teetered on the brink of unconsciousness.

In case you can’t tell, yes, I am through with this election. I’m sure you are as well. Although I am typing this the day before Election Day, many of you will read this after. Either way, it has been a year to forget, and no matter who wins, millions of people will have a bitter taste in their mouth.

Thankfully, this is not a political post, so do not fear. I am writing this in the spirit of bipartisanship, as no matter who you are or where you live, we are all in need of a hug.

My time at the dentist’s office highlights two important points. First off, if you want to ask someone a political question, make sure they are in no danger of choking to death. They may find it a preferable outcome. Second – and the actual reason I am writing this post – is that you can’t really talk about politics in a 15-30 second window, unless of course you are looking for “It’s a train wreck!” as your preferred answer, so that the remaining time can be spent in forced, resigned laughter. Considering the awfulness of being at the dentist, perhaps that was the response the assistant was hoping for.

I offer this light-hearted moment as proof that even with the most depressing of topics, there can be humor. But overall, I have to be honest: this election has left me hurting. We are all hurting.

But all is not lost. Will you go with me for a walk?

To watch the discourse taking place on TV, to read the Facebook posts and subsequent comments about anything and everything related to politics, it sure seems like we are seeking out the worst in others. We gravitate towards disagreements without first finding common ground, or even conceiving that there could be common ground. People have resorted to shouting over one another, as if the volume of one’s voice has any bearing on persuasion. I am dismayed by the lack of civility. This past year, especially, has been like watching a fabric tear get worse.

There is no question there is division in this country. We are a nation of conflicting ideals. This narrative is reinforced anytime we watch the news, read articles or encounter someone who brings up certain controversial topics. The term “echo chamber” has become a part of our national lexicon, and news stories with varying degrees of truth are shared until they seemingly become truth.

In this age of social media, everything gets misconstrued and misinterpreted. Offhand comments turn into partisan mud slingling. Even your innocent Instagram post about your new puppy somehow turns into a referendum on the direction of this country. We’ve all felt the anger boil up inside us when we see or hear something we disagree strongly with. No one is immune to it. Welcome to 2016.

We see everyone that we encounter in our day-to-day lives through the lens of us vs. them. And for anyone labeled as them, they cannot be trusted. Our society is a windshield, damaged by the impact of a projectile, cracking in all directions, struggling to maintain its structural integrity.

I’ve had many sleepless nights thinking about this decline in civility. For heavy conversations like politics, it’s pretty clear that the conversation is doomed from the outset unless you really understand and know the person you are talking to. When you are arguing with someone named Pat in the comments section of an article you just read, the chances of respectful dialogue are next to zero. If you read an article that openly mocks and denigrates your views and beliefs, finding common ground is impossible.

After all, aren’t your conversations with your best friends about heavy issues or the meaning of life far different than when you engage with some random person you don’t know on social media? Of course they are. There is a level of trust with the people you know, because they understand you, and you understand them. You know where they are coming from, and if you disagree with something, you know why. Even if you engage in passionate debate that borders on argument, you always have the foundation of love and respect for that person to fall back on.

Once you have seen the best in someone, you form a trust with them that can withstand any disagreement. The problem is, our first interaction with a stranger and their differing viewpoints often brings out the worst in ourselves and in them. I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. I am not perfect, nor do I pretend to be observing all this from my high horse. I have gotten into arguments, and sometimes find myself ready to burst at the seams.

At the same time, I have seen what seeking out the best in others has done to change my life. Through my experience as a rare disease patient, I have had the wonderful opportunity to befriend people from all walks of life, from every corner of the country, every ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and political leaning.

Disease is the great equalizer of life. When you can understand someone’s disease-related fears, their hopes and dreams (some of which have been destroyed by their illness), you are able to form a more complete picture of who they are. By listening to what flows from their heart, it changes a person. It certainly has changed me. I cherish these conversations, these connections that form when two people share their vulnerabilities, and really listen to what the other has to say. If there’s one benefit to having a life-altering disease, it is that it has forced me to be a more empathetic individual.

I have become wired to find the best in others, not because I have some noble trait that others lack, but because it is the very key to what has allowed me to survive a life-altering condition. Without others, I am nothing.

This understanding did not come easily.

Six years ago, them meant everyone in my life. I was 24, living in Boston, wholly unable to come to grips with my muscle disease, dysferlinopathy, that started manifesting two years prior. In the blink of an eye I had lost the ability to run. I struggled to go up a flight of stairs. I would wake up in excruciating back pain, my muscles atrophying and contorting with reckless abandon.

Worse, I began to fall in public, my knees buckling and giving out without any notice.

I was at a crossroads in my life – ability and disability fighting for control of my future. I knew disability would ultimately win, and it has, but at the time I was a battleground of depression and, above all, fear.

I vainly did everything I could to hide my symptoms from my friends and coworkers. I could still walk somewhat normal, although I wore long pants every day because I wanted to hide the fact that I had begun wearing leg braces. I felt like Forrest Gump, only the rock pelting my face was from life, not a bully on a bicycle.

I fought my fate, viciously, for as long as I could. In doing so, I alienated myself at work, lashed out at my friends, and began talking in code to my parents, unwilling to express how I was truly feeling. Above all, I was so jealous of those around me – able-bodied, living life without a care in the world. As a defense mechanism I sought out every flaw I could find in others, in an attempt to tear them down to my level, as I was incapable of building myself up proactively.

After a traumatic fall, my decision became clear. I knew I would have to tell everyone in my life what was going on with my body. I wasn’t stupid. I could hear the whispers in the hallway when I fell in the office, and I knew my roommates could see me laboring against the railing going up to our apartment, exhausted from carrying bags of laundry. I hated being an oddity but hated even more keeping this battle to myself any longer. I had isolated myself from those around me for too long, a disabled traveler in a foreign, able-bodied city that I no longer loved.

I shared my diagnosis in a blog post, as writing was my outlet of choice when times got tough. One post became several, first for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, then on this website, where I opened up about my journey and what it was like to walk a mile in my bulky leg braces. I confirmed what everyone had suspected, but had been too afraid to ask. I indeed had a disease that was making we weaker.

My initial reason for writing was to help myself – I wanted to lift this perverse burden off my shoulders. I figured people would finally know my condition, and that would be that. No more whispers or perplexed stares.

What I did not expect, however, was the impact sharing my story would have on others. As I didn’t think my story was that inspirational, I never considered the possibility. Coworkers who read my blog began telling me in private about childhood surgeries that had left them insecure, or neurological conditions they were reluctant to tell others about. Soon I became a sounding board for friends confessing anxieties, such as career stagnation and relationship trouble.

It wasn’t just people I knew reaching out to me. Strangers who came across my MDA blog, and even this blog, would email me out of the blue, explaining their situation, some of whom were struggling to accept their own muscle disease; others, down on life in general.

At first, I was puzzled. Again, I didn’t think my story was more inspirational than anyone else going through adversity. I had read plenty of stories of others who had dealt with far worse. Eventually, I would realize what was making an impact was my willingness to be vulnerable. I laid it all out there, the good and the bad, and as a result people felt comfortable sharing their long-suppressed emotions, because they knew I could understand the complexity of what they were going through. My disease had put me through the ringer. By laying bare my fears and my frustrations, I had implicitly given them permission to do the same. They connected with me in a way that they were unable to with others.

The angry, petty, version of myself melted away the more I encountered the vulnerabilities of others. I began to see everyone I talked to in a new light, especially my family and friends who I had unwittingly taken on my emotional roller coaster the last few years.

Those perfect lives everyone else was living? They were not perfect. In fact, for many friends it was all just a façade. Inside, they were hurting.

Once I became a steward – an unintended observer if you will – of the fears and insecurities of others, there was no going back. In the last two years I have attended business school and have started sharing my story with audiences throughout New England. I have had several new people enter my life, from acquaintances to best friends. No matter who I meet, I try to look for what grounds them, what makes them human, rather than feeding my prejudices. It’s hard to get past prejudice, but I try my best. When I meet someone, I want to not only shake their hand, but also connect with them. To truly feel understood by someone is a feeling I cannot describe.

I am more than my disability, and you are more than whatever boxes you check on a form. I’ve found that to truly understand a person, you have to dig deep, understand their hopes and dreams, their fears and insecurities. Are they struggling? Are they in pain? Are they worried about a health challenge or job security or a relationship? Are they passionate about something yet feeling hopeless about their current situation? The answer to one of those questions, almost always, is yes.

We are conditioned to make judgments about someone based on Facebook posts and offhand tweets. We increasingly identify someone’s character, their very integrity, by their political affiliation, what they look like, where they live. Our opinions about someone are being made based on snap-judgments, on incomplete information, because that’s all we have time for. I’ve done it, and it’s hard to break free from this cycle once it becomes ingrained.

But a consequence of our ability to connect with others online has been our disconnect in person. We think that who someone is online is their true self, their full self. Social media has a way of distorting reality. I’ve seen Facebook posts pit retirees against high schoolers. friend against friend, cousin against cousin. It’s horrifying and sad.

It’s as if our lives have become this warped experiment where I show you a picture of someone and some basic demographic information and you are forced to come to snap judgments about their life, their temperament and their character. Chances are our prejudices will not align with reality. Is Pat from the comments section an internet troll or a heartbroken soul just having a bad day?

What we’re missing is the trust component, and we can’t have trust unless we first connect on a deep level with someone. Increasingly, our connections are happening online, far removed from our true personas. Online connections, by their very nature, are overwhelmingly superficial.

It is going to take effort to build this trust back, and find the good in others. But it is possible to break free from our collective incivility. The pillars of our society were built on decency, and we can regain it. Partisanship and distrust do not have to be the norm if we refuse to let it be the norm.

So how do we rebuild civility and trust? We are not going to magically unify in a day, or even a year. But you can start with people you already know, the people you communicate with on a daily basis, or even complete strangers. For every friend who is struggling that you lend a shoulder to, for every impulse you resist to engage in an argument, for every stranger you help up who falls for seemingly no apparent reason, you change this divisive narrative. It adds up. It matters. Even if no one gives you the proper respect back, just the fact that you yourself have decided to contribute to the solution is a start.

The moment I regained my civility happened on a cold January night a few years back. I was walking in the middle of Mass. Ave in Cambridge, back to my apartment. I was paying attention to my steps, but did not notice the uneven surface of the road, stumbled, and fell to the ground. I was embarrassed, frustrated, and above all, scared. This was past the point where I could pick myself up on my own, so I was in dire need of assistance.

Suddenly, two nameless strangers rushed to help me up, and before the light turned green and I was flattened by oncoming traffic, they were gone, disappearing into the night. I tried to find them to say thanks, to no avail.

I realized when I got home that I could no longer be mad at the world; I had seen the best of humanity. This was the traumatic fall that I referenced earlier. This was the final knockdown I needed by life to tell me to shape up.

Since that day, I have forced myself to find the best in others, to outwardly seek goodness rather than be a passive recipient to random acts of kindness. With a more positive mindset I was able to properly open up to the world through my writing, and soon after, my speaking. Doing so has enabled me to meet countless people who have enriched my life. I realized the world was out to get me only if I gave it the permission to do so.

I share this because if this transformation can happen to me, I know it can happen to you as well. What you will find is that everyone around you – friends, family members, especially complete strangers – are desperate for someone to connect with. Desperate to have genuine, heart-to-heart conversations. Everyone is struggling with something. Even the people who spout off on the internet about the latest political scandal is, at their core, someone hurting or full of fear.

If we can rebuild these connections in our own lives, and opt to seek out the best in strangers by first trying to understand them before casting judgment (it can be hard, I know), we can change the narrative. We can, relationship by relationship, rebuild our collective decency. Even if we read something that we strongly disagree with, just the act of taking a step back and going “I wonder who this person really is, and where they are coming from that led them to this point?” can be a start. We are not a society beyond repair, we are a society in need of repair. The divisions that exist are indeed real, but the distance between us is entirely in our control.

I close with a quote from Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address in 1861. Faced with the crisis of secession and the impending Civil War, his words are as true today as they were then:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

It will take time to heal, but it is worth it for us and for the generations to come. The irony of writing about the state of social media in a blog post to be shared on social media is not lost on me. So, to prove my sincerity, if you yourself need someone to talk to, vent to, or confide in, please feel free to reach out to me. I am not a bot nor an internet troll. I am just someone who believes that within all of us lies the better angels of nature, longing for connection.

Unless of course, I am at the dentist, in which case, please wait in the lobby.