I want to know you

by Lorin Michel Sunday, July 8, 2018 2:29 PM

Maya Angelou was always a favorite of mine. In college, I read “I know why the caged bird sings,” one of seven of her memoirs recounting her childhood in Missouri. She had a straightforward, eloquent style, even when describing being raped at the age of 8 by her mother’s boyfriend. I also read and absorbed much of her later poetry, including “On the Pulse of the Morning” which was recited at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton. “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise” continue to give me inspiration.

One of her more famous quotes has recently been in the news. The oft quoted line came during a discussion with Oprah Winfrey regarding relationships. Oprah, who is known for being rather open and honest about her own life and struggles, was lamenting about how she was being let down by a man she was dating, and was frustrated by his lack of attention and commitment. Angelou said, quite brilliantly: “When people show you who they are, believe them.” She went on to also add: “When a person says to you, ‘I’m selfish,’ or ‘I’m mean’ or ‘I am unkind,’ believe them. They know themselves much better than you do.” The quote used today adds a bit more. “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” But it was Oprah who actually added that last part. 

Two strong, smart, life-affirming black women got it exactly right. And yet, it remains human nature to continue to want people to be different than who they are, to hope they’re going to change, that they’re just having a bad day or week or month or lifetime. We want people to live up to the ideals we set for them, especially those we are close to, and definitely those who are in positions of power. Far too many times, people don’t because they are who they are. They’ve shown us. 

I am fascinated by stories in the news – I subscribe to both The Washington Post and The New York Times – where a reporter interviews people all over the country, people who voted for our current president and why, and how they feel about him now, whether they’re happy, whether they’d vote for him again. These are straightforward stories – news, like I said – with no ideological bent, no opinion. Questions asked and conversations relayed to the reader. Mostly I read them because I remain curious, not so much why someone voted for him, but why someone might still support him. It’s a fascinating and discouraging look at my fellow citizens. 

During the last election, and shortly thereafter, I had discussions with my mother where I voiced my incomprehension that so many people could find the snake oil he was peddling to be worthy of their vote. I understood people voting republican; I didn’t understand voting for … this. Perhaps because I am not economically challenged. Perhaps because I’m not a fan of blaming others, and for making those others the enemy. Perhaps simply because I’m not a republican. Still, we talked, and I remember her telling me that I needed to understand what those people were going through, how their lives had changed so drastically, how bad it was for them in rural areas where the steel mills have closed, where the coal mines have been shuttered. I did understand that. But I didn’t understand why I had to be deferential to that thought process. And I didn’t – and don’t – understand how even given all that, it made it ok to support a man so crude and vile, someone who demonized and demonizes minorities and women. A year and a half later, with him having shown us all exactly who he was the first time, I have a hard time with those who still don’t believe him. Who know that, in spite of the fact that their factories are losing business, or their farms have nowhere to ship their soybeans, his trade war is going to be good. Who are fine with polluted skies and drinking water while the planet is, literally, on fire. Who are fine with taking health insurance and care away from people without even knowing who it affects. Who think that it’s ok to fight with our allies and cozy up to dictators. Who want to jail political rivals. Who think it’s ok to rip children from parents’ arms, with no plan for reuniting them; to put babies in jail. Who think that abusing women is OK; ditto the “very fine people” who are white supremacists. Who feign religiosity while supporting a man who thinks of no one and nothing but himself and how it will be a “win” for him. I have a hard time because I fail to see how any of that benefits them, and I have tried, truly.

I don’t want to know people who think what I’ve just listed is great and fine, and I don’t want to understand them because that doesn’t make me sympathetic or empathetic. It makes me complicit. 

I know there are a lot of problems in this country and all over the world. But blaming others for it will do nothing to fix it. And the cruelty and fear and loathing that flows like lava from the people in charge in this country is only going to lead to something even worse. What happens when there is another attack on our country, and all of our allies have been jettisoned? We can’t fight the world alone. What happens when the temperatures continue to rise everywhere and we don’t do anything about it? How does that help anyone? How does it benefit the future? 

It was over 90º in Siberia this week. Blood rain – red precipitation caused by fire and ash – fell. Nuclear war remains a very real possibility since Pyongyang described this week’s meeting as “robber-like” and said “cancerous issues” were raised. China is not going to back down on tariffs. Thousands of Puerto Ricans remain without power more than a year after last year’s storm. Three years after the Flint, Michigan crisis, much of the water remains undrinkable. As of the end of June, there had been 154 mass shootings in the United States this year. Close to 3,000 children remain in detention centers because we have no way to reunite them with their parents. The US Army is discharging immigrants who want to serve and fight for this country.

It’s not enough to blame and demonize. It leaves you hollow inside. If you want proof, look at the man in the white house. He shows us daily who he is. I’ve never doubted it once.

I want to know people who are hopeful and kind, who laugh and empathize and cry at the plight of others, who think education is good and necessary, who work hard and love freely; who have no desire to go back to some nebulous time when America was supposedly great. Who want to make life better now, in this time, and for the future.

I want to know people who live it out loud.

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