11 days until the election the red headline screamed from the television screen, like a threat. Trump’s hate-filled, fear-mongering voice hit my brain this morning like well-aimed buck shot. I’d awoken late — 11:30 — my attention instantly pulled to the MSNBC headline, “Trump in Colorado.” Damn. I’d slept through the morning, and stayed up late tinkering with start-upey things per normal.
Trump was proclaiming one of the bravest and most capable women in the world to be a criminal, and my country and democracy that I love and value to be nothing more than a failed experiment of treachery defined by fear. F$@! me, I said aloud, to the dogs, to the universe, to myself. Another day of verbal assaults. Happy Saturday.
I was instantly angered by the bitter sound of his vile vitriol in my ears.
That it was to be the first feeling, the first thought of the first few moments of my precious Saturday morning otherwise shaded by the dawning cheeks of Fall and a light rain falling outside my window was salt to the injury. Then resentment settled in at how this man and the people who follow him seem to be controlling the quality of my life.
I know rationally a void was left in their wake, a void that progress created when it left them behind without a transition plan or a hug. They are afraid, afraid of letting go, of what may come when they do. I know this is what history asks us to endure to get to the next, better phase of human experience. But, it doesn’t make living through their assaults any easier.
I shook the nettles of irritation from my mind and ambled to the kitchen, where my husband had made bacon. Bacon makes everything better. We hugged silently at the kitchen sink, peering beyond the window at the rain-soaked yard behind our cozy home. Hope began to creep back into my bones, as I leaned against his always-strong back, waiting for Pete’s French Roast to brew. I suddenly remembered how fortunate I was, how much positive there was in the world, and Trump’s words began to fade.
Like in a dream of happy we found ourselves strewn across our red couch in front of the big screen to watch last weekend’s CBS This Morning as we always do over breakfast, when instead we found a documentary on HBO we had not seen, Living With Lincoln by filmmaker Peter Kunhardt.
Peter is both the grandson of Dorothy Kunhardt, the world famous children’s author and the great-grandson of Frederick Hill Meserve, who began a life-long obsession of curating Abraham Lincoln’s life after meeting him on a battlefield. Meserve first met Lincoln in the Revolutionary War, a moment captured in one of the very first photographs ever taken. I began to weep just ten minutes into the film, then steadily did until the end of the film 80 minutes later.
Here’s why. (Watch the HBO clip of Living With Lincoln.)
This film is everything that Trump is not, a reminder that triumph lives on the other side of fear.
Trump’s brand of Hitleresque psychology catalyzing the end of one kind of politics stands in stark compliment to images of bleeding children emerging from the rubble of terror on the other. These are the words and images that occupy my mind. Yet, Living With Lincoln reminds us of another possibility for democracy and human decency, a story that is of course about Abraham Lincoln, and how five generations of a family amassed and documented the single largest collection of artifacts of Lincoln’s life. But, really it is about how Lincoln’s life is the backdrop to all our stories of triumph over fear. It’s also a story about letting go of fear and that we have an obligation to each other to help the next generation learn how to let go.
If you listen closely, you’ll also hear the story of Dorothy Kunhardt, who I shall forever see as the character study of every woman. 2016 will be remembered as the Year of the Woman, the year when we moved from a patriarchal culture marred by fear, control and hatred, to a world carved out of courage, collaboration and hope. Dorothy’s life story was like a mirror of my own.
Living With Lincoln reminded me that women uniquely have the capacity to propagate hope even when we’re afraid, because as opposed to men who when abandoned respond by lashing out at those who create their fear, women take a different tack. We’ve been surviving what it means to be abandoned, disappointed, and abused by a world that has always wanted to control us all of our lives. We forgive, we endure, we aspire because we don’t want our lives to be defined by fear.
Women aspire to something else. Fear is our fuel to overcome not fight. When we move past it, as we must do, it is often seen as graceful, as if we have a special grace that gives us the ability to easily dispense with fear, when point of fact, it takes great strength and a steel spine to let go of fear and be open to what may come next.
You should experience this film not because it is a remark on how families pass on the worst of themselves generation to generation, but on how humanity can pass along the best of ourselves to each other by confronting the truth of who we are, and by letting go of the past that would define us, by courageously letting go of what we fear the most; losing control and being left alone.
Abraham Lincoln’s entire existence was about making sure no one was left behind, unequal, or alone. His was a life filled with loss, sickness, hardship and disappointment, and yet he was among the few people in our human history who pushed past the fear to find compassion and hope in its place, and he used both as tools to chart a different course not just for Americans, but for the whole of the human race.
It occurred to me this morning as I listened to Dorothy’s voice tell her own tale that I feel sick and afraid. I am afraid of what a Trump-like existence would mean because he represents my freedoms being threatened. This same fear is expressed in the pained eyes of Trump’s victims of verbal and sexual abuse, and in the eyes of children we see daily crossing borders without their families, and in the faces of the unabashed and unapologetic mostly white males, faces filled with fear and rage for women, for people of color, and for anyone of different religions who dare to suggest a different path, to whom they place the blame for threatening to take away their jobs, their sense of control over their own lives, a way of life they believe is their’s and their’s alone.
That they have lost something they perceive to be their’s and seek to blame the closest, obvious source for this loss is human nature. No one wants to let go gracefully.
Perhaps Trumpism will be the condition that history will define as what happens when men have to let go of their control over others, as the condition just before one looks past their fear, the moment before we find the better angels of our nature. Perhaps the fearful eyes of Trumpists will be remembered as what it looked like to rail against the changing times that asked them to let loose their grip on unworkable institutions, just as Lincoln did.
Trump may well become one of the great teachers of history: what it looks like when we allow fear to overtake us. We lose sight of our humanity, we forget who we are, and we start fighting against a mythical enemy, when really that enemy is us. It is our warning signal to act with compassion.
Trump is definitely not about ideals of goodness, and his very existence is an insult to reasonable people. But he is also a teachable moment for humanity to remember that we share a fear of letting go, and in that we ought to find compassion for one another.
Fear-filled words can create realities in the minds of people who cannot find the strength to form their own, or they can be the beacon of inspiration that lifts a nation and frees it from itself. This is the legacy of Lincoln. This is the legacy of Dorothy Kunhardt and her family. This is the legacy of anyone who chooses hope over fear.
I think this is why Trump is so offensive to me, why I feel the energetic lash of his existence so deeply. I am both afraid and guilty, afraid of what comes next and guilty and for not acting more lovingly toward my fellow man in such obvious pain. But words alone do not a reality make.
Peter Kunhardt’s film reminded me of this. I can change my course. I can choose not to pick up the pain of others, but instead to express compassion when they lay it at my feet. You can, too. This is what Lincoln’s life and the Meserve family legacy really remind us.
We are not our fear, we can choose a different course, and we are not alone in our journey to perfect learning all of the above.