What To Do When Your Innermost Fears Come True

While reflecting on the events of January 6th, it occurred to me that, among other factors, one of the reasons it was such a shocking day was because it served as a visible representation of what we have already been sensing internally was going on in our nation.

We saw people knocking over fences, lunging at security forces, smashing windows, scrawling words of warning, and firing weapons. We sensed their assault on the buildings was equal to and illustrative of the assault we’ve endured for some time now, though it has occurred largely out of sight.

Fringe groups have been increasingly radicalized, pushed to the extreme poles of political philosophy. Many of us, devotees of either the left or the right, have grown defensive of our side, drifting toward those same poles ourselves. We may not storm the Capitol, but we storm one another’s Facebook pages with equal determination and vitriol. We’re willing to take a stand for The Truth!

Violence has become a valuable tool in the repertoire of the disgruntled. While massive protests have been launched in the past year for various reasons, and while most of those were conducted legally and reasonably, the events of this past week were different, somehow.

They seemed to put a finer point on the fact that we are not who we thought we were. All of our hallowed institutions — family, community, church, government — have been weakened in the past few decades. But for a building representative of our core function to be invaded…well, it all came across just a bit too real.

There are numerous political implications, and others have covered those well. There is a fascinating link between the rioters (I speak here not of those who were peacefully protesting, but of those who invaded the Capitol and who sought greater destruction and violence) and radicalized Christian religion, but I will save that for another day.

Today, ill equipped as I am to convey it, I feel obligated to untangle what is this jumbled up sense of watching our innermost fears coming true and grappling with how to move forward. If the Capitol is not secure, is democracy secure? If there are thousands of people willing to carry zip ties and gallows and firearms into the halls of Congress with the full intention, it seems, of using them — is there any hope left for us at all?

I am relentlessly optimistic that there is. While accountability is important and I fully expect we see it in the near future, I simultaneously believe a few steps will help us long term to restore some sense of structure and security not only to our buildings, but to our sense of place and progress and civility.

Listen

While the election was certainly not stolen, and while the riotous events of January 6th are inexcusable in any context, there is a felt need based on a lived experience that goes back years and years. It boiled over in harmful ways last week, but there is a truth underneath all the ugly behavior that we should not miss.

Every parent knows that when a toddler throws a fit, it is usually because there is something else — something deeper — wrong. It may be valid. They may be hungry or have a toothache or overtired. It may be nonsense. They maybe have been trained that the only way to get their parent’s attention is to act up. Either way, there is a deeper issue.

Conservative, largely rural, largely poor, and working-class white people in our country are in the midst of the equivalent of a tantrum. They are yelling “Stop the Steal” and buying into conspiracy theories. They’ve captured the attention of several politicians. I don’t agree with their outbursts, but there is a deeper problem that we must address if there is any hope of resolution. I don’t know, precisely, what we’ll discover if we listen, or what we should do about it when we do, but covering our ears doesn’t work. It isn’t working. It hasn’t worked.

Desperate people do desperate things. We should hold them accountable when they break the law and hurt others — the rioters and those who enable them. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also listen to the underlying causes of their desperation.

Love Your Neighbor

Most of us find great joy in well-placed Twitter snark or seeing our enemies fall. We seek retribution and we desire structural changes at the highest and most comprehensive levels. But as Ben Sasse said in the Senate chamber the evening of the riots, “You can’t do big things…if you hate your neighbors. You can’t do big things together as Americans if you think other Americans are the enemy.”

Donating clothes or visiting a widower or giving your neighbor a plate of cookies at Christmas or wearing a mask or picking up trash in your local park may seem like a small thing, but perhaps the reason we can’t do the big things is because of our unwillingness to do the small thing.

It’s like Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said that loving your neighbor was tied for first with loving God with your whole heart. We’re more connected than we think. When we love each other well — even in small ways — big things happen.

Reveling in online arguments treats the symptoms, but only loving our neighbor well gets at the cause.

Run Toward

Most people view last week’s events and want to run as far from politics as possible. I actually feel exactly the opposite. That type of tumult makes me want to engage. We have to do something. I can doom scroll or watch cable news (I’ve done both) or I can engage in more meaningful ways. If we don’t like how something is, we should change it. Especially in a sector like government where We the People are the way to bring about change. We’re it. There’s no alternative.

If we don’t like where this country is, or where it is headed, we have to be honest with ourselves in recognizing that we are the reason. We are the government. The only way to fix it is to “be the change we wish to see in the world.”

It makes sense that we’d be shocked by such outlandish behavior against one of our most foundational institutions. But I also think we should be the kinds of people who run toward the problem with an extinguisher, not run away yelling “Fire! Where is the fire department? Stupid arsonists! Someone should really put out this fire! Look at this meme about fires!”

Last week, all our internal alarms went off. Images of destruction, insurrection, and violence troubled our hearts. It is not hyperbole to say it shook us to the collective core. Some cynics will wave it away, insisting it will only get worse. I don’t think that has to be true. I think we have the resolve and the tools necessary to fully acknowledge the precariousness of where we are and, at the same time, embrace a shared vision for a brighter and more secure future.

If we can’t summon such strength, events like the assault on the Capitol will cease shocking us and instead devolve into a new kind of normal. Very few of us want that.

Let us not waste our woe, but in light of it insist on being listeners and lovers and justice seekers running toward that which needs redeemed.