Opinion: The overwhelming majority of Americans are not extremists. We are not naturally quick to judge and condemn. We are eager to find a middle way.

close up of political voting pins for 2020 election on white (Photo: liveslow, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

“We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves.’’ 

— Thomas Merton

We are in a very dark place in America. Social media and talking heads on TV feed us “reasons” to blame our neighbor for the calamities that afflict our country. The internet has made it possible for us to be at each other’s throats as never before.

And with an eye toward election results, the leadership stokes these fires.

The antagonism is personal. It’s familial. It’s exhausting.

Without a doubt, our country is indeed afflicted.

Too many have lost lives, livelihoods

More than 200,000 Americans have died from a pandemic that the richest, most privileged nation in the world has been unable to contain. Minorities, the underprivileged and the elderly have disproportionately paid with their lives.

Millions of Americans have lost their livelihood. A hundred thousand small businesses have closed for good. Schoolchildren and their homebound parents are struggling with online learning.

Record-setting wildfires underscore our lack of commitment to confront climate change.

Cameras have captured and broadcast incidents of violence against citizens. The resulting peaceful protests have turned violent and destructive.

This tragic pattern has repeated throughout history.

In “September 1, 1939,” the poet W.H. Auden wrote:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

But I ask you, gentle reader, in considering this catalog of calamities: Is this who we really are?

Yet most see the goodness in others

More importantly, is this who we want to be?

In our public as in our private lives, we have a choice as to how to respond to trauma and conflict. We can let it tear us apart, or we can assert our American spirit to overcome, to repair.

Who are we, as a people? Are we the intolerant society stuck in the polarization exploited by cynics for power and profit?

No, we are not!

The overwhelming majority of Americans are not extremists. We are not naturally quick to judge and condemn. We are eager to find a middle way, to see our neighbor’s point of view as a decent, well-meaning fellow citizen — like ourselves.

This election presents us with a choice

Most Americans want to find solutions to our common problems. We want the same things for ourselves and our children and for generations to come: peace, security, opportunity, education, a healthy planet.

The presidential and congressional elections must be a starting point. Despite the forces sowing rampant mistrust of policy and motive, we can choose to repudiate the blaming and decide to work together on the challenges that face our nation. Historians remind us we can again be the voices that point our leaders to a higher, more authentic American way, respecting the Constitution and the three branches of governance.  

Rather than seek revenge, we can choose to begin repairing relationships torn apart by partisan fighting and name-calling. We can weigh ideas on their merits, not by labels like “socialist” and “right-wing.”  

We can choose to work together to find balanced solutions to health care, to heed our scientists in developing approaches to both the pandemic and climate change, to seek understanding when outraged citizens vent their anger and frustration at unjust treatment — and take steps to remedy the wrongs.

Close your laptops, open a conversation

With little fanfare, communities across the country are already coming together to converse. In Detroit, police, activists, former inmates and at-risk youth begin by enjoying a meal together, before identifying themselves and sharing their experiences as people with a common stake in the city and country that is home.

Most of us realize that it’s not a question of one side being always correct and the other always wrong — or stupid or alien. That’s what those Facebook feeds, which reach us with the impersonal speed of algorithms, would have us believe.

We can start by closing our laptops and opening a conversation with our neighbor who, we notice, has taken down her political yard sign.

Reginald “Reg” M. Ballantyne III is former chairman of the American Hospital Association and commissioner of The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. Reach him at [email protected]

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