Faith in Vermont: Clowns vs. Love

On Thursday I received an email from the principal of my daughters’ school. This email was sent to all parents in order to reassure us – and, by extension, our children – that we should not be afraid of clowns. Although reports of clown threats and suspicious clown sightings across the country had been whipping our nation’s population (especially its younger members) into a frenzy of fear, our principal dismissed the uproar as a hoax. No threats, he went on to say, had been made against any school in our district.

Then on Friday, the news broke that Donald Trump, the Republican Presidential candidate, had been recorded on a 2005 videotape speaking about women in shockingly offensive terms and laughingly boasting about making unwanted sexual advances.

As a parent, as a citizen, as a human, what do I do with these things? How do I explain to my young daughters that they don’t need to fear clowns, but the real danger is simmering underneath the surface of our country? That the scary clowns aren’t the ones in white face paint and red noses, but are instead running for the highest elected office in our land? That I am bequeathing them a country in which power continues to rest unequally with the white, the male, and the rich, and where this power is defined too often as, “You can do anything you want?”

The question running through my head throughout that weekend was: What is happening to my country? This question was followed closely by: What even IS my country, and was it ever mine to begin with?

These same questions, in one form or another, are being asked by many Americans these days. They’re being asked by Americans who, like me, believe that fear is tearing our country apart and that Donald Trump’s behavior is indefensible. And they’re being asked by Americans – some of whom I know and love – who believe that there is much to fear and who will justify Donald Trump because they hope he’s the answer to their fears.

I grew up in an affluent Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. The parents of my classmates and friends were senators, congressmen, lobbyists, Supreme Court justices. My own father, a lawyer, spent his career working for the U.S. Government. My peers and I knew firsthand that our country was being run by humans – messy, flawed, fallible humans. Even members of my generation who lived outside the Beltway knew this; ours was the first generation to grow up with CNN and the Internet. Our childhoods began under Jimmy Carter, continued through Ronald Reagan, and reached maturity with Bill Clinton. If that’s not a recipe for cynicism, I don’t know what is.

And I believe it’s cynicism, in large part, that’s gotten us where we are today. It’s why we’re willing to shrug our shoulders and describe voting in this election as choosing between “the lesser of two evils.” It’s why we’d rather focus our anxiety on adolescent clown hoaxes rather than the myriad of messy issues clamoring for our attention. It’s why, when my daughters say that they might be President some day, I want to cringe and say, “Oh, come on, you can do better than that!” It’s why, upon meeting an international exchange student at Middlebury College whose field of study is American history, I felt the need to apologize.

My generation came of age during a time of relative peace and affluence. For the most part, we believed that our country was the best place to be. We believed that the civil rights movement had triumphed over racism, that the women’s lib movement had wiped out sexism, that the Cold War had eliminated foreign threats. Sure, things weren’t perfect, but they were good enough. Our national leaders might be fallible – might even occasionally be embroiled in scandal – but we believed that our country was too powerful and good to fail. And by the time we started to realize that the narrative we’d been fed might not be entirely accurate, we had college loans to repay and children to raise.

No country is too powerful and good to fail. Zooming out on history reveals a repetitive cycle of empires rising and falling. If our country is on a downward trend, as many believe, it’s a downward trend that started when the Constitution was ratified. For all our national pride, we are a tiny blip in the history of humankind. We’re not as special as we think we are.

I’m not trying to fan the flames of our national fear. I’m not telling you who to vote for. I’m really just trying to figure out what to tell my children.

The rhetoric of this election cycle has often reminded me of another question: “What is truth?” This question isn’t new; it was asked in the 1st century by a leader who washed his hands after releasing an innocent man to an angry mob that wanted to crucify him. The leader’s name was Pontius Pilate.

What is truth? As it happens, I have an answer.

Whenever my daughters leave our house, they walk under a painted wooden sign that says: “Love Wins.” This is the truth that I send with them out into the world.

Ah, you may say, but what is love? Too often, love looks like a power play, like taking advantage of others to make ourselves feel good. We do anything we want, and call it love.

But when I’m really loving my daughters or my husband, it usually costs me something. It costs me time, freedom, energy, rest, the ability to fulfill my own selfish desires. Love also opens me up to the possibility of heartbreak.

In short, love winning often looks a lot like losing.

Love winning means supporting the right of every single person to be treated with equal fairness under the law, even if we disagree with their views or lifestyle.

Love winning means using our power and wealth to help the powerless and needy, regardless of whether a fraction of those people might be less than deserving or grateful.

Love winning means sacrificing some of our comforts and conveniences for the greater good of our natural resources.

Love winning means that, without being doormats, we’d still rather face the risk of a terrorist attack than embody fear and hatred.

Love winning means refusing to be afraid, because love itself is greater than anything else that can be taken from us: our power, our wealth, our national pride.

I believe that most of us want to bequeath our children something more than “the lesser of two evils,” or “good enough.” If more of us acted on these hard truths, could it save our country? I don’t know. I do know that we cannot depend upon politicians to save our country. In fact, it may be too late to save our country. But it’s never too late to save ourselves.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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