Raking. It represented purgatory on the poster in my 4th grade Catechism classroom. It confused me because I loved raking leaves so much that I would have put it in the heaven part of the poster. I wanted to be in purgatory forever raking leaves. I’ve really loved raking leaves – but not sticks.
Lately I’ve been raking up a lot of sticks. A couple of large, dead trees blew over in my yard during a windstorm. There were broken sticks covering a significant portion of my one acre property – millions of sticks that needed to be picked up by someone. I stood and stared at them, wishing another wind would come along and blow them onto my neighbor’s property. Then I remembered that I’m trying to be a grown-up who doesn’t make vain wishes. I bent over and picked up the first stick and told myself it was progress. I wanted to hear more positive self-talk so I picked up more sticks until I had a couple handfuls that I walked over to the fire pit. I preferred to do it that way because I hate the sensation of getting sticks tangled in the tines of a rake. It bothers me in the same way that nails on a chalkboard do. I overlooked how weird that is and justified picking up the sticks and carrying them to the fire pit handfuls at a time, because I could accumulate more steps on my Fitbit. I told myself that every stick I removed from the devastating scene was an improvement. As much as I love exercise, bending over and picking up each stick, then walking across my yard with handfuls got old and I eventually had to pick up a rake so I could make faster progress.
If that Catechism poster showed a guy raking millions of sticks instead of leaves, I would have better understood the concept of purgatory when I was young. It looks like I’ll be living in purgatory for quite a while now until all of the rotting trees are removed from my yard. There are six more dead or dying trees that will have to be trimmed or cut down so they don’t fall on my buildings. Although it’s been a lot of work, I’m actually thankful that the two dead trees fell and did relatively little damage. It has called my attention to just how decayed my yard is and provides the incentive I need to attend to the other trees soon, before they fall and cause potentially major damage.
I was feeling overwhelmed when I first looked at the disaster left by the fallen trees, but I know that I will eventually get it cleaned up, because I really care about my yard and I want to be able to enjoy it again. I know that the sacrifices I will make to get to that point (less TV watching, less reading, less writing, paying lots of money to remove dead trees, untangling sticks from rake tines) will be well worth it. I was raised Catholic and completely understand the benefits that come with sacrifice.
I care about the condition of my country as much as I care about my yard. I want to feel like I’m enjoying it again and all of the liberties it offers me. I’m more than willing to help clean up America. I have this year’s presidential candidates to thank for calling my attention to what a mess my country is. My comfortable existence usually allows me to be pretty indifferent to our state of affairs, but I now believe that our government, our economy, job opportunities, healthcare, educational standards, and respect for diversity have been in a state of decay for quite some time. This election season has helped me become very uncomfortable with the notable differences among American citizens that have resulted in conflict.
I felt like I was engaging in this conflict myself, as I became so frustrated over watching people “drink the Kool-Aid” served by candidates other than the one I was supporting. My frustration turned into anger the more I thought about it. I felt my blood pressure increasing in reaction to media coverage of the presidential campaigns. I knew I needed to find a way to change my reaction to American politics and the fact that people react differently to the same piece of political information. So, I went on a quest to find the answer to why people have the potential to react to the same information so differently.
The answer I arrived at is that everybody brings a personal history and their desires for the future to what is experienced in the present. And we align ourselves with people who can speak to our past experiences or future desires. No matter how clinically someone wants to address a piece of information in the present, their reaction will always be influenced by their past experiences and their hope for the future. We are all vulnerable to the politician who knows how to address our experiences and goals. People can’t be separated from their past or their desires and they should not be faulted for it. We can, however, arrive at a point in time where we make the conscious decision to react differently to something in the future – and this is always the result of what we have experienced in the past.
Because of my increased blood pressure and the sensation of banging my head into a brick wall when I tried to understand people supporting the rhetoric of someone other than my favorite candidate, I chose to find a different way of reacting. Now, when I become aware of someone’s alignment with a candidate I don’t support, instead of mocking them or assuming they’re not getting their political news from the correct source, I have chosen to simply remind myself that their personal history and future desires are different than mine. The result is that it has removed emotion – and high blood pressure – from my reaction to the political race.
At first it felt like a major sacrifice to abandon my natural inclination to generate satire to cope with human behavior that I don’t understand. I hate the sensation of not sharing a funny comment that pops into my head. But since I’m coming fresh out of the Lenten season I know that, for me, sacrifice of things like chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, gossiping, making fun of people . . . over a period of time often results in self-improvement.
I’ve been donning this elevated mindset for several days now and I like how it feels. I’m experiencing more inner peace. I’m no longer contributing to the fabric of chaos that seems to be draped over America right now, because I’ve stopped questioning other people’s right to their viewpoint. People simply react differently to the same piece of information – and we are so very lucky that we have the right to do that in America. I don’t want everyone to be the same. I don’t want everyone to think like me. If we were all the same we would resemble other nations that I find very undesirable – but will not mock because I am elevated right now. I want to live in a land of various viewpoints, but I want to do it peacefully.
If whomever wins the presidential election in November has a different agenda for the future than mine, I am choosing to be at peace with that. I will view it as a reminder that I am fortunate to live in a nation that allows me and all of my countrymen to think freely. For differing viewpoints to coexist peacefully, Americans must first find peace within themselves. As ridiculously canned as that sounds, I guarantee that peace is there to be found – somewhere under the high blood pressure, the satirical reactions, the dependence on sensationalized media coverage of every word uttered by the candidates, the tendency to overreact to people who think differently than we do . . .
“People simply have different histories and different desires for the future.” I intend to continue saying this to myself instead of judging people who don’t support the candidate I like, or fearing the outcome of the presidential race. I plan to sacrifice my old way of reacting for the next 217 days, until the election results are in.
America feels like purgatory to me right now – the icky one with sticks stuck in the rake. I am now just one stick removed from the chaos that has fallen around us, but it is progress toward peace, nonetheless. If others joined me in removing themselves from the conflict, we may become a handful, then two handfuls, then a rake full, then a bucket full, then a wheelbarrow full, then a trailer full of improvement . . . which may inspire others to take notice and follow suit until we become a caravan of citizens pursuing a more civilized way of interacting, before our nation experiences irreparable harm.
Who wants to join me in this campaign season sacrifice of judgment toward those who think differently, for the sake of helping create a more peaceful United States of America? I’m finding that it’s not so difficult – it’s actually much easier than giving up chocolate.
© 2016 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
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