From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
by Jack Kelly
We’re told to talk to those with whom we disagree. Even more important—listen! Start the conversation. Reach across the aisle. Agree to disagree, but at least talk the talk.
I think we have to dig deeper to find common ground. We have to think about disaster. Emergencies bring us together: a cliché that happens to be true. Disaster elicits selflessness. We want to help, not run away. We see citizens, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, filling sandbags, searching the rubble, caring for victims.
Some years ago I joined a local volunteer ambulance squad as an emergency medical technician. I attend disasters on a regular basis, each heart attack or car crash a small catastrophe. Many citizens don’t realize that in much of rural America volunteers are the first—and often only — responders to medical emergencies, accidents, fires, and similar crises.
EMTs are not free of political opinions. We curse the television and march for causes and back our candidates as vehemently as anyone else. Some of my fellow volunteers are Trump supporters. So are some of those we care for.
But how can I direct real malice toward the person kneeling beside me in a cold rain at three in the morning, tending to an accident victim? How can I look at that frightened victim with bitterness because they hold a position contrary to mine on some issue of the day?
The question for a fellow EMT is not What do you think? but What can you do?
The question for a patient is not Who did you vote for? but Where does it hurt?
The hope is that moments of solidarity can plant seeds of reconciliation. To some, this type of solidarity is suspect. Aren’t we a nation of rugged individualists? Don’t our opinions decisively separate one “tribe” from another? Yet in our need, in our grief, and in our impulse to help, we find a kinship that is not soft-headed or sentimental, but an expression of the deep sense of community that ranks among America’s most enduring values.
Herman Melville, in his poem about the savage Civil War battle at Shiloh, wrote the remarkable line What like a bullet can undeceive! Trauma undeceives. Serious illness undeceives. Witnessing violent death undeceives. Disasters strip away pretense, false pride, shallow notions of success and superiority. They quiet self-righteousness. They don’t erase differences, but they shine a light on our common humanity. They allow us to remove our political masks and look each other in the face and see in each other a brother, a sister, a fellow citizen.
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Jack Kelly is a writer, historian, and EMT. His book The Edge of Anarchy will be published in January.