After the election, I surprised myself by failing to be outraged. I mean, of course I was outraged. But I was also tired. Tired of checking the news every day, tired of being consumed by the campaign, tired of being overwhelmed by the thought of that man leading our nation.
There was something else bothering me, too. I have always distrusted the easy path. I’m not sure exactly why. I wasn’t very popular growing up; I am also a child of divorce. Maybe it’s just how I was formed. But I’ve often clung to the difficult, as Rilke counsels, sometimes to a fault. A part of me refuses to let myself — or others — off the hook. So even as I asked how this election could have happened, I wondered if I was partly to blame.
Maybe that is why I tried to disconnect on inauguration weekend — to make sense of it all. I needed to separate from the larger forces around me to try to understand what was at stake for me personally. Granted, there is some privilege in that. But I hoped that grounding myself in my own experience would help me grapple with the magnitude of what we face, and my role in trying to fix it.
So I didn’t watch the speech. Didn’t even attend the march. But it found me.
That Friday night, my wife and I had dinner with friends. Six of us, at our home, dining on Lebanese take-out and drinking champagne. I called it an act of resistance. A little cute, I suppose, but I couldn’t think of any other way to mark the occasion. Take back the evening, take back our lives, if only in some small way. Late that night, I looked around the room. Collectively, we were straight and gay, Christian and Jew, female and male, of Persian descent and of European. Each of us, I realized, was part of a group that had been targeted during the campaign.
The next morning, my 5-year-old son and I went to the park, where we scooped wet sand onto a tabletop and let it fall back to the ground. And on this particular morning, what more important work was there for me to do? I was fully engaged in a way that doesn’t always come easy for me. And I was grateful for my son, both as a joyful innocent and as a reminder of what matters.
Earlier that morning, at one of my favorite coffee shops, I remarked to the barista that it didn’t seem as busy as usual. He said he thought it was because of the march. Later, after I left the park, I noticed the traffic was unusually light while I headed west along Sunset. Still, I gasped when I heard a news report quoting an estimate of 500,000 people at the protest.
Even though I was headed in the opposite direction, it gave me tremendous comfort to hear how many people had gone to march. I drove toward Westwood to see the UCLA basketball team take on the rival Arizona Wildcats. As if this game meant something. Which, of course, to 12,000-plus fans, it did. But I watched in a kind of a daze. I mean, sure, I wanted the Bruins to win — I’ve been going to games with my dad for more than three decades — but the stakes felt noticeably lower on this day.
And yet, a few moments transcended the usual. Before tip-off, we rose for the National Anthem. A single trumpet called out from a corner of the arena. A few bars later, that horn was answered by another. And so it went, until we heard from all corners. When it came time for “And the rockets red glare,” the entire band joined. So, too, did the rest of us. With a pause. A sigh. A breath. As if for many of us, those solo, somber horns had said everything: This is our country. This is our song. It belongs to us all.
Later, at halftime, UCLA honored one of its all-time great basketball players, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But it was his off-court achievements — as a historian, writer, humanitarian — that drew the greatest mention. In the video montage to introduce him, I immediately recognized the voice-over. It was President Obama, speaking at the ceremony in which he awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
I was briefly overtaken by this voice of a man I so greatly admire. Not solely because of what he tried to do as president, but also for the way that he did it. As a genuinely good man, making judgments informed by reason and compassion. Sure, he was imperfect — uneasy in his command of the office until his opponents had succeeded in defining him; forced to wield power in ways that his successor will most assuredly abuse — but despite his faults, he operated from smart, principled perspective.
What a remarkable thing to have had: a leader who engaged our sense of possibility, who sought to unite, and who believed in the worth of the ordinary. Maybe there I could find the seeds of a lesson from the weekend.
Is it any wonder that my efforts to separate from what was happening led me right back? The election threatened these common, everyday occurrences, but our liberation will be found in the same: The freedom to join with friends. The joy of time with family. The right to be part of a crowd, when and where we choose.
None of that is gone — at least not yet. And I am among the fortunate. I’m white. I’m a man. I live in Los Angeles. But I am also Jewish, raised with a deep awareness of the historical costs of inaction. Which is why it pains me to hear those in Congress parse words over a Muslim ban. Why loose talk of walls and immigration frightens me. Why I question the moral authority of a man who has shown utter disregard for the truth, and who fails to respect our democratic institutions.
He is not the first to try to divide our country. At the same time, many of us in the opposition took for granted the justice of our cause, and thus share some responsibility for allowing him to gather power. But none of that changes the gravity of where we find ourselves as a nation, or the responsibility of those who would lead us.
The other day, my son asked who our king is. Normally, I would laugh — but right now it feels a little too precarious. Four years from now, we may well be congratulating ourselves on electing someone sane who will try to roll back the worst of this nightmare. Or we could find ourselves lamenting the country we lost. Not just for some of us. For all of us.
Let us refuse.
Jason Greenwald is a native Angeleno who lives with his family in Hollywood. Previous essays have appeared in Beyond Baroque Magazine, the Raven Chronicles and other publications.
Image: “By the Dawn’s Early Light” by Jason Samfield