A Necessary Discomfort
Several weeks ago, I promised Peter I was going to write a response to this wonderful video, “On the Participation Trophy,” which lays out a theory of competition that resonates with me and seems generally incompatible with the way I’m “supposed” to approach my career in Washington, D.C. I would still recommend watching the video to anyone, as it is smart and thoughtful, but when faced with the prospect of writing 500 words about it, I couldn’t. I felt exhausted before I even began. It’s so easy to write from a place of criticism, and if I’m honest with myself, it’s all I’ve been doing for the past two years. It’s instant gratification. It’s shallow, it’s simple, it’s uncomplicated. So I could easily write the, “Why Everyone Should Be Less Competitive, Like Me, Super Collaborator Girl,” piece. But why? What does that accomplish? It’s candy writing. It’s empty calories.
The harder thing to do is to write from a place of reflection. The Trump presidency has forced me into a kind of moral reckoning, and here’s why: I’m a better person than most of the people working in the White House. This is just demonstrably true by most metrics. It’s easy and satisfying to watch the news every day and feel buoyed by the certainty that I would never act like these people. I would never actively make the kind of cruel, selfish, greedy and bigoted decisions that they make on a daily basis. I feel fairly secure in that fact—if my actions were making other people’s lives demonstrably worse or more difficult, I would change those actions. And the news I consume is full of characters for whom this simple fact is not true—so it’s easy to let myself off the moral hook, so to speak.
The leaders of our country are holding themselves to a lower moral standard than I hold myself—so I’m good, right? I’m entitled to endlessly berate the White House, Congress, people I know, people I work with, and white men writ large, right? Because life is brutally unfair, and I’m trying my best, and so many people are failing to a greater degree than I am.
I wish I felt that was the case, but it’s not ethically sound, and it stifles my personal growth. The truth is, being courageous is neither easy nor simple, and moral decisions are fraught and complicated. I believe that if I were the President, I would not actively generate and enforce policies that punished immigrants and refugees. I would not defend discrimination against marginalized groups. I would use my platform to advocate for fairness, justice and equality. But faced with truly tough choices, in the face of fear, pride, pressure or extenuating circumstances, would I always make the right call? Of course not. And realizing that—watching red-state Democrats and even some Republicans make poor decisions, probably because they’re trying to protect their own quality of life, or the respect of their families, friends and constituents, and feeling empathy for them—is scary, because it forces you to look your own imperfections, selfish motivations and failings in the face. You’re not so much better than them, after all.
Every aspect of the Trump presidency—every moment of the last two years, it sometimes seems—has been agony. I often think that I simply can no longer access the kind of “happiness” that existed before November 2016. I have to settle for a new kind of contentment now, one that is tempered with the knowledge that so many people are hurting. We’ve all witnessed depravity beyond our wildest imaginations; we’ve felt our optimism and our faith in the human spirit crushed; we’ve watched men betray women, and people with privilege of all stripes betray the marginalized.
But this moral reckoning has been painful too, because it’s intimately personal. It’s a necessary and productive discomfort.
There is no moral equivalence to be drawn here. My daily shortcomings are not equivalent to the pain being caused by the current administration—if most because I do not have comparable amounts of power or influence. But that does not mean that confronting these shortcomings is not important work, and a better use of our time than merely offering criticism.
After two years of anger, activism, criticism, campaigning and disgust, I’m not finished. I’m not complacent, but I’m also ready to accept that at least part of my discomfort is rooted in the familiarity I feel with the leaders who constantly disappoint me. It feels hypocritical and morally bankrupt to offer criticism without first accepting that I, too, am not perfect. I too have work to do.