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I Want to Understand

I write fiction about working class and lower middle class people in the south. It’s not a popular choice. Readers don’t seem to know what to do with my characters. I don’t blame them. It’s not what they’ve come to expect from books set in the south. Most southern fiction tends to portray societal extremes: the very poor, the eccentric wealthy, the devoutly religious, the idiot, the violent.

My characters tend to fall somewhere in the middle. They have jobs, but not good jobs or steady jobs. Most have minimal education as a result of minimal opportunity. They can be eccentric, but usually not in a charming way. They thump the bible when it suits them, but they aren’t sitting in a pew every Sunday. They aren’t big on birth control. They curse, they drink too much. They cheat on their spouses. They love their children, but they aren’t above smacking them. They own guns. Sometimes they hate God. Sometimes they pray.

I write about these people, because I know these people. I grew up with them. I went to school with them. These are not navel-gazers. They don’t explore their feelings. They don’t worry about offending anyone. They are quick to call for the prohibition of things that don’t line up with their beliefs, but will take advantage of the system if it serves them. They love their neighbors—no one is quicker to whip up a casserole or hand over a few bucks in a crisis—but they’d just as soon not open their neighborhoods to people who don’t look like them, or to people who pray in a different language.

They believe what they believe because it’s what they’ve been taught to believe and because nothing the other side says or does seems to make their lives any better. And it doesn’t help that large portions of the country speak of them with disdain and speak to them with condescension. It gets their back up and makes them even more stubborn and resistant to change. It’s worth understanding that mindset, because these people just elected the next president.

I hate that our country made this decision, but the outcome is not a mystery to me. Going into this election, I was optimistic. I believed we’d make history. Well, we have. It’s not the history-making vote I’d hoped for, but there is no doubt that this is a turning point for our country. Both parties will have to accept that the old rules no longer apply, because both parties lost this election. The Republican establishment never rallied around its candidate. Not one living Republican ex-president supported him. Wall Street, typically a reliable booster of Republican candidates and platforms, turned its back on this election in a stunning and possibly devastating way.

I believe the best way to deal with disappointment and loss is to seek understanding. Our country is going to have to reckon with a group of people we’ve ignored for years. We ignored them and they stopped talking to us, because they knew we didn’t really care about their opinions. That’s why the polls were so wrong. These people don’t answer phone calls from strangers and they don’t stop for pollsters with clipboards. They don’t believe we’ll listen. They’re right.

Well, now everyone is listening. For good or for ill, they are fully in power. Whatever comes next will be their legacy. The decisions made over the next four years will be with us for the rest of our lives. Maybe this is a last grasp of power or maybe it’s the beginning of something new. Either way, we’re all going to have to live with it.

And in accepting this, I have some advantage over many of my friends. I never tuned out the voices from my past. I didn’t scrub my Facebook page when the vitriol started. I refuse to watch or read only news that reflects my opinions. I don’t do this because I’m enlightened or broad-minded, I do this because I know people are complicated and I am desperate to understand. I want to understand the Saturday night drunk in the pew on Sunday morning. I want to understand the Planned Parenthood clinic protestor who travels across state lines for an abortion before returning to the picket line. I want to understand the anti-Obamacare southern belle who once called her parents in another state to come drive her to the hospital, because she was without health insurance or money. I want to understand the youth pastor who rants against aid to Syrian refugees. I want to understand the two-time teen dad who still believes birth control is a sin. I want to understand the underemployed single mom who collects semi-automatic weapons. And I definitely want to understand the recovering addict who relied on food stamps for her children, but now would like to cut off all aid to the poor.

I want to understand. We cannot change the future trajectory of our country until we grasp why such a large portion of its citizens want to hang on to the past. We cannot build on progress until we figure out why so many people see change as a threat. I’m not advocating acceptance. We must continue to work hard against racism, misogyny, religious bigotry, homophobia, and ignorance in every form; but we must also work to understand the people behind this vote. It won’t be easy, but a refusal to seek understanding will result in our own form of isolationist anger. I don’t want to be one of the angry people. So I’m going to try to understand.

But first, I’m gonna have myself a good cry.

 

Published in Mississippi The South Writing

One Comment

  1. Terry Everett Terry Everett

    I’m crying, too, but support you in your work.

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