Several years ago, I stopped watching the news and decided to primarily read the news instead. The decision was made out of the pure necessity to combat anxiety and stress that only escalated as a result of seeing and hearing the constant bombardment of sights and sounds that showcased the extreme cases of negativity in our society. In times like these, I am grateful for that decision. The negativity that has seemingly permeated all aspects of our lives appears to be at a breaking point. I know that I am not alone in having this thought.

This past Sunday only served to confirm these feelings. My original goal was to finish writing and editing this post, with the vast majority having been written weeks ago. The horrific event that took place on Saturday at the Tree of Life Congregation in the Pittsburgh area left me feeling so numb and overwhelmed on Sunday, that my brain was not able to think clearly. My heart goes out to the victims and to the many people who were directly and indirectly affected by this tragedy. In a free society, people are not killed based on their beliefs. May atrocities like this never occur again. May the hatred and fear that fueled this act of terrorism be extinguished forever.

Have the titles in the many facets of our lives, whether self-selected or assigned to us, contributed to the level of “us vs. them-ism” that appears to have permeated nearly every aspect of our society?

When I was eighteen years old, I was enrolled in an introductory psychology course at SUNY Cortland with a spirited and influential professor. Dr. Michie Odle was a firm believer in the “People First” philosophy in all aspects of life. When discussing various mental health conditions and labels, she insisted that we always remember to address the associated individuals as “people with…” instead of a conventional or traditional label. The aim was to always remember that no matter what makes someone possibly fit into a different category than you, they are a person before anything else. This simple practice has guided me in many of my interactions in the nearly twenty years since this lesson.

As we currently exist in a powerfully divided and polarizing society, I am drawn to the conclusion that many of the hostile interactions online and in person can be attributed to the lack of understanding and remembering that we are people first. The labels and titles assigned to us have seemingly become the most important delineation in determining whether or not someone can be trusted, believed, listened to, taken seriously, or even seen as a person.

coffee drinker vs. tea drinker
this team’s fan vs. that team’s fan
nerd vs. jock
rural dweller vs. urban dweller
adult vs. child
employee vs. boss
straight vs. not
democrat vs. republican
immigrant vs. native
this religion vs. that religion
us vs. them

As we approach what has frequently been described as “one of the most important elections” that we may ever take part in during our lifetime, I can’t help but reflect on a unique experience that happened several years ago. Through purely coincidental circumstances, I found myself having dinner with a sitting U.S. Senator. Arlen Spector’s grandchild was enrolled in a summer program that I directed in Georgetown. He had generously invited all of the students on the program for a private tour of the Capital Building towards the end of our three week session. The night before our tour, the Senator invited his grandchild and a friend to see his office staff compete in a friendly softball game on the National Mall against the staff of the other Senator from Pennsylvania. Since the invited friend was not related to the Senator, I needed to serve as a chaperone. Those few hours in the summer of 2010 were as surreal as they come. Whether it was the seemingly impromptu softball game with thousands of unknowing tourists walking by, the torrential downpour that found me and the two teenagers seeking shelter in a parking garage, the dinner at a hopping Chinese restaurant with Washington insiders at the surrounding tables, or the four interruptions during the dinner by apparent lobbyists or influential people giving me the “Who the hell is this guy?” look while trying to discuss matters with the Senator, the evening is a short period of time that remains vivid in my mind. I only wish that I had written some notes and reflections at the time about this evening and the day that followed. I may not remember all of the details of what was discussed, but the big picture memories are quite clear.

Arlen Specter served as a United States Senator for approximately thirty years. At the time of our dinner, the Senator knew his time as an elected official was nearing its end. The year before, he had announced that he no longer found himself aligned with the Republican Party, and would be considering himself as a member of the Democratic Party as he had been a part of decades earlier. When he ran in the primary election as a Democrat several few months before our dinner, he had been defeated by an opponent. The Senator seemed to be at ease with his situation, and even joked about it several times during our few hours together. What I remember the most about him, besides his kindness and generosity, was his determination to remind the children about the importance of helping others. This idea was discussed in our dinner with the children about me being a teacher, and was a running theme in his remarks to the entire group in the meeting room in the basement of the Capital Building the next day. Arlen Specter requested that the children, many of whom were clearly from affluent upbringings, use their privilege in life to do good on the behalf of others. He recounted that he first sought elected office many years earlier to hopefully fix a situation where promises that were made to soldiers were not upheld. I am certain that he and I did not see eye to eye on every political idea, but he was genuinely grateful of his opportunity to hold office and his ability to try to help the people of our country. When Arlen Specter passed away in 2012, I felt sadness for his family, but felt grateful for the perspective and advice he so kindly shared with me.

As a voter, I consider myself to be independent. That is not to be confused with being a registered Independent. Due to archaic voting laws in New York State, I made the decision years ago to officially register as a Democrat to avoid being completely shut out of the primary elections. As an independent minded voter, however, I have cast my ballot for people in several political parties over the years. As I get older, I feel an ever growing concern about the “party over country” sentiment that itself seems to be ever growing. I suspect that Arlen Specter would have been attacked viciously as a traitor had he made that political party switch today.

As the midterm elections near, I am anxious and hopeful about the results. Ultimately, every citizen is entitled to their individual vote. Idealism, though, runs deep within me. I hope there is a record turnout of voters. My hope for my fellow citizens is that they will do their due diligence in researching the candidates running for office. Another hope is that there are more people who believe in the freedom of speech, support for those who truly need it, fairness in policies, a system free from corruption, and equality & justice for all people than those who do not believe in these concepts.

We are people first. No matter what may seemingly divide us, we are more alike than different. Our fears, hopes, insecurities, and dreams are more in common than different, no matter what experiences we may have had in our past or what we may encounter in the unknown future. Perhaps if we moved away from the political label that we have assigned ourselves and started to say things like “I am a person who believes in…,” we could collectively see each other as people first. Dialogue could occur before judgements took over and blocked the possible connections. My guess is that we would all find a greater number of people with similar thoughts than those with opposing ideas.

As the election nears, I wish for you the best of everything while doing your research. May you seek out those candidates who best align with your ideals and beliefs. I know that I will be watching the news on the evening of November 6th, despite the anxious feelings that may arise. May all Americans vote for those candidates who want to restore a level of humanity to our society and represent all of the people of our country, regardless of the many labels that may or may not precede them.

With any hope, those elected officials will immediately begin to think about solutions to addressing the following thought:

How do we repair and resolve the many divides that have only intensified in recent years? The problem has already become a life or death situation. May we all use our common wisdom and agree that people must come first.

(Blogger’s Note: In the next post in the “Democracy” series, the focus will be on the reflective, thought-provoking, and healing nature of art in a society. The previous “Democracy” post focused on the health of a society. Other posts in the series may eventually be published.)

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