"How did we get in this mess?" a friend wrote me in a recent email about the presidential election.
My initial thought: "I have no idea, but the whole thing is making me want to upchuck on a daily basis."
Then I considered the question more deeply. As it turns out, I have an idea about how we got into this mess: a national history of widespread racism, misogyny and discrimination.
Our country was founded on a lot of beautiful aspirations by some exquisitely brave individuals. When the Declaration of Independence was signed back on July 4, 1776, what a joy it must have been to imagine living in a country rooted in the belief "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
It must have been especially awesome if you happened to be a white man on July 4, 1776. But, for the rest of society, it was probably not quite as cool.
From the start of this country, the system was rigged and unfair for people who were born anything other than white and male. And even for those born white and male, there were a lot of economic inequities that made the system unjust for them, too.
This country is great; I am incredibly thankful to live here. But it was also built upon a lot of evil. Early Americans stole land from native peoples. Huge injustices remain in the treatment of Native Americans today.
More examples of injustice: Slavery was legal until the 13th amendment was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865. Segregation was legal until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Massive racial inequities remain embedded throughout the workplaces, colleges, schools, prisons, and households of our country. Women didn't get to vote until 1920.
To this day, the gender wage gap is at least 20 percent, with a much larger gap in some industries. The GLBTQ community finally gained marriage rights last year, but people of orientations other than heterosexual continue to face ongoing discrimination.
Have we made progress? Yes! Absolutely! And that progress is definitely worth celebrating. But, if, indeed, we're all created equal, we still have a ways to go in living into that aspiration.
This is all part of our national history. Alongside huge advances in technology, economics, education, global relations and many other beautiful happenings, we also have a history of racism, misogyny and discrimination.
So, to answer my friend's question, how did we get into this mess? Well — perhaps over the years, we stuffed the national family closet with a whole lot of prejudiced secrets. Now the closet is full. It's brimming and exploding, and all our skeletons are now in front of us. We are coming face to face with what happens when generations of human beings do not recognize the worth and personhood of other human beings.
It's shocking to see all the misdirected violence, verbal aggression, bigotry, and religious intolerance around us. It's overwhelming. So we understandably try and shove it all under the bed. We deny it exists. We chalk it up to "locker-room talk" and distract ourselves with football and Brangelina.
What else do we do with all those incendiary skeletons? Well, perhaps we unknowingly catapult those bigoted bones right onto center stage disguised as a political candidate.
Because say what you want about our presidential nominees … those candidates are part of us. Both of them. They are in the positions that they are in, at least in part, because we empowered them to be there. So if we are disgusted, then maybe we need to set a new collective standard around acceptable behavior. Maybe we need a different set of boundaries around permissible and impermissible conduct, and when those boundaries are violated, there need to be consequences.
As the people of this country, it is within our rights to reclaim the power that we have. We can set a healthier, saner standard for interpersonal communication than what we've been witnessing lately.
The healing of the nation will come through our shared commitment to standing up to oppression in all forms. It will take a lot of courage, empathy, listening, and self-reflection. It will require vulnerability and responsibility. Our greatest healing will come when we're willing to bravely admit that we're walking through a graveyard of centuries-long discriminatory tendencies in this country. And after we admit them, we will need to commit to address them one by one.
Right now, we are faced with questions as a country: Who are we? Who will we be? How will we treat each other? How will we talk about our genitals and the genitals of others? What will we teach our children about respect, love, and power?
We are provided opportunities to strive for renewal, hope, and change even — and especially — in the midst of challenging times. As we shape the next chapter of our national future together, let's pause to consider the past and work our way through those skeletons. There is much possibility and hope that comes through facing our brokenness and fears.
I know the political climate can feel frustrating and exhausting right now. But don't give up or check out completely. It's certainly messy. But the great thing about a mess is that it's only temporary. Together, we have a chance to clean it up.