The Invisible Accordion


By Matt Geiger

Republished from Mount Horeb Mail, courtesy of Matt Geiger, Editor.

Imagine watching a nature documentary in which a lion is pursuing a gazelle. As they rush across the savanna, turning sharply as their claws and hooves dig into the dry earth and motes of dust linger in the sun as if to briefly mark their rapid passing on this ancient earth, the tiny gap between them shrinks and expands like an invisible accordion fueled by adrenaline and the yearning to live.

Who do you root for?

My daughter and I have been watching a lot of nature programs lately, and I feel the way I have always felt: I root fervently for both. I know that one will live and one will die, either by asphyxiation or starvation. I know the end is always a blend of equal parts victory and defeat. Knowing this, how could you not cheer for both the lion and the gazelle?

I hope when Hadley gets older, she maintains her current ability to do this. I hope she does not begin to fetishize or worship strength or frailty, but rather both - for the roles they play and the ways they inform one another.

Someday soon, I will have to explain politics to her. It is the day I dread most of all. More than any other parent/child discussion, this is the one I wish I could somehow avoid. I'm happy to talk to her, when the time is right, about life and death, philosophy, procreation, and any other sensitive, complicated topic that demands attention. Except this.

I am so regularly befuddled by politics and its adherents that I really have no idea where to start on the topic.

I imagine it will go something like this:

"People divide themselves up into teams, one on the right and one on the left, and then they sort of compete against one another."

"What are the teams based on?"

"I don't think there is really any one idea or philosophy that defines them. People just join one team or the other, then decide everyone on that team is right and everyone on the other team is wrong. About everything. The teams are well defined, so if you know how someone feels about immigration, you also know how they feel about taxes, firearms, social programs, the military, schools, free speech, abortion, religion and a variety of other, totally unrelated topics."

"That doesn't make any sense. Couldn't someone agree with one team about military spending, but agree with the other team about free speech?"

"One would think," I'll have to say. "But no, not really. Those people are called 'independents,' and they are equally scorned by people on both teams."

"Are there more than two teams? I mean, wouldn't it be boring to watch the same two teams play against each other over and over, again and again?"

"Yes, it is incredibly boring. But many people love it, for some reason. Your daddy actually has to write about it for work sometimes." And then I would sigh and pour myself a drink.

Isn't it odd, though, that if I told you how I felt about any one, single political issue, you would immediately think you knew which team I was on, and how I felt about dozens of other, totally unrelated issues? Isn't that a bit of a red flag for those in search of the truth?

In the end, I think the only thing I'll really be able to tell my daughter is that the team on the right always roots for the lion, and team on the left always roots for the gazelle.

Neither seems to see how much those two creatures need each other, and how beautiful the invisible accordion they play is when they dash across the earth. No one seems to understand that they both are lucky to live and fated to die, and beautiful for those who really look.

I do not think people who get involved in politics are bad. Most of my closest friends are passionate about political issues. Some are even - heaven help me - politicians.

They and their roles are necessary, I know, but it's just never going to be for me, because I know how often my mind changes, and how wrong I have been, over and over again, in my life. I will never have the wisdom for it.

I think of how little I knew of the world when I was a teenager, and how sure I was that I knew everything. I think of how naive my views on basically every topic were before I had my daughter (at the age of 35). I think of the fact that how I feel about trade deals doesn't have anything to do with my views about taxes or school or war or immigration or race relations or minimum wage or anything else, really.

Most recently, I think of how vehemently I disliked President George W. Bush when I was in my 20s, how I argued passionately with my classmates in school that he lacked compassion or eloquence or wisdom or any of the things that were important for a leader. And I think of how I sat my daughter down the other night and switched off the nature documentaries, and I played for her his recent message to the American people, which roused in me a long dormant sense of oneness with everyone else with whom I share a home and a country. It seemed to be a message that took into account the beauty and importance of both the lion and the gazelle. And I think of the fact that he was certainly trying to do the best he could, as were those who opposed him, and how disagreeing with someone about one issue doesn't mean you have to disagree on all the others, just as agreeing with someone about one issue doesn't mean you have to agree on all the others.

Here is his message:

This is a challenging and solemn time in the life of our nation and world. A remorseless invisible enemy threatens the elderly and vulnerable among us, a disease that can quickly take breath and life. Medical professionals are risking their own health for the health of others, and we're deeply grateful. Officials at every level are setting out the requirements of public health that protect us all, and we all need to do our part.

The disease also threatens broader damage, harm to our sense of safety, security and community. The larger challenge we share is to confront an outbreak of fear and loneliness, and it is frustrating that many of the normal tools of compassion, a hug, a touch, can bring the opposite of the good we intend. In this case, we serve our neighbor by separating from them. We cannot allow physical separation to become emotional isolation. This requires us to be not only compassionate, but creative in our outreach, and people across the nation are using the tools of technology in the cause of solidarity.

In this type of testing we need to remember a few things. First, let us remember we have faced times of testing before. Following 9-11 I saw a great nation rise as one to honor the brave, to grieve with the grieving and to embrace unavoidable new duties, and I have no doubt, none at all, that this spirit of service and sacrifice is alive and well in America. Second, let us remember that empathy and simple kindness are essential powerful tools of national recovery. Even at an appropriate social distance, we can find ways to be present in the lives of others, to ease their anxiety and share their burdens. Third, let's remember that the suffering we experience as a nation does not fall evenly. In the days to come it will be especially important to care in practical ways for the elderly, the ill and the unemployed. Finally, let us remember how small our differences are in the face of this shared threat. In the final analysis, we are not partisan combatants, we are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together and we are determined to rise. God bless you all.