I spent yesterday in the densest of shadow from the darkest of clouds- contrasting starkly with the perennially bright skies of New England’s now historically severe drought, and all the darker for that. Today, inevitably perhaps, I find myself in pursuit of a silver lining. I don’t claim to have found one- but I have found some hope for finding one.
My son, venting his anguish yesterday, expressed worry at the incipient invitations of hate he felt welling- hate for haters. He braced himself against it, as well he should, noting that you can’t fight fire with fire. But of course, he was both right, and wrong. You can’t fight hate by hating; but you can, indeed, fight fire with fire. And maybe Trump is uniquely poised to do just that.
Arguments against such hope, born perhaps of desperation, are duly noted. They may be right. Trump may actually mean some or much of what he has said. He may be irredeemable, and the young people protesting the peril to their future in cities and on college campuses around the country may have every reason for anger, anguish, and fear.
But still, I see an opportunity to hope that we may hope.
My wife, who came to this country from France at age 14, brought with her many delightful elements of her native, Southern French childhood culture, and none more endearing than this: “parler, pour ne rien dire.” Talking to say nothing.
In general, this reference is to the hours of happy and inconsequential chatter among friends and loved ones that simply serves to populate the space between and build the bonds of conviviality. No great problems are solved, no deep challenges probed- but words with little meaning flit about as emissaries of cheer, stitches in the fabric of the human connection. It’s as lovely as it is light.
The best expression of this I know, another endowment to me by my wife’s culture, are indelible scenes in La Trilogie de Pagnol, which is- as the name denotes- a three-part cinematic tour-de-force based on a saga by Marcel Pagnol. Across an expanse of decades, disasters, and triumphs, the protagonists say many extreme things to one another that are never intended to portend the actions to follow. Au contraire, if I may borrow from the relevant French; they are, immanently, INSTEAD of actions. The words suffice.
But since they are, indeed, only words- they break no bones. Threats of sticks and stones are made, but the real articles never fly. Words of rancor are quickly replaced by words of reconciliation, and these more deeply felt.
The simple reality about our now President-elect is that he has said so many conflicting things, we have no idea what he truly wants or means to do. Perhaps until now, he has had little cause to think about it himself, taking it only so far as: to win! To get elected. Well, welcome to the presidency, Mr. Trump.
What if, all along, he was channeling Pagnol, in a sense; speaking to stitch together the unraveled? Clearly, he was saying what many among the disenfranchised wanted to hear from him, so he, in turn, would get what he wanted from them: their vote.
He got that, and he has their attention-and that of the rest of us. And this, very bizarre moment in history is all the proof we need- opponents and proponents alike- that we were never intended to take Trump at his word. How so? Well, didn’t he tell us, emphatically, that the election was rigged- just before celebrating his victory in it? We are, implicitly, invited to…never mind. Maybe that’s the tip of a rhetorical iceberg- and if so, maybe the real ones don’t all have to melt, after all.
It’s a weird new day not just for us, but for him. Mr. Trump now has the awesome responsibility of actually BEING president of the United States. Perhaps, if only to avoid public humiliation and leaving nothing but a small and ugly smudge on an unprepossessing page of history as his final legacy- he will rise to the occasion.
The disaffected who voted for Trump in spite of it all were out there before the election, too. Our brothers and sisters and cousins with whom we disagree on this would be out there no matter which way the election played out. Maybe it’s time to confront what festers between us.
There is nothing, really, that Hillary Clinton - let alone the rest of us- could have said to convince the steadfast deniers that climate change is a clear and present danger, and we better treat it as such. But what if a President Trump, visited by the best scientists with the best evidence, is won over? He has a granddaughter, after all; she will need a planet. What if he is convinced that doubts notwithstanding, he better hedge his bets in her favor?
That might be persuasive to other doubters in ways the rest of us never could, and actually grow the choir rather than preaching only ever to its established members. I am not saying it’s going to happen; I have no idea. For today, the possibility of it is a glimmer of light. I’ll take it.
What if, embracing the realities of governing us all, Mr. Trump renounces the futility of exclusion-by-religion, or the folly of a wall around Mexico no one will fund? Well, then, perhaps he is in a better position than anyone ever has been to make the case to all of us, rather than just those of us already so disposed, for genuine immigration reform blending the lawful, the orderly, and the humane.
And so it goes, along every arc through policy of a flighty imagination. Who better to advance the long-stalled issue of campaign finance reform? Who better to help control the flow of guns to those unqualified to wield them, than so vocal an advocate for both the Second Amendment, and the conquest of terrorism?
Thus far, Trump is merely the symbol of America’s deep divisions; a fan to flames already burning, a goad to animus already roiling. But maybe he could evolve into the remedy for them. Maybe only someone who has so thoroughly exposed those divisions by saying so much that meant so little, has the capacity to construct bridges across the chasms. We know he likes to build things with his name on them; this is a perfect opportunity.
Maybe it really is darkest just before the dawn. Maybe we needed to be shown how far apart we were to find new ways to get together. And maybe only when we do that, is a better destiny in the offing.
Perhaps in this moment, Mr. Trump is focused only on hefting a goblet in celebration. Perhaps even he doesn’t know that its combustible contents could be just right for dousing the flames of division he has thus far seemed inclined only to stoke.
Maybe dubiously directed words were just words, and better actions could follow. And then maybe that goblet- is half full, after all.
Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital
Immediate Past-President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine
Senior Medical Advisor, Verywell.com
Founder, The True Health Initiative