Take a look at this photograph. What do you see?
This is a group of volunteers I joined last week in Florida.
This photo makes my heart and spirit soar every time I look at it. People in this photo are black and white and shades in between. They’re gay and straight, old and young, Republican and Democrat and Independent. Some are vegans or vegetarians, while others are diehard meat eaters. Some of us were Jewish, some Christian, some atheist. There are corrections officers, a prosecutor, a teacher, a writer, chefs and restauranteurs, a cantor and a pastor. We are immigrants, and descendants of immigrants.
We came from all over the U.S., on our own time and our own dime, to help victims of Hurricane Irma in Florida. And the people we helped were equally diverse. Because this is America, folks. This is who we are.
Unfortunately, those in powerful institutions—not least of which, the media—would have you believe something else entirely. And yes, while the increased accounts of racism and anti-Semitism and homophobia and other hatreds are real and horrifying, and there’s much work needed to fix it all, this is still America as it exists underneath it all. This is still America if you go looking for it. This is the America waiting quietly underneath the noise.
It’s so easy to forget it, and get caught up in the name calling and finger pointing and exposed ugliness. It’s easy to get caught up in the divisiveness, and to believe that which separates us is greater than that which unites us.
All too easy, but not true.
I had the chance to talk about my experience with an older German couple while waiting in the security line for my flight home. They had lived in America previously and perhaps summed it up better than I can. Helping strangers, they said, was the epitome of America.
Of course, our experience last week wasn’t all Utopian. As with our country at large, we quibbled occasionally amongst ourselves. We didn’t agree with one another at all times. The difference is that when you’re face to face with a person, you’re more likely to talk quietly and not yell, to stay respectful, to compromise or just walk away, to focus on the task at hand. We were all there for the greater good—not to force our opinion on anyone.
And that’s a lesson, too. I still believe that most of us share the same desires in life: food and shelter, love and security. Life boiled down to the basics. We are guaranteed nothing but birth and death, and how we fill out the middle bit defines each and every one of us.
Although there are so many influences on our lives, we are partly responsible for the world we live in. Every day we make choices that determine our outlook and, by extension, our mood. And those choices impact our surroundings and our connection to them.
Take a look at the photo. Can you envision yourself in it? THIS is still America: mine and yours. We are diverse and caring, and we need to continue to keep our compassion in action.
So keep helping your neighbors and reaching out to strangers.
People will thank you. And so will your heart.