Why I Am Not Choosing Empathy

Out in this desert, I am in Trump country. Joshua Tree itself is fairly liberal and even a bit diverse {we’ve got a very small but solid queer community, as far as I can tell}. But the two towns that flank us, Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley, are littered with Trump/Pence signs. On election day, I went to run errands and drove twice past a group of his supporters waving signs and getting honks of solidarity.

I came to this desert to help heal myself, but also to talk to the people out here. Like really talk to them. Politically, I feel like there’s so much more here that I’m never exposed to in Colorado or New York or LA. I started writing this book with the artist I work with because we want to represent this land, this community, this history, for what it really is. Not a costume. Not a vacation spot. Not a wasteland. A real place with real people who have families and businesses and lives. And a real landscape with plants and animals and an entire ecosystem. We want to represent the native histories, the erased histories, the secrets and the surprises.

A couple weeks ago, I drove to a nearby town called Landers to interview people about an earthquake that happened in 1992. I ended up at a small bar where I talked to patrons for a while. We became friendly quickly, as is common in the desert. They were all men and they bought me beers and told me stories. And then politics came up. And they told me about Trump. And I listened. I genuinely listened. I hid my intellect, didn’t dispute their flawed logic, their false facts. I wanted to hear them out before I countered anything. Because I don’t often have to hear these people or see them at all. Because they don’t make me feel safe so I avoid them. But I’ve been working on compassion for awhile and I felt like now was the time it was most needed. I thought maybe if these men liked me, and maybe even more if they came to respect me in some small way, if they felt heard by me, maybe they would see me. Maybe they would let me speak to them and maybe they, too, would listen.

Someone sped by with a confederate flag on their ATV. I turned to these men, my new friends, and said, please at least tell me you wouldn’t fly a confederate flag. Why not? they asked. It’s about heritage, they said. Do you even know anything about the civil war? they inquired. They proceeded to explain to me things I’ve heard many times before. About democrats back then not wanting to free the slaves. About Abe Lincoln having slaves. About how the war wasn’t so much about slavery as it was about turncoats and family pitted against family. I was lost. I was stuck. Every piece of gentle, and then later more extreme, insight I tried to provide got me nowhere. I was the only party in the conversation interested in listening.

In the end, the older man, Chuck, who had told me this sweet love story and had folded me a dollar bill into a bowtie, asked me what new things I learned from them about the Civil War. I didn’t know how to respond. I learned a lot, I said, about how different the world I live in is from the world you live in. I tried to explain about my students. The people I love. How a confederate flag makes them feel unsafe. All I got were responses about how they’re overly dramatic and whiny. I left the bar.

Later that night I got pizza from a Landers pizza place. The 31 year old owner of the business reminded me a lot of my cousin who I love and grew up with, so I joked with him for awhile before I realized he was wearing one of those awful hats that imagine a different America than the one I’ve ever known. I asked if it was a joke. He said no. We talked for an hour about why he was voting for Trump. Again, I listened. I tried to proffer small facts. I was met with blatant refusal and a lot of mansplaining.

On the night of the election, after my friends and I had gone home, back to our acres of desert away from the world, I wandered the landscape that used to make me feel whole and I cried for everything and everyone I love. A police officer came upon me in the middle of the night while I was wandering. He acted as if I was committing a crime. Told me I was intoxicated. Which I was. Because how could I not be. To avoid an altercation, I told him I lived on this property, but I also asked what he was doing here. He’d needed to take a piss. He asked what was wrong, why I was crying. He asked in this disgusted and accusatory tone that made me feel like I needed to lie. I said my mom had just told me someone in our family was sick.

After a few minutes, I revealed that I was upset about the election. He pumped his fist into the air as he said Trump’s name. And that is the moment I gave my entire self to this hard and hateful world in a way I will never do again. I conversed with this man from the bottom of my heart. I listened to him like I did the other men, but I also fought back. I interrogated back. His responses were unfounded nonsense. He repeated again and again the importance of protecting his family. I made myself more vulnerable than I ever have to an enemy. I cried to him. I tried to get him to see me. To see me. To see me again and again I tried and pleaded and I gave him every ounce of energy I had left on a night when I felt the world falling away around me. Alone in that desert in the middle of the night, I was brought to my knees.

So when people tell me now that we the marginalized have failed those who elected this person, I cannot stomach it. And I say that as someone who felt that way, at least a little bit, at least for a moment. As a teacher, this whole election I just kept thinking, how have we failed people so much that they believe this garbage, this nonsense, this hate? But I am done. I have tried to listen. I have been the only one in these conversations who is listening. I have given myself, the thing I hold most dear, my heart and soul, to these people and I have hoped that in some small way they might give me something of themselves in return. But they aren’t here to listen.

And so I am turning inward. My energy from now on is devoted to myself, my loved ones, and my communities. The small bit of energy I have left is going toward buoying the people who haven’t been heard. The people who listen all the time to the hate around them and shrink into themselves because it is too exhausting and unsafe to fight. I have no more love in my heart or patience in my soul to stand witness to these people who have chosen to further alienate me and my loved ones in the name of an imaginary country that has only ever served them, despite their belief otherwise.

I have thought so much these last few days about two courses of action. One of those courses involves empathy and listening and building bridges between us and those who want to see us dead and gone. This is not the course I will take. I will take the course that bolsters the immigrants and queers and BIPOC and women and Muslims and disabled people in my life. This is not a vicious act of exclusion. This is me giving myself and my vulnerability to people more vulnerable than me, and never again giving myself to someone who will never see me, no matter how hard I cry and beg and reason and plead from my knees.

I am not saying this is the only way. I am just explaining why this is my choice. I need to keep the people I love safe. And I can’t do that if I’m always stretching myself across realities and ideological divides in service of trying to understand where hatred is coming from. At least not right now. These next four years are for me and my communities. That’s it. That is all I have.

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