On November 9, I expected to wake up indifferent to the state of our nation, albeit slightly more inspired to be American. Instead, Pandora’s box was wrenched open.
A joke was elected president of the United States, but it seems we still don’t get the punchline: America needs a moral awakening of the individual.
In the aftermath, thousands of op-eds have been written, millions of Facebook statuses have been updated and every news network has frantically pivoted, all in the interest of casting blame, coping with loss, expressing triumphant validation or calling for unity. Many peered in the mirror of our nation for the first time and were horrified by what they saw. I believe that the only appropriate response is to turn the mirror on ourselves.
Our responses to the election represent a deeper issue that America faces: We externalize our problems instead of reorienting the self. We blame the government or the elite for being distant from reality, and we blame racism, bigotry, classism or other systems of oppression for weighing on the backs of millions. Both of these lines of thought are partially, but not entirely, valid. Visions can be projected onto society in the form of policy, and advice from columns can be shared on Facebook, but lasting change in moral attitudes must come from the individual.
The danger of myopically projecting the causes of our suffering on systems instead of on ourselves is that it renders us morally apathetic. In America, we once valued the power of individualism — the ability to rise up from nothing and be okay. Now, it has become popular to reject the notion of the American dream: We are all stuck in systems of oppression, after all. Yet, we can always focus on making our own lives as fulfilling as they can possibly be. When systems get in the way of life flourishing, we should first consider our own role in that unhappiness.
I wholeheartedly agreed with Hillary Clinton’s slogan, “Stronger Together.” We should value our place as members of the same nation — but this slogan itself obviously wasn’t enough. In fact, it only incited bitter hatred from half of the country because it was politicized to represent a certain ideology. To cure the ills of society, we need real, genuine love for others. Not virtue-signaled love on Facebook. Not chalked-out love upon the ground. Not protested love on the Green. No, we need love that is separate from ideology. Devoid of reaction. Fully aware of the self as distinct but part of a greater community. As long as this nation is free, divisions will always exist, but the spirit of individual pursuit must forever be sustained. In America, we will always be alone, but our strength lies in our ability to be alone, together.
The week following the election, our country endured three tremendous losses. Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell and Gwen Ifill, two great musicians and one of the most inspiring journalists of our time, represented the unfettered strength of the individual. They were magnificent human beings, leading their own lives to the fullest extent while contributing their voices to society. Hard-working, self-conscious individuals — independent of or in spite of any dogma or system — make all the difference in this world. It is these individuals that comprise the self of the nation. It is this spirit that everyone should strive to cultivate in themselves.
In good faith, frustrated societal visions are stripped away and replaced with the moral fortitude of the self. As we move past Thanksgiving, we should continue to think deeply about those who personally affect us. During the break, we expressed gratitude for our family and friends, but we should not forget to be grateful for individuality. As moral agents in a free nation, we hold the greatest control over ourselves. In a time of reckoning, we must wield that control with the highest dignity, respect and decency.
As the old myth goes, when Pandora’s box was finally shut, only hope remained. I recall Shepard Fairey’s iconic image of Obama in 2008: an inspiring black man, portrayed in red, white and blue, and emblazoned with the word “HOPE” below. To think of Donald Trump’s face on the same poster is a depressing but unnecessary thought. The face in that picture should really be ourselves.
Leland Stange is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Correction, Nov. 29: This opinion piece has been updated to correct a typological error.