When I left for Peru it was summer. A robust and hot August I made the most of by enjoying cool drinks late into the evenings with my closest friends. I had just come back from a backpacking trip. The Supreme Court legalized gay marriage while I was gone and I thought that was pretty great news to come home too. The distant murmurs of political candidates, their demagoguish appeals to middle America, and the steadying drum beats of war were far off. Very few young people I knew were taking this presidential candidacy seriously this early in its game. There were bigger problems to worry about: Trayvon Martin, ISIS, an Oscar season full of white people. The rumblings I ignored as I flew down to Lima, Peru only grew though to the point where I couldn't help but listen.
I've been gone one year. In that year America's suffered through more than 5 high profile mass shootings (not counting the ones we don't get to hear about.) France was attacked not once, but twice. Several black men died at the hands of police officers in questionable circumstances. A presidential candidate, on a nationally televised debate, made lewd comments about the size of his hand and proceeded to bully other gentleman (and not so gentleman) politicians into a candidacy run. Great Britain decided to pull out of the EU on false promises of restricting immigration and maintaining a new national identity. There was a failed coup in Turkey, Syria's still in the middle of a civil war, a Yale swimmer raped a woman and received probation, and the Oscars were still full of too many white people. I know because I watched it. I watched it all happen. I saw painful videos of these events taking place. I felt like my world was being torn apart slowly around me as I watched from a million miles away.
The last straw was Dallas. Last last straw really I should say. My own hometown. Rocked by a shooting motivated by vengeance against a corrupt system. Did you know Dallas police were trained in de-escalation? They were one of the model police forces across the United States when it comes to NOT putting a bullet in an arrested person*. Then three men got together, picked a peaceful protest, and fired at Dallas police officers. I skyped my parents right when the standoff was happening. They were a little wide-eyed like me, but calm since the police now had control over the situation and we're doing their best to prevent anyone else from getting hurt. I remember feeling completely impotent. I wanted to be there, to be home. It's not like I could contribute anything but just being back home amongst my friends and family I could express my rage better, my grief better. I wanted to punch my way through the walls of my Peruvian home. I was numb the next morning. There was little I could say to my Peruvian family or coworker's that they could fully empathize with. That was one of the most powerful times I truly felt alone.
The world feels broken, now more than ever. Part of that is exposure. I started reading a lot of news. The more I read the more I became aware of all that's going on around the world. In fact, everyone's more aware. When the Dallas attack happened I watched a man stream video of the stand off live via Facebook. We're all more aware of violence, fraudulence, corruption, and danger. It's part and parcel of having this connected world. Another part of this is: it's that time of the political cycle. A presidential election always divides the people. Because we are so connected opinions become ubiquitous and everyone trades on cheap political memes. I've seen more than enough stated opinions on social media to drive a wedge between myself and that person. I know not to engage online. It's a forum designed for people to feel affirmed, not challenged. If I can't voice my concern where can I go to? Whom can I speak to?
A British man I met in Arequipa explained the Brexit vote to me. He said, very simply: "the people felt like they were working for their government and it should be the other way around. The outsiders voted to leave just as a screw you to the government. They didn't think they'd actually leave. They thought London would vote enough to keep them in." They didn't feel like they had a voice. They chose to scream in outrage and vote Leave.**
It's scary. What we say and do might not affect the world we live in. A carpenter in New Jersey might vote for anti-gun laws but he might ultimately feel powerless as gun lobbies prevent the legislation from passing by convincing Texas or Arizona to vote against. That carpenter feels helpless. He did his civic duty. What more can he say? If you think that's bad imagine being African American or Latino or Asian American where your words don't matter at all or imagine being a woman where your words are worth 78 cents on the dollar and more if you look good.
Looking at my country from the outside in creates a sense of helplessness. It's the time for it I suppose. But I didn't leave my home and spend a year in Peru just to return home and feel hopeless. If there's anything I've learned in my YAV year it's that good reform takes time. Make no mistake I advocate for reforms all over the place. I want justice for the black communities who have been criminalized and who are being exploited for profit (once again.) I want no more mass shootings. I want the world to be safer and I want to go to movie theaters or night clubs without the fear of being fired upon. I want women to be treated as equals and for the institutions that deny them that privilege to understand what it feels like to be valued at less than your full price. I want stricter environmental protection laws to save our planet. We have no idea the trouble were in for if we don't do something. I want all these things and more because I want the world to be filled with more love. I want less brokenness. But it's going to take time.
Jed said something I don't think I'll ever forget. Advocacy work is daunting. He explained to me that many advocacy workers work "not so much to defeat the darkness but to show the light everyday." You can't think about it in terms of wins or losses. You have to think about it in terms of love. How much of God's love have I shown today? In what ways does God's love manifest itself in these tangled issues? It calms me down and helps me realize one key lesson from my YAV year: you're not always going to effect a powerful change, but your presence has much more value than you can ever know. It means a lot not just to work towards change, but to exist inside these conflicts. Who knows? Simply by interacting with others engaged in this problem (people who may be on opposing sides to you) you can effect a change.
I was scared to go home. I was scared I'd say something I advocate for and lose a friend or upset somebody. I was scared my country might change into a warped, twisted version of itself. I was scared the world is a much more dangerous place. As anyone can tell you: acting on your fear is partially how America got to where it is now. Instead I choose love. Advocate through love and never expect to create a tidal shift. I understand not just the state of the world around me, but also how I can act to change it. I'm a part of something bigger. I can contribute to these causes little by little, a voice of one amongst many.
*im not saying Dallas PD are perfect. My dad gets plenty of cases (as a lawyer) where he might disagree. What I'm saying is that, compared to the rest of the other 49 states, Dallas was exemplary.
** I'm not here to comment on the Brexit vote other than the sentiments behind the Brexit vote are extremely similar to the feelings of middle America today.