I don’t really know what I want to say this holiday season because like so many people, I’m scared going into our longest night. I’m not embarrassed to admit it, because the last few years have been hard. Each year, we think that next year will get easier, but I think perhaps our perception of what easier is may well be forever altered, our lives having fundamentally changed, struggling with any sort of new normal in a landscape in constant flux.
Many of you know that my background is in the arts. The arts are always called upon to respond in times of crisis and social change, shining a light on injustice, driving a revolution for change, or bringing a smile to those who are suffering. I remember after the 9/11 attacks, how we were challenged to navigate this space where people needed to laugh but weren’t certain if they were ever allowed to again experience happiness. During the pandemic, I returned to my roots singing seasonal carols on porches and patios or masked in a lobby to bring a bit of joy during isolation.
Since October 7, we’ve seen antisemitic attacks increase by 400% and islamophobia rise exponentially, and a country already divided crack with seismic magnitude. People are trying to balance the real fear of another holocaust from a terrorist organization bent on their extermination, with the very real human cost of war. I would not dare try and encapsulate the nuance required to discuss the war in the Middle East or the longstanding tradition of scapegoating, which has followed the Jewish people for millennia, in a few hundred words after I have seen so many people fail to meet this moment, doing more harm than good in the attempt.
Instead, I will write about tolerance, hope and grace.
Before we had the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), we had tolerance. It was an uncomfortable term, tolerance, because everyone wants to be accepted, welcomed, loved; no one wants to be tolerated. But let’s look at what tolerance means. Tolerance is the ability or willingness to allow without interference something, particularly the existence of opinions or behavior with which one does not necessarily agree. It’s essentially the bare minimum we as humans can do to co-exist, the great grandparent of DEI policy.
How did we get here? It isn’t about a difference of religious beliefs or government overreach, or even diversity of thought. We believed that we were further along, but there are people who simply don’t want to hear that they must welcome people that they don’t like. Nothing we are experiencing is new; it is the latest incarnation of a long history of autocratic rise and retreat. What is alarming is how close we find ourselves to that threat and the tenuous nature of a democratic republic established on a commitment to its continuation without safeguards to ensure it.
Looking back over the last five years of my term, I have written about this rise in authoritarianism and our role in resisting and stopping extremism many times, yet it bears repeating. Tolerance is not the gold standard but a low bar we seem to struggle to surmount.
So how do we get across and what is on the other side? To answer these questions, we must look to the other two words: hope and grace. Hope, the ability to keep going even when it may feel as though all is lost (some call it faith), is steeped in the belief that we are never without redemption, that our potential remains in our ability to be better tomorrow than we are today, as individuals, as a community, as a nation.
Many years ago, my best friend, who was always wise beyond her years, taught me about the concept of grace; creating space for someone to make mistakes without judgment or punishment, or assumptions about motive, and even forgiveness for those mistakes. It is an immensely powerful gift, one of the most substantial gifts which can be given because no one is entitled to grace. Grace cannot be required, it is not owed, and it is a gift which is deeply underappreciated.
I think of the words of Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” The new year gives us an opportunity to reset the clock, to do better. This holiday season, be intentional about modeling and teaching tolerance. Move with hope in your heart and actions. Look for opportunities to give grace to others and to yourself. Always stand up against hatred and extremism, but never forget that without a path to redemption, there is little incentive to change.
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