I used to tell my students: tackle the things you're afraid to write about—so here goes. Earlier this week, following the stabbing attack at my alma mater, Ohio State, our president-elect Trump tweeted:
This tragedy felt close to home at so many levels. Ohio State is my alma mater. That street where it happened is close to where I used to catch the bus. Interesting how we want people to feel safe in places we know. In fact, my brother-in-law was on campus that morning, so my wife and I were texting him while we listened to the news in the car in Boston.
As soon as I saw a picture of the attacker, I knew immediately he was probably Somalian, which meant he was probably a resettled refugee. I could imagine the waves of emotion sweeping through Somali and other Muslim communities. What a perfect storm of pain. Senseless violence, evil in the name of faith, suicide, terrorism, fear of repercussions and ruptures, traumatic memories (there had been a similar stabbing in St. Cloud, Minnesota), along with loss of a beautiful kid who had recently been dancing at his graduation. Somali communities are vulnerable. They’ve been more likely than most refugees to out migrate from where they were first resettled, leaving services behind to gather in several urban centers like Columbus, where they are more self-sufficient and interdependent. The result is higher integration barriers and targeting both by extremest recruiters and by anti-Muslim hate groups.
But to say they shouldn’t be here--doesn't that just amplify fear and division? Considering the need, the number resettled here is tiny. And resettlement of traumatized people is part of our country’s wise investment in world peace. And if not here, then only place they can possibly belong is in refugee camps: like Dadaab in Kenya—an open wound that use to hold a half million people crammed together with little safety, no work, and not even a predictable future (the Kenyan government has pledged to close the camp in 2017 so it is shrinking). Or worse, back in Somalia where so many fled precisely because their children were being conscripted as child soldiers. None of us need more fear and isolation. We do need a way to negotiate feeling safe and handling difference.
I promised 3 metaphors. Family is one. Part of what’s so fascinating about being a dad is seeing how differently 3 girls can turn out. One likes field hockey, another calculus... or bluegrass, or knitting, or baking, or vegetables with no meat. While it’s great fun when everyone ends up liking Harry Potter or U2 (or Nancy Drew), it seems like so much of the energy and love come from differences. More difference is more opportunity for love. So maybe a family is supposed to be a place to appreciate difference--not just in each other but in ourselves--and become a safe training ground to experience it. I'm kind of grasping for my point here--sorry--but I wonder if a lot of fear of difference gets empowered because we aren't delighting in the differences and contradictions within ourselves and those we know best in the places we already feel safe. Like families.
Or a garden: every year I watch my wife and sister moving plants around to balance and contrast color and texture and height and shading. I give them a hard time, but then I begin to see how the differences and contrasts inside a garden’s boundaries—that fact that it’s not all just white daisies— make every day in it so interesting and new. So maybe communities are the same way—they should be safe, but also made rich and vibrant by contrasts and new ways of seeing, new values, new priorities, new food, new clothes, new thoughts. And immigrants.
I once read some data suggesting that a positive experience of difference—perhaps the Peace Corps, or year abroad, or growing up in a racially diverse neighborhood or church—makes a person much more likely to want to live and work in a diverse environment. Anywhere else might feel narrow and constricting. Conversely, someone without that positive experience might feel loss when there’s difference or change. This may not explain everything about red and blue states, city and suburbs, or what we voted for when we voted or didn’t vote for Trump, but it may help explain some of the polarized reactions to immigrants. When one person’s fear becomes another’s joy, then there are bound to be rifts. One reason I would feel safe in a Somali neighborhood is just because I've been in Somali, and Ethiopian, and Syrian, and Congolese, and Burmese, and Nepalese homes. I know I'm lucky. But the opportunities are there.
My faith background uses a metaphor to suggest that every person in our community is part of a single body. Meaning we don’t just need toleration and respect but to realize our interdependence. My foot might not think that much about my liver, but how far could it run without it. Or what might happen if one part succeeded in a vain goal to become the only thing that mattered? A body that has become a single eye is no longer a body but a monster.
So with these metaphors in mind, I've been working on three alternate tweets that attempt to hold on to our safety while negotiating difference.
Tweeting is not really my genre. I'm interested in what you think. What makes you feel safe? What helps you enjoy differences? What would you hope a president elect would tweet?