Change, Perspective

I Am Frightened

By Jackson Howard

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I woke up this morning, painfully hung-over from three too many Irish whiskeys and four hours of sleep, and as I forced my body out of bed, I carefully, methodically and despondently — like when you remove a splinter from your foot and examine it pinched between the tweezers, wondering how something so small could cause such pain — questioned the very nature of my reality.

I wish I had an answer for the questions echoing in our heads but I don’t. I truly don’t. Instead I shuffled through the Brooklyn rain, into a train full of grey faces and puffy eyes and broken pride and climbed the stairs with legs like lead into Manhattan, where some small part of me expected it to be sunny, but of course it was still raining, because it is Wednesday November 9, 2016, and Donald Trump is going to be our 45th president.

I’ve never written anything remotely political for anyone else to read, so hold tight. I don’t know where to begin, but I will try. People smarter than me, like David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker and a personal hero of mine, can sum it up better.

But we should have known.

I think this is what astounds, and pains, me the most: that Americans do, in fact, live in separate realities. That every single person I know believed Hillary would win, that Trump would get what was coming to him. That there is such a separation in this country that I could be this confident my side would prevail. That in other parts of this nation, other worlds to me, supporting Trump was something to advertise, not hide. I don’t think I can confidentially use the term “most people” anymore, because I clearly don’t know whom I’m speaking for.

I always felt as a child that despite differences, no matter what, we were a country, that I was part of something, that I had more in common with someone from Mississippi or Indiana than I did with anyone else anywhere in the world. Maybe this was a result of my privilege. Either way I was wrong.

I feel utterly alone.

The fact that Trump’s supporters, not to mention the man himself, were confident he would win, in the face of what we thought was overwhelming “evidence” says it all. There is no more objective reality, at least in 2016 America. We see what we want to see. I woke up this morning feeling like I was in the matrix. This isn’t a nightmare; this is reality. The false hope and understanding of this country we thought we had was the real dream.

It is utterly humbling, as a college-educated, wealthy, young man — told my entire life that my way, “our” way, was the “right” way — to realize, with the shattering of a different type of glass ceiling, that everything I stand for, everything I was taught to stand for, was not universal.

I’ve never felt so ignorant in my entire life.

These are not wounds that will heal quickly.

I am trying not to plunge into utter despair, to resist finishing the bottle of Jameson resting on my messy living room table, to not give up on the progress and spirit I truly bought into over the last eight years. But something poisonous is seeping through my stomach lining, through the walls of my apartment, through the veins of every American this morning. This poison, whatever monster we’ve finally allowed to break free, is something that needs to be confronted, fleshed out, understood.

As another hero of mine, Krishnamurti, writes, “A disease must be cured, but to treat merely the symptom is of little use. Only when we become aware of the cause of conflict, understand and transcend it, can we experience that which is.”

Because this is deeper than party politics or a fractured nation: this is a fundamental shattering of humanity, of human connection, the triumph of unchecked misogyny, xenophobia, racism, homophobia, nativism, authoritarianism, hatred, ignorance and, most startlingly, the belief that we are all in fact not equal. And it wasn’t just white men without a college degree. It was white people — rich, poor, men, women — protecting their whiteness from the Other. Something is very, very, wrong.

If this, in fact, is our reality, not a nightmare, then I can say nothing except that I am frightened.

I am frightened at the fact that the Presidency, House and Senate are controlled by Republicans, the same Republicans who disrupted and stalled due governance to the detriment of our entire nation for the past eight years because of their unbridled and unprecedented hatred for our President.

I am frightened that our new President has absolutely zero political experience.

I am frightened by how divisively and backwards most of our country apparently thinks.

I am frightened at the thought of our Supreme Court falling into conservative hands for the next generation, effectively shaping our future as homage to a despicable past.

I am frightened about our environment. Four years of GOP rule and climate deniers will effectively set our planet back more than we can even understand at this moment.

I am frightened for Planned Parenthood. For the Iran deal. For public universities.

I am frightened for our economy, for our foreign relations, for the stability of the planet, for our infrastructure, for our values, for our culture, for our freedom.

I am frightened for the world, for the wave of xenophobic populism sweeping across the globe, for the fact that we weren’t exempt.

But most of all I am frightened for the safety of the people I love — women, people of color, LGBTQ+, the disabled, Muslims, Jews and any other marginalized group effectively threatened by the coronation of this demagogue.

I’m frightened for Wonza Johnson, my college roommate and ultimate partner-in-crime; a black, gay man who has defied unspeakable obstacles and succeeded in the face of a predominately white, straight university — and world — that gave him room to fail, not rise. He’s the most hilarious — and talented — person I know and will one day be a star on Broadway.

I’m frightened for Rio Viera-Newton, my Not Mad partner and spiritual other-half, a Brazilian-British woman who wears her femininity like battle gear and clips subpar men like split-ends, who is my refuge from insecurity, who validates my existence, who gives my life meaning.

I’m frightened for Hayden Howard, my brother, a Jewish, gay, college freshman who does better makeup than any woman I know and whose elegance, sexiness and style turns heads on the street, who watches telanovelas and embraces androgyny like Bowie, who manages to get acrylic nails and write papers in the same day, who spends nights at home with me eating ice cream and watching 30 Rock. He wears heels sometimes and I’m so scared someone is going to hurt him.

I’m frightened for Amina Fishburn, my lifelong friend, an American-Indian woman who was raised Muslim but always hesitates to bring it up in public, who shrugs it off when people ask why she doesn’t eat pork, who loves decorating for holidays and staging interventions for me when I get out of line, who suffered through every low of college by my side. She will most likely be the first one drunk at my wedding, if I ever get married.

I’m frightened for Fidel Lopez, my boarding school classmate and close friend, a first-generation Mexican-American who giggles like an 8th grade girl and loves disco music and the Lakers, who stayed up all night in those volatile high school years discussing what we thought to be the meaning of our lives, who I listen to chicano rap with, who I met, on the first day of school, crying in his room with lipstick on his cheek after his mother left. We road-tripped together, just us, last year to the old school and had the time of our lives.

These are not ancillary characters to me. These are people who make up the foundation of my being. Who define my life. And these are not my “token” friends. This list goes on, and on, and on.

I can’t forget this, too.

I’m frightened for myself.

I’ve known I was queer since middle school; I don’t need or want to regale you with my journey along those lines, but it has been nothing short of excruciating, isolating, maddening and bewildering. A few times I almost gave up.

My sexuality has never been a secret, or at least in college it hasn’t. Most people in my life know I date men and women. It doesn’t define me, by any means, nor do I take anything about it as inherent to my being. I never had a “coming out” moment, whether on Facebook or to my parents; never went to Pride; never posted publicly about it; never took the label and slapped it on my chest; never even felt part of a group. My queerness is the one thing in my life I’ve gotten through more or less on my own. I’ve been treated like shit by one too many in-the-closet guys to ever be ashamed of it again, but I’ve never felt the need to proclaim it to the world. I simply am.

But last night changed things.

For the first time in my life, in the face of daunting threat, I need to own this — not for myself, but for the millions of others, like Wonza, like Rio, like Hayden, like Amina, like Fidel, who are suddenly the “other.” I, too, am the “other.” I feel the back against my wall. I feel the threat closing in.

I have no clue what to do. I’m unable to do work today. Men and women have been sobbing quietly at their desks in my office all morning. Every time I take a moment to let this reality settle in, the hole in my chest grows deeper. I am a self-professed optimist but have never felt this challenged to be happy or hopeful. I am drained. I am scared. I truly don’t know how any of our daily lives will resume. I don’t know how we’re going to close this gap. I don’t know how we can make everybody happy. I don’t know how we got so broken.

For the first time in my life, I’m wondering whether or not our republic will survive.

I don’t know how I’m going to focus on anything else for the next four years and beyond.

It’s hard not to feel like everything is ruined.

This moment, this “American Tragedy” as Remnick calls it, is a lot of things — depressing, demoralizing, revolting — but the one thing it is not is defeat. Instead, it has unequivocally ensured that the resolution of this situation, or division, or disaster, or apocalypse, will be our generation’s flag to fly. Our unavoidable destiny. Our moment to step up. Our cause. It is wholly on us to fix this mess.

I cannot admit defeat. I cannot say that our country — with its gaping holes and appalling flaws — is still not the only place I want to be and the place I still believe in. We cannot jump ship.

“Now what shall we, as human beings, living in this world, with our families, our children, what is our action, what is our responsibility?” Krishnamurti asks. “Just to turn our back on it? Retreat into some monastery? Into some ideological conclusions? Inventing new ideologies? None of these have solved our human problem, confronting this frightening state, this dangerous world in which we are living.”

He is absolutely right. Change starts now. As a white man, I humbly call for change with utter respect for and solidarity with the aforementioned, systemically marginalized groups whose mostly undocumented, unspeakably difficult fight has been in progress since this country’s inception, not to mention the scores of my peers regardless of background who have been engaged long before this chaos. I regret that it took something as catastrophic as Trump’s election to confirm to everyone else how broken our world is.

There’s only one thing to do, which is to fight back. I don’t know how that will happen. But I know it starts now. There are too many levelheaded, passionate, courageous people in this country to let it fully rupture. Though my understanding of an objective reality has been unmistakably shattered, and my faith in this country rocked like never before, this cannot and will not be the end.

I urge you to not slide into complacency, to not get conditioned into thinking this is normal, or acceptable, under any circumstances. Starting to talk and act like everything will be fine, pretending like life will not change is an insult to everyone who is impacted by Trump’s ascension, a gross exercise in privilege and a stark denial of reality. Once we get complacent with him, there is no turning back.

“We can endlessly analyze whether we are separate from all other human beings, consciously, in our consciousness,” Krishnamurti states. “But deep inward states, we are like the rest of mankind, so you are mankind. You are the rest of humanity.”

You are the rest of humanity. I do believe that. Internalize it, please. I know I belong, that we all do. I want to sew threads of connection between us all, pulling whatever last strands I can from the cracks this election broke open. But right now, the threads are slipping through my fingers. Right now, I feel like a stranger in my own home.