How an elderly Spanish man changed my thinking.
Has anyone ever completely changed how you viewed a certain event? Maybe she had no intention of doing so, or was completely unaware of her impact. That’s exactly what happened to me the Thursday after the election of Trump. To understand how I changed the way that I thought you first need to understand how I was feeling before and right after the election.
I live in Spain. I have been living here as an expat for almost 3 years now. This has given me the opportunity to view the United States and the entire electoral process from an outside perspective. However, at the same time, I was still living in my own liberal, cultural bubble. Based on my experience I have never met anyone while being abroad that was on the far United States’ political right. In fact, I have never met anyone while abroad that held any socially conservative values. Almost everyone has progressive economic views and those that don’t are at a minimum – moderate.
Even though I was well-rooted in my personal convictions, I had no opposition in which to openly discuss ideas. Everyone would more or less feed off of each other’s statements in a political discussion. Everyone likes to have people agree with them. It is both satisfying and gratifying. However, it also leads us to believe that a drastically opposing viewpoint doesn’t exist or isn’t ubiquitous in other areas. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are influenced by our ‘people bubbles’. It is important to understand why these bubbles exist, and also how to make our bubbles overlap more. I think a break from political and also religious discourse would lead to a more integrated experience of opposing views. Although politics are important because the decisions affect everyone, it does not have to be the only thing we discuss. We don’t need to constantly talk about decisions that our elected officials were put in place to make. In fact, outside of a couple months leading up to an election, we don’t need to talk about hypothetical political situations – which is what the majority of political discussions evolve into. This is not to be confused with being informed about current issues. Although this, too, has become increasingly more difficult as the media market segments us into niches through superficial opinions and social media.
The day of the election finally came. I was quite confident that the people of the United States would not vote an individual into office whom had throughout his history said incredibly controversial things, had taken multiple stances on important issues and used conspiracy and unbridled rhetoric to support and feed hate towards gender, ethnicities and beliefs. Imagine my surprise when I woke up to find Trump almost at 270 votes (Spain is 6 hours ahead of EST). I was shocked! As was everyone I knew here – including Spaniards, Americans and other people I knew from various parts of the world. But I think it just goes to show how secluded our bubbles really are. Literally in my case due to my proximity, but also back at home. We have reached a point in which everything we do is associated with choosing a political side – from the music we listen to, the activities we participate in, and even how we dress.
As I discussed the events that unfolded with a friend of mine, we both felt a sentiment of disbelief. We couldn’t unravel the thought. We started thinking of the repercussions of this in personal, social, and global terms. The future looked bleak. When you consider that Trump will possibly choose one or more Supreme Court justices and when you look at his cabinet choices (and vice president), the future still looks pretty bleak. The things that I care about most are those that affect everyone both domestically and internationally – mainly education, healthcare and climate change. All of these important issues (and more) are at stake. We already were not making enough improvements at a fast enough rate in these areas. I can’t imagine how their progress will be thwarted in the coming years.
The Thursday after the election I was walking down a path that takes me to a bridge that leads to a metro stop. I take it to work and back every day. As I was walking down the path back home, I saw an elderly Spanish man walking towards me. He was dressed in a big black coat that went all the way down to his ankles. He also had a black hat with a full brim atop his head. His grey beard and warm face reflected wisdom and experience. I was clumsily fumbling with my headphones and thinking nothing about my surroundings when all of a sudden I heard a voice say, “Buenas tardes.” I looked up and it was the old man greeting me with a warm smile. I responded with an “Hola, buenas” as he followed up with a “Qué tal?”. I couldn’t comprehend what had just happened. People are friendly all the time, but sometimes it is the most unexpected of circumstances that can make your smile beam so bright that all previous troubles are forgotten and through that moment of serendipity you find a new understanding.
My wary thoughts changed to positive insights that I had not fully considered before. One of which was a reflection of our own government’s checks and balances. Obama did accomplish a fair amount in his presidency, but not nearly as much as what he promised during either of his elections. Some of it had to do with a congress that was not in line with his platform, but the other is a more important point – the executive branch does not hold as much power as we like to dramatize. And although the president has influence in policy, he doesn’t have a direct role in the formation of policies. The president is a figurehead for laws passed under his/her presidency, he/she vetoes policies that he/she disagrees with and also serves as a diplomat with foreign leaders. The president certainly knows a lot of information, but his/her ability to act on that information is quite limited – especially when they talk to advisors and military personnel. The president will certainly get credited for things that he or she had no control over because in a way he/she represents everything that happens in the United States – whether good or bad. The world is still here. There have been many bad leaders over the world. We must learn from their discerning examples, and it starts with reading, thinking and contributing to the ongoing conversation.
My last thought is perhaps the most important revelation. I didn’t know that old man. I didn’t know his past actions or his current views on anything. He didn’t know anything about me either except it was pretty obvious that I was a foreigner based on my appearance. He gave me a smile and a greeting when I needed it the most and I will never forget it. We can do the same for others as well. We don’t have to define ourselves by our political convictions or any opinion that we hold. I believe that actions can speak louder than the words we speak. We are all humans before we are anything else, and that includes religious beliefs, career or any self-proclaimed identity. How we treat each other is ultimately how we show others around us who we are – both domestically and abroad. I still strongly disagree with those that support Trump as president, but I can’t help but think what I would have in common with them if we were given a similar understanding of each other. In order to do that we need to be in situations in which we are interacting with each other. We need to get out of our bubbles. It can start with a simple, “Buenas tardes.”