“Be excellent to each other.” –Ted Theodore Logan
As I sit in the Middle East, preparing to be up all night, consuming more coffee than water, my mind drifts to the debate I watched on television last night. For most of my life, I avoided the subject of politics, other than the basic flag-waving you experience growing up a free American. As the offspring of law enforcement officers, despite politics almost never being mentioned, I found myself leaning right, believing that if I made good choices and legitimately tried to help people, good things would come to you. I joined the Marine Corps immediately after graduating high school, believing a predisposition toward action would allow me to be a force for good, and foolishly thinking I knew what the right thing would be in every situation. I could not fathom how incorrect I was.
In the initial years of my enlistment, I served in the Capitol area, an experience many first-term enlistees do not get. As a testosterone-filled young man, I was a red-blooded Republican during this time. But I got to meet people from many different walks of life in the military and gain some perspective. I have a curious mind, and so I would grill people with questions about where they came from and how they grew up.
Two things I picked up on during this time were interesting to me. First, older guys who enlisted later in life were almost never as dug in with their beliefs as the young hotheads. They didn’t see many issues as life or death and they tried to listen to what someone else was saying in a conversation. Few things warranted a blood-boiling argument for them and insults rolled off their back like water, a trait I have struggled to emulate since. The second was something I noticed about the leaders I saw there, military or civilian. The good ones, the ones who all of the young guys knew would help you out and you could talk to about an issue, all approached dilemmas in life and the workplace with the same attitude: the most important things were accomplishing the goal and taking care of the people. Not just THEIR people. ALL of the people. Partisanship had no place when a general was attending a meeting with other NATO leaders or a political leader was meeting to discuss stabilizing a constantly chaotic region. All that mattered was helping people and doing the right thing. These leaders also treated every single person they spoke to AT LEAST as an equal, if not a teacher of some sort. All of the Marines I served with at the time will agree, despite being three times my age, Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps General Paxton made each person he spoke to believe they were the most important person in the moment because THAT IS WHAT HE BELIEVED, giving his undivided attention to the conversation.
I bring up this time because in those years, I started to notice that toxicity existed at both ends of the political spectrum. All of the individuals that displayed it made the same mistakes: they didn’t listen to people who had differences of opinion, believed their lens was the only one worth looking at life through. They rarely made attempts to truly experience something outside of their comfort zone. As I observed this I found myself becoming more and more bipartisan approaching the 2016 election. Despite being what most would consider right leaning, by that time I didn’t care to associate with a particular party. As a Camp David Marine, most of my coworkers were strong Trump supporters. That year, I registered as a Republican to vote for another candidate in the primary. Since then, I have attempted to vote with my conscience on every occasion, not worrying about loyalty to a party. I have never felt ashamed of my vote.
I am not writing this to sway the opinion of any readers or gain votes for any candidate. I am asking a few things of the people that will read these lines though, simple requests I believe will help heal the wounds in our nation and help us find common ground with each other.
We do a really good job of dehumanizing other people in society. Anyone who has shot an “Ivan” target has done it. We unknowingly do it with people who do not think like us. The media has done an excellent job of dehumanizing people on the opposite side of the party line. It’s time to stop. Treat people as just that, people. Every one of them is at the very least a son or daughter. Show each other respect, even if the other person fails to do so in return. Maybe they’re just having a bad day and a few kind words will change that. We’re all just trying to get through life without screwing up too bad and nobody needs one more asshole to deal with. This is also the easiest way to win someone over, although you should still do it genuinely. Everyone wants to emulate people who help them, treat them like humans, and make them feel like they matter. The secret is that they do.
We also need to learn to try to work things out and build bridges instead of burning them down. In an instant gratification society, it’s a common attitude to get rid of something if it breaks, instead of fixing it. That’s a terrible way to handle relationships. Make a couple of actual attempts to work things out before you write someone off and people will surprise you. If you walk a mile in another person’s shoes you may understand where they come from. This one is important. That police officer may have just come from a car accident where a child died when he pulled you over for speeding. That mother adamant about getting her coupon accepted at the store may need that discount to feed her family of five. That young man protesting for police reform may have had a father arrested as a child. You simply do not know what the people around you are going through, so give each other a break.
This next one is specific to veterans. Your service to our country is something I will forever be grateful for. But for the most recent generation, we do not get to rest yet. There is a void left by the political leaders of this country, and America can feel it. So step up, and show the nation how to truly come together. You won’t feel the loss of your tribe as deeply if you turn your community into the tribe and family that you long for.
Show compassion and kindness. This is difficult with our current restrictions, but imagine if you still shook the hands of and hugged those who needed it. What a powerful statement that is at a time like this, when we fear being physically close. It says, “I care more about you than my wellbeing, and am willing to put myself at risk of death to show it.” That’s the kind of statement America was built on. I watched a police officer friend do this for a homeless man who most certainly was sick, without thinking twice about it. Small acts like that can be powerful.
Now let me put this all into context. Imagine if, instead of the debate we saw, we watched these acts play out on the stage. The candidates listening fully to the questions of the moderator and the response of their opponent. Answering the questions asked thoughtfully because they heard what was said. Each candidate giving a compliment to the party of the other, citing something good they had done. Talking about who from the other side they want to work with to attempt to resolve the country’s issues. And at the end, imagine if they had met in the middle and shaken hands.
That seems like a lot to ask for, but it starts with us. With the people. Our leaders are simply a reflection of us. Let’s give them something good to reflect.Frank Gonzales is an avid practitioner of Jiu Jitsu, a mediocre endurance athlete, and a connoisseur of fast food. He has spent most of his life being told he "doesn't look Mexican", but knows exactly where the best street tacos are everywhere he goes. He has been a Marine infantryman, a conservation Corps fire crew member, and a ditch digger in Mexico. In his spare time, he rereads "Gates of Fire" and hikes through the wilderness of southern Arizona.