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We Are They

Columnists
Mark Nepo

"We are at a basic crossroads between deepening the decency that comes from caring for each other and spreading the contagion of making anyone who is different an enemy."

I was born in Brooklyn, New York, six years after World War II, after the defeat of Hitler and fascism, six years after the Holocaust, in which some of my family perished. As a child, I was frightened by images of the atomic bomb’s obliteration of Hiroshima. In grade school, we practiced hiding under our desks, as if that would keep us from being incinerated. I came of age in the ’60s, part of a hopeful generation who questioned the war in Vietnam. I later saw the Berlin Wall come down, and, in time, witnessed the first African-American president sworn in on the steps of a White House built by slaves. During my lifetime, there has been a slow, steady awakening of community that has upheld America as the land of the free. Through all this, I have grown to understand that, different as we are in what we believe, there is no they. We are they.

And so, I try to stay true to what I know while listening to the opposite views of others. Listening this way, I’ve come to see that the underpinnings of our current divisions as a nation fall below politics, below Democrat or Republican. Today, more and more citizens are losing themselves in a worldview built on fear and hate, where tolerance for difference is tissue-paper thin, and our darker understanding of security is based on striking out against others. 

As I witness the racism, sexism, xenophobia, and unprocessed anger that is being unleashed, I can see that our isolation and self-interest have poked and stirred the darker angels of our nature. Now, we are forced to take our turn in facing the ever-present challenge: to give in to fear or to empower each other to be brave enough to love, brave enough to discover and accept that we are each other. 

For no matter where we come from, no matter how we got here, we all yearn to be seen, heard, and respected. I believe that, under all our fear and brutal trespass, we are innately kind and of the same humanity. Under what divides us, we all long to belong and to be understood. We are they, despite the terrible violence that surfaces between us. And all our gifts are needed to stitch and weave the tapestry of freedom. 

When governed by fear, we look only to confirm what we already know, but when we can acknowledge what is true or broken, we can engage each other, soul to soul. When we can put down our arrogance and admit that we’re on the same journey, then our questions about life create connections. No matter what anyone tells you, we don’t ask questions for answers, but for the relationships they open between us. And when we can admit to all that we don’t know, we begin the weave of community, by keeping what matters visible a little while longer. 

Today, the need to reanimate a true sense of community is more important than ever. Under all our differences, our capacity to behold, hold, and repair what we have in common is part of a lineage that goes back to prehistoric times. We need to recover and extend that lineage of care. 

If we turn away from this call to care for each other, we will sink into the darker aspects of our humanity. And so, like the medieval monks who kept literacy alive during the Dark Ages in Europe, we are being challenged to keep the literacy of the heart alive. 

Now, all our efforts of heart matter now more than ever. We are at a basic crossroads between deepening the decency that comes from caring for each other and spreading the contagion of making anyone who is different an enemy. And, as history has shown through crusades, genocides, and world wars, if we don’t recognize ourselves in each other, we will consume each other. We must remain open and steadfast in the face of fear and violence. 

We must never make a principle of the pains and losses that darken our hearts. And we must keep voicing the truth of human decency, no matter the brutalities that try to quiet us. Without this commitment to truth and to caring for others, we will become heartless and lost. 

Still, we are they. And the timeless choice between love and fear, as individuals and as a nation, is not a choice of policy. It is the choice of decency that keeps us human. In the face of the disturbances stirred up by fear, I implore you to be kind and truthful, to be a lantern in the dark, and to call out prejudice wherever you see it. In addition to whatever ways each of us is called to gather, participate, legislate, or protest, I implore you to never stop watering the seeds of human decency.

I implore you to stay devoted to the proposition that, when filled with love, we can work as angels here on Earth, using our caring hands as wings.


This excerpt is from Mark’s book More Together Than Alone (Atria).


Mark Nepo moved and inspired readers and seekers all over the world with his #1 New York Times bestseller The Book of Awakening. Beloved as a poet, teacher, and storyteller, Mark has been called "one of the finest spiritual guides of our time. His books have been translated into more than twenty languages.

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