The other night my husband and I were watching a Ken Burns documentary on the Dust Bowl. He was sitting at the kitchen table with the laptop open before him, giving the baby a bottle. I was supposedly washing dishes, but really wandering over to him every time an intriguing phrase or story caught my ear. Because I’ll tell you what: That thing was shocking.
When I’d thought of the Dust Bowl before, I’d simply thought of families escaping drought and poverty. I had no concept of immense walls of black dust racing across the plains, swallowing everything and everyone in their paths. I knew nothing of the buckets of dust that women would sweep from the insides of their homes, of how the dust enveloped people so completely that they were unable to see their hands in front of their faces, of how they’d grow ill (and many would die) from having their lungs coated with the stuff.
The documentary showed elderly people telling their stories of that horrible time and I thought to myself: These experiences are part of those people’s heritage. These must be the stories passed down to the people living in those places today. And I know nothing of them.
I know nothing of what it’s like to live in the west, on the plains, with farmland stretching for hundreds of miles in every direction. I don’t know how it feels to be held captive by the weather and her whims. I don’t know what it’s like to be a descendant of pioneers, to have stubborn resilience for a heritage.
Neither do I know what it’s like to be a child of immigrants or a great-great-grandchild of slaves. I don’t know what it’s like to be from mountains or shore or desert or city. I don’t know how it is to live in a factory town or a coal town or a fishing village, everyone’s livelihood depending on a tired, waning industry. I am out of my element visiting my husband’s family in the Midwest. I have felt similarly foreign in New England and the Deep South.
All I know – all I really know – is my corner of this land, my way of living.
So when I huff and puff and heave my chest in maddening wonder at Donald Trump’s ascendancy – when I bark an “I don’t understand these people!” – I’m right. I really don’t understand them. I have not lived their experiences. I have not shared their struggles. I have not felt their frustrations.
This is me coming to terms with that.
This is not me saying I think Donald Trump is an acceptable choice for the presidency. I continue to find him shameful in action and in word. I continue to disagree with those who support him. But I’m trying to recognize my own limitations in imagining the millions of individual histories that lead to his rise.
Because the next time I feel like grabbing Joe Trump Supporter by his shoulders and shaking him out of his dangerous delusion, I want to bestow some mercy instead.
There is so much we don’t understand about each other.
And if this election cycle is teaching us anything, maybe that should be it.