Recapping An Election Eve Vigil in Downtown Lancaster
Today is November 8th. Which means that today, as you know, Americans will cast ballots for the next president, for senators, representatives, and many other elected officials.
And, let’s be honest. This past year has nearly torn us apart.
But I’m not going to opine about our divisiveness or warn you of an coming apocalypse or cast stones or shake my fist at you. That’s all been done. Right now, let’s talk about something else.
At The Triangle, we do what we do because language matters. Our behaviors and decisions, successes and failures, are dictated by the language we use and the stories we tell about ourselves and about the world. The Triangle’s mission is to foster the growth of literary artists, storytellers, poets, and performers, and try to bring people into community, because, these things matter. This is something you probably already know, but that you also probably take for granted at times. Whether we are consciously thinking about it or not, stories and language and community are busy shaping our everyday experience of reality.
This may sound quaint, but this is true both conceptually and literally.
Consider the psychological concept of self-efficacy. The basic idea is that if you see yourself capable of doing something or being something, you might fail, but you have the potential to succeed. If you only see yourself as not able to do something or be someone, you will almost always fail. You are the stories you tell yourself.
Or, we could consider a fairly recent discovery in neuroscience: mirror neurons. Put very simply, mirror neurons are brain cells that “fire” when we experience some action. The crazy thing about mirror neurons is that the exact same clusters of cells “light up” when we observe or read a story about another person’s experiences too. This means that our brains process data from both direct and indirect experiences in a highly similar way. This is why we have empathy and social learning. The stories we tell about others people matters. (Check out Jonathan Gottschall’s book The Storytelling Animal).
Or, we could consider recent developments in neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain is capable of rewiring its neural pathways throughout life as we experience new things, form new habits, expose ourselves to new ideas, unique language formations, and different stories. Evidence suggests that our physical brain structures—cell connections and the flow of electrical impulses—are alterable, able to adapt and be molded. We literally change the structure of our own brains. (Check out Norman Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself).
The point is, if we tell ourselves we’ve got to “Make America Great Again” over and over, we’re going to start thinking that there’s something wrong with our country, and we’re going get a bad case of Golden Age syndrome. If we tell ourselves that people that are different from ourselves are out to get us over and over, we’re going to start believing it. It’ll become your reality.
This is the depressing truth.
However, you also have a choice—and a responsibility—to tell a different story. A better story. A story that recognizes beauty and truth and goodness as much as it recognizes what we are capable of at our worst.
If we tell ourselves this story: that deep down other people are just like us, that they have similar needs, wants, fears, frustrations, we just might feel less alone, less self-righteous, and less entitled to the things we lucked into. And, if we tell ourselves that we can accomplish more and solve more problems by working together and finding common ground, we just might be able to live in a way that respects everyone’s right to peace, to love, to basic needs, to beauty, and to life itself.
Last night, in downtown Lancaster’s Penn Square I attended an “Election Eve Vigil” sponsored by the Lancaster Interfaith Coalition—a direct attempt at making a statement of unity and peace despite the state our country is in. A deliberate, willful counter narrative.
There were about 100 people standing in a circle with candles in hand. There were children and old folks and middle age folks with ties on. People of color, white people, women wearing hijabs. The point of the occasion was simple: to offer prayers and songs and words of peace for our divided nation, from many different religious traditions, philosophies, and worldviews.
We all stood around on the bricks breathing in the same brisk autumn air, the street lights blurred the view of Central Market across the street, the sound of traffic whooshing by filled the space between electric, amplified words.
Turn by turn, various people approached the mic and read prayers of peace, hope, and unity.
A Presbyterian pastor reads a Hindu prayer that hopes to move the “unreal to the real”— intoning “shanti, shanti, shanti.” A priest reads a Buddhist prayer, wishing that “the powerless find power.” A woman reads a Zoroastrian prayer in Spanish. A rabbi reads a Jainist prayer which declares “no weapon can be superior to nonviolence and love.” A female pastor reads a Jewish prayer that invites us to “beat our swords into ploughshares.” A professor reads a Shinto prayer. Then there’s a Native American prayer, a Muslim prayer, a Baha’i prayer, a Sikh prayer, a Christian prayer.
Something strange and hard to describe happened during these readings. Standing there in a crowd of strangers, listening to prayers for peace and unity, I began to feel connected, enmeshed, rooted, intertwined. I forgot, for a moment, about myself. And I was reminded that this is the point of writing and reading, of poems and stories, of living. To learn again and again how to feel less alone. To learn that we’re all in this together.
You could say that these prayers were just words. You could give in to the cynicism and the same old, ramshackle stories. But, what would that accomplish? Why would you surrender your ability to shape the world with creativity and language?
Last night at the vigil there was a sort of raw animal power in those shared words—words patiently listened to, words declaring peace, shalom, shanti—that seemed to be gently bending the world to their will.
Don’t forget this: you can always work to tell a better story than the one we’ve been given.