We can be better. If we choose.

A group of young people with their arms around each other.

This piece originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on November 1, 2018.

As I was born to a Jewish mother and Catholic father, it feels poetic that a Catholic priest shared a Jewish man’s life-changing wisdom with me nearly a decade ago. I was in a dark place, trying to make sense of the unimaginable, when I had a conversation that offered me a way out of the bitterness that threatened to claim me.

Paraphrasing Viktor Frankl, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, Father Johnson responded to questions about why my family had faced a heartbreaking loss by explaining that adversity is part of life’s promise, and that while we often can’t control what happens to us, we have a measure of control over our response.

We can be bitter.

Or we can be better.

Father Johnson’s words were simple. Not easy to follow. But worth every effort to try to heed.

Watching the news, following posts on social media, and engaging in or avoiding conversations about current events, I’m mindful of Father Johnson’s words. For there’s a toxic virus in the air.

Angst. Anger. Alarm. The negativity is infiltrating our psyches, impacting how we live and with whom we associate.

With the election days away, pundits are projecting outcomes that strike fear in some and relief in others, while emotions, already raw, are amplified by horrific acts of violence and terror.

I fear the impact more than the outcome.

After the ballots are counted will we be bitter or better — or resolved to find a way to come together rather than grow apart?

For it to be the latter we need to undergo a significant shift in mindset and behavior.

I drive through my new neighborhood and make assumptions about people I’ve yet to meet based on the political signs staked in their yards. Avoid them. Seek them out. It’s become second nature.

Gone are days when we could openly talk about where we are, where we want to be and how best to get there. The safe route is to speak – in whispers – only to those who wear your color – red, blue or purple, perhaps.

It’s become easier to establish and maintain virtual connections with strangers with whom we are politically aligned than to remain connected with friends or loved ones with whom we disagree.

The political ads are so bad I record my favorite shows, so I can fast forward through the negativity. Pitting “us” against “them,” the more memorable ads stress how awful life will be if we vote a certain way. Then at the 11th hour they offer a more uplifting glimpse of the candidate.

I wonder about the masterminds. How do they respond to inquiring minds at dinner time?

Imagine the dialogue.

“What did you do today?”

“I planted seeds in strangers’ minds, insinuating that another person’s dad, someone I’ve never met, is a really bad guy.”

“I wrote an ad you’ll soon see on TV, narrated by a professional in a snarky voice, designed to convince our neighbors that someone who aspires to serve will ruin your life if she’s elected.”

And what about the men and women who say, “I approve this message because…” Are they so eager to join or remain part of the political elite they approve the caustic messages as a justifiable means to a coveted end?

While this level of discourse has become the status quo, it hasn’t always been so and need not remain so.

We can do better.

It’s time to take a collective breath and ask ourselves if this is the world in which we want to live, if this is the future we want to create for our kids and our grandkids.

Perhaps we can restore some civility to what feels like an increasingly rabid arena by taking a few small steps:

Making thoughtful choices about our words, actions, and tone.

Rejecting the toxic messages.

Resisting the impulse to engage in word slinging or shout down elected officials.

Voting with the TV remote – tuning out those who are making noise and tuning into those who are making sense, elevating reason over emotion.

And the neighbors whose political lawn sign makes us cringe? Reach out. Over coffee or a beer we might discover we’re more similar than different; that we hold the same hopes and dreams, concerns and doubts; that while our ideas may differ, our goal might be the same: for the country we love to stay on the path to “better.”