‘I Will Love in That Difficult Fashion’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This reader note from Ron, a med student in Rhode Island, is incredibly moving and filled with grace:

I hope you are well, Mr. Bodenner. Thank you for running this reader series engaging with Trump voters. I have been alternately heartened and dismayed by others’ contributions, but the insight has been invaluable either way.

As a 20-something, Black-American male born and raised in the USA, recent days have seen me alternating between rage, sadness, and despair—and I suspect there is much more to come. I feel unwanted by a nation that raised me, despised by my home.

But as the paroxysms of rage and tears become less frequent, as the space for introspection and reflection becomes greater, I have had time to interrogate my soul about the man I want to be and the role I seek to play in the work to which I committed myself long before last Tuesday. And in that time, spent communing with the ones I love, I am grateful to God to have found at least the skeleton of a mindset, a plan, a path that I hope will sustain me through coming trials while allowing me to continue to be of the greatest service to the nation I love.

I truly believe we are a great nation that desperately strives to be good. I truly believe that our differences are not something to fear and our disagreements are not something to flee from. And I want to do all in my power to fight for “us” and “them.” As much as I have been disgusted by our president-elect’s rhetoric and behavior, as much as I condemn the conduct and indict the character of a great many of his voters, I would have to deny a large number of my life’s memories to pretend his constituents did not have legitimate grievances. This is not the way I wish we would address them. But when your message is littered with the dirty needles and pain pills that line the bottom of a seemingly bottomless chasm filled with the dreams you had for your descendants, it is somewhat understandable if it does not arrive wrapped in the prettiest package. And now that it has arrived, the worst decision we could make would be to ignore it once again.

As a Black man who seeks to do his part to lift his people, I want to fight against the bigotry and hatred that has our melting pot bubbling over. But as the boy that Lima, Ohio, raised, I have seen, at least in part, the pain and suffering of many of the white working class—the very same that many people would now call my natural enemy.

As the man who spent a summer carting patients around the local hospital and was moved to pursue medicine by witnessing the devastating effects of painful illness on my neighbors who “used their strength of bone and sinew to provide,” I refuse to accept that these people are now my foes. Our differences are real; our histories, our prejudices, and our nation’s successes and failures in addressing the former two prevent them from being anything but real. But a difference is not a defect, and I firmly believe if anyone thinks opposite, they are missing a large piece of the puzzle.

When a white person struggling to overcome debt and disability points at a brown person just barely wriggling out of the chains of oppression and honestly believes they are the source of their struggles, or vice versa, and both those people pin all their hopes on a competition between billionaire families in ivory towers, I think we are all missing something much deeper.

I will not ignore the prejudice and bigotry that my fellow citizens have showed over the course of this election cycle. I will not dismiss it as simple brainwashing or lack of education; again, I know these people. I have broken bread with these people. And I will not do them the disservice of disregarding their God-given mind and soul by pretending they are mere puppets of probability; they know better, and I bet more than one would admit as much in our quieter moments.

But I will also not give into the temptations of simple narratives that ignore the bigotry present among even those who most vocally decried it through this election and even before. I will not pretend that differences in culture or opportunity or vision for one’s future do not have an effect on one’s ability to hew their speech and actions to a standard set by elites hundreds of miles away, who are living a lifestyle completely alien to their own and making the bare minimum effort, if even that, to bridge the gap.

I will love. I will love in that difficult fashion, in that way that recognizes the complexities that make loving each other so rewarding are the same thing that makes it so damn hard.

Many times I have wished, subconsciously or otherwise, that I could reduce the other side to a single dimension, that I might fall more easily into the role of multifaceted protagonist against a sea of racist drones. But as many times as I wish I could do that, I know I never will. Not only is it unfair to my would-be opponents, I would be robbing myself of the greatest gift humanity bestows on me: the ability to love fully, deeply, even under great duress. Microaggressions, racial epithets, even outright discrimination will all hurt me, but they could never steal my humanity. Only I can do that, by closing myself off to humanity’s most potent ability.

To those to whom I have vented, raged, and even howled at over the past week, those words might appear like an outright lie. I have been gripped by anger at a level previously unknown to me since the election. But interrogating that anger and finding its origins is what has led me to this very path.

As a medical student, over the past year, I have had the great privilege of rotating through the plethora of specialties that fall under American healthcare. I have helped deliver babies and reached into open abdomens. I have laughed with healthy children in for a check-up and stared in the unblinking eyes of the recently deceased elderly. Through my patients, I have experienced the breadth of life in a short year, been privy to humanity’s hopes and anxieties, dreams and fears, perseverance leading to success and failure alike. I have experienced humanity in a way very few are allowed and I have been transformed by it. I have seen how we are all so unique and different in so many ways, except for all the ones that really matter.

Before medical school, I often wondered how God could love us. After this year, knowing that God sees all of this simultaneously, in all of us, always, I wonder how anyone, especially and including Him, could not. And the knowledge that I will continue to do so, continue to love unconditionally and work for the betterment of those who may or may not even acknowledge my humanity, hurts me and angers me deeply, even as it guides me to the path I know in my heart is right.

I know what happened last Tuesday was significant. I recognize this election has exposed the fragility of our union in a way that few other moments in American history have. Our divisions are clear and intimidating. But I refuse to accept this is the end of us; I remain resolute in my belief that there is a way forward for the United States of America. I know I may be wrong, but if there is even a chance, a single thread that can secure us to each other, it is worth fighting for. History may prove me a simple-minded, cowardly idiot, but I would rather die proven wrong than live knowing I never pursued even the smallest chance of unity.

I want to listen. If you are reading this message, you are the one for whom it is meant. I want to listen.

If you’re a Trump voter and would like to respond to Ron, please send him a note: hello@theatlantic.com. Update from Catherine: “Dear Ron: I am not a Trump supporter but what you said was magnificent. Keep walking!” Another reader:

Thank you for being loving person. Remember that love will alway triumph.

I too am a physician, a healer, but much older than you. After evaluating the two presidential candidates, I couldn’t vote for either. I wrote in my president. In my humble opinion, Hillary wasn’t the answer. She is a crook. I truly believe she simply said what people wanted to hear. She couldn’t care less about you or me or any minority. She only cares about herself and the Clinton Machine (now defunct, thank God).

I never liked Donald Trump. I always thought he was a narcissist and I still do. He is a egomaniacal, pompous man who from what we witnessed would crush anyone who gets in his way. My hope is that President-elect Trump’s desire to be the best will drive him to be the best president he can be and govern wisely and fairly.

I hear you, Ron, regarding the tensions in our Great Country. They are real. Coming together and uniting is the obvious fix. Doing that is the monumental task.

To rid the divide we must first rid ourselves of ego and pride. You see you cannot love unconditionally when filled with ego and pride because ego and pride leads to anger and hate. We all have to believe that no one person is better than the other and that we are all children of the Almighty God. Even though that is my heart’s desire, I am not sure we can do it on our own. We need the Good Lord’s help.

Ron, from your writing I can tell you are a caring loving man who accepted the privilege and honor of taking care of the sick. I pray you always feel the way you did when you wrote that letter. May God Bless.

Update from Ron:

It really does encourage me in no small measure to read these responses. And as for Anne Marie’s comment [sent privately via email and including the line, “Ron’s note was an inspiration in empathy and courage, beautifully expressed.”], I honestly do not know how to reply to such high praise except to say thank you and I am truly glad she enjoyed the piece. I also enjoyed reading Pat’s response, as well as those of Ernest and Maria.

Replying to Pat, I am glad to see him take ownership of his vote. My parents raised me with a strong sense of personal responsibility, one that I still work to cultivate within myself and look for in those with whom I expect to have significant interactions. So I respect that he recognizes the possible negative implications of his vote and takes full responsibility for them; that is no small thing.

I also want to say I agree wholeheartedly with his exhortations to have more conversations with those who disagree with us. I do not think I am making any sort of new radical statement when I say we need to do a better job of reaching across the aisle, having those difficult conversations, etc. I would just take it further by asking that we all make more of an effort to spend time with those unlike us during times when we aren’t having those difficult conversations. If our first or only interactions with those that disagree with us are when we’re arguing over the issue over which we disagree, we are all doing it wrong.

At the end of the day, I am willing to believe Pat actually believes exactly as he says he does. I am willing to take him at his word that his vote was not motivated by hatred. Personally, I think our disagreements are more due to differences in exposure and education than any intractable, intrinsic character defects on his part or mine. I know on issues like the ones this election has brought to the fore, it can be hard to differentiate the two, but we must if we hope to bequeath anything resembling a united nation to the ones that come after us. I am not advocating either side goes along to get along; I am asking we engage with each other fully and with a compassionate, forgiving nature before we write anyone off.

I agree with Maria when she says it was “too easy” for Pat to make his choice in that voting booth; his perspective, as he admits, is limited. So is mine. And there was a time when it was even more limited, by forces both outside and well within my control. And if I can be said to have improved at all, it is only through the compassion and efforts of so many others that took a chance on me when it was not clear I was a chance worth taking. And I’d be willing to bet this is true for the vast majority of us.

This whole discussion merits a longer response, but in the spirit of listening more than talking, I will stop here in an attempt to be brief.

Chris, if you opt not to update the response, would you mind sending my response to Pat in a private note? Since he made it clear that he had read my response, I would at least like him to know that I read his reply. I appreciate you hosting this conversation; I have found it personally very helpful. Look forward to reading more of this discussion thread.