We Contain Multitudes

by Marie Gaglione

Things are changing. Always, everywhere, immensely and minutely, the history of mankind unfolds as we rotate around a grand burning star (also, everything everywhere else changes; the history of mankind may be of the least consequence on a cosmic scale, but I digress). I digress too early; I include parentheticals too soon; I stall with flowery descriptions of the sun. Because – ugh – I’m going to talk about “how divided we are as a nation.” It’s such a tired phrase; I don’t want to write about it. It’s stale because it’s static, and anyway, the declaration is often accompanied by divisive rhetoric. Wherever one may fall on the political spectrum (and here I’m being gracious; how often do we now identify with a “side”), they likely have established opinions of those who lie elsewhere. It does seem increasingly difficult to imagine a sweeping reconciliation when we continue to pour our definitions in concrete and defend our positions by reason of consistency. Inflexibility begets inability to listen, and thus to understand, which is why we find our differences so baffling and allow our prejudices to influence our opinions. So, finally, here it is: my own personal take on how we can get people to stop saying how divided we are. Bear with me, because I’m going to try and sell contradictions as potential energy for unity.

Here’s my theory. We all grow up grappling with self-identity, chipping away at our metaphorical slab of marble that is to become our personality. We’re happy to use the language of evolution to describe the youngest members of society: this kid is going through a dinosaur phase, the teens are dying their hair in the rebellious years, students are switching their majors and taking time after school to “figure things out.” But then what? Unless I’ve been sorely misinformed, there isn’t an age we reach or a book we finish that calls for the retirement of our sculpting tools. Why should we cease to redefine? Why does there come an appropriate time to hold steadfast to our opinions, even in spite of new information or clarifying perspectives? When adults change their positions or make inconsistent decisions, how quick are we to label them hypocrites or declare a dismissive mid-life crisis? 

There are two quotes I hold beloved from my American Renaissance class that form the basis for my thoughts. First, from Emerson, in his essay “Self-Reliance” —  “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Hobgoblin is whatever you think it is. Secondly, from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” — “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself / (I am large, I contain multitudes).”

This isn’t a literary analysis essay and anyway, I’ve already written one on these lines. I don’t so much want to analyze them as I want to include them here in the middle of my thoughts, which I hope the reader will forgive if they read more as ramblings. Certainly I don’t feel as though I’m writing the most polished version of what I want to say, but I’m doing my best to put down these ideas that have been rolling around in my mind since I took the class during my last semester at school. 

It’s all too easy to despair over the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric thrown around casually by the people who are supposed to be running the place and informing the youth. The citizens of this country consume completely different narratives of events depending on where they get their news. We love a good confirmation bias, but this us versus them routine is getting old, not to mention dangerous. I may sound like I’m being diplomatic here, or like I’m making a case for tolerating bigotry. I am not. I categorically reject hate speech and intolerance and I’m not fighting for my right to recall that statement. But we must create room to grow. We need to allow ourselves to reconsider, we need to ask ourselves if our perspective is really the one that matters when other, more marginalized voices need to be championed. We need to listen!

I want to provide an example. My grandfather is as Irish-Catholic as they come. He’s 92 years old and he’s seen the political tides turn more than anyone I know (more than anyone in general, probably). He is a loving, forgiving, understanding, wise old man. He has also been known to be something of a single-issue voter when it comes to abortion. I love my grandpa! I think all women should be able to get safe and legal abortions! I hold both of these truths. It’s always been black and white for him: life is a gift from God, life starts at conception, to terminate life is murder and thus a mortal sin. This is what he was taught. (This is also what I was taught – my high school went to the March for Life every year as a field trip. But I, a young progressive woman, am a much more likely candidate for changing my mind.) I include this brief and incomplete background to highlight how remarkable it was when, after the valedictory speech at my college graduation, my mother asked my grandfather how just it can be to make a law that affects only half the population and my grandpa said, “I never thought about it like that.” That sentence touched my heart, as did the fact that my mother posed the question of him in the first place. 

It will be very important, maybe in the upcoming weeks more than ever, to create room for forgiveness. No matter who you’ve supported in the past, no matter what you’ve said about people on “the other side,” no matter how difficult or daunting it is to own up to a change in perspective, or to accept a change from others, we must be willing to permit contradictions and inconsistencies. We’re a nation that needs to heal, and to do that we need dialogue, and to do that we need to listen. Despite everything that’s happened since the 2016 election, I have to believe we are moving forward. Because otherwise, we’ll be talking about our divided nation until there isn’t one. So, for once, I’m going to side with optimism. I’m going to hope that we can allow ourselves some inconsistency, and accept it from others. That we can move through these changing times with humility and forgiveness and respect for each other as the ever-evolving containers of multitudes we have the potential to be.