For all the sins we’ve committed together, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.
— Yom Kippur Prayer
As I traveled through Germany, Hungary, and the Czech Republic over the last month — a trip bookended by a German election in which the nationalist and populist right won a troubling margin and the worst mass shooting in modern American history in Las Vegas — I had variations on the same conversation.
I had it with a young couple from the Netherlands in one of the many ruin pubs in Budapest’s 7th District, a sprawling nightlife zone of tiny, art-laden rooms and music-filled courtyards built in the abandoned shell of the city’s former Jewish Ghetto.
I had it in a Prague cafe dedicated to Kafka over a lunch of pumpkin soup and fish and wine with an American filmmaker who was traveling to environmental film festivals with her documentary about diminished bison populations.
I had it with random tourists with random accents who happened to stand beside me bearing matching expressions, the same solemn gravity and awful reflection, as we stared at the artifacts of the Nazi Regime at the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin.
We talked about Donald Trump and how he’s the clown of the world. We talked about how terrifying it is to see Germany, still reverberating with the ghosts of its last century, tiptoe back toward a fear-fueled extremism — alongside the U.S. and the rest of Europe. We talked about Brexit and how no one in the U.K. actually wants to go through with it. We talked about the horrors of mass shootings and how ridiculous it is that the U.S. can’t wrap it’s NRA-beholden head around reasonable gun control. We talked about climate change. We talked about addiction and opioids and the American appetite for legal drugs.
We talked about lots of things but the resounding themes were:
We are living in a vastly surreal, fucked up, and terrifying moment.
Humans are capable of both incredible beauty and unimaginable horror. The horror, it sadly seems, continues to be more virulent.
History, that momentum-hungry, human-hope-be-damned son-of-a-bitch, just keeps on keeping on repeating itself. Faster and harder and fiercer than ever. And we don’t know how to stop it.
It’s the innocence — and recklessness — of those of us lucky enough to live in moments and nations of relative peace and prosperity that we can convince ourselves history is something that happened in the past. Something we read about in books with drawings of men in strange costume wielding swords or brandishing scrolls. Something we, by nature of being alive now, are somehow immune from. We with our power pills and flying metal birds and laser devices and Internet and computer-phones and access to all the world’s knowledge if we simply Google it.
But we’re living smack in the middle of history.
History has always been pretty much the same, everywhere in the world, as long as humans have struggled to comprehend the imperfect, tangled organism of our own beautiful and sordid selves.
And none of our shiny innovations are going to save us from history. In fact, they only hasten its pace, giving us more sophisticated tools and a deeper echo-chamber of interconnectedness by which to play out season after season of the same well-hewn stories.
It’s impossible to walk along the craggy, graffiti-strewn remnants of the Berlin Wall, or to stand in a small, rainy garden in Budapest amidst hundreds of narrow stones marked with the death year 1945 — and then return home to a Vegas dripping with fresh blood and a President harassing football players who engage in public political protest — without recognizing how deeply enmeshed in jarringly recent history we are. And how the United States is currently playing a leading role in what could be one of its most brutal sagas.
As last year’s election roiled toward its bitter close, I envisioned Trump as a huge-and-growing-huger, gluttonous, stink-spewing, vaporous mass — like some warped version of No Face from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. A creature born of all of our communal worst impulses and growing bigger, stronger, darker as it fed on their building clamor.
Our selfishness, our insularity, our apathy and disengagement, our addiction to distraction, our racism/misogyny/classism, our fear and lack of empathy toward those we don’t understand, our conscious ignorance, our celebration of perception and image over substance, our drive toward violence and unfettered aggression, our blindness to those in our midst who are sad, scared, hungry, lonely, different, struggling… the list goes on.
We created Donald Trump. We created Stephen Paddock. We created opioid addiction, racism and police brutality, climate change, economic inequality, a politics of fury and fear… This is ourmonster. The manifestations of the particular and vast id of our strange moment in time.
As long as we keep feeding our monster, our ever-hungry No Name, he’s going to keep swelling, fattening, greedy and remorseless, steamrolling forth with no regard for our why’s, our squabbling over the scraps he leaves in his fetorous wake.
In my Jewish faith, on Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Forgiveness which recently passed, there’s a ritual in which we stand together with our community and ask forgiveness for each of a long litany of human sins, striking our hearts with our fists after each one. We haven’t each committed each sin, of course, but we stand in solidarity, admit that we are all — every one of us — deeply flawed, take our blows together, and promise to do our part to be better in the year to come.
We need to stand together and do this now. We are all Donald Trump. We are all Stephen Paddock. We are all responsible for the moment in which we find ourselves no matter where we live or who we voted for. I am guilty of many of the things listed above and I certainly have not done enough or said enough, expecting naively that things would somehow turn out okay — and I was dead wrong.
Let’s take our lashes together. And then let’s reckon seriously with ourselves and each other about what we’ve each done — or not done — to bring this monster to life and what we’ll do in the coming months and years to actively make this better.
This is our monster. We all breathed him into life. It is our mission, our duty, and our lesson to exorcise him. History has all the time in the world. But we don’t.