In college, Sarah and I had the sort of catch-and-release friendship where we could drift apart for weeks at a time before picking up again right where we had left off.
We met at an early dorm room party the first semester of our freshman year. I was 18; she was 17. I was in French 101 and she was in French 201, so sometimes practicum and academic obligations overlapped. She was freshman year roommate to a girl I had a crush on, but it was she who would go on to date one of my freshman year roommates.
As those college years rumbled on, our bond developed in a persistent sibling love that felt rooted in the spiritual and endured in a foundational understanding of the other.
Imagine my surprise when I learned, 3 years after we graduated, that I had never really met the whole of who Sarah was.
All that time, Sarah had been living in what I can only imagine was an endless, almost entirely unexpressed terror over possibly losing everything at any given moment, from her education to her very freedom.
Imagine my guilt when I learned that the friend whom I grew to love like a sister felt safer in her secret than to tell me the truth of who she was.
Imagine my shame when I learned that her reason, in part, was because I was a loud, young ideologue when we met — that my politics comprised the very ideology that threatened to be her undoing.
My good friend was an undocumented immigrant for all the years I had known her.
And I was a Young Republican.
The Search for Identity
Born into adulthood in a post-9/11 world, I came to assume unyielding patriotism as a religion and believed in order and in trust of the State as, seemingly, the surest way to spite those who attacked my national self-identity.
Under privilege of being born an American citizen, and feeling challenged by the outside world for the very stuff that made me American, I gravitated to the incumbent Republican affiliation.
(Part of me wonders just how much of those conservative beliefs were actually my choosing — or if randomly selecting then-candidate George W. Bush’s name out of a hat during 8th grade Government Class, for whom I would academically argue the merits of becoming President, had subconsciously implanted my political sense of identity.)
Whatever the origin, associating politically after September 11th felt like a vital obligation.
For me, the choice of party felt obvious: the right side of the spectrum felt righteous. It felt determined and strong. The right felt right. It felt in control, and unlonely, and sure in an unsure world.
When college arrived a few years later, I was excitedly thrust into that time of choosing my identity “as an adult” for the first time. In that thrilling doorway from high school (and childhood) to a whole New You, it seemed that the quicker you self-identified with clubs, groups, labels and associations the more valuable, interesting, even attractive, you appeared to become in the eyes of your peers.
From hobbies and interests to the hollowest forms of self-identity — convenient ones, stereotypical ones, skin-deep and Us Versus Them ones — the new labels soothed the hollow, unloving spaces that separated you from strangers whom you wished to call friends.
Politics was just one of the identifying markers we teenagers sprang toward.
We also broke down by region, like New Englanders from New Yorkers; Red Sox fans from Yankees fans; those who said “wicked” from those who said “mad.” Every distinction was a fascination. Every association, title and marker built the New You like a LEGO figurine with layer upon layer of hollow, artificial pieces.
Politically-determined and called into a path of leadership, my Young Republican affiliation became the centerpiece of my new identity.
I joined Army ROTC and I hung a broad American flag over my bed, which would eventually neighbor newspaper clippings of George W. Bush’s re-election map by county in 2004. I wanted to be the stringent patriot, strong in speech and adversarial in debate; the de-bunker of both myth and conspiracy hurled recklessly toward my nation, my President, my values, my culture, and, so it seemed, me.
Every affront to my political beliefs was a challenge not only to my opinion, but to my identity — the right of my very existence.
Somehow, it was under these circumstances that Sarah and I met, and befriended.
The Right to Exist
Only a few people ever knew Sarah’s undocumented status. The stakes were high, after all — and the climate of the time was divided. There was an uncertain atmosphere in a post-9/11 world. There was a shameful, rising culture of fear of outsiders who were made out to be threats, freeloaders, criminals, and potential terrorists capable of toppling an entire nation.
Sarah had every right to be afraid, and to protect herself. She had no reason to ever reveal her secret to me.
And yet, when Sarah did tell me her status those years later, she confessed that one reason why she had been reluctant to reveal herself was because I was such a loud, profuse, young ideologue when we met.
How would any Young Republican in that charged atmosphere feel about someone like her, an “illegal immigrant”?
My association to the right of the political spectrum was enough: it did all the talking for me.
Sarah just inferred the rest.
When I learned Sarah’s secret, I felt sequential waves of compassion for her ungodly struggle and respect for the tenacity, bravery and reckless determination that I suddenly understood my friend to have possessed and exhibited throughout all the years I had known her.
Then, other emotions came.
I felt a rush of heartbreak; grief for the friendship that I thought I had known well and contributed so much toward. I felt guilt and ravaging shame for the friend I never was for Sarah when she may have needed me the most. I cringed at the memory of my Old Self and his constrained, self-righteous, stern and unforgiving outlook.
In the newly polished memory-mirror before me, I witnessed how the hollow tent of my self-identity, formulated haphazardly and in an era of political division, was all along a deeper and more honest desire that I held: to be known, to be seen, to be identifiable and recognizable, to have a place amongst others and feel like I belonged there, without defense; without apology.
Ironically, I discovered that what the Old Me had desperately yearned for all along was a place.
And so did Sarah, but she was the only one whose place was challenged.
Her deservingness was in question; her very right to exist, and to better herself, and to give a better life for her future family, those questions were being debating with fierce impact and tangible consequences.
I — born a white, heterosexual, Christian-raised man and citizen of the United States of America — had been toying with a rhetorical, inconsequential game of privilege within which my inner self was doubting his place of belonging in the world.
All the while, it was my friend Sarah who faced repercussions so severe — so alien to my own state of privilege — that I could barely compute the scope of the injustice.
It made me angry.
And it further polished the piecemealed shards of a new version of myself that I had been gathering together ever since those young years of politically-charged, ideological partisanship.
Scooped and reassembled from heartbreaks, identity crises, and soul-nagging questions so great that they forced me from one identity into the next; one career path into the next; and one city into the next; the journey of my personal transformation I began in the middle of college had led me to become who I am today.
But it wasn’t until I began to write this essay that I realized who, ironically, and completely unbeknownst to her, had helped to first inspire my long personal evolution away from ideologue into this version of myself:
It was Sarah.
As my liberal arts education challenged me to think bigger than I thought I knew and shades of grey infiltrated the polarized, black-and-white, oversimplified boundaries and dividing lines that I took solace in highlighting with black Sharpie, in my mid-college career I began a desperate, pain-fueled journey into a new outlook, a new worldview, a new me.
It was a blessing born of a heartbreak, and the hurt was a precious and giving thing.
It shattered who I thought I was, and demanded I re-examine everything I thought I knew — so long as it meant I might somehow make sense of the pain I was feeling, and rectify it with an understanding of life that would empower me just enough to keep venturing onward.
Sarah was the one who introduced me to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now: a book that opened the door to a state of self-observation and identity in a way that I had once hoped that early-college labels, titles and group associations might have provided.
She implored me to read it — and, it was her to whom I would occasionally report my progress, my observations, my reflections in relation to my own heartbreak and the cycles of self-imploding sadness that my ego would want to keep replaying and replaying in my mind’s eye.
Little did Sarah know that she had sparked an inward journey toward soul-identity — the journey that led me to quit my job years later, and commit to my writing as my own form of contribution to the world.
The partisan books I had once gravitated to dissipated with finality, and in their place came the Tao te Ching, instructional guides on bonsai trees, orchids and gardening, and heart-opening tales like Tuesdays with Maurie.
The noticeable shift inspired my mom to gift me one of those New Age meditation CD that they sell at the Barnes and Noble checkout line; I tried meditating.
The feeble foundation of my Catholic upbringing finally cracked under years of doubting pressure. I acquired a plastic Buddha from Pier One Imports, and made a makeshift altar out of a clothes chest in my childhood bedroom, replete with a zen sand garden and candles.
In the desperate search for presence and peace that was born of crisis, the ideological ideas that comprised who I thought myself to be were swept away, and the Soul Code of me had awoken.
A Young Republican was thus transformed by the friendship of an undocumented immigrant.
The Journey to Wholeness
It might be an oversimplification to say that Sarah’s introducing me to The Power of Now during college led me to become who I am today.
It might be a stretch to say that she was the one responsible for my dive into a wormhole of self-inquiry that set off an uncompromising path to know who I was on a deeper level than political party or partisan identity could ever provide.
And yet, it was this friend — cloaked in a secret, and quietly embroiled in a major, divisive political issue — who would, beyond her knowing, help me undo the very ideological underpinnings that, by association, stood to challenge her identity, her place, her rights.
Who I am and what I believe in today are very different than what I grew up to grab at and call “My Own” in the worried colonization of personal identity that was being a teenager in a tumultuous political age with too many options and not enough Self-Knowing to guide him.
Who I am today is someone that my Past Self wouldn’t recognize — or even want to believe — to be me.
Today, I’m a tattooed, yoga-teaching writer-poet who wears crystal beads and tree seeds for their so-called energetic qualities. I’ve pilgrimaged in India, frequented mosques in Istanbul and Sarajevo, studied ancient and pagan traditions, and gone on a guided shamanic journey in a New Age therapist’s feather-decorated office.
Newspaper cutouts of election maps on my wall have given way to handmade art from Bosnia and Herzegovina. My office is decked out with feathers collected on walking trails in New England and the rainforests of Costa Rica. The American flag has become a hand-sewn tapestry that I carried home with me from Rishikesh.
These days, it’s the journey into the True Self that is the heart of what I want to share with people in my modest little corners of the world.
The mission — being your own, finding harmony with your inner Soul Code, living authentically and aligned to your truth — is a personal one: it’s what I’m still journeying for, myself.
And the determination is rooted in the error of my own ways, once well-meaning but rigid and self-righteous, so desperate was I to have a place to call my own, and an identity that felt noble and worthy and indisputable. Without challenge. Without rival.
The journey into wholeness is that journey.
Being your whole and true self is the indisputable identity that no one can challenge if you do not allow them.
To this day, I still challenge my mind’s urge to return to its “Us Versus Them” associations. There would be no easier task than to surrender the years of disciplined growth into more of the True Self in a hollow moment of fatigue, worry, doubt, or finger-wagging.
In the course of this election season in 2016, the urge back into partisan bickering and angry debate has been strong — although, in this particular election cycle, my perspective finds its source from a very different point of view.
The Test of First-Rate Intelligence
In his 1936 essay, The Crack Up, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote,
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Although he wasn’t writing of politics, per se — even as Adolf Hitler had begun to menace in Europe — Fitzgerald’s sentiment feels apropos of the political arena, especially in 2016.
And yet, it would be an oversimplification, and an insulting one, to call any single political outlook or point of view “unintelligent.” If so, our two-party system would be faulted as unintelligent.
After all, the system is what obligates us as voters — and thus, obligates our diverse arrays of ideas, perspectives and opinions — to somehow fit an ugly, imperfect mold of “One” or “The Other.” In this two-party system, the choices before us are haphazardly lumped into diametric opposition: vast shades of grey, split in two and cordoned into either Democrat or Republican; Left or Right; Liberal or Conservative.
By default, our individual votes are thus lodged into one of two poles, and the candidates who represent them.
It’s not unintelligent to be a Democrat or a Republican. It’s not unintelligent to be left-leaning, or right-leaning. It’s not unintelligent to be either liberal, or conservative. It’s not unintelligent to vote for Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump.
And yet — as many political pundits, historians, and observers have collectively asserted — this election is unique.
And it’s because one candidate has asserted himself to be so beyond the pale of what we commonly expect from one of two potential presidents of the United States.
Thus, the already-complicated dialogue that exists around politics and Presidential elections — complexity lumped into black-and-white, polar options — has been made all the more complicated because one candidate representing one half of that voting constituency is not a normal candidate.
One candidate, based on his party association and as one of two electable options, is now presumed to speak for all those who gravitate by their choosing to “his” side of the aisle.
Any one person, representing one party, representing a mash of ideological beliefs, embodies a wide umbrella of perspective and opinion.
But in the case of Donald J. Trump, the umbrella of perspective and opinion he represents does not embody a set of traditional conservative ideals (according to his own party leadership) or feasible policy issues (according to economists and foreign policy experts).
The umbrella of perspective and opinion does, however, represent isolationist nationalism, state-sponsored intimidation, discrimination bordering racism and xenophobia, and misogyny. This is not an exaggeration about the political candidate based upon his party association as a Republican, but simple attribution of his own words, deeds, statements and suggestions.
This is not the view of a punitive few who oppose Mr. Trump based on party association — it is a shared perspective of members of his party, as well as opposition, and worried masses of observers across the globe.
Today, the rise of Donald J. Trump, who history will remember as a black-eye upon a well-meaning but flawed democratic system, reveals two primary driving forces of partisan association, and the political action (or, voting) that follows.
That is to say, Mr. Trump’s ascent into his place as one of two candidates for President of the United States in 2016 reveals the underbelly of what is driving political opinion, conversation, and voters — on both sides of the aisle today.
I believe these motivations will continue to shape the trajectory of the nation, and perhaps the world, for years to come.
Those two driving forces are: the want for identity, and a desire to belong.
Like the story of Sarah and me, people in very different, even opposing experiences of life can find surprising commonality in these two core human desires.
As a Young Republican, I sought identity in political association because I was longing to feel known and like I had a place in this world; my partisan political identity was born of an era in which my national identity, as I knew it, felt attacked and under threat from outsiders. By extension, I felt attacked. I felt displaced. When really, it was only the simple idea — the notion, the fear — of displacement that feverishly motivated my wagon-circling response.
The undercurrent of my political lust was a simple desire to be know myself, to be seen and in some way respected for the totality of who I was. I wanted to belong in the place that I called home; a place where I hoped and intended to create a better life for myself and my future family.
Sarah, in her place as an undocumented immigrant, desired something very similar.
The stakes for her and her family were remarkably different than anything I was experiencing — but it was the concept of what it means to be who you are, and what you deserve (or are entitled to) as a result of that identity, that drives both sides of the aisle today.
Before he became one of two candidates who will ultimately win the American Presidency in 2016, the ascent of a far-right candidate like Trump hinged upon his appeal to far-right voters who were not only fervent and feverishly partisan, but who also felt disenfranchised, overlooked, and cast aside.
The voting populace that Trump spoke to, and who caused to his ascent, felt forgotten and overlooked by the establishment.
Trump told them that the outsiders were stealing from them and going to steal more.
He said that the government plans to rob them of the very things that make them American.
He employed conspiracy theories, myths and lies that instigated further distrust in a clandestine body that was intent on destroying the very American identity that his partisan voters clung to as the core of their human existence.
He implored them that the survival of their identity hinged upon spiting all those outsiders, foreigners, and Thems whose differing identities threatened, if not attacked, their own national self-identity.
I should know.
The old me could have been one of those voters.
The Price of Attention
Trump spoke and speaks to those who live under privilege of being born American citizens and who feel challenged by the outside world for the very stuff that they believe makes them American.
He has birthed a platform by exploiting the fears of those who uphold patriotism as a form of religion; who believe in order and trust of the State as, seemingly, the surest way to spite those who appear to be attacking their national self-identity.
He has always ever been a stone’s throw from alarmism, xenophobic, racist, sexist rhetoric and the flagrant nonchalance of thug.
But the only undertone of language that he ever needed to embrace was that which struck fear into the hearts of those whose identities feel challenged — whose places, and acceptance, and role in a society, seem to be threatened — or are simply changing.
Turn the alarmist volume to 11 on the same political atmosphere — the social issues, the just worries, and the closeted discriminations — under which Sarah and I met and befriended, and 2016 feels a lot more familiar to 2004 than it feels different.
Trump knew how to poise himself as a viable candidate by exploiting free attention, which he could attract by saying the most outlandish, inflammatory and unapologetic things he could come up with.
It just so happens that his fringe speech incited a disenfranchised and highly motivated body — his soon-to-be constituency — to do what they do best. Get loud. Vote. And threaten party moderates into fear, and silence.
The more egregious, offensive and small-minded Trump’s speech, the quicker our drama-driven media sought to share it.
Thriving on ratings and ad-sales of a sensationalist, bewildering celebrity-candidate, Trump reaped a free platform for his views, which slid into the more and more extreme, and the less and less comedic, as attention snowballed into votes.
The archaic Electoral College, which rewards partisans for picking their most partisan candidates, did the rest.
He appealed to those who have lost the most — blue-collared, red-blooded, meat-eating, Bible-belt Americans in industries that have fled because Capitalism 101 dictates that it is more profitable for industry to send their jobs overseas to low-earning workers.
But the evolution of his message came when Trump began to appeal to those who believe they have the most to lose if outsiders, like immigrants, people of color, and welfare recipients “have their way.”
He made cadence of simple-minded repetitions — describing everything as a “disaster” — and began to peg illegal and legal immigrants as thefts. Mexicans, they were criminals and rapists. Muslims, we should ban them from entering the country.
The fear-mongering extended beyond race, creed and religion and — defying conservative values — attacked the likes of free trade, too, blaming open commerce (a long-standing Republican ideal) for the dissolution of America’s industries, or “greatness.”
Altogether, the man systematically exploited the losses of a punitive minority of voters who are a large majority of deciders in primaries.
Then, he fanned the flames of fear of those in established, well-to-do places of authority, privilege and benefit — those Americans who know their identity as unabashedly American, and more-or-less white, and mostly male, and largely Christian.
He appealed to what they know: that the world has been changing; that human rights is on the docket; that equality movements are gaining momentum (and winning); that wars and conflicts have displaced a record number of people who are in need of homes and a second chance at life, all across the globe.
He tapped their sense of unknown, too: that different, possibly greedy, potentially threatening, and likely dark-skinned outsiders are coming for their homes, their money, their privilege, their entitlements, their identity, and their ways of life.
The irony, the tragedy, is how the very human beings whom Trump connects to thieves and threats are themselves desperate for the same sense of identity and belonging that those who oppose them fear they will lose to them.
If it’s true that the shared core desire of these two seemingly-opposing groups of humans are the want for identity, and a desire for belonging, then there are two plausible futures to pursue:
One is the future in which the identity of belonging is to single out, differentiate, finger-wag and push away those who are different — for the sake of preserving the identity that is known, because it is skin-deep and seen; because it oversimplifies and is easy; because it is familiar and seems less threatening.
That path preserves belonging by casting out those who are different, and the philosophy is that we can’t get along, and won’t mesh, and can’t co-exist, because there’s not enough to go around. It is a mentality of lack, fear, resentment, anger and, ultimately, bores hatred.
If that path becomes real, and it works, the world will continue on as it has: in war, in separation, in on-again-off-again agony.
The other option is a future in which identity is cultivated around the core beliefs, values, and commonality that we share, no matter the differences. In fact, honoring our distinguishing features and differences may, like art, like culture, highlight our shared humanity more than ever.
That path creates belonging by cutting through the illusion, the fear, the partisanship, and the hollow forms of self-identifying titles and labels like an 18-year-old freshman desperate to relate to anyone if it means he doesn’t feel alone in a big, uncertain world.
That path forward exists around finding our common ground, and making space for belonging by bringing more chairs to the table.
That path forward is one of inclusion. It’s a future of coexistence. It necessitates that we collectively commit to a sustainable future — to an outlook of plenty — where as many good people as possible can better themselves and their families with self-determination.
If this path becomes real, it opens the door to a new story:
A co-created future wherein maybe we can learn to outgrow the mistakes of our partisan, divided, fear-stricken past, and live instead from abundance and plenty.
What Do You Have to Lose?
Mr. Trump told his early voters what he tells them now: that they have something to lose.
He wants voters to be afraid of what they know — that our world is moving into an era of more-equal equality — and he wants them to be afraid what they don’t know: what their identities will be, look like, feel like, if the predictable essence of their white-ish, Christian-ish, male-ish national identity further erodes.
He wants them to fear losing identity altogether — the very fabric of who they are as human beings.
But the loss they face isn’t their core identity. Their souls. Their truth.
What is at stake is the hollow, vapid, scrounging land-grab of identifying markers that the human brain, in its smallest function, relishes as real because the labels and titles and associations are easier to know, tangible as they are and often visible, than the deeper qualities of soul-stuff that actually make a human being unique, valuable, matter.
This is the essence of identity that I believe we all long for, deep down.
This sense of identity cannot be lost by any means but our own choosing — and what sacrifices that identity is resorting to the smallest versions of ourselves, who fear, who finger-wag, who hide from others because they are different.
Luckily for me, and unbeknownst to her, an undocumented immigrant helped usher me away from my hollow self-identity and into a deeper journey that I am still upon today.
Gratefully, for her, and for all of us, Sarah isn’t still living in fear today.
On April 17, 2015, Sarah completed her 20-year journey to citizenship.
What began when she was 9, ended with an oath — and a small American flag in hand.
Our catch-and-release friendship endures to this day. After years apart, I got to watch Sarah marry her husband Jorge on a hot, humid summer afternoon in Connecticut two years ago. She invited me to celebrate her 30th birthday a few weeks back, but I couldn’t make it. We remain in touch. She knows I wrote this dedication to her.
Sarah, today, continues to strive, fight and excel beyond any ounce of effort that I’ve ever known was possible. She’s earning her PhD in Education at Harvard University today, while researching the psychological impact of immigration policy on Latino families.
From time to time, I still look back and remember who I was when Sarah and I became friends in college: how different I must seem, yet how the core feels so similar to the friend she first met those years ago.
To imagine, for all the years I had known her, I never knew the whole of who Sarah was.
If Mr. Trump is taken at his word, and if he has his way, and if Sarah and I had met not in 2004 but in this 2016, I may never have gotten the chance.
And I know with all my heart that I would have been wretchedly worse for it.