The Unforeseen Courage of 2020: The Existential Dilemma of Actual Democracy
Teresa Mateus LCSW, E-RYT 200 is the co-founder and co-director of The Mystic Soul Project, the co-creator and Project Director at TRACC (trauma response and crisis care) for Movements, and an Interfaith America Racial Equity Fellow.
Mail persons, state electoral officials, poll workers, grocery store clerks, Uber drivers, infectious disease professionals and everyone in the medical care system.
People risking their lives. People whose lives have been threatened. For doing basic ethical tasks and telling basic truths. In a (theoretically still) democratic country.
If you told any of us in 2019 that icons of courage would be Dr. Anthony Fauci, a newly erected icon. If we said, twelve months ago, that the symbol of the post office and election officials we would have thought we were talking about a novelist plot line.
The courage of 2020 is as clearly contrasted to its profiles in cowardice counterparts. We are at a precipice. We are living an existential question: what would you do if you had to risk everything to do the right thing?
We’ve all played that theoretical game and theoretically we are all the heroes of the story. But now we are living in a morality tale worthy of every fiction writer’s plotline the world round - from Chaucer to Chinua Achebe to Isabel Allende.
The funny thing, which is not so funny, is that not everyone is in actuality what they idealize themselves to be in theory. This is an existential moment, a spiritual moment, a moral moment - and if we stretch the imagination to believe that even though the origins of the democracy we were built on still built their foundations on genocide and slavery and intellectual elitism they did aspire to their contextual understanding of equity (tragically flawed as it was).
When I started my tenure at the department of veterans affairs part of the three day system-wide orientation I went through included an oath of office. Having once been a grunge styled, indie rock, peace movement person I was still struggling through the bizarre congruence of my life up to that point and the choice I had taken on to work within the federal government and with combat veterans. After interning doing the same work I knew it was the right choice - I felt in a way I couldn’t yet verbalize that I would feel my pacifism even more intensely and more humanely by working with those most impacted by war. All that said, I wasn’t your typical oath-giver loyalist to the democratic system.
We raised our hands and said together, following the facilitators lead, “ I promise to honor and defend this country, against all enemies foreign and domestic.”
The time previous to that I had raised my hand in a federal building and declared an oath was as a toddler. It was the day I became an official American citizen, as an immigrant adoptee from Colombia, which I did in the arms of my adoptive British father who gave his oath while holding me, arm raised alongside me on the same day and time.
Both oaths had meaning in that way you feel in your heart but can’t quite intellectualize when they happen - and while I honored both oaths some way through my life - I never felt like an active participant in a democracy I was invested in until this year.
Oaths are important. Actions are profound. The first is ritualistic and, the second, the embodiment of that ritual.
What we have seen this year across this country is the embodiment of the ritual. While at the same time, as if it were a split screen, we also see the paradoxical desecration of the ritual.
For those of us that watched live the moment of June 1, 2020 on CNN we would have seen a literal spilt screen of both the embodiment and desecration of the ritualistic loyalty to the aspirations towards democracy we are living into the case study of throughout this past year. One screen showed a visage of “democracy” touting insurrection and toting a bible upside down to a church as unfamiliar a fit as a sense of conscience. The other screen showed the surprise and fear of a crowd cleared by force - exorcising their rights while being pushed back by force that was not an exhibition of strength as much as one of hate and fear.
Months later, an election official in Pennsylvania talks on 60 minutes about the threats to his life and his family for doing his job, ethically. He isn’t the first, we heard the same over the summer into fall from scientists, doctors, and election officials.
The reason for the death threats? “For counting votes. In a democracy,” he said with equal heartbreak and incredulity in his voice.
Not everyone is equally incredulous however. I would lift up the last decade of work of BLM which has been reminding us repeatedly that this democracy has not been equal and not entirely free. I would lift up the chants and sacred fires of Standing Rock and the global Indigenous gathering of voices and reminders that colonization has never let Indigenous peoples be equal or free. I would lift up the work of folks in organizations like Mijente lifting up the stories of babies in cages at the border reminding us that based on topography and skin tone we are still living into a democracy that isn’t equal and free.
Is it a surprise, then, that the democracy we live into is so fragile? Maybe not. Is it so surprising that so many oath takers, with big pockets, big power to lose, would violate the ritual of oath giving for personal prosperity? Probably not.
What is both equally surprising and if we think for a second more not surprising at all. Those folx who understand the struggles of people, who hold empathy and ethics beyond their job - even when they give so much for much less than those who shrink into cowardice?
You know what makes me believe in any potential aspiration towards true democracy? Those people that make me believe in the oaths I took - to become citizen, to become responsible, so many years ago - they are these unforeseeable heroes of 2020.
Thank you to election officials. To poll workers. To post office workers and union leaders. To doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and hospital maintenance workers. Thank you to Uber and Lyft drivers, to grocery workers, to delivery service workers and to everyone who keeps the country running in a real way.
Thank you to the protesters in the street and voters in the states who showed up and “did” democracy against all odds, against the danger of the virus. Regardless of the messiness of 2020 you all showed up. You made the idea of democracy manifest - and there are no racist precepts that can push that back.
You are the heroes, the courageous many of 2020. You are the people that shocked my chest back into investment in the oaths I once took to this nation - not necessarily what it is, but what I hope it might be.
My work has always leaned towards serving those that serve. It began with combat vets and survivors of military sexual trauma and I find equal honor in serving activists and social movements.
Democracy is vast and paradoxical - and those on the frontlines on all frontiers suffer the most and hold us accountable to do, and do better to make a democracy real. One day, one day I hope we get there.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.