Yesterday, I donated blood. The Red Cross has been hounding me for my precious Type O blood, and the phlebotomists scanned me, vampire-eyed, hoping I was big enough to make a double red cell donation. I am nowhere near big enough, so they settled me onto the stretcher for my plain old whole blood donation. Lying there, a healthy person being ministered to by kind people in scrubs, immobilized and hooked in to the spiraling tube running out of my arm, I considered that right then, I was indistinguishable from a sick person, from the people who will lie in a bed somewhere and receive my plasma, my platelets, my red cells.
When I was done with the donation, I got a $5 Dunkin’ Donuts gift card and a packet of Oreos. It got me thinking of what the real compensation is. Why I give at all. I looked at the sloshing pillow of my blood bag as it was packed away in a cooler, and thought of all the places it might end up. The system relies on that, on people like me thinking of the people who need the blood. The Red Cross puts out their stories and photos: billiard-ball headed children with leukemia grinning, showing their missing front teeth; police officers hit by cars while helping people on the side of the road. Simple stories with clear morals. But the fact is, my blood cells may end up in the vein of a drunk driver who plowed his truck into a crowd of school kids, or someone who blew up his kitchen cooking meth, or not in anyone’s vein at all, just thrown away, expired or contaminated.
Before the election, I had a feeling which way it would go. I heard enough from my Trump supporting neighbors to think he had a very real shot. I picked up a book called Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild at our library. It’s a sociological exploration of the worldview of conservative folks living down in Louisiana. The parallels are inexact, comparing them with New Hampshire conservatives, but there is a core there that I recognize. Toward the end of the book, Hochschild writes a parable that captures what she calls the “feels like” story of the American conservative. It’s the way they see the world, this country, not based so much on fact or evidence, but just on gut. The story is that we’re all standing in one enormous line waiting to get to the gates of the American dream. The line is slow moving, and the gates are far off, but we’re patient people. Rules-following people. Then, out of nowhere, after we’ve been in line for years, we catch sight of people coming up in our peripheral vision. They’re line cutters, and they slot themselves in, and we get pushed back. They’re black, they’re immigrants, they’re women, they have disabilities, or they’re gay. They’re getting college educations and jobs and buying houses and they didn’t have to wait like we did. It’s not that we hate them or want to hurt them, we just don’t think it’s fair that people who were lazy, or late-comers, or didn’t follow the rules, should get rewarded at our expense.
I hear a version of this around me all the time here in New Hampshire too. “I don’t have any problem with black people/immigrants/gay people/women. But their issues aren’t my concern. I just need a good job and I need to put food on the table. I can’t be worrying about these special interest groups.”
There’s no amount of facts, or evidence, or scientific study that can change people’s gut level feelings about the world. I can’t demonstrate with data that you aren’t standing in a line. That our democracy isn’t a deli counter. But if I can listen to the “feels-like” story of folks who see the world otherwise than I do, and try to understand it, then I also have an obligation to tell the feels-like story I have. Like all such tales, it’s part upbringing, part experience, part creation myth. Here goes.
We’re all traveling. We’ve got places to be. Some of us are headed off on vacation, some to work, some to school, all trying for the American dream. Some of us are riding in Audis, some in Suburbans, some in 1989 Toyota Corollas with two different colored doors, some of us on the bus. Some are on foot; can’t even afford a bike. From far off, we all hear sirens. An ambulance and a fire truck come wailing up from behind. We all move aside. Even though we’re not arsonists, we didn’t set the fire, even though we didn’t hurt anyone, even though we’re late for work, late for another job interview, trying to get to a sick child, all trying to make it somewhere. We move aside because, though we can’t save those people ourselves, we also can’t get in the way of someone who can. We move aside because it’s only for a moment, and for all the shit that’s happening in our lives, someone else’s house is on fire. We’ll be back on the road soon enough. It doesn’t matter who’s getting loaded into that ambulance today, whether it’s a kid who got hit by a car, or an old woman who fell on her walk, or a feckless diabetic who refuses to take his meds or change his diet and is crashing again. We get out of the way, knowing that right now, someone else is in grave need, and any day, it could be our house on fire. Our kid bleeding.
The nations of the sick and the nations of the well are not separated by any great wall, or bleak no-man’s land. The blood donor and the recipient look the same until you get really close up. We rub up against each other all the time, and all our lives, we wend back and forth between the countries. We get sick, we get hurt, we get well, we heal, even if imperfectly. We care for our dying, then we die. Our willingness to make allowances for the sick, or the hurt, or the disabled counts on our knowledge that we may be in just their place soon, it counts on our ability to see that the sick, the hurt, the dying are not foreigners. It relies on our capacity for empathy. It hangs on our definitions of “us” and “them.” It is built on how we define “you people.” It relies on us learning that there is no line we’re in after all. That’s much too orderly. We’re all thronging around in a vast messy crowd. We’re all jostling, arguing, we’re all asking for a hand, offering a hand, offering a fist as circumstances demand. And the folks you thought were edging up on you and cutting the line? They’ve been waiting all along too. Only they were waiting in darkness, and you never saw them. And their houses were on fire.