We Are Not Our Past

As you thumb or scroll through these words I’ve written, we are forming an intimate connection. These thoughts that have long been on my mind poured first into a keyboard are now finding their way to you over multiple platforms and technologies. Yes, we are connected not only by the written word, but so much more. We are bound together by more than just circumstance, opinion, and geography. From the breath in our lungs to the very matter that makes up our flesh, we have much more in common than we could have previously imagined.

Hydrogen, Helium, Oxygen, Carbon. The four most common elements in the known universe. One of these is the very thing we breathe. Combine it with another and you get the water that covers our planet and makes up roughly 65% of our bodies.

Look around you or picture your group of friends and coworkers. Many different colors, shapes, sizes, facial features, etc. With all of that variety, we have nonetheless learned that humans are 99.9% identical on a genetic level. Every bit of difference we see in friend, neighbor and stranger is contained in 0.1%. Think about that. Every discrimination, every claim of superiority, every coded insult or broad stereotype is based on one-tenth of a percent of our genetic makeup. How small, silly, and insignificant is that?

It’s important that we can celebrate our differences, and the little things that make us unique across cultures and generations, personalities and nationalities. The thing to remember is that we are members of a larger community, that our humanity is our most common and precious thread.

We all know this on some level. We learn this morality as children and are aware of our obligations to each other. How then can we just stand by as people continue to debase and violate each other? How can we stand by as entire groups of people are denied the basic human right to live and pursue their own happiness without fear of violence or obstruction? How can we allow hate to seep into our discourse and fester in the soul of our country and our world?

At this moment in history we are in a massive struggle for the soul of our country. So many people are afraid and hurting that they are willing to follow anyone loud enough and bold enough to lead. When people feel like their back is against the wall, and they’ll take any way out, that is the time when demagogues are at the height of their powers. They can convince you to turn against your neighbors, amplify your hate and tune out anything that can’t be summed up in a catchphrase. We know better, but we haven’t always done better. This time we must.

This is a fight that we’ve always been engaged in. America has never been about the past, or the “good old days”. America is an ideal. It’s about tomorrow; fighting today for the future we envision for ourselves. When the founders got together and said that our aim was to create “a more perfect union”, those words transcended time and space and any bigotry of the period. We have fought time and time again to make those words our reality. Whether on the field at Gettysburg, in a chapel in Seneca Falls, on the beach at Normandy, in the halls of the Supreme Court, on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, marching in Selma, or at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Honest people of every stripe, color, and creed put themselves on the line for a better future, and we have a responsibility to not only honor that legacy, but also continue it and push it farther.

If we are to win in this battle for our common humanity, we have to paint a clear picture of what victory truly looks like. There has to be an understanding, a common goal, and we already know what it is. It’s Fitzgerald’s orgastic future, it’s Dr. King’s dream, it’s Roddenberry’s vision of a not-so-distant time…

Everyone has said or heard the phrase “it’s the 21st century” used as a reflex response to backwards ideology, hatred, and open bigotry. Why? Because in our minds we believe we’re living in the future, but the truth is the world hasn’t caught up with our ideals. That is the challenge of this generation. To run faster, to stretch out our arms further, to firmly grasp the future and pull ourselves forward and embrace it.

We don’t have to agree on everything. That’s not the point. What we have now is a rare opportunity in American history. To define ourselves. Not just in vague punchy nouns or empty platitudes, but in bold, clear language. Not just who we are, but who we refuse to be. Stand against hatred, racism, and bigotry. Stand for plurality, inclusion, and love. Treat these not as catchphrases but as mantras from which all action are measured.

Now cannot be the time for passivity; love is kind, but it is also fierce. As we go forward we can’t get lost in the weeds arguing with people about the very basics of human decency. People know right from wrong, and if they want so badly to hurt other people we know exactly where they stand. Standing in the way of progress, equality and humanity is not just a simple difference of opinion, but an affront to everything we’re supposed to stand for. What so many have fought and died for on so many different fronts. 

We have to stand up against these assaults on our humanity. We can embrace and celebrate our remarkable differences but understand that our commonality is so much bigger: the stitching that binds us together. We have to understand that alone one person may falter, but together, together we are stronger and capable of anything.

We have the ability and the momentum to truly carry ourselves into this new century, to commit to it fully, and embrace the future with a fresh set of ideas, a firm grip on our own humanity, and the faith that there is nothing we can’t achieve together. Once we set a foundation in this basic decency we can easily tackle the large problems that affect us universally, and we can do it together without leaving any vulnerable parties behind.

We as a people have explored every corner of the globe, plunged into the depths of the ocean and summited the tallest mountains, we’ve cured innumerable diseases, created breathtaking works of art and have even begun to touch the far reaches of space. Why shouldn’t we be able to do this?



Willis Gordon

Willis Gordon is a musician, stand up comedian, actor, author, essayist, activist, and veteran of the War on Terror. Gordon is committed to quality entertainment and the improvement of our communities through art, action, and inclusion. He organized the “Rock the Block” voter registration concert in 2016, and continues to register voters and fight for civil rights across Stark County. He is the author of The Long Road Home and The Empty Boulevards. His live album, Willis Gordon: Live! is available anywhere you stream music. He wrote the monthly column "The Road Forward: Practical Discussions on Seeking a Better World" for Unlikely Stories Mark V.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Wednesday, January 31, 2018 - 23:16