Last year at this time I was in Thailand. I celebrated the New Year with people I had met there when we were all teenagers, exchange students from many different countries who spent a year immersed in a culture that, for most of us, was radically different from our own. We orchestrated a reunion for ourselves, I hope the first of many.
I was nervous about going. I couldn’t really afford the trip, and I would be staying only a few days, and it had been many, many years since I had seen these people, but it felt like an important thing to do, so I went. I was very glad I did, and I am even more glad now.
The trip was brief and marred by jet lag, but it was filled with such warmth, and ease of communication, and real joy, that it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. I am not sure if I was just lucky enough to meet an amazing group of people all those years ago, or if our shared experience bonded us in some unbreakable way, or if it was something else entirely.
I do know one thing. The greatest lesson I learned as a high school exchange student in Thailand is that all cultures, all civilizations, have been created by human beings, and they can therefore be changed by human beings. “That’s just the way it is” is a ridiculous statement. Things are the way they are because we, the people, keep them that way. They change because we change them.
Maybe the reason that reunion with my fellow exchange students was so filled with positive feelings is that we are all people who know viscerally, experientially, that anything is possible. We learned to understand words, customs, and people that seemed incomprehensible, and that made our faith in the unexpected, and our capacity for hope, nearly indestructible.
The events of this year have sent many people veering toward despair, and I understand that, but I haven’t quite gotten there myself, because I know, deep in my core, that nothing has to be the way it is, and that we, as human beings, have to power to make things better. If we work together, and we are smart about it, and we don’t give up, 2017 may be a better year than any of us can imagine.
Don’t think I am saying things aren’t that bad. Electing this despicable con man was one of the worst things my beloved country has ever done, and the potential, even the likelihood, of disaster is enormous. I am just saying that IF we keep our priorities in order, and IF we channel all that near despair into inspired action, then we, the people who believe there is room for all of us if we just manage ourselves and our resources well, can outmaneuver the people who believe everything is a competition and privilege is necessary for survival. After all, there are more of us than there are of them, and we are a lot less afraid.