He did, Colbert replied. “It’s a gift to exist, and with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that. I don’t want it to have happened. I want it not to have happened, but if you are grateful for your life . . . then you have to be grateful for all of it. You can’t pick and choose what you’re grateful for.”
When my friends and I talk about the three years since President Trump’s election, we most often fixate on all that’s gone wrong, not just in the world, but in us.
We’re all older, naturally. But we’re also angrier. Sadder. More cynical. Jill’s grinding her teeth in her sleep. Barb’s cross-aisle marriage has imploded. Maryann’s holiday meals have become acrimonious family battlefields. We’re all less patient, more stressed. We sleep less. If the studies are right, we’re also having less sex, downing more antidepressants and maintaining a historically unhealthy rate of alcohol consumption.
Nor are there many signs of imminent relief. With the impeachment trial vacillating between fiasco and tragedy, it’s tempting to see our glasses as half empty and draining rapidly.
And yet. When I take a breath and try to look at the situation clearly, I see the things filling my cup, too. Some are mundane: I’ve gotten a crash refresher in the civics I first learned in fifth grade. I now know both the names of my state legislators and congressional representatives and the boundaries of their districts. I know what gerrymandering is. I know how to get a resolution introduced into a city council meeting. I know how to organize a march, what the First Amendment allows while picketing in public spaces, and which questions to ask at a town hall meeting.
More importantly, in an era of distractions, my friends and I have cultivated attention, the currency of love and the most basic form of generosity. We’re spending that attention on things that many of us had been ignoring — things that have always mattered but that, pre-Trump, were too often peripheral to our privileged or overstuffed lives.
Now we’re not turning away when racists in the checkout line attempt to intimidate someone speaking a language other than English. Now we’re raising money and sending lawyers to the border when parents are separated from their children. We’re watching. We’re paying attention. We’re acting.
Pundits lament the tribalization of the American populace. They evoke images of people poised to defend their own by attacking others.
What’s lost in that metaphor is the way this era has also sparked a thousand new friendships. If Trump hadn’t been inflicted on us, I might never have met the people who have been working on domestic violence issues or the overcrowding of our county jail. If it weren’t for Trump, I’d have avoided national controversy and vicious personal attacks when my business refused service to a powerful government official — but I’d also never have met supporters like the Army veteran who served six tours in Afghanistan or the second-generation Korean American restaurateur from Los Angeles — people with rich and dramatic lives I could never have imagined.
Without this moment, my friends — deep in midlife, with set careers and fixed routines — would not have learned what else they’re capable of.
We’ve also gained a clarity of mind. We see the flaws in others more plainly, for sure, but the essential goodness of so many, too. Despite the misinformation enveloping us, we’ve become sharper. We can spot a bad-faith argument at 50 paces. We’re no longer blindsided by rhetoric that deflects and confuses instead of enlightens and engages. We can see the forest and the trees.
While I can’t claim to have his secure faith in a benevolent universe, I will happily borrow a lesson from Colbert. I don’t want Trump to have happened. I want him not to have happened. But if I’m going to be grateful for the good that has been revealed in his wake and the growth that has occurred in my friends and me because of it, I have to be grateful in some small measure to him, too.
So, thank you, Donald Trump. Your regrettable time in office has brought many of us closer together, forged unexpected bonds, revealed hidden strengths, retaught us the basics of democracy, reminded us of values we’d taken for granted, and prompted us to link arms in support of each other and our beloved community.
For those gifts, however unintended, I am grateful.