Take a Breath: A search for unity on Whidbey Island

Mom always knew. She could see it coming: the brash comment, the angry outburst, the hurtful remark.

“Stop, William. Take a deep breath and think about it.”

We sure could use that advice today. On our national stage we’ve never been more polarized. In my 66 years I don’t recall politics ever — even in our domestic battles over Vietnam and civil rights when I was a child — as tinder dry and volatile as they are today. Like the country we love could burst into flames at any moment.

Whidbey is certainly a micro version at times, in spite of our daily deep breaths of fresh island air. Why?

Maybe it’s social media. We sit behind screens and write whatever we want. We ridicule anyone who disagrees, and we troll for “likes” with snarky comments. All with no consequences.

Or it’s the internet in general. We “do our own research” when we don’t like what we see in the news. In a few clicks, we find an “expert” to back up our opinion. Armed with simple answers in black and white, suddenly we know more after reading one blog than a Ph.D. who put their entire life into a grasp of nuance.

It’s a turmoil that feeds on itself. Uncertainty and fear breed more turmoil. In our fear, we find safety and shelter in the bunkers of our political parties. We rail away in those echo chambers, where we have no obligation to listen or understand anyone on the other side. We fall in line with our bunkermates on every issue, without equivocation, or we face being tossed out to fend for ourselves.

It hasn’t always been this way.

My parents were Seattle Republicans when I was a child in the 1960s. Liberal Republicans and, by the way, devout Christians. Think about that for a minute. Their party stood for small government and low taxes, and against government overreach. Their church stood for love, kindness, and acceptance. Their friends included pro-life Democrats who opposed legal abortion, feminist Republicans who demanded equality, and activists in both parties who either supported the Vietnam war or marched against it.

Imagine loyal Democrats and Republicans in unison, arm in arm, shutting down a freeway together in protest of… well… anything. I’m not making this up.

What made our days livable in spite of the daily churn of those times? We could talk to each other about it. We could talk over our disagreements with civility, find common ground, and even recognize the virtue and the right in the other side’s views, because we believed the fabric and the strength of our nation was more important than our fear of losing an argument. Or an election.

Can we do that today, at least here in our Whidbey Island bubble? Can we, as my late mom advised me so many times, take a deep breath, maybe even count to ten, before we do or say whatever silly hurtful thing comes to mind?

I believe we can. With 15 years on the island, I’m still a relative newbie. But the kindness, the community, the wonderful people here amaze me every day. We can do better than petty squabbles and meanness. We can be good to each other without giving up an inch of our passionate beliefs.

This column aims to find a way. We’ll feature a Whidbey community leader on this page every month. It might be someone who dominates local news, or someone you’ve never heard of. We’ll shine a light on the humanity of people who love our community even if their ideas seem radical. We’ll let them voice their thoughts on how to bring Whidbey Islanders together. We’ll encourage readers to engage on tough political issues with civility.

We’ll challenge these leaders to inspire us, to unify us, without compromising beliefs we hold dear.

Nobody has to give up or give in. We can all keep working for what we think is right, but we make ourselves better when we learn to respect neighbors who disagree with us. It’s hard work. It requires strength and character. It’s well worth it.

Whichever side we think we’re on, we’re all on the same side. Stay tuned.

William Walker lives near Oak Harbor. He is an amateur author of four unpublished novels, hundreds of poems and a stage play. He blogs occasionally at www.playininthedirt.com .