In the wake of the divisive 2020 election, what steps can Americans take toward a more inclusive, cohesive, just, and compassionate society?

That’s the question we put to a circle of researchers, leaders, and Greater Good contributors—and here are their answers. Many of them depend on looking to something larger than yourself: nature, ideals, and communities. Some of them ask us to look inward, and some put the emphasis on looking to other people for meaning and purpose. All of them ask us to become better than we are—to find our higher selves in the midst of conflict and negative emotions. As we wait for a new president to take office, we will each need to find a way forward, toward who we want to become.

Seek out feelings of awe

Dacher Keltner

The climate crisis, racism, and economic inequality are all cultural toxins that undermine our happiness, reduce life expectancy, and hurt our immune systems. In recent years, my lab has looked at awe as an antibody to these toxins. Our empirical work finds that people can experience awe easily, without burning fossil fuels or emptying the bank account, by looking to what I call the eight wonders of life: the moral beauty of others, collective effervescence (such as dancing or singing together), nature, music, visual art, spiritual practice, big ideas, and in encountering life and death.

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These studies find that brief exposures of awe—in thinking of a past experience, for example, or watching a nature video, or an awe walk outdoors—lead people to consume less, emit fewer carbons, and eat less red meat (which is itself a massive source of carbon emissions). Brief exposures to awe lead people to see common ground with others, and to view the most polarizing debates, like police brutality or immigration, in less extreme terms with opportunities for finding common ground.

Sharing a feeling of awe is one potential antidote for the racism and division of our times. Brief experiences of awe can even counter the toxic dimensions of our unequal economic structures, according to the studies to date. It makes those who have be more inclined to give. Awe leads us to feel we have more time in our work, and care more about the purpose of that work than its likelihood of bringing status or material gain. 

So, what should you do today, in the wake of the election? Choose awe: Wander outdoors looking for awe, reflect on people whose courage and kindness give you the chills, listen to music that lifts you up. If you open yourself up to feeling awe, our research suggests you’ll gain strength for facing our collective challenges. And perhaps lead us out of the toxic dimension of these times, to an age of awe.

Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., is the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Power Paradox.

Recognize democracy as a sacred project

Eboo Patel

To help our nation heal in the wake of the 2020 election, I think the most important thing we can do is to recognize that democracy is a sacred project.

I realize that some people might be uncomfortable linking the religious concept of the sacred with our democratic system of government. But over my 20 years as president of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), helping to train emerging leaders in the skills of interfaith dialogue, I’ve seen how religious traditions can have a profound and positive impact on how we show up in civic life. Based on my experience, I believe there are three important ways that seeing democracy as a sacred project can help our nation emerge from this election stronger and more cohesive than we were before.

The first way is that it can help us see every human being as sacred. This is a teaching across every major religious tradition—we cherish life because it is sanctified in a spiritual sense. But the way we recognize the sanctity of human life in a democracy is by registering people’s votes and listening to their voices. In our society, as Cornel West likes to say, what love looks like in public is justice. I think what holiness looks in a democracy is welcoming the contributions of a diverse array of citizens.

Throughout our history, great American leaders have used sacred language to talk about America. Abraham Lincoln spoke about the “better angels of our nature.” He called us “an almost chosen people.” When John Winthrop referred to America as a “city upon a hill,” he meant that in a very narrow sense. But Presidents Kennedy and Obama and even Reagan dramatically expanded that concept to mean we’re a nation that welcomes the voices and contributions of everybody.

The second effect of seeing democracy as a sacred project is that it invites repentance. I think there is going to be some repentance after this election, just as there was repentance after Jim Crow and segregation, when people like George Wallace sought forgiveness from people like John Lewis. And the great John Lewis said, as a Christian, he was called to forgive Wallace. I think what religious traditions give us is processes of repentance and repair, and opportunities to re-enter the community after a breach or transgression.

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The third and final effect of seeing democracy as a sacred project is that it generates processes for redemption and reconciliation. After the court order came down that required the buses in Montgomery to be integrated, Dr. King said he wasn’t focused on anger or revenge. Instead he said, “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.” And so I think that as we move on from the advocacy for particular political sides during an election season, we have to shift to the idea of reconciliation. Danielle Allen talks about the centrality of “wholeness” in a diverse democracy. She prefers that term to “oneness.” Well, we have been divided in terrible ways these past four years, and we are going to need reconciliation to be whole again.

Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core and author, most recently, of Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise

Make a commitment to your community

Maryam Abdullah

In the wake of the 2020 election, one step that parents and children can take toward a more inclusive, cohesive, and compassionate society is to make a sustained commitment to community engagement well beyond November 3.

Recent research by Laura Wray-Lake and Laura S. Abrams, with mostly Black middle and high school students, offers a clue about what that community engagement might look like. According to the young people, community engagement is not just about participating in formal activities. It also involves helping neighbors in your community by shoveling snow and mowing lawns, offering child care, or helping the homeless. It includes serving as mentors to younger kids, and intervening to break up fights or stand up to bullying. Connecting with the community can happen at block parties, field trips, and barbecues.

Kids could get engaged by participating in community and social activities like job trainings, faith group activities, or community forums where they discuss issues with the local government. They can make their voices heard by giving speeches or attending rallies and marches, such as pride parades. Even social media can be a place to voice their views.

The good news from this research is that children who are community-engaged tend to feel empowered. In other words, they have a sense of efficacy that they can make a difference, knowledge about power and injustice, the skills needed to make change, and a belief that they can work together to collectively do good. It’s a virtuous circle: Engaged kids feel empowered, and empowered kids are motivated to be engaged in their community.

Parents play a key role in nurturing their children’s community engagement. Besides being a role model for engagement, they can make space for children to share their voices. In these conversations, parents can offer guidance, care, and love for their children, so that they feel heard and not judged. Here are some questions to ask:

  • What does the term community engagement mean to you? Are there certain actions that you think of when you hear the term? What do these activities have in common?
  • What is the most pressing local issue or problem facing your community? Do you think young people could help fix this problem? How would you go about fixing it?
  • Has there ever been a specific time when you felt like you could make a difference in your community? What factors made you feel like you could make a difference? What makes you feel like you can’t make a difference?

Community engagement happens in a collective context where adults show children that they are genuinely concerned about them, communities offer positive spaces (like youth centers) where children can find peers who share their values and interests, and society welcomes the perspectives and the contributions of the next generation.

Maryam Abdullah, Ph.D., is the parenting program director of the Greater Good Science Center.

Choose to live like a citizen

Kayla DeMonte

Although the country was fixated on the big X of November 3, the work of bringing Americans together and strengthening our democracy is far from over. As we wait just a little bit longer to tally the final votes, where can we set our sights to feel hopeful about what comes next?

At Citizen University, we believe that the strength of our democracy lies not in the hands of any one person— what makes a strong democracy is strong citizens. So in the wake of the 2020 election, and in the weeks and months to come, I offer this simple mantra: Choose to live like a citizen.

What do citizens do? Learn. Listen. Gather. Debate. Join. Serve. Circulate power. Advocate. Vote. Pick a verb, any verb. And then fill in the blank after it with an issue or an idea that moves you. This list is just a start. Encourage. Reflect. Challenge. What else would you add?

This year has cracked open many of the giant challenges we must reckon with as Americans—and in some cases, it has brought them right to our doorsteps. It can feel overwhelming to consider how to tackle all of our problems at once, so it’s no wonder so many of us have at times felt hopeless and cynical about the state of our democracy. But cynicism is a poison. It gives us an out. It gives that voice in our heads a place to root—the voice that starts with “I don’t know how” and turns into “what does it matter?” It makes us feel vindicated—giddy even—in our blame, in our contempt, in our distrust. It hardens our hearts.

The opposite of cynicism? Taking responsibility.

Start with one of the verbs above, and dig in. If we each took intentional time to build up our civic muscles, we could all do a lot by each doing a little. And if you don’t see others around you taking responsibility? Do it anyway. Purposeful participation has power. When you do it out loud—in a way that others can see and that they can join—you are building power. And, best of all, you are helping create a society of responsible citizens who will strengthen our democracy for the days and years to come.

Kayla DeMonte is the managing director of Citizen University.

Ask yourself what it means to be an American

Ashley Quarcoo

In the wake of a contentious election season, we must recommit to being in relationship with one another. To be able to make this commitment, we first must gain a deeper understanding of who we are, and who we want to become. Though an election may give some indication of our national direction, election results alone cannot resolve these questions.

That’s why we should each ask ourselves: What does it mean to be an American today?

From our policies around immigration, to the protests for racial justice, to the politics of mask-wearing, we are grappling with deciding what our common story is and what that means for how we treat each other. It’s time that we face these tough questions directly.

Caroline Hopper

Right now, two distinct, competing versions of American-ness are dominating our current discourse. These competing narratives are manifesting in new ways amid our increasingly polarized context. Consider, for example, how we talk about our national history. One narrative says that we must reckon with our history of violent white supremacy, and another tells a story of a nation that established itself as a model of freedom and liberty. But American identity should not be structured in such binary terms.

There are many parts in our country’s founding and in our country’s past of which we should be proud and celebrate. There are also profound failures which deserve greater acknowledgement and atonement, and from which we should continue to learn. We believe that developing this fuller story can reveal how American identity can and should evolve. We also think it is a critical part of the process to help us figure out who we want to be in a shared future.

Through exploring and articulating a more honest and inclusive story of America, we believe we can help to equip ourselves with the language, the common understandings, and the mutual respect for difference that will enable us to develop a shared narrative of what it means to be an American. 

Caroline Hopper is the managing director at the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program. Ashley Quarcoo is the senior research manager for Who Is Us: A Project on American Identity at the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program.

Lean into curiosity

Scott Keoni Shigeoka

When we lean into curiosity instead of fear, especially in the wake of these elections, we start a process of inquiry that leads to understanding.

When we are truly curious, we stay in relationship with people who are different from us—who we may even deem as the “other”—and start to get a deeper picture of who they are. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with their views, but curiosity does prevent us from assuming we know someone’s story because of how they voted or how they see the world. It allows us to disagree without dehumanizing one another. Curiosity enables us to hold on to our beliefs not with clenched fists but with open hands. That’s the part of bridging people don’t often talk about—it’s not just about finding common ground, it’s also about navigating conflict and building relationships in better ways.

It’s the same advice we often get in romantic relationships: Sometimes, it’s better to affirm the relationship than to assert our righteousness because it takes time for people to change. When we are told we are wrong, we are put on the defensive and are less able to truly hear someone who is trying to guide us towards justice.

Curiosity shouldn’t be weaponized, where we ask people questions only to prove them wrong or trap them in a corner. Curiosity is at the heart of bridging—the ability to connect with people across differences. It’s about a willingness to open up without losing sight of who we are and what we believe, but taking perhaps the greatest risk of all: being transformed by what we hear.

Our ability to heal from this election depends on our capacity to embrace curiosity in all of our relationships and interactions. It’s an intrapersonal process too: to explore our own biases and reckon with the contradictions that exist within our inner worlds. If we choose to understand instead of undermine, my hope is we can build a social fabric that helps us belong even across our differences.

Scott Keoni Shigeoka is the Bridging Differences fellow for the GGSC, and led the development of the Bridging Differences Playbook.

Practice active listening

Crystal Clarke

In the wake of the election, it is undeniably clear that Americans are facing a crisis of connection in which we are increasingly disconnected from ourselves and each other. Evidence of the crisis can be found in the soaring rates of loneliness, depression, suicide, violence, and hate crimes across the United States. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these disconnections and deeply rooted divisions.

How can we reconnect? Here’s one way: actively listen to each other.

Listening actively means replacing judgment with curiosity and asking questions of each other that allow us to reveal our common humanity and see each other outside a set of stereotypes. Ask the guard in your office building about his favorite childhood memory. Ask the Black teenager or the white elderly lady who lives next door to you what she wants most in her life and why.

Niobe Way

By asking such questions and listening to their answers, we open up the possibility of a genuine connection. If we start from a place of curiosity and listen for what we can learn from others about who they are and what matters to them, we disrupt our own stereotypes about them and the cultural ideologies that promote them. Ideologies like patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism are premised on a hierarchy of humanness in which some humans (e.g., male, white, and rich) are considered more human than others (e.g., female, not white, and not rich). Dehumanizing stereotypes are the consequence of such a hierarchy in the name of justifying it (e.g., rich people work hard and poor people are lazy), and get in the way of our capacity for empathy and our ability to connect within and across communities.

By listening actively to each other, we begin to see ourselves in each other and recognize our common humanity. It is only with the recognition that we are all equally human that we will be able to build a more just, inclusive, and compassionate society.

Niobe Way is a professor of developmental psychology at New York University, coeditor of The Crisis of Connection, and founder of the Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity (PACH). Crystal Clarke is director of PACH.

Turn toward healing

john powell

Still waiting. We should take a breath or two; get grounded in body, mind, and spirit; connect or bridge with the various parts of ourselves that might be pulling in different directions. We may need to reground often, however we do it.

After we’ve taken a breath, though, we need to pivot intentionally toward healing our country and our world. We’re a long way from that; healing won’t happen immediately.

Many of our institutions and practices are better aligned for breaking than bridging. At one point, you could not vote in this country unless you were a white, male property owner. Now, some people can’t vote because they don’t have an address. To heal, we need to better understand how structures and practices can make it more difficult to bridge.

So, how do we dismantle a system that works against bridging and human recognition? We need to make it so that, whether we win or lose, we can embrace the country, each other, and the planet. We can be gracious, invite people in, and listen, not just to them but to their situation. We can invite people into a real sustained conversation, so they are seen and not alone.

There have been people thinking about and working on bridging divides for years, and they know we can’t treat it like a one-off. We have to be very deliberate in reaching people that we don’t normally talk to and looking at systems we normally ignore. That’s not a simple thing. But I think we’re going to have to do it and to realize that the bleeding is going to get worse before it gets better.

There is breaking within bridging and bridging within breaking. There will be pain and confusion and despair. We need to practice and build a space to help ourselves and each other for what is likely to be a long journey. We must allow ourselves to bridge even when the conditions are not all aligned. We can stop the bleeding. We must be willing to care and love in public. We must reject a world where some dominate and other people lose. 

We’re so big—320 million people in the U.S. There may have to be multiple approaches. For some people, that might be talking to neighbors or going to a yoga class or planning an inclusive community; but there have to be some containers. I don’t think we can figure this out on our own, nor do we need to. We must be involved. We need bridging leadership, news stories, a future that’s all of ours, and each other, a lot.

john a. powell is the director of the Othering & Belonging Institute and a professor of law and African-American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

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