By Tom Ehrich

On the eve of the presidential debates, I attended a church supper and meeting to chart our future course and possible capital expansion. Conversations revealed the difference between courage and cowardice.

One talked about her cancer. One talked about her lesbian daughter’s difficulties in getting launched as an adult. One voiced grave concern for the difficulties refugees face in trying to enter the US. One talked about declining population and rising average age in our valley. One talked about loneliness among seniors. One talked about poverty among children and their dysfunctional home lives. One talked about how she, at age 58, is starting over in her career. One talked about nutritional deficits in the valley touching more lives than ever. One talked about people needing places to find sanctuary in a noisy world.

Not a single one voiced a need to “make America great again.” America is already great, and this valley is proof of it. Not that it is Elysium, but that it contains people doing their best to make life work for themselves and their neighbors.

The issues they face are substantial: inadequate employment, a raging epidemic of heroin addiction, declining school enrollment, the lingering effects of corporate greed in farm labor, inadequate housing for seniors, and a gap between well-to-do weekenders and a struggling year-round population.

Their response? Not to “take arms against a sea of troubles,” not to shout in crazed rage against imagined enemies, not to cry out for a demagogue, not to hope for magical solutions in Washington or in Albany, not to shower blame on political opponents as if they were the only ones who could act and therefore they are to blame for everything that is wrong.

Their response is to act. This is our valley, these are our families and neighbors, and we can do something about it. Not in swaggering survivalist bluster, but in a quiet conviction that faithful people can make a difference. We can’t do everything, but we can do something. Others can act, too. There is no reason why a single child must enter school each day hungry. There is no reason why a single senior should be buried alive in loneliness and lack of purpose.

If our children aren’t learning enough, we can teach them. If local businesses are struggling, we can shop local. If people feel lost, we can go to them, and we can invite them closer. No, we can’t solve every problem or touch every life. But we can act, not just howl at the moon.

The gap between the political class and its allies in the ownership class and the people who actually live, move and have their being in America is staggering. They are looking for ways to amass more power and wealth and to protect owners from accountability. The people are looking for ways to help each other – help that includes counteracting the destruction caused by politicians and owners.

Sure, some religious communities huddle safely inside and glower smugly at the world. Most, however, look for ways to help. Some bigots are thrilled to have rallies where they can shout their hatred. Most people, however, want to make life better – yes, for themselves, but also for others.

I think we underestimate how community-minded Americans tend to be. And how brave. The right-wing wants to paint us as frightened, isolationist and just as self-serving as they are. In fact, most Americans are struggling bravely with the very problems that politicians like Trump want to blame on scapegoats. They struggle, they do their best, they look out for each other, and they remain reasonably optimistic. That is courage. Bellowing bigotry isn’t courage. It’s the face of cowardice.

Courage is dealing with cancer. Courage is being oneself in a challenging world. Courage is giving one’s resources away. Courage is imagining solutions to real-world problems and then pitching in. Courage is preparing food for a hungry child even as your own larder is bare. Courage is preparing for a hard winter by sharing fuel with others. Courage is entering the home of a lonely senior and staying for a while.

Bluster isn’t courage. Calls to violence, insults, lies and going home each night to luxury aren’t courage. They are the face of cowardice.