Our Best Selves

It’s easy to paint the country in broad strokes these days

By Kellyn Brown

The images coming out of Houston over the last week are as jarring as they are hopeful. Intermingled with despair are stories of strangers helping strangers out of their flooded cars and homes; of a united American spirit that hasn’t dissipated, even if it appears that we see less of it.

It’s easy to paint the country in broad strokes these days. It’s divided and dysfunctional or on the right track and becoming great again. The narrative out of the U.S. capital has seeped into local communities, turned conversations into a drumbeat of disagreement and led to, in some places, marches over monuments and confrontations between protestors and white supremacists.

There’s been little to remind us of the standard of humanity most of us share, a commonality far greater than the sniping and the rhetoric. Measured solutions are drowned out by scorekeepers who decide who wins and loses.

The tragedy in Texas, where have dozens died and Hurricane Harvey dropped the most rain in recorded history, highlighted many residents displaying their best selves. Private citizens in boats motored through flooded streets looking for those stranded in rising waters. Private businesses opened their doors to shelter displaced neighbors.

The thing is, their best selves were always there. They had been overlooked. They had received less attention when the national narrative and constant polling indicated that divisions were so deep they could no longer be reconciled.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t have opinions, or to say we should stifle free speech of those with whom we disagree. Nor is it to downplay the significance of the free flow of information that is reported and consumed, which is essential to the checks and balances of our democracy. We must remain vigilant and engaged.

What can happen, however, are stories that connect us, that impact our local communities and directly affect people we call friends, are forgotten. Those smaller instances of finding common ground begin to add up if we take time to count them.

Across the Flathead, just over the last year, many of our community members have rallied together to build new schools, open new dorms, break ground on new trails and shatter attendance records at local fundraisers. Meanwhile, the level engagement on perhaps our largest looming question —How do we continue to grow and respond to the influx of visitors? — has increased.

We have opinions about our open spaces and natural resources, urban renewal efforts, affordable housing options and transportation grids. To some of these disagreements, we have already mapped out solutions. These stories are easy to gloss over.

And on a smaller scale, Montana is engaged in its own battles with nature. Drought conditions have persisted and fires continue to roar across the region, which has depleted the state’s budget and devastated ranchers, especially in eastern Montana. But locals have responded how they always have.

They began organizing hay donations from Northwest Montana to Garfield County on the eastern side of the state, which is estimated to need 34,000 tons of hay to feed 7,700 head of cattle through June 1, 2018.

The devastation broadcast from Houston might make it easier to change the narrative, to one of hope and resoluteness. But our best selves were always there. We just needed to look a little harder to see them.