Actor Josh Radnor On Voting, Fear and Fighting For Progress

“The universe is rigged for progress. It’s on the side of change.”

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I’ve never liked walnuts. I always found them chalky, misshapen, oversized, and just generally annoying. I’d heard they were “brain food.”  Quite good for you, in fact. It didn’t matter. I had no use for them. A mixed nut situation has always been a kind of obstacle course of walnut-avoidance for me, countless chocolate chip cookies ruined at the discovery of walnut interlopers.

But then: One night I’m with friends in Northern California at my friend Matthew and Terces’ farm in Vacaville. The sun had gone down. It was quite cold and we were sitting around a fire waiting to eat. Because this is a working farm and they had some extra hands on deck, they plopped buckets of cracked walnuts down in front of us and charged us with the task of scooping the meat out of the shell and separating the two. 

Grateful for the distraction from the cold, I got to work. And every once in a while — given that I was hungry and dinner wasn’t anytime soon  I would absent-mindedly pop the occasional walnut in my mouth. It was odd how enjoyable I found the whole process. I was in a beautiful place with people I loved out of the range of cell service and its attendant distractions. There was laughter, great conversation, warmth from the fire. And walnuts. After dinner I returned unbidden to my walnut-shelling post. I don’t know how many walnuts I removed from their shells that night but it was a not inconsiderable amount. And then I went on with my life.

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Here’s the weird seemingly trivial outcome from my time on the farm: Ever since that night, I like walnuts. I don’t just tolerate them, I actively enjoy them. An entire life of walnut disdain and then suddenly, after one night of shelling, I was a devotee. What happened?

I think it was simple: I spent some time with them. Felt them in my hands, pulled them apart, savored them. They introduced themselves to me — and I to them — and my resistance disappeared.

This might sound like a banal thought but it’s really not: I don’t fear or run from that which I know. But so many things with which I’m not acquainted fill me with fear. Or at the very least a kind of existential dread. One of the downsides of being a creative person is that I can be very creative about worst-case scenarios, conjuring all sorts of disastrous outcomes in my head, absent basically any evidence. The unknown, in my experience, tends to activate and manipulate the morbid dials of my imagination. Mark Twain articulated this perfectly:

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: The universe is rigged for progress. It’s on the side of change and rewards risk-taking. Even knowing this, I can recognize in myself how resistant I am to change, how ferociously I fight for stasis. Yet most of the blessings in my life, truly, have come from risk, from stepping into the unknown, from saying “yes” to a cosmic update, from refusing to grant fear the last laugh or final victory.

I’m thinking about fear of change a lot these days because it seems to be a major theme of our precarious political moment (I’m referring, of course, to U.S. politics. That said, there seems to be a wave of populism and ethno-nationalism sweeping the globe — i.e. Brazil, to name one example — so whatever I say here is probably sadly relevant in other corners of the globe.)

We’re simply not taught to keep moving, updating, and evolving. Instead, we hunker down with those who most look like us, talk like us, and think like us. Our bone-deep fear of change and otherness is a fact perpetually exploited by unscrupulous politicians who run entire campaigns on who and what there is to fear. Politicians don’t generally make the case for greater introspection, asking that we interrogate our own prejudices, fears, and blind spots (Jimmy Carter did just that in his infamous 1979 Malaise speech and was pilloried for it) They often do the very opposite, fomenting blame and division.

Thankfully it doesn’t always work. Consider the fact that people who live in big, multicultural cities are on the whole almost entirely resistant to xenophobic storylines that demonize refugees and immigrants. Why? Because they live next door to immigrants, they work with immigrants, they ride the subway with immigrants, they marry immigrants. They know that we are a nation of immigrants, that the lifeblood of this nation is immigrants. People who live in largely homogenous communities seem to be much more susceptible to this kind of propaganda.

Again, we don’t fear what we know. We fear what we don’t know.

I wish the ugliness of our political moment didn’t demand so much of our psychic energy, that the whole thing wasn’t so wearying. I would love to be able to positively affect the material world with good intentions and high vibratory energy beamed from my own couch. But faith without works is, as they say, dead. We can’t use The Secret to combat gerrymandering or halt climate change. Positive thoughts won’t counter voter suppression and remedy income inequality. There are real-world actions we must take in the material realm. They can be done with love and care and delicacy. And occasional ferocity, as the situation demands.

(For one of the best examples of what a fierce moral progressivism looks like please acquaint yourself with the work of Rev. William Barber)

I don’t know if we’re undergoing a stress test for our democracy that we will pass or if this is akin to Germany in 1938. One week ago — before eleven Jews were murdered in a synagogue in Pittsburgh by a raving anti-Semite — I might have thought this to be hyperbole. It no longer looks that way. What is clear is that this is an all-hands-on-deck moment. We can’t float above it, hang back, or just simply hope for the best.

The solution to our current ills isn’t higher fences and tighter borders and better security systems. It’s engagement. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, it says only once in the Torah that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. But it says thirty-six times that we should love the stranger. Why? Because it’s easy to love our neighbor. They’re like us. It is much more difficult  —  and commendable — to love and welcome the stranger. Precisely because they are not like us. We are not threatened by those who are different than us, says Sacks. We are enlarged by them.

Each of us — in our own ways — resists the new, is frightened of change, wants to cling to habit, to people and experiences we know and have deemed “safe.” The unknown is terrifying because anything could happen. In the unknown we cede control. It’s the dark wood of the fairy tale. But as any Jung-Bettelheim-Campbell acolyte can tell you, this is where the gold is. Without the danger and discomfort of the dark wood, there is no growth, no transformation, no story.

It’s a death process, certainly, and that’s where a lot of us get tripped up. We’re asked to bid farewell to our old calcified views and stances, and even more horrifying, offer an admission that we might have been wrong about something.

There’s no small amount of comfort in the fact that the universe bends — sometimes more slowly than we’d like — towards unity and justice, fairness and equality, mercy and forgiveness, inclusion, love, and progress. For now, I am aligning myself with these divine virtues and voting with a heavy but open heart on November 6.

If you enjoyed this story from Josh, sign up for his Museletters here.

And read Josh’s other Thrive Global pieces on resisting the urge to play it safe, being upfront about our wounds, his favorite quotes, music and heartbreak, choosing more than one career (he is half of the band Radnor & Lee), fame and the mindset shift that changed his life, spirituality, coping with the pain of loss, and why we need new metrics of success in our work.

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