When we hear the phrase, “we’re better than that,” often it is being used to shame someone else into acting the way we think they should. 

Sometimes there is a good reason for that comment, but the focus here is different. The people of this community truly are better than that. 

Better than what? We’re better than the people we are so often told we are. We’re told that we hate each other, that we can’t possibly get along. Folks who live on Lake Sinclair are not supposed to like or respect those who live in Milledgeville Housing Authority properties, and Georgia College students and residents cannot begin to trust each other. We are told that people of color cannot be friends with anyone who is not, and the only young people that old folks can tolerate are their own, and even that’s iffy. We hear story after story about how utterly evil the people are who voted differently than we did. Everywhere we turn our differences are magnified, our suspicions are multiplied, and our distrust of one another is solidified. 

While there may be an element of truth in all of that, there’s a problem. It’s not true, or at least it’s not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This community is not the seething hotbed of hatred and distrust we are so often told we are. Look around. You will quickly recognize that we’re better than that.

COVID-19 has made it more difficult to see, perhaps, but we are very different from the way dividers like to paint us. Put a thousand randomly selected residents into a stadium where the championship game is being played against some fierce team from elsewhere and you’ll see it instantly. We may tend to sit closest to our friends, but when our team scores we all cheer together. We give each other high fives and broad smiles. We don’t stop to quibble over the skin tones or income of the one who scored. When the ref misses a call, we all jump on him together, mostly in a momentary, good-natured way. We root together for our team because as a community, we are a team. 

When someone’s house burns and they lose all their possessions, this community instantly volunteers to help. We don’t stop to consider whether the victims are like us. We don’t care if they favor golf or basketball. Their favorite kind of music never enters the picture. We’re better than that. We simply join hands and hearts as a community and step up to help out.

The same thing happens when someone’s child is stricken with leukemia, and her parents are stretched thin in every direction. There are medical bills, getting her brothers and sisters fed, clothed, and to school can be a nightmare. From all across our community, help pours in. Some of it is financial, some are prayers. Some help with food or school uniforms. A friend will make sure the car is gassed or the lawn is maintained, and another will help the little girl’s siblings with homework. We don’t withhold our caring because one of us speaks with a Spanish accent. We don’t ignore the needs because our child goes to a private school and the sick child goes to public school. No, we’re better than that. 

We are a community. Brothers and sisters. We’re decent, respectful, caring people who don’t let our differences get the better of us. We would rather celebrate our differences than let them divide us. When Hammering Hank Aron dies, all of us remember what an extraordinary baseball player he was, and how his life demonstrated that he was an even greater man. We don’t have to have dark skin to love soul food, and we don’t have to speak fluent Spanish to enjoy the happy sounds of a good mariachi band. We actually like it when someone in a pickup truck high atop three-foot tires stops to pull us out of the mud in a ditch. Some people enjoy telling us how much we hate each other, but we don’t. We’re better than that. 

So what can we do to quiet the voices bombarding us with messages of ever-greater hate and distrust? Simple. We stop for a moment and look around, long enough to realize that we are already better than that. We make up our minds that we’re going to stay that way. We’re going to respect everyone, to treat others the way we would like them to treat us, no matter who they are. We know it will not always be easy or automatic, but we know that kindness is never more powerful than when it is least deserved. 

We recognize there will be times when we are tempted to lash out when it would be easiest to lose our temper, to say vile things of another, or even to turn violent to force them to do what we want. But we don’t. We know that kindness and forgiveness are never more powerful than when they are least deserved. 

Instead, we make up our minds to get along. As much as it depends on us, we are going to live peacefully, even lovingly, with everyone. We sincerely want good things for each other. We smile behind our masks. We shake virtual hands or give elbow bumps. We treat each other as trusted friends and good neighbors, even if we’ve never before met. 

We do this for one reason: We’re better than that. 

—John Cotten is a Milledgeville resident and a member of The Union-Recorder editorial board.

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