Seth Cohen
Applying Optimistic Thinking to Complex Community Challenges

A Letter to My Children about the 2016 Election

“What do I tell you, my children?”

That was the only question that was running through my mind as I watched the election coverage on Tuesday evening. As you slept into the small hours of the night, I struggled to find a way to tell you it didn’t happen. I wanted to deny to you the simple truth: our candidate lost, and the other candidate won. I wanted to shield you from that reality, and I was afraid to tell you what even I can barely come to accept: the individual who aspired to be the first woman president of the United States, to be the vessel of our viewpoints and values, fell short. Rather, our next president, will be the other candidate, someone we believe is flawed and divisive, but nonetheless is someone who wants to make America great again.

In that thought, I realized something that I had said to you for a year, but not fully understood myself until now: this election, like every election, is about our future and the future of our children. The character of our nation is defined in no small part by the character of our leader, and we as a family had galvanized around one particular leader – a leader who reflected the aspirations of my daughters and the values of their parents. But our choice isn’t the choice of the nation and, as a family, we will now need to share both the disappointment and the heavy understanding that the vision we have for America isn’t shared by a significant number of Americans, at least not in this election.

So again I wondered: “What do I tell you, my children?”

First, I have a deep sense to tell you I’m sorry. I’m sorry that the sense of excitement you have had for the election of the first woman president was not realized by a victory. I know how much it meant to you and how much it meant to your mother and me. I want to tell you I am sorry that I can’t – as when you were younger – hold you and tell you it will be all okay (particularly because I am not sure it will be okay, at least not at first, and I don’t want to lie to you). I’m sorry I haven’t done more to help change the world in the way that would have helped make this election’s result different. I’m sorry I can’t explain this result, because it is as inexplicable to me as it is to you. But I know that I will ask myself for a long time – could I have done more? Could I have given more? Could I have changed more?

Second, I want to tell you to, as First Lady Michelle Obama said to all of us, “when they go low, we go high.” Losing an election is not the same as losing a nation. It is an important opportunity to understand the nature and the direction of the country and to act accordingly. Had our candidate won the election, slightly less than half of the nation would feel exactly the way we now feel: disappointed, frustrated and lost. The higher moral ground is not to throw anger and recrimination at the result, but to recognize that the fate of our nation, and in many ways our fate, is bound up in the success of our new leader. Just as we would be praying for the wisdom and insight of the leader we voted for, we need to pray for the wisdom and insight of the leader that was actually elected. Perhaps it will not be easy to be magnanimous in our loss, but we should be gracious in our moral support of the nation’s chosen leaders to lead our nation. Our strength, in part, now relies on their sense of fairness and insight, and their ability to grow as they govern.

And third, I want to tell you to turn this all into something good, something powerful and something transformative. Every loss can become a victory in time, depending on how you respond to that loss. Every challenge can become an opportunity, depending on how you embrace your own ability to overcome that challenge. From our perspective, this election is a setback; it is a reversal of the arc of progress on issues that matter to us, particularly in terms of women’s empowerment, inclusion, justice and equality. But elections are only snapshots in time; they are not dispositive determinations of our unchangeable future. You have the ability to change it. You have the ability to transform your disappointment and frustration into advocacy and action. You have the ability to fight for what matters to you, to take up the mantle of change, including changes in the way we respect women, the way we embrace the growing diversity of our nation, the way we talk with each other about the issues that divide us and the way we accept our differences through empathy and understanding.

This election is over, but if the lesson you learn is only a lesson of disappointment then you will miss the real lesson – the lesson of empowerment. You, like so many others, have come alive in this election. You have focused on the issues that define you and the issues that you want to help define. You have found a voice, ignited a passion within you both on a personal and a civic level. You have also realized the power of democracy in action – the importance of every vote and the ability for each person to make a difference in the world.

So what I want to tell you, my children, is this: when you have children, what will you tell them? Will you tell them what you learned in this election and how you changed as a result of it? Will you tell them how you turned shadow into light? Or will you find yourself asking the same question:

“What do I tell you, my children?”

About the Author
Seth Cohen is the Chief Impact Officer of Forbes and the founder of Applied Optimism, a global consulting and community design lab that helps organizations and leaders design and apply optimistic solutions to complex challenges.
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