Observations of a New Citizen

My journey from, How should I vote? to, How should I live?

Irena Dragaš Jansen
Irena Dragaš Jansen conducts program and resource development for non-profits and social enterprises in Europe and the United States. A survivor of the Yugoslav Wars, she is currently writing a semi-autobiographical book exploring the power of art and faith, Path Stops for the Middle. Irena lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband Scott.

I became a citizen of the United States of America on September 11, 2020. Every heartfelt expression of congratulations by friends, family, and acquaintances was almost always followed by a cheery admonition: “You can vote now!” Each reminder of my political responsibilities chipped away at the monumental amount of joy and relief I felt about becoming an American citizen. I was not looking forward to voting. I wanted to continue observing. My observation deck seemed a much safer and much more comfortable place than a looming voting booth.

For I have been observing the United States from various viewpoints my whole life. First, I observed America from a far-off distance, as a girl growing up in a Christian family living in a Communist country in Eastern Europe. American westerns, soap operas like Dynasty and Dallas, pop and country music, basketball, and American guests visiting our small local church all provided windows into this distant country that seemed at once unattainable and familiar.

This America we observed was the land of prosperity and endless possibilities. If you had courage and determination, you could make anything happen in America. It was the land of John Wayne and Tina Turner. The playground of Michael Jordan and the Dream Team. Hollywood royalty and Texas oil dynasties. In America, you were free to be a Christian and not be persecuted or marginalized for it. You were free to follow any religious practice for that matter, or none at all. This land embodied freedom, and it shone brightly from far away. But my family and I were happy to observe and admire it from a distance. We still had a life in our own country, where we were rooted in a particular history, community, and faith.

Then in the 1990s, war ravaged my newly independent country of Croatia. My family and I became displaced when our hometown was occupied by enemy forces and we had to flee to the free part of our homeland. As we navigated the loss of our home, our possessions, and the devastating loss of life, we tried to comprehend a way through and forward for our family, our country, and the whole war-torn former Yugoslavia. Throughout all this, we paid close attention to what America was doing, or not doing, in regard to our dire situation.

I was not looking forward to voting. I wanted to continue observing.

America cares. America engages. We knew that. Our history books were filled with stories about World War II, the Allied Forces, and our own resistance movement. I remember my parents telling us stories about Marshall’s eggs—their nickname for a staple in the food supplies that America provided in the aftermath of that old war. Now, in this new war, we all expected America to care and engage again. Every country in the region wanted the United States of America to side with them, to help them, to fight for their cause, and fight against their enemy. I felt for America. It was a tough position to be in. If the United States engaged, they were certain to make one side happy and the opposing side upset. If they did not, the whole world would be upset with them for not helping. And whatever America chose to do, they would of course be accused of acting out of self-interest.


The View from Inside

While still a displaced person, I got to see firsthand what this global protagonist was about when I spent four years as a college student in California. This, too, was the result of Americans caring and engaging—both on an organized level (through a scholarship at the university) and an individual level (one family’s initiative and generosity). When I got off the plane at the Los Angeles airport that August evening, I stepped into a curious journey of having to reconcile the America of movies, humanitarian packages, and air strikes to the reality of America on its own turf.

America had giant cars, enormous freeways, and an almost endless number of variations of any single item. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to choose a toothpaste, or contemplating my options for a simple piece of toast at a restaurant. Upon closer inspection, this country did indeed seem to be a land of possibility. Perhaps too much of it. I called it “the curse of the possibility.” I wondered, just because something was possible, did it need to be done? A supersized meal, a bigger house, a better car, another loan?

Once immersed in American culture, I realized how easily misunderstood America was by those observing from the outside. Upon closer inspection, a non-monolithic United States of America emerged: There was America’s heroic history, but also its dark history; there were uniquely American issues that were still not resolved; there was division. The West Coast versus the East Coast; and the flyover middle. The North and the South. The rich and the poor. The Republicans and the Democrats.

And Christians were divided too. Not only were there dozens, maybe even hundreds, of different church denominations, but Christians were divided politically as well. I remember offending my professor and her husband when I innocently assumed that because of their Christian beliefs they supported one political party. I think it was at that dinner party when I first decided that when it came to political discussions, I was best suited to observe, not participate.

When I returned to Croatia after college graduation, I observed my native country making a transition from Communism to democracy, and from socialism to capitalism, all while dealing with the aftermath of the war, and the ethnic tensions still simmering. I compared our long and rocky transition process to the already established American political and economic system, discussing it with my American friends during my visits back to the United States over the course of the following thirteen years.

I found myself wanting to both encourage and warn my American friends. I would hear complaints about the United States from within, and I became aware of a growing fascination among American young people with alternative forms of governmental and economic systems. Having had the experience of living in two different political and economic systems, I could see the advantages and the downsides of both. I knew the Grand Experiment in democracy had created a good thing. A really good thing! Even though it was imperfect, it should be recognized for all its good characteristics, and it was worth refining—not replacing.

And there was another thing. Americans were used to living in a country whose public policies, political-party platforms, government-imposed laws, and moral values invoked Christian beliefs and values. It was a messy and often incomplete rendering, but Christianity was, by and large, not a cultural foe. This, too, seemed to be changing. There was a growing concern among some American Christians that the country they had assumed friendly to their beliefs was turning against them, and many began expressing fear. I thought back to my parents and how they had managed to live a vibrant and authentic Christian faith in a country whose political system and moral values did not represent their Christian and personal values and beliefs. They passed on this hopeful, remnant way of living to my siblings and me. I attempted to encourage my American friends out of that conviction and experience.

And then, ten years ago, I took yet another flight across the ocean. Holding the hand of my new American husband, I landed on the East Coast. I was now going to get a different view of the United States of America, that of a permanent resident. And even though my perspective was different, my modus operandi remained the same: I continued observing.

Much to the chagrin and frustration of my American husband, family, and friends, I would not engage on the issues defined by America’s two political parties. Except on the rare occasion when I would ask questions, offer a few observations, and/or play devil’s advocate, I refused to choose sides. I was giving myself, a foreigner, time to survey the land. Not being able to vote provided a good excuse. And vote I could not—not anywhere. For the past ten years, I could not vote in Croatia because, even though I was a Croatian citizen, I was not residing there. I was not able to vote in the United States because, even though I was a permanent resident, I was not a citizen. My civic duty was limited by the laws of each land, and I happily accepted this reality as it sanctioned a sanctuary from which I could safely observe.

But I was not a detached bystander; I was an interested spectator with skin in the game. I was a student of American history and was familiar with historical issues this country had faced, which also shaped its present strengths and struggles. I witnessed and sought to understand the changes occurring on various levels of American society. I partook in many conversations about America and even shared my observations. I was, however tenderly, letting my roots take hold in this new country of mine. I planted myself into my new village and I cared for it. The village generously cared back.

What I had known to be true before was now confirmed. Americans care, and Americans engage—both internationally and domestically. While I had been a witness to and a recipient of their international care and involvement, once living here, I was deeply impressed by the vast number of organizations and initiatives (both governmental and private) that existed with the sole purpose of helping with international issues and needs. This is not the norm elsewhere. Almost with the wonder of a child, I began to observe how much Americans cared and engaged domestically too. As someone who had grown up in a Communist country, I knew that civic engagement was not always encouraged or even allowed among citizens; and I knew well how long it took to learn and develop civic responsibility even when it was allowed. I was a complete novice. But for Americans, young and old, this was a way of life.

As someone who had grown up in a Communist country, I knew that civic engagement was not always encouraged or even allowed among citizens; and I knew well how long it took to learn and develop civic responsibility even when it was allowed. I was a complete novice. But for Americans, young and old, this was a way of life.

During this tenure as an interested spectator of the United States, now from within, I had deep peace. I kept thinking back to my parents and our Christian family and community, the ways in which we managed to live with peace and hope, keeping our eyes on Christ while navigating the dangerous waters of living as Christians in a Communist country. We paid the price for it, but we knew our true allegiance was to the heavenly Kingdom. I even gave a talk here in the United States about heavenly citizenship versus earthly residency. I clung to this heavenly citizenship while I navigated the waters of not fully belonging to any earthly country, even as I continued to puzzle out the riddle of my evolving passport identity.


Disillusionment and Pressure

But as time passed, my continued observations of my new place of residency started fostering some frustrations. I was appalled by how much public and private discourse forfeited the rules of logic, and how many people resorted to the use of age-old fallacies in their discussions and public addresses. Why did people assume that I, the listener, would not recognize misappropriated logic and be duped? It was insulting, increasingly infuriating. At times, such fallacies would be limited to simple but still harmful civic sermons based on either a wrong premise or hammering home an incorrect conclusion. Hasty generalizations were on the rise, leading to easy stereotyping, overstatement, and exaggeration in settings both intimate and mass. Distractions were deployed constantly as a way to avoid answering difficult questions. False dilemmas were presented more times than I could count, trying to force me to ignore that there were in fact more options than the limited ones offered. But most blatant was the ad hominem, the personal attacks that replaced arguments and invoked hypocrisy in the opponent in order to distract from the argument. It scared me how often this worked and produced the desired effect on the audience—in personal conversations, in charged street demonstrations, even in polished speeches on Capitol Hill.

As the political and social atmosphere in the United States became more heated, I grew more disturbed by the prevalent use of double standards. Each side, political or ideological, would choose a convenient “measuring stick” on their opponents, without applying the same set of measures to evaluate their own side. Ethical codes fell victim to an unequally applied measuring stick. Double standards on the issue of tolerance became so blatant that I was afraid America was becoming desensitized to it.

Most disappointing, Christians were not exempt from these pitfalls. They increasingly grew more polarized in their support of one of the two political parties. I watched aghast as they fell to either side of the widening schism. They seemed to be allowing their political leaders to frame their way of thinking about problems and solutions. I had no answers, but I had plenty of questions. Where was biblical problem-solving? Why are Christians allowing the political parties to make them think that there are only two packages of solutions to the issues America is facing? Why are Christians allowing their allegiance to a political party determine their identity? Why are Christians not identifying problems and creating solutions that rise above the boundaries of visibly cynical political parties?

And then there was the issue of voting. What I heard communicated to me was that voting was my most important task as a citizen; and the future hinged on my voting choice. More specifically, by voting for president, for one single human being, I was deciding what my and everyone else’s future in America was going to be. In addition to helping decide the future of the nation and every person in it, my voting would also determine what kind of a Christian I was, or if indeed I even was one at all. The explicit and implicit force of these messages alarmed me.

Why are Christians not identifying problems and creating solutions that rise above the boundaries of visibly cynical political parties?

Then, as I was pondering all these disturbing developments, something shocking happened: I slowly started sliding toward one political party’s platform. My support of one side’s values and approach to solving issues crept up on me. The annoyance with the other side grew stronger. I slowly began connecting my personal safety and the country’s well-being to the electoral victory of one political party and its primary candidate.

And I lost my peace. I became perturbed. The fuel of fear ignited anger within me. I felt as if I was being swallowed by a storm that I had stepped into when I abandoned the safety of my spectator’s boat. The voices creating this tempest were infuriated and infuriating, enraged and eloquent. They were concerned, and they cared. But most of all, these voices were loud. Enveloped by my own fear and anger, I could not hear past them.

I craved the return of my peace. I started processing what was happening to me by furiously documenting my confusion and fear. I would talk to close friends about it and then retreat back to untangling the individual strands of my observations, which had formed into the knot of my angst. It all felt very much like wrestling. Like Jacob. With God.

Except, unlike Jacob, I invited other people into my wrestling match. I continued honest discussions with trusted friends and family members who were also eagerly searching and grappling with similar questions. I decided to limit my exposure to those voices that I knew would cause me distress and fill my head space with loud and forceful—but not always true—messages. This included news and social media. My palate needed cleansing. I also knew I had to put myself in the path of truth and wisdom. Choosing the correct path stops while I journeyed through the middle of this troubled season was imperative. I talked to my parents and asked them to tell me of times past and present, and their ways of living through them. I read history and sought lessons learned by those long gone. I watched online lectures and conversations by those living now who sought dialogue and offered hopeful perspectives and solutions. I listened to Bible readings. I signed up for weekly spiritual exercises called Space for God to help me create just that—space for God. When I got sick and my husband was gone on a work trip, I spent two weeks alone in my house listening to hymns and worship music, crying out to God to help me.

And God answered. Coiled together with the strands of my angst, I found the beautiful if delicate strands of hope and peace. I began to realize that the moment I lost my peace was when I took my eyes off Christ and put my hope in the victory of a political party promising to keep me safe. I began to realize that my trust should never have wavered from the One who addresses the root of all human problems and gives us eternal hope and ever-present help. I knew that there might be long-lasting and significant consequences to either side winning. But I have lived in a difficult environment before, and God was faithful and present in it. If it should come to that, it is possible to stay true to one’s faith and beliefs even when there is a price to pay. I should not anchor my life in the circumstances around me, but in the One who remains the same; whatever happens.

And my peace was restored. It is a delicate bird, a true “thing with feathers—that perches in the soul,” much like Emily Dickinson’s hope. It needs constant tending.

I began to realize that the moment I lost my peace was when I took my eyes off Christ and put my hope in the victory of a political party promising to keep me safe.

Even though I had realigned myself with the heavenly Kingdom, I still had my earthly residency to live out well. So, how then should I live? Asking that question was the genesis of the answer. I realized that framing the conversation and posing the correct questions, instead of just reacting, is where I wanted to start.


First Things First

So, how then do I want to live—before, during, and after each election? I want to have compassion for other people’s concerns, cares, and fears; regardless of what side they are on. I want to listen to hear. I want to look for common ground. If we look closely, all of our stories are the same, not, in fact, opposite. We all want to be safe. We all fear we are not, or will not be, if certain things happen. The fuel of fear ignites our actions. The fuel of fear can consume us; and our actions start to mirror the actions we condemn when they are committed by the other side. The face of my enemy is my own face.

How do I want to live; before, during, and after elections? I want to learn—glean insights from those dead and alive; from history and the present times. I want to search for and be inspired by those people who share their convictions with gentleness and kindness; and help and support those who create initiatives and solutions by bringing people together. Convictions include and invite in. Accusations exclude.

The face of my enemy is my own face.

However, it is November 3, 2020, and one question remains: How should I then vote? After all, I am not just an observer anymore. After researching, reading, listening, and talking to people on both sides, I will decide the best I can. And I will cast my vote knowing that it is important, but also confident and assured that it is not the most important nor the only thing I can do. I can choose to place my hope in God and his everlasting presence. I can choose how to live. I can choose how to see and treat others. I can love my neighbor. I can get involved and contribute. Because Americans care and Americans engage. And I am one of them.