Golis: At Thanksgiving, we vow to stay together

Volunteers sorts through thousands of donated items at Elsie Allen High School in Santa Rosa on Oct. 13. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)



A friend who works in the nonprofit world talks about the ferocity of the response that came after the October fires. Again and again, we saw humankind at its best.

People desperate to help volunteered their time, organized fundraisers, dispatched supplies, wrote checks, welcomed house guests, reconnected with old friends and performed countless other acts of generosity.

People who lost their homes showed up among the first armies of volunteers, and so did people who didn’t know whether their homes were still standing. It was their way of saying, we’re still here.

And then there were the thousands of first responders who came from near and far. We try not to think about what would have happened without their skill, courage and hard work — or without the wide network of communities committed to help each other in time of need.

Mutual-aid agreements, it turns out, become one more reminder that we’re all in this together, or we’re in a world of trouble.

This idea — we’re all in this together — remains an abstraction that can’t be measured in the usual ways. Disaster damages can be measured in dollars and cents. Political outcomes can be measured in votes. Our capacity for cooperation defies easy measurement.

Still, as we reflect on the heartaches of the past seven weeks, we know this much: If we don’t stay together, we will lose our way.

No one should understate the adversities ahead. More than 5,300 homes are destroyed, leaving thousands of people homeless. Thousands more will lose jobs and income. These effects will ripple through the life of Sonoma County in ways we are only beginning to understand.

Between now and what will be a new normal, there will be hard patches to navigate. Sacrifices will be necessary, and there will be opportunities to give up. At times, we will ask whether the work before us is simply too difficult.

Controversies will occur, with the loudest voices eager for conflict.

How do we reconcile these inevitable policy differences without coming apart? This becomes our challenge. The truth is, the task will be tough enough even if we can work together.

Americans aren’t very good at togetherness these days. Our current president spends his days trying to exploit our differences. He thrives on our disunion. And many interest groups believe they only win when some other group is losing.

When so many angry voices seek to appeal to the worst in us, we shouldn’t be surprised that our country is coming unstuck.

Here in Sonoma County, our job will be to pursue a different impulse — an approach rooted in empathy for what’s happening in other people’s lives. For some of the decisions ahead, there will be no easy answers. We will be obliged to do the best we can.

We won’t do this because we’re starry-eyed idealists. We will do it because we can’t afford to be divided. There is too much work to do, and the work will prove overwhelming if we become caught up in the baggage of old antagonisms.

A year from now, you can be sure, there will be new cynics clamoring for your attention and telling you to discount the worthiness of anyone who dares to offer a different point of view.

I don’t pretend to know a remedy that guarantees we will not become divided. People disagree. In our political and economic lives, it’s what we do.

In this season of holidays, it would help if we could hold close the same urgency that defined how people responded in the aftermath of a terrible disaster. They showed what can be accomplished by people with generous hearts. Now we wait to find out whether this same spirit can be sustained through difficult days ahead. We honor the generosity of recent weeks when we resolve to keep working together

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at