The presidential elections are just around the corner. In less than two weeks, I am voting for a terribly flawed candidate. In my opinion, so is every person who chooses to exercise the right to vote this election cycle.
At the beginning of the 2012 primary season, I watched and listened attentively to Senator Rick Santorum and his wife, Karen, speak at a non-partisan event, “Moms Matter 2012”, sponsored by CafeMom.com.
The interview moved me to tears, as the couple shared some of their journey raising their daughter, Bella, who is a medically fragile child born with a rare genetic disease. Senator Rick and Karen spoke to my heart and honestly, it was as if they were telling our own story of struggles and triumphs in caring for and raising my daughter Johanna who also was born with a rare genetic disease.
The tag-line on the Moms Matter 2012 was “Moving Moms from the Political Sidelines to the Headlines.” The day I saw that interview with Senator Rick and Karen Santorum was the day I made my very first monetary donation to a presidential campaign.
I followed the primaries and was very excited when Rick won the Iowa caucus, but was sad when he did not win the Republican nomination for president. However, the Santorum family’s personal story of courage affected the nation when their little daughter Bella had a serious setback during the primary campaign.
I knew a little bit of their family’s story because I was a contributing author, along with Senator Rick, to a book on parenting children with special needs. I was deeply touched by their story and their courage to share it with the nation. Because of their witness, for the first time in my life, I thought that my opinion on politics and policy could really make a difference.
The next year, our health insurance was canceled due to changes in the Affordable Care Act and we entered into the national discussion on healthcare coverage in America. Our story headlined in local and national news outlets across the country. All of a sudden the vision of that Moms Matter forum, “moving moms from the political sidelines to the headlines” became very real and personal to me.
In the midst of educating and raising my youngest daughter, hospital visits, speaking and writing a book, I got more involved in political advocacy. I also started paying more attention to legislative decisions, especially those most personal to me: religious liberty and respecting the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death.
One year before the start of this year’s presidential primaries, the Santorums released a beautiful book about their journey entitled “Bella’s Gift; How One Little Girl Transformed Our Family and Inspired a Nation.” One of associate producers at the Sean Hannity Show contacted me to arrange for my daughter and me to meet with Senator Rick and his wife before their radio interview. The producer, who has become a friend of ours, knew both of us well and felt that we really needed to connect personally to share our stories.
The morning of that meeting, I was getting Johanna ready for another doctor’s appointment at NYU in Manhattan. I was a little overwhelmed wondering how and why it was that we were meeting a couple who I knew were most likely going to run for president.
I ran around that morning, questioning God, until that still small voice answered me, “I want you to be who you are and pray with them.” I wasn’t thrilled about the answer. I couldn’t imagine how this would play out.
After a stressful day of medical appointments and fighting rush hour traffic in Manhattan, Johanna and I were face-to-face with the senator and his wife, meeting in a little room at the studio. They were more than pleasant, very gracious and down to earth. We shared our stories and each exchanged autographed copies of our books.
There was a lot of laughter and a few tears as our lovely meeting moved towards the end. Knowing that I had one mission from God for this meeting, I asked the couple if we could pray together. Senator Rick and Karen wholeheartedly agreed as we petitioned the Lord for His blessing upon our lives, our families and our country. We ended our time with hugs and promises of prayer.
That personal exchange stirred a desire in me to see this family in the White House in 2016. I signed on as a New York contact and chairperson. We attended conferences in DC and Johanna and I drove to Pittsburgh for Senator Santorum’s presidential announcement. Johanna and I were both overwhelmed and humbled as Senator Rick and his family took time out of their busy schedule to say hello and sit with Johanna and talk about her life and her dog.
At one conference where I was volunteering, I was asked to attend a small breakfast meeting with Senator Rick. I was late to the meeting, but when I walked in, Senator Rick immediately stood up from the table as the six other men followed suit. I was honored and humbled by this polite gesture. I knew both at home and in the public venue, this was an honorable man who I hoped would become our next president.
Needless to say, my choice for president in 2012 was not to be a candidate for 2016 either. When Rick Santorum withdrew, I grieved the loss and lost my zeal for political advocacy. I was personally discouraged by the circus that was ensuing in the Republican primaries. I focused my energies on advocating for life at home and in my circles of influence. And I did what I do best: I prayed — a lot.
I seriously thought and prayed about sitting this election vote out. But I just can’t. Last week, I heard a wonderful talk about loving others even when we don’t agree. The image the speaker used was a bridge.
A bridge connects two sides, and it usually runs over a chasm. The chasm could be great or small, but either way, the bridge needs to be firmly rooted on both sides to make it work. This connection to both sides creates a tension in the middle of the bridge. But as long as the bridge holds on at both sides, it functions as a connection- a bridge over the division.
This election cycle has highlighted and expanded the divisions in our nation. The rhetoric and gossip coming from the campaigns and some media has spilled over into relationships of friends and families and in expressions of opinion on social media.
For the next four years, someone is going to be the president of the United States. But for the rest of my life and your lives, we will be living with our families, our friends and our communities.
Presidents all retire. Our friends and families are here to stay.
I am choosing to not lose those the connections that matter the most in my life. I am choosing to be a bridge, knowing that bridges run across great divides to connect to the other side. I know it will be tense, but I am not letting go.
The other night I fell asleep reading articles on the elections. Not a good idea. But it made for an interesting dream. I dreamt that I was trapped in a terrorist attack with one of the presidential candidates who needed my help. In the dream, I saw the human pain and the goodness in the candidate and like a bridge, I extended one of my hands and offered my help.
I woke from that dream recalling that there is goodness inherent in every human being, even in those we wish weren’t running for the highest public office in the land.
So while I believe my only choices for president in 2016 are seriously flawed candidates, I am choosing to see the greatest good in each one and voting for the highest good that means the most to me.
And in the meantime, I will tighten my grip, while holding on to the people I love and respect on both sides of this great divide. And I will be the bridge.
Eileen Benthal is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a B.A. in Theology from Franciscan University. She is the author of Breathing Underwater: A Caregiver’s Journey of Hope.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, Johanna, is a teenager with special needs.
Eileen can be reached at CareforaCaregiver.com.