Like many, I watched in horror as America elected a narcissistic bully as our next president. Like many, I was overwhelmed by despair, panic, and grief, and astonished by the intensity of my feelings. A serene voice in my head repeated, over and over, “There, there, things might not be that bad. We don’t know the future. Maybe he won’t be a complete unmitigated monster.” And yet I couldn’t curtail the horror, disgust, and panic that was rising within me. I couldn’t sleep, I drank too much, I was a morose basket case. I couldn’t get out of my head the circus of obscenities that we had all been exposed to: the abuses, the lies, the disregard for the beams of democracy, the Caligula-like grandiosity of Donald Trump. Now we are to live with such disgust – and whatever other follies may come – for the next four years.
I found myself thinking, over and over, of the lines from W.B. Yeats poem The Second Coming:
Turning and turning in the widening gyreThe falcon cannot hear the falconer;Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhereThe ceremony of innocence is drowned;The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. If any words prophecy to these present days, it is these. And like Yeats I find myself wondering “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
After hurdling through the abyss the night I watched Trump win the presidency, I woke up the next morning deciding that I am no use if I am a basket case. I have nothing to offer if I’m lying perpetually on a fainting couch. Our nation may be turning, turning in the widening gyre, but it my responsibility – to myself, to those closest to me, to those who look to me for comfort – to find the center. I do so imperfectly and with stumbling, awkward steps, but it is my moral obligation to try. The future is a great unknown, it always has been, and no matter what happens, I need mindfulness now more than ever. As Toni Morris0n wrote, “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.”
So to my friends who tremble, here are my own goals for the coming months and years to maintain equilibrium. All of these tools are, in essence, about mindfulness: of staying present to myself, the world, and others. A necessary caveat: these are my personal goals, and they are my own. I share them here only to bring some comfort to those who feel them applicable to their own lives. I am white, a man, and fairly middle class. What brings me strength may not offer the same strength to others, and that is okay. I will often forego “I” statements and address you throughout this post, but that is simply for the flow of the prose. I address only those who will benefit from my words.
Pursue your Spiritual Practices
We have practices – daily, weekly, and often dull – that exist to capture us in times of stress. We practice them steadfastly when the sun shines so that when the new moon comes we have a light to guide us. I do yoga and read scripture daily, along with some other sacred or mystical book. I pray the rosary, and practice mindfulness, and read Tarot. Our spiritual practices are the generators that send out mindfulness and ease into the rest of our life – into work, relationships, and our daily thoughts.
And then there are the other rituals: of exercise, eating, laundry, gratitude: the sacred, rhythmic, quotidian rites. Do not neglect those either. I have come to learn over the past few years that I am nothing without my habits. If I forsake my habits, I forsake my capacity to live fully, and to give my very best to the world. Self-abandonment to despair is the greatest defeat.
Moral Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has a name for what’s happening in our world right now: purifying. Purifying is when communities, institutions, and cultures start to cast out those with the slightest disagreement and cleave to those who see the world exactly as they do. Our communities become echo chambers, in which everyone is an identical ideological mannequin. When we purify, it becomes that much easier to demonize those who disagree and for confirmation bias to carry us.
Purifying is a totalitarian delusion. We are human beings, and none of us agree. Not truly. We are incomprehensibly flawed and complex creatures, and the idea that we have to agree to get along is empirically false, as we will never fully agree, and we have, on occasion, gotten along. We are all blind in our own ways. This is not to say that there are not some disagreements that create a rift as wide as that between night and day, for which there is no reconciliation. I hold out the blind, optimistic hope, however, that such rifts are far fewer and much less necessary than our current climate compels us to believe.
Here is the hard truth: we need each other. I need my conservative friends just as much as they need me. We may never see eye to eye, but they make me a stronger, more nuanced, more empathetic person. I may rage at them, much as they may rage at me, but without each other we never learn. Jesus may have called the Pharisees a brood of vipers, but he also actually talked with them, and a few listened. Occasionally my friends who disagree with me even teach me something that I had never seen before. Purification is a cause and the symptom of the widening gyre. As long as purifying holds sway, the center will never hold.
Have Good Boundaries
A central tenant of Codependents Anonymous, a 12 step program for people who desire healthy relationships, is that we trust those who are trustworthy. Resisting purifying of our communities does not mean trusting those who are untrustworthy: those who are volatile, arrogant, or who are themselves unwilling to resist purifying. We do not need to cast our pearls before swine. To protect our sanity, we need to have good boundaries with people.
A lack of boundaries is a failure to know ourselves. If we don’t know our boundaries, we don’t know who we are and what we need. If you don’t trust someone to respect you or your thoughts, don’t talk to them. If you know that you need to cut yourself off from those who disagree with you for a time, do so. If you are too furious to talk to anyone who voted for Trump, follow what your intuition is telling you. If you know that there are certain people who get under your skin in an unproductive way, don’t engage with them. And don’t let guilt-tripping talks of “peacemaking” coerce you to deny your needs. Peacemaking is unsustainable if it savages us. The reward will be a greater capacity for knowing yourself and therefore doing more good in the world.
It’s impossible to discuss boundaries without also discussing social media, where most of the bitterness, ugliness, and purifying is taking place.
Here’s how some people online see me: histrionic, heretical, over wrought, dramatic, blinded by the wider culture. I know all this: I hear as much on social media, and I can feel the polite eye of other Christians as they quietly examine my heresies. When I voiced my despair and fear when Trump was elected, exasperated conservatives took to my news feed telling me to stop being such an irrational, bleeding heart liberal. I don’t care – I’m not responsible for how others see me. Neither are you. Some people are simply angry, unempathetic, or trollish. There is nothing I can do about that, so why should I let it put me off my tea?
I’ve given up the codependent behavior of trying to control how other people think or behave. I already have a full time job, and I want to enjoy my life. Rather, I only share stories – the most powerful weapon of all – and do my best to protect the vulnerable. I am what I am, and I make no apologies for it. I don’t take the bait from those who provoke me online, and I encourage you not to either – only turn your awareness towards those who offer more than exasperation.
Awareness is like the light of the sun: without it, the weeds can’t grow. Ruthlessly hone your awareness and who you choose to focus on. I don’t much care anymore about those who would attack me, and I turn my awareness to the people who have something to offer. As a result, the barbs don’t wound as much. I suggest you do the same, especially in your online spaces.
Nadia Bolz-Weber put it best, perhaps, in her tweet the night of the election: we just have to love harder. We must continue to love those who are cruel, who are angry, who are frightened. We must pray the words of Christ: “father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I find myself also praying the Orthodox Jesus Prayer: “Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” I am broken, I am incomplete, I am blind – I need grace to see beyond myself. Righteous anger is the most deceptive energy: it convinces me that I have no blind spots or flaws. And we must continue to act with radical love for the oppressed, the poor, the disabled – for those who may be more terrified now than ever.
From a space of mindfulness and center, we move forward: we fight when we have to fight, we resist when we have to resist, and we dialogue when we have to dialogue. My hope is that a Trump presidency will be a benign, humiliating farce and nothing more, but I don’t know the future. The future is always uncertain, and the present moment is all we have.
7 thoughts on “Living Mindfully in a Kingdom of Fear”
These are the best, most helpful words I have read about coping after the election. I needed to read them. Thank you very much!
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That was your best opening sentence *ever*!
Beautifully put. I appreciate the distinction between having boundaries and going on a purity purge of our social circles. How does the “Death” card play into this? I drew that card this morning as the answer to “What is the purpose of my creative writing?” and I’m still mulling that over…
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I chose the Death card because it speaks to me of staying present to horrible situations. I see the Bishop in the forefront of the card, being present to the horseman. That speaks to me of mindfulness in horrible situations. The rising sun in the background also offers me hope in this card: there might be a new day.
Hey Stephen – Thank you for your very thoughtful words. I am a Capricorn, but feel like a Gemini right now. My other “twin” is hiding under the covers and has been for the last 6 days. I haven’t felt such hopelessness in such a very long time. The last time was just before getting sober. Thanks for helping me face the day today. I have been taking this one day at at time. But Wow, it’s 1529 days until January 20, 2021. That is a heck of a lot of “one day’s at at time!” ! Hugs, Mark
Just want you to know that your words offer hope, comfort, & practical advice for this 60-something, white, heterosexual, middle-class, married, Christian woman who feels betrayed by her fellow Americans who voted for, as you so aptly put it, the narcissistic bully. And if I feel threatened, how must those of you who are not what I am feel?! I am trying to work through my profound sadness, while caring for my emotional health. Yet, I recognize that withdrawal from all people who think differently than I (purification) is disastrous for our country. Your thoughts on this are right on. Thank you.