Here we are. In the last four months we have lost our homes, our businesses, and our country and it’s January of a new year, a time to be hopeful. How do we do this exactly?
Well, an extended hiatus from the clueless, noisy gong/clanging cymbal, sound-and-fury-that-signifies-nothing, noise-machine political media and a little distance from the two tragedies of a devastating flood and devastating election have allowed a few thoughts to surface which may be useful. One of the main ways we deal with new challenges is through simile. Something new comes along, either good or bad, and we say, “Oh, this is like that other thing that happened to me or to my aunt, or to my brother ten years ago, or last month, or last week, therefore I kind of know how to respond.” Unfortunately, for most of us, there is no simile for a thousand-year flood and an American white supremacist child-dictator-president. There are no words in the lexicon of ordinary mortals to even describe that recent experience and this current situation. All you can do is shrug and try to deal with it.
Let’s take a stab at the flood first. There is some good news. First, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” was never more true. Because of the flood we have acquired a new and immensely powerful simile. We are, at the same time, more humble and more capable of taking care of ourselves and our loved ones than we were before. What? A hundred-year flood? Bring it on! I’ll deal with it after lunch.
Second: why did so many people spontaneously offer so much time, effort, and money with no expectation of profit or reward during and after the flood? Knee-jerk platitudes and clichés (“in an emergency we realize what’s really important”) don’t quite explain it. What is going on? Prolonged, personal contact with this phenomenon suggests that there is an innate instinct to give and receive life-saving assistance that is hard-wired in the human psyche but lies so far below ordinary social interaction in 21st century America that we are completely unaware of it most of the time. One clue was the sense of a “spirit” circulating through both the small, tightly organized church groups who helped victims and then prayed with them afterward, and the loosely organized gatherings of individuals of all makes, models, creeds and codes (friends of friends of friends) who worked long hours shoulder to shoulder and then drove away with a cheerful “Good Luck!”. There was something palpable there generated by humans sharing a life-and-death struggle that was independent of political, religious, and sexual orientation. Knowing that this force exists beneath everything, independent of everything, somehow makes the world a better place.
Now the election – many of those people who risked their lives and volunteered time, money, and physical labor to help complete strangers also voted for Trump and Trump is a despicable human being who poisons everything and everyone around him…in who’s shadow fact, truth, and rational thinking cease to function. The juxtaposition is mind-blowing. One possible explanation is that, contrary to what many children of the Enlightenment might have subconsciously believed before the election, rationality is not yet the default operating system of human beings, emotion is. We are capable of rationality, but only after training and practice, and only if we consistently try. The good news here is that the election has made this clear and now we know.
We can’t force anyone else to be rational, but we can force ourselves to be, and rationality is contagious, like sneezing and laughter. So a little self-examination might be in order here. Did we educated liberals and progressives really try to act rationally toward our fellow humans who happen to be conservative? Before we can change someone’s mind, we must understand what is in it. What we are experiencing right now – despair that we have lost our country – is apparently what Trump voters have been feeling for years. We lament that they were stupid for not seeing through the lies, but how could they have if they’ve been raised since they were knee-high to a goat to organize and view the world a certain way? Did we really make an effort to understand what was in their mind or did we (mea culpa) just throw facts and logic at them and holler “Don’t be ignorant!”? The global village is inevitable (if we survive the next ten years or so), but it is also scary. Perhaps we are called to assist those of us who aren’t ready for it yet to find some peace with it. The operative word is “us” because America is what we make it. If we decide that America is an “us” instead of a “we/them” it is an “us.” This is not to suggest that the current tsunami of diversity is the only reason people voted for Trump. There are many others – too many to go into here. What might happen if we all picked one, learned all we could about it and patiently used our strength, talents, and rational know-how to change it, one thought at a time?
In August, 2016 B.F. this blog made an observation about reality – that there are different realities created for different situations at different times, and it would be difficult to say which were more or less “real.” Post-flood, post-election, that observation, frankly, sounds kind of stupid. Assuming there is such a thing as physical reality, there appear to be, instead, different layers of it. The most basic, rock-bottom reality is the narrow walkway between life and death. If death is not imminent, we can then construct a reality defined by homeostasis, then by personal physical and emotional comfort and so on, but the more layers we pile on, the farther away from bed-rock reality we move and the less “real” our lives become. The bad news is that Trump has managed to construct a false reality that may destroy everyone, but we were headed that way anyway without Trump. As much as we all love the escapist entertainment, black-or-white political positions, and the special effects and virtual worlds not even remotely tethered to actual physical limitations that our culture currently floats in, none of it is real. Half of what the profit-obsessed media peddle isn’t real. A Trump administration may be just the slap in the face we need to tear aside some of the more dangerous illusions, realign our priorities and clean up our act before it’s too late.
This new year would be a good time for each of us to launch a personal reality/rationality renaissance. We can start by looking past cynical holiday hype perpetrated by people who want our money to an authentic zeitgeist informed by joy, gratitude, mutual respect, love, and hope. We all need a good cleansing…and we can make that happen.