[Ed note: TL;DR, but I just had to articulate for myself what I’ve been feeling.]
As someone on a Buddhist path, I am friends with suffering. By being able to reorient myself to know—to truly, deeply know—that every life is filled with moments of breathtaking loss, I have been able to get up off my knees at least three times in my life with my spirit bruised, but intact.
I often call myself an optimist, but my optimism is not one of puffy rainbow stickers and glittery white unicorns.
My optimism is soft, dark velvet, equal parts resignation and meditation, chastisement and comfort. I wrap myself up in it when overwhelmed with the ache of living, and remember that life was meant to be good. As it was also meant to be hard. They are two of the great “IS”es of life, and once I came to understand that moving between these two truths is the only promise we get in this mortal existence, I was freer than I’d ever been before.
I say all this merely to establish that I have never expected life to make me safe. That I have spent the better part of the last six years trying to accept the painful uncertainty of letting go of certainty. That I spend most of my days inhabiting some of my vulnerability, to learn to hate it less, to merge it with my highest self, in order not to be misled by fear and its seductive accomplice, anger.
And yet. And yet…
What I saw on stage in the second Presidential debate sent me into a personal panic. As a journalist and an advocate, I am a fervent follower of politics, because I have deep interest in policy. I am usually able to separate the predictably overblown rhetoric (from both sides) to be able to hear what interests me most: where are we going? How honest are we getting about what has destroyed the basic American contract for living? How ready are we to really talk about people’s despair and what brought us here? (For example, wages having been disconnected from productivity increases since 1972; our country’s utter inability to metabolize the hard realities behind women’s entering the workforce that have nothing to do with gender or tradition; and of course the hungry beast of capitalism, pulling us all into its thrall, for better and worse and worse.)
But that debate undid me. First I was raging. Then I was weeping. And finally I had to turn off the television and curl myself up into a ball on my hotel-room bed (my son and I were on our food tour road-trip) and sob for a few minutes and then lie there frozen, until I felt I could breathe again. My son walked up to me and put a hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m sorry mom.” I was embarrassed and tried to explain away my reaction. But I didn’t quite have the comprehension or words to do it.
I don’t take the word “trigger” lightly, as I think now it is potentially overused, unfortunately dimming the powerful impact the word was meant to project, of what it is to be sent back into a place of trauma in your brain. But clearly something deep and dark in me had been triggered by the tenor of the debate. Donald Trump’s lunacy, misogyny and ignorance I had expected. So what had emerged that scared me so deeply?
I can’t survive if reality doesn’t matter.
Accepting reality—or, to say it differently, accepting that the hard that shows up in my life is not something that is being done to me—is what has always saved me. Very young I learned to lay a blunt, cold eye on the uncolored facts of any painful situation in order to survive the hardest things. To remind myself of the accidents of fate, of the weakness of humans, of the reality that we all stumble and fail. And here’s this man onstage, making up his own rules, his own reality, and bringing a huge chunk of our population with him, with such abhorrent swagger and certainty.
I felt threatened. I felt at risk… I felt as if the world would open and swallow me whole.
This is what I call “The Original Fear.” This feeling is apparently what it feels like to be a child in a loving, intellectual but emotionally volatile home. Not that I know that, because I didn’t have those feelings when there was so much at risk. Instead I was surveying the situation and explaining away my parents’ failures and pain, living in my intellectual mind, not my emotional one. I was placing them firmly in their individual realities, of a man who had married a difficult woman and didn’t know how to help her and felt cheated by her anger; of a woman who had been damaged by family and history (feminism happening just a few years too late to change her life), and who was emotionally broken in a way my father was simply not ever going to be able to process or understand. Of two people who loved each other, but yet were not able to provide for the other what each of them needed most. Through understanding the roots of their own pain, I was able to intellectually manage carrying my own.
They didn’t mean to hurt me.
Most people don’t mean to hurt us. It’s a truism that we always hurt those we love the most. Because who else would we hurt? Who else would know us enough to inflict the deepest wounds? But we do the best we can.
We bow our heads. We pray to our gods. We forgive. We accept our fallibility and the fallibility of others. We see the world from a thousand-foot-view and see how really small we are in it. I’ve written before about how being small is my safe place, in a world where no promises of safety can be made, and I’m not talking about the geopolitical kind of safety.
But Trump flies in the face of all that. He embraces his ignorance like a sword. He doesn’t give a fuck who he takes down, as long as he thinks he still has a chance to stay on some defensible “top,” with an army of sycophants below him.
I understand that pain of Trump supporters inherently, because my position in media gave me the incredible chance to serve something besides the New York-Los Angeles luxury machine. I saw when I was at Redbook, way back in 2004, that families could not make ends meet, even with two solid jobs, high-level careers even. The wage earners were already on their knees. And no, it wasn’t because people had fallen in love with owning things: it’s because education, and healthcare, and childcare had ballooned in cost, suddenly gobbling up well more than fifty percent of American’s incomes, while their salaries and wages were stagnant. I see how our culture makes that America invisible, and unintentionally implies it’s their fault for being backward and of a different era. And I’ve seen how well-meaning Democrats (and even Obama himself) unintentionally condescend, instead of speaking of those who struggle from a lateral perspective, even when you disagree with them.
That those Americans needed a hero I do not deny. But that Trump would dare to intimate he could be the one when all he does with his power and visibility is turn adoration onto himself and whip up people into a sense of having been wronged by people who did nothing to bring them where they are. (And no, the Democrats aren’t always right, my god, no; it was ALL politicians who failed average Americans.) That he feeds his sense of power by stoking dark, dark forces that can tear at our national empathy, our national sense of all being in the struggle and experiment of 21st century capitalism together. That he would dare to intimate that if he doesn’t win the system is somehow stealing the race from him.
That he would not follow basic, humane rules of how he organizes his self…. it terrifies me. And I’m really terrified by how easy it is to take all the free-floating sense of disenfranchisement large populations are feeling and turn it into something that is a lie, a total lie.
Anger is not power. Anger is an emotion. And then we have to move through it, let the smoke clear, and look around with blank and inquisitive eyes. We have to assume that the wrongs done against us were not in ill will; we have to know that good intentions lie scattered on the ground just as much as ill intentions do. But that the good intentions are what move us ahead.
I don’t want America to get stuck. In the same way that I was deathly afraid of getting stuck in the agony of my parents’ failure to make an emotionally safe home for me.
I want America to survive its agony. But to do that, we have to deeply connect to Americans’ pain, and see that they are not completely wrong, not completely insane. Their sense of loss is very real, and the LOSS is very real as well.
What I saw in Trump the night of that debate was terrifying. Because he is urging people to live in their weakest selves, for his own reward. He may in some place believe he can help them, though I’m really not sure that he gets anywhere past “There are thousands of people here. Proof that I am powerful. I am powerful.” He’s done nothing useful with his power to date, and I think it’s safe to assume that little will change that pattern.
I truly believe our job as humans is to listen hard to whom we’re meant to become and to do all the hard work it takes to get there, to be our best self, our most authentic self. Because when we really know ourselves, we can admit what scares us, we can admit we want things other than what we have (which is very different than constantly reupping the What Do I Want list, surely capitalism’s greatest curse), we can acknowledge we’ve made mistakes. And we can begin again, with an open and trusting heart. And shine that open heart as a beacon to others.
Donald Trump doesn’t live in that world. In his view, every single person in this country exists to aggrandize him—which is an absolutely sick and twisted way to abuse people (as he has already abused so many). That he simultaneously stokes existing fears, and then creates ever more new ones is a guaranteed way to bring humanity to its breaking point.
But I really do believe that’s not where people want to go. Because I have to believe that.
Because if our desire to be seen and known and loved has less power in our world than the false reward of anger masquerading as strength, then I’m going to have to fold my cards, pack up my desk, throw in the towel, curl up into the ball I was on that hotel room bed and wait for the End Times to come.
But I don’t believe they will.
And I hope we can learn as a country—and I lay this at the feet of the politicians and the media, both—to really get honest about the somewhat unsexy reasons we are in such dire straits. We know why wages have dropped precipitously since the ’70s—it’s just that the answer is unsexy and doesn’t offer up a target at which to direct our dissatisfaction. The problems our country has created for itself as we tried to address issues individually cannot be solved in an isolated way. We simply have to get past the sweet fantasy of blame—and adopt a position of shared struggle. Shared dreams.
To be human is to fail—and to from that failure create magnificence is even more spectacularly human.
That’s what I’m hoping and praying and voting for.
I don’t ever want to feel the terror of the very complicated and yet very simple truths of reality being erased ever again.