I almost didn’t post this.
Since the election, I’ve found myself writing down some reflections, in an attempt to clear my mind and gain perspective.
Mostly it has been a personal exercise, but I thought perhaps I could stitch together my disparate thoughts into something worth sharing.
But by the time I cobbled together my rambling notes into any sort of coherent form, it had been two weeks since the election and I was so tired of reading diagnosis after diagnosis, theory upon theory, and plan after plan for what to do next, that I was feeling a bit fatigued by trying to find any signals through the noise.
Why add to the cacophony of voices? Surely there is nothing more to be said.
Then I realized that is a stupid reason. Because if something is worth saying once, it’s worth repeating.
And as with all of my posts (and all of my work), if I think that something has the potential to help or inspire even just one person, then I feel compelled to share.
As always, thanks for reading.
1. Amor Fati
There is a latin term - “Amor Fati” - which roughly translates to “love of one’s fate.”
We all know that it is easy to love one’s fate when times are good, but the essence of amor fati is to love one’s fate no matter what.
Even in the hardest or most confusing of times, amor fati means to wake up and to feel a love for life, regardless of our circumstance.
Allow me to introduce one of the very best practitioners of amor fati: Dr. Viktor Frankl.
Frankl was a holocaust survivor and world-renowned psychiatrist, and his theories are often referred to alongside those of Freud, Adler, and Jung in terms of their contribution to our understanding of human behavior in the 20th century.
His theory of logotherapy posits that humans are motivated by a never ending search for meaning. And the presence or absence of meaning in our life is foundational to our perception of the world and to our psychological well being and life satisfaction.
In his own personal search for meaning, Frankl offers a beautiful example of what it means to live out amor fati. The following quote is from his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, describing his observations and attitude while he was enslaved in a Nazi concentration camp:
"When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.
For us, as prisoners, these thoughts were not speculations far removed from reality. They were the only thoughts that could be of help to us. They kept us from despair, even when there seemed to be no chance of coming out of it alive. Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.
Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp's tortures by ignoring them or harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism. Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement, the opportunities which caused the poet Rilke to write, "Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!"(How much suffering there is to get through!). Rilke spoke of "getting through suffering" as others would talk of "getting through work." There was plenty of suffering for us to get through. Therefore, it was necessary to face up to the full amount of suffering, trying to keep moments of weakness and furtive tears to a minimum. But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer."
This is an incredible application of amor fati.
Another way to understand amor fati comes from another quote I reference often, by the monk David Steindl-Rast, who describes joy as "that kind of happiness that doesn't depend on what happens."
While it is appropriate for an election to motivate and galvanize us, no election outcome or any other event should make us any less joyful.
Because if you agree with Steindl-Rast, then you know that our joy does not depend on any external events.
And now more than ever it is important that our joy come from within. For joy is one of the most powerful tools we can keep in our arsenal when faced with hard and important work.
And work we have.
2. The Struggle
In challenging or confusing times, there is something calming about zooming out, way beyond the here and now of America in November 2016.
And when I zoom out, what I see is that our current situation is not unique. It is the human condition.
The fight for justice, freedom and a brighter tomorrow is not just today's struggle. And it is not just America's struggle. It is the struggle.
Many people have been engaged in the struggle for years, and this election only adds fuel to their fire.
And for others, this election was the spark they needed to join the struggle for the first time and take their place alongside millennia of their sisters and brothers in the fight for justice and a better future.
Remember Frankl’s words: “Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement.”
This election outcome is antithetical to justice on it’s surface, but below the surface it has given us many unique opportunities for achievement.
The massive groundswell of solution-oriented steps that I see people taking since the election speaks to this unique opportunity, and it is inspiring.
3. America’s Search For Meaning
We cannot successfully move forward without looking back to diagnose what happened.
There is a lot of disagreement about why this election ended the way it did, and people seem very divided on how to understand and react to people with whom they don’t agree.
I actually think Frankl’s academic theories are again relevant, and may help explain the outcome.
Many people are having trouble making sense of the changes that are underway in America today. Some people - mostly white - sense that they may be losing power, or prestige, or at a more gut level, they may be feeling left out and left behind. Left out of the economic recovery. Left out of the cultural, linguistic and behavioral norms of the coastal cities. Left out of some sort of inside joke, of which they feel like the butt.
This mishmash of feelings cuts to a deep psychological and emotional place that would be confusing to sort out no matter who you are.
And it was this very lack of understanding about our own psychology that created an opening for someone like Trump.
Imagine you are struggling to find any coherent meaning or narrative that ties all of these confusing changes together. And then Trump comes along and offers an explanation. He offers a narrative.
Yes it is a fear-based narrative which is harmful and anti-American in my opinion, but for many, he told a story that satisfied a psychological need for meaning and coherence.
And a good story that gives a clearer picture of one’s place in the world will always be more powerful than any number of well conceived policy proposals.
Trump got elected because he promised to end America’s search for meaning.
Or at least half of America, who happened to live in the right counties.
So the bigger question we should be asking ourselves as a country is why do we have such a large meaning deficit in the first place?
A few days before the election, the Dalai Lama and Arthur C. Brooks penned a joint editorial in the New York Times titled Behind Our Anxiety, the Fear of Being Unneeded.
Their thesis? We all need to be needed. Being needed is not a luxury, it’s deeply ingrained part of being human, and without it, any of us would face psychological and spiritual distress.
“This helps explain why pain and indignation are sweeping through prosperous countries” they surmise.
“The problem is not a lack of material riches. It is the growing number of people who feel they are no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies.”
“In America today, compared with 50 years ago, three times as many working-age men are completely outside the work force. This pattern is occurring throughout the developed world — and the consequences are not merely economic. Feeling superfluous is a blow to the human spirit. It leads to social isolation and emotional pain, and creates the conditions for negative emotions to take root.”
They go on: “Many are confused and frightened to see anger and frustration sweeping like wildfire across societies that enjoy historic safety and prosperity. But their refusal to be content with physical and material security actually reveals something beautiful: a universal human hunger to be needed. Let us work together to build a society that feeds this hunger.”
The need to be useful and recognized is universal. To exist otherwise is to feel disenfranchised.
Trump capitalized on that in a very racial way - by speaking directly to the needs of disenfranchised white people.
In order to prevent someone like Trump from happening again, we need to give those voters a place, a voice, and some meaning. And we need to give it to them alongside (not at the expense of) communities of color, immigrants, women, and all of the historically marginalized groups in this country.
Yes I know, easier said than done, but before we get tactical, it’s important to understand our desired outcome.
4. An Opportunity for Progress
Since the election, I have been truly stuck by the warmth and love and positivity that I see coming from the progressive community.
It reminded me of something I read in Sebastian Junger’s latest book Tribe.
At one point, Junger is describing research that had been done in conflict zones, and mentioned that the researcher, Charles Fritz “was unable to find a single instance where communities that had been hit by catastrophic events lapsed into sustained panic, much less anything approaching anarchy. If anything, he found that social bonds were reinforced during disasters, and that people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community rather than just themselves.”
How hopeful is that? When times get tough, we get tougher.
In another section, Junger observes that “for many people ... hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”
There it is again - our need to be needed.
You have it. I have it. Trump certainly has it. New gang recruits have it - be it a high school gang in Chicago or an alt-right gang in Alabama.
We are all the same in this way.
Which brings me back to Tribe, to Rachel Yehuda of Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City:
“If you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different -- you underscore your shared humanity ... I’m appalled by how much people focus on differences. Why are you focusing on how different we are from one another, and not the things that unite us?”
I am not appalled, for I fully understand the instinct to fight, but I agree with Yehuda.
Two things come to mind on this front.
- Be hard on issues, not on people. I learned that one from my Dad. Has anyone every verbally attacked you personally? If you’re like most people, most of the time, then when this happens, you get defensive and shut down. It doesn’t put you in the mood for rational self reflection. So when we are fighting, we need to truly see our opponents, and stick to issues, rather than personal attacks.
- Be strategic, not selfish. Calling someone a racist is selfish, because it makes YOU feel good and righteous, but it actually makes the situation worse. Research shows that calling people racist does not help reduce racial bias. So if that is truly your goal, then stop being selfish by calling everyone who voted for Trump a racist. Even if they are (and they are, and so are you).
I do not believe that the fight for unity and the fight for justice are mutually exclusive, in fact I believe they may very well be co-dependant.
And both fights take persistence, patience, and very long view.
That is our challenge, and I know we are up for it, because we have always been up for it.
It is the struggle.
I will end where I started, with Viktor Frankl: At one point in his book he states his faith in “the defiant power of the human spirit.”
I love that phrase, and it is very salient to me right now.
For we must be defiant. We must be powerful. And we must remember our shared human spirit.
There are no dead ends in the fight for progress, only detours.
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