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Dealing with the Pain and the Despair

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This piece will be appearing this week in newspapers in VA-06. Explicitly addressed to fellow liberals, it is also written keeping in mind that the areas served by the newspapers are peopled predominantly by Trump supporters.

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This time I would like to address those on the same side as I of the fracture that runs through America right now: the fracture between those who support what’s being done through this Trump presidency, and those who are heart-sick to witness the damage being done to our America right before our eyes.

I’d like to talk, that is, to those who are in pain, tempted to fall into despair, from witnessing the injuries being inflicted on America’s constitutional order, its national interests, its justice, its basic human decency, its role as “leader of the free World” promoting the basic values that America has stood for since its founding.

For me, too, recent times have been more than usually painful as I’ve watched

  • Mitch McConnell and his Republicans reaping their ill-gotten gains from stealing a Supreme Court seat. Painful to see this recent spate of court decisions that make America a less fair, less decent society. Decisions that would have gone the other way if McConnell et al. hadn’t committed an unprecedented violation of the spirit of the Constitution to grab for more power;
  • An apparently successful effort to sell a big chunk of the American public – our countrymen — the grotesque lies about “fake news” and “witch hunts,” creating considerable danger that tens of millions of Americans will dismiss the truth — proven beyond a reasonable doubt — and instead imagine that some outstanding Republicans like Robert Mueller and Rod Rosenstein are not standing for the rule of law, but are abusing their power in order to frame President Trump.

It’s like watching a loved one die. I’ve done that with my parents, and this time it’s the nation I’ve known, the United States that honored “Peace, Justice, and the American Way.” That’s not the spirit in power right now in America.

So how to cope?

Disconnect from the world.

One approach is to retreat. Just not look.

Theoretically, the circumstances of my private life – much-loved wife, fulfilling work, a house I feel good to live in, the ability to get by financially by living frugally but with our needs well met – are such that I could just stop paying any attention to painful things and be happy in my own private life. Stay away from the news– about a President who is anything but “leader of the free world, or about the smell of corruption hanging over this whole administration, from the President on down.

Such retreat might work well for some people, but not for me. I know, because a few times– when things became darker in America over the past 40-some years, I’ve tried to disconnect. But I just can’t.

I care too much – too much about my children and grandchildren, about my friends, about the lives of my countrymen and the quality of the nation, about whether the human experiment on this planet is going to work out – to stop paying attention.

The Heroic Imagine of a Past Dark Time

What works better for me is drawing inspiration from the courage others have shown in dark times.

I look at how the British (starting in 1940) and the Americans (starting at the end of 1941) dealt with their discouraging and frightening news, as evil power threatened to overtake Britain, and as the United States reeled from the defeats at Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, North Africa. But for all the darkness, the British and the American peoples both rose to their challenge, the British showing heroism and the Americans achieving miracles of rapid mobilization to assemble the means to fight and defeat powerful enemies.

And I use that image to say to myself: Buck up. They did not crumble under the onslaught of discouraging developments, they got to work. They assumed the posture of “this can be solved” –though it didn’t always look that way — and they saw the struggle through.

Activism as a Pain-Killer and Stimulant

It has been discovered by good studies that the effects of political activism are not just on the world the activist seeks to make better. Activism also has an impact on the activist.

Suffering can be reduced by taking action to help those things over which one is suffering.

That can be difficult, I realize. At moments of despair, it takes some effort to raise oneself up from the pit that opens up in us when we take in how much that’s fundamental to American ideals that’s now under threat because of this triad of brokenness on the right:

  • a President – Donald Trump – who is regularly attacking so much that has defined America and its values
  • a Republican Party that’s shameless in assaulting the rule of law in order to protect that President – in violation of its members’ oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution
  • a Republican base – our fellow Americans! — that can witness the grotesque display before us and tell pollsters they approve.

Seeing all that hurts. But if we do pick ourselves up and find a way to work to turn back the tide of battle — as did the World War II generations did in North Africa, in Europe, and in the Pacific— we can simultaneously help our world and relieve our suffering. A great two-fer.

It is built into our nature that we are rewarded for rising to confront a vital challenge by a lessening of pain and an increased sense of inner strength. Assuming a posture of “this can be solved” has served life.

To treat the pain, and treat the despair, act to help protect what you care about. Act to help take power from those trampling on America’s heart, and put it into the hands of those concerned to protect America’s best values.