I'm still struggling with exactly what to say about the results of the U.S. presidential election. Every time I feel like I've got a handle on what's going on and how I feel about it, something new happens and I feel like I'm pulled back to square one. This feels different than other major events, because, as I explained in my previous post, it's not just politics - it's very, very personal.
As I continue to process, I felt like I should share something here. So, in the vein of emphasizing the personal, and choosing vulnerability as a way to connect, I'm going to share something I wrote in my journal a few days ago.
It has been a tough week. I've had about a thousand different things running through my head at any given time, and I've been absorbing a thousand different ideas, admonishments and complaints from others simultaneously. Everything feels so painfully urgent, so existentially important, and I believe that it is. Somehow through all of that I worked out some plans for myself that feel somewhat productive. I started a conversation with myself about how to use my writing - and encourage others to use their writing - to make change. I also spent some time trying to convince some Trump supporters on Facebook that, in fact, this is not like other elections, the pain we feel is not exactly like what they felt in 2008, the fear we have is founded, and our response is not “whining,” but protesting against injustice.
But it has also become more clear to me than ever, this week that a significant number of people genuinely believe this is what's best for our country and for themselves. A significant number of people appear to truly believe that they have been oppressed for the past eight years by liberal elites who wanted them to conform to a more social justice-minded worldview, to their own detriment. The cognitive dissonance is hard to hold in my head, but at a distance, I get it. At least I think I do.
But there has to be something we can do about this impulse to lash out with “no, I’M the victim!” when one sees another person bleeding and therefore getting more attention. Thinking about it that way, analytically, is really helpful for me. I happened to have an appointment with my therapist on Wednesday morning and she was very confident in her explanation for all of this: trauma. I’ve hesitated trying to explain this publicly because I know emotions are raw and it might sound like, “those poor Trump supporters.” But to me it feels more like how we talk about men, as feminists. We talk about how we need feminism in part to dismantle a culture of toxic masculinity, as a result protecting ourselves from violence while also freeing boys and men to feel, emote, and have empathy….which makes them less inclined to lash out in violence stoked by fear and constraint. It isn't even an analogy - these things are inextricably linked. Convincing people that empathy matters and not only fails to steal something away from them, but provides them with something powerful and wonderful and healing, is a familiar goal. But how? How, when us telling them how to feel is already their biggest trigger? (And yes I use that word intentionally. If we are talking about trauma, we are talking about triggers.) And especially - how do we do this while we are hanging from the edge of the cliff, already gravely endangered while they laugh and call it “sore losing?”
My only answer right now is that those of us with a safer grip need to take on the task of connecting. Not coddling, not commiserating - connecting. Those of us who have safety to spare need to convey that what we already take for granted - that it is safe to be afraid, safe to want things, safe to acknowledge weakness, safe to be vulnerable - is also available to them. Many of us have dealt with trauma. I have tried, after spending time mourning this week, to spend a little time really focused on empathizing, and I see similarities between my own experience and what I believe many Trump supporters may be experiencing. After years of learning that my feelings didn't matter or weren't rational or worth acknowledging, I am still sometimes bullheaded in insisting that they are, even now that I'm much healthier, and in a respectful and appropriately vulnerable relationship. I sometimes see and hear myself lashing out in defense, protecting myself from offenses that may or may not be as threatening as they seem. I'm not wrong to feel these things, but it doesn't mean I'm not responsible for working toward a better balance, for my own sake and the sake of everyone my choices and actions affect. I've had years of therapy. I'm trying to imagine how I might feel if I didn't have access to that, and felt that I lived in a world, or country, that was moving in a far-off, frightening direction without me.
These are hard things to think about when the world is already on fire. It's not comfortable to approach the people with the matches. And while this line of thinking empowers me, I know that won't be true for many others. I'm just trying to make sense of things the best I can, and for me, the root of this is familiar - a problem of empathy.
At the risk of seeming self-serving, I'm going to also take this opportunity to link to a piece I wrote for Quartz the week before the election, about the role that empathy plays in politics and international relations. It may not be an answer to any of our biggest questions, but I think it helps with perspective.
I'll be back with more soon. In the meantime, I'm back to avoiding social media as much as possible, so if you want to reach me please do so by email. You can also feel free to leave a comment below.