The subtitle of my blog is “Psyche, Story, Spirit.” Today I’m thinking about something that binds together “psyche” and “spirit”—the feelings many Americans have after last week’s election. Many are elated. Many are saddened, or afraid. What I’m interested in, though, is that in earlier elections when Democrats won, those who are now elated were saddened, or afraid. I’m not really interested, at the moment, in the reasons or causes for either side’s emotional responses; what interests me is that finally, between left and right, we have common ground.
That common ground is that now we are all familiar with how it feels to receive an injury to our spirits. By those words I mean to convey a kind of woundedness that not only brings pain, but diminishes our sense of meaning and threatens our hope. What most affected me after the election was the bewildering and, yes, even frightening sense that the truths I’ve trusted may not hold. Since the results came plain, I feel what many people say they feel: They’ve taken my country away. I’ve heard that sentence from folks on the right, and wondered what they meant by it. Finally, I have common ground with those on the right who’ve been so angry and afraid all these years. It is not pleasant ground to stand on, but it’s shared, at least.
Common ground? Really?
Psychologists know, as do folks who suffer PTSD, that the aftermath is sometimes worse than the wound itself. It is one thing to be shocked, to go on auto-pilot, to rely on numbness to make it through a traumatizing situation. But as the days, weeks, months, and years after the event pile up, the longer term consequences start coming to light. And alongside them, along with the pain, come questions, doubts, self-blame, a rupture of connection. Did I do something to cause the tragedy? Am I wrong, bad, or even evil? Or is someone else to blame, someone I may have counted on or even loved? What’s wrong with this damn world? Who am I after all is said and done? What does this all man? What should I do now? Questions that disrupt the settled world I thought I had.
Perhaps it’s fair to say that this injury to our spirits accompanies many of our presidential elections. Certainly, the nation endured it as a sundering catastrophe in 1860, when the visceral reactions of real people tore the country apart—a gulf that has haunted us since. But the elections of 2000, when we elected a war-maker, and of 2008, when we elected a Black man, and of 2016, when we tried to elect a woman, belong to us who are living now, and are the injurers of our times.
I’m thinking of PTSD too, or in psychologists’ language, “acute stress disorder” (since it’s only days since the event, not months). Combat veterans who suffer PTSD, especially those who had to do things they would never have dreamed of doing in civilian life, report these injuries to the spirit I’m thinking about. So do many survivors of sexual or physical abuse, especially those who accepted the abuse by one person in order to protect someone else—the other parent, for instance, or siblings. Traumatic experiences like those alter a person’s sense of her goodness, of his ability to make a difference by his actions, of being who they thought they were.
Am I implying that the emotional aftermath of losing an election is equivalent to killing in war or witnessing its horrors? Am I arguing that seeing one’s candidate lose is the same as being raped by a drunken father or by a violent boyfriend on a date?
I am, though, trying to say that our spirits can be injured, and that when they are, the result can be fear, shame, anger, blame, confusion, despair. These emotions are the common ground all of us stand on who share strong passions about American politics, and lose. And what challenges me about this common ground is that it can be, may be, the ground of empathy. We on the left may be feeling—and if so, understanding—what those on the right have felt.
Forgive, forget, move on?
Each of us will find some way to heal, or so we all can hope. But I’m not ready to forgive. Psychologists remind us that the first step after an offense is not to forgive when there remain unhealed wounds. The first step is to talk, to name the fear, the rage, the despair, or whatever form the injury takes. To talk not only with loved ones, but with whomever will listen. To speak what is true in each of our hearts. That’s the first step.
Forget? I will never forget the obscenity and cruelty of President-elect Trump’s campaign and of his talk. Until he demonstrates compassion for all the citizens, especially the vulnerable and the disenfranchised, in real and tangible ways, my memory of his insults and assaults will stay fresh. But that does not mean I will resist everything he does. What is truly honorable I will support. What benefits real people in real ways, I will support. But when he proposes actions that will harm those who have already suffered much harm—women held back or assaulted, immigrants terrified, Muslims vilified, Jews slandered, disabled people mocked, the elderly threatened, the rebuilders of the infrastructure obstructed, the polluters of the air and water empowered—I will resist.
Move on? Only in one respect: I will move on in my own work of managing my personal spiritual woundedness, and in comforting those around me when I can. I will move on to organize my thinking and my writing and my contributing and my action so that I don’t add to the injuries to the spirit that already pile too high.
What can I do?
It’s a dark time.
Those of us who won the election last week must wait, anxiously, to see whether the promises they counted on are real or merely “politics,” rhetoric designed to fool them into delivering power to the likes of Bannon and Breitbart.
Those of us who lost must grieve and wait as well, to see what emerges from the shadows of that ugly and debasing campaign. I hope that we all, winners and losers, will seek connectedness, not disunion. Civility, not hate.
Still, there have been other dark, perhaps darker, times. Think back to September 1, 1939, the night Hitler invaded Poland. The world awoke next morning shocked, gaggled, unstrung, despairing. Most of us now are shocked, and half of us are unstrung, seventy-seven years later. To many, the world seems just as dark—while others believe a dawn is breaking (though I fear they will soon find their hopes dashed as well).
W. H. Auden wrote a poem about that night, “1st September 1939.” Here is its final stanza.
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
On both sides of our country’s divide, I hope we will listen, and exchange our messages of justice, and, despite the injuries to our spirits, show an affirming flame.