Friday, December 09, 2016

political anxiety

The house is warm now, although this morning it was colder than usual and I bundled the children up to eat their breakfast. Outside is all ice dripping in the rain and every once in a while a splintery crash as sheets of ice slide off the roof or branches shake off icy coats.

I am trying to work; I have to work because I have a lot of it at the moment. However, my mind is full of worries, so many are crowding in right now! And if my own private worries were not enough, the election has cast a long cold shadow of anxiety. It's been a month now and I've been speaking with an anxiety I've never met before: a political one. I thought it impossible for Trump to win, and I'm a wee bit nervous that he will make paying attention to politics necessary.

Politics—that which I've previously left to people who find policy and power interesting. Or to those who can see past all the bluster and posing to the actual running of a country, to those who somehow don't lose heart. Not me.

Take abortion. I know it's a contentious issue, but bear with me. Studying the issue in college it seemed there were endless ways to evaluate it: from a philosophical, scientific, social, feminist, religious, historical, psychological, etc, point of view. The arguments sat there, in little black and white type on the pages of books. It was exciting to enter each one and see things from this perspective or that—sympathizing with the case for the unborn creature, convinced of the rights of the mother. I walked away from my studies with the conviction that the issue was hopelessly complicated, with no argument clearly triumphant. I felt in the end that both the mother and unborn child had some level of human rights that needed to be balanced against the other. I felt that because the mother was a fully grown, independent human, her rights did in some ways outweigh those of the unborn child—yet not absolutely. In contrast, the rhetoric of the political Pro-Life and Pro-Choice movements were extreme and absolute. I felt frustrated by the burden their political rhetoric placed upon young women. Both parties used her dilemma as an opportunity to present their position in a tidy framework, as if it was obvious and easy. And both sides bordered on hysterical in their depiction of the other point of view.

Politics, I felt, was a ridiculous endeavor. You might as well check your mind in at the door. I put it aside and involved myself in subjects more given to nuance. But, since Trump will be the new president in January, and it seems unlikely he will die before then, I guess I have to gird up my loins.

And then there is another aspect of political engagement that has been weighing on me. If my Facebook feed is any indication (and I hope it isn't) it seems that the ability to listen to those you disagree with in patience and civility—that is, without freaking out, calling names, denouncing, and "unfriending"—is in mighty short supply. How have we become such thin-skinned, one-dimensional individuals?

In my early 30s in New York City I met a number of young professionals who were dedicated to liberal causes in a way that vaguely concerned me. To be clear, the causes didn't bother me, it was the way these young idealists regarded those who disagreed with them that did. They reminded me of the fundamentalist Christians I knew growing up: utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause and easily threatened by disagreement. In the Christian circles I had grown up with—anabaptists, fundamentalists, evangelicals—I had become familiar with the look of anxiety when people around them said or did things they flagged as ungodly, secular, or of the world.  I saw the same behavior here, but from young liberal activists. The red flags this time around were ideas that seemed conservative, Republican or Christian. Around that time I was dating a thoughtful young Spinoza philosopher who was involved in a satirical culture jamming organization called Billionaires for Bush. He had grown up in a southern Baptist family and but had left his religious identity behind. He, however, noted the same thing. He said that the religious fervor he associated with church youth groups was uncannily akin to what he saw among political activists. He wondered if some underlying impulse had remained, while the cause had changed.

It occurs to me now—perhaps as a result of paying attention to politics for a whole month—that what I really want is a political atmosphere akin to my time studying the various perspectives on abortion. I want issues explored from all sorts of angles, hearty discussion, disagreement, and—most of all—the civility to hear each other out. When I meet (or read an article written by) a person who seems adept at looking at things from numerous different perspectives a whoop of joy washes up inside me! How exciting! How beautiful! It doesn't matter if the person passionately espouses one party or point of view—what matters is their ability to listen to and acknowledge the opposition. I want to shout, "Listen! Listen! Here is hope for humanity!"

I wish we could, as a people, muster up the maturity to listen to those who disagree with us and see if we can find any common ground. Common ground doesn't mean we lose ourselves and our convictions, it means we honor those parts of our human experience we share. And the goodwill engendered may give us a place from which to engage in honest and thoughtful dialogue. It could mean a new idea, a more expansive perspective, perhaps even a win-win solution.

So here I am, with a mind full of worries and my first case of political anxiety. And, as always, I have come back to the words of Etty Hillesum:
"I believe that I will never be able to hate any human being for his so-called wickedness, that I shall only hate the evil that is within me... In any case, we cannot be lax enough in what we demand of others and strict enough in what we demand of ourselves." 

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