Heal we should. Even when we are trying to impeach the con man in the White House. We have to band together to bring the Truth to all. Let Truth and democracy prevail in America.
“I feel like I’ve lost faith in humanity, in our country, in myself,” a client told me recently. “Is this depression, or is this the election?”
“Good question,” I replied. The truth is, individual psychology is hugely influenced by political realities. Many of us feel insane right now because our world is not sane. Current events are very much at odds with our natural optimism, and our belief in human goodness and progress.
What made us so optimistic in the first place? Our nation was founded on idealistic, positive principles: human worth and dignity, the inevitability of progress, and the goodness of the human collective. Alex de Tocqueville in the early 19th century described Americans’ remarkable optimism with interest. As an article in the Atlantic described in 2015, Americans have maintained our unusually sunny outlook even through our darkest hours. If we have a national ideology, it could be encapsulated in Obama’s farewell address, with the assertion, “I truly believe we are going to be okay.”
From such elevated hope has come a long, hard fall. We find ourselves in a darkening political climate in which corruption, hatred, exclusion, and paranoia are prominent. Many are experiencing despair and anxiety like never before, judging by the increase in calls to suicide and crisis hotlines, and anecdotal reports from therapists. A national trauma, just like a personal one, is as disorienting as it is terrifying. It makes us question everything we thought we knew. Two questions must be answered in order to heal:
- How can we integrate this crisis into our understanding of the world?
- What do we do now?
Our anxious minds are caught in the dissonance between our belief in progress and our current political hellscape. We must understand that the belief in human progress is a myth, with historical and religious context, and it is no longer serving us. Its roots trace back to Enlightenment philosophy, whose major thinkers believed civilization would progress toward perfection if humans were free to use their reason.
Optimism is also a coping mechanism. It can buoy us from the dark waters of suffering. When harsh reality is too much to take, clinging to a better future can help us carry on.
Our American brand of Christianity has adopted this narrative as well. Many grow up hearing statements like, “People are inherently good.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Do the right thing, and everything will work out.” “God has a plan. I can leave everything in God’s hands.”
Such statements are offered as a salve for life’s inevitable pain, but they have downsides. How many of us have wanted to punch a wall after a statement like, “He’s in a better place”? Positive thinking, when misplaced, is infuriating and unhelpful. Believing that “everything will be okay” sets us up for despair, because each new time things are not okay, we feel beaten down again. Optimism is not always healthy. It can make us complacent, fatigued, and detached from whole of our psyches.
There are times when optimism is not appropriate or possible, and this is one of those times. Our President is delusional, lying, or ignorant; disastrous climate change and war with North Korea loom; marginalized people in our society are suffering. Faced with these calamities, catastrophic thinking is a rational response. History teaches us that many arcs of history did not “bend toward justice.” The 65 million people currently displaced worldwide are tragic examples. We need only speak to a Native American to understand that collapse is entirely possible.
Instead of blind faith in progress, I offer a specific, practical system useful for maintaining mental health in a paranoid, post-positive world.
STEP 1: RADICAL ACCEPTANCE AND DIALECTICAL THINKING
“The path out of hell is through misery. By refusing to accept the misery that is part of climbing out of hell, you fall back into hell.” — Marsha Linehan, founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
Radical acceptance, as understood in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), distinguishes between pain and suffering. Pain cannot be avoided. Fighting against pain, however, is what drives the majority of our suffering. Painful reality can be fully (i.e. “radically”), non-judgmentally accepted. When something terrible happens, our natural reaction is to fight against it: “This should not have happened! I can’t believe it! I would do anything to go back in time.” Fighting our agony won’t change it, however. We are better served by accepting what happened, allowing it to change us, and working with what is left.
In response to our current nightmare, we can wish it were different and stay miserable, or we can accept our new world. To be clear, this does not mean condoning what happened. It simply means coming to terms with what is, and with what we cannot control.
Of course, some circumstances can be changed with the right tools. There is much we cannot change, however. We cannot change that Donald Trump was elected. We cannot change that he is (very likely) pathologically narcissistic. We cannot change that many Americans are loyal to him in spite of his hatred, or even because of it. We see more clearly the greed rampant in the GOP establishment. We do well to accept these truths so that we can move forward, rather than paralyzing ourselves with shock and outrage.