An answer to anger
This poster hangs outside the room I work in. I passed by it many times before the election, but since then it has taken on new meaning.
Last Thursday, one of my oldest friends called me and asked if I shouldn’t feel anger. Not only is it morally justified, he seemed to be saying, but it will also prove politically expedient in the battles to come.
He may be right. I’ve been thinking about his question ever since. But I had to be honest: anger is not the emotion that has come to me most readily since Donald Trump’s victory.
After the initial shock on election night, I felt overwhelmed by sadness. Sadness that the country could elect such a president, but mostly sadness at the pain I began to feel at the root of this result.
On Wednesday morning, I texted Josh what I knew would be the opening salvo in a long debate:
We should take the election not as verification of doom but as a reminder of the need for and duty to empathize.
It may be that a Trump presidency is what’s needed to get people like you and me to look around and face the reasons why so many see the world so differently.
I’m scared and sick and sad like the rest of them in our education and cultural niches. But I am trying to consider that this is a lesson in humility we need to learn.
It’s time to face America as it is. This is the appropriate pride-swallowing exercise for those of us who condemned Trump from a distance.
Am I opting for conciliation and accommodation, as Trump’s angriest critics say?
I don’t think so.
Having underestimated the president-elect, the comfortable and the educated now need to look more seriously at the causes and conditions behind his rise to power. Upon close analysis these seem to have less to do with him as a person or anything he’s said than with the deep structural problems that have divided the country culturally and economically for decades.
Numerous friends have pointed out that I make this argument from a position of privilege. I have the luxury of looking at most social problems clinically, not experientially. But to me this makes the need for empathy all the more real and urgent.
I have no idea what it’s like to be Black, Latino, Muslim, or a woman. I also have no idea what it’s like to be a Trump voter. Isn’t it time we all tried to feel a little more into each others’ pain?
As Charles Eisenstein suggests, “If you are appalled at the election outcome and feel the call of hate, perhaps try asking yourself, ‘What is it like to be a Trump supporter?’ Ask it not with a patronizing condescension, but for real, looking underneath the caricature of misogynist and bigot to find the real person.”
Since the election, I’ve felt the need to puncture my own penchant toward insulated complacency and reach further than I have in the past. On Sunday I took part in what the organizers called a vulnerable rally. At a busy intersection in downtown Oakland, we gathered not to protest but to stand with signs bearing vulnerable sentiments.
A few days earlier this had been the site of what some called a riot. Windows were smashed, people were arrested, and there was plenty of anti-Trump divisiveness on display. Now we occupied the same space with signs that silently declared “I am afraid I don’t matter,” “I am ashamed of my privilege,” and “I feel lonely.” Some people’s signs were more personal. Mine said “I feel like I’m part of the problem.”
After all my talk of abstract empathy over the past few days, this felt like a productive way to engage and help heal the world in some small way. The words we held let our insides show — snippets selected to greet passersby with the question, “can you feel into this?” It was an invitation to go inside and greet the other, a model for what we might do more of all over the country.
As they approached, people’s faces changed. All walks of life were arrested for a moment or two, some long enough to stick around and talk.
Thirty minutes or so after I arrived, a young black man named Charles appeared. He said he was “about to go bust some more heads” — his fingers were in splints — but now he’d changed his mind. Charles walked by every sign and gave us all advice about how to overcome our vulnerabilities and love ourselves more. In the midst of his advice-giving, an older white woman walked up to him and put her hand on his shoulder. She asked his name and what he would write if he were to join us. In that moment, Charles’ expression changed. He thought about it, then said, “I’m afraid I won’t be part of my child’s life.” He didn’t write it on a sign, but we all felt Charles’ pain.
In this instance of empathy, my overwhelming sense that my privilege has deceived me, that I have betrayed those I can’t see, temporarily lifted. We were all there together, differences dispelled, for a moment.
Those who say they know the other and the other is to blame miss out on this kind of solidarity. Even when justified, anger reflects what it condemns, carrying the hatred further and keeping love at bay, just as Martin Luther King Jr. says.
I say this from a place of privilege. But on the streets of Oakland I saw that vulnerability binds. The smiles, the hugs, the thank yous, the tears, they changed something. In whatever small ways, they helped push the balance that much closer toward fellow feeling and genuine human care.
* * *
On election night I was also in the East Bay, this time in Berkeley. A week earlier, a new friend had invited me to a gathering of “empaths, musicians, space aliens, artists, machinists, weirdos and other sensitive folk who know it’s possible to transcend this unreality.” Instead of watching the election results, he said, we would consciously assemble at his house and share “an epic intentional soup for healing the wounds of division and transcending dualism.”
Heady stuff, I thought when I read his text message. But this is where I wanted to belong.
On the morning of the election I told Josh it would be a good place to meditate on the fate of democracy by embodying some of its more heartening upshots.
“Have faith and sing a song for me tonight,” I texted. “Our Modern Epic: The American Ramayana.”
Not that I avoided politics altogether. That afternoon I helped lead a group of 6th-graders to San Francisco’s City Hall. They waived signs in support of various candidates and propositions, but I’ll never forget the group of girls I saw taking the lead. In the late afternoon sun, at the top of their lungs, they screamed, “HIL-LA-RY! HIL-LA-RY!” Fellow supporters clapped and honked, took photos, gave thumbs up. All of us celebrated like she’d already won.
When I arrived at the house, high in the Berkeley Hills, the transcendence was nearly instantaneous. We did a group meditation, a soup ritual to fill our empty bowls with imagined abundance, and then feasted on some of the best food I’d had in a while.
The hosts had made two delectable soups, two salads, and fresh baked bread. It couldn’t have been a more luxurious counter-cultural event. And amidst everything there was no talk of politics. We had transcended duality, literally by being above it. The rest of the world was far below, banished from our state of elevated consciousness.
After dinner, group singing and performances broke out. The ebb and flow of spontaneous collaboration was mesmerizing. Harmonies rose and fell, the sounds of guitars and a digital piano came and went, different people sat at three harmoniums.
By the end, some of us ended up on the floor in a kind of transcendental cuddle puddle. Time seemed to have stopped, all seeming well in the world. But as I awoke and found myself lying on the floor it began to feel eerie that no one had announced Hillary’s victory.
Still enmeshed in my luxurious half-slumber, I halfway congratulated us for not caring, for celebrating her night in just this way.
But just before midnight I stood up and walked to the kitchen.
The bread-baker was standing alone on her phone. Her stance did not convey optimism. It was here that I heard the news.
“It’s not good,” she said when I asked.
My first thought was that she must be joking. There’s no way. But the look on her face was serious.
It was really over.
We were all wrong.
* * *
I awoke the next morning tormented like millions. When I finally got myself up to meditate in the cold darkness, I was not looking for deliverance. I just hoped for some insight. And then it came.
I don’t know anything, I realized. About politics, America, or the system I’d supposedly been studying for years. I have no idea who lives in this country or what their lives are like. I am utterly cut off, ignorant, deluded.
From a position of utter entitlement, I assumed for months that enough is true in my worldview that Trump was bound to lose.
Now the truth was revealed. “A world of heirloom tomatoes and self-driving cars isn’t the true and only Heaven,” George Packer wrote a few weeks before the election.
On the Bart ride back to San Francisco I watched Trump and Clinton’s speeches. I felt an urgency to get back to school to see how students were reacting, but it was clear that I was going to be late.
When I walked into the classroom their reactions were on full display.
Most kids lashed out in fear or anger, repeating the callow things they’d apparently heard from parents or other opinion makers. Maybe predictably, no one was asking why.
“I hope he gets assassinated,” one kid said with a smile. Others repeated some version of “well, I’m moving to Canada,” with the occasional variation, “my family has a house in Europe so we can leave if things get really bad.”
Taking this in, I felt injustice gripping me by the throat. We were all part of the problem. But none of us knew.
Following an impulse to improvise, I googled the electoral map and put the image up for them to see.
“What do you notice here?” I asked them.
“Does anyone know any Trump supporters?”
A few students said yes. Guardedly, they started to discuss some of the reasons people voted for Trump.
“This is an alternative to blaming and being afraid,” I said, probably too didactically.
“You don’t have to agree with someone to try to understand them.”
They knew this intuitively. It just took some work to get there.
* * *
For the rest of the day, all I could see were more signs of my privilege. The way I gobbled my free lunch and took the high quality of the food for granted. The empty paper towel dispenser in the bathroom and my feelings toward it.
After school, it so happened that I’d scheduled an appointment to sign up for California health care. Assuming Hillary would win, it didn’t even cross my mind that this coverage may not be valid in a few months.
When I walked into the Castro-Mission Health Center I noticed that I expected it to be nicer. I thought I’d just show up, flash some documents, sign some papers, and be given health insurance. But my appointment was canceled. The case worker called in sick.
Upon hearing this news I felt anger rising. Mainly, I thought, because I hadn’t been called. Then I remembered the call I didn’t take while eating my lunch and talking animatedly about the election. I saw it was from a 415 number and disregarded it. I assumed nothing stood in the way of things being simple and easy for me because that’s how they normally are. Why should anything change?
After scheduling another appointment I biked to Dolores Park Cafe. Across the street, a few loving people were giving free hugs near the park. I decided I needed one. Later I went to Whole Foods to buy coffee and citrus. I ended up getting some kale too. No one in the store seemed to be talking to each other. Is the pain too great? Or is this further evidence? I wondered.
At home I tried to decompress. I burned incense, showered, did some yoga while listening to “Kind of Blue.” This is when I heard the first sounds of protest.
It took me a few moments to make out what they were saying. But when I leaned up against the window, I saw and heard them clearly.
Throngs, marching down Market Street, chanting “DON-ALD TRUMP! NOT MY PRE-SI-DENT!”
But he is, I thought.
I felt the error in their way counterpoised to my own, standing in downward-facing dog.
* * *
Over leftover butternut-squash soup, which my mom had made while visiting the previous weekend, I started listening to Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece” on repeat. Opening the New York Times on my laptop, I read Nicholas Kristof’s plea to give Trump a chance.
Strangely, the combination of this sentiment, Bill Evans, and my mom’s soup lodged something loose.
In between bites (I also baked a yam), I began to cry, messily, in great heaving sobs. This went on for the better part of ten minutes, a record for me as an adult.
When the tears stopped, I felt better. I started responding to texts, emails, and facebook posts about the election. I also shared excerpts of a letter from the San Francisco Friends School, which had been forwarded to me by my fellow humanities teacher earlier in the day.
Dear SFFS Staff-Mates,
I am thinking of you this morning.
I am among those deeply disappointed by the results of the Presidential and other elections last night, and a part of me wishes for room to simply grieve. I am and will continue to make room for that, and I hope that you feel support to do the same. How we do so will be one of the powerful examples we provide for our students today and going forward.
I also hope that we will feel the support of one another — animated by values we hold dear — to seek to understand all that we can about what has transpired, what we and the students in our care might, perhaps must, learn from it, and how we might most constructively respond to it.
As a colleague has said to me, “Understanding is the most essential step in conflict resolution. I hope that even (maybe especially) in the face of this unimaginable election that we make space for the children to understand. To understand the real possibility that not everyone who voted did so to support the angry messages you may have heard, nor with hate in their hearts. We might need to listen even harder to the people who just rose up to speak and rejected everything about politics as usual. I hope in the understandable unknown and fear that teachers — and their children — may feel, that we don’t let fear guide us too.”
As I read this letter, over and over, tears kept coming back.
It’s a sad day for our country, I finally let myself feel.
But we can try to understand.