Save me from a villainous imagination;
Deliver me from my friends.
— Barenaked Ladies, “Take it Back”
CW: references to self-harm.
Dear people, we’re more than a month past that last turn toward the Darkest Timeline1. It’s time to buckle down and do some hard work. Time to gather and maintain the tools we need now, and are going to need in the future: tools we’ve left neglected, ones we’ve taken for granted, ones we never even knew we had. This kind of care is always important, but right now, right this minute, these tools are under attack.
No, not the Constitution, our rights, our freedom, our systems of checks and balances, our privacy, our internet security. What I’m talking about is upstream from all that: our minds, our hearts, our courage. Our (for many different meanings of the term) souls.
The Trump campaign was, and the post-election Trump news is, a Gish gallop. And now on lefty Twitter, I’m seeing a similar phenomenon on the emotional level: a firehose of things we must all pay attention to. All at once! Right now! A person can never catch up. There’s never enough emotional energy. But, the drummer beats out under the melody of grief and the bass line of fear, if you don’t care about this then you’re a bad person. React! React! React!
Turn that music down and listen to me for a minute. If you have ever listened to me before, listen now.
There’s a fair argument that America gave itself a collective case of PTSD over 9/11. I’d submit that the Right has been giving itself the same treatment over abortion2 for decades. And even before 2016, the consequences were not good: neither the War on Terror nor the Tea Party is fruit that makes me want more from that tree. Then Trump’s election campaign made jam of it, boiled it up with sweet nihilism until it jelled and poured it into jars with little red labels.
If you can resist anything, in these days where your resistance is everywhere demanded, resist this kind of damage. There are people deliberately trying to inflict it on you, right now. More than one part of our culture encourages us to acquire a taste for it, whether in the form of glib cynicism or wretched martyrdom. And perhaps sometimes we seek it out, for the same reason that people indulge in other forms of self-harm: as an assertion of control in an otherwise uncontrollable world.
How to resist?
The first thing to accept is that there is no single answer, because we’re all different. So if someone else’s coping mechanism—discussing things endlessly or unplugging, acting or being still—doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. If they tell you their methods are universal, that everyone must do their thing, remember that there’s more than one kind of bubble at play here, sigh or smile gently, and move on.
Secondly, relatedly, try to stop worrying about whether others are reacting suitably. That person who’s not visibly supporting your cause may be calling their Congresscritters daily, giving their coffee money to the fund, or raising consciousness in a private forum. Or they may be doing none of these things, because they’re on fire for something else, or they’re exhausted, or they’re doing something in meatspace. This is really hard, because it’s miserable and terrible when no one else seems to care about something that’s (sometimes literally) vitally important to you. Likewise, you can’t stop people from haranguing and guilt-tripping everyone in their timeline.
You can’t even necessarily get people whose reactions are counterproductive or hurtful to stop. The sorrowful truth is that there will be hard discussions and sincere disagreements on tactics. There will also be circular firing squads, and the line between the two categories will be forever disputed. We are all going to lose friends, and the new friends we gain won’t necessarily ease that.
The third strand in the braid is that no one is entitled to another person’s energy, attention, or joy3. Not random sea lions on the internet, nor politicians, pundits and priests. My term for people who demand my energy without my consent is spoon bandits; I’m as fond of them as I am of any brigand or pickpocket. There are people whose requests for my attention I will entertain; there are also requests that are entertaining enough that I’ll listen on those merits alone. But my energy is mine.
All of this comes to the same thing, a rule I’ve held to even longer than always strive to make others smarter, wiser, and more joyful: There is at most one person in the world whose behavior you can control.
Start there, at the center.
First, the physical. Listen to your body and take care of it. Eat food that makes you feel well. Keep yourself appropriately hydrated. Try to get as much sleep as you need. Take whatever medications you should be taking. Try to stay healthy. Whether you do these things because you understand that you’re infinitely valuable4 or because you’re trying so hard to behave, do them.
Step two, the mental and emotional. This will vary enormously by character, but at a minimum: give yourself permission to be fallible, to be weak, to be discouraged; also give yourself permission to be happy, to be at peace, to be delighted in a world that also has good things in it. Here is a good poem to consider (courtesy of Pendrift). If you, like me, need some time of silence and reflection in your life, make that a priority5. Maintain your relationships. Seek joy, and value it when you find it. Send love to people who are struggling; it may make you feel better too.
Check in with yourself frequently when you’re consuming media, social or otherwise. Are you showing signs of stress and distress? Are you feeling overwhelmed? Given that, is the time you’re spending well-spent? I don’t necessarily mean “check out of current events,” though there will be people who will do that. But consider your objectives in reading your Twitter feed: is it to make you smarter? wiser? more joyful? Is your way of interacting with it doing that? Or are you just turning tharn, doing long-term damage to the emotional resources you’re going to need in the future? If so, how can you do things differently? Mute people or keywords, agree with yourself to skip political tweets and get your news from some other source, delete the app and keep up with those people by email? Whatever it is, don’t just consider it. Do it.
And only then are we ready for step three, which is to do whatever we can, whether it be calling politicians, donating to causes, volunteering, or marching in the streets. Because only then do we have the resources for the work at hand now, and the work that is to come.
Our interaction with world events is infused with a sense of powerlessness. We can see, and thus fear, so much more than we can control. Steven Covey, whose Seven Habits of Highly Effective People I have never read, talks about circles of influence and concern (pdf link). Your circle of influence is what you control; your circle of concern is what you worry about. The space that is in the latter and not in the former is often called the “zone of doom”.6,8 It’s where joy and energy go to die, where gleeful despair builds its house.
It’s also an inescapable fact of our world: not a problem we can remove, but a condition we must learn to live with, each of us, in our own ways. That takes hard work, discipline, and patience. But the alternative is to let it break us.
Adulting. It’s hard, yo. Let’s get to it.