This was me after the 2016 election.
It got really bad in late January and February. I started doing things like this.
I turned into a churning stew of anxiety, anger, fear, and melancholy.
I wanted to do something. To change something. I wanted to help. To make things better. But all my worry and fear were not helping anyone—least of all me. So I unplugged from the news for a while. I started doing things like this. And this.
I attended a funeral of a beloved uncle who died much too soon but lived a beautiful life. My Uncle Don was a middle school math teacher for over thirty years, and he dedicated his whole life to loving people and making them feel seen and empowered. Close to a thousand people attended his funeral. He touched so many lives.
My anxiety and fear began to break and I could think more clearly.
I suddenly realized that despite all of my anger at the President (and despite himself), his election taught me five really important lessons.
#1. I learned that no matter how bad things are, I do not have to react. When things are wildly angry, fearful, and stressful in the world, I do not have to react with more volatile anger, fear and stress. Reacting this way does not help me, and it does not help anyone. Instead of reacting, I can be calm. I can think. I can rest in a peaceful space of compassion and wisdom inside of me. When I do this, I can figure out the wise thing to do to help me and to help the beautiful world I live in. Maybe I will write a blog post. Maybe I will call my representatives. Perhaps I will join a peaceful protest. Perhaps I will do art. There are so many different things I can choose to do, and the more I rest in peace and compassion, the more skillfully I choose the helpful thing to do.
#2. I learned that no matter how bad things are, I can always show gentleness and compassion to myself. When I do this, I strengthen myself to respond wisely to the difficult things in the world. When I don’t show myself gentleness and compassion, I begin acting out of fear, desperation, loneliness, and volatile anger. It is hard to be helpful to anyone in this condition.
#3. I learned that I don’t have to solve the problems of our nation alone. I don’t have to know how to fix everything. I have one important piece of the puzzle. Everyone does. When we build relationships with each other and love and listen, we can solve problems together much more effectively.
#4. I learned that I can honor the dignity and light in everyone–even my “enemies”, even people I really disagree with. There are a lot of people I disagree with right now, and on many days, I disagree with almost everything the President does and says. That’s okay. I can still honor his dignity as a human being. This does not mean I will not disagree with him and this does not meant that I stop resisting when political resistance is called for. It just means that the President still carries human dignity within him, and the more I honor this in him and everyone else, the more they are able to find and nurture their own dignity and that of others. (If you would like to read more about honoring everyone’s dignity–even that of our “enemies”–you can read about it more here and here.)
#5. I learned that my painful emotions are an invitation to understand more deeply how I can show greater compassion to myself and others. Throughout my life, when I have had difficult feelings like anxiety, anger, or self-loathing, my first instinct has been to resist them, to cover them over, to power through them. Now I realize that my difficult feelings signal a place in me where I am wanting to grown in compassion and wisdom, and I just have not figured out how to do it yet. If I sit with my feelings and listen to them, I can almost always learn how to turn them into opportunities for enlightenment.
I certainly wish that the 2016 election had turned out differently, and I think there is a great deal of work we need to do to help our country be a more just, loving, and humane place for everyone. Nevertheless, I will always remember that the 2016 election and the President helped me to learn these five very important lessons. I hope the President can learn them, too.
For you, Uncle Don.