I confess: I have been overly obsessed with American politics for the past 6 months.
This started innocently enough when, last fall, I tried to more deeply engage my Psychology of Personality in social and political issues by having them do case analyses of the two presidential candidates. Although I tried to balance the focus, most media and student attention was focused on Donald Trump, including this outstanding psychological profile of Mr. Trump by my favorite contemporary personality psychologist, Dan McAdams. Through lively discussions with my unusually informed students, I was sucked in.
Of course, none of us expected that Mr. Trump would win the election, and the aftermath only led me to thirst for more information and news analysis than is really healthy for anyone to consume.
I confess: The election has caused me to despair.
Similar to watching the Space Shuttle Challenger explode in 1986 and the World Trade Center collapse after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, I believe I always will remember the shock I felt as I watched the election results of 2016 being reported. One particularly vivid memory is when David Brooks on PBS announced that S&P futures were down over 500 points. Then, I knew.
The next day, I wore all black for the second time in my 15-year teaching career (the other time being the day of the American invasion of Iraq).
There have been various reasons for my despair. Given Mr. Trump’s denial of scientific truth claims, my main concern has been about the future of the earth’s climate.
I confess: I have lacked empathy and love for my neighbors.
The morning after the election, my Introduction to Psychology class was charged with emotion unlike any class at any other time in my career. I was expecting people to be confused and fearful like me, but what I’ll most remember were some students “high-fiving” in celebration.
The topic of the day just so happened to be the social psychology of prejudice, and so I began the class hesitantly asking my students to comment how their reading connected with their experience of the election. A young woman cautiously raised her hand, and remarked that “the election has caused me to shut down in fear.” I asked why, again assuming she would be like me. I’ll never forget her response: she said it had felt impossible to tell anyone how she had voted for our new President-elect because of worry that they would regard her as a bigot.
This student’s comments impressed upon me how much I had assumed – probably often incorrectly – about those who held different political beliefs than my own.
I confess: I have found deeper wisdom and peace because of the election.
Two days after the election, I was fortunate to have a scheduled day off. It was a gorgeous Autumn day in Minnesota, and so I decided to “take some time” hiking and reflecting in William O’Brien State Park.
What I continued to come back to was a Facebook posting of a friend who was struggling to understand her faith in light of the election. Before I left the park, I felt the urge to synthesize my feelings in the following Facebook response:
This was the launching point for me to realize that I needed to start doing something constructive. My first action upon returning home was to double the amount of money we contribute to The Nature Conservancy.
Since the inauguration of our new President, new difficulties have arisen. However, one question continues to return: how can I respond most constructively to further peace?
Part of my meditation on this question has been inspired by a lovely book called “A Peace of My Mind.” In it, John Noltner shares photos and stories of individuals across the nation reflecting on what peace means to them. Among other insights, the book reminds me that peace must begin within. Reflecting the best social science, it also reminds me that contact across group lines is something I can encourage in many personal domains of influence.
And, so, today, I feel convicted of two important lessons.
1. I need to manage the amount of news information and analysis I receive. I have “unfollowed” most “friends” and news sources on Facebook. I am tracking the amount of time I expose myself to the news as a way to focus better on what nurtures peace.
2. Every year, I read a day-by-day meditation of some kind and, in light of the above, this year I have decided to reflect on the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As someone ultimately martyred by the Nazis for resistance to the atrocities of World War II, no one else would seem better able to speak to me in a time such as this. Thus far, Bonhoeffer has reminded me that responding to evil with another form of evil only adds problems to the world, and that good can overcome. He concludes with the following timely message:
“Hatred stands condemned by its failure to evoke counter-hatred.”