Pilot

Ever since jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11, setting off an era of fear, the notion of piloting and who’s at the controls has become a subconscious motif in the American psyche.

George W. Bush was at the helm on that fateful day, and it defined his presidency. His record as an actual pilot in the Texas Air National Guard presaged his performance as commander-in-chief: put into the position through dubious means, a spotty service record, and, most catastrophically, neglecting his duties, this time by failing to take pre-9/11 intelligence warnings seriously. President Bush then dragged us into the disastrous Iraq war and presided over the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression.

Another plane crash closed out the Bush Administration. Just days before President Obama’s first inauguration, US Airways Flight 1549 lost engine power shortly after take-off from LaGuardia Airport. Captain Chesley Sullenberger brought the stricken vessel to a safe landing in the Hudson River, then he and his crew calmly and professionally guided everyone to the wings of the aircraft to await rescue.

Captain Sully’s maneuvers heralded a new era. His cool, calm demeanor found its twin in President Obama, who rescued the country from economic collapse. A man who also took his job seriously, he guided us for the most part skillfully and without fanfare through perilous times.

As the Obama presidency drew to a close, two of the most unpopular candidates in our history vied to replace him, and again flight metaphors emerged.

“Let me put it this way,” a pilot I know remarked right before the election. “I think they’re both idiots. But at least Hillary knows how to fly a plane.”

Instead, we have someone totally unqualified about to step into the cockpit. In just a few days, cool-as-a-cucumber President Obama must hand over the controls to his opposite—an erratic, uncouth ignoramus governed solely by ego and self-aggrandizement. The contrast was starkly illuminated by President Obama’s graceful farewell address followed the next morning by Donald Trump’s snarling and incoherent press conference.

After the election, it was common to hear people—including President Obama—say that we should wish for Donald Trump’s success.

“Do you want him to fail?” asked a man I met who was pro-Trump because he was anti-choice. “After all, if you got on a plane, would you hope that the pilot would crash?”

Actually, I would hope that the pilot knew how to fly a plane.

But the question is a trap. Of course I do not want Donald Trump to drive the country into the ground. But his “success” means not only rewarding a bully with the bully pulpit, but destroying the progress of the Obama years. Trump and his enablers are taking direct aim at healthcare, reproductive rights, education, environmental protection, economic and racial justice, immigration, women’s, and minority rights, and so much more. So no, I do not want him to succeed. Besides, I do not see a man in charge who will guide the country safely—Trump is busily appointing people who are intent on hijacking the missions of the departments they are supposed to lead. His is shaping up to be a crash-and-burn administration.

Like it or not, we are all on this airplane now. Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

 

Unpredictability at the Helm

The personal is political. As we psychotherapists have seen lately, the political is also personal. According to the APA, 52 percent of Americans suffered from significant election-related stress before November 8. Since Donald Trump’s electoral victory, anxiety has escalated, at least in the Bay Area. Clients have come into our offices extremely upset about the president-elect. His bullying, bigotry, boasts about sexual assault, and denigrating remarks have triggered past traumas and intensified fresh fears. Many have experienced deep ruptures with friends and family. Their loved ones’ support for a candidate who behaves so deplorably is reminiscent of non-protective parents who turn a blind eye to abuse.

These are some of the specific wounds. Yet the damage operates on an even deeper and more pervasive level regardless of one’s personal history.  Just as families are heavily influenced by who’s in charge, so is our American family. Trump has capitalized on a yearning for a strong authority figure to take care of us and keep us safe in unsettling times. But what happens when the person most responsible for containing threats to our well-being prides himself on being uncontained and unpredictable?

Therapists know what happens in families governed by an erratic parent. Insecure, even disorganized, attachment styles generally result. Some of the most gravely injured people we treat are those who grew up not knowing from one minute to the next who they would encounter: the loving, playful father, or the impulsive sadist who destroyed through word and deed? So many of our clients were thrown off-balance by a parent sometimes dispensing favors and forgiveness, at other times exacting vengeance, and routinely playing family members off against each other.  We have witnessed these dynamics throughout Trump’s campaign and transition parade. He puts his own interest above all else, toys with the truth and with the American people, and delights in his unpredictability. Such an environment distorts reality and destroys trust, worsening a pre-existing problem of a post-factual politics that enabled Trump’s rise.

This is the stuff of insecurity, not the necessary security people—and countries–deserve. Many therapists have themselves been at a loss to respond because they, too, feel unnerved. Now more than ever, though, we will be called upon to help individuals and the collective withstand the personal and political damage of unpredictability by finding and speaking truth, fostering empowerment, building resiliency, and prevailing despite a volatile head of family—or state.

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Originally published in NCSPP’s Impulse

Resolute

sunrise-from-downtown-san-anselmoNormally my yoga teacher, Robin, begins each class by asking us what aches and pains need attention. But New Year’s is different. The studio is suffused with candlelight, Indian music plays softly in the background, Robin lights sage and distributes soap to cleanse away the old year and welcome the new.

I went in particular need of this ritual today, feeling not hope but dread as we count down the days until Donald Trump assumes the presidency. I needed to find a way to be resolute for the hard work that lies ahead of protecting all that is under threat.

Robin helped me do so as she read the words, excerpted from The Wise Heart, of the Buddhist teacher and psychologist, Jack Kornfield:

It is the New Year. We all know about New Year’s resolutions and how short-lived they can be. Consider setting a long-term intention. A long-term intention is also called a vow or dedication. . . .

Setting a long-term intention is like setting the compass of our heart. No matter how rough the storms, how difficult the terrain, even if we have to backtrack around obstacles, our direction is clear. The fruits of dedication are visible in the best of human endeavors.

At times our dedications are practical: to learn to play the piano well, to build a thriving business, to plant and grow a beautiful garden. But there are overarching dedications as well. We might dedicate our life to prayer, commit ourselves to unwavering truthfulness or to work for world peace. These overarching dedications set the compass of our life, regardless of the outer conditions. They give us direction and meaning. . . .

As you begin the New Year, take some time to sit and quietly reflect. If today you were to set or reaffirm a long-term intention, a vow, your heart’s direction, what would it be? …. Once you have a sense of your long-term dedication, write it down. Then put it someplace where you keep special things. Now, as you go through the year, let it be your compass—your underlying direction—in spite of changing outer circumstances. Let it carry you.

Thomas Merton once advised a frustrated young activist, “Do not depend on the hope of results. . . . you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.” By aligning our dedication with our highest intention, we chart the course of our whole being. Then no matter how hard the voyage and how big the setbacks, we know where we are headed.

Happy New Year. May you be resolute in your intentions for the days and months ahead.

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What intention would you like to set?

 

Rashomon

elephant

Some friends and I gathered on the Friday after the election for a post-mortem. Everyone had a different idea of what had gone wrong.

I ticked off James Comey, new laws in swing states aimed at suppressing Democratic turnout, and the many who couldn’t stand Donald Trump but couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton—or vote at all—because they preferred “principle” over compromise, or didn’t think the outcome mattered either way.

“Stop blaming people for not voting!” one friend countered. “The problem is that it was the wrong nominee, and until the Democrats put forward a candidate who inspires young people, they’ll continue to lose.”

This sparked an indictment of neo-liberalism and Debbie Wasserman Schulz. When someone said the 2020 ticket needed a person of color and a woman, preferably Elizabeth Warren, I asked, “Did you not get the memo from this election?”

We certainly couldn’t conduct a proper post-mortem without a shout-out to racism and misogyny!

Not to mention Trump’s celebrity status and shrewd manipulation of the media, his constant lies bleeding together to obscure the stain of falseness; the lack of civics education; a post-factual electorate; the demonization of Hillary; her failure to reach out to working-class white men or articulate a clear message; the steady drip-drip-drip of Fox News and Emailgate; Anthony Weiner! (Oy vey, Anthony Weiner!)

Our host calmly interjected how hard it is for the incumbent party to ever win a third term.

“Joe Biden would have won,” someone said wistfully.

“Michael Moore nailed it,” said another.

This, and the existence of an empathy gap, was about all we could agree on, though empathy for one another was in short supply.

“We could call ourselves the Friendly Fire Salon!” I joked.

It was like Rashomon, where blind men correctly describe one aspect of an elephant, but nobody sees the whole.

Now there’s not only an elephant in the room, but one on the way to the White House, too.

*

Care to add your two cents and what your discussions have been like?

 

Aftermath

aftermathThe Day After the Election

Last night I felt the same as when McGovern lost in 1972, although then my 17-year-old self sobbed and sobbed, and now I am too shocked to feel much of anything. It was unthinkable that McGovern could lose. It meant the cataclysmic Vietnam War would continue, with thousands more pointless deaths, a country ruined further.

I don’t remember how my parents reacted. Probably my mother cried and cursed at the TV. Probably they tried to comfort me, sharing my horror and grief, assuring me that the good fight must continue.

Now it is my daughters seeking comfort via text in these inconsolable times. I don’t know what to say, but my husband does. He writes:

We are incredibly fortunate to have a loving, healthy, prosperous family whose members have strong and good values. By always cherishing and building on this, we can prevent those who appeal to hatred and divisiveness from defeating us.

Love, Daddy

The morning after the election I tell my husband I haven’t felt this bad since 9/11 (although thankfully, 11/9 has not entailed such a horrible loss of life). At least the earlier trauma was mitigated by a brief feeling of unity, of the best in the world coming forth to vanquish the worst. Not so now, though that’s what I hunger for. I stay away from the news, but I relish the lingering hellos I exchange with every woman I pass, the conversations with the regulars in Comforts, a string of texts and emails. All of my therapy clients talk about the election. It’s good to be distracted by work, to hold their feelings as they mingle with my own.

Three Days Out

Maria, the woman who was born in El Salvador and now cleans our house, comes on Fridays. Three days after the election, I open the door to greet her. As always, she is wreathed in smiles, ready to work.

“Trump—Lo Siento!” I say. I’m sorry. Maria’s smile crumples a bit; she gravely nods.

This Friday is also Veteran’s Day. Since school is closed, Maria’s American-born daughter is with her. I ask her a bit about school, what grade she’s in, how she likes it.

Then I ask, “How are you doing? Are kids afraid?”

“Some are,” she responds.

A couple of days later I check out the Facebook page of a racial justice organization I’m considering joining. Someone has posted an essay telling white people that their professions of shock and disbelief, even their apologies, to people of color are microaggressions.

I feel hopeless in a different way.

Later Still . . .

It gets worse as the shock wears off. I’ve had difficult sleeping; I drift off only to wake again to the cold pit in my stomach, “OMG, Trump was elected President!” flashing in neon lights in my head. Then a squall of tears, and my husband holds me, his warm body a blanket of comfort. I sigh that broken sigh of someone who needs to cry but can’t quite. The tears come again in the morning as I read the paper, the headlines indisputable. A climate change denier is announced to head the EPA’s transition team. I cry a little in the shower. Finally, several days out, I manage more than a brief squall. My husband holds me again, and at last I sleep better.

It feels wrong to sleep better.

*

How are you doing post-election? Also, a kind reader sent along this link, which expresses what I’ve also been feeling: http://johnpavlovitz.com/2016/11/17/if-you-voted-for-him/

“Historic”

keep-calm-and-make-history-17We keep hearing about this historic election, which it certainly would have been had the first woman become president. But what exactly do we mean by pronouncing Donald Trump’s ascension “historic?” He certainly isn’t the first white man to assume the presidency. Nor is he the first to lose the popular vote. Do we mean he is the first reality TV star? The first candidate with absolutely no experience as an elected official? No record of public or military service? The first to conduct a campaign primarily through Twitter? The first to prove his point over and over again, at least metaphorically, that he could stand and shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes?

There are definitely many firsts that Donald Trump represents. But the word “historic” connotes breakthrough progress, not a regression to the meanness of Trump’s campaign. To call his election “historic” is to dignify a man who traffics in constant degradation and divisiveness. Such euphemistic language elevates him to a level he does not deserve. It is another in a long string of false equivalencies that have poisoned our politics.

Election Day

It was disconcerting Tuesday morning to walk downtown through the Hub, a big intersection that is crammed with people waving placards for every cause and candidate every election day. The Hub was deserted. Certainly our small town in its deep blue bubble was not a place to expend national resources, but no one? Not even people vying for highly competitive local races? It was as if the election weren’t even happening, except for a Trump/Pence bumper sticker on a parked truck a block away, and a handmade poster complete with horns and a pitchfork that read “Hellary 2016.”

Despite these ominous signs, I was sure I’d be celebrating the election of our first female president that night. The polls were looking pretty good, despite the FBI’s damaging salvo. During my final phone banking shift, when we were making calls to Florida, one supporter I spoke to told me her seven-year-old daughter’s class held a mock election, and Hillary had won in a landslide.

Then came another inkling of trouble that I also dismissed. A man told me that his first-grader was one of only ten Hillary voters in her classroom’s poll. “This is a blue county,” he said, “And Trump blew her out of the water. I am so frightened.” I told him about the woman I’d just talked with, reassuring myself if not him. A few hours later, as I headed off to our friend’s house with a plate of scrumptious chocolate layer bars and a bottle of bubbly, the closeness of the Virginia returns was worrisome. But I told myself that the northern suburbs had not yet come in, and remained confident.

As we tuned in to MSNBC, CNN, even Fox, looking for a different reality than the one that seemed to be unfolding, I started fielding texts from our daughter:

“I’M SO NERVOUS HOLY CRAP! HOW IS THIS HAPPENING?

“Keep the faith,” I texted back. “It will just be closer and a longer night than we’d hoped.”

Two hours later, as Stephen Colbert’s national wake ended on Showtime, I had dropped all optimism, all pretense of maternal comfort, unless “Fucking unbelievable” counts as reassurance.

Our host took the dog out to pee, and upon his return reported that the party at the neighbor’s house seemed oddly raucous, unlike our gloomy gathering. My husband and I left a bit before 10:00, still with no verdict, but with our champagne unpopped and our hearts broken. Some people were leaving the party across the street, and we heard a voice call out, “White men rule!” We tried to convince ourselves that we might have said the same thing in an ironic attempt at gallows humor. But we could not deny that they were celebrating, while we were in shock and mourning.

I know that I must engage in soul-searching to understand what I missed, and why. I must acknowledge my own failures of empathy, my candidate’s poor choices, the legitimate concerns of those who voted for her opponent. There are a million different converging factors that have resulted in this outcome, and I know that blaming it on racism and misogyny is overly simplistic and insulting. Still, it is naive to deny the powerful influence of these virulent strains. They are here in my own backyard.

This is our deep blue bubble. This is my deep denial. This is where we live.

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What was your election day and night like?

Your Vote is Your Voice

Vote

Leave it to Dr. Seuss to guide us through perilous times. During this election season, we’d be wise to take a page from the good doctor.

In Horton Hears a Who, the residents of Who-ville face disaster unless they speak up. The Mayor rallies the townspeople to make their voices heard in an act not just of civic duty, but of survival. Unfortunately, it’s not enough. Desperate, the Mayor races through the town in search of those who aren’t taking part. Finally, he comes across a young citizen named Jo-Jo who is just standing there, not making a sound.

The Mayor grabs Jo-Jo and implores him to come to the aid of his country in its darkest hour, saying, “Open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts.’

Jo-Jo clears his throat and shouts out a single syllable: ‘YOPP!”

That one voice makes all the difference. Who-ville is saved.

Voters should heed the wisdom of Dr. Seuss. The United States has one of the lowest voter turnout rates of any advanced democracy: even the momentous 2008 presidential race brought out less than 63 percent of eligible voters. Participation rates drop to about 40 percent in mid-term elections; and this year’s primaries were decided by only 28.5 percent of eligible voters. Too many can’t be bothered, or feel their vote makes no difference, or that it’s all the same anyway.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Voting matters. This year’s presidential candidates offer a stark contrast. The stakes are high, the results consequential. First Lady Michelle Obama has pointed out that just a handful of votes in each precinct can swing the outcome in key states.

Your vote is your voice. And as Dr. Seuss reminds us, every voice counts.

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Research has shown that one of the most effective ways to increase voter participation is to make a specific plan, and to share it with your friends, especially on social media. Planning and sharing that plan increases commitment and follow-through. What’s your voting plan?

 

 

 

The Girl on the Train

train-entering-tunnel

I was 17 years old and vacationing in Germany with my parents, who sat facing me on the train. I stared out the window, the seat beside me empty. As the train traveled through the Rhine Valley, we picked up more passengers. Eventually a middle-aged man boarded the crowded train, sat down next to me, and unfolded his newspaper. I continued to stare out the window. After a while, the train entered a tunnel and everything went dark.

Suddenly, the man was all over me, pressing his face into mine, groping my breasts, my thighs. I froze, too shocked and embarrassed to move or utter a sound. The instant the train emerged from the tunnel, he returned to reading his newspaper.

My parents looked at my ashen face and asked what was wrong.

“Nothing,” I mumbled.

I hadn’t thought much about this incident over the years.

Until Donald Trump was caught on tape bragging about forcing himself on women.  Then I was back in that dark tunnel again, along with millions of women remembering the unwanted advances we’ve silently endured.

Meanwhile, Trump’s doubled down on the disrespect that’s been evident throughout his campaign by demeaning and threatening those who have come forward with allegations against him.

“I don’t know these women,” he says dismissively.

He’s right about that–though not in the way he intended.

Trump did not know the woman who says he groped her on the plane, just as the man on the train didn’t know me. No one who views others as simply there for the taking bothers to know—or care—anything about them.

Trump may not know us, but we know him. And we’re tired of putting up with him and his kind.

I am no longer that scared-silent girl on the train. I have found my voice, and I intend to speak up.

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Please feel free to share your experiences and your thoughts.

Persuasion

A metal toggle switch with plate reading Listen and Ignore, symbolizing how we choose to pay attention to certain messages

Recently I shared an article on Facebook by a Bernie-supporting Hillary skeptic who articulated his reasons for voting for her. He’d decided the volatile political climate and the increasing unreliability of polls made it too risky–even in “safe” states–to stay home or to vote for a third-party candidate.

I had not heard this argument before, and wanted to inject this thoughtful piece into a discourse largely dominated by bashing from both sides of the political divide.

Right away a Facebook friend I haven’t seen since college commented: “Don’t you think that incessantly hectoring people might have the effect opposite to that desired?”

I was taken aback. My posting rate on Facebook hardly qualifies as incessant. Besides, there was nothing remotely hectoring about this article. Still, there’s no denying that my motivation in sharing it was to persuade reluctant voters to choose Hillary.

I decided to engage with rather than ignore my friend. He immediately replied that he didn’t mean me personally, “but that the daily attacks on the folk who are not gung-ho for HRC, including the accusation that we are women-haters, are really counterproductive.” He likened well-meaning attempts at political persuasion to the noxious proselytizing meant to convert people from one religion to another. Besides, it made him think that Hillary’s supporters lacked the faith that she should and could win, and found their apocalyptic pronouncements about not voting for the Un-Trump unhelpful.

His response reminded me of a party I attended right before the 2004 election. Amid a dozen or so Chardonnay-sipping liberals eternally bitter over the selection of W four years earlier was one lone Nader supporter. Unrepentant, he planned to vote for Nader again.

“How COULD you?” everyone exploded in unison. As we all moved in for the oh-so-persuasive kill, I could see this man’s jaw tighten, his posture stiffen. You can probably guess who he voted for.

I’ve learned a lot since that encounter—if you want to preach outside the choir, it’s better not to screech or beseech. Still, there are reasons to try. Or was my Facebook friend a case in point that such attempts invariably backfire?

Recently I’ve had many conversations with my friend Linda (who also doesn’t like Hillary but who will vote for her). She has been talking with her son and his friends, most of them young, fervent Bernie supporters who care deeply about racial justice. They now feel totally disillusioned by the political process, seeing little difference between the parties and no point in voting. Linda has a lot of empathy for this viewpoint, and mostly listens. But when she does talk, whatever she has to say doesn’t only fall on deaf ears—it closes those ears further.

Periodically I send things with a fresh or compelling perspective to Linda, saying, “What about this? Could this help?” One was a recent column by Charles Blow. Linda was almost persuaded until the last paragraph:

Protest voting or not voting at all isn’t principled. It’s dumb, and childish, and self-immolating. I know you’re young, but grow up!

With those words, Blow blew it. Of course, Linda never forwarded the article to her son, and has wisely stopped talking to him about the election altogether.

Years ago Republican pollster Frank Luntz quipped, “The trouble with Hillary is she reminds everyone of their first wife.” She also reminds people of their mothers. There are legitimate reasons to be skeptical of Hillary, but this unconscious association has gotten short shrift in understanding the level of antipathy generated by the candidacy of the first woman who has a shot at the presidency. Often what mothers say, no matter how wise and well-intended, has the effect of generating resistance. You should listen to your mother, but do you really want to? Middle-aged mothers like me who are trying to persuade others, especially young people, may only be perpetuating the maternal nag problem.

Is it possible to change people’s minds? We are now inundated with 24/7 information and misinformation, and live in silos that reinforce our worldview while keeping out other perspectives. Social science research demonstrates that when people are shown evidence contradicting their firmly held beliefs, they don’t reconsider; instead, they double down.

If one person’s persuasion is another’s hectoring, what’s a mother to do? What’s a concerned citizen to do?

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 Have you tried to influence anyone’s vote in this election season? Has anyone tried to influence yours? What works and doesn’t work?