Whatever you’ve been feeling since the election, it’s probably been pretty intense.
To the Pessimist
Maybe you’re thinking: this is the end, the final season of the Netflix show “America,” in which every episode is darker than the last until the grim finale. That your life’s prospects have dimmed. What kind of lives will your children have?
You have been anxious for a whole year, as the most ugly and bizarre presidential campaign in memory trudged on. And now that it has culminated in catastrophe, you’ve slipped into despair and maybe rage. You may even be grappling with depression or an urge to be violent. I’ve heard mention of busy suicide hotlines and universities offering Trump-related grief counseling. I’ve seen videos of beatings, vandalism, and arson.
Serenity and peace be with you. Know this: you and you alone are the predominant factor in your life. Your prospects are a function of the care you devote to your own affairs. Figures like presidents do limit your horizons. But you only compound the harm they inflict on you when you give them your precious attention. You may think you are fighting Trump, but you are actually yielding to him: voluntarily yielding to him your personal power, even beyond the self-sovereignty he and others take from you involuntarily.
You have negligible sway over national affairs, but profound influence over your own. When you fret over the former, you distress yourself over things you cannot control. By making such fretting a permanent part of your life, you condemn yourself to endlessly recurrent bouts of deep frustration and feelings of impotence.
Such burdensome emotions are debilitating. But what is most debilitating is the fact that you are constantly squandering precious time, effort, and emotional reserves that could have otherwise gone directly toward actually improving your own life. Toward creating opportunities for yourself and your family. Toward circumventing and thereby nullifying the impositions and threats made by rulers.
To the Optimist
Maybe instead you’re thinking, this is the beginning, the first step toward an America made great again; what an epic time to be alive! You may even be inspired to join his army of supporters: to show up for him at rallies or wield your powers of disputation for him online.
This kind of “optimism” can be just as debilitating as the above kind of pessimism, and for the same basic reason. It too involves a fruitless and costly preoccupation with the choices of others: choices over which you ultimately have no control.
Resting your hope for the future on faith in an all-too-human savior figure is fraught with personal risk and moral hazard. Politicians especially are notorious for failing to live up to their promises. As the Bible says, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.” If you do, you will sow the seeds for the bitter fruit of disappointment in the ripeness of time.
Moreover, even if you welcome Donald Trump’s presidency and how it unfolds, it will unfold with or without you. The Donald doesn’t need you to wear his hats or shout his name. His supporters, like his detractors, are a sea of humanity. Your support would be but a drop in an ocean. Even if you think the rising tide of that sea will lift your boat, the drop you contribute to that tide would be negligible.
But if you instead expended that same scarce attention, time, effort, and energy into improving your own life, the impact would be the opposite of negligible.
Donald Trump won’t help you finally figure out a diet and exercise regimen that you can stick to. He won’t put in the work and creativity necessary to land you that high-paying gig or promotion. He won’t fix the lock on your door to keep your family safe. All of those things are up to you.
The Donald doesn’t need you. Your life needs you: all of you.
To the Cynic
Maybe you’ve transcended both of the above kinds of illusions, yet you are fixated on the spectacle nonetheless. Perhaps you are indulging in a bit of schadenfreude: relishing “delicious liberal tears.” How you get your kicks is your business, and not mine. But, in case you are in a stage of personal development where you find this question useful, ask yourself: is indulging in spitefulness worth it? Does it fill your thoughts with corrosive ill will? Is it distracting? Does it contribute toward you becoming the person you want to be? Are there higher, more constructive forms of entertainment you might enjoy more fully?
I close with a letter that has been making the rounds online. Apparently, it is Screwtape Letters “fanfic” and not actually written by C.S. Lewis. But it would have fit perfectly in the book, and it is very pertinent to the inner Sturm und Drang afflicting Americans right now:
My Dear Wormwood,
Be sure that the patient remains completely fixated on politics. Arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things the patient can control. Make sure to keep the patient in a constant state of angst, frustration and general disdain towards the rest of the human race in order to avoid any kind of charity or inner peace from further developing. Ensure that the patient continues to believe that the problem is “out there” in the “broken system” rather than recognizing there is a problem with himself.
Keep up the good work,
Originally published at fee.org on November 10, 2016.