We live in complex, trying times. We know more about what’s happening in the world than any people who have ever lived before; much of it is disturbing, and about which we can often do little or mostly nothing.
Closer to home, the emotions being stirred up in this election year are alarming. Whatever advantages we enjoy here in America, the effects of lost jobs, shrinking incomes, high prices and mountains of debt have generated a tidal wave of discontent. Establishment politics has succumbed to desperation, frustration and the search for an alternative.
Those paying attention are embracing the “strongman” tactics of Trump, the righteous compassion of Sanders or the familiar security of Clinton, but everyone is acting from feelings of discomfort and alarm, seeking hope and salvation. There are, of course, millions paying no attention to politics whatsoever, having given up, too busy trying to make ends meet, or not having the time or luxury to care. For them, however, life is also complex and disturbing.
Political or not, the simple act of living turns out to be not simple at all; eventually, everyone is faced with events beyond control: difficult people, unforeseen accidents, health crises, or one problem or another. Such is the experience of being human and despite our constant attempts at entertainment or distraction, major and minor forms of suffering cannot be permanently avoided. Living is too complex to be resolved perfectly or tied up in a nice, neat little bow.
This raises the question of what to do and how to respond to the truth of our hopeless situation.
By hopeless, I don’t mean that nothing matters; rather I’m referring to the hopelessness of tying life into the neat little bow we imagine is possible. For some, the neat little bow is to retreat, cutting off difficult emotions. Sorry to report, it doesn’t work; I’ve tried. No matter how deeply I’ve tried to bury feelings they leak out, and the harder I try, the worse the leakage and the worse I treat myself and others.
Some spend their time in continuous emotional turmoil, and justify it as being honest. Thus regular displays of anger, irritation, fearfulness, anxiety, jealousy and the like get passed on to others, as if such expression itself will eventually run out-of-steam. This does not work, either; been there, tried that.
The fact is that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for living. Each person is unique and must muddle through life in a process of observation and discovery. Some things we do get us into more trouble, not less. If we learn from our mistakes, life gets a bit easier, perhaps, at least until something changes in the next minute or two.
I have only come up with one provisional solution. I call it provisional because the neat little bow project is hopeless, but it does provide some relief. It begins with recognizing that each and every one of us is in exactly the same situation, coping with being human in whatever ways we can or are able, as unpleasant as that may often be or appear; then, knowing that and despite whatever emotion we feel – anger, fright, sadness or delight – to respond to others with kindness.
I promise you, it’s not easy. Donald Trump requires all the effort I can muster. I can report that with practice it gets easier.