Since election night, I’ve been waiting for my leadership–any leadership: in my workplace, in my church, in my political party–to say something. They haven’t. Not the something I’ve been waiting for. I’ve heard many calls for unity, for “moving toward one another,” even for action. Many leaders have implored us to enact love and respect, to begin the process of reconciliation we’ll need to recover from the divisiveness of the election.
The problem with that message, for me, and for many others, I think, is simple psychology: trauma. This election is different from other ones, and many of my friends feel trauma more than disappointment or anger. We can see this difference playing out in the number of people seeking therapists, calling in sick, and in our schools where our children imitate us in a sick micro-performance as detailed in yesterday’s Sunday Times. My husband and I work in schools, and without risking my job or my husband’s job, I can say parts of the Sunday article ring true–our ugliness has passed on to our children who do not necessarily have the tools to regroup. People are traumatized, especially the losers. Some children of the winners are behaving really badly, mostly because–I suspect–they’re skeptical now of their own beauty and worth. To ask these traumatized people to spend time with the other side is to ask them to jeopardize their health and well-being, at least in the immediate aftermath. There are ways to “spend time” with the other side that are safer for them right now. They can dedicate their prayers to someone they don’t understand, practice contemplative prayer, journal, etc. But many of us cannot stay in the room with the other side yet. And many of us feel the burden of “unity” falls on us. After all, one political party’s campaign slogan was “Stronger Together” and the other’s was “Make America [Enter Any Derogatory Adjective Here] Again.”
Too many of our schools and churches are asking us to enact radical love by skipping the vital step of self-care and self-preparation and without providing us spaces for that care. The best sermon or speech–one I haven’t heard yet–would be one on the process of grief and on the great instances in the Bible and other mythology of heroes (I’m using Joseph Campbell’s understanding of “hero” here) of people retreating into silence and isolation first before they enter the atonement phase: Moses on Mt. Sinai, Odysseus on Calypso’s island, Luke Skywalker on Skellig Michael. Christianity’s Luke tells us in Ch. 5 that Jesus often “withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Or in The Gospel of Matthew, after John the Baptist is beheaded, he withdraws “privately to a desolate place.” Again and again he does that–before and after performing miracles, in times of grief, in preparation for his ultimate act of love.
I can’t help but think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s four requirements for nonviolent resistance: collection of facts, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. Last year, I participated in a study group where we reread “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and then met in the back offices of the Menil Collection–how beautiful, in the belly of the art house!– to discuss it. We focused for part of the discussion on a section I had overlooked before, although I’ve read the letter and taught it many times. Dr. King speaks directly in the letter to the need for self-purification: an internal process of introspection, experiential learning, community building; in short, the mental and emotional work of metabolizing trauma in order to prepare to practice radical love. He did not allow anyone to join the boycotts or sit-ins or talk to government leaders until they’d gone through the self-purification process, alone and in communion with other African-Americans. “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and rest,” Jesus says to his disciples in Mark. By yourselves.
Those of us who saw clearly what the President-elect and his supporters are–people willing to bargain for their interests with racism, xenophobia, and sexism even if they don’t believe themselves to be racist and sexist–need time for self-purification, and many of the protests are exactly that, a crying out in community so that we can go back into our families and communities lovingly. Or, as my philosopher friend, Eric, put it: “Protest is the aesthetic performance of solidarity, a cathartic sharing. Protest is one way in which we activate empathy and transform tragedy into beauty.” It’s a necessary first step toward love. We’ve experienced a beheading of sorts, and rites of passage first separate the participant from the rest of society and remove them from ordinary time.
Our various leaders are right that if we spend time with one another in the daily human rituals of our lives we would learn and heal. And, ultimately, we must love our enemies. But this week, because of Thanksgiving break, I’m just so, so relieved to not have to be near certain people. I need time to retreat into a holy solitude. For one thing, I’m reading a string of mystery novels with female protagonists who nab the bad guy. On a more serious note, yesterday, Trip and I were confirmed and received, respectively, into the Episcopalian church, and I’m spending the week with people I love and trust and avoiding anyone who voted for the President-elect. I’m purifying myself so I can–hopefully–reach toward the love I believe in so much and to which I’m called. It’s hard, thankless work. Harder for some of us than others, and that difference in the degree of sacrifice and vulnerability needs to be acknowledged.
I cannot transform my house, my classroom, my neighborhood, or my nation into a beloved community–and I must–until I have a quiet place to rest.
I hope this week we all take time to rest and restore, without apology and with whomever we choose.