Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as President on January 20, 2017. For many of us, it feels like more than a few short weeks have passed. There has been a constant stream of conflicts, crises and policy reversals. The President has attacked fundamental pillars of American democracy, including an independent judiciary and the free press. And there has been a great deal of lying, misinformation and statements that are divorced from reality–all coming from the President and his staff.
The American Psychological Association has documented the increase in stress for many Americans grounded in concerns about the 2016 political campaign, the new presidency and the future of the country.
Reflecting on the impact of the current dynamic in a recent essay, the writer Andrew Sullivan discussed a situation that may resonate for you:
I keep asking myself this simple question: If you came across someone in your everyday life who repeatedly said fantastically and demonstrably untrue things, what would you think of him? … He’s deranged; he’s bizarrely living in an alternative universe; he’s delusional. If he kept this up, at some point you’d excuse yourself and edge slowly out of the room and the house and never return. You’d warn your other neighbors. You’d keep your distance. If you saw him, you’d be polite but keep your distance.
I think this is a fundamental reason why so many of us have been so unsettled, anxious, and near panic these past few months. It is not so much this president’s agenda. That always changes from administration to administration. It is that when the linchpin of an entire country is literally delusional, clinically deceptive, and responds to any attempt to correct the record with rage and vengeance, everyone is always on edge.
… With someone like this barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind.
In times like these, what is a citizen to do? How do you stay centered when events beyond your control are so unsettling?
Get centered by taking care of yourself
In a recent post, I suggested ten action steps for engaged citizens in the post-2016 election world. The last item on the list was to take care of oneself–body, mind and soul. That was a mistake: self-care should have come first.
In conversations with friends about post-election anxiety, several themes have emerged: spending lots of time reading news; getting and staying angry about the latest provocation; forgetting to take actions that support our well-being, like eating well and exercising; and excessive consumption of caffeinated drinks, late night television, sugar and alcohol.
Twice in those conversations, my companion has had the same flash of insight. As airline attendants remind us in the pre-flight safety instructions, if the oxygen masks drop down during the flight, put on your own mask before trying to help others nearby. For those of us who tend to forget to take care of ourselves in times of stress, the message is clear. We will be less able help if we disregard our own well-being.
The array of images across the top of this screen might serve as a useful reminder of the things that we already know we need. How long has it been since you took a few deep breaths, filled and consumed a water bottle, had a satisfying and nutritious meal, took a walk or sat quietly and contemplated your life? If it has been too long or you can’t remember, that’s reason enough to stop and do it now.
It’s always a good time to consider self-care fundamentals, and consider what is needed to restore balance.
Get centered by staying informed without overwhelm
It’s hard to feel grounded without a basic level of information about daily events. There is a lot of news, and those who have strong political convictions will want to stay current. It’s necessary to be engaged effectively in activism, protest and advocacy.
But as anyone who has watched several consecutive hours of cable news coverage can confirm, the information is highly repetitive. The host may change from hour to hour. One show may feature reportage, while another is mostly one commentator’s opinions, and a third features panel discussions. However differently it may be packaged, much of the news is the same.
The time spent watching repetitious coverage often could be better devoted to other things. Consider these strategies for consuming news without going numb:
- identify one or two reliable sources and consult them regularly;
- vary the source and format–for example, The New York Times on Sunday, NPR on weekday mornings, a valued podcast one evening and a useful television program the next;
- limit social media news consumption to certain days or to a limited number of times each day, with breaks and days off;
- take a news fast at least once each week; and
- shift to weekly or monthly magazines, or other sources that provide greater depth without the frenetic BREAKING NEWS dynamic
Another way to explore topics in a deeper way is to read quality books that address subjects that you care about. Daily news coverage will never be sufficient for issues as complex as climate change, voting rights and income inequality. Books can deepen our understanding of current events and take us out of the 24/7 news culture of ratings-driven infotainment.
Connecting and taking action
How to engage in political advocacy and protest is a too large topic for a detailed discussion in this post. In my previously posted list of action steps, I suggested connecting with others and starting to take action, to do something.
One thing to do is to get clear about where to put your focus. Much reporting and commentary emphasizes the President’s Tweets, false statements and the most recent in an endless series of provocations. To take the bait is to be defeated before we have begun. Instead of reacting to the personal style and taunts of Mr. Trump, it is important to identify principles and policies–what is worth fighting for and against.
Seasoned activists may simply keep going. For those new to activism, it can help to join with others who share your concerns, to learn how to participate and seek inspiration. You might seek a local chapter a group that focuses on an area of interest–environmental, civil rights or government ethics, for example–or by connecting with a local branch of the Indivisible movement. When contacting legislators, avoid wasting your time and do what best suits your personality. For one person, that will be making regular phone calls to legislative offices; for another, it may be writing post cards or thoughtful letters in support of or opposition to some initiative. Some are eager to participate in demonstrations or attend town halls to meet their representatives and voice their concerns. There is value in all these approaches.
But it isn’t necessary to try to do everything. As the late historian Howard Zinn wrote, “We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”
Get centered by taking time off
No matter what else you do–especially if you’re very engaged in political action–the day will come when you need to step away. Whether it’s for an evening, a day, a weekend or more, turn off the television, stop checking Facebook, take a news fast. Go to the beach, take a day trip, go on a retreat or take a vacation. There will be plenty to do when you return.
Honor that need. We all have our ways to recharge our batteries. It may be alone time, joining a gathering of friends or dinner with a confidante or mentor.
We can also take time off periodically throughout the day. This lovely post from the Brain Pickings site reminds us of Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Keeping Quiet,” and a practice that can bring calm in the chaos. It’s possible to carve out time throughout the day for silence and contemplation. From time to time, take a sacred pause.
However it feels, we never lose the capacity to get centered.