(This post is dedicated with love to a dedicated reader.)
The American Political World Is Bad And Getting Worse
At the request of a reader depressed by today’s American presidential inauguration, I’m quickly writing this post. My own views—in more complete form—about the tragedy and danger of electing someone so manifestly unqualified, so psychologically, morally and intellectually unfit, (“An amygdala with a twitter account,” as my son puts it,) have been expressed over and over in previous posts. (For more scroll down on “politics” at the right, top corner of the page.)
My readers’ pain about our current state of affairs results from being more educated than most about the issues, political climate, new president, recent history, and the corruption, shenanigans, lies, and bs that surround us. Perhaps ignorance is bliss. And, as we have seen in a previous post, less education, even accounting for all other factors, was the biggest predictor of Trump support. It also evokes sadness to think of all the people who will suffer and die if some of the promises of the Republicans come true—the loss of health care for millions, increased economic inequality, deportations, expediting environmental degradation and climate change, increased likelihood of war, etc.
Plato told us more than 2,000 years ago that you can’t have a good life without a good government, and you can’t have a good government without morally and intellectually virtuous leaders. He told us that democracy is one of the worst kinds of government—it’s the blind leading the blind—and that it inevitably leads to tyranny where power joins with vice. Trump in charge of nuclear codes; Perry in charge of nuclear energy; Tillerson and Exxon in charge of diplomacy; Sessions in charge of the law; Devos in charge of education, Price in charge of health and human services—it would be hard for a dystopian novel to invent all this. Its 2017, but we live in 1984. The ministry of truth tells lie; the ministry of peace fights war; ignorance is strength and no lie is too bold.
If only the masses truly understood what they did. They thought their TV was broke so they decided to try something new. Call knowledgeable people? No! Instead they banged on their TV with a hammer. Might work. Probably will make things worse.
And let me add—a society that has no respect for truth will make bad decisions. Replacing the rule of law and the pre-eminence of reason with the rule of the passions is a prescription for tyranny and anarchy, as Aristotle told us long ago.
Sure one can wonder how we got from Nixon’s southern strategy, to Reagan saying government was the problem, to Delay’s and Gingrich’s moral corruption, to Republican obstructionism and disdain for truth, to the Tea Party, to the freedom caucus, to nearly one-party fascist rule. But this is the job of historians and political scientists to unpack. The past is closed, and we must move forward. It is a dark time.
How To Cope
My reader doesn’t want more gloom and doom or historical analysis—she wants advice about coping. Lacking any special insights, I’ll just try to think the problem out as I write.
It seems there are at least two things you’re coping with today if you are relatively conscious of what’s going on politically. First, the bad things that have already happened, and second, the bad things that might happen as a result of this past.
As for what has already happened, you can’t do anything about it, so it is pointless to waste time thinking about it—to worry is an exercise in mindlessness. As for what might happen, we must remember that we don’t know the future. Many things we worry about never happen, so many of our worries waste our energy. I know this is easier said than done, but realizing the pointlessness of worry is a start.
What is not pointless is doing something to make the dystopian future less likely. This may include writing, marching, creating beauty, getting politically active, or simply helping those few that you can help. It might mean being a good parent, so that we less psychologically damaged individuals running the government; it might mean learning more about marital conflict resolution; it might mean meditating to achieve greater mind control; it might be all of these things and more. But it definitely means doing something as opposed to ruminating about all the bad things that are happening.
Yet here we must also remember the sage advice of the Stoics, Buddhists, and Hindus. As they long ago discovered, you can’t control the world, you can only influence it. You shouldn’t be indifferent, passive, or apathetic; rather, you should discharge your duties to help the world, remembering that you can’t control the outcome of your efforts. Thus, as long as you do what you can, you shouldn’t feel shame or guilt.
This advice may seem trite, but I don’t know what else to say. Change what you can; ignore what you can’t, and recognize the difference between the two, to paraphrase Niebuhr’s serenity prayer. Reflecting on this, it isn’t surprising that we can’t say much more than has been said in the 10,000 years of human culture. It isn’t likely that we would discover something that all the sages and seers missed. Perhaps then trite isn’t the right word for our advice. Our advice may lack originality, but that doesn’t make it worthless.
In short my advice is: 1) learn to control the mental disturbance caused by obsession over a past that you can’t change, or a future that may not come to be; and 2) act now to better the world and ourselves based on the best knowledge available, with the recognition that you can’t control the outcome of your efforts. We are suggesting a middle way between the helplessness and impotence that accompanies worry, and the hubris of thinking we can perfect the world, and are responsible that perfection.
These Two Pieces of Advice in World Literature
The most profound statement of these points—that we try to control our minds and fight to better the world—that I’m aware of come from French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes, who wrote about the peace that accompanies the stoical mind, and the Greek novelist and essayist Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote deeper than anyone I’ve ever encountered about fighting the battle of life, and taking pride in our efforts.
Here is Descartes:
My third maxim was to endeavour always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in respect of things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible: and this single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain, and thus render me contented; for since our will naturally seeks those objects alone which the understanding represents as in some way possible of attainment, it is plain, that if we consider all external goods as equally beyond our power, we shall no more regret the absence of such goods as seem due to our birth, when deprived of them without any fault of ours, than our not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico; and thus making, so to speak, a virtue of necessity, we shall no more desire health in disease, or freedom in imprisonment, than we now do bodies incorruptible as diamonds, or the wings of birds to fly with. But I confess there is need of prolonged discipline and frequently repeated meditation to accustom the mind to view all objects in this light; and I believe that in this chiefly consisted the secret of the power of such philosophers as in former times were enabled to rise superior to the influence of fortune, and amid suffering and poverty, enjoy a happiness which their gods might have envied. For, occupied incessantly with the consideration of the limits prescribed to their power by nature, they became so entirely convinced that nothing was at their disposal except their own thoughts, that this conviction was of itself sufficient to prevent their entertaining any desire of other objects; and over their thoughts they acquired a sway so absolute, that they had some ground on this account for esteeming themselves more rich and more powerful, more free and more happy, than other men who, whatever be the favours heaped on them by nature and fortune, if destitute of this philosophy, can never command the realization of all their desires.
And here is Kazantzakis (with my commentary):
Kazantzakis believed that the meaning of our lives is to find our place in a chain that links us to the more subtle and advanced forms of life that will, hopefully, arise in the future.
We all ascend together, swept up by a mysterious and invisible urge. Where are we going? No one knows. Don’t ask, mount higher! Perhaps we are going nowhere, perhaps there is no one to pay us the rewarding wages of our lives. So much the better! For thus may we conquer the last, the greatest of all temptations—that of Hope.[i]
I remember being devastated the first time I read those lines. I had rejected my religious upbringing, but why couldn’t I at least hope that life was meaningful? Why was Kazantzakis taking that from me too? His point was that the honest and brave struggle without hope or expectation that they will ever arrive, ever be anchored, ever be at home. Like Ulysses, the only home Kazantzakis found was in the search itself. The meaning of life, he thought, is found in the search and the struggle, not in any hope of success.
In the prologue of his autobiography, Report to Greco, Kazantzakis claims that we need to go beyond both hope and despair. Both expectation of paradise and fear of hell prevent us from focusing on what is in front of us, our heart’s true homeland … the search for meaning itself. We ought to be warriors struggling bravely to create meaning without expecting anything in return. Unafraid of the abyss, we should face it courageously and run toward it. Ultimately we find joy by taking full responsibility for our lives—joyous in the face of tragedy. Life is essentially struggle, and if in the end it judges us we should bravely reply, like Kazantzakis did:
General, the battle draws to a close and I make my report. This is where and how I fought. I fell wounded, lost heart, but did not desert. Though my teeth clattered from fear, I bound my forehead tightly with a red handkerchief to hide the blood, and ran to the assault.”[ii]
Surely that is as courageous a sentiment in response to the ordeal of human life as has been offered in world literature. It is a bold rejoinder to the awareness of the inevitable decline of our minds and bodies, as well as to the existential agonies that permeate life. It finds the meaning of life in our actions, our struggles, our battles, our roaming, our wandering, and our journeying. It appeals to nothing other than what we know and experience—and yet finds meaning and contentment there.
Just outside the city walls of Heraklion Crete one can visit Kazantzakis’ gravesite, located there as the Orthodox Church denied his being buried in a Christian cemetery. On the jagged, cracked, unpolished Cretan marble you will find no name to designate who lies there, no dates of birth or death, only an epitaph in Greek carved in the stone. It translates: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”
The gravesite of Kazantzakis.