The distractions of the holidays are almost over. The winter solstice has passed and as I watch the lighting of the last candles of Hanukkah, and see the Christmas trees and lights come down, I am beginning to be filled with dread.
This is real.
John Oliver, comedian for HBO, pleaded with his audience in his final episode of the 2016 season to remember “this is not normal!” I think he is right. This doesn’t feel normal to me. And it feels painfully real. The future coming towards us feels like a new reality that is scary to face. I am feeling unnerved in a way I have never experienced before. I don’t think the explanation that I am a poor loser is accurate. I am also humbled by some of the assumptions I made about the people who voted for the president-elect. However, what I am confronted with now is the damage of assumptions in general, my lack of understanding, and the distress of my having stood by and watched the “us-them” divide increase, to chasm-like proportions.
We don’t’ actually know what is coming January 20 and beyond. But what I do know is that, on the whole, we humans do not do well in the face of the unknown. The unknown creates all kinds of anxiety within us.
Once anxiety sets in, a range of behaviors designed to forestall the discomfort emerges. In perhaps more healthy ways, we can choose to gather together and work towards clarity and courage in the face of uncertainty. We can strive to know what is coming by looking to history to predict the future. We struggle to understand. And we find ways to challenge our own thoughts, feelings and beliefs – no longer holding them as the only truth. We learn to center ourselves – even in unsettling times.
These efforts strike me as important, sometimes valiant, and essential steps toward healing the divide that can open up between people – especially now in what seems like an insurmountable gap.
Perhaps a less noble tactic, but a perfectly human response to fear of the unknown, and the concomitant anxiety, is our tendency to move towards diversionary tactics - such as over-working, drinking, eating, shopping, focusing on others, to name just a few. It is very difficult to stay present and truly look at what seems to be real, especially when it makes us feel uncomfortable or afraid.
I have to acknowledge that the issues of the day are so complex that I cannot wholly get my head around them. Yet it doesn’t make sense to me that“enough” people believe matters of human well-being (care for the environment, human rights, access to food, health-care, adequate education, safety from guns) and the human well-being that comes with economic recovery and stability are somehow mutually exclusive. I also struggle with the president-elect’s attitude towards wholeness and recovery by putting a premium on “power over” others and the prejudicial attitudes that come with that towards whole groups of people. I am left feeling afraid, angry, confused, and often filled with a sense of helplessness. At the same time I have to also acknowledge I have been inattentive, sometimes unwilling to actually be with what has been happening in the world
So, there are times when I have found myself more disconnected from my feelings, from my experience, from others, and from the challenge of reaching outside of believing my own thoughts to reach for understanding the thoughts and feelings of others. So, I find a diversion, especially one that mutes my pain and quells my fears.
Enter the TV series, “The Gilmore Girls.”
I discovered this series after it had aired in its entirety, which gave me the opportunity for binge watching. I must say that I did enjoy the series, though it clearly represented a specifically privileged part of this country. Stars Hollow and the zany antics of its women, its townspeople, and the relationships therein provided a protected world where things tended to work out, and the real problems of the world were seemingly non-existent.
What a nice alternative to a sometimes-challenging therapy practice. What a delightful world to escape to and become numb to parts of my own life, both close to home and further away in the world. I could passively laugh, cry, and cheer for the solutions discovered by the Gilmore Girls and the residents of Stars Hollow. Happily, it all worked out -which probably fed my child-like wish for it “all working out” for the world. That naïve wish can certainly pull me away from what is really true in life. What is real. What is actually happening around me.
As I binge-watched the series, (well over 100 hours), I am embarrassed to say, I noticed avoiding the news even more. I felt less engaged in life around me, and I often looked forward to coming home and turning the TV on rather than reaching out to others, reading, learning, and even practicing some of the meditation I had begun to love. I knew this wasn’t a good thing, but the allure of “one more episode” seemed to rule the day.
I finally completed the series, and I was able to get back to a more balanced approach to my life. Then the election happened. And interestingly enough, a reunion and 4-part reprise of the Gilmore Girls aired not long after. I looked forward to being captivated by this alternate universe once again.
As I watched the first two episodes of the four part revived series, I noticed that there was something strained and a bit forced in the dialogue, in the relationships between the characters, and in how the plot seemed to be unfolding. It was almost like they could not quite pull me like they did before. While I was happy to be back with all the folk of Stars Hollow, there was something that didn’t quite work for me in sustaining my attention to the show and its efforts to recreate that generally idyllic world. It was almost like the stark reality of my life held me away from the fantasy, and the fantasy of the show actually had some cracks in its veneer.
I think the entire process of the election made me less able to turn away towards distraction and enchantment. I now see the cracks in my “responsible citizen” façade of my not facing into what is happening, and to what is real around me. While we all need to rest and restore ourselves, diversion is not a luxury I can allow myself too much of. Not if I actually want to be a responsible citizen of the world.
For me, a first step in this development is regularly and often, to seek out, look closely at, and bring my presence and awareness to what is actually happening outside of my own head and all around me. I must look bravely at it all. Not look away, even if there is actually nothing I can do about a particular situation. Simply look at what is real and what is happening, neither obsessing about nor avoiding it. Until I do that, I cannot soundly choose what my actions will be as we go forward into 2017.
May we all learn to stay present to what is real, to what is happening, and be guided by what we are bearing witness to.
Katherine Smith, Phd.