I was planning to send my newsletter today on the theme of Beginner’s Mind but in light of current events and the political surprises to the South of us, I thought I might share some reflections on the new world reality, a reality in which the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world is outspokenly racist and sexist, as well as narcissistic and at times questionably delusional in his beliefs. Despite how ‘bad’ this may appear, I see it a bit differently. From a psychotherapeutic perspective, when you bring unconscious material to the surface it is usually a messy process because we come into contact with deep pain, shame, and anger. However, once we start to compassionately shine light on our shadows (the part which is unconscious), the shadows lose their power. We can start to see through the false stories that have been guiding us and come to a deeper wisdom and truth. It is my hope that this election represents an opportunity for us to shine the light of wisdom on our collective unconscious and to look deeply into the scars of both our own individual body-mind and the belief systems that make up the very fabric of our society. We may have Trump but wisdom can still be triumphant.
For me, one of the most concerning elements of Trump’s election campaign was his use of racism. We all know there is much bigotry in the USA (and Canada) but this victory truly highlights the deep undercurrent of racism in our society. We see a collective unconscious that is both greedy and that feels fundamentally and profoundly insecure, fragile, and vulnerable. Unfortunately, Trump’s campaigning and messaging speaks to the part of us that believes that safety comes from building walls that separate us from that which we fear, the imagined other. Once we have an “other” we can project all of our feelings of vulnerability onto them. If we are honest with ourselves, we may see that most of us have this tendency to build walls and project our fears. Most of us will choose to surround ourselves with people who feel somehow the same (whether that is on religious, cultural, ethnic, political, gender, or economic lines). We look for this sameness to feel a sense of belonging, to feel accepted, and secure. If we look more closely, we may also notice that we build walls against our vulnerability in other ways: Walls of hatred between ourselves and those (and others who resemble them) who we feel have hurt us, walls of fear and distance between ourselves and our loved ones who we may think will reject us, and walls of disconnection within ourself to keep our shame, anger, and fear away. Soooo many walls. And, if we react to Donald Trump and his policies from a place of unconscious feelings of vulnerability, we are very likely to fall into one of two wall-building traps: 1) build walls of apathy based on feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness (in which case we do nothing, put on our headphones and tune out the world) or 2) build walls of anger and hatred (in which case we are doing exactly the same thing as Trump). Look deeply within. Let us not be accomplices!
I often wonder what the world would look like if we accepted this fundamental reality: to be human is to be vulnerable. There is no one who will escape death. Most of us will grow old and suffer the physical pain and loss of independence that accompanies it. Many of us already struggle with poverty, broken relationships, isolation, or the painful feelings of life. So what would it be like to accept that these are inherent in life and that every single human being is struggling with their vulnerability including ourself. Could we perhaps then open our hearts in compassion? Would it perhaps give us courage also to speak our truth knowing that there is nothing to lose that will not be lost anyway?
I turn now to one of my great inspirations, a young woman named Etty Hillesum. She died in the gas chambers of Poland during WWII but wrote letters from the concentration camp Westerbork for several years before her death. These letters contain profound wisdom, compassion and at times even joy. Somehow her words feel relevant today.
The human suffering that we have seen during the last six months, and still see daily, is more than anyone can be expected to comprehend in half a year. No wonder we hear on all sides every day, in every pitch of voice, “We don’t want to think, we don’t want to feel, we want to forget as soon as possible.”. It seems to me that this is a very great danger.
True, things happen here that in the past our reason would not have judged possible. But perhaps we have faculties other than reason in us, faculties that in the past we didn’t know we had but that possess the ability to grapple with the incomprehensible. I believe that for every event, man has a faculty that helps him deal with it.
If we were to save only our bodies and nothing more from the camps all over the world, that would not be enough. What matters is not whether we preserve our lives at any cost, but how we preserve them. I sometimes think that every new situation good or bad, can enrich us with new insights. But if we abandon the hard facts that we are forced to face, if we give them no shelter in our heads and hearts, do not allow them to settle and change into impulses through which we can grow and from which we can draw meaning- then we are not a viable generation…. If we fail to draw new meaning from the deep wells of our distress and despair, then it will not be enough. New thoughts will have to radiate out from the camps themselves, new insights, spreading lucidity will have to cross the barbed wire enclosing…
For me personally, I look to this new political reality as an opportunity to truly, deeply sit with and reflect on the undercurrents of today’s world. For some time I have perhaps been guilty of not wanting to think about my social reality but it is clearly time to do so. I sit with and reflect on what currents of society reside within me that have contributed to this situation and I ask how can a response come from a place of full honesty wherein I am addressing and attending to the seeds of discrimination, fear, and separation within myself. How can my actions come from a place of wisdom and compassion and not reinforce Trump-like patterns of hatred, separation and disconnection? Etty further wrote:
And the absence of hatred [within me] in no way implies the absence of moral indignation. I know that those who hate have good reason to do so. But why should we always have to choose the cheapest and easiest way? It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place.
Very close to the end of her life she found herself in conditions of horror and yet she wrote:
The realms of the soul and the spirit are so spacious and unending that this little bit of physical discomfort and suffering really doesn’t matter all that much. I do not feel I have been robbed of my freedom; essentially no one can do me any harm at all.
Though we now encounter a period that will be messy, painful, and tumultuous, we can always trust that there is something to be learned and that in seeing our collective shadows, we may grow as a society and open our hearts further rather than retreating in fear and anger. We may even come to know the freedom that is ours that can never be taken: the freedom to be, to love and to care.