Getting Through This

Since the election, I’ve been trying to get comfortable with uncertainty rather than maintain a positive mental attitude.

I spent last week vacationing on an island with almost 300 Unitarians of all ages. We listened to chautauqua-style talks, played games, flew kites, and did a great deal of staring out to sea.

Unitarians, for the most part, are liberals. And liberals, you may have noticed, can be pretty depressing people these days. In the course of the week, I had many conversations like these:

  • A minister told me he can name 30 people in his (not terribly big) town who have been “disappeared” by ICE.
  • An EPA employee is watching her agency get disassembled, and deciding whether to keep fighting or give up and take a buy-out package.
  • A mother has serious doubts about her children’s future, both in a global-warming and a where-will-the-jobs-be sense.
  • A NASA researcher described administration proposals to simply turn off instruments on functioning satellites because they might provide data documenting climate change.
  • A grandmother raged about the early warning signs of a police state.
  • A former state Democratic Party official worries that the divisions of 2016 won’t heal in time for 2018 or even 2020.

And that’s not to mention all the people who expressed shame because they can’t make themselves pay attention to the news. They are the kind of folks who until recently have prided themselves on being committed and informed, but lately they’re choosing not to know things that they believe would only make them angry or frustrated or depressed. (These news-avoiders appear to be a fairly big club, though they never hold meetings.)

But the strangest thing, at least for me personally, was the number of people I already know, who read this blog, or the columns I write for UU World magazine, and expected me to provide a hopeful vision, one in which Right and Justice must ultimately prevail.

I’m not sure where they got this idea. I certainly have never advertised myself as a purveyor of hope, or posted a “5 Reasons the Good Guys Have to Win” article. The best I can figure is that it’s my affect: They know I dive deeply into the news, week after week, and yet I don’t seem to be depressed or angry or in despair. How do I do it? Maybe they think the secret sauce is that I’ve seen the ending already in my rose-colored crystal ball: I know the cavalry arrives in the final reel and saves everybody. Or maybe I have some deep insight into the Platonic essence of the Universe, which tells me that the Form of the Good is eternally triumphant, and the Trumps of this world can never ultimately prevail.

That’s not it. I mean, I do have a deep belief that the Trumps can never ultimately prevail, but that’s only because nobody ever ultimately prevails. If you look far enough into the future, people die, empires fall, civilizations crumble, and species go extinct. Ultimately, the Sun blows up, and if you keep looking far enough past that, the Universe goes cold. We may or may not save the world this time, but even if we do, the world won’t stay saved. It never does.

So anybody who is looking for an everything-well-be-fine message from me is barking up the wrong tree. My grand cosmic perspective is that shit keeps happening until it stops, and then (at some point) nothing ever happens again. If you find that comforting, you’re welcome. My bill is in the mail.

But I suppose that leaves a mystery: I see the same appalling developments everyone else does. So why aren’t I depressed or angry or driven by some desperate energy?

The answer to that one is simple: I’ve been here before.

I don’t mean that in a spooky deja-vu sense. But during a life crisis many years ago, I developed some habits and attitudes that are serving me well now.

Back in 1996, my wife was diagnosed with stage-2 breast cancer. At the time, that was right on the borderline of survivability. Again and again, people told us hopeful stories of their friends or relatives who lived through breast cancer, but invariably it was the less serious stage-1 version. In the media, we found a few stage-3 or stage-4 survival stories, but they were miraculous. Stage 2 was a genuine toss-up. With the best possible treatment, maybe you’d live and maybe you wouldn’t.

The medical advice we got was to hit it hard, because you really only got one shot. Survivals of recurrence were another set of miracle stories, and not anything you wanted to count on. In other words, “saving” some treatment in case the first ones didn’t work was a bad idea. So we set up a truly arduous 9-month plan that shot all the fireworks, one after another. This was going to take over our lives for most of a year, and there was no guarantee it would even work.

There is a whole branch of the publishing industry devoted to the mental attitude you’re supposed to maintain during such a process. Most authors at the time recommended staying relentlessly positive: This is going to work. Forget the statistics, forget how you feel today, this is going to work.

We were tempted to go for that, but the more we looked into it, the more brittle such an attitude seemed. Some people maintained it all the way to recovery, but others broke. They stayed positive until they couldn’t any more, and then they crashed into despair.

So instead, we decided to try to accept the uncertainty. We didn’t know what was going to happen, and if everything went well we wouldn’t know until sometime in the distant future when we would look back and said, “I guess we got through that.” In the meantime, we would do whatever we could with the quantity and quality of life we were allowed to spend together. (It turned out to be a lot; 21 years this August.)

Like most people I know, in the aftermath of Election Day I felt overwhelmed. How could this have happened? What did it mean? What would happen to us?

And then, without recognizing it until a month or two later, I slipped back into my cancer-treatment mindset. I started doing whatever I could think to do, and tried to accept that I have no idea whether it will work.

I see lots of people around me either getting depressed, trying not to think about it, or working to maintain a positive mental attitude. The PMA folks reach for anything they can pin their hopes to: Trump will self-destruct, he’ll be impeached, his voters will realize they’ve been conned, the 2018 election will put the Democrats back on the path to power, Trump’s abuses will just make the Revolution come faster, and so on.

And who knows? Maybe one of those things will turn out to be true. But once again, PMA seems like a brittle strategy to me: It will keep you going until one day it doesn’t, and then it will fail spectacularly.

Instead, I’ll advise you to do whatever you can think to do to defend whatever you think is worth defending. Take your best shot, not because it will necessarily work, but because it’s your best shot. Enjoy the country and democracy you have for as long as you have it. Resist those moments — both positive and negative — when you think you know how it all turns out.

You don’t know. None of us do. So do whatever you can think to do, and what happens will happen. If things go well, we won’t know until someday years from now, when we look back and say, “We got through this.”

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  • karenjerger  On July 17, 2017 at 11:11 am

    Thank You So Much for this message! It was just what I needed to hear this morning, this month, this year, this time in my life.

    With sincere appreciation, and a smile. Karen Jerger


  • Nancy Barber  On July 17, 2017 at 11:12 am

    This is truly the most helpful thing on this topic I’ve read in a long time. Your personal story also meant a lot to me: I lost my son to cancer two years ago, and during the (mere) six months he was sick and in treatment and then dying, I was swept along by the relentless PMA he and his wife adopted. I wish I’d read this then. I’ll hold it in my thoughts for the next time–and I know there will be a next time–and for making it through the current national nightmare. Thank you.

  • hat_eater  On July 17, 2017 at 11:15 am

    Well said. My country (Poland) is going through a period similarly depressing for anyone who is old enough (and cares) to remember what life was like before the first free elections after World War II in 1989. The current government, breaking the constitution, largely did away with the separation of powers and will be soon capable of simply declaring any election result it doesn’t like null and void. And we do what we can, which sometimes means going to picket the parliament while a particularly horrible law is being passed, but sometimes it means staying away from the news to preserve one’s energy for another day.
    It always helps to remember that back in the early 1980s we had very little hope for things to get better in our lifetimes; we expected the nuclear doomsday to arrive sooner rather than later. But we did what we could, and here we are.

  • Anonymous  On July 17, 2017 at 11:30 am

    A still free press is the only thing that helps me retain a modified PMA. Thanks for your post today

  • Peter vonSneidern  On July 17, 2017 at 11:39 am

    Don’t get depressed…get organized ! The worst Democrat is light years ahead of the best currant GOP…so do not let outsiders derail a new Democrat majority .Organizing Democrats (and Unitarians)is like herding cats . But….If you have a large stinking fish herding cats is easy . The currant GOP majority is one mutha of a large stinking fish !

  • teapeasea2014  On July 17, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    Right on! as we used to say, back when. For me, the benchmarks are 1) getting into 12 step recovery at a point when I could only see the shit anymore, and 2) 23 years later surviving a near-fatal heart attack for which they later told me the odds were 1 in 10. I’m now a terminal optimist. We’re going to make it through. Perhaps not in my life time and perhaps not in the forms we are accustomed to, but just keep leaning into it, and we will do it eventually. Meanwhile, treat everyone you meet with respect. Here’s a little something I wrote on this your readers might appreciate: Keep on keeping on!

  • MR DAVID CARLICK  On July 17, 2017 at 1:05 pm

    I suppose it could be a Freudian slip, but I can only read this well-thought piece as equating the Trump presidency with cancer.

  • Jeff Rosenberg  On July 17, 2017 at 6:37 pm

    Thank you for this piece. Much of your thinking is captured in a book by Stephen Batchelor called LIVING WITH THE DEVIL. He calls uncertainty, if you will, as the “radical contingency of experience.” When we try to deny, escape, explain away this experience, we live in delusion. When you and your wife acknowledge the uncertainty, then we can live more fully in the present. It beats living in the past, future, and/or a deluded present!

  • Mee Myselfani  On July 17, 2017 at 8:39 pm

    The problem with Dems is they are focusing too much on Trump. The same happened in the Election. Don’t make him out to be separate (worse) from regular Republicans. Tie the whole Republican party to him. The “Resistance” should be against Republican policies not just Trump. Even if you get rid of Trump, you’ll still have Pence and he will be worse than Trump. You’ll never get the “never Hillary” votes back otherwise!

    • 1mime  On July 17, 2017 at 8:55 pm

      I completely agree. Republicans have taken full advantage of the disgusting distraction Trump offers. Republicans are the ones to watch. Closely. This is their big chance. Never before in history has one party held a majority in all branches of government. Congress, presidency, Supreme Court. Plus, they hold the majority of governorships and state legislatures. Democrats and Progressives – wake up!

    • weeklysift  On July 18, 2017 at 9:07 am

      The case I made a few weeks ago in “Turn the Page” is that we need to run against the whole Conservative Era of the last 40 years.

  • Dennis Maher  On July 18, 2017 at 1:45 pm

    Even better than being able to say “We got through this,” is saying “I did a few small things to help us get through this.”

  • SamuraiArtGuy  On July 18, 2017 at 3:58 pm

    I sometimes annoy my progressive friends by mentioning that civilizations do collaspe, empires fall, people – and political parties – die, economies go into depression & recession, and if you live in South Florida – get the HELL out to some gorram high ground.

    Everything is not always going to be okay. Thinking about how you’re going to cope, and dig in for the long haul, fight for the stuff you car about, is about the only way to stay halfway sane in the face of all of this.

    Those of us of a certain age have mostly experienced enough of life to thicken our skins. After the home hospice of both my cancer afflicted parents, and a devastating house fire – cured me of any inclination towards faith in rainbows and unicorn farts.

    Sense of humor tho’ – however black – definitely helpful.

  • Susan Henken-Thielen  On July 18, 2017 at 5:23 pm


    Wndering if you are referring to Camp Unistar on Star Island in Cass Lake? My family attended camps there when I was a teenager- many fond memories! Susan Henken

    On Mon, Jul 17, 2017 at 9:30 AM, The Weekly Sift wrote:

    > weeklysift posted: “Since the election, I’ve been trying to get > comfortable with uncertainty rather than maintain a positive mental > attitude. I spent last week vacationing on an island with almost 300 > Unitarians of all ages. We listened to chautauqua-style talks, pl” >

    • weeklysift  On July 19, 2017 at 1:01 pm

      Different Star Island: In the Atlantic near Portsmouth, NH.

      • Anonymous  On July 21, 2017 at 4:52 pm

        In reading your posts over the years, Star Island always seemed like a place you might like. After reading the start of this post, I realized you were already going! I was at All Star I this year and have been going since the early 90s – are you an All Star II regular?

      • weeklysift  On July 22, 2017 at 7:06 am

        I’ve been to AS-2 a few times, but I’m not a regular.

  • famoushippo  On July 20, 2017 at 6:20 am

    I have been away from WordPress for 2 years, and decided to come back and, to my delight, you are still here, keeper-of-the-lighthouse. Something about your posts gives me a quiet sense of serenity. and I have missed them. All the best to you, sir.

    Sincerely, A Fan.

  • Dangerous Meredith  On July 21, 2017 at 12:53 am

    Great blog, very wise.

    I was homeless for about 6 months last year. It was tough to get through but I did, without sliding into a depression or any symptoms of trauma. I very much had a mindset like the one you described above; I just took it one day at a time. Things did improve and I am in a much better place now but that was actually down to luck – getting that lucky break.

    But now I realise I do have a more philosophical take on life now.

  • long haul  On August 21, 2017 at 9:23 am

    It’s going to be end of mine day, but before ending I am reading
    this enormous paragraph to improve my know-how.

  • ccyager  On January 23, 2018 at 6:26 pm

    I’m catching up with your posts in 2017. This one is wise, reasonable, and calm. That’s what I associate with your blog posts anyway. I’ve been through 2 friends with breast cancer and can agree with your approach. I found it terribly unhelpful to my friends to be positive and upbeat all the time. We all knew the score. The question was, would it be their score or no? It turned out to be no. With 45, I find myself going Buddhist: this too shall pass. I cannot get attached to it. At least most of the time. At the same time I do what I can to support our democracy and insure that it won’t go away because of 45. I confess, too, that I have moments of being absolutely astounded that 45 was elected when he’s clearly so unfit for the job.


  • By Wanting to Work | The Weekly Sift on July 17, 2017 at 11:56 am

    […] week’s featured post is “Getting Through This“, in which I describe how the mindset I developed when my wife was fighting cancer is helping […]

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