Let’s Talk Each Other Down

Looking around this week — in the media, among my friends, inside my own head — I observed that a lot of people are freaking out. Because Trump was acquitted, because he has started his revenge tour, because Republicans know he abused his power and don’t care, because the Democrats are doing it all wrong, because a virus is spreading out of control, because the State of the Union was full of lies, because both the National Prayer Breakfast and the Medal of Freedom have been desecrated, because a US senator willfully and illegally endangered the life of a whistleblower, because it’s been 65 degrees in Antarctica, because the Attorney General has given Trump carte blanche to violate campaign laws, because a billion-dollar disinformation project has begun, and because, because, because.

There’s been no lack of stuff to freak out about, if that’s what you feel inclined to do. You’re not wrong. I can’t tell you that all those horrors aren’t happening. But let me try to talk you down in a different way.

In general, people freak out for a very simple reason: They’ve been telling themselves “It’s all going to be OK” when they don’t really know that. When events start to crack that false sense of certainty, one natural reaction is to flip over completely to: “We’re all doomed.”

Allow me to point something out: You don’t really know that either.

So if you come to me hoping I’ll tell you it’s all going to be OK — sorry, I can’t do that. But I can tell you this: Uncertainty is the natural state of human beings. Maybe we’re doomed, but maybe things will be OK — or something in between, more likely. That’s how life is and always has been. It might be true that the arc of the Universe bends towards Justice, but you can never count on that bend being visible in any given lifetime. If you’ve comfortably lived in denial of that reality until this week, I’m sorry you had to find out like this. It’s not really my fault, but never mind: Accept my apology anyway, because probably nobody else will offer one.

You know something that’s even worse? You might be in this state of uncertainty for the rest of your life. Maybe we’re doomed, but maybe we’re not. Nobody really knows. Democracy in America might soon be over, or it might get a reprieve. Truth might finally drown in a sea of disinformation, or maybe it will figure out how to swim in that sea. People are endlessly surprising. Just when you think they’re hopeless, they do something hopeful. And vice versa.

So: Breathe. Breathe again, to make sure that one wasn’t just luck. Keep breathing. You can do this, at least for now.

And try to accept something: You don’t need to know that it’s going to be OK.

You can do something to make things better without being sure it’s going to work. Because … well, what else are you going to do? (I don’t know if you’ve ever tried giving up, but I can tell you a little about that too: It’s no fun either. Sometimes when you get worn down, you might think that waiting helplessly for inevitable destruction would be an nice relief. But trust me. It isn’t.)

Affirmations can be useful in a situation like this, but only if you choose to affirm things that are at least vaguely believable. Try this one: I don’t know that things are going to be OK, but I don’t need to know. I can try to do good things anyway.

Now say it out loud. “I don’t know that things are going to be OK, but I don’t need to know. I can try to do good things anyway.”

Maybe one or two of the things you’ve been trying to do really are doomed, and maybe that’s finally become obvious to you. You can shift your effort to something else. There’s no lack of things to do that still might be useful.

Because you don’t know what’s going to happen. We all like to think that we do, but we don’t.

Now let me tell you something about the particular challenge we’re facing now: Trump. At his core, Trump is a bluffer. He puffs himself up to make people think he’s bigger and richer and stronger than he really is. It’s the only trick he knows, but sometimes it works: He scares people into giving up or going along. (That’s what we just saw happen in the Senate. You don’t really believe that all those Republicans thought keeping him in office was good for the country, do you? Or even good for their party, or for themselves? They got scared, so they went along.)

When something like that works for him, he uses it to puff himself up further and scare more people. That’s what’s been going on this week.

Don’t help him.

Don’t run around scaring other people about how big and powerful he is. When a bluffer gets on a roll, you can never predict how far it will go. But we do know one thing about bluffers: When their empires start to collapse, they collapse quickly, because each failure causes more people to think “I don’t have to be scared of this guy.”

You can never predict exactly when that process is going to start. The balloon always looks biggest just before it pops.

Steve Almond put it like this:

We must organize rather than agonize.

This optimism should not be confused with naiveté. We all know that the Trump regime will do everything in its power to rig the 2020 election. We’ll see more voter suppression, more fearmongering, more Russian trolling.

Nihilism remains the GOP’s ultimate Trump card. They are counting on citizens of good faith to give up, to quit the field, to say “who cares?” So is the party’s most reliable ally, Vladimir Putin. And so are the oligarchs, domestic and foreign, who have converted our planet into a vast and decaying casino.

Don’t let them sucker you.

Be a fanatical optimist. Make a plan. Take action. Listen to your conscience. Vote.

A brighter dawn might await all of us, but we have to work for it.

I’ll quibble with him using the word optimism rather than hope. (I’ve written about that elsewhere.) But the key word there is might. If you’re waiting for a guarantee, for a political almanac that will tell you exactly when the sun will rise and the tide will turn, you’ll keep waiting and you’ll do nothing. Don’t go that way.

Be hopeful. Throw your effort out there and see what happens. Because you never know.

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  • Guest  On February 10, 2020 at 9:13 am

    Love it when you strike this note, Doug, thank you. “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

  • Lisa Moses  On February 10, 2020 at 9:26 am

    Thank you!

    Lisa Moses

    http://www.lisamosesgallery.com http://www.gratidude.blogspot.com

  • Dennis Maher  On February 10, 2020 at 9:28 am

    Wise. I frequently remember how Democrats freaked out when Newt announced his Contract on America. I said then “Things will change,” and six months later things had changed and the dire threat had been overcome. The flaw in this is that there are many examples such as Hitler in ’33 that were not overcome.

  • brainwane  On February 10, 2020 at 9:37 am

    “You don’t need to know that it’s going to be OK.” That’s really useful. Thank you.

  • James Collins  On February 10, 2020 at 9:43 am

    Sent this to a friend with the heading “Talking each other toward hope”

    • weeklysift  On February 10, 2020 at 11:11 am

      I’ve been surprised by the number of people who don’t seem to be familiar with the “talk down” formulation. The longer version is “talk down off the ledge” and refers to getting potential suicides to come in rather than jump. Rachel Maddow used to do a regular “Talk Me Down” segment on her show, where she’d talk about something that had her spun up, and then get an expert to explain why it wasn’t that bad.

  • Kathie Zeman  On February 10, 2020 at 10:13 am

    Jim, I think McConnell has a great deal to do with the Republican senators voting to acquit tRump ~ he controls all the money his supplicants get from PACs. No vote, no money.

  • Fred Rickson  On February 10, 2020 at 11:01 am

    It’s also instructive that one can go from being proud of a country (Obama) to embarrassed (Trump) in a single election.

  • Kat  On February 10, 2020 at 12:44 pm

    Thank you.

  • Anonymous  On February 10, 2020 at 4:49 pm

    “You don’t really believe that all those Republicans thought keeping him in office was good for the country, do you? Or even good for their party, or for themselves? They got scared, so they went along.”

    Here’s the part I don’t understand: What are they scared of, really? Most Repub Senators have enough money that they could retire tomorrow, never work another day in their lives, and still live the entire rest of their lives, very comfortably.

    So McConnell can stop the cash flow to their campaigns, and they lose their Senate seat. Again–they could retire comfortably right now. So what are they scared of?

    I remember that one time you defined a hobby as something that if one stopped doing it, one could still live comfortably forever. Hobbies may be something that we care about, and put a lot of energy into, but when you get right down to it, they are not necessary for our financial survival.

    So why are these Repubs so deathly afraid that the man could take away their hobbies? Any ideas?

    • Anonymous Poster  On February 10, 2020 at 8:44 pm

      Men like Mitch McConnell have lived long enough to see the country turn against a fair number of conservative ideas and ideals (e.g., opposition to same-sex marriage/gay people living openly in American society). Trump – and notably, the federal and Supreme Court judges Trump is pushing/has pushed through the Senate – represent the GOP’s last real chance to install conservative values into law for at least a generation.

      Trump is the one person standing between Republicans and the loss of any real sense of power in shaping federal policies on (among other things) abortion, gay rights, corporate power, taxing the wealthy, and healthcare. He is their final power play, and they’re not going to give up that power easily. That means they’ll support Trump no matter what they do to their own legacies. It’s not a fear of Trump himself; they ultimately don’t give a damn about him as a person in the long term. It’s the fear of what Trump’s retribution represents: a loss of power, of influence, of the right/priivilege/ability to tell the country what’s best for everyone (which, for the GOP, is “what’s best for rich White people”).

      The fear of cultural and political irrelevance drives the current GOP. The consequences of assuaging their fears through public demonstrations of fealty to a wannabe dictator will ultimately destroy the party. Too bad it can’t happen any faster than it already is.

  • ecjspokane  On February 10, 2020 at 5:46 pm

    The problem is I can’t see anything I CAN do to help.

    Eric Johnson
    Spokane, WA

    • Anonymous Poster  On February 10, 2020 at 8:53 pm

      You can do plenty if you think small instead of big. Aim for low-level wins – you know, the kind of wins that can add up over time. For example: Talk with your friends and neighbors about a plan to vote in the primaries/the November election together. Or take an interest in lower-level politics; local and state politics are arguably more important to a given person’s day-to-day life than national politics.

      Think less about winning one big thing and more about building up a bunch of small wins into something big.

    • Anonymous  On February 10, 2020 at 10:53 pm

      Here’s a couple of ideas:
      – Post Cards to Voters (www.PostcardsToVoters.org) is working on a Get Out The Vote effort for Democrats in Florida. You can participate by sending postcards. They guide you about what to write. You can can do it from home.
      – League of Women Voters (www.lwv.org) is involved in things like voter registration and education.
      – Subscribe to a Better congress (www.contribute.itstarts.today/535). You make a monthly contribution, they fund Democratic candidates running for the U.S. House and Senate. In addition, you can also talk to other people about making a monthly contribution.

      As noted by the previous poster: You can start small. Lots of people’s small things all together can become a big thing.

      • Anonymous  On February 11, 2020 at 8:29 pm

        One other idea: Pass anti-corruption acts.

        The American Anti-Corruption Act (www.anticorruptionact.org –or– http://www.represent.us ) addresses money in politics, lobbying, gerrymandering, voting rights, and a few other things that contribute the current political mess.

  • Anonymous  On February 10, 2020 at 8:16 pm

    I needed this so much! THANK YOU!

  • amyhouts  On February 10, 2020 at 8:17 pm

    I needed this so much! THANK YOU!

  • Nat Kuhn  On February 10, 2020 at 10:16 pm

    Thanks Doug! Soon after the 2016 election, I adopted the mantra, “A lot of bad shit is going to happen.” It has really helped me agonize less. Of course I still agonize, but less, because I already acknowledged that a lot of bad shit is going to happen and I don’t have to agonize about it one drop at a time. In the 80s I spent a year working for a nuclear disarmament organization. It helped me quite a bit when I acknowledged it was possible that the human race might annihilate itself and that after that something else would happen. It is better to pull the band-aid off more than one hair at a time IMO.

  • wcroth55  On February 10, 2020 at 11:33 pm

    If you (the plural you) can’t think of anything you can do to help… contact your local League of Women Voters. (Men are welcome! 🙂 ) They are non-partisan, to be sure. But they are also at the forefront of registering new voters, and helping voters REMEMBER to vote.

    And new voters, especially young new voters, and higher turnout, will help. I’ve volunteered at three events in the last couple weeks, and I estimate we registered 200+ young voters. (And this is in Michigan, a “battleground” state.)

  • EFCL  On February 11, 2020 at 9:11 am

    From Sunday’s anthem, by Benjamin Kornelis, based on Galatians and Micah:

    Let us not become weary, weary in doing good,
    For at the proper time, we will reap a harvest, if we do not give up.
    Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good, let us do good to all people

    And what does the Lord require require of you,
    But to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

  • Mike M.  On February 12, 2020 at 12:44 pm

    Ingrid Michaelson SONG lyrics: ” All I can do is keep breathing”…


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