The same qualities Hillary Clinton is displaying now—commitment, tenacity, fortitude in the face of opposition and ridicule—need to be cultivated by anyone willing to stand up for an unpopular position. The thing is, it matters greatly whether that position derives from a wounded certainty of one’s own merit and therefore entitlement, as I’m afraid is true of Clinton, or from insights and observations that hold the potential to heal social wounds.
Just a few days ago, a teacher I value greatly asked me if I share these qualities with respect to my own sense of what needs saying now. He is skeptical about the general state of potential consciousness these days. He asked me whether I am prepared to face isolation, animosity, humiliation and ridicule. I told him I already had a lot of experience along those lines. But mine is nothing to compare to Clinton’s present situation, which calls to mind Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame/Is lust in action” (though lust for power was not his subject).
We start our lives developing those muscles we exercise most often. I have a friend whose ill-suited parents trained him to endure any amount of pain, physical and emotional. In adult life, endurance can be a valuable skill, getting us through the tribulations the world puts in our path. But if it has no limit, if it isn’t balanced with a healthy willingness to abandon a losing strategy, the very same endurance becomes a cause of new suffering rather than a way to cope with unavoidable discomfort. The person oriented to enduring pain will use that strength to withstand an untenable situation long past the point it would have been better to give up and change direction. The trick is to preserve the endurance muscle, but add in a new skill: the capacity to discern when one is reenacting old traumas rather than choosing freely whether to endure or not.
One thing I learned early on was that many people—especially my family—did not appreciate my talent for seeing through cover stories and rationalizations to what was actually going on. I was admonished countless times not to ask questions, not to say what I was thinking, that I was too young or otherwise unqualified to speak out. I was trained to mistrust my perceptions until I began to doubt them, or at least to cloak them, thereby avoiding the isolating punishments that followed from stating them. You might find it amusing to consider that a person as outspoken as myself is still engaged in cloaking, but it’s true. The new skill I am trying to learn is contacting my deepest thoughts, perceptions and feelings, allowing them to emerge unmasked, without caring about consequences.
The muscle analogy is a good one, because it is so precise. The capacity built up in strong mens’ arms is absolutely neutral: they can use their biceps to snatch purses on the street or ladle soup for the homeless. Each of us has a moral compass calibrated by inheritance, judgment and experience, but how do we know it is pointing true north? In the end, the only way is through fearless self-discovery, the type of soul inventory that shows us all the bright and all the broken places, the work that has been accomplished and the work that remains to be done.
When I see the mask Hillary Clinton wears in public these days, the slippery and desperate way her accent and opinions slide toward local cadences wherever the campaign trail takes her, I see someone who has been focusing so intently and so long on the externals that she has lost the capacity for introspection. I want her to leave the race because I am so excited about an Obama presidency, to be sure. But also because it hurts to see her this way: she has so clearly lost touch with her own inner compass, and she is not on a path to regain it.
I’m not the only person who feels that Clinton is harming herself now. Even the editorial writers of the New York Times, who endorsed her, took her to task today for the viciousness of her tactics, saying she must make a major change “if she hopes to have any shot at winning the nomination or preserving her integrity and her influence if she loses.” I know how to spot someone whose compass is broken. She’s not going to fix it this way. No one could.