My Canadian friends and I were huddled together in hope, glued to CNN, when, a few minutes after 8 pm Pacific Time, the results put Barack Obama over the line and into the presidency. I felt something lift off my shoulders: a weight of shame called George W. Bush that had been lodged there so long I’d forgotten how it felt to be without that heavy load.
The U.S. electorate has begun to make a tikkun—a repair—of the material and spiritual damage our leaders have created in the past eight years. It will take time (though no one knows how much), but right now, the important thing is to have reversed direction, turning toward enlivening democracy and remembering the vision of pluralism, participation and equity that has animated our every step toward social justice throughout U.S. history. I am so happy to see this moment, so happy to be part of it, so happy to contemplate being able to hold my head up in the family of nations.
Throughout this campaign, I’ve written of friends and associates coming to me overwhelmed by their fears. Despite the army of attorneys and monitors the Obama campaign and its friends had mobilized to respond to any possible attempt to steal or disrupt the election, in the last week I got more emails by far detailing doomsday scenarios than anticipating the historic celebration now beginning. I’ve written here many times about how the creation and feeding of that fear is a distortion—understandable, perhaps, in the way that you cannot blame a beaten dog for cringing from an outstretched hand—but nonetheless a distortion, damaging to the spirit of anyone who gives it a home in their heads and hearts.
I am not saying, “I told you so,” nor claiming some special ability to predict the future. None of us has that. What I am saying is that when many other people were overwhelmed by rising fear, fear that cascaded as victory approached, I could see no solid reason external to my own feelings to justify that fear. As I wrote in mid-May in “HopeAerobics,” one of 30 little essays touching on Barack Obama I’ve posted to my Web site in the last 10 months:
[T]he damage done by being afraid to hope is that removing hope from the equation doesn’t just take us to a neutral place. Instead, eschewing hope puts us in a state of preemptive or unearned disappointment. Life is full of defeats (and victories, of course). But by choosing not to risk hope, defeat becomes our default setting. It’s like deciding not to buy a lottery ticket, then feeling crappy because you didn’t win the big jackpot: every breath is flavored with disappointment and defeat.
Why do I bring this up now? Because this moment contains a rare opportunity for learning about how our own minds create suffering, so as to avoid repeating this pattern.
Obama’s victory was definitive and undeniable. All the scenarios about election-tampering, even some I heard about a martial-law coup to avoid an Obama victory by canceling the election, have now been established as fear-driven fantasies, period. (If you aren’t on the same mailing lists as I am, take it from me: supposedly intelligent and responsible commentators spun out every Kafkaesque nightmare imaginable, most of them predicated on the idea that if something could conceivably be executed, then it was perfectly reasonable to imagine that Bush and his cohort were already planning it).
It’s not that there haven’t been real attempts to discourage voting and real problems in the voting process, many of them traceable to anti-democratic influences ranging from indifference to hostility, almost all from the right. But the preparation, organization and efficiency of the Obama campaign’s response team had them outmatched from the get-go. It’s not so much that these fear-driven scenarios were badly mistaken as that hosting such notions in one’s own heart and mind is now exposed as a choice to feed the forces of fear at a time when hope and possibility need all the nourishment they can get.
Everyone who rented space in their heads to these fearful creations now has the wonderful opportunity to reflect, to recognize how such distortions took up residence in their consciousness, and to consider how, going forward into the actuality of the Obama administration, they can invest themselves on the side of democratic promise. Whether constructive action can indeed be accomplished is in part about our system of governance and its entrenched obstacles. But it is also in large part about whether people see possibility and nudge the system toward it. At the height of Bush’s ascendancy—before voters finally said “Enough!”—one of the chief obstacles to health in the body politic was the deep and heavy resignation that had set in, the pervasive feeling that Bush or something like him had been, was and in some sense always would be in charge, a feeling that often made it too hard even to hope for change. Obama’s candidacy altered that picture greatly by embodying a hope that was galvanizing and mobilizing beyond our dreams.
For those who accuse me of beatifying Obama, I’ll say it again: he has already espoused numerous positions I dislike, and I have no illusion that his actions will be perfectly congruent with my own desires. But he is much less likely than anyone in office for decades to get us into a war of conquest; he is much less likely to tilt our national policies in favor of enriching and aggrandizing entrenched privilege; and he is much less likely to shame us with an administration drenched in corruption and self-dealing.
What is most important to me is this: the U.S. president puts a symbolic face on this country. I am thrilled beyond belief that we have elected someone who symbolizes the congruence of body, feeling, mind and spirit, whose personal story evokes what is best is our national story, and who has already demonstrated an awesome capacity to show up and treat others with caring, dignity and respect. No matter how many times in coming years I disagree with one of his appointments or wish his position on an issue had been different, I will continue to be grateful beyond measure for being vouchsafed this moment.
Before I went to sleep last night, I typed this status message into my Facebook listing: “Arlene is feeling the healing of our national shame begin, even as I sit here with friends in Canada, tasting victory.” Within five minutes, a friend who shares my happiness with the election results wrote this in reply: “Sadly, it will take decades to heal the damage of the last eight years. But I am thrilled. My children have never seen me happy about an election before.”
Decades to heal? From what I can see, political and social change doesn’t work that way. To turn things around, you don’t need to painstakingly restore everything that has been lost to a bad government; merely to create the conditions and container for enough possibility to fuel forward motion, putting new ideas in place that succeed where the former initiatives had not, rather than restoring the old. But whatever might constitute a reverse in this country’s course, none of us can predict with confidence how it will manifest or how much time it will take to unfold. Would any one of us taken a bet two years ago that this presidential election would turn out as it has? Life, even political life, is full of surprises.
So once again, as before the election, we are faced with a choice. We can start now to downsize our expectations in the (even unconscious) hope of avoiding disappointment, and probably succeed by inauguration day in dampening the energy Obama has catalyzed. Or we can feed and water the hope springing in our hearts and work as hard as we can to bring it to fruition, an approach that inevitably entails risking disappointment. Today brings an opportunity to learn from yesterday’s election that the risk is worth it.
One of my readers, a man who is deeply skeptical about the prospects for social justice in this country, wrote this to me in mid-October: “It will be a historical, political, social and cultural miracle if Barack is elected president of USA.” Halleluyah! Miracle #2: May this election be an opportunity for the citizens of this country to remember what democracy can be and make it real. It’s up to you and to me. First step: just say no to preemptive disappointment.