I write this on the day after the close of US elections and ballots are still being counted. Each party is positioning lawyers to dispute or defend the integrity of our election process and its outcome. Americans on both sides are looking through the lens of victory or defeat, as to what it will mean for their future and general wellbeing.
Many of us are trying, but not always successfully, to negotiate the narrow ridge between nervous exhaustion, from our worry over things we can’t control, and compassion fatigue, from the deep angst we feel for the human need and suffering all around us.
I’ve written numerous posts over the past four years and more, trying to put a contextual frame around the strange phenomenon of Donald Trump’s rise to power, and how he has managed to steadily dismantle the institutions that have anchored our democracy for so long. I noted, for instance, how Trump’s 2016 victory marked a decisive ascendancy of capitalism over democracy – the twin seedbed traditions of our American Experiment.
I also offered an explanation in terms of how Trump has poked our insecure Inner Child, persuading us to give up our freedoms and responsibility as citizens.
Just this morning it struck me again how much Donald Trump, the wealthy white capitalist, represents America itself. Not that he cares much about us or has our best interests in mind, but how much he exemplifies, as a kind of symptomatic projection, our national character. Other countries of the world have long regarded the United States less as a bastion and defender of liberal democracy, and more a gassy bubble of rampant consumerism, neurotic self-interest, and moral schizophrenia.
We haven’t really felt the urgency of living with a bigger picture in mind, of having to look farther into the future than our own retirement plans, or taking into consideration the needs and welfare of others who are not American – or human. What’s in it for me? really does drive many of our decisions and actions in business, in politics, and in everyday life.
The historical tension in our nation between the values of conservative stability and those of progressive change, embodied and played out in the competition and debate between Republicans and Democrats, has been critical to the success of the American Experiment – so far.
When we throw into this mix the additional complication of trying to promote the values of capitalism (economic self-interest, individual prosperity, and private property) and those of democracy (engaged altruism, communal wellbeing, and equal rights), the situation starts to feel a little like that Mason Jar of fruit flies in our seventh-grade science experiment.
So what needs to happen? I think we need to take a moment for some serious national self-reflection. Even if he wasn’t elected by the popular vote, Donald Trump as President says something about what’s been going on across our nation and deep inside our national character – and likely will for some time to come.
If we are in fact driven primarily by self-interest, and if our operative notion of self is limited to individual egos and single lifetimes, then four more years of what we’ve had will be damaging and possibly catastrophic for all of us.
Who exactly is this “all of us”? Well, that depends on how big our picture is, on how much and how many others are included in our perspective. Does our picture of America include the diverse races and religions, genders and orientations, ages and abilities, worldviews and lifestyles that share this ground and coexist under this sky?
It also depends on how long our view is, on how far into the future our vision is able to reach. Are we considering the longer-term consequences of our actions, the collateral side-effects of our choices, or the future generations that will inherit the positive benefit or negative fallout, as the case may be?
But what if the “self” in self-interest includes not just beliefs, but also other minds? Not humans only, but all sentient beings as well? Not just living things, but the water, air, soil and climate that support life on our planet? The biblical mandate to “love your neighbor as yourself” should read, “love your neighbor as your self”; in other words, expand your sense of identity so as to include your neighbor in your definition and self-regard.
Expanding beyond that even, there is no absolute boundary that might finally separate “me” from the rest. All is one, and we are all in this together. That’s thinking like the universe.
How would our choices and actions be different if we considered our options with a bigger picture and longer view in mind? What if “all of us” really was ALL of us?