“Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss” (Psalm 85:11)
On the morning of January 20, just moments after President Biden and Vice President Harris (I love writing that!) were sworn in, my cousin Craig 1 texted from the Mohave Desert:
Have had two days of dark clouds and cold winds. This morning solid overcast with some rain-cold, but long overdue in this part of the Mojave. But I’m not kidding, in the last 10 minutes of the Mad Emperor’s reign the clouds broke and cleared! It got bright and warm and I was once again ‘taking data in the sunshine.’ ! This is my motto and goal for 2021.
Then came an email from my British friend Helen, who lives in Exeter, in England:
Just wanted to send out greetings and congratulations to you on this wonderful day for you, for your country, our country, democracy…and the world! Celebrate well!
I myself had just burst into tears of relief and gratitude when President Biden, in his inaugural address, said, with fervent sincerity, “My whole soul is in this!” Both because he vowed it, and because it reminded me that we once again have a president with that kind of a soul.
Then Amanda Gorman both raised the bar and cleared it with her Inauguration poem, The Hill We Climb (all text in red italics, below, is from the poem:)
When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours […]
Down the hatch tonight, my friend Susannah signed off that evening.
The next morning, Susannah texts:
I had a giant screaming freak-out cry fest. I did not know all that was there. It all came out. A crazy freak-out. Him, being gone. I lost my mind. I cried so hard.
I knew what she meant, as I’d been feeling something new, too, the day after the inauguration: the stirring and welling of the feeling (as distinct from just the “knowing” and the “coping”) of the full scale and scope of the horror of the past four years, with its cumulative trauma and associated “grie-lief” 2 now. A scale of grief and fear that I could only begin to fully feel now that the need for the constant coping-with was over, in a definitively-ritual way if not perhaps a final one. I felt it this morning as a particular flavor of anxiety that I have come to recognize signals “grief-under-pressure” for me: an agitated fatigue, some nausea, a tightness in my throat, big irritability, and an intensifying, discomfiting feeling of angry contempt for those who continue to hold DT in esteem.
All day, the words The horror, the horror! (Kurtz’s last words, in Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness 3) kept running through my mind.
And I envied Susannah her cryfest, as I waited for whatever would let my own dam break, within.
Meanwhile, the focus in news platforms, social media, and text chains among friends was beginning to turn more fully to the question of holding Trump accountable for his crimes.
Which is when I remembered an experience I had the night after the execution of Saddam Hussein, on December 30, 2006.
The brutal Iraqi dictator was executed by hanging after being convicted of crimes against humanity following the earlier massacre of 148 Iraqi Shi’ites in retaliation for an assassination attempt against him. The Iraqi government’s official video of the execution ended with the moment the noose was placed around his neck, but a cell phone recording of the hanging released to the news media showed him surrounded by a crowd viciously jeering him as he fell through the trap door of the gallows.
It was a disturbing image, and I remember feeling disturbed both by the image and by my own vindictive glee.
That night, I dreamed I was at the hanging, though I stood at a distance. Saddam Hussein wore a white thawb. Just as in the video, an angry, jeering crowd milled around the gallows, shouting insults and spitting.
Then the trapdoor opened and the noose snapped the dictator’s neck.
At which moment his mouth opened, releasing a spray of what looked like little black seeds of some kind. Some of the seeds fell on the ground, but most of the seeds fell directly into the opened mouths of the gleefully vengeful crowd that pressing in close. And I was given to understand that the seeds were “the seeds of evil,” and that this is what happens to evil when our desire for justice is contaminated by our desire for vengeance and violence: its seeds are directly received into that opening, and incubated by the vindictive stuff within us. By way of which, instead of the evil dying with the evildoer, it goes forth and multiplies. Had SH been executed in a dignified, neutral and private way (again, this was the understanding I was given), the evil he carried might have mostly died with him, the seeds still releasing, but landing on nothing that would give them life.
It was a powerful dream at the time; one of those dreams that felt like a direct transmission of a teaching that I was urgently meant to receive.
And so I find myself contemplating this dream again, in midst of the heavy, roiling hugeness of my grief and rage, and the wish for revenge for the scale and scope of chaos and suffering that DT is responsible for, and as I witness the disturbing intensity of my contempt for his unrepentant supporters.
The dream reminds me that, at the end of the day, what I grow and add to the world results directly from the kinds of seeds I choose to feed and water in my own heart. We carry many kinds of seeds, and what we do with them collectively sets the vector toward actions that serve justice, or that (disguised as a fervor for justice) only add more hate and vengeance to the world, through the impulse of revenge .
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it.
God how I pray for softening in all of our hearts. As well as willingness for some thoughtful accounting. Susannah texts later today.
At a post-inauguration Zoom celebration of the local Indivisible group that I’ve been a member of since January of 2016, we began to consider what might be our priorities for action, going forward. Toward the end of the conversation, one of us posed the question, “So now, how do we get people we know who still stand by their support for T. to see that they were lied to?!” .
There was a collective silence, into which another among us responded that we simply wait for them to come around, in their own way and own time.
Which seemed to me like just the right answer, if for no other reason than that it is a kind response, at a time when we need more kindness than we need more confrontations.
And I have found myself continuing to reflect on that question and answer since, from a psychological and emotional point of view. It’s an important question, as one of the emotional challenges that I face going forward (and is what I think the question reflects) is what to do with my own impatience, frustration, alarm and (yes) contempt, since trying to take care of those feelings by “getting others to see the light” is likely to just be experienced as the judgement that it is, and so deepen the denial.
The thing is, the function of denial itself (like all psychological defenses, and we all have them and use them all the time to keep at a distance stuff that we feel unprepared to emotionally deal with), is to protect us from seeing and acknowledging something which we unconsciously (this is an important point) believe would be lethal to us in some way to see and to acknowledge. A psychological defense is an unconscious psychological solution to a psychological problem, meaning that when a defense is working perfectly, it makes invisible what it is defending us from experiencing. And since it is at root non-rational and unconscious, versus rational and conscious (we consciously rationalize our defenses all the time, but that’s all part of protecting the defenses themselves), rational arguments don’t influence our defenses, except to register as a threat to the defense itself. So for the person I am trying to make “see,” I am not solving a problem; for her/him, I am trying to solve a solution.
In effect, the denial is a solution which I am trying to take away…and that is only going to deepen the resistance.
When I remember that, I try to imagine what it would mean, now, if all my hopes and sense of self-worth and safety and understanding of how life is and what justice is and who and what are responsible for the ills of the world in general and for my own confused and confusing pain in particular had been invested with someone who presented himself as my sympathizer and savior…and then, after years and years of investing ever more in that person, I suddenly realized that the very person who seemed to sympathize and champion me in my pain and rage actually had not given a damn about me and mine at all, and in fact had been being slowly and deliberately and maliciously using and poisoning me all this time, purely in order to further empower and enrich himself. And so to face also that as a result of having been entranced into collaborating and condoning, I now also shared responsibility for all the harm and suffering that has resulted.
When I imagine that, I start to get a sense of how high the stakes would be, now, for the unconscious to face the choice to see or to continue not-to-see.
Which suggests to me in turn that unless I am prepared to commit to actively, curiously, patiently and compassionately holding space for a conversation about this, I don’t have any business trying to pushing for one with the still-unconvinced, until I am.
And the truth is that although it feels like a big huge failure of empathy, I am not, right now, able to actually feel compassion for those entrenched in their defenses against “seeing,” and in their loyalty to T, despite the fact that I intellectually understand it, and understand that the denial itself is about pain.
But my own and others’ pain resulting from the abuses and neglect of the previous administration, and the cumulative, deep exhaustion I feel, is pretty much all I can hold right now…and even that is too much, actually, for any of us to hold alone, as we are collectively beginning to realize [for more on this topic, see “People are not okay:” the mental health impact of the Trump era ]
And as I sit with the realization that there is really nothing to do with these feelings-that-I-would-rather-not-have (especially the cold, judgmental contempt, which makes my ego really uncomfortable!) that would not add more pain to pain and darkness to darkness in the world, I begin to relax around it a little; this just is what it is.
Into which incipient sense of acceptance and surrender arrives the sudden sense within of an opening, a spaciousness, like stumbling into a clearing in the midst of a dark and trackless wood. The dense and distressing darkness is still there, but there’s space in it now, with light.
That I can hold this space, for light.
When day comes we step out of the shade
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it
- Craig Himmelwright is a veterinarian and wildlife biologist who works for a project that monitors and relocates desert tortoises, so as to mitigate —to some degree at least— the effect of solar power facility development in the Mohave on the tortoises’ health and habitat)
- Thanks to my sister, Darcy, for that great neolism, “grielief”
- Heart of Darkness, written 1899, is a novel ultimately about European imperialism and racism, and about how the evil in the hearts of “all men” gets projected onto the “darkness” perceived elsewhere, in others. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now was based directly on Conrad’s novel.