By Ann D’Ercole
The days before and since the election have unquestionably been days of anxiety. In my world, anxious worry for the future of the country and for democracy itself dominates daily conversations as well as private thoughts. For friends, family, colleagues and for many of my patients, concerns for the well being of loved ones and for the people who are already disenfranchised casts a dark shadow on both days and nights. I listen while my patients talk about their fear that they or their neighbors will be threatened with legal sanctions because of their immigration status, or their speaking up against authority, or their skin color, or religion. Some are frightened that they will lose the hard fought for civil rights that could end their legal marriages. And, for those who have suffered sexual abuse these are days of trauma and flashbacks to earlier times when the exploits of an abuser went without condemnation or punishment.
It has been hard for people not to attend to their concerns for domestic and international social justice and financial stability, and for the care of our environment. Ultimately, this could result in a positive outcome for us all if it leads to increased participation in politics and government. For the moment however, it suddenly feels like being able to lose oneself in the hassles of daily life has become a luxury. Useful individual defenses against daily stressors seem to crumble as annihilation anxiety becomes more pervasive. In my practice, I am concerned about holding the worries of others as I too worry for our collective future as threats to defund, lock up, keep out, throw out, have us all on edge. As a member of a non-hetero-normative family, my concerns for our place in the world have been further heightened. These concerns were exacerbated as the rhetoric leading up to the election underscored the feeling that some of us are not only unacceptable but also expendable, asking the question once again, who counts as human?
Each day of the election cycle seemed to bring and even now, since the inauguration, still brings a barrage of verbal assaults that are full of uncontained hate. A hate that spills into all forms of social media and into the minds and hearts of people who increasingly see this as a license to express their contempt for the social expansiveness of the last decades. These insults fall onto anyone deemed different from white, male, heterosexual, Christian and conservative. Some seem to react to the word Liberal as if it were a contagious disease that could infect and destroy their so-called traditional values.
In many ways that fear is not irrational. Conventional life in countless places in this country and in many parts of the world has changed. It has become more liberal. It has been since the mid 1920s when social scientists began to examine the “Othering” of immigrants, and so called criminals and deviants in American cities. Those early forays into the subjective experience of others resulted in less rigid formulations of gender, sex, race, nationality and ethnicity. Today, these categories of experience are seen as more fluid, sexual equality more normative and the damages of racism are being addressed. As we open our borders and embrace other cultures, many of us have been better off for it.
However, in this election cycle, we have seen the faces and heard the voices of another group of people, those who have felt excluded, sometimes disrespected and left behind. For various reasons these individuals have not found their way into the expansive social and economic changes of the last decades. They are angry, some among them even intolerant.
Those feelings are being expressed in various ways. One hears it in the sexually explicit words that tumble out of our TVs. We hear it in the public denigration of women who are blatantly objectified within a call to return to a nostalgic past where white males held maximum power. The public dialogue around these issues has been rough and crude and all the more disturbing, as it comes from people who are usually well spoken, contained or restrained.
9/11 was a violent tragedy that brought the country together in grief and loss before sadly dividing us into calls for nationalism and revenge. The 11/8 election rips continuously at the fabric of our sense of community. It divides us from one another. It is perhaps most troubling that this election has created or simply revealed a separation between people who have more in common than otherwise.
What can we do? Many of us ask this question repeatedly. My answer is that we must remain alert to how facts are spun into lies and masked in bravado. We need to watch for the places where rancor replaces caution and care. At the same time we must make certain that distrust and vigilance do not supplant our openness or we risk losing hope. I worry that the real threat to our domestic and international well-being will come from inside our country, inside us. This election has negatively impacted the health and well being of many Americans and those abroad. We ache both psychologically and physically from a constant barrage of ill will that is leveled at us and the citizens of the world.
As a baby-boomer, I had hoped to leave the world a better place for the generations to come. I now fear that the outcome of this election will undo so many of the hard won societal gains of the last decades. There is good reason to feel anxious. But, as surely as anxiety can paralyze, it can also mobilize.