Early voting begins this Thursday.
I will vote largely by the way I feel. Since no one is in command of all the facts of the complex political scene, feelings must often carry the day. If feelings are informed, then we act wisely. If not, feelings can do us in. Being aware just what a particular feeling is attempting to tell us can be the difference between wisdom and folly.
I know that the most important decisions in my life, like deciding whom to marry or what home to buy, have been settled more by a feeling than some rational process I engaged in. Identifying the source of a feeling is difficult at times, especially when we’re beset with a variety of conflicting emotions all at once. A feeling can be very insistent even while what’s causing it remains elusive. Because our feelings can easily deceive us, “know thyself” avoids lots of pain for ourselves and for others.
The presidential debates are over. I suspect by now most people’s minds are made up. I confess that I experience the predictable feelings party partisans go through as they hope their man or woman will be elected. It’s a given now that partisan feelings are running exceptionally high, going over their banks as swollen rivers do and like storm surges, leaving behind impoverished landscapes.
Since I am Clinton supporter, I, of course, see her as the superior candidate. In that sense, I experience all the appropriate feelings toward Trump that many card carrying Democrats would: anger, outrage, incredulity, and contempt. These are undoubtedly the same sentiments that Trump supporters feel toward Clinton. To that extent I believe I am operating within that normal window of negative emotion that most political conflicts arouse. Yet, I’ve noticed another feeling, subtle but powerful.
As I watched the debates, I became conscious of this strange feeling: a feeling that seemed wholly unrelated to the combative exchanges. At first I wasn’t sure what the feeling was: I had the urge to hide somewhere, as if I had been witnessing some act of desecration. Then I felt sad and finally experienced a sense of loss, like a death. When I reflected on it for a few days I suddenly realized what it was: I felt shame, which slowly morphed into grief. I felt shame that something as potentially noble and treasured as our democratic process has been sullied and cheapened by Trump’s unbridled appetites for power and dominance. America was being dumbed down while dignity and idealism were pitched aside.
Dr. Joseph Gurbo, a psychologist writing in Psychology Today, defines shame as a “painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.”
Why I’ve found the political climate so demoralizing is that it follows in the wake of a presidency that, despite significant policy failures, was conducted with great personal dignity and respect for the country. Obama conducted himself as an honorable man. He was an icon of the American dream.
As the debates have demonstrated, there’s little dignity in public discourse. It’s further exacerbated by eroding confidence in our once revered public institutions: the child-abuse scandals in the church, sexual misconduct in the military, the economic exploitation of the poorer by the rich in the corporate world, peccadillos by elected officials and police brutality; all these have led to widespread cynicism.
Still, I believe Americans have a deep hunger for being a part of essential goodness. I could see it when Pope Francis brought an inspiring vision to America– compassion for the poor and disenfranchised and justice for all. His visit ignited, however briefly, a hope for healing. His vision was lofty, idealistic and visionary – something I believe our souls long for. Francis imparted a sense of dignity to the tasks he told us that we must engage as a global community. The American public was inspired by his presence – I know I was – although significantly, most presidential candidates at the time kept him and his vision at arms length, often with dismissive comments like religion should help people become better persons, but should not mix with politics.
Whatever character deficits we believe either presidential candidate possesses, there is one fundamental difference in how each candidate defines his or her presidential task. Trump says repeatedly that “he” is going to make America great again. His claim that “I alone can fix it” is as though American greatness depended on him. Clinton on the other hand emphasizes the importance of community and our common humanity, the possibilities of what we might become if we could pull our weight “together.” She saw America’s healing as all about us. Trump’s style is the classic top down model, basically authoritarian, while Clinton represents a collegial approach in which we all become a critical part of the solution.
But back to feelings . . .
I read about the National Museum of African American History and Culture opening on September 24th in D.C. The picture accompanying this essay was taken at the opening ceremonies. I was deeply moved by it, almost to tears. The picture said to me that although America may be wounded, she’s still great. The occasion brought dignity to African Americans who have been marginalized since our founding, and judging by the picture, also brought those who had once been political adversaries together in solidarity with the noble vision of equality –the vision that we are all persons of worth. This is America at her best. A noble vision inspires the best in us and draws us together. It feels good and warms the heart.
I have hope for our healing.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.