Columnist’s note: I discuss reactions to the current United States president in this piece. If you’re not in a frame of mind to read about him, my prayers are with you. If you can soldier through, I think we’ll end this in a better state than we began.
Medical professionals have attested to two new challenges in the new administration. The first is the uncertainty over health coverage in the United States. The new administration has been eager to undo the Affordable Health Care Act, and the hasty, unsuccessful attempts to repeal a complex law created chaos in some health care facilities and a mental and emotional whiplash that would come to signify the national reaction on several domestic and foreign issues.
We’ve been swinging between panic and relative calm over scandals that would define and possibly defeat other governments while hoping that anxiety meds are still covered by our health insurance. The attempts to repeal Obamacare have gone quiet at the time of this column, but I don’t think it’s wise to assume that said attempts will not resume.
The other challenge is best depicted by an exchange between an older woman I know and a triage nurse at the emergency department. To assess her presence of mind, she was asked to identify the current president. Her shoulders slumped. Head bowed, she whispered, “don’t make me say that man’s name.”
The nurse replied, “No one wants to, these days.”
Doctors have reported increased anxiety, worsening depression and general stress connected to the near-constant political disorder. I recall the days when I barely knew who was in the Cabinet. Now I know what kind of lotion the former head of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) used federal employees to obtain. He may be well moisturized, but my soul is chafed, and all signs point to it being a national malady.
People have discussed ways to cope in jest and earnest. Some people ignore the news completely. I have learned to filter my consumption and adjust my intake. Ditching satellite TV has helped. Others resort to meditation or exercise. Still others stress eat or drink. We throw ourselves into hobbies and habits, cry on each other’s shoulders and share dark humor.
We engage in political action partly to stop the human rights abuses and partly to remind ourselves that we can still speak out and organize, opportunities we are learning to not take for granted. Throwing myself into crafts and gardening, I realized the significance of certain coping mechanisms. Some coping mechanisms just help us get through a crisis, and that’s fine.
But others leave something for us to return to.
As I knit, sew, or tend to my rather sad plants, I listen to history podcasts. The podcasts I favor cover a lot of political wheeling and dealing, but what I listen for is the social context that breathes significance into the politics. While presidents and kings rose and fell, people grew things, created things and shared their thoughts in story and song. It is these things that make a society and last longer than any regime. The rulers may have their names carved into monuments, but it is hand embroidery that makes its way into traditions that are kept longer than the reign of any king.
Throughout history, tyrants have shared several common traits — the need for a legacy being chief among them. They may command elaborate mausoleums to be built so that the splendor they take into the grave may awe onlookers. They may order public monuments to bear their likeness or name. Some even change the names of the days of the week, so that ordinary conversations must accommodate some reference to their desire for fame.
But have you noticed what they have in common? None are the result of their own efforts. They can command others to work and use public funds for luxurious materials. If reduced to only what they have personally created, most of the world’s worst people would have very little indeed.
To be sure, political decisions can and do shape culture. Many people who were content to mostly ignore politics now have their senators on speed dial. Political satire has sharpened its edges in the light of scandals that have ranged from ludicrous to probably illegal. The sort of discussions about conspiracies and secret agents that used to be relegated to dark corners of the Internet now appear in mainstream news, as summer movie plots bump into real-life indictments.
We are not immune to the influence of politics. However, we will outlive this particular political situation, Insha’Allah. And that is a chapter that current administrations cannot author.
Very few of us have a close connection to powerful people. We have much more in common with those who wear kerchiefs than those who wear crowns. No buildings will bear our names. But we have a power that the powerful usually underestimate: The power to create society. Traditions have defied time, distance and even the law. Changes in society, in the way that people relate to one another, have toppled tyrants.
Culture cannot be ordered from on high; it is what we make and sustain among ourselves. When we honor our traditions and build communities, we add to an edifice that rulers cannot tear down.
Shelley’s Ozymandias speaks of a traveler coming upon a toppled monument to a once-mighty ruler. The narrator finds the pieces of a statue with a plaque bearing a fearsome admonition to foes equally lost to time. The statue’s fine detail signals that the ruler who commissioned it could command the finest sculptors in his land and hire many laborers to haul the stone from the quarry. But his name is not bestowed upon children; the songs sung at work or weddings make no reference to him.
The remains of the monument would almost certainly be part of a garden wall or stable by now. However mighty Ozymandias may have been, he and his reign went the way of all flesh, and those his statue looked down upon created their own stories from the remains of his splendor.
I would not try to prognosticate about the state of geopolitics today. It was complex enough before trade wars and questions about the loyalty of a head of state. What I do know is that everything comes to an end.
As a tribute to that end, I suggest you plant a tree. The tree can outlast political unrest and the anxiety it causes. And, the work of getting a tree to bear fruit will make political crises seem quite manageable.