Everyone I speak to wants to do something to counteract the toxic impact of the Trump presidency and the right wing Republican effort to deprive our government of its ability to serve the great majority of American people.
Almost everyone I meet feels powerless in the face of this challenge. What can I do? The problem is too big for me. It’s too far away. And, of course, it is far away from citizens of Massachusetts, New York, and California, where our Democratic votes hardly seem to count. Even those of us who are determined to head off to Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and other places to help in the Congressional races fear that our efforts could be in vain.
I’ve been held captive by this way of thinking for too much of my life. It was introduced to me at the age of seven. My family, driving in our first car, a brand new Studebaker, was passing through the Bowery in lower Manhattan. When we stopped for a red light, homeless men wiped our windshield. “What is going on?” I asked my parents. My dad said, “They have been pushed out of their jobs and have no place to live but the streets.” I upset, angry, tearful. “That’s not right. I feel terrible.” Then my mother turned in her seat, looked me in the eye and said, “Feelings don’t count. Do something!” The helplessness I felt at that moment has inhibited my political participation ever since.
But I think I misunderstood my mother’s lesson. Both of my parents eschewed charity, believing that it just took the edge off of poverty. Fundamental change, like higher minimum wages, universal health insurance, and protecting the rights of working people to organize, would be required to make a substantial and lasting difference. They didn’t mean that helping individuals was unimportant, but that’s how I understood their lesson. Since I couldn’t see my way to influencing such major change, I didn’t trust the power of small differences.
It may also be that my experience of the immediate post-World War II world – exuberant and full of opportunity – reinforced my belief in the possibility, even the likelihood, of large scale change. During the decades following the war, working people prospered with the help of union organizing and entered the middle class. Civil rights for Black people, GLBT people, and women expanded steadily, sometimes dramatically. Health care grew accessible to the majority. Cures for infectious diseases appeared regularly. The world was getting better. Progress was simply a matter of effort.
But just as reforms progressed at scale and speed, so regression could follow with equal force. I have watched with dismay the long withdrawal of progressive reforms during the presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Bush, and Trump. Now it no longer seems possible to think of continual upward motion , of unalloyed progress.
These gigantic national mood swings, far beyond my control, deepened my sense of being an insignificantly small player in an immense universe. I hated the feeling and, for many years, have sought solace in introspection, reflection, and meditation. The effort has helped but only in partial way. My parents would not have had much patience for the substitution of self-healing for social healing. As it turns out, I have come to agree with them.
Over the years, even as I wrote soulfully in my journal, tried some psychotherapy, practiced psychotherapy, taught others to practice therapy, meditated, and took long journeys into the wilderness in search of inner peace, my parents words retained their strength. I would complain to Franny that I’m not doing enough. She would remind me that I was helping scores of patients and, through my students, scores more. My efforts felt paltry. Later, my work with nonprofits, an attempt to leverage my skills to reach greater numbers, felt the same way. I was always counting, and the numbers were always too low. Was it worth it to help a few if the social and economic systems that led to suffering remained the same?
Lately, I have begun to think it is. I have come to believe my focus on numbers, the idea that only large scale change makes a difference, has had an oddly dehumanizing effect on me. It blinds me to the real people with whom I live. As one sage put it, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
I am not suggesting we jettison idealism and soaring goals. To be truly human, we must aspire to the heights. But, simultaneously, and even as we try to overthrow the Trump/Republican hegemony, we also need to establish modest and realizable goals for our nation and ourselves.
Two recent experiences helped to move me in this direction. The first came from reading the novel Zoo Station, by David Downing. The protagonist, John Russell, is a British journalist living in Berlin in 1938. The dehumanizing Nazi rule—especially its violence toward Jews—is increasingly absolute and horrifyingly cruel. He hates it but lays low because defiance might lead to his expulsion or worse, and so the loss of his German son and the woman he wants to marry. When he imagines defying the odds, he tells himself that he can’t do enough anyway. It might be worth the risk if he could help 50 or 100 Jews, but short of that, well, what’s the point? I have long identified with this kind of reasoning, knowing how it defeats action. But in spite of his calculation, Russell grows attached to a Jewish family and, eventually, decides that saving one family is enough to justify taking risks. Numbers are abstract, he decides. Courage is personal. Action is personal. By acting, Downing suggests—win or lose—Russell becomes more fully human.
Last week we attended an immigration-related vigil that my daughter-in-law Rachael, who works for the Newton schools, helped to organize. The husband and father of a Newton family originally from Guatemala, Rigoberto, is now being threatened with deportation—this, after 21 years of living and working here, raising two sons, and being active in their school communities. His wife, Imelda, also active in the community, has cancer. His 18 year old has plans to attend college in September, the first in their extended families. The cruelty of this impending family rupture is breathtaking—the result of dehumanizing federal policy that treats people as “illegal”—a stunning concept when you think of it.
How can we change that policy? How can we stand firm against the Trump immigration steamroller? It is easy to get disheartened by the challenge. Not Rachael, and not people like her. Her main focus is on this one family. Each family, by itself, is worth the effort. But you would miss the point if you thought of Rachael as driven “only” by compassion. The vigil was also a political act meant to galvanize and activate others. The vigil won’t directly change the world, as I imagined my mother wanted me to do, and were she still alive, would unabashedly instruct her granddaughter-in-law to attempt. But it makes a statement: Here we stand; we care. I find that position admirable — and for perhaps the first time in my life, enough. These small, seemingly understated actions do change the world, our immediate world, enough to make a difference. Indeed, as the Talmud notes, “to save one life is to save a whole world.”
As I have grown older, I have been watching them – these local and targeted actions — as carefully as I can. They are helping to break me out of a prison of self-recrimination that my mother built for me by demanding too much too soon.
As it turns out, I have also been persuaded by my mother’s warning about feelings. They might form the bedrock of protest. First you have to feel, as Russell and Rachael felt, that injustice to others is injustice to you. Their oppression becomes yours. That empathic bond makes inaction virtually impossible. And action, however “small,” to protect the vulnerable, becomes essential. In the end, it circles back, providing true grist for the self-acceptance so many of us pursue