An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
I’m struggling with the pervasive sense of satisfaction, and even outright joy, that I’m experiencing as I watch President Trump suffer, both physically and politically, from COVID-19, a disease that he has done everything in his power to avoid containing.
I know this viewpoint is harmful from a spiritual perspective; nothing good comes from wishing harm upon others. The word “schadenfreude” came up in conversation on this topic recently, and I admit that’s exactly what this is in all its unsavoriness.
And yet, his policies and posturing have caused direct and indirect harm to so many people. As of the day I’m writing this, over 215,000 Americans have died. It is hard not to feel that some kind of cosmic justice is being served. How does one then balance this: the spiritual ideal to not “other” our enemies, with the political impulse to revel with our compatriots in watching bad things happen to bad people.
I don’t know how to live my beliefs in these ugly, divisive, deadly times.
I have watched the reporting and social media response to President Trump’s diagnosis and behavior over the last handful of days with my own mix of glee and horror. It’s been quite an emotional roller coaster. I do have some thoughts I can share with you about how I’m processing it all, but first I have to offer some caveats and disclaimers.
I am a person of faith, with particular ethical and spiritual expectations of myself based on my beliefs, which I’ll get to in a moment. However, I have no interest in projecting my expectations of myself onto other people. In the last several days I have seen a lot of folks, particularly white folks, showing up on the feeds of people, particularly BIPOC, shaking their metaphorical fingers at any expression of relief or satisfaction that the proverbial chickens may have finally come home to roost for Trump and his administration.
Those finger-waggers are projecting their own judgements about their own feelings onto other people, and I am not here for it. Just like violent homophobes often prove to be homosexuals riddled with internalized shame and homophobia, folks who want to get judgmental about other people’s behavior tend to be pointing the finger outward in order to avoid the things inside themselves they don’t want to confront. This is more destructive than constructive.
Also, white people need to stop tone policing BIPOC, period.
I am not here to play those kinds of games. How other people process this moment is between them and whoever they answer to, and that sure as hell isn’t me. You asked me how to live your beliefs in this moment, and I will offer how I am puzzling through it. Take whatever is useful to you, but please don’t read a single word of this as admonishment for anyone else. I wish anyone trying to navigate these times with some humanity, compassion, and kindness intact all the luck in the world. It is not easy.
I should also say that I was raised with beliefs that are not mainstream. I’ve spent my life trying to live my beliefs in a world that is fundamentally organized around violence and hierarchy, rather than non-violence and equity. To live constantly swimming upstream in this way is hard; it requires a peculiar mix of spiritual discipline and self-compassion. It’s much easier to follow the crowd, to encourage in yourself and others base emotions, tribalism, and a sense of being separate from and better than.
Some days the best I can do is to not be swept away, losing the spiritual ground I’ve gained. Gaining ground has to wait for another day. If all you manage to do in this insane moment is hold your ground, that is okay by me.
One of my beliefs that I’m working daily to live into, based in my Quaker faith, is that there is that of God in everyone. We’ll get to the complications of “that also means Donald Trump” in a moment, but let’s just focus on that of God in me for right now. The way I live that belief is to approach my thoughts and feelings with curiosity and detachment. Both are temporary, often fleeting, and largely motivated by my ego. Ain’t nothing wrong with a strong ego, but in my experience letting my ego drive the bus never gets me where I want to go. If I act in the world out of my immediate, knee-jerk emotions or thoughts, I’m usually going to end up servicing the destructive aspects of my ego, doing something I’m not proud of or can’t stand behind.
Instead, I have to detach my sense of myself from my feelings and thoughts, and focus my intention on that of God within me. I find it easiest to imagine myself as a window. My thoughts and feelings are just the residue of interaction with the world that accumulate on my window. That of God within me is the Light that shines out through the window into the world. The more tightly I hold onto my thoughts and feelings, instead of just witnessing them and then letting them go, the muddier my window gets and the harder it is to let my Light shine out.
So, in real time it plays out like this. I’m sitting around the last few days, scrolling through my feeds, and a meme pops up celebrating that Donald Trump is infected with COVID-19 and hoping he dies. I immediately feel so many things — anger at the president’s narcissism, satisfaction that Trump may finally receive some compensatory comeuppance for the violence and death he has encouraged, aversion to the violence inherent in the meme, connection to someone I know who clearly is also horrified by Trump and his administration, sadness for the mob mentality of our current politics, and apprehension about what may come if the disease truly lays him low.
Every single one of these feelings is grounded is some piece of the reality of my life. It makes sense that I feel them. We all get to have our feelings, whatever they may be, about anything, at any given moment. Denying or shaming feelings is a waste of time, and just feeds the darkness and negativity we all carry. The question is not what we feel in the moment, but how we act.
If I see that meme celebrating Trump getting infected with COVID-19 and I share it, then I am expressing my most base emotions of vengeance and tribalism. I am not acting from that of God within me, and I am denying that of God in Donald Trump, however deeply it may be buried under a toxic sludge of hatred and narcissism. That is not how I want to act in the world in order to live my beliefs. So, I don’t share it. I don’t feed the beast inside of me or outside of me.
I also don’t choose to wish harm upon him. This might seem like semantics, but for me it matters. Wishing is an action, even if it is only inside my own head. I can feel anger over Trump’s behavior, or satisfaction that he has been infected. Those feelings just rise up in me, unbidden. But I get to choose what I do with them. I could jump from those feelings to wishing him harm, or I could pray that he is humbled, so that he can develop some empathy. God knows that man could use some humility and empathy.
Do I think that he is even capable of humility or empathy? No. But it doesn’t really matter what I think. What I think, or the actions I take, aren’t going to change Donald Trump, but they will change me. I’m my job. Also loving my people and fighting for justice, none of which involves wishing harm on Donald Trump.
Not to mention that Donald Trump is simply a symptom of our national sickness, not its cause. He could die tomorrow and we’d still have all the same structural problems we have now. The modern GOP would still be hellbent on maintaining those structures, which privilege rich, landed, white men to the exclusion and subjugation of all other people. Dancing with glee around the social media community fire over Trump getting sick doesn’t challenge any of that. It’s just provides some momentary relief from the pressure while simultaneously adding bricks to my load.
I am reminded of something that my mother said to me, when in my late 20’s I started feeling a lot of conflict about whether or not I could call myself a pacifist. When I tried to talk about my rage, which was both personal and political, I mostly encountered condescension in my fellow Quakers. They basically patted me on the head and clucked their tongues, “Don’t forget! Violence begets violence.” As if their comfortable, middle class, intellectual whiteness wasn’t violent in its own way.
I took my rage to my mom and she said something I will never forget, “There’s a difference between pacifism and conflict avoidance. Most modern Quakers are just conflict avoiders.”
This daily, sometimes minute-by-minute, process of managing my emotional life and the parts of my ego that separate me from other people is not conflict avoidance. I have carried rage, vengeance, jealousy, resentment, selfishness, and the desire to not just defeat, but obliterate, any people I perceive as my enemies since I was in preschool. I spent decades acting out of those emotions, sometimes unintentionally flailing, and sometimes because I felt righteous and thought I could get away with it. Never once did it solve a problem or make things better.
Pacifism is a powerful choice, not to avoid conflict, but to walk into battle with my mind, heart, and hands open. It is fighting fiercely without ever denying my opponent’s humanity. It is putting my body between the powerful and the vulnerable. It is knowing, intimately, my capacity for violence and making a different choice, a choice that reaches for the world I believe is possible and the person I want to become.
I would not presume to tell anyone else it is the choice they should make, personally or politically. It is simply the only faithful choice for me.
Now, let’s talk about that of God in Donald Trump, because believing in that has both personal and political implications. That belief guides the way I communicate with people about him; it also requires me to challenge him when he acts, consistently, from his most destructive emotions and impulses. To believe there is that of God in Donald Trump, for me, means fighting hard against every ugly, hateful, violent, divisive policy of his administration that I can manage. I believe somewhere inside him (deep, deep inside him) there is some spark of divinity, but if he can’t manifest it out into the world then I am bound by my faith to do what I can to remove him from office.
Finding enough inner fortitude to stay focused on holding him to account with a fierce love and belief in that of God within all of us is about all I can do right now. All that other mess and divisiveness simply takes up more real estate in my heart than I have space for.
Schadenfreude, delighting in another’s misfortune, is just a feeling, which all of us have at one point or another. Do you use it by spreading incisive satire that calls out the powerful and reminds us all of our common humanity, or do you waste it on petty meanness that makes you feel righteous, while not actually changing anything? The feeling is not who you are; how you identify with it becomes who you are. How you identify with it is shown by how you act.
Keep your side of the street clean by being mindful of what you put out into the world. Believe in that of God in all people, and fight for a world that honors that belief. I will be right beside you.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
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