Reality on November 9

The election is coming and everyone is in retreat mode. We are hunkering down with our families and our favorite foods, our senses of dread and our hopes that the end of the election, whatever it is, will bring some relief: from the drone of news coverage dissecting scandals, the clamor of opinions on Facebook. Maybe then we can settle into the holidays. Go back to some kind of normal—even if the wrong candidate is elected.

We are completely burned out on hyped-up emotion and whiplash twists. We’re absolutely through with being lied to, condescended to, berated, flaunted and flattered. Everything about the process and the people reminds us that the world where these decisions are made is far removed from the worlds where their impacts are felt. We still hope to come out on the winning side, but mostly we just hope to come out with our hearts intact. The fun of participation is replaced by guilt and mild hysteria.

I think this must be how reality TV contestants feel as the end of shooting nears.

Do people on those shows ever lay in bed and wonder how they got there? Treating some manufactured situation like it is life or death, being manipulated by powerful people for the sake of entertainment.

It is no new idea that reality TV has nothing at all to do with reality; nor that the U.S. presidential election has taken on the character of a reality show. But this election’s utter lack of coherence should move those ideas from the realm of “interesting thought” to “theme for meditation.” We have some hard questions to ask ourselves about how and why we have spent an entire year participating in this parody of representative democracy.

So many are looking for some sort of hope and comfort amid the vitriol, but writers and leaders I know are at a loss. We have not found some new perspective that can flip the situation and make things seem less bleak. We are watching our country take sides in a battle between a blustering, authoritarian billionaire and a calculating political dynasty; we have seen what passes for democratic debate drive people farther apart, not closer to understanding one another. Issues of policy and discussions of philosophy of government have been completely buried under personal attacks, hysterical accusations, buzzwords and resentment.

We need to admit that this is a time for mourning.

Of course it would be a relief to go on from here and pretend that 2016 never happened; the week after the results come in is absolutely going to be one long exhale of pure gratitude that it is over. Throw a party; burn some election signs; go back to posting pictures of your food on social media. But please don’t just check out after that.

Don’t accept that an election has to tear a nation down instead of building it up. Don’t blame others for your despair. Don’t believe that we are powerless to make something good of our country. Despite the profits others stand to gain from your believing otherwise, there are choices between pinning all your hopes to the head of state and retreating to blissful ignorance by your own fireside.

It may be that little to come out of this election will seem to be worth the price. But we have another choice ahead: whether to treat this moment as a nightmare we can forget about, or to make this the moment we start to ask our own questions and take our own actions. We can look around at the shambles of this process and realize that the things we think it stands for—democracy, citizenship, dialogue—can only be rescued if we rethink them from the inside out.

We will not heal our country by electing the right politicians, reading the right thinkpieces, or convincing others of the right opinions. We will not be free of corruption and bribery, mud-slinging, lies, or demagoguery in our elections by continuing to focus all our energies on a single member of the federal government every four years. We will not escape from anxiety as long as we continue to hand over our attention and our emotions to everyone on the internet without discretion.

If we are going to rebuild our democracy, we each have a brick to lay. We can get involved (or at least informed) in local politics so that Washington and the president don’t loom so large that we can only speak about them in hyperbole. We can make an effort to spend time with someone who is different from us and imagine how their values make a positive contribution to the world. We can pay attention to all the ways we exercise power as citizens: by volunteering, in the ways we spend and give money, even by choosing where to turn our attention instead of letting Facebook and TV lure us into places of fear, anger, or division.

Still, none of these things will happen, nor will they make much of a difference, unless we face our pain and frustration. The change I’m talking about is a 180 degree turnaround: in Christian language, repentance, and it is really never a pretty sight. There is hope in it, but first there is pain. There is love, but first there is conviction. You have to stop chasing hatred and blame and admit that you are frightened, you are small, you have been hurt in the past, and admit that your pride has turned you ugly: “in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

Only then can you see reality as it truly is.

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