As we careen wildly around the final curve before November 3rd, I join the masses of Americans who are grappling with an existential casserole of feelings. Scared? Yes. Angry? Of course. Depleting the world’s chocolate supply one mini Twix at a time? Most certainly.
But there’s more to this casserole than just good ‘ol American tuna and noodles. There’s an ingredient in there that I’ve been struggling to identify. A feeling that is less straightforward than just fear and anger.
I’ve been engaged in a fanciful exercise this past week of trying to select gifts for myself as a reward for either outcome of the election — one that would serve as a numbing salve to stave the hemorrhaging of my heart if things don’t go as I hope, and the other as a pure, raw, celebratory marker of victory.
The problem is, I can’t come up with a single idea for either scenario. Nothing seems to be worthy or suiting to a victory, nor sufficient as a wound dressing. Clothes seem silly in these Zoom times, and the last thing this Covid body needs is more stowaway calories. Roller blades? An ice cream maker? Throwing knives? Why is this so hard? Why does nothing feel celebratory or curative?
That’s when I realized I was anticipating the wrong outcomes. This is not going to be an ‘everything’s better now’ situation, even if the ballots land butter-side up. While yes, I will be certifiably happy bonkers if what I hope happens indeed happens and will likely put a dent in the world’s prosecco supply. But I finally named the amorphous specter that is hovering over both outcomes — grief.
“Now hold on!”, you say. “Why in the ever lovin’ world would you feel grief if your candidate wins?” I’m glad you asked, because that’s a great question.
I have realized that my impression of the United States has suffered what might be irreparable damage, even if she seems momentarily redeemed and sane on November 3rd. The bell can’t be unrung. Toto tugged on the curtain and revealed the wizard, and the wizard was a flustered old man, embarrassed about what he had done. Not to say I ever bought into the idea that United States was the sparkling, emerald Oz of the world.
Except that maybe I did.
Despite all of her many sins and crimes, I grew up believing that the United States was the place where momentum was always forward. Progress was inevitable. People were trying to be better. I always believed that Americans all had this burning flame inside that was guiding us all in the direction of peace, liberty, equality, freedom, and kindness, and it was that audacity to brandish that flame that made us the object of scorn of other nations. We hadn’t given up yet on this Camelot notion of everyone helping each other up while simultaneously being completely free.
I believed that for the most part, we all wanted that. And those who didn’t were dying off or never getting laid so at least weren’t procreating.
The past four years have felt like a death — the death of my sense of country and national identity — and the stages of grief have played out: first shock, then denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, then finally, acceptance. Although I admit I haven’t quite landed at acceptance.
In 2010, I had the good fortune to visit Canada for the Olympic Games, staying with good Canadian friends. We had fun with our cross-country rivalry the whole week, good naturedly ribbing each other with each USA or Canada win or loss.
At the end of the week, we managed to score seats to the Men’s USA/Canada gold medal hockey game. Vancouver was boiling over with tension and delight as the two titan nations prepared to meet on the ice. Walking to the arena, I proudly carried a US flag. This runs counter to my typical M.O., which is to not flaunt my American-ness while in other countries, simply because I think it’s rude to parade one’s own patriotism about when a guest in other lands. But this was different. I was loving the energy and pride of brandishing my red, white, and blue blood during a time of friendly bloodlust. I was the target of scorn and name calling as I walked through the streets, but that only made it more fun to be American. I was proud to show Canada who I was.
After an epically white-knuckle game for the ages, Canada won 3–2 in overtime. I had already decided before the game ended that if the US won, I’d quietly leave my flag on my seat and walk the few miles back to the apartment in obscurity, as the walk before the game was already marginal for safety and hostility. But being that Canada won, and Canadians have this reputation for folksy laidbackness, I felt safe carrying my US flag out of the arena.
What followed was hours of crude taunting and threats as our group weaved through thousands of riotous and jubilant Canucks, culminating in a police escort and a drunken fellow threatening to toss me off the water taxi into the drink for being American.
Drunken fellow: “Maybe I should throw you off this boat. I hope you know how to swim.”
Me: “I can do anything. I’m an American!”
That silenced him.
And in that moment, I meant it. I felt proud of my country’s strength and might and thankful for my lifelong training at how to be a cartoon patriot. I could play the part.
This is a part I can no longer convincingly play. Four years of emboldened Proud Boys and senseless killings of Black Americans and an astronomical rise of anti-Semitism and Muslim bans and kids in cages and torch bearing Neo-Nazis wielding flames stoked by our own President have killed my character work. Or at least, landed it in the ICU.
And I won’t be gaslit on November 3rd into thinking it’s all okay now, even if the tumor is removed. I’m still grieving the death of my own naïve notion of country.
Which brings me back to that final stage of grief — acceptance.
We hear a lot these days, “This is not normal!”, because it isn’t. I think many of us have grown accustomed to forward moral momentum, no matter how microscopic or glacial the pace, so this backslide to the times of Nazi rallies and imminent threats to personal liberties such as marriage equality and body autonomy is terrifying. We don’t want to accept it and make it normal.
But, after finishing Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Five Attachments, I think that’s not what ‘acceptance’ is supposed to mean. It’s not resignation. I think it means forgiveness.
I’m not a huge fan of the traditional notion of forgiveness, as it implies letting people off the hook for bad behavior. But I’m way on board with Ruiz’s definition:
“Forgiveness is an act of self-love. You must forgive those who hurt you, even if what they did to you is unforgivable in your mind. You will forgive them not because they deserve to be forgiven, but because you don’t want to suffer and hurt yourself every time you remember what they did to you. It doesn’t matter what others did to you; you are going to forgive them because you don’t want to feel sick with emotional poison all the time.”
Sick with emotional poison. Hello, 2020 tagline!
So, how do I forgive my country for what it did? Do I even want it back? Having something entwined in my identity that is wildly out of my control and throwing a temper tantrum seems unhealthy. Of course, that’s exactly what kids are. They break our hearts over and over as they fumble their way towards maturity, alternating between making as proud and crushed like the NASA shuttle program.
Perhaps it’s not my country that needs forgiveness. Maybe it’s me who needs forgiveness, for being tempted to give up on this country when it fell to its knees from the venomous bites of the snakes in charge. Forgiveness for my privileged position that allowed me to think we were always on an upward trajectory when many others likely did not. Forgiveness for being seduced by the American tale of might and superiority and being blind to the flaws that the rest of the world could easily see with clear eyes.
It may have just felt like a longer and harder fall than it actually was.
So here I am, eyes wide open, fixated on November 3rd. Do I allow that day to dictate my emotional health, stretching out my arms to take either the poison or the watered-down wine?
Or do I gently pry away the grip of years of indoctrination that married my identity to the color of my passport, and see what’s left? That person might be better able to see what this country is instead of what it is supposed to be. And once I accept that its profound flaws, tantrums, and mistakes are part of its painful steps forward, then maybe this cycle of grief can close.
In either case, I think I might spring for that ice cream maker.