How Do We Comfort Ourselves When Staying Vigilant (and Anxious) Feels Like The Only Responsible Option?

At a dinner the week before Thanksgiving, a few friends and I ended up mutually confessing to the physical toll the past several weeks has been taking. Anxiety, shaking, elevated heart-rates, stomach aches and headaches, and insomnia: they all add up to Trumpsomnia, as many of us have dubbed it. And yet looking away — turning off the news, the social media stream — feels not just lazy, but downright irresponsible. We’re sliding into fascism; how can we focus on Gilmore Girls right now? Our fundamental rights are on the verge of collapsing at an exponential rate; how will taking a run, or doing deep breathing, help the people at Standing Rock?

None of this is surprising, coming as it does from the heart of the deep blue Clinton coalition, where anxiety and existential worries are not only normal, they’re even having a moment in “our” art. Yet here’s what’s different about this new anxiety, post-Trump; the more I read, consume, and understand, the worse I feel. My coping ethos is forged by a family and community of readers and problem solvers, creative people who usually get some level of comfort by learning more, doing more. When a situation is sad or upsetting, then studying it and analyzing it can usually give me solace; at the very least I’m searching for understanding.

This is not the case right now. Knowing what’s happening and what it means makes me feel overwhelmed, sometimes even fatalistic.

For many activists, whose lives and families have long been on the line in our unjust society, my new experience is likely old and familiar. Trump’s election has ripped off some of the insulation of privilege that allowed me to look at previous catastrophes with an analytical eye rather than a panicked one.

But some of the credit for my current state of disquiet has to be given to the orange one himself, because being overwhelming is the reality and the strategy of Trumpism. There were so many Trump scandals, petty and sinister both, that there was no time to digest and absorb any single one before the next one arrived; thus, their impact was blunted. In the fateful few weeks since Election Day, that strategy of obfuscation and bombardment that worked in the election has continued: we have been hit with so many abhorrent appointments and ideas — and yes, tweets — that we don’t know how to respond, how to focus our energy, and how to parse out which outrages merit our outrage.

This week, ThinkProgress’s Ned Resnikoff wrote about how effective Trump’s strategy has been in terms of scrambling media coverage:

“Since the election, Trump has baited the press with a flurry of potential cabinet picks, instigated a bizarre fight with the cast of a Broadway musical, and concealed his true policy priorities behind a thicket of conflicting reports.

It’s working. The media’s coverage of the Trump transition is blurry and confused. Stories that should be real scandals  —  such as Trump’s apparent efforts to manipulate international diplomacy for personal financial gain  —  get lost in the shuffle.”

During the first post-election week, we were all calling our representative to oppose Steve Bannon. Then we were alarmed by the appointment of Jeff Sessions. Then it became the demand that the oversight committee look into Trump’s conflicts of interest. But wait — what about the environment? And education? And shady international deals? And the tweets, always the tweets. It feels like we’re all living Saturday Night Live‘s mashup of Westworld and CNN: a constantly replaying loop of horror and disgust that continually pushes the line of acceptability further and further into dystopia.

;

* * *

So where does all this leave consumers of media, culture, and news? It is necessary to find an equilibrium between paying careful attention to the information we must consume to keep vigilant in dark times on the one hand, and on the other, not allowing doing so to slowly (or quickly, as the case may be) drive us to a point of paralysis.

In recent years, I’ve felt uncomfortable with the popularization of activist rhetoric around self-care (#selfcare), particularly as it’s shared on the internet. As with its cousin, #mindfulness, there’s performative aspect to it, but that’s not even the crux of what needles me. Sometimes I get the impression that self-care is used as a substitute for activism on behalf of the collective, an idea tackled by an op-ed in this weeks Times about the trap of our mindfulness obsession:

It is, of course, easier and cheaper to blame the individual for thinking the wrong thoughts than it is to tackle the thorny causes of his unhappiness. So we give inner-city schoolchildren mindfulness classes rather than engage with education inequality, and instruct exhausted office workers in mindful breathing rather than giving them paid vacation or better health care benefits.

Yoga isn’t activism; artisanal ice cream isn’t resistance; starting an awesome new “creativity journal” isn’t a revolution. I can’t be the only one who feels unable to fully recommit to the activities that I personally valued last month, while democracy slipped from our grasp: journaling, yoga, watching prestige TV. Oftentimes the former activities gave me a sense of satisfaction that I now reject; it’s not that the activities themselves were bad, but rather that the sense of wholesomeness I derived from them was too easy a replacement for political engagement.

This also explains my conflicted attitude towards pop culture at the moment. For eight years, we’ve pushed for art that tells meaningful stories, and reflects diversity and inclusion in doing so. It’s hard not to feel in retrospect that there a danger in conflating small amounts of progress in the cultural sphere with the reality “on the ground.” For instance: television is becoming more and more willing to depict abortion realistically and honestly — a longstanding taboo broken, hurrah — but for a woman living in America today, abortion rights have eroded and may well be about to disappear completely. Too often, our arguments about pop culture have been a circular exercise, a substitute for taking action.

During the first weeks of Trump, I’ve already seen most of my acquaintances (and myself) retreat away from a faux activism of the self towards a more building-block form of involvement: giving to Standing Rock or the ACLU, going to a march, subscribing to independent media, calling elected officials and calling and calling again.

Yet when the day’s phone banking is done, when we’ve read the articles that describe the erosion of this regulation or that norm, how do we unwind and comfort ourselves,without total escape and disassociation from reality? What we need is a form of self-care divorced from self-absorption. We have to consider the things that make us feel glad to be alive and (relatively) free as if they are tools — not for the fight, but for the fighters. If life is now a pitched battle for the future, self-care is the commissary. Whether through family or art or the outdoors or moving our bodies or nourishing ourselves, we have an obligation to visit whatever oasis gives us strength — but we just can’t stay there.

We have to do the things that give us pleasure, without fully insulating ourselves from the larger, grimmer picture. We have to unplug while staying plugged in. I would be lying if I said I’d figured this balance out; I bought a book home to read last night and ended up grimly learning about Syria and freaking out about Trumpian propaganda instead.

Tonight, I’ll try again.