ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG
I’m writing this for all those feeling alarm and dismay at the prospect of a ‘Trump Nation’ propelled by the support of nearly half the country. But it’s also for those in a mood to celebrate.
A reality check, before anyone gets too carried away.
A time out for some numbers on what really happened—and did not—in the election of Donald Trump.
There are 235 million citizens eligible to vote.
Of those, 137 million went to the polls, and 98 million did not.
Of those who voted, 63 million voted for Donald Trump.
Which comes out to 26.8% of the total citizenry (that’s 63 million divided by 235 million).
Not half, not almost, not even close.
And that’s not all.
Exit polls show that 25 percent of Trump voters expressed the view that their candidate was not fit to be president, which lowers Trump’s unqualified support to 20 percent of the electorate. Which is on the high side, when you consider those who think he’s disgusting or dishonest or both but voted for him anyway. Or were more afraid of Clinton than of him.
It’s important to keep in mind, then, in these troubled times, that 73 percent of adult American citizens did not vote for Donald Trump. And a still higher percentage can reasonably be said to lack confidence in, not to mention enthusiasm for, his presidency.
It is true, of course, that a president Trump and Congressional Republicans will soon control the levers of federal power, and can do lasting harm.
But it is also true that controlling the government is not the same as controlling the country.
Which is what we have been trained to forget. That a nation and its future are to be found not in election results, but in workplaces and families and neighborhoods and schools and places of worship and everywhere else that people come together, through which a country reveals itself, as it happens, one day to the next.
It is found in who shows up and speaks out and for what and how long.
It is found in all the ways there are to organize the withdrawal of consent, to speak truth to power or block the door or fill the streets or just stand your ground and say no.
It is found in what brings out the best in a nation, in response to what brings out the worst.
Whether the United States is about to become Trump Nation is not up to him or Congress. It will depend on what citizens do, on whether we sit back and watch as if what happens has nothing to do with us, or we do what democracy requires, which begins in asking ourselves, every day, not only what are we called to do as workers or students or parents or members of this or that, but as citizens.
And if we do not know what that means, that we make it our business to find out.
(P.S. If you were surprised by these numbers, perhaps you know others who’ll be surprised by them too. Pass it on.)
You can find election numbers at the United States Elections Project website.
For exit poll results, go to CBS News.
[This evening, on this longest night of the year, we will be joined in the barn at the edge of the woods for a celebration of darkness and the return of light. As part of that, we will sit in silence. What follows is my Solstice offering.]
It was in college classrooms that I began to see the power and variety of silence. I would pose a question and for a while no one would speak. I would wait it out, which is how I thought of it at first, giving them a chance to respond without my stepping in. But then one day I realized it was something more, that I was making room for a particular kind of silence, the sound of thought, with a texture you can feel if you close your eyes, which I sometimes did, or look out the window, sensing the charge in the air, almost electric, I can hear you thinking from way over here.
Gordon Hempton, an acoustical ecologist, describes silence as something other than the absence of sound. Otherwise, there would be no silence except in the farthest reaches of outer space, beyond the reach of solar wind. Even there, I imagine, there would be the sound of my brain running at idle.
Silence, he says, is an absence of any sound that would intrude, that might draw our attention. For me, then, there can be silence with the sound of wind, but not a cell phone going off. Hempton believes the silence of large spaces, as measured in square miles, is not only becoming harder to find, but is endangered, like animals driven to extinction.
Very different from the silence of thought is the silence of someone sleeping, with its unmistakable weight, like a stone dropped in water and sinking to the bottom to rest until lifted up again.
Or the silence beneath a wind moving through the trees, the leaves drifting to the ground.
In meditation, there is sound to be noted above the silence—bird calls outside the window, a plane passing by high overhead, the ticking of the heat coming in, breath moving in and out, Nora shifting on her bench, Roxie standing up on the cushion we put down for her, lying down again with a sigh, the silence in a quality of stillness in which sound does not intrude.
Sometimes the silence of meditation can take on a weight like sleep, especially in the company of others, which I have experienced in a Buddhist meditation retreat and in Quaker Meetings where silence can go on for an hour or more. It is a remarkable experience and rare. I cannot think of another place where it is possible to be in the company of forty or fifty people who are both awake and in silence for so long a time.
Such silence can feel like a presence, which is why I would sometimes open my eyes just to see what is there, so strong was the feeling. I looked at people’s faces reflecting the inner stillness they brought into the room, now added to my own, a palpable sense of ease and calm that can wrap around and hold you, an embrace.
Silence can bear a different weight in the absence of someone who was there and now is gone, carving a hole in a room at the moment when they die. I was in the doorway of my mother’s room when I knew without looking that she was gone. Her body was there, wasted by the cancer, her face, her hands, but she was clearly not, as if her evacuation had been so hurried and complete that it left a kind of vacuum in its wake, an absence of air to carry the all but inaudible pulsation of a living being.
In the time after a death, there is the silence of stepping into an empty house and closing the door behind as you pause to listen for what is missing, expecting to hear the familiar sounds that do not come, your mind and body sinking down over weeks and months into the quiet knowing that some things are both forever and never again. It is the silence of waking in the middle of the night to a room that feels empty even though you are there, the furniture where it always was but now an absence, empty and still, beside you in the bed.
There is the silence of death and there is the silence that comes in the instant before the dying, a moment always there and yet strangely not until it comes. When my father died I was sitting beside his hospital bed after spending the night on a cot in his room. It was just before 6:00a.m. on a Friday morning in December, and I was watching him breathe slowly in and out. He had congestive heart failure and had been unconscious since before I arrived the night before.
For 93 years—almost 34,000 days, more than 800,000 hours—he had taken a breath and let it out at least every four or five seconds in an unbroken string of almost 600 million consecutive respirations. Until this moment as I watched and listened to him breath out one more time, a breath like any other, and then there was the beat of silence that always comes before the next one drawing in, except this was to be the first and last time in his long life that another breath would not come, as death entered in so softly, not unexpected and yet unannounced, for no particular reason, why not now? and I sat back and looked at his face as the silence grew long and deep, gathering up my father to carry him away.
The silence between breaths, like the silence between notes, on which the music rests.
Which is similar to the silence between people who know each other so well that words may only detract from what passes between them as they look in each other’s eyes or gaze out the window, together.
Of course not all silence is peaceful.
There is the awkward silence of not knowing what to say, the lull in the conversation when you cannot escape that it really is just the two of you sitting there, as you are, the insecurities, the doubts, the nervous smile, the glance away, the clearing of the throat. Why are we not enough just as we are?
There is the silence of bad news undelivered, hanging in the air with nowhere to go; or the awful secret shared by all but one; or what both of you know but neither will say.
The suffocating silence of fear and dread and worry in the middle of the night.
The silence of mendacity, the slippery beat following the practiced lie and the sad little pause just before it’s taken in as true.
The silence of tiptoeing around the truth, of denial and complicity and consent, of injustice and suffering unnamed and unremarked. What goes unasked and unreported on the news, what is not covered in the history class. The silence of saying nothing while the woman is raped down the hall or beaten next door.
No matter what kind of silence it is, it contains an opening for something unknown or unknowable to enter in, which may be why some work so hard to avoid it while others go out of their way in its pursuit.
When Nora and I were first together more than thirty years ago, we lived on a busy corner in the West End neighborhood of Hartford, just a block from an exit off the interstate. I once sat on the front porch and counted the cars going by, estimating an average of ten thousand a day. Across the street was a fire station, whose bone jarring horns might go off in the middle of the night.
After a few years we moved to the next town over. Across the street was an elementary school which was quiet by comparison, but within a few years we were yearning for real silence, the kind where you can hear yourself think most of the time or have moments where thought stops altogether.
This last move took us to the house we built in the middle of the woods, far from city lights and sounds, where silence can be so palpable and deep that I am sometimes compelled to stop and listen, realizing where I am,
sitting in the middle of perfect
silence knitting everything together, seamless and whole, into the stillness beneath our lives, from which we come, to which we all return, softly, to be known at last, oh, yes, this is who you are.
Gordon Hempton interview, On Being, National Public Radio, July 4, 2013 available at http://www.onbeing.org/program/last-quiet-places/4557
The lines, “sitting in the middle of perfect/possibility” are from Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Afternoon in the House” in Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 1996).
Hearing the news of the Trump election makes me think of the afternoon when I heard George W. Bush announce on the car radio that he was launching the country into a state of perpetual war. I was beside myself with rage, screaming at the windshield, calling him names, going on a rant about the suffering and destruction that would result.
Later on, realizing that my country was doing what it has done many times before, the anger gave way to despair.
What I did not know then was that despair was a way to manage fear, which was evident from the numbing and compacting of my heart, as if my entire self was being reduced to fit a dark space small enough to crowd out the fear.
I was frightened by what the president had done, just as many are afraid today of what may be coming. This time, however, I feel neither rage nor despair, and I think it’s worth asking why the difference between then and now.
One clue comes from many years ago when I was visiting my mother in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and one day we decided to go to the swimming pool outside of town. We walked to the bus stop. The time printed on the schedule came and went, but not the bus. We talked. The sun rose in the sky, a beautiful day. We stepped into the shade. She sensed my impatience, looked at me and smiled, a little shrug, “It’s all right,” she said, “there’s always another bus.”
Maybe. And maybe not. Either way, there is something in the act of waiting that reminds me of despair, waiting for a bus that may never come. There is something in despair that is a holding out, a refusing to let go, to accept that things are what they are, a refusal that Buddhists tell us is where suffering begins.
We wait for leaders who will save us from our history and ourselves, only to be disappointed, our hope turning first to anger and then despair (which may help explain why almost half of the electorate did not vote).
The bus was nowhere to be seen, but my mother was right there beside me, who would one day be dead and gone, and there was the street and the people passing by, the sight of a donkey laden with firewood, walking slowly up the hill, a small boy close behind. Birds and their songs. The crisp dryness of high desert air.
But the bus was not here.
There is no bus.
A second clue comes from my experience speaking on race and gender, when someone asks, “But what can I do?” There is something in the ‘but,’ and the tone, that gives me pause, because I think the question is less about doing than it is about fending off fear and despair. As the philosopher, George Yancy, puts it, the rush to find a solution can be a way to remove ourselves from the present—where we are involved in the world that produces injustice, suffering, and fear—and into a future where we are not. It is an escape from having to sit with the reality of how things are and what that has to do with us.
I once thought hope was the antidote to despair, but I’ve come to believe it’s not. The two are so closely coupled that we cannot have one without the other. ‘I hope the bus will come soon’ not only gives myself over to waiting for something that exists only in my mind, but does so with a particular dedication, chin up, eyes scanning the street corner around which I hope it will come. Any minute now. All the while I am oblivious to the world going on around me, there being nothing else for me but a bus that isn’t here.
To not indulge in despair, or in hope, is to not indulge in being anywhere but here, what Pema Chodron calls ‘nailing ourselves to the present,’ to things as they really are. There is no quick fix for sadness and pain, no easy deliverance from fear, but in the present our choices are made clear, including standing with my mother until a bus may come or we decide to do something else. Either way, not waiting in this moment, I leave hope behind, it only producing still more hope that is all too close to despair.
I write books. I give speeches and workshops and facilitate conversations. How does hope figure into that? What is it that I hope to achieve?
The truth is that I hope for nothing at all. There isn’t time. I write and speak to help break the silence around privilege and oppression. I write novels about the human condition. I think out loud about what trouble we are in and who we are in relation to it and what it’s like for me and how we might respond.
But I have no way of knowing what difference any of it makes. One day to the next, it does not matter what I hope will happen. It only matters what I do.
To give up hope is not to accept things as they are. I am appalled by the president-elect and the renewed license for intimidation and violence that has shown itself since the election. But I also must accept that things are as they are. As I drove down the road years ago, screaming at the president, I was having a moment of non-acceptance, propelled by fear that turned quickly to despair. I was insisting that George Bush be different from the man he had always shown himself to be, and I was furious to be living in a country that would make him president. And I responded as if personally betrayed, as if it wasn’t fair, an outrageous violation of some law by which such things are not supposed to happen.
Just as many have reacted to the election of Donald Trump.
We had hoped for something better.
But it is one thing to be angry at how things are and another to indulge in a despair that is more about how I feel about the world than what I am prepared to do. Despair keeps me from asking what is needed here and now, the only place where anything is possible, knowing that things will not be as they might have been, except in looking back through a kind of longing anchored by hope on one end and despair on the other.
When I spoke at Penn State about men’s violence some years ago, an elderly man came up to thank me afterward. He relied on a pair of canes and spoke with difficulty, as if he’d had a stroke. He was about to leave when he leaned in and looked at me and said, his voice low and earnest, “You keep going.” And as he turned to walk away, I said, “You keep going, too,” and then he paused, his face full of thought, gathering intent, a nod. “I think I will.”
I remember the stillness in his face as he made up his mind, as he must have so many times before, every day, a look of clarity and calm, of acceptance not only without hope and despair, but without fear, a condition that a Quaker friend of mine once offered as a definition of faith.
Faith, she said, is not a belief in something—if I do this then that will happen—or that something beyond my control will come to pass, that things will somehow turn out okay. Faith is the freedom from fear, a condition in which we may feel afraid but without allowing ourselves to become the fear, to be afraid.
There is much to fear these days, beginning with the president-elect’s legislative plans, his denial of climate change, his childish macho bravado, his contempt for women, his blatant racism, his staggering arrogance and lack of experience and knowledge, his inability to focus his mind or tell the truth.
It makes sense to feel overwhelmed in the face of this. We are only human, after all, and we have not been prepared. Instead, we have, for generations, been encouraged to see ourselves as passive consumers rather than active citizens, our minds distracted and pacified and colonized to accept the status quo or to pin ourselves to the hope for something better.
We have been trained to be easily overwhelmed and immobilized, dis-couraged with little awareness of our responsibility or power.
We have been desensitized to the pain of others, and hypersensitized to our own, taught to see pain not as a message, a wake-up call, but as something noxious to be escaped, silenced, anaesthetized.
But we cannot afford to be overwhelmed or swallowed by despair. Like the parent of a desperately ill child, we don’t get to disappear into not knowing what to do. For a day or two, perhaps, but then we have to step in and give it up and reacquaint ourselves with the courage of faith.
I once heard Mary Daley describe courage not as something that we have, a quality of character that we bring to the moment. Instead, courage is what happens in the moment when we act even though we are afraid. And perhaps that is what my Quaker friend was telling me about faith, as a way of being, brought on by what we do.
The point is not to never be afraid, which is impossible, but to know where fear leaves off and faith begins in that moment when we choose to act whether we are afraid or not. “When I dare to be powerful,” wrote Audre Lorde, “to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
The challenge of these times is to inhabit the space between accepting that the world is as it is and refusing to accept that it should remain so.
But we do not come to the challenge equally.
I’m recalling a group where talk about race turned to the subject of hope, and I said something about not believing in that, it being too close to despair, that I believe the key is faith, in not becoming the fear.
I remember the silence that followed and the very different reaction of whites and blacks in the room, with black people nodding in agreement as they looked about, and white people staring down at the table and shaking their heads.
When I consider the difference, it occurs to me that being able to choose between hope and despair comes of the freedom to sit on the sidelines and watch from the relative safety of being white. And when things go badly and we sink into despair, hope comes riding to the rescue, promising to lift our hearts, that things will work out, somehow, someday, against the odds. Whether we do anything or not.
Hope is better suited to feeling than action, for it does not so much galvanize as soothe, a refuge from despair, that does not hold us to account.
Faith, on the other hand, comes of having to wrestle the angel of fear, whose power faith would harness into action. Faith is what turns a crowd of individuals into a march and then a movement. Where hope is passive and content, faith has an agenda and makes demands.
I suspect that most people of color cannot afford to spend themselves on hope, because oppression is too immediate, every day, generation after generation, forcing them to pull together, to find strength in solidarity. And to know that in the moment of confronting power, the kind that hurts and even kills, the choice is not between despair and hope, but fear and faith.
Which is the choice confronting us all.
For related posts, see:
I trace the origin of this post to the feminist activist and writer, Starhawk, who wrote in the aftermath of the U.S. response to 9/11 that “we must not indulge in despair.”
George Yancy, Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness. Temple University Press, 2013.
Pema Chodron has authored several books, including When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Shambhala, 2000.
I heard Mary Daly speak on courage at the 2001 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Audre Lorde quote is from The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books, 1997.