The Art of Building Bridges
I’ve learned from talking to people over the last several weeks that many of us—and this includes myself—went into depression after the last election. When the external structure, perceived as more or less supporting the greater good, collapses …. What are we left with? The days have just started to become longer, the light beginning to return to the northern hemisphere after solstice and the mad stand-still of Christmas. Is philosophical light increasing, I find myself wondering. It feels like we have just entered a long dark night.
To reference a famous poem* by Wallace Stevens, there are many angles for looking at the odd bird of the 2016 Presidential election. Stevens’ long cold stare at existence always gave me chills, and in my lifelong career as an optimist I never viewed him as a kindred spirit—perhaps until now.
1. Not all of us who lost this election got depressed. The Bernie kids, as I affectionately call them, felt vindicated, being angry enough not to care about a dusty old concept like the lesser of two evils. They were also (though I sincerely hope I’m wrong) naïve enough to believe that, in fighting the Good Fight, giving up the bridge because you can’t capture the mountain is an acceptable strategy. Those of us who are depressed are focused on who took the bridge on the main artery, and what sort of trafficking is underway now that wasn’t there before.
2. Possibly, we too are naïve. Possibly the uber-idealists have the stomach for revolution because they are not weighed down by grief for the past, nor by romantic visions that need some renovating. I maintain that idealism and pragmatism are both essential. But so, I admit, is the spirit of revolution.
3. This is a personal challenge for everyone. It is no longer possible to putter on as if things were “normal.” We suddenly find ourselves in a country whose democratic process, such as it is, chooses figureheads who espouse racism, classicism, and xenophobia, who prescribe anger and the use of force as the solution to everything. Empathy and compassion have been cast out of play. In the weeks after the election I listened to many clients in my therapy practice voicing fear and demoralization, saying in one way or another: I don’t know how I’m supposed to live now. I witnessed their distraught faces, noticing my own effort to keep breathing steadily. I wrote checks for the food bank and the Syrian refugees, and signed petition after petition. I continued my usual practice of waving and nodding to road construction workers I passed on the way to and from work, and connecting wherever I could with people who didn’t look like me—a well-dressed white lady of a certain age. How am I supposed to live now? Solidarity seemed more valuable than ever.
4. But nothing feels like enough. It’s a tightrope walk not to fall into further depression. What is depression, but the sink-holes in the self over which there is no bridge. Ah, but those places are our teachers, my zen learning whispers. The collapsed places of “What am I going to do now?” are our schoolbooks in the classrooms of life. We can either fall into them, and move further and further from the light of our knowing, or we can focus on how to bridge them.
“What gives you joy?” I ask people constantly. Singing they say. Writing. Being outdoors. Being with animals. Helping others. Making art. And I try to help them begin building that joyful thing into their lives. Nothing feels like enough? Go deeper. Take my hand. Do it anyway.
5. It doesn’t really matter what the sink-holes are, they’re the same for all of us. When something we think we can’t live without collapses—a marriage, a social or spiritual community, one’s livelihood or health, a loved one’s death or departure—it’s the same crisis: What am I going to do now? This is the essential question for everyone. We each have a choice about whether or not to face it. Am I going to avoid it by becoming depressed or engaging in addictive behaviors? Or am I going to look at it squarely and keep breathing, give voice to my feelings and try to stay open?
6. Irony of ironies, openness itself is a bridge. I can pour concrete over something, shutting myself down and refusing to feel and acknowledge. Whatever it is has an energy of its own, and it will come bursting through like tree roots under a sidewalk, take my word for it. Or, I can stay open to feelings, ideas, imagination that allows me to see my way across and through—to the meadow or sandbar or bit of flotsam I believe is on the other side.
7. I can also share this experience with others who, no matter who they voted for, have suffered some sink-holes of their own. We’re all in this together. We all have different gifts and resources. And we all have wounds and losses. This is the fabric of human existence. We’re all working out of the same book in this classroom. That happened to you, and I understand because this happened to me. In this exchange we have formed a connection, thrown a rope across the abyss.
8. Eight, the number of infinity. “Your trauma becomes your treasure,” I say to people—even when I’m clinging to the outcropping, swinging out over empty space. . . . . For the last few paragraphs I keep thinking of our attic in the old house where I grew up. Three generations before me had put stuff up there that was no longer useful but couldn’t be thrown away: crystal and china and fine old clothing and outmoded lamps and furniture and baby things and precious artifacts like my brother’s Cub Scout uniform and a blouse my mother hand-made in 4-H Club. The letters her first husband wrote to her during the War. By the time I was in junior-high I often joked that archeologists of the future would find us buried in our ancestors’ detritus. I was powerfully drawn to these emblems of loss. But it was my brother who first led me up there, taught me to navigate the territory with careful balance, striding mindfully upon the rafters, avoiding the floorboards between that might hold the weight of an ancient baby carriage but not 50 pounds of solid 6-year-old. Once he even coaxed me into a far, scary corner where an upended oak dining table obscured the lurking shadows beyond. When we’d gone as far as we’d fit under the eaves, he reminded me of an Alfred Hitchcock show we’d recently seen, and then ran off, giggling with adolescent mischief.
9. Nine, says Denise Linn in The Secret Language of Signs, is “a number of completion . . . a symbol of universal compassion, tolerance, and wisdom.”**I don’t remember how I got down—it was that terrifying. Our artifacts lay suspended above the weather below: my mother’s depression, my father’s anger—our island on the vast plain of old farm culture that was rapidly dissolving in the acids of commercialism, itself fueling the Sixties Revolution--a thousand grassfires running wildly toward each other. They were just about to shoot the President. Treading a skewed bridge of steps from rafter to rafter in my whirlwind of fear, I did get down without falling through—perhaps developing a muscle that sustains me now.
10. This is not enough either, I agree. Take my hand, so that I can try to go deeper.
11. (“intuition, clairvoyance, spiritual healing”**) What kind of muscle are we developing at present? It’s hard to believe that anything good is happening. All I can think is, when nothing good seems to be happening out there, we work harder in here. Isn’t this what we learn in meditation practice? If we show up expecting fireworks, we may be disappointed and give up too easily. If we get fireworks, we may be all the more likely to give up the next time when we don’t. When we show up in the open sea, filled with the flotsam of what once was, none of it capable of carrying us now: we find out what we’re made of. We find out about our stickability, the quality of our imagination that can keep us focused on the pole star even when we can’t see it. We find out whether or not we can believe in a pole star, and whether the one we choose rhymes with our gut knowing, whether it heals or sickens.
12. “You gotta serve somebody,” goes the grinding wail of Bob Dylan—maybe the first and last great bard of our age. The error of Post-Modernism, I believe, was not knowing that. It’s all theory anyway, right, and in grad school we become expert at considering theories. Considering is the skill we are taught—not choice, not commitment. Perhaps now there is nothing but choice. What will we save? What will we support? What will we protect in this new era of the militant demagogue? .
13. Oh my, I’ll let you go looking into this one on your own, faithful reader. A number vilified by Patriarchy, a number of evil, upheaval, lawlessness. And/or, the number of lunar cycles in a year, the number of the Goddess. The “birth to the spirit, the passage to a higher level of existence” says one internet source.
As the light returns:
It is snowing. And it is going to snow.*
Let us keep breathing. Let us keep our balance.
*“Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Blackbird: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45236
**Ballantine Books/Random House: 1996, p. 213.