Its 5:00 on a Thursday and I’m doing my clinical notes. Of the eight patients I saw today, five of them spent their therapeutic hour sharing their anxiety about various actions and statements of our new United States president. This is no longer an unusual day for me. People are frightened. People feel personally threatened by a leader who seems to have an underdeveloped moral compass, no capacity for disciplined intelligent discourse, and no governing value except his need for self-aggrandizement. No matter what your political leanings, ( I’d imagine most of us tend toward the progressive), as therapists we are faced with a new challenge, both personally and professionally; how to help our patients emotionally thrive in a threatening political and social climate.
“Trump-Induced Anxiety”, is a malady identified in an article by Michele Goldberg in Slate magazine last fall, when the likelihood of a Trump presidency was merely an auspicious specter. Goldberg interviewed therapists about whether or not news about the election was affecting their work with patients. Heather Silvestri, a New York based psychotherapist, said that “Some of the therapists told me they are talking their patients through their Trump terror while trying not to succumb to it themselves. The therapists that I know are pretty overwhelmed by managing their personal feelings, which we have to do and we’re doing, but it’s a lot.” Amen.
I don’t personally know therapists in the Middle East, or the Baltics, or Central America. I don’t even personally know therapists in our own inner city, but I’m suspecting this is old hat to them—their patients’ constant worry about daily living in an environment that is hostile to their needs. I have been too insulated by my middle- class private practice setting to have encountered the kind of pervasive anxiety I now see every day in my patient population. When even the white folks get worried, we know we are in deep trouble.
While my emotional inclination in sessions with those suffering from Trump-induced anxiety might be to pile on- to join them in excoriating the president and to perseverate along with them about the fact that his choices for cabinet positions seem patently antagonistic to much of what I hold dear; the health of the environment, women’s health, the rights of vulnerable populations and minorities, doing so will not be helpful to the people who seek my help. They need, like me, a path toward transcendent resistance.
Frank Bruni writing in a New York Times article on January 26th, 2017 titled The Wrong Way to Take on Trump” says that we are engaged in a battle between “incivility and dignity” and that we must “answer invective with intelligence.” Bruni goes on to say that remaining civil will “show, in the process, that there are two very different sets of values here, manifest in two very distinct modes of discourse.” .” Imbedded in his words is the kind of “engaged realism” that Buddhism speaks of- a kind of love that can transcend hate.
Bruni’s column appeared after the historic Women’s March, but its principles were on display that day. As I donned my Nasty Women Make History t-shirt, I struggled to come up with a slogan to carry as a sign that would communicate my outrage in a way that was of a tenor I could, literally, stand behind. What words conveyed the kind of transcendent resistance I was aspiring to? Was it even possible to transcend my own hatred and indignation and preserve my energy for the practice of lovingkindness? Do I even believe that love is a force ultimately greater than hate? Yes. But the daily barrage of the newsfeed is like being stuck in a deep eddy; I keep paddling but can’t get free.
Yesterday, Mr. Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an Iraqi who served as an interpreter for US soldiers, was detained for 19 hours at Kennedy International Airport after our president signed an executive order halting immigration for anyone coming into the United States from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan or Yemen. After Mr. Darweesh was finally released, he told reporters of being handcuffed after stepping into the country he risked his life to assist. In imperfect English, he exclaimed, “What I do for this country? They put the cuffs on.” “You know how many soldiers I touch by this hand?” The lyric clarity of Mr. Daweesh’s statement is contrasted with the brash indifference of our president when he says of the confusion and heartbreak caused by his executive action on immigration, “It’s working out very nicely. You see it at the airports, you see it all over”. Things are not “working out quite nicely” for a lot of the people who are sitting in my office.
Psychotherapists value compassion and truth telling and facing reality head on. How do we help ourselves, and our patients, to live out these values in a socio-political climate of obfuscation and deafness to the suffering of the vulnerable and the powerless? For guidance, I suggest we turn to the masters.
In an article for The Guardian, Sharon Salzberg said “Compassion training isn’t what it appears to be on the surface. “It sounds like you’re just going to give in and be sweet, not take a stand on things. But it’s actually a really daring kind of political vision: that this is a completely interdependent universe, and everybody counts” – even the people who don’t themselves believe that everybody counts. “That doesn’t mean you don’t take strong action against people.”
Perhaps the prescription we need is Compassion married to Strong Action- Transcendence married to Resistance. Perhaps the offspring will be a way forward for us and our patients both.
Bruni, Frank. “The Wrong Way to Take On Trump.” New York Times, n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
Burke, Oliver. “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Donald.” The Guardian. N.p., 5 Feb. 2016. Web.
Goldberg, Michelle. “Trump-Induced Anxiety Is Real. Therapists and Their Patients Are Struggling to Cope.” Slate Magazine. N.p., 23 Sept. 2016. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.