We are called upon to gather, reflect, and give thanks mere days from now, as we do every year at this time. And yet, this year it falls in a season of historic discontent. How are we to manage?
Before tackling the problem, let’s be clear that the problem is universal, no matter which way we voted. Yes, it is undoubtedly more acute and poignant for those of us who cast votes for what proved to be the lost cause. But there is nothing to gloat about on the winning side of this tally, either.
Why? Well, for one thing, we all have the same vivid evidence that we live in a house ominously divided. The passions on both sides appear to be unusually extreme, highlighting the width of that division. More impressive still is its length. It is now an established fact that our presidential election was lost by a candidate who not only won a decisive majority of the popular vote, but who won it by a greater margin than at least several former presidents had in victory. For every 100 of us who favored this outcome, to whatever degree, there are 101 who went the other way.
We are one another’s neighbors. We are one another’s cousins. The human family and the fabric of community are non-partisan bonds we share.
For another, the evidence that we were victims ― winners and losers alike ― of willful misinformation is overwhelming. It’s not only a fact, but one being celebrated by the addition of “post-truth” to the Oxford dictionary. We are invited to accept that we live in a “post-truth” world.
We should reject the invitation. There is nothing post-modern about post-truth; it is regressive. It is the state of states subject to tyranny, the control of information, and the dominion of propaganda. It serves despots, not democracies, and is among the shackles broken by our revered institutions, a free press salient among them.
But even leaving aside any lofty causes, there is simply this: post-truth promises, by their very nature, will not be kept. They are, once the euphemism is stripped away, naked lies. They serve only manipulation, and thus abuse us all, but especially those who rally to their support.
We can wrestle with ways to fight together for truth- truth we want to hear, and truth we don’t- another time. I want to get back to the challenge of this year’s thanks.
I heard from a neighbor in my relatively quiet hometown of Hamden, CT, that in the days since the election, she has seen swastikas prominently displayed, once on skin, once on clothing. She has lived here for years, and never seen one before.
That there is cause for revulsion in this is self-evident; we all know what swastikas have come to symbolize. But if that reprehensible worldview was lurking among us, perhaps we may be thankful that it has been exposed, and that good people, no matter our politics, may confront it.
This is a stretch, I admit, but no more than contending with the results of cancer screening. Good news is better than bad news, but bad news is better than not knowing the news. Knowledge is power, in this case the power to confront a social cancer now revealed, but lurking there all along. We don’t really have a new problem; we have new awareness. So, this goes in the “now we know” file.
Then, I received a missive from a junior colleague in lifestyle medicine, expressing her justified anxieties as she expects the arrival of her baby daughter in December, wondering where we all go from here. I can’t say why she thought I could help, and don’t presume to think I did; but here, more or less, is what I said.
Martin Luther King told us that the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice. I think the arc of the scientific universe and genuine understanding is equally long, but bends toward truth. I think the best we can do is follow the curve, while resisting the urge to get too far out in front of it. Understanding takes time.
Getting there will, at times, mean pushing past those committed to blocking us. Gentle may not always work- but we should be as gentle as possible. Ultimately, whatever we are in, we are in it together. But however we go, we have to keep going somehow.
More often than not- and we may be thankful for this- we can progress by taking the hands of those lagging behind, and helping them to catch up. I think there are countless ways to do this. Maybe every act of kindness is one. So is teaching. Building bridges to come together on common ground in defense of fundamental truths can only help.
As a fellow parent, I feel the reasons for anxiety deeply. We all aspire to bring our children into a world with no shadows, but that is the fantasy of every generation. You were not born into a world with no shadows; nor was I. But we can be thankful to be here just the same, and have this chance to shine a light.
We offer our children nothing more, and nothing less, than a chance to do the same. We cannot promise an absence of shadow; but we can give them the opportunity to add their unique light. It is enough; for them, as for us. It is enough, because it’s all there is, or ever was.
But maybe not all that can be. Like every parent before you, you will have to welcome your perfect addition to the human family- into an imperfect world, and hope she makes it better. She will have that chance- as do we all- and we may be thankful for it.
Finally, a little modern medicine to help such aspirations go down. Silly as it seems, smiling can induce happiness as reliably as happiness can induce smiling. Hugs are genuinely health promoting. Social connections are on the short list of factors most consistently associated with the addition of years to lives, and life to years. Love defends against chronic disease.
In other words, as we gather this year and seek reasons to be thankful, we may find them in the gathering itself. If we can manage to consider that the very same feelings are populating groups across every measure of diversity, so much the better. We are more alike than different in what we feel, and fear; need, and love.
The fortunate among us will have the opportunity to reflect accordingly, bellies full and sated, in the company of people we love. There may be tears, but there should certainly be hugs, and smiles. There will be reasons for thanks, in spite of it all.
Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital
Immediate Past-President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine
Senior Medical Advisor, Verywell.com
Founder, The True Health Initiative