Human beings are by and large procrastinators. We typically postpone any significant change until it’s almost too late — until we’re teetering on the brink, until the fire we’re playing with verges on conflagration. Must we stand face-to-face with disaster before we have an undeniable motive to take forceful, decisive action?
In my practice as a psychoanalyst I confront these questions all the time. After much work together, my patients, who often came to me at the brink, gain enough comfort and health to not live in precarity. But they also perpetually postpone claiming still greater psychic freedom. But compromise can take its toll. Losses accumulate as people delay making much longed for, if also feared, change. Lives remain stifled, burdened by symptoms. Further change will require a return to the brink. Uncertainty and fear must again be faced head-on, only this time with greater emotional resilience and with the assurance of a therapeutic partner dedicated to a shared mission.
Even in this best case the going can be very rough. I’m often baffled and profoundly humbled by the sheer power of my patients’ resistance — of our shared short-circuiting of the path — to truly transformative change. Their frustration, and mine, mount. Desire for a more radical break from the status quo gains urgency. Desperate thrashing. A willingness to take risks. The old paradigm reaches its tipping point, unsustainable.
I think something of this movement is what we are witnessing on a domestic and even global political level. It’s not an accident that we’ve sustained our comfort zones and hypocritical, pseudo-democratic alliances until now. But political stress and potential global disaster have brought us to a new brink. Retreat no longer seems a viable option, transformative change seems essential. But what would further change require?
Certainly my patients, as the rest of us try to, make significant incremental changes that seem to promise greater fulfillment and freedom. They take measures to fracture old patterns, to better bear losses and shame, to relinquish grudges, to harness anger in building momentum toward desired hopes and dreams. These many incremental changes plant the seeds for their own democratizing action, to fight for liberation from the repressive, tyrannical power of their symptoms. In our work along this path, it is important to face our resentments and to assert our right to, and need for, the fury trapped within them.
But fury, even when it’s goal-directed, isn’t enough. Grieving our losses, letting go of the battles that aren’t worth fighting, distinguishing what is fundamental to our integrity and thus unshirkable, is also essential. And this requires a courageous encounter with our values and our desires, a concession that while we can’t control what lies beyond us, we bear responsibility for contributing to the public sphere in some way that aligns with our core values and singular abilities. Such surrender, along with acceptance and grief, are all required for effective therapeutic — and ethical — action.
In most cases this winning combination is elusive. Time and again, in disparate ways, we undercut ourselves; we arrive at muddled solutions, sustainable perhaps in the short term but ever subject to reversal. Despite ourselves we cling to the familiar and the known, even as we’re swept to the brink of disaster, in the company of enemies within and without whom we can’t bear to really fight or fully repudiate.
And there we stand today. We’ve endured together an unusually vicious election cycle. We’ve discussed to death the prices both of political business as usual and of radical threats to the established checks and balances. In this case, as things change far more than we expected them to, will they still proverbially stay the same?
Some placed their vote for Hillary as a vote for real change, at very least because of her gender. But for better and for worse, Clinton promised familiarity: familiar cautions, the familiar political deadlocks, the continual marching in place. True, nothing much would change, but then again we wouldn’t have to change much either.
But events showed that for many of us — red and blue, left and right, lovers and haters — stasis and compromise could no longer be borne. We were sick and tired of them. We wanted bold transformation. (That Hillary would be the first female president apparently counted for little, even to many women.) We were together inspired by the revolutionary impulses that fueled both Sanders and Trump. We longed for someone to finally take us to the brink wither we could not lead ourselves. But while we longed together, we did not long as a community. Some placed their hope in the further evolution of our society by way of Sanders-style socialism, egalitarian and inclusive. But others hoped to blow up the system not so that we might finally break our shackles, but to tighten their grip, to reestablish the old and familiar — what was “remembered” (or nostalgically invented) as the good old America. America would be great again.
It is odd, obviously, that the prevailing desire seems to have been for both destruction and restoration. We blithely push the planet to the limit of survival as we delay measures vital to slowing if not halting global warming. We dally with an alleged sexual predator and former reality TV show host, believing that we can make America First by degrading our First Amendment, and walking back the incremental steps we’ve taken toward a more authentic and robust Constitutional democracy.
Compromise is no longer a solution, nor is retreat into a perverse distribution of political agency in which a “democratic” masochism and “republican” sadism operate collusively. Not for my patients, who have traveled so far but remain locked in persistent symptoms. And not for Red or Blue America. It is time to honor our nation’s true ethical and democratic calling, to practice the eternal vigilance that Andrew Jackson recognized democracy demands. We must not be half-hearted. We must stop turning back to old American identities; rather, we must let them go, mourn them if necessary, and discover the authentic potential of participatory democracy in what is as yet potential, in what is unfamiliar.
For some of Trump’s supporters, the hunger for change was joined to a reckless thirst for payback — that is, for the dismantling of structures we’ve painstakingly built but which they view as cages. Protecting women’s rights, climate safeguards, leveling the money-soaked field of democratic discourse: these were seen by many Trump voters as part of a sociocultural shift that was at best unintentionally antagonistic and job-destroying. So they said “fuck you.” Supporters of true radical democratic change cannot. We must exert force from a solid fixed point, not from a deeply fractured abyss. (Even Trump, the real estate builder, surely must respect stable foundations).
So at this juncture we must safeguard the democratic inroads we have made over these past 200-some years, while refusing enervating compromise solutions. We must sustain a singular focus on expanding global human rights and recognizing that our survival is both interdependent and premised on the shared vitality of our planet. America cannot shirk its role as a beacon of democratic inspiration and real partnership with the world. Along with mourning, our future requires a fury that will fuel genuine democratic agency. But it will also require desire rooted in the ethics of inclusiveness and egalitarianism. We waited and now we stand on the brink of democratic collapse. Which also is to say that we stand at the brink of a more dramatic vision of democratic possibility than previously realized. The stakes are just too great, the possibilities too awesome to keep procrastinating.