This is not a big deal, he said. It’s all a hilarious spectacle. “Nothing bad is actually going to happen.”
It was the day Trump took his oath, and I was trying to swallow my breakfast. I crossed my legs under the table and twiddled the silver spoon between my fingers, staring down at the frozen blueberries — leftovers saved from last spring’s harvest at the farm — floating in their muddled pool of coconut milk.
Besides, he said, towering over the kitchen counter with hands punching marble, “He won fair and square. Fair and square.” He said the problem with liberals is that they focus too little on logical facts and instead overreact, forgoing economics and practicalities for their lofty ideals. They are far too emotional.
Are we? I’m the daughter of two psychotherapists. As a kid, whenever I came home from school with a gripe about a classmate who had copied my crayon drawing or hurled an unfair insult or otherwise transgressed my perception of good morals or manners in some small, childlike way, my parents always offered the same response: she or he is just “insecure.” I never knew the true definition of the term, but I took it to mean that beneath every offense, there’s a heartache, however conscious or unconscious; that every person’s inner life warrants acknowledgment and respect; that untangling the world’s knots of conflicts begins by compassionately considering the emotional experiences of any adversary. Emotions explain and expand understanding; they elucidate the true logic.
I’m sorry you’re upset, sweetie. But remember, he didn’t mean badly. He’s just insecure.
My mom and dad insisted that I voice my own feelings, too, even as I repeatedly resisted, wanting to be an independent individual without the mushy gushy mess of self-revelation. At age 12 or so, I recall curling up like a bug in my seat in the back of the car with my frowning face towards the splotched window, sad or jealous or pissed about something but insisting that I didn’t want to talk about it.
“Just because you like discussing your feelings, doesn’t mean I do. I’m not like you.” Not true. We have to talk about what hurts. To discount one’s emotions is to deny one’s humanity, to lose touch with what makes humans humane, to reveal sharpness, sourness, or bitterness instead of softness and warmth.
I looked up from my blueberries, which were staining violet swirls in the soupy bowl. “I disagree,” I said. I don’t think that those perturbed by Trump’s presidency are “too emotional.” I don’t think that cold, keen economics can solve societal puzzles in tidy mathematical equations. I don’t think it’s ever wrong to take morals and ethics as seriously as detached rationality. (As if any of Trump’s actions have been “rational” at all, rather than based in emotion, in insecurity. As if any supposed solution that leaves no space for empathy, generosity, or basic morality could ever be “rational.” As if emotions weren’t what earned his votes.)
Think about the people who have specific reasons to feel threatened in ways that you might not, I told him. Consider the father who lost his six-year-old to gun violence. Consider the daughter who spoke up about her sexual assault after years of scared secrecy, only to be shushed. Consider the mother who moved her family across the border from Mexico and works tirelessly so that her children can obtain the education she never had, and the one whose kid’s future depends on federal funding for students with learning disabilities. Consider the son who held his boyfriend’s hand in public for the first time when gay marriage was ruled legal. Consider the brothers and sisters and friends of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and so many other black Americans shot dead by police in 2016. Consider how they must ache. They are not “too emotional.” Just insecure, too. Just hurt. Just scared. Just trying to find a way to move through it.
By “too emotional,” what he meant was, too empathetic. Too sensitive. Too easily moved, instead of steady, unshakeable, fixed on success and stability at any cost.
The word “emotion” dates back to the 1570s, signifying “a (social) moving, stirring, agitation.” The root of it means “to move out.”
An emotion is a bundle of energy that’s intended for active expression. When suppressed, it’s like a wriggling bug under the clobbering thumb of alleged reason. It does not disappear. It only squirms and screams louder. It demands to “move out.” To be made public. To exhaust itself through some form of release. (This is how sadness displays itself as rage; how fear displays itself as fury; how insecurity displays itself as violence.)
The Women’s March was launched because one woman was upset on election day, and she spoke up about it in a Facebook post. Her expression of emotion — her energetic “moving out” — became a mass movement, spreading its ripples around the globe.
Two steps forward, one step back. One step back, two steps forward. In response to one mammoth step back, led by our new government, millions of people showed up and stepped up and stepped forward, all around the globe. One step back, millions of steps forward, steps forward, steps forward, steps forward in literal marching strides. A moving out. A moving through.
The steps back have felt so backwards, like reversals of progress, but that’s not just the dissenting perspective — they’re actually intended to feel that way. Our new president has positioned his entire campaign on a turnaround. Let’s make this country “great again,” he says. Let’s return to how it was. (You know that ugly and oppressive sound a monster truck makes as it reverses in blind jolts? That’s all I can hear in my head when he speaks — BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP.)
As novelist Zadie Smith writes, this sort of nostalgia “only makes sense if the rights and privileges you are accorded currently were accorded to you back then, too. If some white men are more sentimental about history than anyone else right now it’s no big surprise: their rights and privileges stretch a long way back.” Wistfulness for a bygone era is “entirely unavailable to a [black woman] like me, for in that period I could not vote, marry my husband, have my children, work in the university I work in, or live in my neighborhood. Time travel is a discretionary art: a pleasure trip for some and a horror story for others.”
Every vision of what it means to thrive — including one based in “practical economics”— is inherently emotional. We all search desperately for a forgotten feeling of comfort and security, because we’re wired to try to survive. The pursuit becomes a dragging back, a pushing forward, a jerking back, a reaching forward, a tug of war between progress and regression, which look like opposites from opposite sides, each one wrenched by a different version of angst.
I caught myself biting my nails last night — an old habit from sixth grade that only rears its head when I’m anxious. I’m confused at times, too. Overwhelmed. I am frustrated, annoyed, irritated in the most selfish ways — I’m supposed to be learning about farming, savoring sweet blueberries, tanning my shoulders in the sun, growing forward, not retreating to my room to read about the president’s latest acts of brutal bigotry. (Two steps forward, one step back.) In moments, I feel depressed, as we all do.
The word “depress” has its roots in the early 14th century, in the Old French depresser and the Latin depressare: “to put down by force; to press down.” The emotional definition of “depress” — “to deject, to make gloomy” — only arose in the 1620s.
That’s what he wants, isn’t it? (He, the president. He, the chief strategist. He, the man at the blueberry farm who barely let me get a word in, though I know he didn’t mean badly. He, The Man, the patriarchy that judges sentimentality as feminine, flimsy, and weak.) He wants to push us down.
In some ways, in some moments, it works. I don’t generally believe in writer’s block, but for months, I have struggled to write, because I can’t seem to find the right words; anything unrelated to politics seems petty. My creativity feels squashed and suppressed under that clobbering thumb of supposed reason that says, “Stay serious. Too much is at stake.”
But I have had enough of succumbing to silence, surrendering to dismay I think I’m supposed to feel. What we need, right now, is not the staunch, stale, stalwart stillness of “rational” argument that puts things in their places and pins them down there. What we need is more movement — more movement for this movement. Creativity, curiosity, joy, learning, love, adventure — these are the slippery, shape-shifting, ever-energetic things that move people.
In one of her best “Dear Sugar” columns, Cheryl Strayed offers this line about the many years of shitty confusions and “useless” meanderings everyone must endure before they someday add up to something: “These things are your becoming.” That’s how I feel about this political horror we’re all confronting now, together: this is our becoming. This is our learning to lose and to rally, to hurt and to heal. We young people, especially, are just getting started — we are only at the beginning, only learning the edges of wounds older than we are, far deeper than we can reach with our tiny arms, more complex than we can yet fathom.
We will spend the rest of our lives fighting for what we believe is right — in the public arena and in our homes; with our partners who stray or simply abandon their sticky plates in the sink one too many times; with our friends when they forget our birthdays or seem to flounder in their own small worlds; with our parents, as they grow too old and weary to buy their own groceries or tie their own shoes. It will be hard. We will falter and fumble and lose as we scrawl our own maps onwards, marked out in perpetual overlaps of two steps forward and one step back. We will move through it, but only as we speak up about how it all feels, and why, so we can figure out how to fix it. We have to talk about what hurts so that we can heal.
Two steps back. One step forward. Tread softly, but with strength.
Fran moreland johns says
I’m so glad my great good friend Annie McD (as in our shared Ashland childhood & my love for the irreplaceable Charley too) posted a link to this. Beautifully said, Leah. You grew up pretty good.