"This time"—my friend stood over a sinkful of dirty dishes, a stricken expression on her face—"I'm voting as if my life depended on it." Extreme energies of hope and fear are rising and ricocheting over every city and town in the nation. I wish there were a way to harness a forcefield of this magnitude: I imagine it could power the world's largest engine, probably forever.
I filled out my absentee ballot in front of the television with the final presidential debate in the background. I haven't been able to watch a debate with more than one eye, my anxiety feels so boundless. As a supplemental activity, shuffling through a mountain of voter guides made more sense than filing my nails. I marked my ballot v-e-r-r-r-y carefully, thinking of grade school and coloring books as I took pains to ink the tiny ovals inside the lines. Once it was done, I felt a slight shift away from anxiety and toward a satisfying completion.
Although in my lifetime, elections have so often meant choosing the lesser evil, this time I voted with a whole heart, both for Barack Obama, who possesses the intelligence, willingness to listen and integral awareness that are urgent requirements in a U.S. president; and against John McCain, whose policy positions and temperament disqualify him for public trust. I voted to preserve same-sex couples' right to marry in California and also made my painstaking way through the 11 other propositions on this state's ballot—a number that grows every election year in direct proportion to voters' mistrust of elected policy-makers.
When I consider that the act of voting to which today's national firestorm of wild energy attaches actually entails an expenditure of perhaps 100 calories (and that's if you have to walk to polling place), a question arises. In psycho-spiritual terms, what is this gigantic national surplus of emotional energy about?
One mighty stream feeding our current power surge is intense fear, something I'm certain you have as many opportunities as I to experience. Every day one friend tells me that her retirement funds have now disappeared, another that he fears losing his home, a third that sleep does not come or night terrors snatch it away before there has been time enough to rest. Last night I woke at 3 a.m. with my heart pounding, but now I can't remember the nightmare.
The Republican Party is actively and implacably endeavoring to terrorize us into voting against Obama, trotting out all the techniques that worked so well (if temporarily) during the fifties Red Scare: guilt by association, charges of betrayal, gothic whispers of conspiracy and masquerading villains who want to steal our money and our freedom. If you can stand a glimpse of the way these right-wing politics are encoded with racism, check out my friend Ludovic Blain's Web site, Stop Dog Whistle Racism (which also has great links to every election-watch site with any credibility).
According to the polls, the right's smear tactics are backfiring: most voters are turned off by this kind of malice. That is good news, and yet for many people in this hypersaturated emotional climate, even good news amps up the fear: what if voters are dissembling in their answers to pollsters and the smears actually succeed? What would it be like to live under an administration that cultivates and exploits terror to an extent even greater than our current president's?
Between the depredations of Wall Street and the ugliness of this campaign, an ocean of angst has flooded the body politic, and we are paddling as fast as possible to keep from drowning.
But there is another energetic stream flowing our way: a sense of real possibility that is not undone by our fears. The level of activism and caring is remarkable. Did you ever think this many people would take politics seriously again? We have no way to predict the difference it might make, but there are grounds for hope. In 2004, approximately 194,000,000 U.S. citizens were eligible to vote; just under 63 percent of them registered and turned out to vote (the largest turnout since 1968). George Bush won not quite 51 percent of their votes. In other words, he was elected by fewer than one in three of those eligible to vote. The plain truth is that merely mobilizing the larger numbers everyone expects to cast their votes on November 4th can radically raise the level of political possibility in this country.
The trick is to lift the paralyzing fog of fear long enough to let in the light of hope, bringing new voters into the holy communion of democracy where, without a doubt we owe each other the basic act of true citizenship: to show up and be counted.
There are still a few days to register in California, and longer in some other states. If you know anyone who still says voting doesn't matter, convincing those people to vote despite their cynicism—to exercise radical hope—is the most important thing any of us can do to turn this power surge to the good. To help you out, here's a video clip just chock full of celebrities offering more than a few good reasons to vote. And here's a link to DeclareYourself.com, which easily directs people to voter registration information and features a lot more great clips encouraging voting.
Somewhere deep down, my fear is that all the recent disruption of economics and politics as usual may still not suffice to awaken people who are slumbering under the illusion that voting doesn't matter—and that illusion, combined with dirty tricks to discourage or discredit voting, could lose the election. If you and I know people who feel this way, awakening them is up to ME and YOU.
When the intense fear rises, the image I see is a hand dipping a wick into a vat of molten candle-wax. What arouses my anxiety is often something quite trivial—a TV commercial or a pundit's prediction, a friend's expression of dread, a minor disappointment. But if I don't catch it early, that wick dips deep inside, into a great cauldron of remembered fear, all the emotional chaos and economic desperation of my childhood bubbling on a back burner lo these many years. The future starts to look like the past, repeated forever. It takes an act of will to remember that I will move through the fear and come out the other side. But when I do remember, I re-emerge into the present, a free being instead of a prisoner of fear.
Cognitive scientists tell us that by and large, the effects we anticipate are greater than will actually occur. They call this "impact bias": we tend think we'll never recover from a deep disappointment, or a that a brilliant success will make us happy forever. But as most of us have lived long enough to know, people have enormous resilience and a short attention-span. Ancient folk wisdom says that King Solomon devised as a cure for depression the wearing of a ring engraved with the words "gam zeh ya'avor" ("this too shall pass"). The person who heeds this motto will cherish every moment of pleasure and take consolation from knowing that painful moments will fade into memory.
So this is my three-point plan leading up to the election: (1) When the emotional waves around me are too choppy to surf, I take a break and do something that reminds me of the pleasure of living. (2) I always try to remember that this too shall pass. (3) I anticipate the pleasure I will cherish on election night, when all our efforts to mobilize the vote will produce an Obama victory.
Being human, I'm sure I'll find something to complain about soon after that, but that too shall pass, and first, the celebration.