PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Survival In Turbulent Times

It’s hard not to be depressed these days.

Images of babies screaming as they are ripped away from their mothers breasts and 3-year-olds brought into court alone to face charges haunt my dreams, along with the cries of children who are lost, confused and alone.

Social media posts from young men I knew in a kinder, gentler time, whose worst instincts have been unleashed by a crude, crass and deliberately divisive leader, giving them permission to embrace the Confederate flag (in North Dakota of all places) and all that comes with it, believing somehow that they are “victims” of diversity. In a different era, they would have been good conservatives, but now they are becoming a mass of followers who celebrate unchecked anger and find it socially acceptable to spew hate.

Realizing that many of the fine Republicans I knew, loved and respected, though we differed on solutions, have decided that morals do not matter, nor does character or honesty or integrity. They silently follow behind leadership that openly flouts decency, civility and the rule of law, lies brazenly and seemingly celebrates cruelty and exclusion. I have seen people I admired cast their values aside for reasons I cannot even begin to fathom.

Watching the national debt soar, knowing that in the aftermath of a tax cut that benefited the rich, it will be used as an excuse to further dismantle an already fraying social safety net; seeing voters rights further dismantled and Muslims banned; listening as brutal dictators are hailed as “nice guys” and foreign friends are insulted as the world becomes more dangerous; being cognizant of the impact of climate change daily as environmental protections are cast aside; hearing about what is being uncovered in a probe about foreign election interference even as facts are ignored and twisted and nothing is being done to prevent it in the future; and mourning as we grow further apart rather than seeing someone call out our better angels to bring us together …

The list could go on …

It is easy to be depressed these days and want to retreat into a place of self-pity and despondent inertia, which is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Right now, more than ever, we need fair-minded people, both conservatives and progressives, who believe in core values, decency and the rule of law, to step up and be engaged as we battle for the very soul of our nation.

But how do we do it? How do we keep fighting what feels like an overwhelmingly losing battle, in the face of vitriol being celebrated as approval ratings rise, as people who call themselves people of faith defend behavior that seeks to cast those who are different from us as alien rather than children of the same God?

I’ve been thinking about this the past few days, and I’ve come up with some suggestions for survival in turbulent times.

1. Exercise self-care. As the old saying goes, “put your own oxygen mask on first before helping those around you.”

I know being able to do this comes from a point of privilege that not everyone has, but I also know it is imperative to take care of yourself if you are in the fight for common decency for the long haul. Because the world cannot afford us stepping back or burning out.

For me, that meant signing up to be a “goat nanny” at a local farm and taking some time out to play with animals, to refresh myself. It means going for long walks in the woods with my dog to think and pray. Heading to a musical on Broadway or supporting local arts at a museum or show, or going to the ocean for a nice long walk.

I return from these times of self-care rested and ready to keep going.

2. Figure out what how to tune in and when to tune out. We are met with two conflicting tensions. One is to tune out the news completely and pretend this isn’t happening. That is dangerous because we need constant vigilance. The other extreme is to become so obsessed with it that it becomes almost addictive and we end up listening but not doing. I have been subject to both extremes.

What I am learning is best for me is to focus more on reading articles, as opposed to the radio or TV, because it doesn’t drag me down as much but keeps me informed. I have a few podcasts that are weekly compilations and the occasional nightly show that I listen to, but I find classical music centers me and Broadway tunes and the 1980s buoy me up.

I also try to listen to voices with whom I have not always agreed — Bill Kristol, George Will, Steve Schmidt, Nicole Wallace and John Kasich are just a few. This gives me hope and reminds me that these are not normal times, but that there are people of integrity who see the difference. We are united in a fight for “liberty and justice for all.”

3. Find a community of support so you know you are not alone. I once had someone ask me why I loved to march, even if it didn’t make a difference. I said there was strength in solidarity and the support of like-minded people. Joining in song and chants helps you feel stronger and it provides energy for the battle ahead.

Finding friends to support you, in person and on social media, helps us pick each other up when we feel overwhelmed and just want to quit.

There will be setbacks and losses. We know that too well, but as someone who marched against apartheid for years, smuggled for the ANC and was willing to raise my voice at what I thought at times was a futile struggle, I also stood outside the South African consulate in Chicago the day Nelson Mandela was released. There will be victories, both large and small, which we need to celebrate together, and our voices do make a difference.

4. Don’t get stuck in an echo chamber. One of the worst things that can happen right now is for people to get further caught up in tribalism, so deliberately seek out people with whom you don’t agree to engage in conversation and seek to find common ground.

I can’t believe that most people of decency support this policy at the border any more than I believe most people in Germany supported the genocide of the Jews. What happened was that it was easy to ignore, so don’t let others ignore what is happening.

Engage in conversation, don’t demonize those with whom you disagree, and try to reach out to our better angels as we work together to come up with solutions. I had a conversation with someone on Facebook the other day. I didn’t back down on my faith or this moral imperative, but I didn’t call names, and in the end, I think I made progress in helping them see the humanity of those they were denigrating.

Yes, there are people who celebrate cruelty and relish in white supremacy and nationalism, but I can’t believe it is 40 percent of the population. My job is to keep engaged with those who know, deep down inside, what is happening, and try to find a way to help them move out of this “autopilot of support” and try to get back to that place where we could agree to disagree without casting aside decency, humanity and a equality.

5. Find small ways to make a difference. Last year, after the election, I started tutoring recent Muslim immigrants, teaching them English. I felt like, in some small way, I was making a positive impact. I can’t imagine how scary it must be to be Muslim these days in a nation that essentially said it was OK to isolate a religion, but I know that I can be a supportive presence. Volunteer locally to connect with those who are being marginalized, reach out to an immigration service, donate your time and money. You will feel like you are having an impact — and you will be doing good.

6. Figure out a way you can have a larger impact. Elections have consequences.

I am someone who makes phone calls, but I know I can’t really make a difference with what happens right now in Congress. I can make a difference with who gets elected, however. Less than half of the people eligible to vote do, so the key to making a difference is getting more people to vote. The current regime was elected by less than 25 percent of the American people — and I know many of those who voted did it as a protest of the other candidate, not a voice of support for this dystopian vision of America.

So we need to get involved and get people registered to vote and then get them out to vote and ensure their right to vote. I am planning on taking Nov. 3-6 off and going wherever I can to help as a poll watcher or drive people to vote, whether that is in Georgia or North Dakota. This, perhaps, is the most important American election of all time. It will be to see if we can stop this careening car from crashing.

7. Don’t let anyone normalize what is happening. Jon Stewart appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on Thursday night and reminded us of what Abraham Lincoln said regarding the one thing that Southern slaveholders wanted: “This and only this: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right.”

“It was on this point that Lincoln said the Union could not bend,” Stewart said. “And what Donald Trump wants is for us to stop calling his cruelty and fear and divisiveness wrong, but to join him in calling it right. And this we cannot do. And I say, by not yielding, we will prevail!”

When George Will and Jon Stewart are on the same page, you know it is not about politics, it is about the future of democracy.

So we can’t afford to retreat into depression. We need, now more than ever, to act boldly because the very essence of our nation is at stake.

3 thoughts on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Survival In Turbulent Times”

  • Jolene June 29, 2018 at 5:18 pm

    You meant to say flout rather than flaunt. Otherwise, good advice clearly stated.

  • naturelover55 June 30, 2018 at 9:00 am

    Wise and insightful article Paula! Just when I feel like giving up and tuning out, I read something like this and it gives me hope. Thank you.

  • Nunya July 2, 2018 at 5:53 am

    Walk outside, it’s the same world. Get off your computer and phone screen feeding you Vox articles poisoning your brain and live a little in actual human interaction society. You’ll see the world is the same.


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