Incarnation: Maybe It’s Not Just a Jesus Thing

Always remember that you are absolutely unique…just like everyone else.   —bumper sticker

 

It’s a little weird when your profound life lesson for 2017 turns up on a bumper sticker.

For the past few years I’ve been getting painful reminders of how I’m just like everyone else. In my loftier moments I’m prone to thinking I’ve made progress in certain areas of my life—that I’ve moved beyond petty envies and dark prejudices and grudges and other schmutz of the soul.

And then something comes up and I realize it’s all still there. I am just like everybody else. Not really worse. But certainly not better.

Just. Ordinary. Average.

This has me thinking about incarnation.

If you’re familiar with Christian thought, you know the word well. The Incarnation is the name given to God’s becoming fully and utterly human in the person of Jesus. This isn’t about taking on a human shell or form: it’s becoming one of us. Which means a lot of schmutzy stuff: pooping his diapers, banging his thumb with a carpenter’s hammer, possibly squabbling with his saintly parents, wandering off like a normal curious preteen in a big city like Jerusalem, having wild visions of his own destiny, making life choices that look scary and strange from the outside.

Dying.

As the Bible says, Jesus suffered and was tempted and challenged in the same ways we are (Hebrews 4:15, 5:8). For me, it’s a wonderful doctrine—maybe the best Christianity has to offer. What it says to me is that God, the One force and creator behind the entire Universe, gets us. Firsthand. From the inside out.

What if we’re called to the same thing?

That may seem silly at first. We don’t need to become human. We are human. We’re already “incarnate.”

Well, yes we are. But do we actually live it: mindfully, fully, aware of our ordinariness and therefore—all-important—our ordinariness in solidarity with all other human beings?

This is the lesson I’ve been learning. All kinds of jealousies rise in my heart when someone else steals my spotlight, and I see I’m envious and insecure just like everyone else. I’m suddenly confronted with a deep need or vulnerability—again—and I see I’m needy and vulnerable just like everyone else. Something I write uncovers an insight I didn’t even know I knew, and I see I have these wonderful gifts and talents to share, just like everyone else.

So when I go fulfill one of God’s two most basic commands, “love your neighbor as yourself,” I can see my neighbor as myself. Because I’ve had practice in learning to love myself with all my schmutz, I can learn to love my neighbors with all their schmutz.

Suddenly that horrible thing about my friend X doesn’t seem so horrible because I’ve got it too. Suddenly I can look at the whole person and just embrace them all, beautiful and well short of beautiful. I am them, I can see myself in them, so I can love them as I love myself.

How is this not incarnation? Sure, we’re already human. This is about being fully, attentively human. What Jesus did. What we, just maybe, are called to do too.

Is Your Faith Life-Giving or Soul-Crushing?

Do you like some parts of your faith more than others?

I’m betting most people would say yes. Some beliefs and practices just sit well with us, and some, well, don’t. Christians may cherish Jesus’ call to “love one another” but cringe at the genocide stories in the Book of Joshua. If you’re a Buddhist, maybe meditation has made you more compassionate and awake, but reading sutras doesn’t do it for you.

This is normal, of course. Who on earth likes everything about anything? The bigger challenge, however, is not identifying what we like. It’s figuring out what’s true, and what’s good for us—and for the world.

Earlier this year, at the annual conference of Spiritual Directors International, I heard author and pastor John Mabry speak on providing spiritual direction across faith traditions. When asked about helping clients address the “distortions” in their own belief systems, John made a useful distinction. He talked about life-giving beliefs and soul-crushing beliefs. Practices too can be life-giving or soul-crushing.

How do we figure out which is which?

It may seem easy at first glance. There’s a reason, for instance, why Christians like to quote 1 John 4:8, which tells us that “God is love,” and shy away from Psalm 58:10, “They will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.”

What’s more, our sages and sacred texts point toward the life-giving. St. Paul lists the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23): love, joy, peace, etc. The God of the Hebrew scriptures gives us the Ten Commandments and the shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone…. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).The Buddha pointed the way with the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

That’s a great start, eh? Hew to these elements of faith and you’ll find life. Except there’s another thing. You could possibly read those elements—joy! oneness! right meditation!—and conclude that life-giving = what feels good.

Not so fast.

Take this saying attributed to Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Self-denial is hardly a feel-good practice, yet many believers have found it life-giving: it makes more room in their deepest selves for intimacy with God. The Jesus of the gospels also admonished his followers to “enter through the narrow gate…. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to”—wait for it—“life” (Matthew 7:13-14).

Clearly, following this logic, not everything that gives life feels good, and vice versa. Moreover, what’s life-giving for one person may be soul-crushing for another. Have you ever tried praying in a certain way, or volunteering for a certain cause, or holding to a certain childhood belief, and the more you explored it the more grueling it became? Sure, maybe you just hit a rough patch, and a bit of pushing through it yielded great things. Or maybe that part of your faith—so life-giving to others—was soul-crushing to you, and you had to go in another direction.

How on earth do you make the distinction and find the life-giving? A deep connection with the Larger, however you define that Larger—God, One, Buddha-nature, etc.—can yield priceless wisdom and guidance. In this context, prayer and meditation, in whatever form gives life to you, are indispensable. Working with a clergyperson or spiritual director can help you sort out your experience in a safe place.

Ultimately, however you go, the journey is worth the effort. It draws us ever closer and closer to the Source of all life. Nothing is more life-giving, and more joyful, than that.

What Can Our Enemies Teach Us?

Please note: This is a delicate topic. If you’ve suffered major trauma at the hands of another person, feel free to skip the article, or at least read with care.

 

I don’t like using the word loathe. I don’t want to admit I can loathe. But three people in my past inspire something like loathing in my deepest self. They all—unintentionally, I believe—caused me a great deal of hurt.

There’s a hitch, though: every one of them contributed to who I am today, and what I can offer the world.

Two of them are brilliant thinkers, and their insights are now part of my foundation. The third was the first person to suggest I become a writer. Writing has become like oxygen to me, so I owe her a lot.

Can I value these people for what they have given to me, even though I’d cross the street to avoid them?

*  *  *

Fast-forward to today. Circumstances have forced me to regularly see, and do things with, someone whose life appalls me. I have watched him shame people and shut down important conversations. For various reasons, I’m also stuck with him. Even weirder, when we must collaborate, we do rather well.

Can I work with and dislike this person at the same time, with integrity?

*  *  *

People like these, I suspect, come to all of us. Perhaps it’s been worse in the past year, with all the drama in our public life. Maybe your most faithful friend offered her full-throated support to Donald Trump, and he makes your skin crawl. Or your loving sister revealed a racist streak you never knew she had. Or you suddenly realized that your adversary on that hot-button issue has taught you a life lesson you cherish.

Right now, in the Western world at least, we’re not well-equipped for this. Our increasing polarization, our default to “us vs. them,” the sheer intensity of rage over the past year: all of it shoves us toward simple, black-and-white, up-and-down decisions on people. We can’t handle the tension, so we run toward the poles. You’re with me or against me. Friend or foe.

This kind of behavior is understandable. The tension is brutal, after all. But if we dismiss people outright, we may miss the gifts they hold for us.

Now for some people in some situations—particularly where abuse is involved—ending the relationship may be the only healthy choice. Self-care is essential to survival, and if our ability to function depends on shutting certain people out, then we owe it to ourselves to do so.

For the rest of us, may I suggest that we not try to resolve the tension. What happens if we hold it instead—if we simply let the pain and the contribution of such people live side by side in our hearts? What if we just let the ambiguity be?

Here is where I think a deep, daily connection with the One—whether God, Spirit, Buddha-nature, whoever or whatever you conceive the One to be—is invaluable. In two spiritual direction trainings I attended recently, the presenters emphasized the necessity of doing our inner work before we can fruitfully engage the storms of the world in this new, populist era. That’s what I’m trying to say here. Most of us, I believe, don’t have the fortitude to hold this tension alone, by sheer force of will. We need help. We need the strength to turn away from outrage and toward openheartedness. We at least need the sense that we are not alone.

And from there? By holding the tension, I think maybe we give love the chance to do its work. Delaying a final friend-or-foe decision opens space to what these people have contributed to our lives, or the areas in which we can appreciate them. It keeps a channel open between us and them: a possibility of open communication, perhaps even reconciliation, in the future.

And here’s the big thing: with every person who can hold this tension, we get one step closer to a society that can hold this tension—a society of people who approach their “loathed ones” with a somewhat more open heart. That one step is tiny, to be sure, but it’s not negligible. And oh, how our world could benefit from a little less polarization, a little less loathing.

The Media and Other Groups That May or May Not Exist

Spend 10 minutes discussing any hot-button issue, and you will inevitably hear something about the media.

Most of us take the term for granted, as though we all know exactly what it means. It’s like a proper name. When you say, “Joe’s got it all wrong,” we automatically picture Joe (assuming we know him). When you say, “The media’s got it all wrong,” we automatically picture “the media.”

With the media, however, 10 different people may picture 12 different things—entirely different things.

The media is what’s known as a collective noun: a single term that stands for a group of individuals. Collective nouns get used a lot in sensitive conversations these days, for better and worse. For instance, you might hear someone make a statement about the mainstream media. Or the gays. Or the blacks. Or women—as in the classic question “What do women want?”

The last three examples have received a lot of blowback in recent years, and deservedly so. They’re often said with a tinge of disparagement born of certain isms: racism, sexism, homophobia. Used in this way, these collective nouns seem to assume that all gay people think alike, or all women want the same thing.

That’s obviously bollocks. Most of us (I hope) have learned this.

So why haven’t we learned it with the media?

When we refer to the media, do we mean The Economist, with its unapologetic free-market bias and incisive reporting of underreported stories around the world? Do we mean The Atlantic, whose essays always seem to highlight the one perspective that never would have occurred to anyone? Are we referring to David Brooks and his thoughtful conservative point of view? Or Maureen Dowd and her irreverent quasi-gossipy sometimes-liberal views?

The term mainstream media is no better. Does FOX News qualify? CBS? CNN? What about The PBS NewsHour, with its balanced in-depth reporting? How about Al Jazeera?

You might think I’m saying we should stop using collective nouns altogether. I might like to, but I can’t. They do have their uses, in large part because while we are unique individuals, we really do belong to groups with similar characteristics that often (but not always) shape who we are. So it’s difficult to have a full discussion of mass shootings without considering that nearly all the perpetrators are men, or to dialogue about terrorist attacks without considering that many attackers (but not all) have subscribed to violent and dubious interpretations of Islam.

Same with the media. They do have things in common. There is a bent toward the unusual or sensational: hence the old journalistic maxim “if it bleeds, it leads.” Broadcast news, in particular, works within severe time constraints (a half-hour to cover the world), so the reports may be simplistic. All journalists are biased because all journalists are human, and all humans have biases.

Bottom line, I think it’s essential for us to listen carefully for these collective nouns—and to the people who use them, including ourselves. Ask yourself what they mean by that term in that conversation. If we do that, we can take steps to question stereotypes, drill down into simplistic images, and get closer to a clear picture of reality, a rather important basis for any dialogue.

There Is So Much More to Listening, and Life, Than You Ever Imagined

Not everyone gets advice from a dying cat. Ours has decided to bestow a few nuggets of wisdom during her long exit. They have to do with euthanasia, as you might expect, but even more with listening, and conventional wisdom, and why it’s all more complicated than we ever imagined.

I’ve already written about Madeleine, a 17-year-old cat who has been my devoted companion and is now, due to cancer, in her last days. It’s the point when most pet people start to ponder the gloomy question: when do we put her down?

In situations like this, we tend to seek out wisdom from external sources, and I was no exception. I listened to the advice of friends. I heard veterinarians observe that in most cases, people wait too long to put their pets down. I read several articles discussing cats and pain. Most of this input was valuable.

It also came through a filter: a set of assumptions so deep they’re often undetectable.

As author Linda Andre observes in Disability Studies Quarterly, the bent toward euthanizing a terminally ill pet is strong. “This is the ultimate loving act for our beloved companion animals,” says the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (while also noting that “the decision when to euthanize is as individual and personal as you and your pet are”). Others might put a blunter edge on it: it’s cruel to let them suffer.

For two weeks, I looked at Madeleine’s every move through this filter. She turned up her nose at the food: does she not like it, or is that a sign? Is that plaintive meow the last straw? Is her limp so bad we should just put her down now? Is today the day?

Eventually two things became clear.

First, the filter didn’t describe Madeleine’s quality of life. At the same time I was absorbing all the external input, I also listened to Madeleine: observing her symptoms, her interest in the world around her, that light in her eyes that said life is still worth the effort. And I found that yes, she limped badly, and she may have been in some pain—but she also made it up onto a high bed to catch the sun, and purred mightily when I laid her on my lap, and cleared the room in a nanosecond when she saw me get the cat carrier for a vet appointment. In short, her life was a mixed bag that defied the usual descriptions.

Second, the filter tied me in emotional knots. And my nascent Zen practice kicked in. Why filter everything through something you’re going to do in the future (i.e., euthanize) rather than just observe what is, right here, right now? Why not just greet Madeleine in the morning and observe her behavior as is without asking the question?

Once I started doing this, my mindset changed. I could assess her condition more clearly. My wife and I took delight in Madeleine’s small achievements. They made me realize how utterly extraordinary our most ordinary activities truly are—how, at every moment, we’re living a miracle just by walking around on a world that, with its conditions favorable to life, is the longest of long shots.

Don’t get me wrong here. This is not an anti-euthanasia piece. Putting a beloved pet down has its place, absolutely. No, as I said earlier, this story is about listening, and conventional wisdom, and how complicated it all is.

For instance: I’ve learned that it’s so easy, when faced with a life situation, to assume the conventional wisdom is correct—even “the only way to think.” Madeleine is teaching me to question it where necessary. Even better, she’s teaching me to question it by listening primarily, with wide-open heart, to the person involved. It’s a priceless lesson for spiritual directors like me, and for anyone who wants to love by listening.

The other lesson is that listening is hard work. It demands a lot of us. We can easily do it wrong, even if we’ve practiced for a lifetime. But if we can manage it, the wisdom it yields is priceless.

Ultimately, maybe Madeleine is nudging me to revisit one of the Buddha’s cornerstone lessons. Stay awake. Pay attention. Notice what is. Only then can we, in the words of the Noble Eightfold Path, achieve “right action”—and make the difference we alone can make, to our loved ones and to the world.

A postscript: I finished this piece last Thursday, and the Thursday version is what you see here. On Friday, Madeleine’s quality of life took another big step downward. After consulting with our wonderful vet, we had her euthanized. Sleep well, my friend.

 

Whatever Happened to Dialogue Venture?

If you’re a regular reader here, you may have noticed that some things have changed.

The most noticeable is the banner. It used to say The Dialogue Venture. It doesn’t anymore. What does that mean?

You might think it means that I’ve given up on dialogue. In the Trump/Brexit/Le Pen era, it’s a reasonable conclusion to draw: more than a few people have quit the quest to talk and listen across divides.

But I’m not among them. I believe in that work as much as I ever have. And frankly, I can’t help myself: people who disagree with my opinions and values just fascinate me. I’m odd that way.

To explain the change, it helps me to go back to the way I’ve always described my dialogue work: I help people change from the inside out to talk with people who drive them nuts.

Notice that first part: change from the inside out. This is where my focus on spirituality and God and inner transformation comes in. I am convinced of the power of faith and spirit to reorient our deepest selves toward the values and attitudes traditionally associated with God: love, peace, justice, compassion, setting oneself aside for the good of others, a deep desire to be positive change in the world.

But inner transformation has an impact on many other aspects of life too. Over the past few years, for instance, I’ve noticed it has something to say about the frenzied pace of our postmodern world. It has something to say about our constant state of distraction. It has boatloads to say about letting go of self-interest and living for something larger. Not to mention what it might say about current events: the Trump era, immigration, etc.

More and more, I’ve felt a need to expand my writing on inner transformation to encompass these issues, while not forsaking topics in dialogue. My website needs to reflect that expansion. And apparently, according to the gurus of author marketing, it’s good policy to establish your name as a “brand” wherever possible. Hence the new banner across the top, with my name in bigger type than I’m used to. (Flip through the website and you’ll see changes in other places too, like the homepage and the About page.)

As always, I’d love to hear what you think. And one more thing: thank you. All these words mean nothing unless someone reads them—even better, if someone finds a use for them. You’re one of those someones just by being here. I so appreciate your presence and support.

Hard Knocks and the Choice to Be Happy

My beloved cat is in decline.

She came to us from a pet store 17 years ago, and it was her decision. We’d picked out a different cat at the store to bring home, but Madeleine would not be denied. Somehow she got into my arms and we took to each other immediately. As my daughter and I tried to decide which one to take, a total stranger walked up to me and said, “Take ‘em both.”

We have never regretted taking both. Madeleine and I have remained close through all these years. And now, between the tumor in one mammary and the limp in the opposite leg, she is probably facing her final days.

Oddly this has me thinking about happiness, and the myths we build around it.

As my cat’s health goes downhill, I see numerous places where I’m not making the grade. I should have spent more time with her, but I didn’t. My sadness comes from attachment to beings who change and die—so say my Zen reading and meditation—but the attachment endures regardless. I would like to shove this grief aside, but it does what it wants: moving into my heart and mind like a concrete block, shoving everything out of the way.

There’s very little control here.

And that has me pondering the messages we all hear about control, especially our control of happiness, in situations like these. Happiness is a choice, we’re told. You can’t control events, but you can control your reaction to events. We are the sum of our choices.

Those are alluring myths. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could choose and control and influence in this way?

What makes the myths dangerous is that they’re partly true. Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, is known for her observation that 40 percent of our happiness is within our power to change. One of my neighbors told me that, upon losing his father, he was a mess for two days and then quietly chose to move on with his life, partly because that’s what Dad would have wanted.

But you see, 40 percent isn’t 100 percent. Just because my neighbor moved on doesn’t mean the grief magically left him. And yet, too often, myths like happiness is a choice get condensed and touted into absolute statements, often with a subtle tinge of shaming: “If happiness is a choice, why aren’t you choosing it? If you can control your reactions, why are you letting this get the best of you?”

And I want to say: Shut up. My cat is dying.

Even while commending my neighbor for the courage to move on, and celebrating the 40 percent of mood we can influence, I don’t want to choose happiness or control my reactions if it blinds me to life’s darker events. I want to look them in the eye with as much clarity of vision as I can. I want to live into what is.

Our faith traditions echo this desire. The Bible is chock-full of people confronting the vast array of life’s events with the vast array of human emotion, including full-throated anger at God’s maddening ways. So many of the Buddha’s teachings lead to the unflinching view of existence as it is—how it moves from birth to fruition to old age and death.

Just as important, faith invites us to savor the wisdom that the sorrow might hold. I don’t know that I would appreciate the boundless love of God, or “the fear of the Lord,” or the beauty of life’s impermanence without having stared into the abyss. Only by wrestling with depression have I come to treasure the notion that, so often, our pathologies are the flip side of our strengths.

Does all this wisdom make the sad events easier to endure? Not one bit. It just makes life richer.

Maybe wisdom will come from Madeleine’s passing. Maybe not. Maybe no-wisdom is its own lesson. I won’t know for a while. Until then, it’s sit and wait and make her comfortable and savor her last days.

 

This article first appeared at The Huffington Post, March 1, 2017. 

Do Contemplatives Make Lousy Bloggers?

Three weeks gone and I’m already in trouble.

Last month I attended a series of webinars on social media for spiritual writers. Sponsored by Writing for Your Life, the series was a pleasant surprise: it provided enough tips and insights for me to put together a workable marketing strategy for my own writing. One of the tips:

When building your marketing platform, start with your blog and one social media outlet. Blog at least weekly; post to social media at least daily.

Years ago, I could never quite manage this kind of frequency. So I set it aside to pursue other things. When the webinar brought it up again, I thought, maybe now I can do this.

And maybe I can’t. Perhaps you noticed that I missed last week. Am I rubbish at this? Or is something else going on?

Specifically, I’m wondering whether the weekly/daily regimen—doable for writers in general, and even for spiritual writers—is much harder for contemplative writers.

Here’s why. So much of my writing comes out of my inner self. In that inner self, I pray, meditate, connect with God. Things rise to the surface: new insights, fresh angles on old insights, different ways of seeing things that I (or we, or the world) have been stuck seeing in one way. These are the nuggets that animate and inspire my writing.

The linchpin of all this is the deep connection with God. As you may have noticed, God is completely rubbish at sticking to human schedules.

This kind of quandary is so typical of the contemplative life. God seems to slow us down. God calls us to listen much and speak little.

So a week may go by, and nothing bubbles to the surface. I could throw something together and splash it up there. But it won’t be my best work, and it won’t reflect what I can give as my own one-person’s contribution to the world. Which is the point of this blog in the first place.

That doesn’t mean I’m sitting around eating bonbons and waiting for the muse to strike. Far from it. I’m still writing every day—working on my next book, developing articles, posting questions to stimulate dialogue—not to mention occasional spiritual direction and speaking. But I may have absolutely nothing for this blog on this week.

It’s an uneasy balance, and I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to strike it. Yes, there are workarounds and happy compromises. But this kind of quandary is so typical of the contemplative life. God seems to slow us down. God calls us to listen much and speak little, from within our deepest selves. Contemplation requires things like stillness and solitude and silence in generous helpings.

None of this will win me a plaque in the Marketing Hall of Fame. But that’s OK. It brings me back to a lesson that God has been trying to teach me, with limited success, for the past few years: our calling is not to results, but to faithfulness.

Things Change Slowly Because They’re Bigger Than We Think

It takes a long time to turn a big ship.

This maritime lesson keeps popping up in my life these days. It has profound echoes for much of my work: for dialogue, for spiritual direction, for our lifelong transformation from people of self-interest to people of God.

It also sheds light on world affairs, as today’s readings for Morning Prayer indicated.

The lectionary—the fixed schedule of psalms and Bible passages to be read during the daily cycle of prayer in churches and monasteries—brought me to Psalm 83, a difficult psalm for us 21st-century folks. The psalmist asks God to wreak havoc on Israel’s foes, and a picture emerges: that of Israel, a beleaguered nation, all alone in the world, surrounded by enemies that wish to obliterate it.

Sound familiar? Listen to the commentary from Israel and its friends in 2017, and you get the same picture.

The point of this post is not to assess the accuracy of this picture, or tout one side or the other, or analyze the endless complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Other people are far more qualified to do that. What strikes me today, instead, is simply this: the way that Israel perceives itself in 2017 is old.  Very old. More than two millennia old.

Maybe that’s one huge reason why Israel and the Arab world can’t “just settle their differences”—why they just can’t sit around a table and dialogue through the issues and come to a tidy resolution. This has been going on for century after century. It’s a big ship. Maybe 50 years is nowhere near enough to turn it.

Our individual lives reflect this same dynamic. In my first meeting with a new client, I’ll ask what brings them to spiritual direction, and they’ll provide some sort of “presenting issue.” At this point, I assume we’ll work through the issue for a few months, maybe even a year, get it squared away, and then go deeper into this person’s spiritual life.

Wrong. As it turns out, the presenting issue is not some tidy, compartmentalized quandary. Rather, it’s rooted deeply in the entire infrastructure of that person’s soul. We might spend the rest of our professional relationship coming back to it. It’s a big ship.

What do we do with the big ships, in our lives and in our world? The obvious response is patience: as a monk in my monastery puts it, we must learn to “make haste slowly.” That’s especially relevant in our go-go culture, where intense speed and 24/7 availability and overcrammed schedules are touted as virtues.

But there’s a hitch. Whenever things move slowly—particularly when I have some responsibility for helping them move—it’s easy to wonder whether they’re moving at all. Am I really helping, or are my actions making no difference? Is there a way to speed things up that I’ve missed? Should I devote myself to some more productive pursuit, with more tangible results?

Have you grappled with this too: times when life’s difficulties don’t resolve as fast as you’d like? Times when nothing you do seems to move the needle? How do you manage in that reality?

 

P.S. Just in case you’re in the market for arcane knowledge, here’s a fun read about big ships and, especially, how to avoid getting killed by one.

 

Rx for Your Trump Hangover

Note: this piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post on January 31. It’s written primarily for my progressive friends, and the intent is not to bash Mr. Trump (though I do criticize him–in a measured way, I hope–where I think it’s accurate and essential to the argument). Rather, it’s become clear that many, many people are struggling to cope with their inner turmoil in the wake of the U.S. presidential election; after two months of my own struggling, I’ve found something like a way forward, so I’m sharing it in the hope that it’ll help. 

Ever since November 8, like so many other people, I’ve been wrestling with Trump hangover.

Perhaps you know the symptoms. Vague but persistent anxiety. Occasional nausea. An overwhelming sluggishness. The nagging sense that you should be “over this by now.”

Being a spiritual writer, I took all of these symptoms, as well as their underlying cause, into prayer and contemplation, weighing a lot of input from various sources. Finally, the beginnings of a treatment regimen are starting to take shape, and I thought I’d share in case it helps.

First, the obvious but easily forgotten fact: Trump hangover is widespread, and you’re not making a mountain out of a molehill. The evidence indicates that the transition to President Trump is a seismic shift in the way the president treats the presidency—a shift to less stable ground. If you’re anxious, it’s with good reason.

It doesn’t help that Mr. Trump is a master at keeping his drama in the headlines—daily and sometimes continually. Between our always-on news culture and our relentless social media stream, we can’t even begin to recover from the last headline when the next one comes.

If you’ve struggled to keep your head above water, it’s because you’re immersed in a tidal wave.

In my own inner work around Trump hangover, I’ve had to make some rigorous distinctions that, before, I could slide by without making. News vs. commentary. Substantial news vs. not really news. Policy developments vs. the white noise of our public square. All in the service of regaining my center, preserving my integrity, re-establishing my boundaries, so I can think and act from a place of deep stability.

What does this look like in practice? For me, it goes something like this:

  • Diagnosing the root cause. It’s important to see that, beyond the normal policy differences and Cabinet appointments that serve as fodder for disagreement, two peculiar traits underpin the Trump administration so far: an apparent absence of sustained thought, and a disregard for shared meaning. Words and phrases are used more for effect in the moment—and just as quickly forgotten—than to make policy arguments over time. We are asked to believe official pronouncements over what we apprehend with our eyes and ears. Compelling factual evidence is dismissed with simple denials. In a world where the way we learn things means nothing, we lose our footing. Which leads to the boundary-setting steps:
  • News intake strategy 1: distinguishing fact from commentary from blather. For a while now, I have found it useful to focus my attention only on what the president does, not on what he says, or what others say about him. I’m also ignoring most commentary, as it simply inflames my anger without contributing anything of substance. (Two exceptions for me: David Brooks and Kathleen Parker.) For right now, just the facts, ma’am.
  • News intake strategy 2: look-screen-decide. Whenever I see a Trump-related news item, I look at the headline, then screen it for whether it’s (a) actual fact vs. commentary vs. blather, and (b) actual news about something of substance, vs., well, the opposite. If the topic is substantive, I read the article; if not, I ignore it with the mantra “not news, don’t care.” This keeps me away from such tempests-in-teapots as the controversy over crowd size at the inauguration. (A positive side effect: this look-screen-decide technique also helps me blithely ignore 90% of social media political posts.)
  • Picking your spots. For years I have cared deeply about dialogue across divides, and I want to continue that work. Anyone with family and friends on the “other side” has an interest in doing the same. For me, nothing about that sort of dialogue has to change, except one thing: I’m no longer interested in talking about Mr. Trump specifically. You want to talk gun rights, immigration policy, deregulation of healthcare, I’m up for it. Defend Mr. Trump’s behavior to me, and my mental health requires that I draw the line.

What does this give me? A sense of power, of agency, of proper boundaries set. It feels as though I’ve regained ownership of my own feelings and actions. I get to be an engaged citizen, but a healthy engaged citizen.

If early days are any indication, the news is going to be a tough emotional slog for the next four years. But maybe this will allow me to get through with my deepest self intact. May it do the same for you.