If this year’s presidential election were a game of tug of war, one could say that far in advance of game day, most people have dug into the sand and aren’t budging. There’s bilateral angst concerning the fate of the nation if the opposing candidate wins, and there’s a sense that the populace as a whole is exhausted by political news. In keeping with the trend of election time, some voters are researching countries to move to if the unimaginable happens. But what if you don’t want to leave your country of great jazz, baseball, and coffee-to-go behind?
One of the reasons that we were forced to read those dense essays in high school English classes – when our hormones told us that we should be doing anything BUT that – was for times like these. Now that we’re adults during Election 2020, Ralph Waldo Emerson is really starting to come in handy.
If you remember slogging through “Self-Reliance” as an acned teen, you might recall this quote:
“A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”
Translated for our era: Even if our preferred candidates win, we won’t be happy for long if our primary source of contentment doesn’t come from within us. After all, in 2024, 2028, 2032… there will be more contentious presidential elections. This two-party system doesn’t seem like it’s about to morph into a multi-party government anytime soon. Hence, we need to find a long-term personal strategy to cope with the wide pendulum swings in leadership.
Emerson was the kind of All-American guy who thought we should use our limited time on the planet to cultivate our best selves and cast aside the mediocre. He didn’t mean that we should become narcissists, but rather, he recommended shooting for improvement, introspection, and self-trust. Most of all, he advocated for not allowing external forces to always intrude on our trains of thought. One dose of current events per day is reasonable, but an IV drip of news over the 17 hours that we’re awake is enough to blow our equanimity to bits. Compared to the mid-1800s, when it wasn’t so easy to slurp up info from cyberspace, we’re becoming a nation of news junkies. We’re not going to live to be 121 years old, so we shouldn’t act like it by relinquishing our time and peace of mind so willingly.
Whether liberal or conservative, we have a lot more control over our lives than we think, no matter who is in the White House. The people we surround ourselves with undoubtedly influence our quality of life and happiness. This is one reason many Californians wouldn’t be caught dead living in a place like Oklahoma and vice versa.
Prioritizing what’s happening in our state and local governments can help keep us sane. Change truly does begin locally. It’s far more feasible to run for local office and win, feel that our voices are being heard, and exert some control over things that matter in our everyday lives.
To a degree, we possess the power to deal with climate change, racism, poverty, and health if we begin locally with our own homes and businesses. We tend to think of the U.S. in the aggregate, but it consists of about 330 million individuals. Each of us makes countless decisions each day that have a massive cumulative impact. It’s easier than ever to recognize that we can’t afford to wait around for the federal government to be mature and act responsibly. We can walk and bike short distances rather than firing up the cylinders. We can become patrons of farmers’ markets and local businesses whenever possible. While the government works at a snail’s pace toward a national healthcare strategy, treating our bodies well gives us more control over how often we end up in a doctor’s office. Those with more cash have the power to opt for an electric car over a gas one, install solar panels, or update their appliances with more energy-efficient ones. Shopping at businesses whose values align with our own gives us opportunities to speak with our dollars. Through social media, like-minded people can organize themselves to promote, protest, or boycott. These are all small lifestyle choices that, multiplied by millions of people, constitute a quiet revolution.
Obviously, the federal government plays many crucial roles, but we attribute it with much more power over us than it deserves. Concentrating on self-improvement, then on affairs regionally, is a healthier and more effective way to cope than hand wringing over national politics. We cannot attach our mental state to a political party and allow our psyche to be contingent upon its success. It is too high of a price to pay in distraction from our ultimate goal: developing ourselves and finding meaning and purpose in our lives. If we don’t work on that, who will?
To close with another Emersonian nugget, “We are always getting ready to live but never living.” No matter who wins the elections this fall, we have to remember to live like we’re in the driver’s seat.