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Ask Polly: I Don’t Believe Anything I Do Will Make a Difference!

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Dear Polly,

Well, you asked for it. POLLY, THE WORLD IS BURNING DOWN. I am trying to stay motivated and help my friends stay motivated and reassure my friends of color, friends with various abilities, LGBTQ+ friends, and fellow women that there are some white people who actually give a shit about them. I’m wearing my goddamned safety pin and my bracelet of rainbow-colored paper clips. I’m getting involved and I’m staying informed and I’m sending what money I can to the organizations that seem most likely to help us in the coming years. I get on Facebook each day and give lip service to activism and banding together and fighting the great orange menace.

But, Polly, here’s the thing: I don’t really believe any of it will help. At some level — maybe all of my many levels — I believe it’s the beginning of the end. I believe the parallels with the rise of Hitler will become more apparent, and I believe the majority of the people of this country will continue to allow the rise to happen. It is easier to be compliant. It is easier to hunker down and hope that your little corner of the world will not be affected too badly. I think humans as a rule take the path of least resistance, and that path means, well, these United States are doomed. In our future? Government-sponsored persecution, war, death. And I don’t believe there’s any coming back from it. We were already pretty fucked thanks to unchecked climate change, and now we’re going to lose the few checks we had managed to put in place, and that means, well, the human race is doomed too.

Believing all that, I struggle every day with the urge to just hunker down myself and try to wring some sensual pleasure from the world while I can. I want to pack up my loved ones and head off to exercise our privilege and just go sit on a beach somewhere until it’s all over. I don’t think it’ll be long.

Writing to you is putting an awful lot on you. I can’t imagine you’ve got the reserves to take this on for me, or even to encourage me to take it on for myself. I feel like I should apologize for writing to you. But you did ask for it.

Fatalistically,

Waiting for the End

Dear Waiting for the End,

I’m feeling pretty goddamn bleak myself, and every day seems to bring more unthinkably grim news. Trump singled out Myron Ebell, a climate denier who openly loathes the environmental movement, to become the head of the Environmental PROTECTION Agency. And Stephen Bannon, a voice for white nationalism, embraced by the KKK and the Nazi party, will be Trump’s chief White House strategist. How do you even stomach that kind of information? You can’t. It defies comprehension.

Some people have asked me, “Is this different?” Yeah, this is different. And pretending that what we’re seeing is normal, that it’s normal for someone who openly questioned our system of government every step of the way during the election, someone with the exact personality of the dictators found throughout the world and throughout history, to take office and immediately start recruiting literal white supremacist sympathizers as their advisers? It’s madness.

The whole presidential campaign was like watching a slow-motion nightmare, all the while thinking that the latest atrocious message or blunder or outright call to open, racially charged violence would end the whole shitshow. And each time, somehow, it didn’t. But many of us still believed in our hearts that most Americans would bring us a soothing happy ending and then fight the good fight to quiet the radical racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic hard-core haters afterward. And even though most Americans did do this — Clinton won the popular vote — we wake up in a fucking hellscape and realize that we were fooling ourselves. Of course, a lot of us have been living here all along. A lot of people knew that an unhappy ending was possible. They knew that the man we all treated as an outsized megaclown could actually turn into a Godzilla-sized megaclown and eat us all alive.

It feels surreal. It also feels bone-crushing. But in case you wanted to stay in your cave, you can’t. Because every day, people are being yelled at and abused and attacked on the street for the color of their skin, for their sexual orientation, for their beliefs. It’s 2016 and these people are saying shit like “Go back to Africa.” Think about how little you’d have to understand history, how little you’d have to care about humanity, to say something that intensely idiotic and hateful. Think about what it would take to grab a woman in the crotch and say, “This is how it’s going to be. I’m the boss of your ass now.”

Still, I am fully mobilized and most of my friends are in the same state. I’m going to meetings and giving money until it hurts. It goes without saying that we all have to do this. It doesn’t make you a saint to care about vulnerable communities right now; it makes you a human with blood in your fucking veins. Seeing empathy as heroic is part of the problem.

I understand the anxiety and the circular thoughts. I get that you want to try to take control of your own reality and make good decisions. I also get the urge to move away, far away, and if you’re in a vulnerable group, that’s not something I’d ever argue against. But many of us who have some privilege and maybe aren’t targeted and maybe aren’t dealing with debilitating emotional challenges have to face our various personal chemistries and issues and baggage as much as we can in order to deal concretely with reality at this moment. We can’t hide. We can’t panic. We have to be very pragmatic. We have to stay informed. We have to urge other people to get informed if they’re not. We have to yell and we also have to be gentle. We have to appeal to people across party lines. We have to know the difference between actively standing up for what’s right and letting our demons rule us.

This is what separates a conscious person from an unconscious person: the ability to see past our demons and live by our principles. This is what separates a bad president from a narcissistic, reckless dictator.

Everyone must decide for themselves how to speak up. I only want to urge people to be suspicious of their motives when they choose people to single out for a tongue lashing. So you have some baggage with your parents; we all do. Are your 70-something parents who voted for Trump to blame for this? Yeah, sure. But when your resentment of them guides your conversations with them — whether you’re talking about matters of race or how to cook fucking green beans — it’s not an act of clear communication. And that goes both ways. When they hear you talking about the end of the world, they’re also going to consider all the ways you’ve broken their hearts by turning into a real human being with the capacity for independent thought instead of turning into a mini-me. It might sound like I’m demonizing that parental agenda, but I’m not. I am all about independent thought as a parent, and I still try to indoctrinate my children as mini-mes, every single day, mostly without even noticing it.

Just think carefully about how your words are going to be received. The really shitty thing about being THIS traumatized and this angry, at ourselves and others, is that the central thing you want to say, to people who voted for this menace and to people who are now acting like the world will simply continue as it always does, is WAKE THE FUCK UP.

That’s a pretty angry, condescending thing to say. Maybe what you really want to say is “Just do me a favor and read this,” and then hand them something by any one of a number of great writers who have very clearly outlined what it means to empower white nationalism in this country: It means not only directly endangering ourselves, but also ignoring the voices of people of color and other vulnerable groups who’ve been telling us the same things, over and over and over for decades. Maybe you want to remind a few people exactly what it means to deny that climate change is real: It means not only directly and actively destroying our planet, but also ignoring the voices of almost every single scientist on the planet, people who have made this their life’s work. Think of the incredible arrogance it takes to do that.

But it all feels so inadequate, and it almost feels stupid to suggest shit like TELL PEOPLE TO READ THIS! But not speaking up is also unthinkable. And ignoring reality isn’t an option, not remotely. That is the soul-sucking, devastating, gut-wrenching, tripping-your-face-off dread and fear and rage of this moment. We are a world populated by damaged, broken-down creatures who see darkness and believe that it’s light. They told themselves valiant, heroic, deeply twisted stories about the world in order to survive, and now they believe that destroying vulnerable people and destroying the planet amounts to heroically saving everyone from mediocrity, the way they saved themselves. Or they believe that every disappointment they’ve ever faced is someone else’s fault. Or they’ve been legitimately fucked over in a million ways and they’re angry as shit and they’re going to find a target for that and seek revenge. Or they believe that they are children and only a strong, mean Daddy is fit to lead them — a Daddy they don’t know very well, just like their own Daddy. A Daddy they can trust not IN SPITE OF the fact that he seems really angry, but BECAUSE he seems really angry.

You can’t deny that the modern world is an unfair place for most people. It’s full of images of wealth and shiny shit that most people can’t touch, interspersed with images of starvation and war and hell and children being shot in the streets. Our phones flash luxuries and nightmares at us around the clock. It’s not hard to feel unmoored. It’s not hard to feel like someone out there is fucking you over. It’s not hard to feel like most people are totally out of touch, and you’re the only one who can see clearly. All of these delusions have to be conquered. We have to work against the very structure of how we consume information and culture, we have to work against our dysfunctional natures and our prejudices, we have to shut up and listen and learn, over and over and over, day after day, just to catch the smallest glimpse of what’s real, who needs our help, who is suffering and dying, and what our principles should be. We have to work against our own selfish, sleepwalking natures just to rise up and stand up for goodness and grace in this world.

It’s disappointing to see that not everyone is up to that. Forgive some of them if you can, if you can see their principles at work in other ways, if they have principles at all. I believe that there are principled people everywhere, in spite of all of these hideous forces working against us from the first day we’re born. I believe that right now, the world is filled with people who do want to help each other and protect each other. That’s not kumbaya nonsense. It’s real. I know that we can connect and find strength in each other. It’s happening everywhere.

The simple act of connecting with other people and sharing their pain is still meaningful, even as you keep your eyes wide open. Maybe your big challenge at this moment is silencing a little of your natural neuroticism and circular panicked thoughts, and allowing some faith in that connection to seep in.

It’s a really fucking tough thing to do. I’m offended by everything I’ve written here, honestly. Everything I do or say is not enough. It’s inadequate. I don’t know shit, that’s for damn sure. I’m not humbled right now. “Humbled” implies that my ego took a small hit and now I’m ready to go. I’m fucking flattened. I am empty. I am on my hands and knees, and it all feels pointless most of the time. It does.

But now that I can see clearly what is in front of me, around me, everywhere, I am going to keep my eyes open, even when it hurts, even when it feels tedious, even when it would be so much easier to shut them. Yes, it is terrible. The people who act like it’s business as usual are haunting to me. But I can’t live in that disbelief. I can’t construct my personal world like I’m redecorating a house, installing alarm systems, and keeping the world out. I live in this world.

Every morning, we will think of each other, and know that we’re not alone. Every day. Every night. Calm yourself and silently connect with everyone who wants to protect the vulnerable people out there, and the vulnerable planet. Calm yourself and feel that calm in your heart. Believe in your capacity to face anything. Believe in your strength. Don’t stay inside: Go sit in a coffee shop, a restaurant, a park. Be around other people. Send this world as much love as you can muster. Be prepared to protect the vulnerable with your calm strength. Read everything you can about how to stay focused and strong under oppression. We need each other. We all have to draw on something inside ourselves right now. We cannot give in to the worst parts of our natures. We can’t look at the nightmares and say, “This is humanity. Humanity is evil.” We must have compassion, and bear witness to horrors and ugliness and STILL be compassionate and reach out toward each other, in spite of our rage. We must be forgiving and also stay angry and also be pragmatic. We have to draw on our strength and our ferocity and the endless, uncharted love in our hearts.

Sleepwalking and hiding got us here. Take care of yourself, every day, but don’t retreat to island fantasies. Don’t replace your daily diet of neurotic distractions with a daily diet of doomsday scenarios. That’s denial, too. That’s a way of hiding from what is happening today, right now. You don’t get to skip over the imperfect present. And above everything else, you need to believe that you’re stronger than even you realize. Wake up and know who you are, and find the people who have grace in their hearts and solid, clear principles. Find the people who are hurting. You may not agree about anything BUT core principles on how to stand up for the globe and stand up for humanity, and that’s okay. Find them.

I know it’s sad and scary. I know your heart is breaking. I know you’re afraid. I am, too. We are going to stick together and make each other stronger, though. Every single day. We are going to find each other. We are going to listen to each other closely, more closely than ever before. We are going to be very pragmatic. We are going to learn how to cultivate faith in each other and in ourselves, and make that our church. We are going to join together to keep this world alive. We can’t go back to sleep.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: Will Anything I Do Make a Difference?