“Yes We Can”?

by Peter Gabel on November 18, 2010

It’s now been two weeks since the midterm elections, and I’m noticing that many folks I know are depressed — not consciously about the elections, which have receded somewhat from view, but about various things in their lives. One is exhausted from all the pressures in her life, raising children, caring for parents, working too hard or too aimlessly; another is undecided about what to do next in life, not sure how to chart a meaningful path. Everyone has his or her personal story.

But behind all the personal stories and giving unity to the feeling of despair are the elections — not because of the specific legislative consequences of the Republican victory but because of what it means for the state of whether “we can” or “we can’t,” or of whether “we” exist at all.

Elections evoke a great deal of passion even though their direct practical consequences for our lives are often minimal, even nonexistent. A huge struggle takes place culminating on election day, but what is the struggle really about? My own practical life — the details of my everyday physical existence—is almost completely unaffected by the outcome. I have the same work, the same family, the same friends, no matter what the outcome. So why all the brouhaha? Something huge appears to be at stake? But what?

The answer is that elections are crystallizations of the emotional field. Like the “declare” in high-low poker, the election is a moment when we tell each other whether we will or will not extend ourselves to each other, whether we believe in our connection and dare hope to realize it in community enough to declare it, or whether we do not and dare not.

There have been times when I’ve carried my longing to the polling place like a great burden on my back, knowing that although I was going to put it out there when I cast my ballot out into the universe, my gesture would almost certainly not be reciprocated by enough others to make the national declare an announcement of the opening of our hearts. There have also been times, a few, when I had a spring in my step because I had a sense that due to a happy confluence of historical forces, people were ready to take the risk of making themselves vulnerable to their longing for … each other.

Such a moment occurred when we came out into public and elected Barack Obama in 2008, but that moment … call it a “we-moment,” a moment when we decided through the act of voting to announce ourselves and so to come into existence as an idealistic, hopeful, potentially loving community … that moment has been slip-slidin’ away ever since. Why? Not because we one by one ran back into our withdrawn private worlds, but because Barack decided not to reciprocate our vote by remaining out here/there with us, because he was afraid of the vulnerability himself and the risk of some catastrophic negation of his essence if, as he feared, we were not here/there after all.

The election two weeks ago was the end. No more slip-slidin’. We declared the 2008 moment officially over. And quite frankly, there was a major weakness in that 2008 moment — namely, that it was constituted by a media event, by six months of watching Barack Obama on television, by an overreliance by each of us in our separate space on watching that remarkable smile and listening to that sometimes-transcendent oratory. Our “Yes we can” was not constituted out of our own social movement, emerging from our own idealistic actions over time through which we stitched ourselves together in real social relations. It was mainly a cheer led by one person through the medium of a television screen. Without his “mediation,” we didn’t exist.

The midterm election two weeks ago today was the end of the slip-slidin’. For the moment, it’s “No we can’t.” The election makes it official that the “we” that is constituted in public space through a national election is for now a socially separated one; we’ve announced to each other that we’ve returned to a state of mutual distance, to one-and-oneness, to the pact of the withdrawn selves. The 38% turnout of registered voters declares that many of us were too humiliated after extending ourselves in 2008 to get out and vote, to get out and hope. The blank space left by that exhaustion and pain has for now been filled up by the angry impulse, the expectation of betrayal that was waiting in the wings and leaped out onto center stage in the form of the Tea Party and Fox News and all that. That impulse said “No you can’t,” and in our humiliation following our two-year free fall, we went along with it.

It’s a relief in a way because we don’t have to hang on for dear life to 2008 anymore, and considering that this time we had to declare in the middle of a spiritual hemorrhage, we even showed some signs of toughness and resilience — Jerry Brown, Barbara Boxer, Harry Reid, Andrew Cuomo, the guy in Connecticut, and also Patty Murray and the governor of Minnesota and some others. It doesn’t matter that those particular politicians may not embody our highest values. It’s a sign that there are still some of us, perhaps enough of us, to be part of a new base or “manifestation,” who were willing to show up in bad circumstances.

So it’s back to the drawing board. This time we need our own movement, our own parallel universe through which to ground our recognition of each other and our longing for an idealistic, high-spirited, loving community. We don’t have to write off Barack Obama, but we obviously can’t depend on him or wait for him to whirl around toward us (although that could happen). Perhaps he can be part of what we create now — I hope so. But it is We who have to find a way to re-emerge from our reciprocal isolation, from our cast-away withdrawn state, with more bottom under us this time, a bottom provide not by watching the same leader but by a common venture whose meaning we ourselves ground and internalize. Caring for each other’s health and well-being, a cooperative economy, no war, “awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation,” — in other words, change we can believe in, rather than floundering around in convictionless clinging to what somebody else’s televised image might or might not utter today.

When we start to move, to manifest ourselves in a new forward-motion of mutual recognition of who we really are and what we really long for on this earth, our private personal depressions will lift all at once, replaced by the affirmation of each other’s presence in public space.

Peter Gabel is associate editor of Tikkun Magazine at www.tikkun.org, where this piece was first published.

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