Politics and the Middle Path: How to Stay Sane in a Crazy World

Many months ago, when the Republican primary was still a multi-person circus show and the Democratic side was markedly civic but still a juicy race, I was working in Watsonville, a 30 minute commute from my home in Santa Cruz. Each day, I would load into my Honda Fit and drive down the coast.

And everyday, to accompany my drive, was NPR. Thirty minutes each way, at least an hour a day, was devoted to radio journalism in it’s many forms: Stocks and bonds, science, news, commentary, storytelling. And of course, politics.

With this daily dose of politics, and my fierce commitment to justice, I was absolutely hooked. I was obsessive about every twist and turn of each campaign, watching closely as Trump took the nomination, and Clinton claimed hers, and the two pivoted to face each other. I carried around my indignation, my frustration, my stubborn sense of hope like a badge of honor.

Then something shifted for me personally. My summer work took me into the deep wilderness, into the Sierras, the Inyo National Forest, Sequoia, John Muir Wilderness, the Carson National Forest. I unplugged. I got away from the noise and the mess of politics, took a deep breath of high, thin mountain air and forgot about the disaster our nation was facing.

And it was fantastic.

When I returned, I was not eager to turn my phone back on, open my email, check Facebook or read the news paper. For a few precious days, I clung to my serenity and openness, terrified of what the world would look like when I burst my insular bubble.

Of course it finally burst, and I found that, without surprise, the world was as messy, terrifying and wonderful as I had remembered it.

There were two extremes– being hooked and obsessive, or blissfully withdrawn– that I vascillated between, and I cannot imagine I am the only one doing this. With a political climate so rife with fear and hatred,  it is easy to either entrench ourselves and become obsessive, continuously shocked at the newest unbelievably outrageous thing Trump said (although he always says something else even more outrageous) that will surely sink him (although it never does), or, feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, retreate into our own hopelessness, making our lives small and separate from the greater world.

Unfortunately, neither of these reactions are particularly helpful. If we simply ignore what is going on in the world, we surrender what power we do have and resign ourselves to the future we are wanting to avoid. Or, if we become emotionally entangled, we are simply reacting to the world’s events, instead of acting effectively to build something new.

So what do we do? I am not sure I have a complete answer, but I am trying to edge out a middle path for myself, somewhere between engagement but attachment, a place where I can claim my agency but not let it overtake me, a place between awake and aware but still balanced. It is a place of deep care for the world, of wanting it to thrive and believing in justice and knowing that we all, everyday, have the opportunity to strive for that. It is a place of claiming our agency, our profound power, and our brilliance. But, it is also a place where I remember that the world always has been and probably, at least for my life time, always will be deeply flawed. There is always strife and pain and heartbreak, and if I carry that around everyday, it will destroy me.

Balance is an operative world in all of this, a word so delicately embodied by the Buddha, who walked the razor-thin Middle Path between skin-and-bones astheticism and the grip of the material world. I am far from the Buddha’s enlightenment, but I can follow his example, and shoot for the moving target between two extremes.

For me, the Middle Path in a crazy political world is watching the debate, but also taking time to watch the stars emerge within the dark blanket of sky, or listening to political commentary but also listening heartfully to a friend’s new burgeoning love story. It is fully feeling the rage and fear I feel when I take stock of the world, but also putting down that rage and fear, recognizing that, most of the time, the world is pretty benign, recognizing that to cling to my suffering is going to create more suffering in the world. It is claiming and acting on my agency, working towards what I believe in, fully engaging with Democracy– phone banking and registering voters and writing op-eds– but knowing that, at the end of the day, I can no more control the results of the election than I can control my cancelled flight or Bay Area rush hour traffic.

I am not perfect at this. I, like many of us, vascillate wildly between these two extremes, always reaching for the moving middle ground.

I think about it like this: You know when you are on a flight, and the screen shows a map of the flight, illustrated with an image of the plane and a straight, solid line to represent the plane’s intended path? Underneath that solid, straight line, is another line, wavering and jagged, showing the actual path that the plane has taken. It is never intentional, but it always happens, that the plane tacks left and right, constantly correcting and overcorrecting and recalibrating based on air currents and flight trajectory and fuel consumption. This is how we travel, this is how we can reach for  sanity in this crazy world, moving back and forth over the narrow ground of the Middle Path, always aiming for the center, moving over it and constantly touching it, but only for an instant.

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