For several years now, I’ve had this recurring dream in which I’m trying to come up with the scariest story possible. The dream itself isn’t scary, mind you. It’s more about me intellectually trying to think of and experience what would terrify me most.
As I’ve played this out in my dreams over and over, certain contours have emerged as to what would truly scare me and evoke terror the most. It is not necessarily death, harm, nor paranormal antagonism. For me, it is more existential. It is soul-deep.
I still can’t nail down the precise plot to this horror movie in my mind, but it involves a man who has an entire set of worldviews, beliefs, opinions, and actions that are entirely consistent with the data he has available to him. He feels he has a reasonably clear picture of reality–or at least as clear as can be expected–and has a coherent life built on top of that picture of reality.
The soul-terror comes when he realizes that it is all a lie.
What he thought was reality is not, in fact, real. But his view of reality was perfectly reasonable. He wasn’t ignoring anything. He wasn’t closed off to any new ideas. He was inquisitive, searching, and fair.
And yet, reality–and subsequently, much of his life, worldview, and belief–is exposed as un-real. What’s more, he does not have the personal resources to adjust to the new reality. This isn’t a story of “change” or “progress” or “learning”. It’s a fundamental break. He is simply lost. It is a decisive existential collapse that unmoors him from anything he found stable.
This is the story I find most terrifying in all the universe. There is much Psycho-Spiritual analysis that can go into why this is so, but for whatever reason it’s there, burrowed deep within me: the fear that I can question, observe, and wonder all I want–and still be wrong about so much.
I remember when I entered college, I was an eager, bright-eyed Religious Right Republican staying in the honors dorm of a large urban university with all the intellectuals and art students. It was Fall 2004–an election year.
That Fall I debated, argued, and sat alone in my room as others watched the election results come in. The exit polls had Kerry wildly up. He lost.
The next week or so, there was a tangible malaise that covered the campus. People were crying, people were angry, people were scared. It was so thick. Bush is a fascist! Bush is a Nazi! Bush is a war criminal! Bush is a theocrat! I admit: I felt people were being a little melodramatic at the time, and I couldn’t quite enter their angst or understand it.
Fast-forward. Now I find myself having slapped equally serious labels on our new President-Elect during the campaign. Trump is a fascist! Trump is a racist demagogue! Trump is a sexual predator! Trump is a short-fingered vulgarian!
I still believe that he has given me every legitimate reason to think those things about him–and I still do. But he won the election. And I don’t know what to say right now. Every option feels untenable.
“God is in control” and “do not put your trust in princes” all seem vapid, naive, and trite.
“Well, maybe it’ll all work out in the end” is way too easy for this straight white Christian cisgender male to say. I haven’t been threatened with deportation, investigation, mass incarceration, or “otherness”.
I could turn to political analysis of what happened, what it means, and what lessons to learn as we move forward. Or, I could find ways to turn fear, sadness, and frustration into real action and organization. But this all feels profoundly too quick. It’s not quite the moment. We ought to sit in this for a bit longer, I think.
I suppose I could lament and/or rage against uneducated whites, unprincipled Republicans, Un-Christian Evangelicals, unthinking third-party voters, or the profoundly racist under- and over-tones that followed the Trump vote wherever he went. And yet, I’ve already seen the memes and articles mocking such sadness and stupor as the same sort of melodrama I ascribed to Kerry’s loss. Expressing the sadness gives some solidarity perhaps, but not necessarily movement.
Peggy Noonan, a few days ago, wrote a remarkable piece on the election, which ended this way:
A closing thought: God is in charge of history. He asks us to work, to try, to pour ourselves out to make things better. But he is an actor in history also. He chastises and rescues, he intervenes in ways seen and unseen. Or chooses not to.
Twenty sixteen looks to me like a chastisement. He’s trying to get our attention. We have candidates we can’t be proud of. We must choose among the embarrassments. What might we be doing as a nation and a people that would have earned this moment?
This captures what I’m feeling. As each possible emotional response has washed upon my soul’s shore, it’s ended up receding back into the expanse as too little, too much, or too soon. There is only one impulse that is continually rising within me: a profound desire in my soul simply to confess; to apologize; to say I’m so, so sorry.
To whom? For what? I don’t know.
Maybe to Trump voters who have been neglected, demeaned, and belittled; ignored by the very system that was meant to fight for them, mocked by the institutions who fancy themselves as America’s defining voice.
Maybe to Clinton, for not having done more, volunteered more, spoken out more, written more.
Maybe to those racial, sexual, ethnic, and gender minorities for the pain, fear, and uncertainty they’re feeling. I can’t possibly relate. But if (when?) actions come against you, I will be at your side with all I have.
Or maybe my soul is hearing the quiet call of confession to God, for our national arrogance, my trust in technocratic governance at the expense of real people, the lack of charity we have for one another, the emotional stock we place in those who could never bear it well, or how I’ve taken for granted the privilege and ease for me to live in such a nation as our own.
I don’t know. I just need to offer confession to who- or what-ever will receive it. “I have sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done, and by what I have left undone.”
My horror movie dream has never resolved itself. I get to the plot point where the facade falls, and our hero realizes his reality is false. The moment of terror ought to come and wash over me. I prepare to feel the oddly satisfying fear we humans manufacture in the safe artificial confines of theaters, couches, and dreamscapes. But it never comes. Something happens everytime.
Tuesday night was the closest I’ve had to experiencing this dream in my waking. I thought I understood the basic rules of political, social, and cultural reality. I thought I had a basic understanding of our nation, its arc of justice, and its central vision and heart. I thought the numbers and polls were mostly correct. I believed it all, and I had legitimate reasons to think this was the case.
But this reality was un-real. I still don’t know how to understand this true reality of who we are and what we want and where we’re going, and I don’t know if I can adjust. I don’t know what it means and what my place is in it. But I am committed to finding it out.
It was in this tension and angst that I (fitfully) went to sleep Tuesday night. As I anxiously tossed and turned, the same thing happened to me then that happens in those horror movie dreams of mine. Right when the fear begins to grip, the lostness starts to set in, and the terror prepares to finally overtake me:
I wake up.
And it’s a new day.
[image credit: Jamelle Bouie]