Words are Life Rafts, not Harpoons

On finding the ones we need to keep going

How helpful are you to yourself?

Sticky notes don’t work anymore. I can’t stand looking at the layers of my brain congealing on paper and piling up so I sweep them into a big yellow shopping back, along with all other clutter.

This is how you get a tidy desk and free up space when you don’t have the mental bandwidth to deal with much. I need to not be distracted by the mess but there isn’t time to take care of it right now so I either subject myself to it or find a quick fix. Hence the yellow bag. Three hours later, I’m already rooting around for a note, giggling at my homemade thinky lucky dip. There are corkers in the bag, like this quote from a piece about Dame Sybil Hathaway, former ruler of Sark, and how she stood up to the Nazis during WW2. Feudalism, she learned, doesn’t work smoothly when hundreds of moochers are hoarding the provisions.

I wrote the line down, an unintended and unintentional summary of the zeitgeist of grift and the ascent of fearless lowest common denominator culture we live in, a culture that hurts us all so much American democracy is now at stake.

This remains hard to grasp, doesn’t it?

History and economics will settle the score. For now, all anyone can do is embody decency and trust it will prevail, regardless of what has come before. That last part should matter more than it currently does but the courage of empathy is missing.

We will not move thinking or America forward without it.

Our mythology failed us

Perhaps American exceptionalism precludes empathy? Being the best inevitably involves looking down on everyone else and seeking to impose one’s views by declaring all others invalid. Then again, it takes a pandemic to make us realize universal health care isn’t such an outlandish proposition after all. For my part, it takes chronic depression with suicidal ideation to make me realize America will kill me if I don’t leave it. No matter how many times I’ve written about this, it never gets any easier to articulate, utterly incomprehensible and deeply inhumane. Or as my Dutch GP puts it, “In America, if you’re sick, you’re a loser.”

Until that moment, I’m not aware this is common knowledge abroad, certainly not in those terms. Once again, Dutch directness wins the day and helps me bridge the gap between crushed and capable. Losing half a decade to an invisible parasite in your head changes you, ditto rebuilding a life out loud in print, word by word, in the midst of chaos, forever out of sync with absolutely everything.

No process is ever glamorous or swift, and mine also involves staring death and dementia in the face —my parents are elderly and ill — while wondering whether I may forever have missed the chance to have a family of my own. At the same time, I’m finding my feet in a new country while figuring out how to be a human in the world. Frankly, I haven’t a clue anymore. It’s a surprising and frustrating adventure that hinges on remembering where I’m at, what possible is.

I keep forgetting; my Americanness gets in the way.

Americanness isn’t dead skin you can slough off in the shower, not in the case of those of us who became Americans by choice. It was and remains a commitment. In 2016, immigrants created a surge in naturalization requests because we were determined to keep Trump out. I didn’t become a citizen until a few weeks after the election but at least it was under an administration and leadership I had some respect for. But now? Zero respect, zero leadership: America is politically, morally, and spiritually adrift.

The angst is palpable but we need to stop feeding it.

Fear cannot prevent the future from happening

Instead, it can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy and paralyze you so you take no action to avoid catastrophe. Love fares better in terms of deflecting horror; a hug is preferable to an irate person in a panic, yelling. Also, a hug might make them stop yelling. You don’t have to agree with people to hug them, you only have to acknowledge they’re a fellow human in pain. These days, hugs are mostly pixels and data packets full of static cling.

Self-expression and connectedness, be they only digital, can keep alienation at arm’s length.

The screen is where most life happens. Must so many turn themselves into callous waxworks when we desperately need human warmth? Must predatory capitalism be the straitjacket swathing us all? Must greed be the lullaby of impossible normalcy we attempt to rock ourselves to sanity to, exhausted, despondent, crushed? Despite my geographical coordinates, the personal is unfailingly political: Is this moment what I’ve been warned about my whole life and this gnawing fear something I carry in my DNA?

Is it irrational? How irrational is depression, exactly?

Making space for our shared humanness

Several times a day now, the walls are closing in on me.

I get panic attacks standing perfectly still, under the shower, in bed while trying to drift off to sleep. The deep-seated sense of imminent danger I experienced in 2016 is now holding America in a chokehold. Or am I projecting? The blood pressure monitor my GP sent me home with for a week does not lie.

Even in a safe place, I can’t shed fear but I have to try, we all have to try while understanding and accepting we will not always succeed, not immediately.

Words exist to help us relate to one another through communication, not divide us through transaction. In the long run, whom does fanning the flames of rage and fear benefit but the current incumbent of the White House? There’s only so many times people can hear they’re being played before everyone stops listening. Lack of editorial accountability combined with victimhood culture got us to where we are today, dazed, confused, and to a large extent inured to the suffering of those who aren’t us.

We urgently need good words to prop us up for the next few weeks, good words to give us strength as we teeter on the edge of the cliff, good words to help us take flight rather than crash if it comes to that and there’s no stepping back. Hope is a person, hope writes good words, and hope is also the most counterintuitive muse ever. But hope only works when rooted in realism rather than blind optimism — no amount of wishful thinking will get us out of this.

Appealing to reason has failed, appealing to decency has to succeed.

Whatever our politics, we urgently need to think in human terms. Like hope, decency has a name, a face, a family, and it lives within our communities, online and offline. Decency looks like you, decency looks like me, decency looks like us because it is us, deep down, when we pay less heed to what might go wrong and focus on what we can do to right this wrong and pre-empt wronger.

It isn’t just voting, it is embodying what we most need, too.

The moment is finite

The injustice we decry is undeniable, hard facts that aren’t open to interpretation. Dead people, some of whom our kin, and many more at risk: Human life under threat.

The world cannot unsee what Trumpism is or the damage inflicted nationally and globally by the socio-economic context that made it happen. Infinite growth is killing us: We are a democracy in trouble, running out of breath, running out of air, running out of stamina.

Depression wears you down with repetition, judgment, and catastrophic thinking. If this sounds familiar, it’s no accident. Repetition, judgment, and catastrophic thinking is how much of human communication unfolds at the moment but it doesn’t have to be. Those who propagandize disempowerment and desperation would prefer you to surrender your agency so they might enact their agenda.

When survival hinges on finding words that make hope tangible, this toxic atmosphere is as disheartening as it is dispiriting. Make yourself look for those words and share them with no other goal than to document the present: This is how it starts before it ripples out to everyone else around. Writing up hope is how we get through it, individually and together.

Despite adversity, setbacks, and doubt, trust this is enough although it will never feel like enough.

This is what I’ve been doing for the last two years, against all odds. When you’re second-guessing yourself, action cures fear every single time. You can always do something, with no goal other than to complete your task. It takes many mistakes and failures to get anything right, for everyone. What if that’s the stage we’re at right now, taking stock and preparing to rebuild? A president is a foreman, people are both architects and builders. The foreman works for us, not the other way around. He also makes sure the building site is safe and everyone wears a hard hat.

Empathy is the hard hat.

We need to conserve emotional resources to last the distance, through the election, through the transition, through the pandemic and its attendant consequences for however long they last. And they likely will. Reactivity and rage aren’t the only language: Words online shouldn’t cost us our democracy. Words online shouldn’t cost us our mental health either. So write up life rafts, not harpoons.

Or as the nautical phrase goes, hold fast, stay true.

Help decency catch the wave.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

The human condition is not a pathology・👋ASingularStory[at]gmail・ ☕️ https://ko-fi.com/ASingularStory

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