Hope and Connection in These Political Times

Sam Osherson
Source: Sam Osherson

After the November election, some people went into hiding and are still trying to come out. How often have we heard someone say, “I’m so angry and don’t know what to do about it,” or complain how poorly they’ve slept since November 9th?

Young people—students—feel their future has been robbed from them; one high school newspaper headlined the day after the election: “The Mourning After.” Older people, too, feel a lost future, as the election leaves us aware of the limited time remaining for the changes we’d hoped to see. A 70-year-old man wrote me on January 20th: “Nixon Inaugural. Black Mood. Got through that half century, Now this Inaugural: another blackness. I don’t have another half century to feel hopeful again.”

As author Barbara Kingsolver recently noted, on November 8th, “we went to bed as voters, and got up as outsiders to the program.” Since then the ongoing, often- daily, flow of news is taking a significant toll on our mental health.

Grieving Alone

We are left feeling alone. What to do? Of course it’s important to speak out and to protest. Yet there is a fundamental aloneness that is very much a part of contemporary American life in our overly smart-phoned, wired-in, “alone together” culture.

We can come together to march and feel a sense of optimism, then go off to our individual lives, again becoming passive consumers of news. Even in the best of times our social isolation is debilitating.

Yet we have today a special opportunity and obligation to our democracy to climb out of isolation.

Overcoming Political Isolation and Helplessness

Organizing into small local groups oriented toward political action—what we can call, “communities of support”—is an important boost to mental health, a self-care initiative, and a particularly effective form of political action. We need to find one another: those in our neighborhoods and on the streets where we live or at work whom we can join with to grieve what has been lost and restore a sense of hopefulness. Grieving allows us to take into ourselves a measure of what has been lost, to make it our own, and to find the courage to move into the future.

To do this, to overcome the silence that often accompanies fear, powerlessness and helpless agitation, means—as Kingsolver points out—that we need to open our hearts to each other, to find the “solidarity of strangers.” I’ll give that a try.

The Power Of A Small Group

I am part of a small group of local neighbors in a small town in New Hampshire, who first met in 2012 when six of us got together to discuss how to support the presidential candidate of our choice. Our local efforts were quite successful and so we came together again in 2016, with once again considerable local success in organizing and fund-raising for the candidates we supported. Now in 2017, we are together again to take stock of what to do and how to engage to achieve the best possible outcomes.

In a nutshell, we soon realized the advantage of a small, stable group. It provides important support and encouragement that enables us to take steps we might not if we were working on our own and over time. We also found that a trustworthy group that meets regularly is an important antidote to the “engagement fatigue” that may come from the many struggles and protests that lie ahead.

In this polarized time when we are living in silos, it turns out that neighbor-to-neighbor conversations are one of the most effective forms of political persuasion.

Here are some things we’ve learned.

First Steps

How to find or create a group of neighbors and community members? To begin, you need to find some allies. A first step is to do some reading and reflecting—become familiar with the key issues by reading the mainstream press.

Be careful of fake news and alternate facts. Many newspapers and magazines are now alert to the manipulation of the news and are pointing out when lies and distortions happen. Two good fact-checking sources are: factcheck.org and snopes.com.

Make a list: What do I most value? What issues (local, state and/or nationally) seem most important to me?

As you read and reflect, you may begin to have ideas on ways to connect with people in your neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods. Don’t feel overwhelmed—you only need find one or two allies. They may be people who live on your street, they may be someone you’ve had conversations with while walking your dog or at the checkout line at the market, they may be someone at work. And, they may be Facebook friends whose posts leave you feeling that you have some shared values.

Find one or two allies and begin a conversation with them. What worries you? What matters most to you? What are the core values that you hold most dear and want to support together?

Once you feel comfortable enough among the two or three of you, each of you can agree to reach out to a few more people. Plan a “meet and greet” at one of your homes and invite a group of no more than fifteen people to come to a first meeting to talk about common concerns. Once you’ve done that, you’re on your way!

And, as you wait for people to arrive for the “meet and greet” you may be wondering, “what do I do now”? Here are some tips:

Tip #1:  Action is not the first step.

Establishing group cohesion and trust is crucial. While action is important, it is vital that all members also have an opportunity to express where they are, what matters most to them, and to feel heard by other members. Create this opportunity in the meeting agenda. We make it our number one item.

Tip #2: Create a group, not a collection of people.

Trust, cohesion, and mutual respect are all qualities of an effective group. These qualities are essential for the long-term effectiveness of political action. We expect that the next several weeks, months, and years will require extraordinary commitment and engagement. There is a lot going on! Effective groups form—and, endure—when people feel heard and hopeful and valued. Together, we sustain the effort.

Tip #3Not everyone will agree.

Nor is it necessary that everyone agree on what matters most to each member. There is room for many voices in an effective group. While requiring patience, over time, a group that listens and trusts can accomplish a lot more than a collection of people who hurry into actions that eventually leave them disappointed and discouraged, or worse, left out.

Tip #4Put a check-in on the meeting agenda.

This ensures that members have time to talk about their grief, anger, and despair these days. A check-in gives members time to voice what’s of most value and what they hope to accomplish. This is different from venting. A movement toward action will come from allowing people to talk about what matters most to them, and what they feel is most threatened today, and over the long haul!

Tip #5: Share your story, share your events, share your activities.

Doing this benefits others by virtue of networking, adapting ideas and actions, and increasing turnout. There are so many things an effective group can do in these dark times.

Tip #6Roles are important.

Identify a person at each meeting to be the moderator or coordinator. This person keeps an eye out on the group-as- a-whole, making sure each person has a chance to speak, that the group keeps to the agenda when in danger of getting sidetracked, and that meetings start and end at the agreed-upon time. This role can rotate or remain consistent with one individual. Identify a scribe or secretary to take notes and summarize the meeting for the group.  Make sure to set a date for the next meeting.

And Then? Next Steps…

As you discuss what really matters to each of you, key issues will begin to solidify in the group. The range of next steps includes writing letters to the editor of your local newspapers, contacting your local, state, and national representatives to make your opinions heard, arranging more active forms of political protest to raise the local profile of issues that matter to you, as well as directly reaching out to other neighbors and groups to from alliances and advance particular causes.

The possibilities are vast: for more information about how local groups can exert influence, and a list of resources, go to MonadnockUnited2018.net.

On our website you will find a list of resources and information compiled by our neighbor-to-neighbor group, items that we believe will be helpful to other people and groups just getting started.

What is important to note in this time when many of us are trying to channel agitation and anger into effective action is that small, neighbor-to-neighbor groups are one of the most effective forms of political persuasion and an antidote to the despair that is bred by a sense of helplessness and isolation.

Margaret Mead advised us to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”

The “We” of a well-functioning group grounds us, gives us a voice, provides courage and inspiration far beyond what we can accomplish in our individual silos.

Sam Osherson, PhD, is a therapist in private practice in Cambridge, MA, and a Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, at the Fielding Graduate University. His most recent book is The Stethoscope Cure, a novel about psychotherapy and the Vietnam War.

Many thanks to Andrea Hodson and Dr. Sue Pelzer for their invaluable help with this essay.

References

“How Social Isolation Is Killing Us,”http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/22/upshot/how-social-isolation-is-killing-us.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

“Communities of Support: The hope and power of small, local groups—21 Tips and Techniques for Neighbor-To-Neighbor Organizing and Empowerment,” available at www.monadnockunited2018.net

Barbara Kingsolver, “Trump Changed Everything. Now Everything Counts,” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/23/trump-changed-everything-now-everything-counts

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