The American Identity Crisis in the time of Trump and the Kavanaugh hearings: Towards a vision of our relatedness and collective suffering

Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.
45 min readSep 22, 2018
Thanks to Yayoi Kusama, Darth has been turned!

Note: The majority of this was written before and after the 2016 American election. It has been updated to reflect my take on the current state of the collective psyche during this time of upheaval during the Kavanaugh hearings, ongoing controversies in Washington and preceding the 2018 midterm elections.

If this is TLDR — you can watch this 4 minute video on the American Identity Crisis instead.

“The best part about Star Wars is it’s just one family fucking up the entire galaxy with their drama. It’s Keeping Up With the Skywalkers.”

This viral tweet on the eve of the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens pretty much sums up our reality. We’re one big, strange, messed up family, fucking up the world with our drama. And who among us doesn’t have family and personal drama enough to screw with our inner galaxies at least once in a while? The themes, in Star Wars and life, revolve around the “dark side” of self-centeredness, hatred, greed, power, coercion and exploitation, versus the “light side” of the Force, in relatedness, goodness, calm, love, compassion, courage, wisdom, common humanity and oneness with all life.

Who’s in charge? What principles govern their rule? Who will turn whom, and in which direction? How do we deal with the dark side, the dark side between us and within us? The rebel forces seem perpetually outgunned, by Death Star after Death Star. Yet some invisible magic, some secret agent, allows for new hopes, awakenings, beginnings, triumphs and even redemption as even those once thought lost to darkness are reunited with their humanity. Wholeness wins over division. Good conquers all. Ewoks matter, as do outcasts on the fringe of Empire (Blacks and Browns, smug smugglers and farm boys, sisters and brothers from another planet) who bring their hard-won insights and determination to the battle whose outcome is unclear.

Life is not the movies. We’re not all playing out a canned script, written with modern sensibilities and box office in mind. But I still find myself hoping that life imitates art. Every move we make adds up in the big game. A conversation here, a tweet there, a whole lot of commitment to our personal and spiritual growth and to our fellow man, and sooner rather than later, or at least eventually, all the little waves can add up to a sea change. At the very least, our personal stories of engagement with the forces of life are significant, because they are our own.

We face dualities and divisions more concrete than the dark and light sides of the force. Masculine and feminine, white and non-white, rich and poor, privileged and outcast, gay and straight, East and West, North and South, all of them run through with power dynamics, histories, and the all-too-real sequelae of aggressions and transgressions, friendships and rivalries, harmonies and discords, loves and wars. In the end, power, our experience of power, our understanding of and relationship to power, in large measure decides our personal and societal outcomes. The duality of power and powerlessness, played out within the psyche, between individuals, between groups, and between nation-states is critical to understand, and hopefully to transcend. Diametrically opposed forces fight each other, pushing, pulling and agonizing in a struggle to assert and attain superiority. In its most ugly form, this dialectic duality becomes a seemingly unbreakable dyad of oppressor and victim, each locked into roles, each propelling the other into set molds of biases and foregone conclusions. Transcending the duality, both are transformed. The molds are broken, the scripts rewritten, the role-play dropped, a new reality revealed. But how do we get there? We must understand power, its origins and intentions, its accomplishments and failings, its false foundations and alluring rewards, its myopia and range, and ultimately gain a deeper knowledge of our highest potential, beyond power itself. This potential goes by many names — enlightenment, wisdom, character, happiness, love — but it is within our collective reach.

Let’s start with the family, and some very public power problems.

In 2007, Alec Baldwin infamously ranted in a voice message to his 11-year old daughter Ireland, calling her a “rude, thoughtless little pig,” blaming her for humiliating and disrespecting him, specifically by not answering her phone at designated times as the custody battles continued with his ex-wife Kim Basinger. Baldwin later apologized and said he had become “seriously suicidal” with shame and remorse after the recording was released. Ireland graciously chalked it off in the press as an example of her dad being frustrated, not evil. Many were horrified, though, even as many others recognized themselves in the fit of pique. Tis a rare parent who hasn’t been irritated or angry with their child at some point.

More recently, in mid-2016, 7 year old Yamato Tanooka was abandoned in a Japanese forest by his father Takayuki Tanooka after the father got angry at the boy for throwing stones at cars. Yamato was miraculously found in a military hut several miles away after a six day search, dehydrated and 4.5 pounds lighter. The elder Tanooka had initially lied about the circumstances, saying the boy had wandered off and gotten lost. Later, he tearfully apologized, and explained that he felt his “fatherly dignity” had been challenged by the boy’s behavior, which had also included hitting cars with sticks at school. Frustrated and attempting to teach the boy a lesson, the father, along with his wife and daughter, left Yamato, who chased after them and got lost. While the son publicly forgave his father, describing him as a “good dad,” social media was predictably more critical, though many, particularly in Japan, were more inclined to give the family space and room for understanding. At least in this case, the media spotlight, public opinion and possible legal consequences provided a possibility for a change in course for this particular family.

These examples are the tip of the iceberg of family drama. An angry parent may be tyrannical in the moment, and over time, damaging, but there are obviously much worse examples of adults who abuse their authority and power to the great detriment of vulnerable children. Even absence has power. The absence of a parent can create a lingering wound, their disappearing act triggering questions of identity and security, and taken as evidence of their apathy, aversion, distraction, devaluation or as inescapable example of a hostile world. An absent parent exerts power on the consciousnesses of the children left behind. Neglect of a child’s needs constitutes absence as well, and sometimes abuse. Sometimes circumstances beyond their control force parents into problematic presence or unavoidable absence. If parents are unwilling or unable to understand and care for their children, if there is a lack of attuning to their needs, issues and individuality, if there is a lack of love and compassion, parents can cause harm. Some children are resilient, others less so. Our family story is our womb and also our earliest wound, one from which we grow and try to heal, but always carry. The power of this launching pad affects much of our trajectory in life. Adverse childhood experiences have lasting effects on physical and mental health and achievement even many decades later. We learn to feel safe in these early years, or unsafe; we learn to trust, or mistrust. Whether we feel secure or insecure depends so much on the relationships of our early lives.

Parents are, in all cases, by definition powerful, looming large in the lives of their children. Parents can use their power to empower their children, or make them feel powerless. Parental power is usually found in nurture, protection, influence, education, care and joyful play; otherwise the world wouldn’t be as good as it is for many. But why do parents use and sometimes errin the use of power? Reasons vary, of course, and are situational and difficult to generalize. There are moments, or worse, tendencies of unregulated emotion and reactivity. Parents have their own unresolved issues and vulnerabilities, of course, and sometimes character flaws. They had their own imperfect parents and experiences. They have the pressures of adulthood. Sometimes, parenting unfortunately takes a back seat to other goals and demands. There are times when it seems only a powerful word or action will change a child’s undesirable or misunderstood behavior. Parents can fall to approval or disapproval of their children, rather than acceptance and understanding. Sometimes, the parents don’t know better than to use power and coercion; this is what they experienced in their own lives. And worst of all, there are times when power is abused because it canbe.

I lump these all into what I will describe as the “power complex,” the danger of excessive power and control wielded by unconscious accident or conscious intent, and differentiated from “firmness,” the ways that power is used to highlight the good, mark boundaries of behavior, set common goals and command respect for status as an elder and as a parent.

(This is not to ignore the power that children can use on their parents. There is the soft and unconscious power of infancy and childhood, pulling the parent into the natural role of nurturer and provider, as they orient their lives around the needs of their children. There are the hard powers of tantrums, defiance, objection, apathy, and manipulation. And there are the necessary demands of growing independence and selfhood, all of which can lead to mythic battles like the Tanookas and Baldwins above, or a harmony and ease built on mutual respect and understanding.)

The child-parent hierarchy forms the nucleus of our relational world. Other younger-person-to-adult hierarchies extend and offer alternatives to this nucleus — teachers, family friends, grandparents and other relatives, coaches, employers, therapists, etc. Beyond these, our peer relations and networks explode and challenge hierarchies entirely, but come fraught with their own power dynamics, and can substitute other hierarchies, for good and ill. We are each a node in a web of relationships that extends to all beings, from families to neighborhoods to communities to governments to the entire world, and from human lives to all life and our environment itself. All relationships touch us, in some way. Many of us walk the earth asleep and unaware of these connections, focused only on what is closest to our skin, unable to deal with the whole. The whole is indeed too much for any of us to meaningfully care for as individuals. But the whole presents itself to us in palpable ways in our closest relationships and most certainly in our minds. As we struggle for perspective, balance, wisdom, and clarity in our relationships, we founder on power and powerlessness, and the unavoidable insecurity of being a sentient being, connected to other sentient beings and the endangered Earth itself, in the shifting sands of time. We can vacillate from awe to isolation in the face of the world, or even in the face of a single other being in that world. Powerful and powerless, strong and weak, invulnerable and vulnerable, superior and inferior, secure and insecure: where do we place ourselves in these splits? Or is there a place outside them altogether? Where do we find ourselves, in this moment?

If we are to find ourselves, we must find ourselves with others.

Child psychiatrist John Bowlby famously wrote, “there is no such thing as a baby. There is a baby and someone.” To extend his point, there is no such thing as an individual, there is always an individual and someone, an individual and someones, plural. We are always affected by relationships. They imprint us with the powers of presence and absence, affection and antagonism. Relational-cultural theory’s important insight is that “all suffering is a crisis in connection.” Another way to put this is that “the opposite of suffering is belonging.” Belonging can be a noun signifying a state of cozy companionship; but it is more often an active verb, signaling less an attainment, and more a process requiring ongoing care and attention, including self-care. To guide ourselves to belonging, we have to understand relating, and we have to understand ourselves. We are not simply human beings. We are human relatings.

There is a spectrum of ways we relate to others, and often, several points on the spectrum are active at once. In its most simple form, the spectrum runs from the totally loved to the feared or hated. More specifically, most of us can identify the beloved; the benefactor; the friend or beneficiary of our goodwill; the neighbor or peer; the person we feel neutral towards; and the “enemy” or “difficult person.” In general, we do our best to associate with the pleasant and beloved people, and avoid the unpleasant or difficult. That’s a reasonable strategy, but usually gives only limited success. Very often the difficult people plant themselves quite firmly in our lives and minds where they live rent-free. Sometimes the difficult people are our coworkers, family members, or even friends. There is no rose without thorns.

We feel more secure and safe when we are with pleasant people. We learn from them, and they from us. They give us a feeling of belonging, a feeling of society. A good friendship is mutual symbiosis, and a network of mutual symbionts is healthy, strong and powerful. We feel empowered and connected, not disempowered and disconnected, by a stable friendship. Both identity and society are stabilized by steady friendship. Good friendships, though, are hard to come by, or rather, to nurture. According to a 2010 survey of 2000 American adults done by Matthew Brashears [1], now at the University of South Carolina, the average number of close confidantes reported fell from three in 1985 to two in 2010. 48% of respondents reported discussing important matters over the preceding six months with only one friend. 18% discussed these matters with two friends. 29% reported discussing with more than two friends. Of the remaining 4%, about 2/3rds said they had nothing important to discuss, and 1/3 said they had no one at all with whom to discuss important matters. Men, particularly Black men, and those with less education were more likely to be in this last, most isolated group. Though the numbers of the very isolated seem small[2]in this study, it’s important to note that men and people who’ve spent fewer years in school seem to have particular challenges in relationship, and according to other observations, this might be more generally true beyond the 4%. Certainly, it’s been widely noted that men have more difficulty, particularly after retirement or divorce, in gaining and maintaining friendships. This has social, psychological, physical and political consequences. Those who are less related suffer more, and also have more trouble understanding and having empathy for others.

The drop from three to two confidantes is telling and thought-provoking. Brashears suggested we’re not becoming more isolated per se, just more selective about with whom we discuss significant matters. We may still have a reasonable number of more superficial contacts, but the study also reported we feel less able to rely on these contacts for emotional support or aid in times of need. The overall loss of relational breadth and depth has potential implications to this psychiatrist. Fewer confidantes means a significant loss in the practice of having deep conversations. A friendship is a deep conversation carried over time, even a lifetime. Each confidante brings another perspective to our travails, and another safe harbor for our unfolding lives. Since each deep conversation is an exercise in understanding and empathy, the drop in confidantes would necessarily mean an erosion in the our empathic environments, and likely a decrease in our overall empathic capacity. In the absence of empathy, there must be a corresponding increase in apathy and antagonism, or at best detachment, and certainly perceptions of loneliness, isolation and crises in meaning and connection. The loss of any close relationship necessarily leads to an emotional, even moral and spiritual vacuum, a lingering void of disappointment over what could be. Fewer confidantes means a decline in the “feeling of society” that friendship brings. More than ever, Americans are on their own.

Why do we have fewer confidantes in the first place? Do we have fewer possibilities for confidante-creation? Economic insecurity has led to increased hours at work and ever-increasing productivity, leaving less time for leisure, friendship, and confidantes. We live in a time of increasing tensions, from terrorism and war post 9–11, to racial, religious, gender and class issues, to the realities of climate change and refugee crises. All of these impinge on our relational worlds, burdening and challenging us. For many, they are cause for withdrawal and isolation, as we are weighted with conflicts we are loathe to air, and perhaps struggling for our own individual survival. We have cause for withdrawal, except perhaps online, which causes its own problems.

Since the millennium, we’ve had the rise of social media, which is certainly an attempt at connection and communication of distress, a plea for empathy. There is solace in sharing travails, joy and fun with an online community. But in many ways, Facebook, Twitter and the rest pull us away from real world engagement and divide us. We use the internet to avoid our neighbors, and then on the internet, we hang out with people who are like us. We don’t readily expose ourselves to difference. We steer clear. We use the internet to confirm our biases and create an oddly calcific self that is less able and willing to deal with disagreement and difference because these are nearly impossible to work through on a smartphone screen. As we become divided and dissatisfied, we lose touch with wholeness in ourselves and others. This reduced state is naturally more defensive, individualistic and less able to relate, listen and fold into the imperfect wrinkles of togetherness. Social media has allowed an upwelling of viral communications and connections, an attempt to convey cross-geographic trust, hope and perspective. But we can never truly, totally and deeply connect online. We carry our internet memes and righteous rages internally, and these may in fact keep us apart in real life. How many of us spend our evenings arguing with an article we read on our newsfeed, only to wake up annoyed with humanity?

Thank God for Youtube cat videos.

The Pew Foundation reports [3] a dramatic increase in political polarization from 1994 to 2014. “Partisan animosity has increased substantially over the same period. In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” Such animosity does not, of course, foster relationship, understanding or a move towards agreement and conciliation. Gerrymandering of Congressional districts has added to regional and political polarizations. Increasingly, we elect representatives who speak to a narrow base. Congresspeople socialize with each other far less than in decades past, much less across party lines. Fewer districts are “purple,” thanks especially to the Republican party’s strategy of consolidating power leading up to the 2010 census. We do tend to live near people who are like-minded and similar to us, and our online neighborhoods are also virtual echo chambers as we divide ourselves into opinion silos. We would rather be right than related and right than happy. There’s a saying in Buddhist circles, “the world is divided into those who are right.”

Yes, the country has become more diverse, and yes, there have been important hard-won victories in acceptance and celebration of diversity, from marriage equality to the presidency of Barack Obama, the first Black president (and the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, the first major party woman nominee for president). But these advances towards inclusion have provoked fear, anger, backlash and tension which threaten inclusion, and which leave bitter residue between us, threatening our common humanity and solidarity as a country, and even as a world. For example, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted [4] a rise in the number of hate groups, peaking at 1018 the end of President Obama’s first term, then dropping off only to rise again to 892 in 2015. Antigovernment extremist groups have grown explosively. During all the Bush years, they numbered about 150. They skyrocketed to 1360 by 2012. In 2015, there were 998. Our concerns and commitments as a nation may be wider, but we may be narrower as individuals, in our ability to relate to diversity and people we think unlike us. Many among us are threatened and antagonized by diversity, a diversity embodied by President Obama. Racism transmutes into anti-government paranoia, and mistrust slithers into our perceptions of one another. The national mood, and our personal moods, are more fraught than ever.

Trust has eroded — despite or perhaps even because of social media and the internet. The Pew Center reports [5] that only 19% of millennials agree that “generally speaking, people can be trusted.” This compares with 31–40% in older generations. Gen Xers started out high, with 36% answering affirmatively in 1990, but dipping to 20% by 1997 before rising again to 31% by 2012. The Baby Boomers, 20 years older, have been relatively stable during that time period, at around 40%. The Silent Generation, born between the first and second World Wars, have generally been in the mid-40% range and higher, with a dip below 40% in the late 80s rebounding by the mid-90s and another dip recently in 2012. Trust is a minority viewpoint no matter the generation, though the degree of mistrust varies. The motto of the 1960s was “don’t trust anyone over 30.” We have become an even less trusting and perhaps less trustworthy society since then. [6]

But why are millennials so untrusting? There are clues here for our overall decline in trust. The Pew Center reports that “sociologists have theorized that people who feel vulnerable or disadvantaged for whatever reason find it riskier to trust because they’re less well-fortified to deal with the consequences of misplaced trust [7].” When we feel vulnerable and unsafe, we feel mistrustful. We can surmise some possible reasons millennials feel more vulnerable and disadvantaged. Racial diversity and financial burdens including college debt have increased. Minorities and low-income adults have lower levels of social trust, because of all the problems they encounter from marginalization, stigmatization and devaluation. Also, millennials have been exposed to more evidence of untrustworthiness at an age when they are prone to making generalizations about others. They’ve come of age post 9–11, in a time of terrorism, and the backlash to terrorism including racial profiling and hate crimes. Two unpopular wars have likely added to mistrust of politicians and institutions. Economic inequity and the 2008 Great Recession are certainly more cause for mistrust and vulnerability. There has also been a trend towards increasing self-centeredness among college-age students, as laid out by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell in their research and in 2009’s The Narcissism Epidemic (though by 2014, narcissistic personality inventory scores among the college-aged iGen had dropped back to 1990s levels). Whether that’s a defensive self-centeredness, born out of the unique fears, burdens and experiences of this cohort, or plain entitlement and egotism, or some mix, is hard to sort out. But an environment of self-centeredness, enhanced by the rise of social media, likely degrades trust.

Trust requires intimacy, which creates a sense of safety for our vulnerabilities. True intimacy is lacking online. An erosion of intimacy leads to an erosion of trust. Insecurity grows, and we react by either fortifying ourselves in self-centered power complexes that give us a false and fleeting sense of security, or falling into powerlessness. Often we careen from one to the other, riding a bipolar see-saw. Every eight years, most dramatically in 2016, it seems the electorate rides this bipolar see-saw, with half feeling empowered while the other half falls disempowered. Either side of the split is inherently mistrusting of the other. The duality must be transcended by relatedness, commonality and mutuality for trust to emerge, for hope to blossom. But we remain separated, disconnected, mistrustful and antagonistic.

Why do we have fewer confidantes? Maybe we’re just a little more pissed off with each other than we used to be, and with fewer spaces and opportunities to dissolve our disaffections. In our moments and measures of unrest, we’re pissed off and disappointed, overwhelmed, longing for escape and relief, but at the base, lonely, fearful and insecure, touched by discomfort and even shame at our personal and collective predicaments, unsure of how to get right, struggling to matter, struggling to survive, struggling to get along, struggling for pride. Needing each other, sometimes desperately, but finding walls between us instead. Sometimes building those walls to give us a fleeting and false sense of safety. We may gather hope briefly from the light of our global screens, but our screens quickly darken with the realities and divisions of our troubled Earth. The emoji for the internet age is the world wiping the smile off our yellow smiley face. Perhaps we’ve replaced the confidante with a smartphone that pings and buzzes with needs we can’t fill, and news we can’t escape. Our own inescapable needs, our own inescapable news. We have screens and means that purport to keep us in touch, and to give us control, but control is always out of reach, and we seem less in touch than ever.

At a time of increasing tensions and polarization, when we should be having more conversations and more confidantes, and thereby becoming more deeply related, it seems we’ve gone in the opposite direction. Sherry Turkle, MIT professor of technology and society, was once enamored of technology’s possibilities. Her latest research and work (Alone Together, Reclaiming Conversation) reflects a growing critical awareness of technology’s downside. Screens and devices divert us from relationship with each other. When we are together, we are a ping away from distraction. Even the presence of a cell phone can diminish the depth of sharing in a conversation. Though we use the devices to stay in touch while we’re apart, they also help us run away from our present experience and surroundings. They are no doubt sources of potentially constant stimulation, entertainment, information, education and interaction. But we often use them to avoid interaction. We even use them to avoid interacting with ourselves — our boredom, our loneliness, our insecurity. Click-by-click, scroll-by-scroll, we secede from our union in space and time in favor of an alluring virtual rendezvous founded on shallow premises and shady promises of excitement, ease and transformation by emotional contagion, viral video and synchronized shaming, the internet’s Olympic sports.

In place of confidantes and trust, we have chasms; filled, I think, mostly by fears, anxieties, loneliness and lonely longings, insecurities, apathies, aversions and self-centeredness. (Indeed, Jean Twenge’s 2017 iGen noted that loneliness, anxiety, depression and suicidality spiked after smartphones became ubiquitous in 2012. We are indeed alone with our screens.) The tensions and polarizations of our age have perhaps made it harder to confide, attach and relate. The disease makes the cure more urgent and yet harder to come by. We’ve discovered things about each other — and perhaps ourselves — we don’t like, and have pulled away in avoidance and anger, and sometimes outright hostility. We could resolve our discomfort through relationship, but instead we fragment. Relationship and community are far from dead, but they seem to have significantly changed.

The effects are damaging, staggering and profound. The suicide rate in the U.S. is at a 30 year high, with a 25% increase in the last 15 years. Suicide rates for middle aged men and women are up 43% and 63% respectively. Rates are up for nearly every age group, from 10 to 75, and for every ethnic group except Black males, who are beset by other problems, including a high homicide rate. The New York Times reported [8] that the data “painted a picture of desperation for many in American society.” At the root of desperation are isolation, fragmentation, insecurity, and feelings of unworthiness, insufficiency, inferiority and powerlessness. Significant recent research [9] links a thwarted sense of belonging, perceived burdensomeness, and feelings of shame to increased suicidal risk. In the absence of inclusion, acceptance, belonging and success (however we define it), we feel shame and anxiety, depression and rage. Unhappiness and suicide proliferate.

We are single for longer. We have families later, and a significant number don’t have families at all. With or without families, we are more busy with work than ever. Working harder, we are struggling more than ever to make ends meet. Half of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, at or over the brink of financial catastrophe. Instead of civic organizations, we attempt silicon organization. Many measures of civic engagement remain strong, but the trends are unclear. A Future of Children report [10] from Princeton and the Brookings Institution says that some trends have “led to speculation that the character of American civic life is changing toward more short-term and episodic engagement and away from enduring memberships in associations and community organizations.”

De Tocqueville, in the 1830’s, was most in awe of Americans’ passion for civic engagement, which he felt was the bedrock of democracy [11].”Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition,” he wrote, “are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types — religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. . . . Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.”

Kentaro Toyama, renowned expert in technology and development, in his 2015 book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, emphasizes that investing in people and relationships through shared time and commitment is the key to social, economic and personal transformation, not investing in technology per se. As the Ubuntu proverb states, people become people through other people. As I wrote in Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, “we are who happens to us, and what we make of the happening.” If we are associating less with other people, more superficially with other people, or more antagonistically with other people, what kind of people are we becoming?

If the number of confidantes has decreased, then conversations have become more rare. If conversations have become more rare, then our friendships have diminished in quality. If our friendships have diminished in quality, then communities are less joined, more polarized and more at risk. If communities and civic engagement are less stable and more at risk, then our capacity to work together for the common good has been shaken. Friends, communities and the best of colleagues work to understand, consider and support each other. Who has come to take their place, when our chips are down and the stresses up?

Enemies, frenemies and difficult people.

The narcissists and sociopaths who use power to get what they want and devalue others.

The self-centered tribes who devalue the tribe of common humanity with xenophobia, racism and sexism.

The powerful who defend their status without concern for the harm they cause.

The threatened whose insecurities and vulnerabilities turn to antagonism and hostility.

Assholes, pricks and trolls. And sometimes proud of it. Yeah, you know who you are.

They’re easy to find. Some days, it’s as easy as looking in the mirror. Because when we’re faced with difficult people and difficult situations, we sometimes become difficult people ourselves. And as we face those difficult people, we must also treat our own difficulty: the subtle and not-so-subtle rancors, spites and falling-outs that push us apart and keep us from communion. Judgments, biases, prejudices. Envy, jealousy, fear, anger, hate. Disappointments, dissatisfactions, disapprovals. All the difficult emotions, cognitions, beliefs, convictions and ideologies that rebound and roil within and between us, twisting our minds from the heart’s message of love, compassion and unity. Most difficult of all, the despairing notion that the heart’s message is not true at all.

The Grant Study followed 268 Harvard alum since 1938, surveying many variables in an attempt to determine the most important components of human well-being. George Vaillant, the long-time director of the study, said in The Atlantic [12] in 2013, “the seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points … to a straightforward five-word conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’” Relationships were the most important key to well-being and happiness. The warmth of relationships with parents mattered greatly to adult satisfaction, emotional well-being and even financial success. The men who reported the warmest relationships in adult life had the highest levels of financial and professional success. Early nurture is a great boon and foundation for later well-being, and cultivating warm relationships in later life expands that foundation considerably. So the heart’s message is true, but has gotten muffled or dismissed in favor of other priorities. As relationship quality has deteriorated, we’ve become more polarized and fractious. Economic insecurity has made many of us believe that personal security and happiness comes from economic advantage alone, another devaluation of relationship, or at best, turning relationship into utility, and people into tools for our advancement. As Joseph Campbell might say, “our collective ladder is against the wrong wall.”

A dear friend from medical school who is actually very committed to children’s health and well-being put it to me this way: “if you had a choice, wouldn’t you want to be part of the 1%?” I was stunned, but said nothing, wanting to preserve the positive atmosphere of our 20th reunion, the first time many of us had seen each other since the mid-90s. It felt like she was asking me to if I wanted to be a pillager, a marauding looter of the world’s resources. I would rather be a villager, a global villager at that. Suddenly, my friend was Darth Vader in a dress. “Come with me, and rule the Empire with the power of the dark side!” This is just how the dark side gets to even good people. You start off wanting to advance yourself in comfort, security and status, but end up screwing others, forfeiting values and principles to do so, just to have the feeling of being on top. You trade your heart connection for cash, a Faustian bargain. Of course not all wealthy people are “pillagers.” But wealth without conscience is corrupt. The game’s been set up to privilege a few, to sow mistrust, and reap division in the name of conquest and profit. The game pits us against each other, instead of helping us forge our common humanity. This game tramples the heart, and makes ruthless self-centered power and paranoia king. It’s time we stopped playing.

No, I thought. Your mind tricks won’t work on me. First of all, mo’ money, mo’ problems. Secondly,and more importantly, my choice would be to help society become more equitable, both to support the economy and to allow us all to become more warmly related to one another.Trying to be part of the 1% means believing in the idea of the 1%, and scorn and disenfranchisement of the 99%. Equitability, on the other hand, supports affability. Inequity necessarily promotes self-centeredness, as many of the wealthy become self-satisfied and convinced of not only financial but moral superiority and the truth of their “visions,” many poor and disempowered people become dejected and angered by the obstacles facing them, and all feel an underlying insecurity about their positions and society’s capacity for cohesion.

The heart’s message of unity and common purpose valiantly and courageously makes its case, but meets resistance in the statuses quo, internal and external. Internally, we fortify separate, defensive identities where we lose sight of and dismiss our common humanity. Externally, we face the antagonistic ways of a world that all-too-often rewards greed, power and narrow self-interest, and thus erodes our hopes for commonality. The vulnerable, open heart meets the world, is hurt, and decides either to withdraw, defend, or marshall a fight forward. Sometimes, the heart-mind cynically decides, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em,” and adopts an antagonistic or defensive style to face off a bruising world. Wherever the heart meets resistance, there is damage, and the damage births either despair and resignation or a split. This split is most simply, ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ as the vulnerable heart points an accusing finger at the ones who threaten it the most. The split can take paranoid, psychotic, or even schizophrenic form, as in ‘I alone’ against ‘everyone else.’ Or it can take more socially and academically acceptable forms, like all the dualities mentioned earlier. Men vs. women. Whites vs. non-whites. Poor vs. rich. Gay vs. straight. Selfless vs. self-centered. A grid of intersecting blames arise, and identified victims and oppressors arise. All the outcast arrows converge, and point to, currently, “the Patriarchy”, or more specifically, the Rich White Straight Self-Centered Unempathic Male.

Then he runs for president.

(Update September 2018: Indeed, even Steve Bannon recognizes this. Rebecca Traister quotes him in a New York magazine article: “Steve Bannon, of all people, has warned that ‘the anti-patriarchy movement’ is aiming to ‘undo 10,000 years of recorded history … You watch. The time has come. Women are gonna take charge of society. And they couldn’t juxtapose a better villain than Trump. He is the patriarch. This is a [defining] moment in the culture. It’ll never be the same going forward.’”[13])

The psychotic, paranoid split takes physical form, and the whole country experiences mass psychosis, as every one of 320 million brains try to figure out which candidate appeals to their core split most accurately, Donald Trump, the aforementioned stereotypical powerful white male, or Hillary Clinton, the non-stereotypical woman upending her nation’s assigned gender role. Though she was powerful for decades, for much of the country, there’s something that was deemed not quite right about her advance beyond the boundary of forms ordained acceptable, not quite trustworthy about her measured, cautious, seemingly evasive, attempting-to-be-innocuous answers. Ironically, her striving to be president of all the people makes many people feel she’s not quite for them, their sector or cause.

No wonder so many were dissatisfied with the choice: a psychotic split leaves us feeling uncertain, awkward, confused and resentful. There’s always something missing. Our subconscious biases against strong and perhaps calculating women vie with the flow of our biases for the male candidate who seemed most oddly like us, at least the angry whites who blame and resent minorities and in turn feel blamed by minorities, who feel left out of the halls of power yet don’t want to hold power responsibly — meaning, to be responsible to all, even those on the other side of the split. “We’re going to show them who’s in charge! They can’t get uppity with us! We’ll take our country back! We’ll Make America Great (White) Again!” they shout. Certainly more than White identity is at stake; there is legitimate anger at a non-representative economic system. Yet given his background and track record, evincing no actual support of the common man, Trump still seems an odd standard-bearer for this rage. More was and is at work.

Donald Trump has been appealing to his base because he is the verbal and psychological manifestation of an primeval, archaic power complex. He is grandiose, self-aggrandizing and contemptuous of anyone who criticizes him. His retorts are often shallow and make no concrete or factual sense, yet come so quickly, confidently and vociferously that they give the illusion of control, strength and power, often stunning his questioners into bewildered silence. His blame of immigrants and Muslims (among many, many others) lights an enthusiastic fire among those threatened and dismayed by diversity, change and economic loss. He makes their anger and hate acceptable. His totally self-involved and self-promotional presentation, utterly contemptuous of any naysayer and even the conventions of civil discourse, builds his identity into a Trumpian tower that draws all minds, and by drawing them, forces them into an intimate relationship with their own desire for power, their own ideas of power. If you like him, you want to be like him, be powerful and outspoken like him. He is behaving as you think you would if you could loose the inner troll against those that you think threaten you or your vision of the world, a vision Trump promotes: “it’s us against them,” or more specifically, “it’s me against anyone who disagrees.” Disagreement becomes disagreeableness, and worse. If you don’t like him, you see him as a dangerous kind of power that must be opposed for your own vision of the world to triumph: “we’re all in this together,” or as the Clinton camp had it, “stronger together.” Common humanity is squarely pitted against tribal loyalty, the perfect contest to test our inclinations, the strength and nature of The Force between us.

His supporters and detractors are the duality of the psychotic split in the American psyche. The demagogue sees this split, and rather than heal it, he exploits it for electoral advantage. All candidates sell a vision of their superiority and the other side’s wrongheadedness. Trump strategically insults all purveyors of common humanity, and thereby allies himself with the archetype of the cocksure individualist and tribalist. He bills himself as a champion, a savior, and a strongman-ruler. Half the country craved his brash victory, because it meant their own, and a total upending of a system they feel is rigged against them. He may, in fact, upend everything but their biases. Hillary, by contrast, promised to upend the biases of a certain type of white male first and foremost, which is why she struggled as much as she did, particularly with that clan and its allies.

He bragged of sexual assault; he urged supporters to beat up protestors. And yet Trump won the electoral college, though not the popular vote. Love trumped hate on a vote-by-vote basis, but did not prevail due to our constitutionally mandated structural restraints. Trump raised the banner of abusive, coercive power, and all too many saluted, or gave his true colors a pass. Many are disappointed, in shock, and even in fear and high alert because of Trump’s victory. Our nightmare is that Trump is the doorman for darker things to come, not only discrimination and devaluation, but exclusion and even extermination. Or perhaps we’ll be thanking the Donald for making our darkness, discontent and disconnection visible, and in so doing, challenging us to make our light shine brighter. The split is now plain for all to see. We can no longer be in denial about the forces that push us apart. The mind can be divided into armored loyalties of ideology that guard their territories with power, might and vitriol. But can it be united by a more subtle bond — call it love — dismissed in the heat of the fight?

Love’s absence and erosion is both the cause and effect of our dualities and divisions, our declining civic engagement, our loss of friendship and communal feeling, our hostile competition. To rekindle it, we must become students of love, because love is not simply an emotion, but a body of deep life knowledge and a way of being. Love is ancient wisdom, carried culturally in everyday acts, art and aspirations, but it as yet not in the superior position of our common regard and practice. As empathy and compassion, love reaches across dualities of power and powerlessness, victim and oppressor, and challenges all to transcend those assigned roles into a more boundless, undivided and unified whole.

We are still struggling between the love of power versus the power of love. Power seems instantly gratifying and easily understandable, a simple assertion and practice of superiority. Love, by contrast, seems uncertain, soft, and sentimental, inferior and vulnerable to aggression and other expressions of power. It is, in fact, a practice of vulnerability. All major religions espouse love as ideal, but we have become increasingly secular. Evolutionary biology and psychology have offered alternative support for love — nurturance of children and lasting social bonds depend on love. But love’s requirements can make it hard to scale up, make it hard to trust love and empower it. For love to be powerful, we need to (1) notice the suffering of others; (2) care about their suffering; (3) see and feel from their perspective; (4) understand their perspective and suffering; (5) commit to deeper relationship; and (6), through relationship, help them.

Try all that without burning out. It’s not easy. Many of us get off the train on those early stops, or don’t even get on the train at all. “I mean, where is that train going? What’s in it for me? I don’t think I’m capable of all that. Besides, everyone needs to fend for themselves. It’s the way of the world.” Or perhaps our concerns are broad and generous, but our time, resources and capacities are limited. Love is both lauded as heroic and noble, and condemned as foolish and weak. We do not love each other quite enough, not yet. We do not allow ourselves this kind of love. We have not yet learned how to love, or even to see each other fully as human beings. We do not all accept that we are one human family. We all draw our boundaries somewhere, and some build walls. The walls first become subliminal shorthand for our limited circle of affection, our loyalty to tribe or self. Then, inevitably, affection itself is cast away. Power, self-involved power, has its way, or at least its day. Love goes wandering. Love becomes the underdog, outsider, and stranger, mocked at the gate and the marketplace. Love’s a nice idea but it doesn’t pay the bills or win the war we make. The power of love seems a losing game, so we choose to love power instead.

Dacher Keltner, distinguished social psychologist at U.C. Berkeley and director of the Greater Good Science Center, has an alternative view of power. In The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence (2016), he asserts, based on his psychological research over decades, that unlike in Machiavelli’s Florence, or perhaps the fictional Game of Thrones, in our modern society we don’t take power through coercion or force. Rather, it is granted to us by others in recognition of our more noble qualities. Specifically, our capacity to empower others, advance the greater good, practice empathy and giving, express gratitude, and tell stories that unite. However, once attained, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as Lord Acton wrote in the late 1800s. This is Keltner’s “power paradox.” He offers inspiring and sage advice to guide us to become both powerful and good, primarily through humility, service and relationship to others. We can resolve the power paradox by staying humble and staying related, and by steeping ourselves in ethics and virtue.

However, in my personal and professional experience, I’ve observed countless situations of people gaining power for reasons other than their goodness. They are parent, boss, superior officer or sibling, or belong to a more culturally dominant race, gender, class or religious belief. They may have a special skill or intelligence that fuels their rise. They use their power to accomplish their visions, and all-too-frequently, to abuse. People are viewed as tools at best, casualties at worst. Contrary to Keltner’s assertions, these folks are not granted power by the masses by dint of their moral fibre. Power is not awarded to them by some enlightened crowd-sourcing app inspired by their decency. Powerful and difficult people arise precisely because we are born to a world that is unjust and unfair, a world where all-too-often self-centeredness reigns supreme, a world that all-too-often rewards those who maintain its status quo. Even the most casual observer of world affairs can note abuses of power at every level of relationship, from interpersonal to international. It’s not so much that people lose their goodness as they get ahead, although that clearly happens. It’s that plenty of people devalue goodness and the values of the heart right off the bat in the contest to get ahead, get more, get even or even just survive. A cagey, even manipulative self-interest seems to pay off in the money and power game.

Needless to say, my copy of Keltner’s book has an inordinate amount of scribbling in the margins, some of it admiring his vision, work and insight, but most of it taking issue with his perspectives. A running argument in the marginalia from the perspective of marginalization, if you will. I can’t help but view power from the vantage of powerlessness. Keltner’s views based on years of research are important and eye-opening. But they don’t explain white-washing in Hollywood. They don’t explain redlining, bamboo ceilings, glass ceilings, and conscious and unconscious biases that lead to discrimination in workplaces, relationships and institutions. They don’t explain the power of difficult people. They don’t, in other words, explain racism, sexism, homophobia and other oppressive power relationships. They don’t, to be blunt, explain rape, sexual assault, hate crimes, murder, torture or war, these expressions of power that lead the nightly news and fuel our collective nightmare.

Power runs dangerously amok, and powerlessness is an open wound. Too much of power is coercive and abusive. Power often doesn’t consider its effects on the vulnerable, refuses to care about their vulnerability, refuses to see we are all vulnerable. There’s not enough empathy, and too much curt dismissiveness of concerns we don’t even understand. Hardening your heart becomes the first rule of power, followed by asserting superiority and contemptuously deriding your opposition as inferior. Power needs a victim to bully, a scapegoat to blame, a target to fire upon, all to demonstrate and consolidate its strength and vent its dark furies. Power gains power by usurping it from another. Power’s urge to control requires others to submit to its will, to crumble into easily trampled dust.

The victims of power often do crumble. Trust in the world shattered, sense of wholeness and safety crushed, they tumble into suffering and cast about for ways to survive. But suffering also begets resistance. The victims fight back, empowering themselves with their own assertions of superiority and righteousness, aiming to topple their oppressors with newfound power of their own. The dispossessed seek victory, justice, and safety through overturning the status quo that kept them down or locked them out. They put a lens on their loss, and demand attention for their wound, recognition of their humanity, consideration of their cause. But the first and second measures of dissent, after bars of injury and defeat, resound with the chords of rage, hostility, bitterness, grudge and envy. All crowd out the heart’s uncertain beats.

The dynamic between powerful and powerless is replicated within the psyche. The expressions of power — anger, aggression, blame — ride herd over friendliness, kindness, forgiveness, understanding and compassion. The urge to power, our survival instinct to arm ourselves for a fight, hijacks our synapses and erodes the practice of love. We are certain of wrongs, bent on righting them with our might. We can’t see that the heart has a role at all. The heart is devalued, in oppressor and victim alike. The heart is the victim common to all.

Power is abusive precisely because it lacks empathy, or has lost it in its ascent. The victims of abuse can lose their empathy as well. One young activist asked me, “isn’t loving your enemies a form of emotional labor?” What use is love in the face of hate? What could compassion do to the iron fist? What good tenderness in the hell of exploitation? Isn’t kindness a synonym for doormat? Love isn’t real at all — isn’t that obvious by our plight? The world is cold and cruel; best to steel yourself to that truth, and fight. We justify our righteous rage, and stop there. We don’t see what is being lost between us and within us.

The heart is our most precious commodity, our greatest strength; but it is also where we are most insecure, vulnerable, uncertain and frail.

And that, in a sentence, is our human condition. We are all essentially vulnerable, subject to sickness, suffering, illness and death. Old age if we’re lucky. Circumstances beyond our control determine much of our existence. We may feel triumphant and invincible in one moment, given flight by our aspirations or achievements. We may take inspiration from our fellow’s triumph. But in the next moment, awareness of our weakness, shortcoming, failure and limitation creeps in. “One day you’re a butterfly, and the next you’re pinned down,” in the words of my favorite Bay Area based musician, Goh Nakamura. “The weight of the world keeps your feet on the ground,” he sings, “it’s the way of the world, the weight of the world.”

One path of wisdom is to “fail forward;” to “fall down nine times but get up ten.” To keep at life and love with the power of grit, passion and perseverance, in the words of best-selling author and MacArthur-winning psychologist Angela Duckworth. This is, in fact, what many of us do, day in and day out. It can be enough, and more than enough, to make a living, to make a difference in the lives of others, to make our meaning in life and give us pride and hope.

But more is possible, and more is necessary, to bring peace to our fragile hearts. Finding our human way in the awesome, majestic, and heartbreakingly cruel reality we share is the task of a lifetime, and the imperative of our times. To do this, we must squarely reckon with our vulnerability and the vulnerability of others. Insecurity is the essence of life. We must embrace insecurity to transcend it, and fully transcend all our dualities, especially the dualities of power and powerlessness, superiority and inferiority, which pit us one against the other. Insecurity is our common plight, and our common ground. Through a wisdom of insecurity, through transcendence of our divide, comes a deep and lasting peace, and awareness of our most important challenge: the marriage of mind and heart, and the birthing of enlightenment.

Who isn’t uncertain in the task of loving another? Who among us hasn’t been insecure of having the love and acceptance of another? Who isn’t anxious, regularly or in moments, of their abilities or possibilities? Who hasn’t worried about the safety and well being of their loved ones and themselves? In this day and age, who isn’t unsteady in their hopes for economic stability? Climate rescue? Food, water and shelter security, both in the present and stretching into the horizon of their children’s children? Survival of the human species and even the planet? Who doesn’t feel any insecurity in their inner worlds? Emotional stability and wellness? Am I doing enough? Am I enough? Do others look down on me, think ill of me? Does anyone love me, or even care about me? Will any of this work out? Is there a place for me in the world at all? If you are without these questions, you are in denial. Most of us suppress these questions most of the time, just to get through our days. But if we are open to them, if we can hold them in our palms, they have the power to reorder our lives and redirect our spirits. They can lead us back to each other, when so many other forces push us apart. These questions remind us that we sometimes “lean in,” but we always “lean on,” whether we’re conscious of it or not. We need each other. We rely on each other. We must, therefore, strive to be responsible to one another. The reminders of our wobbly-footed gait bring us home, to our heart and its vital rhythm. Home, to each other.

Our reactions to our insecurity determine much of our suffering. Awareness of our common insecurity can unite us, but divergent reactions to insecurity push us apart. Our feelings of insecurity about ourselves can drive us to grandiose excess, all in an attempt to claim superiority. Underneath the power complex and attempts to dominate and control others lies the undertow of insecurity. If I’m not a “winner”, in the winner-take-all game, then I’m an inadequate and worthless “loser.” Those stuck in power complexes suck all the oxygen out of their relationships in their attempts to feel special and above the rest. They may be talented, they may be charismatic, they may be visionary — but their narrow focus on themselves and their ideas and opinions devalue all other possibilities and people. Some prey on the insecurity of others to advance their dark agendas.

Silicon Valley has a collective power complex at this moment in history. Tech luminaries envision their products transforming the world, and they have ample evidence and dollars to back them. But every power complex is paired with insecurity. Our insecurity and wish for connection and control drives us to use technology. But is tech a “solution” for insecurity or only a misleading patch? Technology and humanity are twin poles of yet another duality. What becomes of our human frame when we try to do so much through devices? Will transcendence of this duality involve some chimeric, cyborgian alteration of our human nature? Will our humanity become more technologized? Or will shackling our consciousness even more to gadgets and code take us away from spiritual transcendence altogether, take us away from each other and our human essence?

Some say social media is bringing us together. We can, they say, transcend our narrow perspectives with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. “Snapchat is an empathy engine,” said one young woman in my practice, telling me how wonderful it was to see the world through the eyes of someone a world away. Perhaps social media is simply a tool, and different people will use tools differently. Some will be driven to distraction, and others teleport on stories that expand the mind and heart. For many, seeing the “highlight reels” of other people’s lives on social media leaves them feeling inadequate and isolated. I deactivated my Facebook account after I got fed up with the political polarization online. Accuracy and responsibility didn’t matter any more to my most active “friends.” Overpowering others with opinions and sharp words was more important than listening and understanding. The power politics of blame and anger were ascendant over the values I cherished. I understood those feelings came from real experiences of marginalization, discrimination, devaluation and victimization. But when locked in those frames, we lose sight of our broader humanity. Facebook didn’t help bring people together, except in the most superficial of senses: we were in screen-face contact. The remedy to devaluation is validation, acceptance and expression of ourselves as whole human beings. This doesn’t happen online, at least in political discourse. Only our political identities get validated in the echo chamber, and that is not nearly enough.

Political agreement, especially online political agreement, is a narrow and deceptive path to solidarity, because it forces us to believe we are only acceptable to each other if we are all in perfect alignment, and agree to be angry to the same degree about a predetermined set of slights. We must wear the same filter. Political identity, and political outrage, becomes our only identity. Our spiritual, psychological and relational selves are devalued and rendered powerless. We flee the parts of ourselves that feel more insecure, uncertain and tenuous, towards what is more concrete, tangible and seemingly more practical: our political opinions. We reach for certainty and what psychologists and philosophers call “cognitive closure” with beliefs, convictions and ideologies that pit us against each other, against a predetermined and set “enemy.” An oppositional identity of certitude seems more solid than what might be called a conversational identity that relates courageously to uncertainty and even oppression, because this is the path to wholeness. We run away from our sensitive hearts that require each other to a narrow part of our heads that sees its only safety in being right, not related, and then being loud about it, or even violent, in the case of extremists. We stop aiming for transcendence of self, and communion with others.

Trying to win the opinion wars triggers a split. The opposite of our opinion stubbornly bursts like a tsunami from the collective psyche. Power creates reaction to power, and reaction to power invites a backlash from power. 1992 leads to 2000 which leads to 2008 which results in 2016. People become walking opinions, and life just a continuous reel of opinions in conflict. Instead of considering each other, or being considerate, we consider another’s opinions as emblematic of their true and only self. Only when we change our relationship to opinion, and we relate to people in their vulnerable, insecure wholeness do opinion tsunamis subside to pacific wave crests, part of the deeper ocean between us. We are more than our opinions, but many forget this, online and off.

Opinions, and the attitudes beneath them, are the thought-body of power. We explore and express opinions to define and understand our world, and to have some power and standing in it. Opinions influence our actions and drive our relationships with others. As the Buddha taught:

We are what we think.

All that we are arises with our thoughts.

With our thoughts we make the world.

Speak or act with an impure mind

And trouble will follow you

As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

Opinions can be the face of abuse or the doorway to compassion, wisdom and connection. A sharp opinion might be needed to wake others to your truth. Our opinion might draw a needed boundary. But when we hold and assert opinions, we must also remember that we can be right or related, right or happy. Are our opinions fueled by defensiveness, hatred, envy, resentment, blame and jealousy, or do they aim at love and relatedness? Is our opinion so ossified in certainty that we devalue another’s humanity? Are we neglecting our own wholeness when we put our weight exclusively on one side of an issue? I find myself mistrustful of people who stubbornly cling to their views, people who are so self-righteous that they forget the possibility they may be wrong, that there may be other valid ways of seeing, knowing and being. We must strive to make our comprehension comprehensive and inclusive, not narrow, brittle and divorced from awareness of our commonality. In the end, opinions are just an attempt to answer questions, but the questions will always be far more important than the answers. Perhaps the only satisfactory answers are those that engage us in a process of living out intimate and enlarging questions of identity, purpose and relationship. Who am I, in this moment? What emotions am I experiencing? Why am I here? What do I need to understand? What would I like to resolve? What is needed of me? What do I need? What is my connection to other beings? To the Earth and universe?

Opening to these questions softens us and opens us to each other; lessens the hold of the opinion-maker in our mind. Underneath our opinions, underneath our divides, underneath our emotions, reactions and defenses, is the vulnerability and insecurity of hearts that want to love and be loved, and are as yet unsure of love. No matter our faith or creed, we are all vulnerable, we are all ultimately insecure. This is precisely what we need to love, not flee, avoid, hide or fortify ourselves against. We are not lost in our insecurity; in insecurity we can find ourselves and one another. Senator Elizabeth Warren said [14] “vulnerability underlies everything we care about. We put so much effort into being strong and independent, but at heart, we’re all just working to keep it together.” Understanding the basic truth of our vulnerability, the unavoidable insecurity of all our lives, grounds us in reality. Knowledge of our fundamental nature brings us together and guides us to mindfully care for one another.

As I prepare to publish this, Washington’s ongoing saga, currently focused on the Brett Kavanaugh Senate hearings, have mired us in a deeper sense of our collective suffering. Republicans have power, and some wish to railroad Kavanaugh’s confirmation, ironically without the due process that is necessary to hear Professor Blasey Ford’s account, and to determine whether Kavanaugh lied about this and other matters. Moreover, Kavanaugh’s ability to understand womens’ perspectives and uphold their rights is in question. The psychological violence of this process on women and anyone who cares about women, women’s issues and sexual violence is substantial. It seems a significant part of the country and Congress is willing to dismiss the concerns of the vulnerable. Power is marching transcendent against vulnerability. We are collectively in relationship with cultural and individual narcissism — we are essentially co-dependent with a individualistic, tribalistic and narcissistic culture. Antagonism, involution, anger, resentment and even sadism are present in our public sphere.

We are also in the midst of preparing for midterm elections, with much at stake. Will we choose power — or choose to check power with the perspectives of those previously disenfranchised? If the Democrats regain power in the House and perhaps Senate, will they advance a vision of inclusion and understanding, even in red and purple districts and states? Will we tame the paranoia, fear and mass psychosis with reason and common humanity? Will we deepen our awareness of our relatedness as Americans and global citizens, and find our way to what I have called our collective han? (Han is the Korean word for a shared sense of oppression and suffering.)

The State of Our Reunion address is being written as we speak. It is founded on the recognition of our common humanity; our common life with, and not against, each other. This goes against the stream of our habits of anger, dissent and divergence, against the stream of our biases and judgments about each other’s worth, against the stream of our political debates, against the stream of our wish to be more powerful than and superior to others. Against the stream of our wars. No matter how superior we think we are, no one is superior to their vulnerability. No matter how powerful we think we are, our vulnerability has the last word. Knowing this keeps us humble and related, and inspires love, our most creative act.

The family drama that’s fucked up our world is just one long, undeniable reminder of our vulnerable humanity and human needs. Love and relationship are at the top of the list. They’re the key ingredients to our wholeness, our civic and intrapsychic union. Love is the force that can bring us together; it is our gravity and our light.

The question before us is: can we make love? Can we support love and compassion for the vulnerable, along with wisdom grounded on reason and common humanity?

This struggle is within each one of us, and between us. This is our individual and collective identity crisis. Who are we, to ourselves and each other? Who do we want to be?

* * *

[1].Brashears M. Small networks and high isolation? A reexamination of American discussion networks. Social Networks 33 (2011) 331–341

[2].Other data suggest that the ranks of the socially isolated number almost 25% of the population, but Brashears’ studies refute that. Indeed, that high number doesn’t seem plausible. Brashears suggests that the number reporting isolation is very volatile and might depend on the prevalence of conversation topics.

[3].Political Polarization in the American Public. Pew Research Center. June 12, 2014. accessed on 7/2/16

[4].The Year in Hate and Extremism. Southern Poverty Law Center. February 17, 2016 accessed 7/10/16

[5].Millennials less trusting of others. Pew Research Center. March 7, 2014 accessed 9/14/16

[6].Much of these paragraphs on trust and mistrust were also present in my book Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, Pacific Heart Books, 2017.

[7].The Pew Center. Millennials in Adulthood.

[8].Tavernise, S. U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High. New York Times, April 22, 2016

[9].Lowry, F. Shame linked to heightened suicide risk. Medscape, April 14, 2015. accessed 9/11/16

[10].Flanagan C., Levine P. Civic Engagement and the Transition to Adulthood. The Future of Children 20 (1):159–179

[11].quoted in Putnam, R. Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. accessed 7/10/16

[12].quoted in Stossel, S. What Makes Us Happy, Revisited. The Atlantic, May 2013 accessed 7/30/16

[13].Traister R. (2018) And you thought Trump voters were mad. Excerpt of Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. In New York magazine. September 17, 2018 accessed 9/22/18

[14].Ganales, P. Elizabeth Warren and Tracee Ellis Ross on the Road to Activism. New York Times, September 17, 2016



Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

Psychiatrist, author of Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Facebook and the Other Social Networks,,