Light breaking through clouds over Round Bay
Light breaking through clouds over Round Bay

A season normally associated with light is feeling like the start of a dark winter. Amidst a health crisis ravaging our nation, we have a deeply divided government unable to do the obvious, much less the difficult. It’s hard to find anyone who’s happy with the state of our country right now. Republicans are unhappy that they lost the White House and have responded with outlandish efforts to confuse the public and overturn the result. Democrats are unhappy with the “seditious abuse of the judicial process” from Republicans and the cover those leaders give to an emperor without clothes. Voters on both sides are unhappy because they think either the election was stolen in November or that democracy itself is being stolen now.

While no single one of us is wholly responsible, we’re all playing a role in creating a world we don’t want. Surely there are some people greatly advantaged by the turmoil raging through our society; Vladimir Putin would have reason to feel smug about now. But most of us do not want a country without fair and free elections, and yet we’re creating it. Most people do not want a country so divided that Covid-19 can cut right down the middle of it and kill hundreds of thousands, and yet we’re creating it. Most people do not want police targeting Black people, or destruction of the biodiversity and climate on which we depend, and yet those are the worlds we’re creating. How is it that a country as advanced and advantaged as ours has fallen into this state of Hobbesian brutishness?

The answer is ego and the illusion of separateness it fuels, vaulting self-interest to the forefront of our concerns, creating a brutish world of fear and hate, of self-serving acts and self-protection. The fact that we are also connected, loving beings fades to the background or is wholly forgotten. All of which has been massively magnified by the troubled ego of Donald Trump wielding a position of enormous power. We’re left with no doubt as to how much leadership matters, yet also a challenge to our leadership: how do we turn this around and create a world we do want? The answer lies in seeing through the delusion of separateness in ourselves, from which we can take away fear and radiate love. That is the way.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying all of the nation’s ills are Donald Trump’s fault. Indeed Trump’s rise to power was propelled by the hate-based divide already ripening through social media. As compellingly documented in The Social Dilemma, social media has the power to manipulate our actions below the level at which we’re conscious of it. Add the profit motive of fear mongering and the pernicious meddling of foreign powers and you have an instrument that can tear societies apart. Moreover, it’s easier to trick people than it is to convince them that they’ve been tricked. The ego can readily identify with a particular belief or group, but to let go of such associations feels like a little death, something the ego mightily resists. 

Arguably, Donald Trump has done us a favor by accelerating our awareness of just how brutish a world can be when created by a mighty, troubled ego. There’s no doubt about his mightiness: Trump is a brand like no other with a genius for self-promotion. He has managed to be the nightly news for years running. There’s also no doubt about being troubledMary Trump, Tony Schwartz and many others with both a close-up and professional view, paint a picture of an ego consumed with the need to prove itself and win at all costs. Incapable of empathy, this ego operates from “are you with me or against me?” and a bullying toolkit for anyone in the latter camp. Facts or truth have little meaning to this ego, rather Trump has created a world of his own hyperbole and, thanks to social media and the power of leadership, tens of millions of people resonate with it.

We see how brutishness gets amplified when we consider what it means to resonate with such a leader. If I shout into the soundboard of a grand piano, the strings that match the frequencies of my voice will start to vibrate. Those that don’t match will remain still. That’s the fact, that’s how resonance works. So when Donald Trump gets people to resonate with his selfish, xenophobic, misogynistic, hate-the-other-side bullying and bravado, he is stirring similar impulses in them. Admittedly, all of us have some of those strings in our piano; we grew up through stages of egotistical self-interest before empathy had a chance to develop and we can regress there. We grew up through ethnocentric stages of identifying with “our team” and fearing or demonizing the “other”.  But most of us grew past those stages and play much of the music of our life on other strings. Never have those regressive strings been so consistently plucked by a President as in the last four years. He has resonated into a mass movement the most troubled aspects of the human being.

The results are predictable. The Washington Post reported that counties hosting a Trump rally in 2016 saw hate crimes jump by a whopping 226%. According to the Brookings Institute, since Trump’s election, FBI data show a spike in hate crimes in counties he won by large margins. On the whole, we’ve become less generous as a nation; the percent of people giving to charity has dropped 10 points to a new low since Trump took office. We’ve increasingly suffered the symptoms of separateness and fear: anxiety, depression, addiction and pathological behavior. And now we have a major political party that, having resonated with a self-serving autocrat, serves its own self-interest to the point where it “broke faith with American democracy” in the words of former Republican strategist, Steve Schmidt.

It’s time to turn this around. We’re supported in this effort by a change in the presidency, but that won’t be enough. We have our own role to play, our own light to cast. And the more we can see through our ego to the larger truth of our connectedness, which is the hallmark of Zen leadership, the more we can remove fear and radiate love into the field we create. If our actions spring from love and joy, the world we create will be infused with love and joy. In a knock-on effect, those who resonate with us will be stirred toward greater love and joy. From our close-in relationships to our social media presence, we can dampen the urge to outrage by feeling into the other in our self and our self in the other. As Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry, messaged to leaders this month, “When we connect our hearts with others, we spark hope, we kindle joy, we become the light.” It is not only the most joyful way to live, but also how we bring joy to the world. ‘Tis the season.

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