The Search for Peace in 2016: Can The Nation Heal After a Bitter Election?

Regardless of our political ideologies, we can all agree that the 2016 presidential election was bitter and highly divisive. The nation woke up to a surprise on November 9, when the now president-elect Donald Trump gave the victory speech and prepared to assemble his transition team and his cabinet. Millions of Americans cheered alongside Trump’s team, while others wept or were out raged. Over the course of the past two weeks, there have been thousands protesting the election, and inauguration day will likely be a day of protests and unrest, along with those who will celebrate. However, even those who are happy with the outcome have much to fear, as protesters and other disgruntled voters have accused Trump supporters of many things and many insults have been exchanged on both sides of the party line. So, the question remains: Where does America go from here?

As a psychologist, I began processing the outcome of the election with many clients right away. People in the D.C. area have extremely strong opinions about politics, and many even work in the political realm or in the federal government. Many liberal Democrats and progressives are deeply saddened and very worried about the future. Some conservatives are afraid to speak out about their views, due to the amount of criticism they believe their party has received. You can practically feel the tension in the air as you walk around. People are on edge, and activists prepared to make their voices heard. How can we bring unity, peace, and healing to the current climate? How can we find common ground and realize that we are all humans first – with beating hearts, with the desire to belong and to be accepted, and to love and respect one another?

I believe there are several factors to bear in mind as we trudge through this difficult season. I also believe that is a mental health professional, I have an obligation to listen to clients’ fears, but to provide them with an objective basis on which they can develop hope and feel empowered about the future, rather than a sense of dread. Here are five points that I think may prove very helpful in gaining some perspective on our current situation as a nation and how to move forward:

1.     Be mindful of what you read and absorb about the new administration. When people are anxious, it's very common for them to seek information, often more than is necessary or even helpful. Find a couple of reliable news sources and stick to those when reading about current events. The media can be very biased, and journalists often present information that hasn't been verified as fact. If you notice that your anxiety is increasing greatly as you read or seek information, take a break. While I am a big believer in staying current in the news, I do think there is a threshold at which we need to separate fact from speculation, and take a breather from information overload.

2.     I heard a conversation today on an NPR program that was talking about Thanksgiving. The guests on the program said that they were going to request that their family is not to discuss politics over the holidays. I have mixed feelings about this view. On the one hand, if discussing politics will definitely increase divisiveness and potentially escalate tense family dynamics, then I would tend to agree. However, I would encourage everyone to have a conversation with someone whose political perspective and views on various social issues is different from their own. Obviously, you will have to use your own judgment about with whom you can have such a conversation and keep a civil tone. But I firmly believe that part of the reason our country is now so incredibly divided and embittered is that people do not talk to each other. I have read numerous articles and had many conversations with Trump supporters who said that they were afraid to talk about their views prior to the election for fear of being ostracized, criticized or even outcast from professional or personal circles. We will remain divided if we do not talk to each other about our differences. There are people from all backgrounds and a range of educational, vocational, and political perspectives who feel unheard or misunderstood. If we listen before judging to others’ opinions, we may be able to reach a turning point in our current, divisive status.

3.     Be aware of all or nothing, black and white thinking, and avoid it at all costs. If you take one piece of advice from this blog, bear this one in mind. It is very important to balance our thinking and to realize that there are very few aspects of life that are absolutely certain. It's particularly important not to make all or nothing, black-and-white statements about people as individuals, making judgments about a whole person based on one of their opinions or behaviors, and deciding how the future will look based on news articles and predictions made by the pundits. An example of this kind of thinking would look something like this: "The next four years are going to be dreadful. Our nation is going to be in big trouble."  If you find yourself engaging in this kind of thinking, ask yourself whether this statement will be helpful, productive, or will lead to anything positive. Instead, attempt to make statements that are realistic but offer potential for a more positive outcome. An example would be something like, “I think the next four years will be challenging, but I'm going to hope for the best and do my part.”

4.     The above statement leads me to the next point – if you believe that things are on a downturn, do something about it. Most of us will never hold political office, but there is a lot one can do to be proactive in shaping social and political issues. While peaceful protest has been a part of our nation’s history and can feel very empowering, there are also more tangible things that can be done to be proactive. These things include writing letters to your congressmen and senators, getting involved in your local community and efforts that align with your own sense of social justice and political ideology, volunteering at charitable organizations to help marginalized groups, donating money to organizations that represent causes you care about, volunteering with a political organization or helping campaign for your favorite candidates in the next election, and helping out with aspects of the elections themselves, such as voter registration, volunteering at voting precinct, etc. There are so many opportunities to get involved and to make a difference in the lives of others, whether the current political administration represents your views or not.

5.     Be kind to everyone. This may seem simplistic but I felt as though it needed to be said. Do not assume that because someone's opinion differs from your own that they are a bad person, prejudiced, or someone not worth knowing. Showing kindness to others goes a long way in building bridges and reconciling differences. Be a part of the healing and reconciliation process, rather than contributing to the divisiveness, conflict and strife.

It is important to remember that political change takes time. Even if the changes that take place over the next few years are not ones that you appreciate, support, or feel like you can even tolerate, keep in mind that The United States has survived and thrived following tumultuous times. As a nation, we are resilient. But in order to remain so, we must keep a level head, a kind heart, and an attitude of grace and forgiveness. We can do this together if we all participate, collaborate, and stand together.