History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
—James Joyce, Ulysses
I can’t imagine a more appropriate quote for today, the day I learned that Donald Trump had been elected president.
This morning I fully expected to wake up to news of Clinton’s victory. Even though I wasn’t very happy with Clinton, I was still excited for the first woman president. But I was much more excited to never have to look at, think of, or talk about Donald Trump ever again.
The truth is, I have developed an unhealthy loathing for the man—not just as a politician, but as a person. This hatred is unhealthy because it gives Trump, an egomaniac, exactly what he wants: power over my attention. Unwittingly I got sucked into his reality show world, watching out of spite just to see him lose. Instead, I lost.
This morning I went to work with a pit in my stomach, a feeling of impotent, nebulous anxiety. Seeing the gloomy faces of my coworkers, blanched and speechless, only tightened the knot in my gut.
It wasn’t long before the initial shock wore off, my powers of denial began to fail, and the full enormity of what happened hit me. My reaction was more physical than intellectual. I felt dizzy and lightheaded. I couldn’t think, talk, or do anything remotely productive. I could just sit in sullen silence, trying to hide my feelings from my students.
But James Joyce’s quote reminds me of something. History is nearly always a nightmare. Corruption, bigotry, xenophobia, the lust for power—these have been with us from the beginning, and always will be. The wicked leaders far outweigh the decent ones. Trump is not new, merely a new manifestation of something very old: a demagogue who represents and draws upon the darker impulses of our nature.
If by history we mean the ceaseless tide of human action, propelling us forwards and backwards, raising us to the heights and sinking us into the depths, then it is impossible to awake from history. As long as humans are humans, history will be, in the words of Edward Gibbon, “little more than a register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” History is the constant, heroic, and ultimately doomed attempt to fight against entropy.
But besides the literal meaning, I also like to interpret this quote in another, more psychological, way.
Trump is an archetypical example of a man who places value in external things. For him, this thing is winning. He needs it like a drug, in ever-increasing doses. While it may seem like a strength, this craving to win is really the product of a crippling weakness: the need for constant validation.
When you identify your own value with something external—whether it be money, love, or whatever—you doom yourself to a hamster wheel existence. You spend all your time pursuing it. But when you get it, you immediately want more; and when you don’t get it, you feel worthless.
For me, this is the history from which I am trying to awake. Instead of chasing things, I want to enjoy them. Not that there is anything wrong with pursuing a goal—to the contrary, it is the most admirable thing you can do. But you can pursue goals without wagering your sense of worth and identity in the bargain. You can treat the hustle of life as a necessary, exciting, and vexing game, not the ultimate judgment of your value.
Donald Trump does just the opposite. In his world, if you lose then that makes you worthless, an insect, a nobody, a loser. And if you win, your life has been validated. He identifies totally and completely with the outcome of the game of life. Because of this, no matter how successful he is, he will always feel a gnawing sense of emptiness at the core of his being. No win will ever be enough, and every loss will be devastating.
The reason I am thinking along these lines is that I am now reading Epictetus, the former slave who became a Stoic philosopher. Because Stoicism grew up amid political turmoil and instability, it is a philosophy ideally suited for disastrous times.
Epictetus teaches that external things (like elections) are always ultimately beyond our control. Of course, you do what you can, and you must do so. But you are not obligated to be agitated when it doesn’t go your way—as will frequently happen. Indeed, agitation serves no purpose. Either act, or be tranquil. We cannot always control events, but we can always control how we react to those events.
This Stoic lesson will be increasingly necessary in the coming years, if we are not to wear ourselves out with worrying. It is especially necessary with a man like Trump, who is so addicted to attention. When I talk to friends, watch TV, or look on Facebook, I am constantly surprised by how completely he has captured the attention of the entire world. And this is exactly what he wanted. It’s the only thing he’s good at. Whether you love or hate him, chances are that you can’t stop thinking about him.
But letting Trump totally dominate our thoughts and moods is giving him the ultimate victory. It is giving him exactly what he craves. And ultimately this stress and anxiety will not make us any more effective in countering his proposals or fighting against his influence. To act appropriately, we must remain calm and focused; and to do that, we cannot, must not, let Trump so totally invade our thoughts and destroy our ability for reflection and thoughtful action.
And we certainly cannot let ourselves, like I have done, become obsessed with our hatred and loathing for the man. To act hatefully is to sink to his level. To become obsessed with beating him is to let him win the ultimate battle over your soul.
All power fades, all tyrants die, and everything, good or bad, is swallowed by time. History can indeed by a nightmare; but like a nightmare upon waking it will one day vanish into nothingness.
Change what you can. Accept what you can’t. Enjoy what you have. This is how we can awake from history.