Disrupt Your Election Day Fear

So you and everyone else who lives in the United States is experiencing some kind of terrible paralyzing fear-infused parallel universe version of Christmas Eve. There’s an irony that the presidential election—the most divisive one of our lifetimes—is the one experience capable of unifying the country, if only in the feeling of anticipatory outrage. But it’s an irrelevant irony, because our primal brains are already ensconced in their anxiety responses. Here we are with a whole Election Day to get through when our anxious brains skittering us toward dread and fear in a cycle of escalating tension.

This afternoon, I walked my dog with lunging distance of one of those giant purple floppy balloon things used to advertise car dealerships (apparently they’re called air dancers, but we all know they’re actually floppy balloon things), Only as she prepared for a straight vertical jump did I notice her hackles up, and realize I’d mistaken her anger for curiosity. I turned her quickly around, throwing treats to bring down her stress.

Election Day has driven most of us into the human equivalent fear level of encountering a giant floppy balloon thing for the first time. Our bodies’ hackles are up, our monkey brain/lizard brain/what-you-will in a mode of existential threat response.

But the lizard brain is tucked in the cozy gray mass of so much evolving brain. We can’t change the fact that a giant purple (orange?) flapping creature on the street will send us into an fearful anxiety. But we can hold that soft primal fear of our brains, tuck it in, turn it gently away and feed it treats so that we can hold fear alongside our hopes, our love, our kindness.

Be clear with yourself what tomorrow is about. It is not about productivity or powering through the day—it is a kind of national anniversary of some great grief we have been carrying. Whatever else you do, your body will most likely be carrying a layer of grief.

I will spend Election Day working the polls. Back in August, when political divisions only ran as deep as kiddie pools, I’d volunteered to work the polls and it seemed like a satisfying, even noble, decision. But each day since I committed, my enthusiasm has ebbed a little more into dread. I know my temptation will be to sit behind my sneezeguard and worry, worry, worry.

I wish to go to the polls as faithfully as I can. And my faith—rooted in Anabaptist understanding of the nonviolent life and salvation of Jesus Christ—is one that disrupts anger and hate and violence through surprising, playful, invitation. What would invite, surprise, play? A few last-minute stops in Halloween stores and I was prepared to work the polls as a spandex-and-glitter tutued, winged Voting Fairy.

What, never seen a voting fairy before?

My goal as a poll worker is to provide a positive Voting Day experience to everyone who walks into the room. My goal as a Christian is to witness to God’s love everywhere I go. And my goal as a human is to hush the lizard brain with the gentle and persistent witness to the humanity of each human. All of these goals lead to the same answer: Voting Fairy.

Whatever your self-care strategies on Election Day—yoga, meditation, spending time with family, spending time alone, stress baking (eating), disconnecting from social media—all those care strategies are designed to disrupt your overactivated fear drive.

Tomorrow, be the voting fairy your lizard brain needs to see in the world.

Maybe that means taking cookies to a friend’s house, wearing your favorite outfit, wearing your Halloween outfit, cooking something elaborate, ordering in, bringing flowers to the polls, making extra time for your Trump-supporting neighbor, avoiding your Trump-supporting neighbor. It may even mean recognizing that you are too anxious to work the polls and need to stay home under the covers all day. Be the voting fairy your lizard brain needs.

Like the old instructions for airplanes, disrupt your own fear first, then disrupt the fear of the person next to you.

Twelve Notes on Worry

In the last weeks of this election cycle, I’ve stopped trying to control my worry, and am instead noticing how I react to it. These are twelve notes I’ve written myself to be more intentional–and, hopefully, saner and kinder–as the election season exacerbates so many worries.

1. Validate your emotions.

All of your feelings are the right feelings.

Uncharted levels of stress call for uncharted levels of self-compassion. It is comforting to think I am a reasoned, rational creature who follows her best impulses and nurtures noble thoughts. But I am a creature who feels many things. Take the bumpers off all your expectations of what you should feel and let yourself feel what’s there. It is true, what the psalmist says:

The violent arrogantly pursue the weak
and catch them in craftily designed schemes…
They think in their hearts, “We will not be moved;
throughout all generations, we’ll be happy and untroubled.”
Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.

When injustice is rampant, all of your feelings are the right feelings.

2. Redirect your emotions, when necessary.

All your feelings are right ones, but that doesn’t mean that all of them serve you. Greet your emotions, name them, and ask what road they are walking down. If your fear says, “I am walking toward paralysis,” or your anxiety says, “I am walking toward numbing,” or your worry says, “I am walking down to read every article I can find about Trump’s illness,” shake their hand and wish them well, and keep naming the other emotions. If your exhaustion says, “I am walking toward physical recovery,” or your laughter says, “I am walking toward resilience,” or your loneliness says, “I am walking toward company,” or your compassion says, “I am walking toward justice,” join the emotions that take you on the road toward life abundant.

We are creatures who feel many things at once. Take the time and space to sort your emotions. Organize them into neat stacks, or at least into messy piles, of constructive emotion and paralyzing emotion. Limit the time you spend with paralyzing emotion, as much as you can, and hone in on constructive emotion.

3. Listen to your body.

If you are finding it hard to identify emotions, begin with your body. Resmaa Menakem argues that the strongest emotions—love, fear, anger, dread, grief, sorrow, disgust, hope—are not located in the brain, they are located in the body.

When your emotions are confused or stalled out, pay attention to your body. If your body tingles with nervous energy, go on a run or a bike ride. If your shoulders are tense, spend 5 minutes stretching. If your legs ache, take a hot bath. If your tummy hurts, make a fresh pot of tea or warm milk. If you are hungry, eat. If your heart is heavy, get on your knees and pray—really, bring yourself before God, drag God into the room, and say what you need to say.

Activism begins in the body.

4. Respect your emotional explosions.

Sometimes, in spite of your best efforts, your emotions do explode. Respect the stress you’re under, and the intensity of your feeling. It is not bad to feel deeply. Let the explosions ground you, remind you to respect the intensity of being human.

5. Plan for Election Day.

It seems you have not yet learned how to control the minds of everyone in this country. Given that this will probably still be true on November 3, take care of the one mind that’s yours. Your body is currently activating a stress response which you have tied to November 3, and November 4, and November 5. Position yourself for a supported stress response on these days.

Treat Election Day like Thanksgiving in reverse—gather because gratitude seems to be fading. Do not watch election results alone. Make sure your loved ones do not have to watch results alone.

Even if people decline, err on the side of many invitations.  

Decide now what time you will go to bed on Election Day. Find an accountability buddy who will call you at midnight and make you go to bed. Do not, do not stay up until 4am watching TV the way you did in 2016.

Prepare for the days after the election. Adjust your expectations for the week’s work and productivity. Take some time off, as soon as you can after Election Day. Recover. The world will move on, and it will need you.

6. Acknowledge the possibility of a Trump coup; don’t obsess over it.

You are very lucky to have friends who have the emotional bandwidth to plan for a coup. Read what they say and share, as much as you can, but don’t worry about it.

A coup sounds terrifying, but resisting a coup is the same process as resisting a democracy. All the tools you need, you already have. It’s the same muscles you’ve been training for the last four years. It does not require more fear—just more certainty of what you carry in your center.

7. Connect with other humans.

Now, on Election Day, after Election Day. Maybe there’s a reason the same Stevie Wonder song keeps coming on, “I just called to say I love you.”

Call everyone, just to say “I love you.” Anybody you are reaching out to wants to be reached. We all wish for connection. Especially now.

8. Do a hard thing.

It is hard to do things when you are pushing a wheelbarrow full of worry. But you can do hard things. In the coming weeks, you will need to do things you are not ready for or too emotionally spent to do. It will be tempting to opt-out with the cultural rhetoric of self-care. Stick with it. Do the hard things. Not all the hard things. But some hard things.

9. Focus on good trouble.

What you pay attention to grows. Pay attention to good trouble and the people getting into it. Disregard the evil whispering that it has overtaken goodness. If you are centered in goodness, the doings of evil are irrelevant. Keep moving toward good trouble.

10. Limit your news intake.  

There are not 5 articles about Trump’s COVID diagnosis on the front page because it’s important; they’re there so that you stay on that webpage. Do not seek a play-by-play of every catastrophe. Do not track every state’s votes as they are reported. Block sites, disable your internet, trigger dark screen after 10pm—whatever you need to do to get yourself to unplug.

11. Remember that Jesus said “Do Not Worry” to a crowd with much less stable lives and governance.

Your government and your faith in it may be collapsing. But Jesus said don’t worry to people who had far more to worry about. Yours is not the first government to oppress its people, it’s just your first experience being at odds with your government to such an extreme degree.

Do not worry still applies.

Jesus probably knew he would die when he said do not worry. He wanted the disciples to know, I can’t guarantee you stability, but I can guarantee you purpose and good company. He knew disciples seeking justice needed to release their worry in order to do anything at all.

Paraphrase Jesus’ words. Tell yourself, Look at the birds in the sky. They do not vote or call their legislators, they sign up for no email alerts, yet our God in heaven ensures they are fed. Aren’t you more important than they? Which of you by worrying can add a moment to your lifespan?

Stop worrying, then, over questions such as ‘Who will rule us?’ or ‘Will my vote count?’ or ‘How will I know it was a fair and free election?’ Those without faith are always running after these things. God knows everything you need. Seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice, and these things will pale beside your sense of purpose. Enough of worrying about tomorrow! Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles enough of its own.

12. Read your notes.

Return to these words when you forget how to say them for yourself.


This post is adapted from a sermon given October 4.