No one should be surprised that so many Americans feel anxious these days. Consider all that’s happened in the last 16 years, the cumulative effect of which has led to the state of our national psyche today:
The contested 2000 Presidential election – the rise of Al Qaeda, international terrorism and 9/11 – the Afghan War and the US invasion of Iraq – the mortgage and banking crisis, the 2008 economic melt-down and the loss of jobs – the changing US multi-cultural demography that helped bring about the election of the first African American President and the corresponding nativist resentment and racism – the rise of the Tea Party and its right-wing Congressional obstructionism – the Arab Spring and the Arab Winter along with intensifying Middle East violence – ISIS – Syria’s civil war and the massive refugee crisis pouring into neighboring Arab countries and Europe – America’s daily gun violence and terrorism at Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Baton Rouge, Milwaukee and Dallas – not to mention attacks in Istanbul, Paris, Brussels, and Nice – and today the military coup (?) in Turkey – and the demoralizing 2016 Presidential campaign.
As these events occurred, social media and the 24-hour news cycle covered everything in great detail inundating us with its cacophony.
A great deal has changed in our world in recent years to be sure, for better and worse. Even good change is difficult for many of us to absorb, but when the changes are negative and destructive our lives feel more difficult.
Our fellow citizens are divided and polarized from each other at a depth that we haven’t experienced since the 1960s. We’re more distrusting, cynical and fearful of each other, and, according to a study reported on this week in the New York Times, there is a definitive link between racism with political party affiliation. Our politics have become the battleground of so much that ails us – between fear and reason, negativity and hope, nativism and internationalism, multi-culturalism and cosmopolitanism, red and blue, right and left.
Dr. Martin Luther King put it right when he said long ago; “People don’t get along because they fear each other. People fear each other because they don’t know each other. They don’t know each other because they haven’t properly communicated with each other.”
Can there be any doubt that we Americans need more contact with one another across racial, ethnic, religious, and political lines so we can come to know and understand one another better as human beings? That was the impetus of an essay by George Sanders that appeared in last week’s New Yorker on who Donald Trump supporters are beyond the stereotype of an angry white uneducated mostly male voter.
This said, our anxieties cloud the mind and make it difficult for reasoned discussion and a meeting of minds and hearts. Most Americans across the political and ethnic landscape wonder how we can best assure our own safety, the safety of our children, our civil society, and our sanity as a nation.
Health care professions identify a number of coping strategies that can help calm the nerves and center us:
1. When we feel anxious, take a time-out and remember to breathe;
2. Eat well-balanced meals and drink plenty of water;
3. Limit consumption of alcohol and caffeine, both of which aggravate anxiety and trigger panic attacks;
4. Disconnect regularly from the news, the Internet and social media thereby diminishing the fragmentation that results when we encounter disturbing news;
5. Sleep 7 to 8 hours nightly;
6. Exercise daily;
7. Meditate, do Yoga, pray;
8. Read fine literature and poetry; listen to inspiring music; visit museums and art galleries; drink in the life-affirming creativity of others;
9. Get out into nature;
10. Be with family and friends;
11. Celebrate Shabbat;
12. Learn Torah;
13. Correct societal wrongs;
14. Change what we can and accept what we can’t change.
These strategies can help alleviate some of the anxiety we feel. But, it’s important to understand that not all anxiety is necessarily bad. There are, indeed, real threats out there, and the adrenaline rush that comes when we feel threatened can serve us well at times.
We need to be able, however, to distinguish real risks and dangers from imaginary ones, and to be able to stand in the shoes of the “other,” understand who they are as individuals, and why they may think and react as they do when their thinking and responses seem so foreign to us.
These past weeks have been particularly disheartening for Americans as a whole. President Obama reminded us in Dallas last week that, regardless of our differences, we share far more in common than what distinguishes us.
All Americans want to feel safe in their homes and on the streets, to raise their children, enjoy their families, friends and communities, earn a living wage, and make a positive difference in the world.
We Jews, I suggest, need Shabbat more now than ever as an anti-anxiety strategy, for Shabbat is our time to step away from the negative and destructive, to reconnect with community and faith, to emphasize the good and creative, to breathe in Shabbat peace and exhale anxiety, fear, fragmentation, and cynicism, and to celebrate the many blessings that are ours every day.