I never thought I could get so personally freaked out about an election. For the past several weeks it has been getting worse and worse. I have always been a light sleeper, but now, every single time I wake up, I grab for my smartphone and click through my emails and news sources for the latest information, as if my neighborhood and our whole country were in the path of a fast-moving hurricane. All the anger, hate, and ignorance I see and read about keep me up at night and distracted during the day. I feel this strange mixture of compulsion to act and total helplessness. Sometimes I am literally nauseated. What should I do?
Trumped in Trenton
Dear Double T,
I have a pretty good idea how you are feeling during these last few weeks of Hillary vs. Trump, and so do many of my friends and neighbors. I can’t stop worrying that she will say something really stupid, or he will say something intelligent, or some natural disaster will change everything—so I check my own smartphone several times a day. But it sounds as if your anxiety is seriously interfering with your ability to function, much less enjoy life. For this reason, it might be a good idea to call your primary physician (or therapist, if you have one) and ask about a prescription for some mild sleep aid or antianxiety medication to get you through the next few weeks. As I recently wrote to another soul troubled by this horrible election cycle, I want to stress that your letter has given me no reason to think that your reaction is anything but a normal response to a terrifying environment. In fact, it seems to me that an unprecedented number of adult Americans who care about politics are in a state of serious exogenous anxiety.
If you are hesitant about turning to medication for mood or sleep problems (probably an irrational hesitancy, but I confess that I share it), I suggest that you try to soothe and take care of yourself in whatever other ways best suit you. Comfort food can be nice. So can exercise, seeing friends more often, getting massages, buying some new books, or binge-watching Netflix.
You should also start cutting back sharply on the electronics, and on news sources generally. It is perfectly possible to be as well-informed as you are now—and possibly better-informed, because you may read more calmly and in greater depth—if you check your news sources once a day. Okay, twice. Stay away from the wackier and more hysterical on-line sources. Try not to obsess about polls. And ban all electronics from the bedroom—or, if you honestly believe that you might not hear your phone or alarm from another room, put your devices as far away from your bed as possible. Your e-reader can stay only if you do not use it for anything except reading and maybe buying more books. If you do not do so already, you might want to start reading an actual paper newspaper. The pace and tactile stimulation can be calming, relatively speaking, and so can doing the paper crossword.
If you feel that you must watch the next two debates in real time, do not do so alone. Needless to say, this goes double for election-night coverage. If nobody you know invites you to a watch party, hold your own, or find a welcoming bar or political headquarters.
Most important: Pitch in! Do something! This is the best way to combat your feelings of helplessness. If the good guys win, you will have played a part. And if (THIS CANNOT HAPPEN) it goes the other way, it may be important for your mental health and wellbeing to know that you did what you could. Right now the big push is to register voters. If, as your letter suggests, you are from New Jersey, the deadline is October 18. In many states, mine included, it is even earlier: I will be out on the streets, or phone-banking, off and on until then. After that there will still be plenty of work to do, but the next and final push will be to get out the vote. If you can possibly make the time, go on line and search for volunteer opportunities, especially for the next few days and on or right before Election Day. Ideally, you should volunteer to work in a state, or on a down-ballot campaign, where the contest is closer. (Do you live near Pennsylvania? Could you get to Ohio, even, for a few days?) But almost all campaigns need help.
Talk to people, wear buttons, put up a sign. Although I personally doubt that very many Trump supporters are going to change their minds before November 8, there are people on the fence; if you think you might know any, talk to them. The same goes for people who plan not to vote, or to vote for one of the third-party candidates—surely at least some of them can be made to see, for example, that voting Libertarian is a slap in Bernie’s face. And it is not too late to send money! Your psyche will thank you if you contribute to the national campaign, and to the state and local contests of your choice.
I hope that this letter, especially the previous paragraph, won’t just add guilt to your quiver of unpleasant emotions. If you are short on time and money, and live in a safe state, it’s not my job to make you feel even worse than you do already.
Nevertheless: for those of you who do have time and money you can possibly spare, this is the moment. When I was a kid I used to read a lot abut the Second World War and wonder what I would do if I lived during the rise of a dictator. I always thought that I would know what was happening…and that I would do something. Now I see how hard it is to know, and how easy it is to make excuses.
My mother, who died about two months ago, left me a letter directing that I take her ashes and scatter them over the Pacific because she has very happy memories of her time in California before she met and married my father. My husband and I, and all of my three siblings for that matter, have always lived in New England, where she and my dad lived until his death in 2009. I have not told anybody about this letter, which was written only to me. Before she died, I had never made any promise of any kind about what to do with her ashes. In fact, she never said anything to anybody or made any provision of any kind for what to do after her death.
We had a beautiful memorial service shortly after she died, and her cremains, as the mortician called them, are now sitting in a small carton in my garage. The reason they are there is because I was the only one who offered to take them; my family are all basically hard-nosed rationalists of the “when you’re dead, you’re dead” variety, which I what I always thought my mother was, too.
Mom left a very small estate, of which I will get my fair share. But no provision was made for the expense or time involved in this California trip. And I am sure that none of my siblings would agree to help pay for it, given their total indifference. So I am on my own.
Do I have an obligation to follow her wishes? I agree with my siblings that it doesn’t matter what happens after you are dead, but even so I am agonizing over this decision. I loved Mom very much, and I know I was her favorite. It’s just that I do not see what a baggie full of ashes has to do with the person who was my dynamic mother. I should admit that my family could afford to make the trip, barely, but only at the expense of our regular vacation—local camping—and some other small luxuries like eating out.
When Dad died, Mom just kept his cremains in a closet until one night when a bunch of us happened to be eating dinner at her house and had an impromptu scattering in the woods behind it. Am I a bad person to be telling myself that nobody would be hurt, and Mom would never know, if I just took her ashes to Lake Bomoseen? Or the Atlantic?
Mourning near Montpelier
No, you are not a bad person to tell yourself that, given your belief system. In fact, my first reaction to your letter was on the order of “Atlantic? Pacific? Who cares? The woman is dead, and funerals are for the living.” But when I described your situation to two of my local moral compasses, both of them disagreed. They had no reason, exactly, but both had a basic moral intuition that last requests should be honored unless there is a very strong reason not to. They had an even stronger intuition that, come on, this is her mother she’s writing about, not just anybody.
When I asked them whether they thought that honoring one’s Mom, who (we stipulated) would never know about it, required that a daughter fly across the country and spend most of her family’s annual discretionary income, my compasses countered by asking me what I would do in your situation. And I had to admit that I would make the California trip. I could not support my decision with reason or logic since, like you, I do not believe individual consciousness persists after death, at least not in any way that would care about the ashes of its former repository. I couldn’t even tell myself that making the trip would set a good public example and shore up the (arguably) civilizing institution of honoring last wishes, since the letter in question could be kept totally private. However, as long as I knew that my mother’s wishes were heartfelt, and that she was in her right mind, I would feel bound to honor them, if possible. Just because.
You must feel a similar moral—or emotional, or whatever it is—pull, or you would not be agonizing over your choice. So I suggest that you consider the Pacific option, or at least leave it open by not scattering the ashes anywhere else for the time being. Whatever you do, there is no rush. Your mother said you should scatter them, but she didn’t say when. It is not as if the physical ashes are going anywhere, or as if either of us believes that your mother is now a restless spirit who cannot find peace until her physical remains return to the western ocean. Eternity is a long time, and I cannot see how a few years, even ten, would matter much in this case. You could save a very small amount of money every month in an ashes fund and make a short, solitary trip on a cheap flight once you’ve saved enough. Or you could hope and plan for a California family vacation in a few years, which might actually be fun. If a close relative or very close friend happens to be heading to California in the interim, you might even ask them to transport and scatter the ashes: your mother did request that you do the scattering, but I think we can allow a broad interpretation of her wishes to mean “make sure the scattering happens.”
It may turn out that, as time goes by with the ashes still in your garage, you will find yourself more at peace with disposing of them closer to home. Or you may find them to be a heavy emotional burden, in which case you can firm up and speed up your plans to get to California. (Could you use some of your share of the small estate for this purpose, or has that already been accounted for?)
You don’t have to feel guilty, whatever you decide. But you might anyway, so I’d be careful not rule out the California option unless you become sure that you can live with some other plan.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.