On election night, I watched from my friends’ living room, gradually curling into the fetal position as Republican red seeped across the map. I left before CNN called it, went home, and sat on my bedroom floor in the dark.
I tried to draw deep breaths, the way they tell you to do. I texted “I love you” and “Are you okay?” to a few friends. No one was okay. I felt an urge to text my ex-boyfriend. I decided not to. I texted my ex-boyfriend. I texted another ex-boyfriend. Then I powered my phone down. I washed my face and brushed my teeth so I wouldn’t feel even worse in the morning. I swallowed a melatonin pill. I took an Ativan too, even though, like ex-boyfriends, benzodiazepines are a part of my past that I try not to revisit. And then I went to bed. I slept very well because, in an imperfect way, I had cared for myself.
The word “self-care” has a New Age ring to it, but the idea is an old one. French philosopher Michele Foucault discusses it in The Care of the Self, the third volume of his 1976 The History of Sexuality. Foucault, who believed that self-care was an ethical responsibility, pointed out that “the idea that one ought to attend to oneself, care for oneself … was actually a very ancient theme in Greek culture.” He cites Socrates “remind[ing] men that they need to concern themselves not with their riches, not with their honor, but with themselves and with their souls.” As opponents of Donald Trump grapple with the reality of our new political climate, we, too, must heed Socrates: We need to concern ourselves with ourselves.
If that sounds counter-intuitive, even narcissistic, consider Foucault. Far from a navel-gazing intellectual, Foucault was a relentless political activist who questioned Marxism, harshly critiqued institutional imprisonment, and suffered a fractured rib while clashing with riot police in West Germany. So if he stressed the importance of self-care, there’s a lesson for us in that: Self-care is integral to fixing a broken system.
Take the ongoing battle for human rights, for instance, since we may have a long one ahead of us. In the months and years ahead, we will need to protest unjust policies, defend the vulnerable, donate time and money to Black Lives Matter and Planned Parenthood, and support politicians and legislation and organizations that promote the common good. But if we neglect ourselves, how will we do any of that? How will we possibly help?
Self-care is not as easy as it sounds. It’s not just painting your toenails when you’re having a rough day. In her book From Coping to Thriving: How to Turn Self-Care Into A Way of Life, author Hannah Braime defines self-care as “behaviors that serve our emotional and physical health over the short-term and the long-term.” I would add that it also means reckoning honestly with yourself.
Knowing yourself is often quite difficult. It’s easier to rest in “short-term” self-care: sending an impulsive text to an ex because at least it feels good for five minutes.
Since Trump announced his presidential candidacy almost a year and a half ago, I’ve been guilty of falling into short-term self-care. It felt gratifying to see Trump as a joke, and to fancy myself an intellectual who soared far above his racist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynistic, ableist rhetoric. It felt good to see Trump supporters as ignorant. It felt instantly gratifying to divorce myself from qualities I saw in Trump and his supporters that I didn’t want to see in myself—normal, human qualities, such as selfishness and anger.
But ultimately, choosing instant gratification has proven catastrophically destructive.
In the aftermath of the election, many people in despair are asking, “How did this happen?” Some blame the Democratic establishment; some, the electoral college or the FBI or Vladimir Putin. I think the full answer to the question is complex. But one culprit, at least on my part, was insufficient self-interrogation.
I was so traumatized throughout this campaign season—feeling profoundly unsafe by virtue of merely possessing a vagina—that I could rarely bring myself to look inward. I couldn’t stand to cop to my bad behavior (assuming that all Trump supporters were basically the same) and blind spots (refusing to see weaknesses in my own preferred candidate). I was complicit in moments that lead to Trump’s victory—I failed to vote in the midterm elections, lived blithely in a racist society, and laughed at Trump’s 3 am tweetstorms. Examining my flaws and mistakes was just too painful because I was already in so much pain. But by living in denial, by refusing to understand myself, I wasn’t practicing self-care. Consequently, I was in no position to understand others. I dismissed Trump’s supporters; I couldn’t stomach listening to them. I closed my eyes. If I accidentally clicked on a Breitbart link, I fled from it as if from a dark alley.
I know I wasn’t alone in this.
Feeling the disapproval in the air, it seems possible that some Trump supporters were ashamed to admit who they were planning on voting for. So they stayed silent. Without a word, they marched across our blind spots and took over the country.
It’s done now. The worst-case scenario came to pass. Donald Trump, star of Celebrity Apprentice, who rarely reads, who calls women “pigs,” who has pledged mass deportations and suggested a ban on Muslim immigrants, is the president-elect of the United States. The House is Republican. The Senate is Republican. David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, congratulated Trump on his win. All of us who feared some version of this outcome are living a dystopian nightmare. But there are elections to come and many fights ahead, all of which, if we’re not vigilant, could go as horribly wrong as this one did.
So let’s care for ourselves. Let’s ask ourselves, What are all of the things I’m feeling? rather than, What am I proud to feel and comfortable with feeling? Let’s listen to one other, too: Tell me why you don’t feel heard; tell me what that’s like for you. Let’s ask ourselves and those close to us, as well as those we don’t agree with, What is upsetting you right now? What do you need in this moment? What do you need in the long run? To understand Trump’s supporters on a human level, if not an ideological one, is to understand what’s happening around us.
When I woke up the day after the election, I knew that I needed to cry. So I cried. I needed reassurance from my very smart, optimistic brother. So I texted him to ask if the world was ending. “I’m fairly upset and pissed,” he responded. I needed to check in with my friends again, the people I love who felt, as I did, that they’d just gotten hit by a truck. “I love you,” I texted my friends.
“I love you, too,” they texted back.
And then, feeling a tiny bit better, having done a kind of self-care, I left my bed, made coffee, and went to work.
When this first wave of intense grief wears off, I will do even better. I will listen to stories I don’t want to hear. I will look inward, so that I can reach outward. This is how I’ll wake up. This is how I’ll fight.