IN THE YEAR 1999 - Mike Riddell
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
In the year 1999, as a new era approached, I pitched a series of articles that might have turned into a book. The working title was ‘The End of the Millennium from the Ends of the Earth’. I never found a publisher, so the reports only ever existed in my notes and my imagination.
As a Kiwi, I’ve often thought that we have a unique perspective on the rest of the world. It’s born of New Zealand’s geographical isolation, our short colonial history, and our lack of global chutzpah. We watch the same events as the rest of you, but our take on them is the equivalent of eavesdropping from the margins. It results in a lot of head-scratching and derision.
Observing the election of Donald Trump was spectacular entertainment. It seemed from here, that he was the most unlikely candidate since Chauncey Gardiner in Being There. Who could have imagined a presidential candidate famous for a TV game show, who was alleged to be a serial harasser of women, and who announced policy by tweet? It was only too delicious when he actually got the job.
Of course I realize our ironic schaudenfreude has come at the cost of a great deal of pain for those of you who live in the land of which President Trump is now the leader. Possibly even for those who voted for him. It’s our luxury in this remote corner of the planet to stand back and smile at the absurdity of life. Forgive us our chuckling, if you are able.
I know there is a deadly serious element to all of this. We were recently informed that North Korea’s new missiles are capable of reaching the northern part of my own fair land, which did much to wipe the smile off my face. Another movie character played by Peter Sellers was Dr Strangelove. How prophetic this satire all seems from the new millennium.
Recently Rebecca Solnit penned a profound opinion piece on the Don, entitled The Loneliness of Donald Trump. Her opening line sounds like it is heralding a hatchet job: “Once upon a time, a child was born into wealth and wanted for nothing, but he was possessed by bottomless, endless, grating, grasping wanting, and wanted more, and got it, and more after that, and always more.”
In fact, it turns out to be not so much an attack on the incumbent President as a lament for the lack of checks and balances on personality development in our current society. If our political process throws up this figure as leader of the free world, is there not some deep failing in our notion of civil community? Should we scapegoat the confused despot, or reflect on ourselves?
It seems to me that there are two great forces driving much of the conflict in the world. They are polar opposites – acceptance and rejection. We crave the one and fear the other. In the West, fear of rejection is a malignant force that drives us toward suspicion and conflict. If there is a turn toward xenophobia, it is driven by the deep anxiety that people are against us.
Solnit suggests that much of Trump’s unease in his own soul is driven by never being able to reach that which he strives for. “Some use their power to […] live in the void of their own increasingly deteriorating, off-course sense of self and meaning. It’s like going mad on a desert island, only with sycophants and room service.” In this sense, she almost offers empathy for his lonely condition.
It may be that the high farce of the Trump presidency is an opportunity to reflect on the currents in our own lives. How willing are we to accept our limitations, to hear the gentle resistance of our friends, to work toward genuine community with people who are only too aware of our faults? Is it easier to project onto a clownish figure all the disappointment we feel with our own failings?
The fear of rejection blights us all. It makes us cover our sins, repress our anger, and attempt to be other than we are. I recall a time when I became only too aware of this. I was a speaker at a Christian conference. After my address, a young man approached me and buttered me up with great compliments. This encouraged me to listen closely to him, as he was obviously a person of good taste.
As he poured out his heart, I became aware that I needed to go to the toilet. But rather than interrupt my flatterer and explain my need, I pretended to hang on his every word. Eventually, with a pious but pained visage, I pissed my pants. I didn’t want to appear rude, and so instead I became a fool. I was not at ease in my own skin.
It has been the journey of a lifetime to finally be at home with myself. This was never something I could work up for myself – it was the by-product of unconditional love. I venture that no one is able to accept themselves until they have experienced being accepted. Donald Trump is not alone in feeling desperately incomplete. He may be so in not having anyone to teach him that this a problem he can’t solve without help.
Solnit identifies the distortion in Trump’s character as stemming from a lack of genuine community. “[T]he opposite of people who drag you down isn’t people who build you up and butter you up. It’s equals who are generous but keep you accountable, true mirrors who reflect back who you are and what you are doing.” Acceptance asks brokenness: a mutual honesty in which to become real.
That might not sound like much of a political agenda, but from this forgotten corner of the world, it seems that society will not be healed until we address it. On all sides we are surrounded by politicians who have not matured socially or spiritually. They are driven by the lust for power which will always prove ultimately destructive. We can’t change them, but we can change ourselves.
Getting rid of the Trump presidency won’t change the political systems that created him. A deeper transformation is necessary. We poor stunted souls need to find a way of rediscovering our humanity, compassion, and interdependence. As Martin Luther King said, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
It may be time to live what we hope for. To live intentionally rather than reactively. Critiquing the status quo is so very easy, with an emotionally crippled man holding power. Can we bear the thought that he is actually a reflection of our own immaturity? The work of transformation is slow and deliberate and demanding. This is no time to neglect it.