Stress-Testing the System:
Democracy and Our Human Lives

Well, it looks like the 2020 presidential election season is limping to a close. And so far, I guess we are the winners! On Nov. 25, Alexander Burns makes the following observation on page one of The New York Times: “As President Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election have steadily disintegrated, the country appears to have escaped a doomsday scenario in the campaign’s epilogue: Since Nov. 3, there have been no tanks in the streets or widespread civil unrest, no brazen intervention by the judiciary or a partisan state legislature. So far, the center has held and we are not flying apart at the seams as a country.” (See lead photo.)

My younger son Kevin is a Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at the University of California, Riverside. (See below for a photo taken of Kevin as Interim Dean of Arts and Science at the University, and a couple of photos of the campus.) So of course he is the family’s go-to guy for all things political. And we have chatted frequently in recent days about the unfolding post-election scene and what to make of it all. He wrote the following to me in a Nov. 17 email:

For several generations now our country has prospered and really has not faced an existential threat to our government or our way of life. As a result, I think we have come to take the existence and stability of our democracy for granted. It is appropriate to be alarmed by the Trump administration’s assaults on our democratic institutions, including things like enlisting the Department of Justice or foreign powers to investigate political opponents, or using Federal troops to suppress peaceful protests, or resisting the peaceful transition of power. But I always tell my students that our democracy has a strong foundation and because of that it will only be strengthened from being challenged, and once Trump is no longer in power it will be easier to think about ways to improve our institutions and make our democracy even better going forward.

In a FaceTime call shortly before his email, Kevin told me it is important for our democracy to be challenged once in a while in order for folks to be confronted with what is happening and to realize their deepest values in our form of government. That is, when our democracy is threatened, we are brought up short and are forced to realize what is important in our political system and our constitutional vision, allowing us to thrive over our history.

And thinking about all that, I also noted that in a way, this is a metaphor for our human existence. That is, it is primarily in times of challenge in our lives – a scary diagnosis, being fired or otherwise being suddenly out of work, losing a spouse, etc. – the challenges of a human life – these crises that we meet face-to-face can clarify our priorities and push us to sort through what really matters in our lives. In fact, at least one philosopher has said something to the effect that crises are necessary for full human growth.

In their work Trauma & Transformation, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun stress that “for an individual to achieve the greatest psychological health, some kind of suffering is necessary.” In chapter three of my book Flourishing Life (“Creating a Flourishing Life through Suffering and Loss”), I devote the entire chapter to this very theme. And I expect that if you’ve lived a few years yourself, you have also experienced – as I have – some losses along the way. As Tedeschi and Calhoun point out, when some negative event suddenly befalls you, you’re probably caught off-guard at first. Even if someone close to you is dying, the approaching death is still not quite real until it happens. And then such loss events prove to be shocking and frequently cause a shift in your own self-image. For example, if you’ve always seen yourself in control of your own life, such loss likely makes you feel helpless, vulnerable, and emotionally angry or depressed.

However, most people can emerge on the other side of trauma with new wisdom and a re-shaped world of meaning, with an expanded sense of what really matters in their lives. Humans are amazingly courageous, and indeed are capable of surviving even severe loss with renewed purpose and vision.

And so my conversation with my son, Kevin. Given the stresses that our constitutional democracy has been subject to over the last few years, and especially as the current election and its aftermath have unfolded, I do believe our democratic “experiment” has once more proven robust. As a country we have moved to the other side of the stress test stronger and clearer about what it means to be a United States citizen. Our system held, the center held, and our way of life has been preserved.

Now I’m the last one to say that all is now well with our country. Many commentators have pointed out the cracks in the system that have been revealed over the past few years. The racism, the resulting unfairness in our legal arrangements, the tilting privilege afforded the affluent and the potential for cruelty in an unfair justice system. These cracks are points of focus for future administrations to address and make right – or at least a whole lot better than they are now.

A friend of mine sent me an essay by the spiritual writer Richard Rohr. A quote from this essay seems like a fitting way to end this blog. So here goes:

Don’t play the victim! Victimhood is always a waster of time – God’s time and yours. Instead, try to learn the important lessons. ... Here, we must learn to stand in two different places and to change places often.The served must also be the servants and the servants must also be the served. We are not the first or the last generation that gets to suffer and to serve on this earth.

DISORDER is already upon us by reason of our planet, our history, our politics, our economy, the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread increase in mental and emotional unhealth. Our job is to make “Good Trouble” and probably even “Necessary Trouble” – so that humanity can spiritually and politically mature.

It is about falling – but always, falling upward.

– Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation

As I said above, I think it's a fitting way to end this blog, expanding on both Kevin’s and my thoughts with transcendent meaning. Amen.

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Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.