5 Books to Help You Prepare Emotionally for Election Year

I don’t usually talk about politics or religion on this blog very often. There’s a reason for that and it’s more than just the desire to not make anyone mad. Part of what I do as a mindfulness teacher is debunk myths and misconceptions about mindfulness practices. Some of the myths I have encountered have been about the kind of people who are able to benefit from meditation.

As I discussed last week, it’s easy to get caught into the trap of identity about the kinds of people we are. When I teach mindfulness, therefore, sometimes I find myself subtly hinting at the idea that identity is not nearly as stable as we’d all like to think. But I usually try to avoid launching into a direct attack on identity because that can be pretty scary.

When you talk about politics and religion, you are bound to encounter identity. In America right now, lots of us may feel like our identities are under attack. We may feel like we have to fight to protect who we are and to save the country or state or city we know and love. I know this is a hard place to be and so I try to be respectful and give people time to consider the impact of their identity on their own terms and in their own time.

But here are the facts. The last two election cycles in the United States have been brutal. The next election coming in 2024 doesn’t look like it is going to be any easier. As someone with personal experience letting politics drive me crazy, I don’t judge anyone who feels this way.

Having been tossed about by polarized politics in America for years now, I started to wonder whether there is a better way. I don’t claim that this post offers the better way. That is, I don’t know that there is one way to do things better. In truth, I think there may be many better ways.

What has been the better way for me? Well, it has been trying to learn how to judge a little bit less when it comes to politics. When I say this, I don’t mean to disengage. I still vote- even in primaries and especially in local races. I still donate. I pay attention to the issues and I call my representatives. However, the internal reactions- to elected officials, my neighbors, and the situation – I have had to learn to relax to save my own sanity.

Obviously, sticking with my meditation practice has been an essential component to this solution. Calming down and becoming aware of thoughts is a fundamental step to being mindful of judgments. But I noticed that I had been engaging in another form of mind training over the last year or so. I looked at my reading list and I saw a pattern of books that I had read (or read again) to help me watch my judgments this election year.

Here are the 5 books that have helped me understand things a bit better so I could judge a bit less and have more peace in the coming election year.

1. Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown

I‘ve talked about loneliness a few times on this blog. Has it ever occurred to you that political polarization is happening at a time when loneliness is being recognized as a public health crisis? Sure, there are other factors at work here too, but Brown makes an interesting point in this book. She helps us see that what we want as humans – belonging and connection – is the exact opposite of what we find when we polarize and segregate ourselves. The point here is not to judge anyone for wanting a safe space with likeminded individuals, but instead to help us reevaluate how we can make spaces truly safe for all. If you need some courage or help eliminating shame and dehumanizing speech from your vocabulary (and trust me most of us do) check this book out.

2. Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg

So, you may be thinking, “fine I agree that we all want connection, but how can I possibly relate to people with whom I can’t even talk?” I’m not telling you to rush into protracted debates with people on the opposite end of the political spectrum. This book, though, may help you learn some skills so you can understand people better. This book is about owning and respecting our human needs and interests and doing the same for others. This sounds simple but it’s something you will probably hardly ever hear in ordinary communication at work and at home. Some of the references in this book are a bit dated, but the practices remain valuable and practical today.

3. Against Empathy by Paul Bloom

This one may sound surprising in this context. Nonviolent Communication, which I just recommended, strongly encourages empathy as a tool for communication. And, in fact, it can be. As Bloom points out in this book, though, it can also become a block to it. This book really isn’t against empathy in all cases. Rather, Bloom argues instead that empathy can create problems for us in moral decisionmaking. Why? Well, in part because empathy “spotlights” certain individuals. Depending on our morality, we may disagree on who deserves the spotlight. Bloom argues instead for a “rational compassion” to guide our moral and policy decisions. As a teacher of compassion, I’m certainly inclined to agree. This book can help you see how emotions may come up in morality and politics in ways you may not have noticed before. That awareness may help you understand better how others process things so you can judge less and understand more.

4. Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but I have to admit that I recommend it with some hesitancy. This book didn’t make me feel better exactly, but it definitely helped me judge others different from me less. In this book, the Vox founder did what he does best: he explains polarization. In particular, he explains why American politics as a system tends toward polarization and how that system polarizes all of us individuals in turn. It examines the government structure, the parties as organizations, American history, and even the media to explain how polarization has evolved. Did this book change my political beliefs? No, not at all. Did it help me understand the factors that shaped my beliefs better? Absolutely. And it helped me consider how my fellow citizens are subject to the very same forces.

5. Love Your Enemies by Sharon Salzberg & Robert Thurman

Even if you learn to talk nicer and you understand more, the reality remains that people can still piss you off. That’s why the final book is about how to not get so pissed off all the time. This book says it is about loving enemies, but make no mistake it is really mostly about loving yourself. Quite appropriately, the book starts off by talking about “external enemies” – the other people in our families, workplaces, and communities who drive us nuts. But you will be surprised to see how much of this is devoted to getting clear on your own pain and frustration and learning to care for it. Like I’ve discussed before when talking about compassion, this book is not about being a doormat. Instead, it’s about being brave enough to be kind in a world that sometimes isn’t.

These are the books that have helped me prepare to judge less, stay kind, without checking out too much during the next election year. As I said before, this isn’t an exhaustive list. What books would you add to this list? What other resources or practices are helping you stay steady these days?

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.

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