The most dangerous thing for the citizen of a democracy to do after an election is relax. But all I can think is, now we can all relax. A little bit, even?
For quite some time, I have wondered where I live. What country is this, divided almost in half, each side with a checklist that finds the other side immoral or inhumane, malevolent or irrational? It took two philosophers writing about two Mexican philosophers to name this feeling for me: zozobra.
In everyday life, zozobra just means anxiety. But Emilio Uranga went deeper, exploring the sense of destabilization Mexicans have had for far longer than we have. Zozobra meant wobbling between two perspectives, unable ever to land. Elated by the election results, I am sick at the election results, because they showed just how much support the Trump presidency garnered and I still cannot understand how the man was palatable. Relieved that masking and distance have become manageable habits and I no longer scrub down my groceries in a panic, I am terrified by a surge that promises to only get worse. I bounce between hope and despair, finding life manageable then overwhelming then manageable then overwhelming, and the solace would be sharing these feelings with everyone around me, but instead it takes inordinate energy just to figure out how to have a conversation.
My first intense wave of zozobra came with beloved friends sending me things that set my insides on fire, had me sputtering and pacing because nothing I could say in return would be heard. That trapped feeling reminded me of reporting on the Forum, one of those large-group awareness things that teaches you a special vocabulary, giving everyday words a specific psychological twist so that when you go home, you can no longer talk properly to your loved ones and you wind up wailing, “You just won’t get it!”
The article about zozobra pointed out that it is often experienced in a foreign country, someplace where “the rhythms of life, the way people interact, everything just seems ‘off’—unfamiliar, disorienting and vaguely alienating.” The United States has felt like a foreign country to me since 2016. Not the place I thought I lived. Children in cages; a president who praises bullying, hate, and intimidation; lies uttered more boldly than truth; more than competing political narratives, competing views of reality.
Saturday Night Live captured the oscillating nature of zozobra perfectly in its pre-election skit on democracy. Earnest idealists somewhere left of center spoke hopefully about the future of democracy, and then the camera zoomed out, and you saw the person arming up with an automatic rifle, spinning a saferoom’s vault door shut, sneaking across the Canadian border….
The election proved we still live in a functioning democracy (to me at least; to others, it proved the opposite). The day it was finally called, a friend emailed an article explaining how the Deep State had rigged the election in order to take down the economy: “The premise is simple: take down the economy and deflate a sitting president whose stated mission is to drive a booming economy. In tandem, convince public opinion that actually getting to the polls is a health hazard.”
This is a guy I like. He is honest, decent, smart, funny. I tried to answer one of his previous emails point by point, got angrier as I went, ended with “Please don’t hate me.” He wrote back with the warm assurance, “I would never hate you. We just trust different sources.”
I do not feel as conciliatory as some—this election was about more than elephants and donkeys. It was about basic integrity and human decency. But we have to find those things again together, much as the thought of simply chopping the country in half appeals to me. The other Mexican philosopher who is relevant here, Jorge Portilla, says we cannot ignore the fractures and live in our own world, surrounded by our own cozy meanings. There is a “horizon of understanding” in this life we all share—we need common assumptions about reality to proceed. Did I know that, deep down, already? Is that why I get so frustrated I could scream, and why these emails leave me feeling sadder than they should?
Carlos Alberto Sánchez and Francisco Gallegos wrote a book about Portilla and his painfully contemporary relevance. In the U.S., they note, “people increasingly have the sense that their neighbors and countrymen inhabit a different world.” The book is titled The Disintegration of Community. “Disintegration” strikes me as the perfect word, because not only do we cease to be integrated, morally and racially and psychologically, but we then begin to rot. How can we know when we have reached that stage? Paralysis sets in, Portilla says, and cynicism, corruption, nostalgia, apocalyptic thinking.
This is why the election was so fraught, and life now feels, as a friend of mine put it, as though thirty pounds of toxic gas have left the room. Granted, almost half the country is furious, still believes the election was stolen, still wants to return to a better time, sees even establishment Democrats as socialists, and defines the apocalypse as a fraudulent takeover. But if you zoom out to the larger landscape, there is a faint glow of hope that we are not stuck anymore, paralyzed by incredulity, and can move forward as a country instead of looking back at a misty notion of the past or waving guns at one another or giving up altogether.
As for the apocalypse, there have been plenty of jokes about it in my feed, especially in the past year. They are not irrational, given that the Earth is burning up and there are hundreds more zoonotic viruses ready to pop and the great American experiment in pluralism could still announce its abject failure and close up shop.
Uranga was a sunny chap, pointing out that zozobra was a way for people to come together, uniting in their worries. But what if it turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy? Deep down, all I want is for some trusted figure (Joe Biden? Gandalf?) to pat my hand and say, “The world is not ending. There is hope for the planet and hope for people very different from one another to cooperate and build a strong nation.”
Portilla would approve this yearning. He thought a nation’s leader could ease some of the angst of zozobra simply by invoking a shared sense of what is real and what matters. Until that happens, though, zozobra is with us.
Curious what Google will pull up in an English-language search for “zozobra,” I key it in and receive pages of results about Old Man Gloom, a fifty-foot-high marionette effigy in Santa Fe that is meant to burn away the year’s worries.
New Year’s Eve should be quite a conflagration.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.