Letters

Solitary Contemplation, a Political Act

Trump year 1

What have you done in the last year to respond to the upheavals in American politics?  This is an installment in a series of short essays that reflect on the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Like many Americans, I watched the results of the 2016 presidential election roll in with a strange mixture of joy and jitteriness. But by 9 PM, that edgy elation had evaporated, turning to trepidation about what might lie ahead. Like many Americans, I spent a sleepless night wondering how I had so fundamentally misunderstood the direction in which our nation had been moving. The next morning, I watched helplessly as some of my mentors, colleagues, and students broke down in their offices or during their classes. People sobbed in the hallways, wandered aimlessly around campus, grieving. It wasn’t about Clinton’s loss so much as it was about our fear that democratic debate had just been extinguished. After all, an angry, unpredictable candidate antagonistic to the free press usually makes for an equally angry, unpredictable office-holder — except now with the institutional power to reinforce his authoritarian temperament.

In the months following his inauguration, President Trump’s erratic behavior has continued unabated: he has routinely fired off contradictory and indefensible tweets; he has undermined freedom of speech and journalistic integrity; he has subverted our public parks, health, and education; he has appointed crackpots and crooks to prominent political positions; he has explicitly harbored hostility toward women, Blacks, Muslims, the LBGTIQ community, immigrants, the poor, the elderly, and the sick; he has threatened our national security; and his absurd accusations of “fake news” have helped make conspiracy thinking mainstream. No wonder, then, that so many of us feel unmoored, unbalanced, and unable to understand the world in which we find ourselves.

Like many Americans during this past year, I have found sanctuary in solitary contemplation. The popularity of “Mindfulness” has soared as meditation groups, yoga classes, and silent retreats have found a newly stressed audience. But it’s important to remember that solitude is not purely therapeutic. It also carves out a space for deep thought and moral reflection. As the political theorist Hannah Arendt observed in 1971, the “soundless dialogue” between me and myself enables me to “go home and examine things.”[1] Solitary contemplation allows us to stop for a crucial moment and “think what we are doing,” to throw off the chains of thoughtless conformity and distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong, beauty from horror.[2]

Arendt provides us with a lesson for our present moment: she recognized the danger of thoughtlessness, that it could lead to any atrocity. As she put it, “He who does not know the intercourse between me and myself (in which we examine what we say and what we do) will not mind contradicting himself, and this means he will never be either able or willing to give account of what he says or does; nor will he mind committing any crime, since he can be sure that it will be forgotten the next moment.”[3] If we neglect the solitary thinking activity, then, we also neglect our consciences, and the most ordinary individuals — you and I — can become capable of terrible cruelties.

The chaos of President Trump’s regime has disrupted our daily lives, encroaching on our work places and our homes, our relationships and our family holidays. In such moments, preserving our private lives becomes essential to political resistance: by practicing mindful self-evaluation, we can simultaneously protect sustained intellectual engagement and unsettle dangerous political clichés as well as resist the tyranny of conformity. Solitary contemplation helps us to illuminate our moral worlds, to find some steady footing upon which to stand and act.

Jennifer Stitt is a historian of modern American thought, culture, and politics who earned a B.A. and M.A. in history from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She’s working on her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her writing has appeared at Aeon, Big Think, The Garrison Institute, On Being, Quartz, and Weld. You can read more about her work here.

Footnotes

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1978), 1:191.

[2] Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 5.

[3] Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” Social Research 38, no. 3 (Autumn 1971), 444-445.

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