Elizabeth Kubler-Ross defined the stages of grief in her landmark paper on death and dying. Even though the 2016 presidential election is not death and dying, as I reflect back I find many similarities in how I finally started to accept and live with the result.
As an American Muslim, I felt my identity was under the radar in past election cycles. This year was different. I was given an Un-American Muslim identity by some.
Identity forms the core of each one of us and an attack on it causes many different reactions. My initial reaction was of denial – I could not believe someone can be so negative towards others and reject being civil as being politically correct.
I knew that some people had concerns about American Muslims, but I always appreciated the accepting nature of this adoptive country of mine. I found that acceptance in liberal New York where I trained, and in deeply conservative rural Missouri, where I spent six years.
I continued in my denial phase, relying upon poll after poll showing what I wanted to see – that Donald Trump would not win the election. On the evening of Nov. 8th, as results started to pour in, I waited for those elusive urban voters. But my denial finally faced a reality that was hard to swallow – not because I did not support Mr. Trump, but because I felt all that I believed America is about was shaking.
For the first time, I briefly started to question whether it was a correct decision to call America my adoptive country. Not only I was made to feel unaccepted by a large part of America, but I also had some teasing from family in my native country, who taunted that there may be some room for US refugees in Pakistan.
This lead me to second stage of grief, anger. I was seething inside at people who voted differently, people in my native country who teased me, and eventually at myself.
Yes, I started to get angry at myself. I asked many questions: Should I have done more? Was I passive and just assumed that the election would go the way I liked? Did I not understand something about this election?
Then I started to transition into third stage of grief, which is bargaining. I told myself I could just enjoy tax breaks for the next four years, and now the Republicans would have no excuse – people who voted for them would see the impact of their extreme policies. It helped only little, and I entered the 4th stage: depression.
Then I started to think about how to accept this result. I came across a quote from the famous physicist Marie Curie: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.”
So did I not understand people who voted differently than I did? Were they all really bigoted, misogynistic and racist? If they were, it went against everything I thought I knew about people, especially in America.
Now I was not only sad, but my core identity was vulnerable: I thought I did not understand human nature, even though I am a psychiatrist, have always been a keen student of human behavior and have been blessed with a multicultural experience in life.
I have needed to quickly understand people and acculturate many times. I grew up in relatively liberal Pakistan of 1970s, but with my father working in Saudi Arabia I lived there for few years as a teenager. From there I moved to the Dominican Republic to attend medical school, and arrived in the US more than 20 years ago.
I always thought that with my training and life experience, I knew about the diversity of people’s thought processes. After the election, though, I realized, that I had forgetten a fundamental principal: when we get stressed emotionally, we regress in our emotional functioning to much more immature coping mechanisms.
When I felt my own identity was threatened, I started to go into my safe zone, into my bubble. I needed to feel emotionally secure, and I did that by listening to and seeing only what I wanted to believe. I surrounded myself with people who were like-minded and started to define others by use of the immature defensive mechanism of projection, blaming all negativity on others. It was easy to regard Trump supporters as uneducated, racist, bigoted and depolrables.
Once I realized this unconscious emotional journey, acceptance, the last stage of grief, became easier. My first step was to understand the so-called basket of deplorables.
I started to recall my experiences in America, especialy the ones that reminded me of the inclusive nature of this country. I remembered the prison chaplain who came to my mosque to ask us to come to the prison to conduct Friday night prayers. When I went there, prisoners told me this chaplain went out of his way to find a Quran for each and every Muslim prisoner.
I realized that in my work as a psychiatrist, people come to my office and break out of their bubbles. Every day, they let me look into their innermost fears and desires. They are almost always similar, whether in liberal NYC or conservative Missouri, whether my patients are black, white, Muslim, Jew or Christian. They all have financial struggles, worry about the future and the safety of their children, and face sadness and loneliness.
Most importantly, a lot of them are unable to cope with a rapidly changing society. I realized that as their anxieties increased, they, like me were going in their bubbles. They felt threatened by anything that they could not relate to, whether it was China taking jobs, terrorism by some Muslims or societal changes that seemed foreign to them.
Though we are different in many ways, we utilize the same psychological process to blame each other and became more emotional and less rational. Unfortunately, fear won in this election because it was closer to the reality of how many people were feeling in some parts of the country.
I have accepted the election results – not by understanding Donald Trump, but by understanding the people who voted for him. This is just the beginning. I wrote this article to let you into my bubble. I hope you will look into your own bubble, and share what’s there with someone different.
Mutual understanding can lead to a better world, because our fears, desires and wishes are not much different. By uniting we isolate the minority of dividers who prey on our emotional vulnerabilities for their gain.