By Brian Keepers
Two Sundays ago, a parishioner pulled me aside after worship and asked, with tears in her eyes, if I would pray for her neighborhood. “This whole election is tearing our neighborhood apart,” she lamented. “Somebody sent an anonymous hate letter to a neighbor who has a ‘Trump/Pence’ yard sign, and now people are taking sides and won’t talk to one another. It’s just not like our neighborhood to act this way.”
A couple days later, a young man shared with me that Sunday dinner with his extended family has become so tense due to the election that the family agreed to not do dinner anymore until the election is over. “It’s drawing out the worst in us,” he said quietly, looking away.
I’m guessing these are not isolated experiences.
The truth is, we make our elections and our elections make us. And so I wonder…what has been the impact of this presidential race on our mental, emotional and spiritual health? How has it affected our relationships, communities, and society as a whole? In what ways has it formed, or more accurately, de-formed us?
The short answer: it’s taking its toll big time. This past Thursday the early findings of a new survey were released by the American Psychological Association (APA), revealing that more than half of Americans are either very or somewhat stressed by the 2016 election.
Feeling stress during a presidential election cycle is typical. But in a race with two candidates who are so passionately disliked and where you are more likely to be voting against a candidate than for one (which requires anger, adrenaline and confirmation bias), the stress level is especially high. Oh yeah, and the 24-hour news coverage and firestorm of social media doesn’t help. In fact, the stress level surrounding this election is so bad that one therapist, Dr. Steven Stosny, has given it an official name: “Election Stress Disorder.” In an interview with the Washington Post, Stosny describes how Election Stress Disorder manifests itself and how you know you have it:
“On the surface, it feels like irritability and resentment, covering up anxiety and a sense of powerlessness. It creates a tendency to blame, oversimplify and devalue other perspectives. If you listen to political stories on the radio while driving, you’re likely to drive more aggressively. At work, it will be harder to concentrate without blaming co-workers or supervisors. At home you won’t be as sweet to your kids as you might otherwise be. You’ll be tempted to drink more than usual. It’s hard to tell that you have it—ask your spouse and your kids if they’ve noticed a difference.”
Stosny goes on to explain how he’s seeing this play out in his therapy with couples. He’s been a therapist now for thirty years, and he’s never seen anything quite like it. Couples are especially irritable with each other—they don’t see each other as partners but as competitors. They’re not interested in reconciliation but they want to win, casting blame and attributing disagreement to character flaws in the other person. It looks less like a couple trying to navigate differences and more like a debate. Huh.
To blame all of our stress and bad behavior on this election cycle would be overly simplistic. But I do find Stosny’s perspective fascinating and so much of it makes sense. According to Stosny, research confirms that we tend to absorb and model the negative emotions and behaviors of those in positions of leadership and power. And it’s likely that this is what’s happening—in our marriages and with our kids, in our neighborhoods and workplaces, even in our churches. Senator Clinton’s and Mr. Trump’s toxic behavior towards one another is highly contagious. It’s impacting us more than we realize.
All of this makes me think about the essential role of Christian community—and particularly worship—to be a force of counter-formation, especially during such a nasty election season. It’s in the context of Christ-centered community, where we gather around Word and sacrament and enact the liturgy, that our imagination gets (re)formed according to the mind of Christ and we are called to be a new kind of people. A contrast society marked not by red or blue but by the waters of baptism and united in our witness to another King and kingdom.
When asked if Election Stress Disorder will get better once the election is over, Stosny believes it’s going to take a while to get it out of our system. In his words: “I expect that by Christmas the affects should be gone.” I’m less optimistic. I think it’s going to take much longer than Christmas for us to recover from it all. Lord, help us.
Church, we have our work cut out for us. But the good news is that this election doesn’t have to bring out the worst in us. We can choose to let it call out our best. We can show the world another way, a better way. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….
Brian Keepers is the Minister of Preaching and Congregational Leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.