Monday, July 19, 2010

Oh No, Politics Again!

That’s the thought that runs through my head about this time, in even-numbered years, when hundreds of political advertisement signs sprout up along the roadsides near my home. This sudden ‘fruiting’ of the world of politics means I have some work to do. Our local primaries are tomorrow, with at least two runoffs expected, and then of course there’s the big election in November.

On a personal level I’m not too fond of politicians, and I’ll tell you why. When I was in high school I had to take an American Government class; your school might have titled the same class ‘Civics.’ One of the requirements for passing the class was to work twenty or more hours as a volunteer in a local political campaign. My parents were friends with a county commissioner who was running for re-election so I joined his campaign. Silly me, I thought I was participating in honest democracy.

My twenty hours of volunteer work had exactly the opposite effect my teacher had hoped. Poor Mrs. Landry, she just wanted us to experience the electoral process. Instead I discovered that politicians will say whatever they think the people want to hear in order to get elected. The guy whose campaign I was working on actually bragged about how smart he was and how stupid the voters were to believe him. He got a friend to join the race in order to draw votes away from an opponent. He had his volunteers go out under cover of darkness and pull up opponents’ signs. And it went downhill from there. I have to admit, one night after I came home from working in the campaign office, I just sat there and cried.

When I turned eighteen I dutifully registered and voted, but my heart just wasn’t in it. I realized that what I had seen at the local level only magnified as it moved up into state and federal politics. Thankfully, over the years I mellowed a little and the readings on my Disillusionment Meter dropped back into the normal range. As I learned more about human history, going back into ancient times, I discovered that people have always been this way. It’s nothing new. It must just be human nature. So I determined to outwit the politicians.

Some of my friends think I have an odd attitude about politics, and maybe I do. Here’s the thing: I never listen to what the politicians say. I learned, way back in high school, that politicians will say whatever the hell they want in order to get votes. So I don’t listen to advertisements, I don’t watch debates and I ignore the roadside signs. What I do is research.

I figured out that a politician’s previous voting record is a remarkably accurate indicator of how they will behave in the future. I also figured out that where their money comes from is the main indicator of how they might change their voting behavior (or maintain it). I find these two pieces of information to be vital to making a choice on election day. How do I find this information?

Project Vote Smart. It’s the single best source of accurate information on U.S. elections out there. Type in your zip code or browse through the levels of government (President, Congress, Federal, State, Local). Vote Smart is always my first stop when I’m researching candidates.

When I can’t find what I want on Vote Smart, I google the candidate’s name plus the words “voting record” or “financial contributions.” That usually gives me what I need. This works for any political race, anywhere in the world. OK, maybe not China.

I also discovered another trick to outwit the politicians-vs.-the-people system. In the 2008 election I had over thirty different offices to vote for, from local up to federal level, plus several local and state referenda. There’s no way I can memorize that many choices. So I ordered an absentee ballot.

Most U.S. states now allow you to order an absentee ballot without having to specify a reason for needing it. Check Vote411, a website run by the education fund of the League of Women Voters, for information on how to get an absentee ballot in your state (and how to register to vote online, find your polling place, determine election dates and more). Many other nations now also allow absentee balloting without having to justify your need for one; check with your local election officials.

Here’s what I do: I order an absentee ballot well in advance of the election so I’m not pressed for time. I sit down at the computer with the ballot and start researching the candidates using the methods I outlined above. In 2008 it took me just over an hour to find all the information I needed and make about three dozen voting decisions (VoteSmart was a big help in this regard). I figure, that’s time well spent. Just an hour every two years to make informed decisions that will affect my life at all levels.

When I’m done I simply mail in my ballot. Actually, I have to admit, I don’t mail it in right away. My husband copies my choices onto his ballot as well - now that’s real marital trust! But then, we have very similar political views, so it works out well.

I hope you can find encouragement here and do your own research for the upcoming election. It doesn’t matter what your political views are. The important thing is to find out what the politicians are really going to do once they’re in office, regardless of what they say on the campaign trail. That’s real, nitty-gritty information that will help you make decisions you won’t regret once the polls close.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

All Change Is Loss

That’s a really depressing title, I know, but it’s something I’ve been contemplating for a couple weeks now. At first I was afraid I was guilty of “if the only tool you have his a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” But I don’t think so. Here’s what I’ve been thinking.

This all started out as I watched a friend get ready to make some big life changes: Graduation from seminary, first job as a full-time minister, moving to a new home. These are all things we think of as positive - stuff we look forward to. Things she has worked really hard for.

But over the past few months, as these changes took place, my friend has been exhibiting many of the common symptoms of grief. I’m very familiar with these symptoms, and with the classic stages of grief as defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross because I’ve been through them myself as well as learning about them formally when I took training to be a grief counselor.

You see, when my first child was born, she had severe physical disabilities, a condition called arthrogryposis. In my case it was caused by a bout of staphylococcal food poisoning I had when I was seven months pregnant. The toxins from the bacteria damaged my daughter’s motor cortex so she couldn’t move properly - her muscles simply didn’t respond to her brain. She was confined to a wheelchair for the five short years of her life.

When I took grief counselor training from Parents Helping Parents in Tennessee (Parent to Parent of Georgia is another great support group) I learned that the gut-wrenching, raw emotions parents of disabled children experience really are grief. No, your child didn’t die, but the child you expected to be born is gone, replaced by something you never expected. If your child (or any other close family member) develops a serious medical condition later in life, or is disabled due to an injury or illness, the same applies: You don’t have the person you expected any more, and you grieve for that loss.

Of course, when someone we love dies, the loss is obvious and the grief is expected. But what about other losses, big and small?

The more I think about it, the more I understand that any change, even a positive one, is a loss, in the sense that we’re losing the status quo and having to adapt to new circumstances. That’s why the Holmes and Rahe stress scale that I used for years with my naturopathy clients includes such ‘happy’ changes as marriage, marital reconciliation, pregnancy and outstanding personal achievement.

It’s funny how we humans cling to the status quo and are afraid to change, even when the change is a positive one. I guess that’s where the old saying, “Better the devil you know” comes from. When we make a change, we’re walking through a doorway and we can’t know for sure what the world will look like on the other side. That’s scary. We’d rather be miserable than lose control.

The Death card in Tarot encapsulates this concept: Life change means walking into the unknown. Robert Heinlein’s character Valentine Michael Smith called these points in life ‘cusps.’ They’re like crossroads, where we have to make a choice, and that choice will change everything from that point on. That choice, and that change, can be so scary that we freeze and get stuck at that crossroads, unable to move on.

My sister-in-law, a substance abuse counselor, has told me that this is a common problem among her clients. They’re already miserable, often in abusive relationships in addition to having to deal with their addictions, but they’re afraid to take that step, to choose which way to turn at the crossroads, so they just hover in that one spot, unable to move. In order to make a change to health and safety, they have to give up all they know. They have to let go - incur a loss - before they can move on.

I can’t think how many times my various spiritual mentors have recited to me that well-worn cliché about having to empty out your cup before you can fill it up again. Yeah, I’m right there with everyone else, not wanting to let go of the ol’ status quo. But what I hadn’t realized until now was why it’s so damn hard to empty out that cup in the first place. It’s a loss. It evokes grief. And no one wants to feel that, to go through that. No wonder it’s so hard.

But now that I understand what’s really going on inside me, why change is so hard - even positive change - maybe I can work my way through it with a little more ease. I can give myself the room to recognize the grief and honor it. And move on.