Let me admit something: I voted for Hillary Clinton. In the 2016 election for President of the United States, I cast my vote for the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Now, to some, it may not be clear why this is so important or why this even needs to be an admission at all. I voted for a highly experienced candidate, potentially the world’s first female president. Big deal? Perhaps on the surface of things it would be no big deal. Perhaps in a world in which government and politics were great symbols of purity, hope and generosity, this would not be such a big deal. But we will skip out on the hypotheticals here. I want to talk about why I voted for Hillary. Although the particulars of the story are important, I think that, on the surface, my reasons were very similar to those of many others, particularly those of my own generation (born in the late 90s). As cliché as it definitely sounds, I wanted progress. To many young people, this word shines and glimmers of a new, thrilling world, a world completely unlike the one we currently inhabit. “Progress” is one of those words that excites the pathos of humanity; it is a hopeful word. But that’s just it. Without a solid background, without a strong, moral government behind it, that’s all progress is: a simple word. Interestingly enough, we can base almost the entirety of my story (and even the core contents of this book) on the nature of that very word, progress. And I have a hunch that many of my readers, regardless of their political inclinations, have a special relationship with this word as well.
Development, advancement, betterment. These are all synonyms for our special word, “progress”. In the timeline of one’s life, these synonyms play a crucial role in one’s happiness and relationships. It is almost useless to say, because it is so utterly obvious, that the betterment, advancement, etc. of things which we hold dear is one of our sole reasons for living. It is the hope for progress in our lives that keeps us motivated and mentally healthy. It is on this key point that I wish to segue into the details of my personal journey through identity and politics.
The year is 2016. It’s 5:30PM in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. And I’m just waking up. I’m severely depressed and afraid to leave my own room.
I’m in a stuffy old dorm room on the University of Alabama campus, Paty Hall to be exact. It’s my freshman year at the school, having arrived in the fall of 2015 on scholarship for my grades and SAT scores.
College has become a deeply-ingrained cultural feature of America. From essentially the moment children enter middle school, they are often told that their sole job is to study hard and build a good foundation of grades, “community service” and extracurricular activities. College, more than being an institution of “higher learning”, has now become a rite of passage for the American teen. Indeed, so much so that parents and their children rarely stop to fully and adequately consider all of the deep, requisite psychological questions, the foremost being: am I ready for college on a social, mental and emotional level?
I was not ready. It wasn’t merely that I lacked social skills or that I lacked study skills, these assertions wouldn’t be fully truthful. The fact was: I did not know myself fully enough, and, even more, I was not ready to admit to myself who exactly I was and what I wanted from life. Growing up in a comfortable (but by no means wealthy), middle class neighborhood, in addition to never having gotten a job in my high school, I was somewhat distanced from “the real world”. However, it wouldn’t be completely accurate to say that these were the sole contributing factors to my mental health crisis in Tuscaloosa. In fact, it wouldn’t be accurate at all. No, the cause of my woes ran much deeper than this; the true culprit was much more sinister and cunning than a simple lack of true identity could ever be. The culprit was nihilism. Nihilism? What does this mean? It is simply a fancy word for a lack of personal meaning. Before I can fully explain my situation in the Alabama dorm room, I must take you back a bit earlier than this, back to an age at which I grappled with such heady questions as “Why do we exist?” and “Is there a God?”.
It’s 2012. I’m 16. I’m lying on my bed, listening to Coldplay and Bombay Bicycle Club and I’m contemplating the meaning of the universe.
I realize that maybe this isn’t the most relatable thing to be thinking as a sixteen year old, but it is what I was fixated on. I was then, and always will be, a massive nerd; logic and reasoning are my things of play. But, as with many things, that which can be used responsible and wisely can just as easily (if not more so) be used recklessly, often to the danger of its operator.
Not long before this, in my early to mid-teens, I had been a believer. I had seen no other way. But, sometime around sixteen, I began asking questions for which I could find no answers; no answers, at least, that I could find emotionally satisfying. Despite my love of reasoning and logic, deep down, I have always been more of a “feeler” than a cold and calculating rationalist. For the philosophers and miscellaneous nerds among us, we know the question as “the problem of evil”, something that has been grappled with and stressed over for millennia. Of course, at the base of all of it, the problem is very simple. It boils down to this: if God is all-loving and all-powerful, then how can he allow such atrocities as World War II and Columbine to happen? No doubt, this question has turned countless religious people into agnostics and atheists, just as it has preoccupied Rabbis, Priests and scholars of religion as well. At this period in my life, this question turned me as well. And the reverberations of its impact would be felt for many, many years to come.
A Moral, Motivational Abyss
The benefits of “secularism” are widely touted in this age. And, no doubt, many great innovations have arisen from the trends of renaissance and modern-era secularism, great innovations in ideas, art and culture. However, for an emotional, hyper-thinking sixteen year old, a “loner” in many senses, an introduction to the agnosticism and atheism lurking beneath secularism can spell disaster.
Let’s think about this all for a bit. It’s common knowledge that religion has provided humanity with meaning and purpose, essentially since the first footsteps of Homo sapiens. But what isn’t usually stressed (in non-philosophical areas, at least) is the very interesting position we are left in when we smash God into bits and pieces. Secularists and “moralists” love to proclaim the great freedom that the death of God brings to man, but what does it feel like to move from a believer to an agnostic/atheist? What are the core emotions? I know these very well.
When I was a believer, I had this blanket over my mind. I didn’t notice it at the time, but it was assuredly there. I remember vividly, around the age of fourteen or fifteen, discussing atheism with a group of friends. One of them proudly proclaimed his lack of faith. I was stunned. I wasn’t stunned at the logic of it; I wasn’t stunned by the gutsiness. I was stunned by the emotional implications. I turned to him and said something like, “So that’s it? So life is a movie theatre and when the show’s over there’s no leaving?” I knew I couldn’t allow myself to think this way. I couldn’t. For if I lost the hope of there being something after the “movie” and there being a “bigger purpose” to our seemingly random actions, I would lose my confidence and my mind altogether.
But this view stuck with me; it just would not leave me alone. From that moment on, a great war was raging between the two sides of my mind, logic and emotion. The logic half knew that there was something attractive, something seductive even, to this view. But the emotion half could not bear to surrender its source of meaning, the Almighty.
It’s 2012. I’m 16. I’m lying on my bed, listening to Coldplay and Bombay Bicycle Club and I’m contemplating the meaning of the universe.
Now we can see that this was no idle thinking; this was self-psychological warfare in progress. The logic half of my mind had steadily grown, and the poor, down-trodden emotional soldiers of my mind were ready to wave the proverbial white flag.
Of course, as is the case with many changes of the mind, I do not remember the precise moment at which my faith waved its flag. Stuff like this isn’t discrete. But, it is most certainly binary. And there is a very, very big difference between the mind of a believer and the mind of an atheist/agnostic. Our pressing question becomes now: once faith surrenders, what then fills the void it leaves behind? And this is a very important question indeed.
Breaking Down (or building up?)
When something is extracted from the mind, something else must seep into the hole that is left. Although this seems to be a common sense sort of thing, I suspect that it might not be after all. Of course, this may just be my bias, having had deep, first-hand experience with such a thing. As is the case with the process leading up to the surrender of faith, it isn’t a very easy task to single out an exact moment at which things changed; it’s all one big continuum. But, of course, there are always key signs of change, along the way.
I’ll begin by saying that I was never a very political person. Politics, to me, was all one big useless game. To be frank, I thought it was masturbation. Before my mind was set at war against itself, in a battle of reason and passion, I gave little thought to political issues. What little views I had were those aligned with religious principle, most prominently the immorality of abortion. But, after the rubble fell and the dust settled, politics took on an entirely new character for me.
I came out the other end as a sort of a libertarian, a weird mash-up of various political ideals. The issue of the immorality of abortion no longer held any weight for me, and freedom and pursuit of pleasure became my sole political principles. To many though, the connection between libertarianism and burgeoning atheism/agonistic might not be very clear. In fact, it might seem that there is an opposite correlation between the two. Let me explain.
When I was a believer, I had a source of meaning. I had an arbiter of moral truth, God. As any genuine believer does, I, out of respect for the Lord, strove for temperance in at least some aspects of my life, in efforts to show love and devotion to Him. But when my belief evaporated, so did my desire for temperance. True, this is likely not the case with all those who move from faith to lack thereof. Fortunately, that is no big matter currently, as I wish solely to share my personal journey, while admitting full-heartedly that it could be very unlike that of many others’. Back to the discussion now. It all came down to this (large) question for me: if no higher being exists, then what is the reason for temperance? what is the reason for achievement? what is the reason for effort at all?. In short, my deepest, darkest question was this: what is the reason for progress as a human being if our lives have no higher meaning?
Remember how in the opening pages we outlined the meaning of and synonyms for “progress”? “Development, advancement, betterment.” These are human, psychological necessities. If we do not feel as though we are progressing—regardless of the domain or goal in question—there opens up a void in the mind, a void so gaping and uncomfortable so as to warrant near instinctive and immediate replacement. On a personal level, my reaction was to fill in this void with idle entertainment. Television, web-surfing, video gaming, pornography, you name it. All the same, this entertainment was nowhere near enough to fill the hole, nowhere near enough to even band aid it. I feel into a deep depression.
It was not long after the proverbial white flag was raised by my emotional, religious side that I entered therapy, at the urging of my loving Dad. “I miss my happy, carefree boy”, he would say. Granted, I did have some lingering emotional wounds related to my parents divorce and the complex atmosphere surrounding it, but I would say that the majority of my scars had come from my recent loss of purpose, progress and meaning.
The therapy actually did help. It made me feel more at ease with the situation and events that had transpired in my family life, and I felt that I got some psychological closure out of it. But, it did absolutely nothing to address my deep and utter emotional helplessness in general; I was spiritually lost. And, as much as I wanted to believe in a God, as much as I wanted someone all-powerful and loving to turn to, my reasoning and logic just wouldn’t let me. I was in a strange limbo for sure.
Politically, I was still very much a libertarian. With all of the idle entertainment I’d enveloped myself in, my core principles—if they could even be called that—were freedom and pleasure. Without a Master, without one to look to for ultimate guidance, I sought to free myself as much as possible. For if there is no God and we are all bits of matter (perhaps not even possessing free will), then what the hell is the point of anything other than freedom and pleasure? Note here that I mean freedom on the personal level. We see many so-called secular humanists and atheists of left-wing persuasion; this is the societal level. It is very important to remember that the desire of personal freedom, the drive for maximal autonomy is better known as ambition, i.e., the striving for societal power.
Of course, I did not lose my empathy. This is something that is genetic and stuck with me always. What I assuredly did loose, however, was any positive structure for this empathy to inhabit. As with nearly anything and everything, a good thing without boundaries and structure can, in fact, become quite bad, very quickly. It was this empathy, this longing to help others out of this abject and meaningless world, that sustained my depression. I could not let go of the idea that this world could all do so much better, as much as I tried. But I was totally and utterly helpless to act.
As the years of high school moved along and I became a senior, my libertarianism slowly gave way to liberalism. As I grew more comfortable with the “tower of pleasures”, so to speak, that I had built around the hole in my psyche, unbounded societal freedom and pleasure no longer seemed as important. Perhaps I no longer felt the need to project the (im)balance of my inner self outwards. Many people might call this “settling in”. But there was no genuine “settling” happening here. I might best be said that I had simply gotten used to the unnecessary psychological discomfort, the result of my “battle of faith” several years ago. However, it would be accurate, perhaps, to say that my empathetic nature was extending into the world. My empathy, having been held captive by my roughshod-running logic, was finally rebuilding. But was it rebuilding properly?
In high school my circle of friends was small. I hung out in the same group of two other friends for the majority of my junior and senior years. These dear friends insulated me from the social world at large. With them, I never had to confront any significant differences of preference, intelligence or worldview. Both of them were agnostic, highly intelligent (but not too nerdy) kids, and we all fit together nicely. We fit together so seamlessly, in fact, that I never truly noticed how different we were from other kids our age. Essentially, my only experience of fundamentally different people came from movies and social media. As a result—combined with what I called my “tower of pleasures”, the meaningless deluge of activities I used to soothe my aching soul—I never truly developed a “self-concept”. Let’s bring back a little question we asked a while back, this time on a more personal level.
Am I ready for college on a social, mental and emotional level?
Well, in my case, it’s kinda hard to answer that when you don’t even have an adequate concept of “I” in the first place. To me, college would just be an extension of my high school years. It would simply be a geographically different place at which I could continue to indulge in my tower of pleasures and gather achievements to feed my ego. After all, as I said before, with no source of higher meaning or morality, what the hell is the point of doing anything else?
Tuscaloosa actually wasn’t a total shock straight away. In the months leading up to “move-in day”, I had been carefully crafting a persona, something that I assumed everyone did, before starting this new phase of their lives. Not knowing the first thing about myself, I had assumed that I could change core attributes of my personality on a whim, going from an introverted and somewhat socially anxious nerd to a loud and confident frat boy. On the very first night I moved in, I and a friend I had met at orientation several months ago walked over to an off-campus “pledge party”, proceeding to drink our asses off and stupidly pledge the very first fraternity we set eyes upon.
Over the next several months, I was able to hang on to my persona. My social confidence was higher than it had ever been, and I felt like I had accomplished my mission of changing myself. But, behind the scenes, that same friend I pledged with and I had been talking about ditching the frat before the payments became due. “Yeah it’s not really worth it for a stupid off-campus frat is it?”, we would say. Granted, we were right, but my fragile persona was not at all ready for the phase of my life that was coming next. While I was in the frat, I was able to occupy myself throughout the day and week, more or less eliminating the idle time that had eaten me alive during my high school years. But, after I left, my tower of pleasures proceeded to take over my entire life, much, much more than ever before.
Having had my first real drink in Germany after my senior year of high school, I was never a crazy partier or substance user. But after I left the frat, I needed something to not only fill up my day, but to drown out my cognitive dissonance, my floundering persona and ruthlessly smothered genuine self. I turned to alcohol and later to marijuana, Adderall and LSD. On top of this, the social anxiousness that I had since high school had tripled in magnitude. I was cornered.
It’s October 2015. It’s 7:30AM, and I’m cracking open a 24 oz Budweiser so I can head to class.
For those of you who think social anxiety is a myth, or that its sufferers need to simply “toughen up!”, let me explain something. I’ve been skydiving. The adrenaline pumping, palms dripping, legs bouncing. Yeah. For severe social anxiety, multiply that by about ten and replace the flying airplane with a human being. Now imagine that you’re trapped on this plane, dangling halfway out for the foreseeable future; every single day you have to feel this. It unimaginably sucks, and you will do whatever it takes to drown out that feeling. My weapon of choice? Crap tons of booze.
For as much as I’ve ragged on my psyche, I evidently still had something good and powerful left inside me. After three straight weeks of drinking before my classes, I reached a breaking point. I was staring at the 24 oz can on my desk, deep in thought. Something poignant flashed through my mind. “Jonathan, if you don’t stop this now, you will live a lifetime of pain and destruction.” I threw all of my alcohol away. Clearly, there was a seed of progress left inside me.
Of course, my mind was far too out of whack for this step alone to yield any significant psychological breakthrough. And, subsequently, without my crutch, I feel into a deep and dark pit of depression. Moreover, it wasn’t like I had completely given up drinking. I plunged further and further into my tower of pleasures, getting wasted with my “friends” and often skipping class altogether. Indeed, this was the only way I could do much of anything; without alcohol, I was a shell of a human being, completely without knowledge of my true identity.
Building Up (or breaking down?)
I remember the breaking point quite well. I can’t say I remember the exact event leading up to it, but I remember the moment itself like it happened several hours ago.
It’s 2016. I’m in my dorm in Alabama. I’m laying in the closet staring at the rack above and contemplating ending my life.
It hurts to even write those words. You have no idea how hard I would hug myself if I could travel back and see him. Interestingly enough, what helped me out of this abyss was something quite similar to this idea.
I closed my eyes are cried out to my future family, my future self, begging them to help me along to them, begging them to help me up. It is this hope—this deep and visceral aching for personal progress—that got me out of that closet. The choice was clear. I could either end it all, taking down my dear, unsuspecting family and friends with me, or I could fight and “rage against the dying of the light” and strive to arrive at my future, happy and well-balanced self that somehow, intuitively, I knew existed.
It is here that I began down a path that can best be called “self-improvement”. This word has amassed such a distinctive culture connotation that, to many, its very mention is cringeworthy. And understandably so. Nonetheless, the twenty year old me had no choice. It was quite literally self-improvement or die.
I started by dragging myself to the gym. I had always loved lifting weights in high school, but for my agonizing first semester of college, that had changed. Knowing very well that it was a long and painful road ahead, I started to build up my pain tolerance. I ran on the treadmill until my lungs burned with blue fire, and then I ran some more. Running, to me, became the only time when I felt comfortable and in control of my life. Through the sheer power of my will, I worked to pull myself out of the ditch of meaninglessness my loss of faith had created. And, eventually, it worked to some degree. But, as for my true self, he was still begging to be set free.
Self-Help versus Finding Meaning
As my freshman year at Alabama was coming to a close, I made a list of certain things I wanted to achieve come summer’s end. This was the beginning of what I will call my “will-power training” approach to self-help, and for a while, it actually worked. Coming back home felt amazing, and I was incredibly grateful to have made it out of that dorm room closet alive. At this time in my life, I saw it possible and fit to train my will-power in every area of my life. And, so I thought, if my will-power couldn’t help me, then nothing could.
On the side, I also trained my will-power through reading. I began reading magazines such as The Economist and books such as Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. The implicit theme in all that I read was progress, the striving towards a better future, away from the evils and ills if current society. In fact, this was psychological projection. I began dreaming about a society in which I could be a god, a society in which I wouldn’t have to fight as hard as I had been fighting, just for some semblance of psychological normalcy. I watched on anxiously as Donald Trump gained momentum in the primaries, fearing that if he got elected, my personal utopia would never come to pass. “Trump is antithetical to progress!”, I would think. After all, in a world without ultimate meaning, what good is it to be cautious, staunch and conservative?
After a summer’s worth of strenuous exercise, running and weight training, along with working the morning shift at the local smoothie shop, my first job ever, I approached a plateau. After enrolling in my local community college that fall and staying optimistically along my path of will-power training, the band aid that was this training, this tenuous replacement of my previous “tower of pleasures”, ripped completely into two. Hello depression, my old friend.
Although my social anxiety wasn’t quite as bad as it was in that Alabama dorm room, this isn’t really saying much at all. I was still a total wreck. Sometime in the spring of 2017, my second semester at Tarrant County College, I broke down and told my family that I needed medication; I couldn’t fight this fight with my will any longer. Little did I know it then, but this choice initiated the most interesting, and, simultaneously, terrifying chapter of my life.
As I said before, it had become a deeply ingrained habit for me to burry my true self, my true feelings. Another word for this? Repression. Of course, the thing most directly associated with repression is sexuality. But, at this moment, this topic was submerged so deeply within my psyche that I could hardly make out anything.
When I was younger, say elementary and middle school, I had always had some feminine tendencies. I loved to watch “chick flicks” with my Mom when Dad was away on a trip, and I had always cared about my appearance more than the other boys my age did. I had always been a very sensitive boy, in touch with his feelings, etc.
When puberty came around, I think part of my subconscious started freaking out. I knew that I was different; I knew that I was more feminine. And I wanted none of it. I just wanted to be “normal”, and I wasn’t ready to be painfully different. Not to mention, only several years before, in the fifth grade, my parents went through a, let’s just say, unusual divorce, leaving my head spinning for many years to come. And, as middle school and high school came around, I craved so desperately to have a calm, undramatic phase in my life.
It’s 2020. I have a beautiful boyfriend. I moved from hopeless atheism and liberalism to proud belief and conservativism. I am happier and more confident that I’ve ever been, and I’m writing this book.
How exactly did this happen? How did I finally fill the void that I had acquired from my battle between faith and reason? Quite simply, I found something to progress to. I found higher meaning. After meeting my boyfriend and being accepted by his generous and loving family, I walked into a very hopeful and religious atmosphere. Kyle, my boyfriend’s, parents had just recently turned from agnosticism to belief, and their great fervor for the Lord was palpable. Now, finally on to politics.
Liberalism, Motivation and Will-Power
Remember our brief discussion about what progress means and the synonyms we listed?
Development, advancement, betterment.
It is interesting to see how many recent presidential campaign slogans of liberal candidates revolve around this axis of “change” and “progress”. For example:
“Prosperity and Progress” – alternative slogan of Al Gore’s 2000 campaign
“Change We Can Believe In.” – slogan of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign
“Hope” – additional slogan of Obama’s 2008 campaign
“Ready for change, ready to lead” – Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign slogan
“Working for Change, Working for You” – additional slogan of Hillary’s 2008 campaign
“Forward” – 2012 slogan of Barack Obama
“Forward Together” – one of Hillary’s 2016 slogans
“Not left. Not right. Forward” – one of Andrew Yang’s 2020 slogans
“Join the Evolution!” – Marianne Williamson’s 2020 slogan
Now, I have personal experience with these phrases; just a few years ago, these slogans would have stirred something deep within me. These slogans were larger, grander and sexier versions of the progress and success I so desperately craved for myself. And, of course, in theory these slogans are great. Who doesn’t want progress, positive change and success? What’s the issue?
The issue is that, all too often, such slogans are used to prey upon personal insecurity. If you wish to target a group of people feeling a little lost—a group without a sturdy foundation and meaning and a sense of personal progress—what better way is there than to promise societal progress, transforming not only their personal lives but the world around them?
Of course, we can’t make the sweeping claim that all liberal voters are “a little lost”. However, another claim we also cannot make is that all (or even a fair amount, for that matter) liberal politicians are selfless benefactors of hope and progress for all. Let’s take another look at something I said a little while earlier:
For if there is no God and we are all bits of matter (perhaps not even possessing free will), then what the hell is the point of anything other than freedom and pleasure? Note here that I mean freedom on the personal level. We see many so-called secular humanists and atheists of left-wing persuasion; this is the societal level. It is very important to remember that the desire of personal freedom, the drive for maximal autonomy is better known as ambition, i.e., the striving for societal power.
This last line is so very important. In essence—just because someone is not for large societal freedoms, this does not mean that they themselves don’t have a philosophy of attaining maximal personal freedom. The atrocity that was the formation and sustaining of the USSR—with its morally bankrupt founders and leaders—illustrates this quite well. To those in power, why should it matter what freedoms everyone else has, as long as they themselves have attained their personal freedoms of power and prestige? To those with deep and secure foundations of personal meaning, it becomes evident that societal freedom does indeed matter, very, very much.
I think a large part of it comes down to this: if you already have a strong source of personal meaning and progress in your life, then you don’t need a politician to pander to you about those very things. Once you have a bona fide source of personal purpose, you don’t need it explicitly said by your candidate! You are confident in your own purpose, and you know that others have such purposes as well, some very different than your own. And you’re ok with that. You realize that politics should be a question of how best to combine these various purposes, even, how best to unite these individual goals. And you don’t need a politician masquerading as a self-help guru to give you hope for your future.
To see this point in action, let’s take a look at some of the recent presidential campaign slogans of conservative candidates:
· “Compassionate Conservatism” – George W. Bush’s 2000 slogan
· “Reformer with Results” – additional slogan of Bush’s 2000 campaign
· “Country First” – John McCain’s 2008 slogan
· “America's Comeback Team” – Mitt Romney’s 2012 slogan after picking Paul Ryan as his running mate
· “The Courage to Fight for America” – Rick Santorum’s 2012 slogan
· “Restore America Now” – slogan of Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign
· “Heal. Inspire. Revive.” – Ben Carson’s 2016 slogan
· “From Hope to Higher Ground” – Mike Huckabee’s 2016 slogan
· “Promises Made, Promises Kept” – one of Donald Trump’s 2020 slogans
Notice the difference? Nearly each one of these slogans—instead of hammering in on the point of societal progress—focuses on us, that is, the United States of America as a community. From this alone, it seems that many conservative voters, already possessing a store of meaning and confidence for themselves, are focused on the well-being of their larger community and the various other personal purposes and goals within it.
In my eyes, from my story, the point is very clear. By and large, it seems that we can say this: those persuaded by slogans stressing progress and change are projecting some psychological absence of theirs out into the world, while those persuaded by slogans emphasizing community, well-being and safety rest confidently and safely upon their own personal sources of meaning.