Politics & Mental Health: American Dreams in 2021



This past Wednesday, violent insurrectionists egged on by the President of The United States breached the Capitol in an attempt to find and attack members of congress as they certified the results of the 2020 election. At least two men carried zip-ties, as if they planned to take hostages. Others carried makeshift weapons and fire extinguishers. The ensuing chaos resulted in five deaths, dozens of injuries, and a potentially massive breach of classified information as rioters broke into the offices of congress members.


It was one of the darkest days of the new century, and the first time the Capitol had been breached since the British army in the War of 1812.


And through it all, we were expected to continue going to work, to continue our classes and exams, to manage our varying responsibilities as if nothing was wrong. Much as we have throughout the pandemic, we’re expected to just keep calm and carry on. Under such circumstances, it’s a little hard to feel like we aren’t going crazy – “insurrectionists just breached the Capitol building but sure, my calculus midterm is what’s important here.”


But the problems go deeper than that. It’s been more than a decade since congress passed a law of genuine consequence. And even that law, the Affordable Care Act, is a deeply flawed, stopgap measure. (To learn more about it, check out the "Navigating the Healthcare System" section in the L2S Guidebook here.) Our government has failed to take necessary action on everything from climate change to crumbling schools, from fixing a broken immigration system to reconstituting a justice system that is long past serving the ends of justice.


It can be hard to find value in politics, and hope in the world, when the reality before us looks so bleak and our government doesn’t seem to have the ability to act.


So, what are we to do? Do we resign ourselves to the inevitable march of history? How can we find some sense of purpose, some way to help reverse the harms of the last four years and ensure they don’t surge back?

One thing that has helped me these past number of years has been changing how I think about politics and history. As one of my professors in university told us, on our very first day of class: “The struggle is the point.” He pointed out that there has never been a time when we had no problems to solve. It was a simple enough revelation, but one that I had never given much thought until it was laid out in front of me like that.


And it’s true, there will always be a problem we can solve. After the labor movement won rights like the weekend and the eight-hour day, there are still issues like equitable pay and worker safety. After the world dragged itself out of the Great Depression there was still colonialism, Jim Crow, and the specter of nuclear war to deal with. After hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of poverty in the last 25 years, there are still hundreds of millions more who are suffering. When we finally pass Universal Healthcare in the United States, there will still be the problems of pharmacy deserts and understaffed city hospitals to manage. But does that mean we just give up? There will always be another problem so why even bother?


Absolutely not.


Because even though we still struggle with wages and safety, millions of children are now in school instead of risking their lives in the factory. Because even though we struggle with the legacies of colonialism, racism, and Cold War catastrophes, millions of people now live safer, healthier, freer lives than they once did. Because even though people around the world still go to bed hungry, millions more children will survive because of global efforts to eradicate polio and smallpox. Because even though pharmacies, doctors, and hospital systems won’t flock to underserved communities as soon as we pass universal healthcare, tens of millions of people will be able to go to see a doctor without worrying that it will bankrupt them.


We are not a listening tour through rural America away from unity, we are not a friendship between influential senators away from a grand bargain, we are not one paradigm-altering law away from solving the problems that plague us in the 21st century. The struggle is the point. There is no magic bullet that will solve our problems and lead us into a futuristic utopia where we have everything figured out. There never has been.


But in changing the way we think about politics, we can change the way that we relate to the problems in the world around us. We’re never going to solve all problems for all people, but we can solve one problem, and another, and another. Maybe I can’t solve the nation’s homelessness crisis, but I can campaign on behalf of the councilwoman who supports building more affordable housing. Maybe I can’t fix the country’s broken immigration system, but I can work with my church to help settle refugee families once they arrive here. Maybe I can’t ensure that no teenager ever again dies by suicide because they feel like there’s nothing to live for, but I can be there for my friends when they need it, help write a guidebook, and advocate for better mental health treatment in our schools and towns. Maybe I can’t heal our political divide, but I can write this post in the hopes that, perhaps, one person might see it and decide that they’re going to run for student government, or encourage their parents to run for school board, or even run for office themselves.


I can write this in the hope that maybe one of you will authorize new textbooks for their town’s high school, ones that include the stories of indigenous people, immigrants, and people of color. I can write this in the hope that maybe one of you can organize a grant that funds an afterschool program for kids who need it. I can write this in the hope that maybe one of you will feel inspired to organize in your community and make a difference for you, your friends, and your neighbors no matter how small.


The problems that came to a head on Wednesday are real. But so was every single problem we’ve faced so far, and try as they might to knock us down and out, we are still here. We are still fighting. Because the struggle is the point. And we keep going.

POSTSCRIPT FROM DIANA CHAO, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR:


Amid historical racial tensions and pandemic-related wellness crises, I find myself desperate for reconciliation; recovery; hope. Doing the sort of work we do at Letters to Strangers... it can be exhausting and, more often than I'd like to admit, seemingly fruitless. But like Clayton said, we must keep going. Perhaps that's a naïve proclamation, but it is an investment in the human spirit. A gamble that I will find reasons to believe we are capable of rekindling joy and compassion for ourselves and each other, even when darkness blinds us into silence—that hope is not a question of if, but a deliberation of when.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Clayton Becker is the Learning & Education Officer of Letters to Strangers and a Class of 2020 Economics and Political Science graduate from Columbia University.


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