How to Survive the Political Season

Joanne and I play Skip-Bo almost every evening. A few nights ago, I found myself getting too intensely focused on winning (instead of the joy of the game with this lady I love). Then, strangest thing, it seemed that I floated away and looked down on the game. And I realized, we are sitting at a table, shuffling pieces of colored paper. And we think this is important!

That moment reminded me that the late Eugene McCarthy, US Senator (D – Maine) and Presidential candidate, once said, “Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it’s important.”

McCarthy was right; politics is a game, just as football and Skip-Bo are games.

Part of being “smart enough to understand the game” means knowing that crises — economic, legal, environmental, cultural, governmental, social, global — are essential to winning. Crises keep people off-balance, polarized, and dependent on the experts who presumably possess the wisdom needed to get through the crises.

Of course, the crises must continue; they can never be resolved. As much as they may be “deplored,” the political game will never abolish or resolve poverty, racism, abortion, bullying, greed, global warming or any other useful problem.

Now, I hasten to add that politics can be an honorable profession and worthy field of activism. But, like anything, it can and should be approached with good will, good humor, wit, style, and panache. Do what you can, enjoy the journey, quit at five o’clock, let God do the heavy lifting.

The assumption that politics is a path to righteousness causes the political game — especially in presidential election years — to rise to inhuman levels of deception, demonization, and decibels. And the absence (even abhorrence) of objectivity, humanity, and elegance! How can a self-respecting human listen to that, let alone participate? Why should anything jerk me into a pretzel of anger and angst?

I think the most burning political issue is: how do we survive the political season? The following is not a “how to” list, but rather a gentle light on a possible path:

Live locally

The pace of modern life (especially in political seasons) spins all of us away from our own life, family, community, and local culture. We are pulled into fixations on issues which, in fact, are too theoretical and remote to have much influence on our own lives.

In fact, the quality and joy of life have nothing at all to do with who is elected to any office. The sounds, colors, passions, and delights of my life will remain the same regardless of who is elected.

Live simply

The political impulse will always make things complicated. A dense web of complexity, crises, and intrigue forms a compelling need for experts. As a result, we are losing confidence in our own ability to solve problems.

But, most issues are, in fact, simpler than the experts will admit. So, rather than accept the invention of complexity, live simply. Slow down. Step out of consumerism’s tyranny. Pray. Do it yourself. Learn to live in relationship with neighbors, friends, and family rather than dependence on experts.

Live generously

Politics thrives on scarcity. It must validate threatening limits of air, water, energy, health, security, and many other essentials. It does so in order to control the distribution of the “scarce” resources. The long-term effect of that is to make people fearful and miserly toward life. We do not have to live by that construct or within the centrifuge it has built.

The antidote is to live generously. For example, love those who are different. Embrace those who are politically, religiously, economically, philosophically, and racially unlike you. Choose care over conflict. Deliberately bless your times, places, and relationships. Refuse to live in anger or in a bunker. Be vulnerable to few, loving to many, and kind toward all.

Live lightly

Have you ever noticed that only people who take life seriously seem capable of a light touch? A healthy sense of humor is more the result of being properly aligned with life than it is of knowing what is funny. I agree with Saul Alinsky “A sense of humor is incompatible with the complete acceptance of any dogma, any religious, political, or economic prescriptions for salvation.”

Come to think of it, these four trail markers are good in every season! Maybe now is the time for an old fashioned altar call. Oh, friend, just step away from the noise. Go on home to your life. It’s not too late. Yes, I see those hands.

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Questions & Answers

A famous American politician once boarded a Washington to Los Angeles flight, settled into his first class window seat, and prepared for a long nap.  The aisle seat was empty; he expected no intrusions.

But a young man approached and asked if an equally famous and very controversial Muslim minister could sit with him a few minutes.  The politician recognized that the Muslim could have come directly and forced the issue.  Instead, he acted in wisdom and grace by sending an emissary.  Quite contrary to his public personality, he did not storm the gates.  The politician told the young assistant that he would glad to talk to the leader.

A minute later, the grandiloquent and polarizing minister slipped into the seat.  They ended up talking almost four hours.  They spoke of days of childhood; of parents, siblings, and spouses; and of triumphs and tragedies.  The politician told me, “I liked him very much.”

I thought of that story recently when I read a new poll from the Pew Research Center.   The poll sought to identify the “political typology” of respondents.  As I scanned the questions, I realized I would not answer any of them.  They were too cold and reductive.

For example, on the issue of immigration, the only choices were:

  • Immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents.
  • Immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health.


Think about the innumerable reasons and patterns behind immigration.  They are as complex and mysterious as the kaleidoscopic patterns of global weather or infection.  The survival choices faced by some people are myriad, brutal and heartbreaking.

Yet, an arbitrary set of questions tries to reduce all of that into a flattened and simplistic binary code.

People are magnificently complicated and unfathomable bundles of flesh and spirit.  Contradictory and endlessly variegated.

An African-American friend once told me, “As a black man, it is more important to me that you respect me than that you understand me.”

Those words changed my life.  In that moment, I knew he spoke for everyone on the planet.  We must respect, handle carefully, and wait to be invited into the secret gardens.  Respect should precede understanding.  We just cannot regard anyone lightly.

To slice-and-dice the human bundles, for whatever reasons, is to disrespect and dehumanize people.  Yet, the structures of today’s life do exactly that with increasing frequency and severity.

As I pay for a bag of bolts at the hardware store, the gum-chewing clerk – one third my age – suddenly blurts, “What’s your phone number?”

The only appropriate answer is, “None of your damned business.”

At the grocery store, I give a twenty-dollar-bill for $19.37 of merchandise.  The clerk says, “Want to give your change to a homeless shelter?”  Think of it; the free market now trains agents to ask that people robotically break off a piece of themselves for an amorphous notion.

I choose to bless people because of the generosity of God in my life.   But I do that on my (and His) terms.  I am very careful about opening the private garden of my thoughts or feelings to strangers.

I resent being merchandized, politicized, and…groped!  I sometimes wonder why and how our society ever granted such audacious authority to the TSA and other bureaucracies.  Or, how our personal information become digitized and open commodities.

Why and when did we first allow the barbarians to crash through our gates?  I think it may have started with our lack of vigilance and self-respect when asked personal questions.   In the words of Hosea 7:9, we gave our strength to strangers.

Perhaps refusing to answer intrusive and reductive questions from strangers will be the first step in reclaiming what we have lost.

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