The day after Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.’s inauguration as the 46th president of the United States, many people around the world seemingly breathed a collective sigh of relief — or, at least, throughout the day in my remote psychotherapy practice, clients and colleagues did exactly that, and I saw the same across my social media and in opinion pieces.
As one client told me, “I feel like I haven’t been able to take a full breath for four years. Today, I did.”
And, like many other people, I have received texts, emails and phone calls from friends all over the world, congratulating our country for finally being out from under what one friend called “that despot.”
As Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “We now have a president and vice president who will lead with empathy and decency, fight for a government that puts people first, and fight for the health and safety of all.” Or, in other words, someone who represents the values many of us like to think of as “American.”
The collective sigh of relief can be heard in the rest of Warren’s tweet, “It’s a new day, and we can move forward with hope in our hearts for the future we can build together.”
Despite Biden’s immediate actions to bring real change to the underlying problems in America, healing cannot occur overnight — or even in 100 days.
Some of the changes were obvious immediately. In only one of many examples, Andy J. Semotiuk wrote in Forbes, “The difference between the way Donald Trump handled immigration, and the way Joe Biden is doing it, is simply amazing.” Within hours of that ceremony, Biden issued 17 executive orders undoing many of Trump’s signature actions and, with those, alleviating some of the pain and shame that those opposed to his work had felt for the past four years. George Packer had potently described those feelings in The Atlantic: “America under Trump became less free, less equal, more divided, more alone, deeper in debt, swampier, dirtier, meaner, sicker, and deader.”
But in order to build on the future that Biden’s move to the White House viscerally represents for many people, it is crucial to remember that not everyone is relieved at the new leadership. The outgoing president still has a large number of supporters, many of whom still yet believe his false claim that he actually won the election (or even more unrealistic fantasies about the state of our nation). He is leaving office with the same dedication to untruth that he showed throughout his presidency.
To make sure this respite is not momentary, we must remember two things as we move forward. First, the great and ugly divide in this country was a deeply infected injury that manifested itself in the 45th president, but it will not go away even if he were to disappear from public life.
And whatever true healing can occur, if it is to occur at all, can only happen slowly.
So as some of us enjoy our feelings of relief and even victory, we need to consider how we can address the differing fears that lie beneath the rage and hatred of others.
Despite Biden’s immediate and — at least for some of us — eagerly applauded actions to undo some of his predecessor’s egregious executive orders and bring real change to the underlying problems in America that allowed the former president to be elected and those orders to be celebrated in some quarters, healing cannot occur overnight — or even in 100 days.
What exactly makes people love Trump? Why have they embraced beliefs so divorced from the values once considered to be the heart of America: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”? Future historians may have a clearer answer than we do today, but to heal the wounds we must look for their source now.
In September 2016, Molly Ball wrote in The Atlantic that Americans were more afraid than they had been in a long time. Polls, she said, showed a fear of terrorism, crime and general disorder and disarray. Trump, she told us, “is a master of fear” — and psychoanalysts have long recognized that shame often goes hand in hand with feelings of vulnerability, as well as that hatred and rage work as potent antidotes to fear and shame.
Of course, just as not all Democrats have the same beliefs or politics, not all Trump supporters are the same. A colleague who works with the organization Braver Angels, which has been working throughout the last four years to promote dialogue between the left and the right in this country, tells me that many people came to their loyalty to Trump from many different paths.
Whatever true healing can occur, if it is to occur at all, can only happen slowly.
So as some of us enjoy our feelings of relief and even victory, we need to consider how we can address the differing fears that lie beneath the rage and hatred, all of which Trump promoted and played on. One way to do so is to recognize that, in some way, we are not all so very different from one another and that we are all, to a very great extent, in the same boat; after all, one reason we feel relief now is because we spent four years, in part, afraid of what might happen.
Perhaps, then, we can also take a page from another American tradition, one that also took a big hit during the past four years: good sportsmanship. Trump, as we have all seen, is the poster child for poor sportsmanship: He was a bad winner, and he has been at least an equally poor loser. Can those of us breathing a sigh of relief do a better job? Can we work hard at being good winners?
Mike Krzyzewski — the iconic “Coach K” who not only led the Duke University men’s basketball team to repeated success over the years, but also has become a model for good sportsmanship — wrote in his book “Beyond Basketball: Coach K's Keywords for Success,” “For me, it’s not all about winning games but, rather, how we can use the success we achieve on the court to contribute to the greater good.”
Many athletes on opposing teams are friends when they are not competing: The friendship between tennis stars Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki as well as the one between basketball greats Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are just two of the most well-known examples.
Those of us breathing a sigh of relief may need to work hard at being good winners.
How do athletes do it? And how can we Americans find a way to heal the rifts between us?
Trump promoted — and still promotes — a belief that difference is dangerous. This leads to alienation, or a sense of “other” that psychologist Glenn Geher, author of “Evolutionary Psychology 101,” tells us makes us feel that anyone outside our own group has undesirable traits that we don’t share. Democrats and Republicans, lefties, righties and centrists all engage in this behavior. But in order to repair the rifts in this country, we have to stop seeing one another as outsiders — as others — who cannot be tolerated.
As Johnson once explained in an interview on NPR, "Both Larry and I are very strong, strong-willed, strong-minded. ... Sometimes that armor is weakened. As strong as I appeared to be, I still needed a friend to just say, 'Hey man, I'm here, I'm supporting you.'"
The path forward is not going to be an easy one. There is a divide in this country that is raw and oozing, infected and toxic with fear and anxiety that has turned into hatred, envy and “othering.” We cannot fix the problem separately or rely on time or the new president to heal it. But for a brief moment, let us enjoy the sweet breath of optimism — and then let us get to work finding as many ways as we can to make connections to each other, despite our differences.