People act against their own self-interest all the time. This is the stuff of psychotherapy. But people also vote against their own best interests. For example, white working class Trump supporters have not benefited from his Presidency and, in fact, many of them have been hurt. Progressives have to use a deep type of empathy to understand such self-defeating political behavior. Many white working class men feel left behind in the rush toward automation and globalization, and experience government as insensitive to their needs. Instead, fueled by racial and ethnocentric bias, they see people of color, including immigrants as getting favored status—a type of “cutting in line” that sociologist Arlie Hochschild has studied. Progressives have to challenge this distortion while empathizing with its painful consequences.
The past is always alive in the present. In particular, all of us regularly repeat our important childhood relationships in our current life, especially with people upon whom we’re dependent or who have some form of authority. We call this transference. When it appears in psychotherapy, it can be a road map to understanding the forces behind a patient’s current life—and current difficulties. It can be used for good, but also for bad purposes. Therapists and teachers use it for good. Cult leaders manipulate transference to maintain their control and power. It’s important for those of us who have any influence over others to understand that we are the object of transferences and to be respectful of the power that that gives us.
Most of us think that the goal of life should be happiness. We define happiness as the opposite of suffering and act as though if we can only get rid of the bad “stuff”, we’ll be left with only the good. The problem is that this is impossible. Some type of suffering is wired into living, whether it involves the inevitability of physical decline, disappointments in relationships, and/or painful feelings of some kind. Instead of fetishizing happiness, we should strive to live our lives aligned with our values, those principles that reflect our deepest aspirations and our best selves. And in the process of doing so, that can be truly a good enough life.
Cynicism is a plague in our society. There is a personal psychological dimension of it and a social or political version. On a personal level, cynicism is the belief that the way things are is the way they’re supposed to be. People complain about their lives but, at the same time, believe that they have no freedom to change any of it. That’s cynicism. On a social and political level, the belief that the world is somehow hardwired to favor the rich and screw everyone else, while partially true, is cynical because it ignores a long history of successful movements for social change. Progressives – who should, by all accounts know better—are highly susceptible to various forms of cynicism.