What difference do we make?

The Practice:


Sometimes it’s hard not to feel hopeless. You might be dealing with a personal situation – perhaps illness or unemployment – that’s not getting better. Or you could be worried about the coronavirus pandemic. Or appalled, as I am here in America, by the recent murder of George Floyd by a policeman, and by our related long history of slavery, racism, and injustice.

What happens in society affects individuals. And we are understandably concerned about others even if we’re not directly involved. So I’m going to write here about political matters, and if you think that’s not a suitable subject for me, please read no further.

Sometimes it’s natural to feel stunned, shocked, powerless. And natural to be flooded with rage or fear or an overwhelming sorrow. Still, even in the midst of all this, you can be mindful: aware and present, and not entirely swept away. Then at some point you take a breath and look around and try to figure out what to do.

One thing to do is to vote. We vote in lots of ways. Besides what we do at a ballot box, we offer a kind of vote – a choice with consequences – when we sign a petition or send money to a cause or candidate. In a broad sense, we vote when we speak up for anyone who is being mistreated. Inside your mind, you cast a kind of vote when you take a moral stand. The root of the word, vote, is vow: to make a commitment, to claim whatever power you do have – and use it.

Someone might say, “What does it matter, any single vote – any thought or word or deed – is a drop in the ocean.”

But every choice matters to the person who makes it. Knowing that you are committed to something and have kept your word to yourself, that you’ve walked your talk, feels good in its own right. Plus it’s a powerful antidote to helplessness and despair.

Further, when others see you taking action, that can inspire them to do the same. And the gradual accumulation of many little efforts, drop by drop, can become a mighty stream. I came of age in the late 1960’s, and in my lifetime I’ve seen major improvements in civil rights, environmentalism, gay marriage, and women’s rights. These changes have been the result of countless “votes” that have added up over time.

Of course there is still a long way to go. The votes we cast – with our ballots and words and deeds – are no guarantee of success. But if we don’t vote, again and again, failure is what’s guaranteed.

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Vote for Facts

I wrote about this soon after the US election in 2016. To quote the opening section:

“Being foggy about facts and unclear about values is like driving a car eyes-closed and not caring what happens.”

Unfortunately, most people lack even basic knowledge of the past 30 years. But a few minutes online with Wikipedia or other credible sources will tell you a lot. And check out the detailed summary (with over a hundred linked sources) in my piece from 2016.

Turn in Your Ballot

Voting is about participation – and participation itself is not partisan. I have my preferences, but fundamentally I don’t care how people vote, I just hope they’ll vote at all.

Yet in the 2016 Presidential election, nearly half of the adults in America did not bother to vote – particularly young people, 18 to 25-year-olds, who vote the least . . . but will most inherit the effects of global warming, wealth inequality, and other serious problems.

Voting is sacred. As Representative John Lewis wrote a few days before he died: “Democracy is not a state. It’s an act.”

Our votes matter. Whatever your preference may have been in 2016, Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million people – but just 78,000 votes in three states (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) put him in the White House.

The 2020 election will likely depend on turnout in a few battleground states. If someone wins fairly, so be it. Unfortunately, it’s a plain fact that Republicans have made voting as difficult as possible for their political opponents (see this and this ), including just a few months ago in Wisconsin during an epidemic. Meanwhile, the covid plague has squashed new voter registrations.

Happily, there are many wonderful online resources for voting. For example, at, you can check your registration, register if needed, and request an absentee ballot. You can also help others to vote by becoming a poll worker.

Also, mail-in balloting is highly secure – and because there is a paper trail, it is actually more secure than electronic voting machines and less vulnerable to foreign interference. Whether in person or by mail, many studies have shown that actual cases of voter fraud are extremely rare.

Confront Bad Faith

It’s one thing to argue about politics in good faith. Then there is a shared interest in the actual facts, and if you shouldn’t do something, well, I shouldn’t do it, either. Telling the truth and playing fair are the foundation of all relationships – from two people in a couple to millions of people in a country. Lying and cheating are not tolerated in sports or business. So why do we put up with them in our politics?

What you do will depend on the situation. You might ignore some troll on Facebook, or gently ask a friend with different views if you could talk about politics in another kind of way.

Or as soon as it’s clear that the other person has zero interest in a good faith dialogue, you might say something like: “What’s your real purpose here? You keep saying things that are untrue or unrelated to what I’m talking about. You’re just trying to change the subject instead of dealing with what I’m saying.” Even if you don’t get anywhere with that person, you’ve stopped wasting your time, plus you might have a good effect on others who are watching.

Stand up for Others

My life has had its difficulties, but as a white man I’ve been privileged in many ways. It’s gut-wrenching to begin to appreciate how much prejudice, discrimination, abuse, and even murderous violence that people of color experience or risk every day. I remember being eleven years old and the visceral shock of going to a gas station’s bathroom in North Carolina in 1963 and seeing three doors labeled: Men . . . Women . . . Colored. The recent police killing of Breonna Taylor – shot eight times in her own bed – as well as many other examples tell us that these issues are still very much with us today.

At the policy level, we can appreciate the need for law enforcement while also supporting reforms and other structural changes to improve racial equity. At the personal level, it’s been helpful to turn to resources such as this and this. As a white person, it’s been important to listen, and feel the weight of what’s being said, and try to learn and not assume, and recognize impacts on others, and find the sincere desire to be an ally, and keep trying to be a better one.

Vote for Yourself

Deep down, we each have the power to see what we see, value what we value, and make our own plans. It may not be safe or useful to say this out loud. But we can always say it to ourselves.

That’s a kind of vote. No matter what happens out there in the world, we can always vote within our own minds. It’s like we each have an inner voting booth. We can take refuge in the sure knowing of what we do there.

I draw guidance and strength from people who have faced vastly greater hardships than I have, and who speak of what we can do inside ourselves with the authority of their own suffering and pain. One such person is the Dalai Lama, who offered a recent interview that is worth watching. He spoke of the systemic racism that Tibetans face in their own country, as well as the challenges worldwide with the coronavirus plague. And in his face and tone and words, he expressed that irreducible human freedom to make our own choices, to claim the power that we do have, and to use it, and use it well, with compassion for all beings.

Check out this resource: a comprehensive state-by-state guide for communities, so you can feel confident to cast your vote on Election Day:

A State-by-State Guide to Voting

The guide includes:

  • 3 Ways to Update Voter Registration
  • Steps for Voting By Mail
  • Absentee Ballot Deadlines Per State

Know Someone Who’s Thinking About Voting?

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Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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