The weekend after Donald Trump was elected president and protests erupted around the globe, I went into soul survival mode, scanning my bookshelves and movie and music libraries for anything that might provide context, the aerial view, hope, wisdom and something like learned escape.
As the Muslim ban and everything that came before it and after proves, Trump is the worst of us: a fake thug, capitalist pig and tool of evil with no discernible inner life or spirituality. To distance myself from the ape, I cracked Krista Tippet’s “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living” and Thomas Moore’s “Care Of The Soul,” both of which provide guidance for going deep and navigating the shallow world. More than anything, I’ve found gold in nightly readings of 1992’s “The Way To Love: The Last Meditations of Anthony de Mello,” throughout which the Jesuit priest wisely questions authority and the reality we’re fed:
“Attempt to understand the true nature of worldly feelings, namely, the feelings of self-promotion, self-glorification. They are not natural, they were invented by your society and your culture to make you productive and to make you controllable. These feelings do not produce the nourishment and happiness that is produced when one contemplates nature or enjoys the company of one’s friends or one’s work. They were meant to produce thrills, excitement — and emptiness.
“And take a look at the people around you. Is there a single one of them who has not become addicted to these worldly feelings? A single one who is not controlled by them, hungers for them, spends every minute of his/her waking life consciously or unconsciously seeking them? When you see this you will understand how people attempt to gain the world and, in the process, lose their soul. For they live empty, soulless lives.”
Thankfully, De Mello provides an answer to the “Is that all there is?” question that’s been nagging our collective consciousness during Trump’s rise, as does “Across The Universe,” Julie Taymor’s reliably entertaining re-telling of the turbulent ’60s via Beatles music. I dialed it up immediately after Trump’s victory for a thoughtful blast, hankering to see the film’s most poignant scene, when the jealous protagonist, Jude, invades the anti-war resistance’s offices and sings “Revolution.”
It’s the struggle we all find ourselves in at the moment: An artist in the making, Jude knows that by joining a revolution or protest is the same kind of groupthink that creates “sides” and tamps down the soul itself, so he goes his own way. As an artist and a creator of original ideas, he’s committed to changing the world, but on his own time and in his own way, and he’s skeptical of power and leaders of any kind. It’s a nod to Timothy Leary’s “Turn on, tune in, drop out” philosophy from 1966 that says the human animal has many ways to react to the world around it and create change, and not all of it has to do with marching in the streets.
A little too obviously, next up was “V for Vendetta,” whose dystopian world of fake news, authoritarian government and the enduring strength of the human spirit versus the Matrix is more than a little instructive during the Trumpocalypse. Chancellor Adam Sutler is a good cartoon version of Trump, preaching fear and law and order, while the anti-hero V is a good no-surrender role model who reminds, “People shouldn’t be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.”
Finally, 2017’s most popular box office draw, “La La Land,” is a much-needed reminder that all is not lost. Pure Hollywood escapism to be sure, but it’s also proof positive that sheer beauty can burst forth even in times of stultifying ugliness. The mere idea of falling in love, or of people going after their artistic dreams, is the sort of soul nourishment that’s eroding under Trump, much like the new regime’s coming cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts and forthcoming war on net neutrality puts a chill on imagination itself.
But life is more than about making money or proving yourself to an unappreciative boss. Which is why it’s important to keep in mind that our spirits and souls are capable of generating real beauty and originality, not merely surviving or reacting to the day’s headlines. I loved every so-called snowflake moment “La La Land” provides, especially the scene in which Mia (Emma Stone) gets a callback for a movie audition and, in the face of her own self-doubt and an industry that maintains she’s not good enough, cuts loose and sings her ode to “the dreamers.”
It’s an anthem worth holding close as we all follow our dreams, most of which feel momentarily dimmed by the idiocracy we’re living through, and belittled by the powers that be, but I for one won’t stop singing the chorus:
A bit of madness is key
To give us new colors to see
Who knows where it will lead us?
And that’s why they need us
So bring on the rebels
The ripples from pebbles
The painters, and poets, and plays
And here’s to the fools who dream
Crazy as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected]