Greater Good Magazine: What Can We Do Now?

This article originally appeared in Greater Good Magazine. Contributors weighed in on what we as individuals can do now to preserve our well-being and our democracy in the wake of the 2020 election.

In the wake of the divisive 2020 election, what steps can Americans take toward a more inclusive, cohesive, just, and compassionate society?

That’s the question we put to a circle of researchers, leaders, and Greater Good contributors—and here are their answers. Many of them depend on looking to something larger than yourself: nature, ideals, and communities. Some of them ask us to look inward, and some put the emphasis on looking to other people for meaning and purpose. All of them ask us to become better than we are—to find our higher selves in the midst of conflict and negative emotions. As we wait for a new president to take office, we will each need to find a way forward, toward who we want to become.

Seek out feelings of awe

The climate crisis, racism, and economic inequality are all cultural toxins that undermine our happiness, reduce life expectancy, and hurt our immune systems. In recent years, my lab has looked at awe as an antibody to these toxins. Our empirical work finds that people can experience awe easily, without burning fossil fuels or emptying the bank account, by looking to what I call the eight wonders of life: the moral beauty of others, collective effervescence (such as dancing or singing together), nature, music, visual art, spiritual practice, big ideas, and in encountering life and death.

These studies find that brief exposures of awe—in thinking of a past experience, for example, or watching a nature video, or an awe walk outdoors—lead people to consume less, emit fewer carbons, and eat less red meat (which is itself a massive source of carbon emissions). Brief exposures to awe lead people to see common ground with others, and to view the most polarizing debates, like police brutality or immigration, in less extreme terms with opportunities for finding common ground.

Sharing a feeling of awe is one potential antidote for the racism and division of our times. Brief experiences of awe can even counter the toxic dimensions of our unequal economic structures, according to the studies to date. It makes those who have be more inclined to give. Awe leads us to feel we have more time in our work, and care more about the purpose of that work than its likelihood of bringing status or material gain.

So, what should you do today, in the wake of the election? Choose awe: Wander outdoors looking for awe, reflect on people whose courage and kindness give you the chills, listen to music that lifts you up. If you open yourself up to feeling awe, our research suggests you’ll gain strength for facing our collective challenges. And perhaps lead us out of the toxic dimension of these times, to an age of awe.

Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., is the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Power Paradox.

Recognize democracy as a sacred project

To help our nation heal in the wake of the 2020 election, I think the most important thing we can do is to recognize that democracy is a sacred project.

I realize that some people might be uncomfortable linking the religious concept of the sacred with our democratic system of government. But over my 20 years as president of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), helping to train emerging leaders in the skills of interfaith dialogue, I’ve seen how religious traditions can have a profound and positive impact on how we show up in civic life. Based on my experience, I believe there are three important ways that seeing democracy as a sacred project can help our nation emerge from this election stronger and more cohesive than we were before.

The first way is that it can help us see every human being as sacred. This is a teaching across every major religious tradition—we cherish life because it is sanctified in a spiritual sense. But the way we recognize the sanctity of human life in a democracy is by registering people’s votes and listening to their voices. In our society, as Cornel West likes to say, what love looks like in public is justice. I think what holiness looks in a democracy is welcoming the contributions of a diverse array of citizens.

Throughout our history, great American leaders have used sacred language to talk about America. Abraham Lincoln spoke about the “better angels of our nature.” He called us “an almost chosen people.” When John Winthrop referred to America as a “city upon a hill,” he meant that in a very narrow sense. But Presidents Kennedy and Obama and even Reagan dramatically expanded that concept to mean we’re a nation that welcomes the voices and contributions of everybody.

The second effect of seeing democracy as a sacred project is that it invites repentance. I think there is going to be some repentance after this election, just as there was repentance after Jim Crow and segregation, when people like George Wallace sought forgiveness from people like John Lewis. And the great John Lewis said, as a Christian, he was called to forgive Wallace. I think what religious traditions give us is processes of repentance and repair, and opportunities to re-enter the community after a breach or transgression.

The third and final effect of seeing democracy as a sacred project is that it generates processes for redemption and reconciliation. After the court order came down that required the buses in Montgomery to be integrated, Dr. King said he wasn’t focused on anger or revenge. Instead he said, “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.” And so I think that as we move on from the advocacy for particular political sides during an election season, we have to shift to the idea of reconciliation. Danielle Allen talks about the centrality of “wholeness” in a diverse democracy. She prefers that term to “oneness.” Well, we have been divided in terrible ways these past four years, and we are going to need reconciliation to be whole again.

Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core and author, most recently, of Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise.

Read the full article in Greater Good Magazine here.