Phone-Banking and Other Coping Mechanisms

On Not Believing that God is in Control (but also Pretty Much Believing It)

Sarah Gates / 11.5.20

You’d think that, as a person both generally anxious about most things and specifically anxious about the outcome of the 2020 election, I’d have frantically engaged in voter mobilization or information sharing over the past few months. Ideally, a more active approach might have instilled a sense of anxiety-quietening political self-efficacy (and some research shows that it does). But despite having even completed a phone-banking training, I haven’t actually phone-banked. Why not?

One of the stories I have told myself is that I haven’t acted because I’m frankly resentful that election results might at all depend on me. Democracy seems too important, and the idea that my individual actions matter can make me feel more horrified than empowered. Moreover, it doesn’t really square with my personal experience. Since my dad’s death seven years ago, my mental stability has often rested on the idea that we don’t have as much control over things as we think we do. This frame supports decisions that I both regret and don’t, and I employ it when I need to.

In the month before his death, as my dad’s mental health rapidly deteriorated, I made a deliberate choice not to intervene directly, instead pushing resources onto my mom or encouraging Dad to call old friends. This choice was made in the context of therapy, after having reflected on an incident that ultimately changed how I related to him. On that day, Dad had been mentally paralyzed, unable to get out of bed; I’d tried to talk him through it, playing the role I’d imagined I’d want a peer or parent to play for me. This role was constructed both from personal experience and things I’d read, and what I intuited was that the most important thing I could offer was presence. If Dad lay terrified and immobile in bed, I could at least be with him — for hours, all day, every day, if necessary.

But after doing this once, for about twenty minutes, I felt wrecked, unmoored, and terrified that continuing to play this role would completely upend the parent-child nature of our relationship. So, to the extent possible, I disengaged. Yet, in the aftermath of his death, both directly after and years later, both drunk and sober, I’ve echoed the quickly chastised sentiment that I could have done something to prevent it.

Part of this is rooted in my close connection to my dad. He often emphasized our similar-ness, which both pleased and annoyed me. “We both feel things so strongly,” he’d say. “When we’re up, we’re up, but when we’re down, we’re really down.” In the best parts of our relationship, we related to each other like we’d known each other before life — easily, familiarly, lovingly. Emotionally and physically disengaging from him made me feel like I’d cut a lifeline — mostly for him, but also for me. I think we were lifelines for each other in ways: maybe not the only lifeline, but certainly a lifeline, or a bond that made us both feel more alive. And on the day of his death, before I empirically knew it, I felt it; having been locked out of my host family’s house in Stone Town, I was forced to return to school, where I lay down on a woven mat and cried.

When you express the thought that your behavior might have prevented someone’s death by suicide, you can’t expect your hearers not to immediately and aggressively contradict you. That’s probably the socially appropriate thing to do. But this response has tended to annoy me. In my mind, it’s not that well-supported. My logical brain easily feels that, had I done something differently, the situation could have gone differently. I mean, this is definitely true. While I can’t guarantee that it wouldn’t have ended the same, it might have at least been better. Dad might have been less alone or less paralyzed or less afraid. It all could have gone a million other ways.

One of the few times I was able to explore these thoughts was in a therapy session shortly after Dad’s funeral. In this session, my therapist somehow did two things at once. Rather than treating it like a live explosive, he held it, clarifying that it was not a crazy idea to have, and that it was an idea he wanted me to feel able to safely explore. At the same time, he introduced the notion that, so often, people want to feel like they have much more control over outcomes than they actually do.

I’ve chewed on that since. Do I imagine that I could have prevented Dad’s death because I want to have had more control over an event so disruptive that it reordered my entire worldview? In the very traumatic shaken-still-ness of the few weeks after the event, I felt a born-again, screw-it-all, throw-your-hands-up sense that all was chaos, and that my actions mattered little, if at all. At the same time, I kept doing things. I went to the gym. I argued with a friend. I behaved as if I had an internal locus of control, because if I didn’t, why would I ever do anything? I’d always thought that if personal tragedy struck, I’d resign myself to bed. But I basically did the opposite. One coping mechanism contradicted another.

The emotional overwhelm that has characterized my civic non-action and my disengagement from my dad feel, in some ways, similar. Both situations felt (and feel) too important and whirl-windy and big to really engage with. Both responses feel, at times, monumentally selfish, but also self-preserving. In other ways, they differ. In the case with my dad, my behavior was intentional, whereas with the election, it’s been passive. The pressure-cooker nature of everyone’s feelings, and my feelings, around the election have immobilized me in a way I don’t want to validate, and there isn’t really any socially acceptable long-term reason that justifies intentionally sitting this one out, save voting. I feel bad for it, or perhaps off-center, like I’m not the person I imagined myself to be. But I also feel resigned, as if it’s the only way things could have happened. Which is not true. It’s not the only way things could have happened. It’s just the way they did happen.

Since Dad’s death and in this election cycle, I don’t know if I believe that God is in control, but at the same time, I pretty much believe it.

Image credits: Alexander Andrews, Bob Barr (CC BY 2.0)