My Turn

Opinion: Trump and the pursuit of unhappiness


What a contradiction! Donald Trump has achieved success by almost every measure our society values. His financial worth is in the billions. He is married to a glamorous fashion model. He holds the highest political office in our land. He lives in gold-plated palaces that make the White House look like a dump. Born to wealth, he never had to work up a sweat or worry about where his next aperitif was coming from.

And yet he seems to be such a lonely, angry and unhappy man. Outside his immediate family he apparently has few friends, hiring and firing a succession of aides whenever it suits him. Deeply insecure, he blusters and bullies to assert his own dominance. His emotions run a narrow range between raging at his enemies and schadenfreude – dark mirth – whenever those same adversaries stumble. The quality of empathy, whether sympathizing with the victims of natural disaster or celebrating in the good fortune of others who momentarily steal the spotlight, eludes him. Our 45th President is a personification of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s dictum that “a man who is wrapped up in himself makes a very small package.”

Unfortunately, he exemplifies so much that is wrong with modern life, where accumulation is held to be the key to personal happiness, where casual sexual encounters are glorified as “adult” or more mature alternatives to mutual intimacy and committed love, and where looking-out-for-number one is considered smart policy. Lip service substitutes for actual service to country and community. Winning is everything. Americans may extol self-sacrifice but don’t really reward teachers or nurses or vets or firefighters for their duty. Self-gratification, the more intense and instantaneous the better, is our highest good.

And where has it gotten us? Americans are more depressed than ever. Suicide rates are spiking, with an alarming rise among those in middle-age or the prime of life. An opioid epidemic has erupted from the millions of people who would rather stick a needle in their arm than suffer one more day of fatigue, hollow hopes and broken dreams.

Is this any surprise? Which of our great spiritual teachers ever suggested that getting-and-spending, buying a fancier car or acquiring a bigger portfolio, were the roads to spiritual enrichment or inner peace? Whether we look to Jesus or Francis, Buddha or Lao-tze or the Hasidic masters, the lesson is always about overcoming egoism, cultivating compassion and practicing charity … in the words of the Hebrew prophet Micah, doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with your God.

My greatest worry about Donald Trump is not that he will fail disastrously or lead the nation to war and ruin (although that is a real threat). My bigger fear is that the Dow will continue to climb to record highs. Business-as-usual will prevail. Trump will muddle through. And Americans aching for real meaning in their lives will continue to be enchanted by the enticing jingles of more, bigger, faster, better: chasing just the kind of empty, soul-crushing success that our nation’s President represents.

The Rev. Gary Kowalski is co-minister of Unitarian Congregation of Taos.