The View from Bolton Street

America Needs A Hobby: A Post-Midterm Reflection

For my grandparents it was bridge (and poker for my grandfather).  For my dad it was model rockets. For my mom it was theater.  For many of us it was sports. Either playing, coaching, or following our favorite teams.  You cheered for the Orioles because of Cal Ripken or Brooks Robinson or because you liked Eddie Murray’s surly nature.  You cheered for the Dodgers because you grew up with stories about Sandy Koufax and Jackie Robinson.  You rooted for the Bulls because of Jordan, or the Jazz because of Stockton-Malone. You were a ‘Showtime’ Lakers fan. You rooted for the Caps or the Pens or the Flyers because... you like the cold I guess? You rooted for the Cowboys because you didn’t have a soul ( I kid I kid.... sort of).

Or maybe your hobby was old books, Arthurian legends, archeology, fossil collecting, medieval theology, model trains.  Whatever it was, it was something to identify yourself with besides where you worked and what you ‘did’ for living.  But we are less and less defined by our hobbies and interests - and more and more defined based on whether we are RED or BLUE.

I’m not saying we have stopped having hobbies. But, for a lot of Americans, Politics has become our hobby.  And it makes sense. Like so many things today it is ‘free’ to start. There is no barrier to entry other than having opinions (which we all do) and no cost to participate unless you choose to.  And what’s more it feels a lot more participatory than some other hobbies.  In 2018 a model train enthusiast seems like a relic of a bygone era but a volunteer political commentator - a vociferous partisan - gets followers, and attention and appreciation from the politicians they support.... AND a lot of vitriol from the other side.

Instead of saying ‘I’m a cyclist. I’m a philatelist. I’m a Herpetoculturist.’ We are now more likely to say ‘I’m a Republican. I’m a Democrat.’

You know the old saying ‘nothing in life is free?’ It remains true.  We have learned that when the ‘news’ is free — you the consumer become the thing for sale.  Much of modern partisan media is really about  developing market segments and guaranteed access for advertisers so they can target particular demographics. 

So it is with politics.  It may be a hobby for you. But it is not free.  If you were very engaged with the midterm elections consider how you are feeling today? Exhausted? Burned out? Depressed? Anxious? Unsure of the future? Politics as a hobby is not free. And the cost is sometimes every ounce of your being.

I am not saying we should avoid engaging with the political system. Indeed as Christians we are called to work hard to make our world a better place, more like the Kingdom of God, and that includes electing leaders who we believe best exemplify the morals and values that Jesus taught.  But politics as hobby or sport is bad for the nation and bad for our souls. We are beginning to define a kind of public life where those who did not vote the way we did are our enemies. Are less than. Are sub-human.  As one of the early defectors in my family from voting straight Republican I am used to being called the bleeding heart liberal, but that somehow has transformed into the stupid liberal. The socialist liberal. The anti-American liberal.

Now if you are a Red Sox fan saying terrible things about Yankees fans you can (for the most part) look past that in the rest of your daily life.  And while I’m not quite sure what rivalries look like in the world of model trains, I’m sure they are localized enough they don’t spill out in the rest of the broader society. But not so with politics. 

When your politics is your hobby - your enemy is suddenly half of the country. And that rhetoric continues to ratchet up on both sides.  This is particularly challenging to manage when it does appear one party’s Washington leadership is at least indifferent to, if not supportive of, blatant racism, xenophobia and bigotry.  But while our cartoonish commander in chief continues to say and do blatantly offensive things, often on purpose to antagonize the opposition, there are many republicans who find his behavior and his policies offensive.

Now contrast this for a moment with those who do politics for a living. While the rhetoric may help get votes and support, you also know you have to work with those across the aisle, work with those you disagree with, to get things done.  Professional politicians and political organizers recognize that maintaining relationships and friendships with people they disagree with, even on fundamental issues, is important for the sake of their personal political ambitions and for the larger health of our democracy. Even the Apostle Paul developed relationships with both the Jewish authorities and the Roman overseers, even as they tried to destroy him and the nascent Christian religion, after all.

A favorite movie scene of mine comes from the movie remake of ‘Fever Pitch’ - where Jimmy Fallon plays a crazed Red Sox fan who hates the Yankees with every fiber of his being.  One night he is out to dinner with his girlfriend and he notices a group of Red Sox players out to dinner eating with Yankees players and he is just heart broken. For all his crazed fandom, he was unable to see that for many of the players, this is just a job. 

For many of you reading this, the next two years will be quite ugly in our national politics.  We have a President who is unmoved by any appeals to centrism and civility, we have a rabid political base on the conservative far right that loves anything that sounds like racism, xenophobia, and bigotry - and we have a political media system that can’t wait to turn every tweet, quote and statement into a steady stream of clicks, likes and $$$ in the never-ending 24 hour news cycle.

Given that reality, I encourage you to do two things: 1) be very clear about the things and the people that matter to you. Let them know regularly that you love and care for them. And when they are threatened do what you can to protect them. And 2) develop a hobby. A simple spiritual practice that you can use to pull yourself away from that frenetic news cycle and give you joy. Maybe it is training for a marathon. Maybe it is a fish tank. A coin collection. Curling. Training for an obscure Olympic sport. Even expanding your pet rock collection. You could even read the Bible. In Hebrew and Greek. 

Whatever it is engage in it as a spiritual and healing practice.  So that you can define yourself as something other than a RED or BLUE person.