fb-pixel Skip to main content
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan

Surviving an ugly campaign: Advice from the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump debate Sunday at Washington University.Rick T. Wilking/AP

With weeks till Election Day and plenty more mud sure to be slung, I’m not alone in feeling like a deer in the headlights: transfixed by the blinding ugliness of 2016, braced for painful impact, and wishing this long national nightmare of an election were over so we could return to our regularly scheduled programming.

In Sunday’s debate, Donald Trump justified boasts about sexually assaulting women as “locker-room talk,” denounced his opponent as “the devil,” stalked her around the stage in a lunging pose that a surrogate approvingly compared to a “silverback gorilla,” and vowed to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her, sneering, “You’d be in jail.”


Like others I spoke with after the debate, I felt as if I needed a long, hot bath or a meditation retreat to wash off the yuck of this campaign.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month, but you wouldn’t know it from language that Trump and some of his supporters use against political opponents, women, Muslims, and Latinos, and the us-against-them tone that has lent a patina of acceptability to the fringe of Americans who may hold racist, bigoted or misogynistic views.

So how do we endure the final weeks of this nasty, brutish, and too-long campaign? As a public service, I asked some people who think about such things for a living.

Theologian Miroslav Volf, founder of Yale’s Center for Faith and Culture, advised me that “politics touches everything, but politics isn’t everything, not by a long shot.” Volf says we can cultivate joy even in adversity, and advises not to let haters “rob you of the joy of being.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who’ve collaborated on a new release, “The Book of Joy,” cowritten by my friend Douglas Abrams. I reached Doug by phone in Cape Town, South Africa, where he’s celebrating Tutu’s 85th birthday.


“These are men who have faced much worse than what’s happening in our political arena — actual oppression and exile. But they have been able to maintain their compassion and forgiveness despite all that they have endured,” Abrams said of the Tibetan Buddhist leader who fled China’s crackdown and the Anglican priest who led post-apartheid reconciliation in his homeland. Abrams told me Tutu’s warning after the last debate was that “when people start talking about throwing their political opponents in jail, you are heading down the road of dictatorship.”

My takeaway from “The Book of Joy” is that when people vote for candidates who promote fear and anger, it’s because they’re afraid, hurting, suffering. The Dalai Lama and Tutu understand, said Abrams, that “fear, anger, hatred exist in our own minds and hearts as well, it’s not just ‘out there.’ If we realize that, we can have compassion for what’s underneath the vitriol.’’ Abrams said Tutu counsels us to cope with unpleasantness like dishwashers, not vacuum cleaners — take dirt and wash it off, don’t suck it up and retain it.

The Rev. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, whose most famous congregant is President Barack Obama, told me that he and his wife invited friends over to watch Sunday’s debate, but had to turn the TV off “because it was too painful to watch.”

As an African-American faith leader, Moss is “deeply disturbed by the discourse. The conversation we have with our children is how are we to communicate — what kind of world, what kind of country do we want? After the election, my concern is that we’ll go back to business as usual.” If we fail to confront this country’s history of discrimination, the anxiety about waning privilege that some Trump supporters feel will continue to be directed against “the other.”


The key to finding our way back to civility may be to recognize that that anger is out there and to face it, head on. Our political, spiritual, and media leaders have an obligation to speak, listen, and find common ground — even with those who are slinging the last dregs of mud.

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.