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Know the West

Animals’ advice for surviving trying times

Are you the political equivalent of an armadillo, ant or tiger?


Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a writer and retired forensic biologist in Oregon.

How are you doing? I confess that I’m having a rough time. Everything I care about is under attack by the regime in power. Whether it’s wilderness preservation, endangered species protection, action on climate change, the integrity of science, corporate accountability, separation of church and state, access to health care, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights — all, all are in danger of being torn to shreds. Trying to keep up with the litany of horrible news is like drinking from a fire hose spewing toxic waste. 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless, which is exactly what those in power are counting on. So, how to move past that trap?

For our friends who are struggling, we need to be supportive and understanding — and also offer encouragement that resistance is helpful. I don’t try to deny my depression when it comes, but I try not to feed it. Usually after a few days or a week, outrage cuts through the fog, and I’m awake again. But then what?

Looking around me, I see three basic coping strategies. I call them after the species that best exemplify them: armadillos, the tigers and the ants.

The armadillo is famously covered with an armor of tough scales, and when attacked it tucks its head under and rolls up into a protective ball. This is, of course, the strategy of denial, and lots of people I know have shut down and become armadillos. I’m lucky to live in a beautiful small town, where it’s easy to feel insulated from unpleasant reality. If you never pay any attention to the news, you can live here very happily, tending your garden, going out for coffee, taking a nice hike.

Political tigers gather in Portland for a May Day protest in 2012.

There are a couple of problems with being an armadillo, however. First of all, there are some very strong-jawed monsters out there, and I submit that the current administration in Washington, D.C., is such a monster. Second, sooner or later, every armadillo has to uncurl and go about its life. Like me, a lot of my armadillo friends are in their 60s, and I think they’re betting, consciously or not, that they won’t be around when the worst comes to pass. Perhaps that’s what counts as optimism these days.

Then there are the tigers. Tigers are fierce and uncompromising. Some fearless people — my wife, for one — have become tigers. A pediatrician with a demanding practice, she still spends hours every day telephoning not just our own worthless representative but also leaders in Congress like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. She goes to rallies and makes sure I come, too. She donates money to an ever-lengthening list of activist groups and promising candidates. She gets, on a good night, four hours of sleep. I am in awe of her passion and that of the other tigers I know. But not everyone can be a tiger, burning so brightly without burning out.

That leaves the ones like me, the ants. Like our totem animal, we may be small, but we are single-minded and we are legion. The most encouraging discovery of this terrible year has been how many of us there are, working in local networks to form a national resistance. Every week, I take at least three or four actions — I write a letter, make a call, go to a meeting. That’s a level of activity I know I can sustain. I focus on environmental defense, while my friends and allies swarm into action on health care, racial justice, immigrant rights, and all the other issues under threat. In the long run, I believe it’s the collective work of these people, some of whom have never been politically active before, that will save our country from its present nightmare. 

So, I say: Join us. Shoulder your small burden, one that is not so heavy that it will leave you broken, and make a path that works toward change. Don’t forget to thank the mighty tigers who inspire the rest of us, and as you pass the armadillos, give them a little kick to wake them up.

We have nothing to lose but our despair.