Use Bolsonaro’s Scam to Improve Your Mental Health – 06/09/2021

It was the last days of August. The phone conversation with a friend started like this:

— All right?
— More or less. I’m very worried about this Bolsonaro move on September 7th.

Some findings.

First: what the unfortunate figure does or does not do occupies a disproportionate space in our lives. There was a lot to talk about, but we chose — it’s still a choice — to talk about it.

Second: his presence occupying the presidential seat entails a psychological cost to every Brazilian and Brazilian. To live under Bolsonaro is to live in a decaying country, and under the threat that something even more tragic is about to happen.

Third: the previous two things are absolutely useless and unnecessary.

The Houaiss records that, in its Latin origin, the verb to worry has the meaning of “earning someone’s spirit in advance”. Worried is how we have found ourselves ever since the fear that the retired captain might, through an unthinkable conjunction of factors, win the elections, as indeed happened, hung in the air. Since then, the presence of this state of perpetual anxiety about the apocalypse has meant that Bolsonaro has already entered the game won in advance. Weapons of the population, destruction of the Amazon, printed votes, coup robberies: no matter the setback of the time, it is enough to put us in a position of expectation for the disaster, in a mental rumination capable of altering (for the worse) our mood, falling into hopelessness, going into depression.

It is an unproductive attitude in the face of a situation of real and immediate danger. Let’s imagine you suffer an attempted robbery. There are three options. You can run away, and bear the consequences of any failure; ditto for alternative 2, facing the thief; finally, you can choose to accept the situation and hand over your belongings to the assailant.

The comparison is extreme and not very optimistic, but it suggests a parallel with this September 7th that has caused many of us, myself included, to lose sleep. It is regrettable that, after all the visas and events, there are people willing to defend the most cruel and incompetent government in the country’s history. But it is what it is, so an outcome “outside the four lines of the Constitution”, or at least a big mess, is possible/probable. Faced with this real threat, again three things can be done:

1- run away, literally or metaphorically. The first hypothesis requires resources and a legal condition—a foreign passport—available to a few. The second, a massive dose of denial, induced by a hallucinogenic substance or not, capable of erasing the memory of the dreadful times in which we live. I wouldn’t recommend it, but anyway, it’s still a handy choice.

2- face the threat, ranging from the insanity of provoking protesters in loco to convincing someone not to participate in the acts. I admire and applaud those who have the courage and willingness to take this active stance, at some point I was that person, but in this case I won’t be. If an acquaintance is still contemplating supporting a coup movement under the guise of defending freedom after 32 months of misrule, my argument has little chance. I consider that this person’s mental space, which ultimately decides how he perceives the world and acts in it, bears little resemblance to the concrete world. It will not be a coffee with 15 minutes of conversation that will change this perception. Life teaches—that’s how many got real about Bolsonaro.

It remains, then, to 3: accept the reality that imposes itself. Bolsonaro is a popular phenomenon and there are many Brazilians who are misled, or who genuinely think like him. We are not the Arthur Lira to pull out the hundreds of impeachment requests, so we can do little concretely to contain it at this time. It’s a sad but true statement.

The key is that recognizing this does not necessarily lead to fatalism. This reality check can help us see better what we can actually do. I defended just now that life teaches, but it is not just life. We also teach, but less by words and more by example, less in punctual moments and more by constant presence in someone’s life. In this sense, there are many forms of action: attentive and non-judgmental listening to “repentant scholarship holders”; engaging in actions to defend democracy; the pressure on institutions that can effectively do something to stop Bolsonaro; the demonstration through daily action that it is to build a more just, sustainable, tolerant and loving world; even waiting for the size of the trouble to move the pieces on the board is an action strategy.

None of this will solve the September 7 problem, but it could have an impact later on. What does not resolve now and will never resolve is worry, which only causes enormous suffering to those who worry. But precisely the cost of having Bolsonaro as president can also be an opportunity for evolution in mental health. We are challenged to be more attentive to our thoughts, avoiding embarking on them. What is the practical purpose of repeatedly imagining a terrible scenario? If fear does not lead to action, none.

Right: it’s much easier to do than to talk. Abandoning this vicious circle is not easy. Mind control is one of the greatest human tasks, and not getting carried away by catastrophic thoughts is a daily learning experience. We learn especially when the challenge of dealing with these thoughts arises. If the subject is mental health, I suspect that Bolsonaro’s coup can be read in this key, even if it is to recognize “I’m worried” and, thus, already opening a little mental space for other agendas. My desire for September 7 is independence from the captain’s threats, both in the concrete world and in the complex intellectual universe of each of us.