A lot has changed over the past three years. To say we are a country divided is an understatement. One might wonder why a psychotherapist would write about this issue. My answer is that since the 2016 election I have seen an influx of people trying to manage trauma triggers that had long been buried but that have now resurfaced, people trying to navigate family relationships where shared values seem to have fallen away, people trying to manage anxiety from the way our culture have shifted, and so much more. Regardless of how you vote or what party you may or may not support or even what news channel you choose to watch, I think it is clear that we are divided and that the division is not working. It is pitting neighbor against neighbor, brother against sister, friends against friends. This is no way to live.
I won’t pretend I am even close to having all of the answers on how we deal with this because that is not only inauthentic and false but takes away your personal power to reflect on how you want to show up at this time in your relationships and in the world. I will say that over the past three years I have spent a lot of time reading and listening to podcast interviews around how we rebuild, how we connect over commonalities to make our country work again, versus hurling nastiness at people who disagree which only further breaks us as individuals, communities, and as a country. My intention is to share some insight I have gained from my work on this over the past few years in hopes that it helps some reflect and maybe even grow. At a minimum, my hope is that it may help people cope with the increased conflict and division that surrounds us all.
Each and every one of us has grown up in our own unique environment - our family, our schools, our spiritual community (if we have one), our neighborhoods, and our state. We come from different races, cultures, ethnicities, religion or faith systems (including none at all), socio-economic statuses, education levels, political exposure, and so much more. These environments help us build our unique perspective based on our experiences. Often, our perspective matches those environments but sometimes it shifts to something different based on later experiences. These environments, experiences, and perspectives color our perception of the world and the people it in. One of the beautiful, albeit challenging, parts of our democracy is that we are a diverse nation, not just in race or creed, but in such a vast number of ways. This allows us to share ideas and reflect together on rational next steps, honoring our commonalities and sifting through different perspectives to get a handle on what may be best for the majority. This isn’t simple or easy. As Michael Douglas’s character President Andrew Shepherd says in “The American President”:
"America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, 'You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.' You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the land of the free."
Isn’t this the truth? And after the past three years, don’t we know it?! With the growth of the internet and exposure to people other than our own somewhat homogenous groups (at least at times), we have been faced with the task of learning to be in relationship with people whose experiences, values, and beliefs are wildly different from our own. The ingrained ‘skill’ of not discussing sensitive topics like money, religion, or politics has left most of us without effective skills for having meaningful conversations around difference or even just connecting in general with people who may have a different perspective. To protect ourselves, many of us have hunkered down in our camps of like-minded people.
So then how do we have these conversations? How do we bridge these gaps? That is a complex answer and I will try to share what I am learning in a moment. One thing I know both from experience and observation is that yelling, name-calling, shaming, and judgment don’t work. While certain behaviors may not be okay (e.g., racism), it is important to remember that often times people don’t know what they don’t know. They are acting in a way congruent with everything they have been taught and have learned to this day. That doesn’t make racist behavior okay, but the way to change that isn’t shouting “racist” at someone; that just makes them dig in their heals and may make them unwilling to learn more (often for longer than it would have taken without the shame, judgment, and shouting).
A beautiful example of this is in the OnBeing podcast by Krista Tippett titled “How Friendship and Quite Conversations Transformed a White Nationalist”. In this podcast she interviews former heir to the White Nationalist Throne Derek Black (godson of David Duke) and his friend Matthew Stevenson about how their friendship slowly shifted Derek’s strong White Nationalist beliefs to realize that the research shared with him to stand up for the cause was false or misleading and how when all of that was stripped away he was left with hate and bigotry (his words), despite having developed friendships with Matthew and his Jewish friends. I can’t imagine the conversations they had were easy. They certainly didn’t happen quickly and disagreement was definitely present. However, they found ways to connect over their commonality which opened them up to listen and understand each other in new ways.
In some ways it feels easier to just bury our heads and look away or in some way distance ourselves from people who see the world differently. Having done this for a while, I realized something. Not only is the world less interesting when you only talk to people who believe exactly as you do or at least very similarly, but it takes away the beautiful growth opportunity to be able to have courageous and civil conversations about difference. It is easy to write off those different from us as “crazy” or “racist” or “snowflakes” (or some other demeaning name), but it isn’t useful or effective if we hope to shift the division in our country, if we hope to fix the problem.
In his book “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream”, after years of public service first as a community organizer, civil rights attorney, and professor and later as a State Senator, Barack Obama shares his observations of people he met over the years and while campaigning. I want to honor here that I recognize Barack Obama is a Democrat; he doesn’t try to hide that fact nor will I. That said, I think his observations can speak to all of us regardless of where we land politically; I hope you will read this paragraph with an open mind, perhaps allowing the words to sink in and to reflect on how they truly land with you, regardless of who he is.
Obama shared that most people he came across want the same things and hold similar beliefs regardless of race, region, religion, and class (p.7). They want anyone willing to work to have access to a job with livable wages. They want access to health care that doesn’t cause them to go bankrupt if they get sick. They believe every child should have “a genuinely good education” and “that those same children should be able to go to college even if their parents [aren’t] rich”. They want to be safe from criminals and from terrorists. They want clean water, clean air, and time with their kids. And when they get old, they want “to be able to retire with some dignity and respect”. Further, the people he spoke with understood that how they did in life depended mostly on their own efforts. They didn’t expect the government to solve all of their problems and did not like seeing tax dollars wasted. However, they figured government should help.
While we may disagree on how to accomplish these goals, my experience is congruent with President Obama; most people want the same things. Knowing this can shift our dialogues, at least with each other, with the people we know. It may take time for more politicians to be elected who are more concerned about what the American people want and need versus their own political and personal gains. However, in the meantime, we can bridge gaps with each other by honoring that most of us are in fact quite similar. Rather than arguing over difference from an emotional place, we can join over commonality and have civil conversation about options. Rather than feeling attacked because someone doesn’t like an idea we have, we can recognize it isn’t necessarily that they want to deny us a basic right, but rather they may have different ideas about how to get there. That is a much different conversation. It is more meaningful, authentic, and because it can be vulnerable it can lead to deeper connection. As Brene Brown points out, it is hard to hate people close up. She encourages us to lean in and get curious. To listen and to share from a grounded place (as much as possible). That’s how we bridge gaps. That’s how we move towards unity and towards a democracy that works, a democracy in which we can share, discuss, challenge, and reflect on ideas, learning and growing together as a people.
As a psychotherapist, I do need to point out that sometimes vulnerability isn’t safe. There are some people in our lives who despite our best efforts to lean in, get curious, and listen will resort to name-calling, shame, judgment, and the like. Or maybe there is a history of abuse there that makes the dynamic unsafe for these deeper, often vulnerable conversations. These may not be the best people to try these conversations with. As I see it, the purpose of these conversations isn’t to coerce people to believe what we do, but rather to connect over commonalities and understand differences, embracing our diversity. As Lennon Flowers puts it in an OnBeing podcast interview titled “An Invitation to Brave Space”, “We don’t need to confuse safe spaces with comfortable spaces”. Conversations with people who differ from us will likely be uncomfortable. We just need to make sure they are emotionally safe and understand that there is a difference. For sure, there is a chance we will learn and grow in some ways from these interactions in safe spaces; perhaps even more from the discomfort than from agreement. But I see connection as the goal and the rest as just gravy.
There may also be times in our lives when we are struggling where bridging is just not safe or doesn't feel like an option. That is okay too. It is important we trust our inner guidance on the right timing in our lives for this work.
Frances Kissling, a “bridge person” interviewed by Krista Tippett in an OnBeing podcast, encourages us to ask ourselves and others the following two questions particularly when talking with someone who may have conflicting or even the opposite beliefs of us: (1) What is it in your own position that gives you trouble? (2) What is it in the position of the other that you are attracted to? During that podcast interview, she and an Evangelical Minister seemingly on complete opposite sides of the abortion issue, demonstrated how a conversation like this may sound. It was fascinating to listen to how there were more things they agreed on than expected and maybe even more that they agreed on than not. Sure, there are likely still points they disagree on. However, following their bridge conversation, understanding each other more fully and connecting in a positive way, they were then able to communicate more respectfully in an honest way about the differences.
My observation is that in our current political climate, things just seem to go back and forth from one set of beliefs to the other depending on who holds the highest offices. This doesn’t seem to be working. What if instead we were able to actually have real conversations that find ways to address issues in a bridged way versus the “one way or the other” type of method. I can’t help but think so many more of us would feel included and heard in government, in our country, and in our society.
There is so much more to say on this topic and I am grateful for the interesting and helpful interviews on working with the challenges currently facing us as a nation through the OnBeing podcast. If you are tired of the division, the fighting, the lack of civility when faced with difference, I encourage you to check out some of the following episodes from OnBeing. They have helped me so much to learn, reflect, and grow in my ability to effectively navigate these challenging times. And as for the anxiety? It is still there. But with a new sense of confidence in being able to more effectively communicate kindly and respectfully with people who may see the world through a different lens, that anxiety has calmed. No one likes to be uncomfortable; perhaps that’s what some of the anxiety is about. As a therapist I can say for certain, it is often through pain and discomfort that we learn and grow the most. So let’s lean in, be curious, listen, and connect. I trust the beauty of unity will follow.
Podcasts from OnBeing (in no particular order)
(1) Angel Kyodo Williams: The World is Our Field of Practice
(2) America Ferrara and John Paul Lederach:
The Ingredients of Social Courage
(3) Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson: Befriending Racial Disagreement
(4) Ta-Nehisi Coates: Imagining a New America
(5) Shane Claiborne and Omar Saif Ghobasj
(6) Darnell Moore
(7) Rebecca Traister and Avi Klein
(8) Arlie Hochschild
(9) Sally Kohn and Erick Erickson
(10) Layla Long Soldier: The Freedom of Real Apologies
(11) Frances Kissling
(12) Eula Biss
(13) Mahzarin Banaji: The Mind is a Difference Making Machine
(14) Cory Booker
(15) Maria Shriver: Finding My “I Am”
(16) How Friendship and Quiet Conversations Transformed a White Nationalist
(17) John A. Powell
(18) Maria Popova and Natalie Batalha: Cosmic Imagining, Civic Pondering
(19) Sarah Bassin and Abdullah Antepli
(20) Rebecca Solnit: Falling Together
(21) Arnold Eisen
(22) Junot Diaz
(23) Ruby Sales
(24) Rachel Yehuda: How Trauma and Resilience Cross Generations
(25) Jennifer Bailey and Lennon Flowers: An Invitation to Brave Sapce
A Few Resources for Civil Conversations and Bridge Building
The Civil Conversations Project
“Braving the Wilderness” by Brene Brown
Also note, following each podcast on the OnBeing website are books by those interviewed that may help.