As the Presidential election approaches, I find myself concerned about the polarization in our country. Reading the news, watching videos of violent clashes at protests, I feel sad and I wonder what it would take to bridge the gap between those who so passionately and sometimes violently disagree. Is there anything I have to contribute to this endeavor?
It’s easy to find fault with the other side from where I stand. I can easily sympathize with those who hold the same values and beliefs as I do. I express myself to my like-minded friends. I write letters to my representatives in the US House and Senate. Doing all this makes me feel better. I’m doing something with the anger and frustration and moral outrage that I feel.
But it doesn’t really address my longing to bridge the gap. Perhaps it even fuels the polarization.
As I ponder, I look inside to find what inner resources I might have. Ah, maybe, to bridge the gap, I can draw on my decades of experience counseling warring couples. The job of a couples therapist is not that of a judge, to sit high above and render opinions about who is right and who is wrong. Rather, it’s to help the two people, who first came together in love, learn the skills to dialogue, to listen and mirror and validate and empathize, to understand if not agree. And to come to some sort of (imperfect) common ground. It’s the hardest thing we humans ever do: recognize the other’s reality as different and equally valid. What matters in this process is listening deeply to the feelings of the other. Most people want to feel heard and validated more than they want whatever they want. If they don’t feel heard, they naturally say it louder and louder, dig their heels in rigidly, struggling to be heard.
Is this what is happening in our country now that causes such polarization?
During the Iraq War, I found myself on the firing line. My teenage son and I were visiting my first cousin and his wife, relatives I love and have known all my life. They live in my hometown and knew my now departed parents well. That connection is a comfort. They are conservative Republicans while I have always been a liberal Democrat.
In their van on the way to visit their adult children, they brought up the topic of this war which to me was immoral and illegal but to them was a great victory. They enjoy fierce debates. What I wanted was a pleasant time with family. My son and I made a half-hearted attempted to engage. When one of them made a nasty (to me) attack on my son, I got riled up. But I didn’t really want to come to verbal blows and tried to calm the waters by suggesting we agree to disagree. They kept going until my son said, “Everyone where we live is liberal.”
“Oh,” said my cousin, as if they hadn’t known that. We stopped talking politics and went on to have a lovely visit with the rest of the family.
Since then, I have avoided talking politics with him. Last year his wife died. We attended the memorial service to celebrate her life. This year he’s stuck at home alone due to the pandemic. I call occasionally to check on him. We share family news but usually nothing more. The bond of family love we feel is strong. I cherish it and want to maintain it.
But what if I put on my curiosity hat and asked an open-ended question such as “how do you feel about the upcoming election?” and just listened. Listened to the feelings beneath his words. To understand not to persuade. I wonder if that would be a practice step before trying to bridge the divide with strangers? A small step for sure and a scary one. I feel my stomach knot up as I contemplate doing this. But it might be a way to begin.
The hardest part would be to contain my own reactivity, to avoid getting hooked to argue for my point of view. Some of the things happening in the world today are to me just wrong, very wrong, even immoral. Separating children from their parents at the border. Undoing the environmental regulations that give us clean air and clean water. The lack of national leadership in handling the pandemic. And many many more. Some deep inner work to center myself would need to come first.
Listening, however, does not mean agreeing. And I am genuinely curious to learn how my cousin, who I know to be a loving family man, feels about these things. Maybe we are not as far apart as I imagine. I’ll never know unless I open the topic and listen.