We have an interesting opportunity to learn something, after what happened in Arizona on Saturday.
As many of you know by now, 6 people were tragically killed (including a nine-year old girl born on 9/11) and 13 were critically injured when a 22 year-old man opened fire at Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s “Congress on Your Corner” meeting at a local supermarket. She was shot point-blank in the head and is still in critical condition, as of this writing. I do not know the medical status of the other injured parties.
I’m saying prayers for the families and friends of all those who were killed or wounded and I hope you will too.
I’d also like to invite you to think about something...
and to listen to a little story that’s somewhat scary for me to tell....
But first, already, when you take note of the word “Democrat” in that second paragraph, something starts happening in your brain, doesn’t it? Wherever you happen to be on the political spectrum, that word, that political distinction, means something to you, even if you’re not an American.
It stands for certain qualities or values that you either assign to yourself -- or reject as standing for something you’re not.
You either go, Yes, that’s me, and maybe get a hint of something that feels good, such as validation, or a memory where your beliefs made a positive difference in the lives of others.
Maybe there’s also self-righteousness, or indignation, or anger.
Or else you go, Nope, that’s not me and get the same feelings (read through them again and see).
There has been a lot of discussion this weekend about the toxic nature of our political discourse here in the United States. I believe that same toxicity is reflected in our dual-family relationships as well.
It’s gotten pretty ugly on both fronts, because we constantly feel the need to define and identify who we are -- and who we refuse to be.
Democratic liberals are weak, lazy, bleeding hearts. Conservative Republicans are greedy, selfish, money hoarders. Democratic liberals are generous and kind-hearted and care about elevating the common good of all. Conservative Republicans are hard-working and self-reliant and contribute to a better world by propelling the economy forward.
(No matter what country you live in, you also have political parties that represent similar aspects of your character.)
Do you see how you want to identify with one side or the other?
But something very troubling is happening to our global society and we’ve got to do something about it.
Take a look online at any public forum (comments on YouTube, message boards on any topic) and you will see rudeness, insults, and a level of mean-spiritedness that is truly shocking.
Don’t you often find yourself thinking, How can people actually speak like this to each other?!
And where ARE all these people? Surely they’re not acting like this in real-life?
Is this who we REALLY are when our identity is hidden and anonymous?
So what’s going on here?
This is how I think this happens....
When we over-identify with one perspective, our big-picture vision shrinks.
We lose our ability to see nuances, shades of gray, to see the truth of polar opposites in a situation. Life is complex and subject to constant change, but we begin to insist that it not be.
Because of our passionate attachment to our beliefs, our emotions become heightened.
Our thoughts and feelings become sensitized to input and we overreact to triggers.
We act as if others have disagreed with us or acted contrarily ON PURPOSE, just to make us angry or offend us.
We stop seeing the other side as human, with fears and needs that are just as messy and unpredictable as ours.
We start demanding that they see things the way we do, or risk being WRONG.
Maybe this wouldn’t normally be such a big deal, but here’s where it starts to get dangerous:
When we dehumanize others, our standards for our own behavior drop.
We cut ourselves slack for speaking or behaving without respect. We rationalize how the other side “deserves it.” We keep the focus on their unacceptable, “Oh-my-god, you wouldn’t believe _____!” actions, repeat our stories to sympathetic listeners, and conveniently avoid examining ourselves.
We ignore the mistakes we’ve already made, our habitual shortcomings, our ignorance, our contributions to the problem.
This switch, this transference of our focus happens so quickly and automatically that we don’t even see it, much less catch it.
And the intensity of our emotions makes our viewpoint feel so real and so right that we don't have the motivation to question the situation anyway.
Do you see how your political identity, and the means you use to defend it in your mind and in your speech, reflects some of the same problems you may be having with the other household?
There’s a lot at stake in the world these days - economic struggles, jobs, issues of war and survival. We look to our chosen political parties as one way out of uncertainty - as one small means of gaining some semblance of control, some kind of positive movement forward.
The “other side” is a threat to all that.
By the same token, there’s a lot at stake in our families. Our relationships and bonds with the children. Our feeling of safety and stability in our homes, places we yearn to infuse with love and belonging and growth and joy. The sanctity of our romantic relationships. Financial and legal issues.
What do you do when what you care about and identify with feels threatened?
Where are you striking back and losing a sense of the other side as human?
I steer clear of talking politics here for obvious reasons, but here’s a raw, personal story for you to illustrate my point.
When the shooting first happened on Saturday, I immediately thought of all the phrases and expressions I’d heard certain political pundits use; the language of violence and smugness, of suspicion, aggression and the joy of domination.
That kind of language gets attention. On a marketing level, it “works” because it gets people riled up and invested.
But it’s alarmed and worried me in the past, and now, I was horrified and saddened by what had happened to these innocent people, including several elderly folks and a child. I wanted to blame it on someone, aside from the apparently crazy young man.
Part of me felt happy that these political personalities were finally going to get busted and be held accountable for their reckless, baiting invective. Considering this possibility gave me a certain comforting frisson of right and wrong. Of good and bad. Of temporary justice.
I went online to certain political sites and got a hit of self-righteousness as I saw others agreeing with me. I saw both “sides” interacting with each other in the comments section, trying to prove their points by utilizing “facts” that supported their argument.
After a while of obsessive reading, staying up way too late, continually searching for that one culminating point that would finally make things feel settled inside me, I finally started to feel a little sick.
Guilt and shame hovered around the edges of my consciousness, reprimanding me for feeling gleeful and victorious whenever I read an online salvo that seemed to hit its mark... in the midst of tragedy.
I finally had to ask myself:
What the hell was I doing -- and why?
Mentally and emotionally (I wasn’t posting, just reading), I was duplicating exactly the same phenomenon that everyone else was bitching and moaning about: making the other side wrong. Blaming them. Wanting to convince them it was their fault. Seeing them as “less than,” as stupid and uninformed. Seeing myself as superior and clearly, so obviously, right.
I was contributing to that same kind of sick discourse that I was so self-righteously condemning, sitting in my safe, little room at home.
That’s how it happens.
And it was all too easy to flit from site to site, getting one dose after another of reinforcement for my lop-sided, hateful perspective.
Because that what it was. Hateful.
We like to tell ourselves that hate is a strong emotion reserved only for OTHER people with sworn enemies, or for those who are capable of gunning someone down, but I would like to suggest that hate also has much subtler and quieter manifestations. It's easier for us to go there than we realize.
Collectively, we have gotten our nation -- and our families -- into a pretty deep hole, where the shit is flying fast and furious above our heads.
Isn't it time for us each to look within our hearts and figure out how each and every one of us is adding to it?
And to stop?
Let’s ask ourselves some questions.
Questions are always good in the middle of a mess, don’t you think?
So... for you:
What do we want for ourselves as a country, full of opposing, but equally impassioned viewpoints?
As a planet where our nations are intimately tied to each other, reliant on each other for peace, for financial prosperity, for help from each other when a crisis strikes?
What do we want for our families? For ourselves, living day to day, interacting with each other in this land of divorce and remarriage?
For our children, who look to us to guide them when it comes to handling conflict and challenges in life -- and to protect them from not only the lies of others, but trust us to see and dismantle the lies we tell ourselves?
I hope you will reach deep down and bring the best of yourself to your life, your political identity, and your family - no matter how “wrong” the other side is.
I hope you will find a new willingness inside yourself to stop your automatic patterns of assigning blame and probe deeper for the poisonous roots of conflict, so that you can heal them with honesty and bravery.
I hope the people injured in Saturday's shooting will be alright, including stepmom Gabrielle Gifford.
I hope you will show your children -- whether they’re “yours” or “someone else’s” -- that we are capable of so much more than the cold comfort of being right.
© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved