Thriving After a Big Conflict
Linda Klitzke, MS, MFT
November 12, 2016
As I write this, we have been inundated by the harsh reality that we are a divided nation in so many ways. So many hurtful things were said and done during an almost interminable political season culminating in the recent election that it is mind boggling. So, how do we move from surviving to thriving and cultivate a culture that is more about valuing each other than crushing those with an opposing view? Isn’t this what every person in a long-term relationship must do to go forward and perhaps even find love in each other again?
So, as any Gottman Therapist will tell you, everyone has to learn to calm down. Self soothing is a learned ability that is essential to moving forward and actually deepening the relationship. It is also helpful in the grieving process and in preventing any “gloating” which, of course, is not helpful. This is not an easy solution for those feeling attacked or marginalized so putting anger and hurt feelings in their place is definitely easier said than done. It is necessary though considering the political climate, if roughly half the population has to up their blood pressure or sleeping medication every 4 or 8 years. This is barely surviving, never mind thriving.
Borrowing another concept from family therapy, take a minute to consider the detrimental effects of contempt. This goes beyond the idea that the other person is wrong. They are not only wrong, but fundamentally flawed as a human being when you hold contempt for them. There has been much more than enough contempt in a country called the “United States” in recent years. This has led to the incivility we all readily recognize, at least in those with whom we disagree. There is no seeking to understand once contempt has its hold on us. This is just as true in our public discourse as in a family. If I cannot see my brother or sister or spouse as a fellow traveler in this world, with frailties and foibles like my own, I cannot move beyond contempt never mind listen to their point of view.
As a Netflix affectionado, there are a couple of shows that point out the detrimental effects of contempt; Bull and Lie to Me both point out how to recognize contempt and the effects that follow. Let’s just say that it doesn’t seem to bring out the best in any of us. Our absolute bath in contempt has brought us as a country to a very sad place in dealing with each other. On a daily basis we can choose to hear, read, and see only those who agree with us. In fact, it is temporarily comforting to do just that, but it dramatically increases our contempt for the “other”.
So, how do we learn to drop the contempt which can lead to hate? Remember the song from the musical South Pacific: You Have to Be Carefully Taught. The theme is that we are taught to hate. Anything that can be taught can be untaught, but you need something with which to replace it. I am emboldened to say that we need to replace the hate with an appreciation of the “other” at a very minimum.
In an article in the Atlantic by David Brooks in the December 2001 Issue, he tried to explore the divide in America by doing very extensive research in two counties in Virginia, one Urban and one very rural. He attempted to answer the question, “Do our differences effectively split us into two nations, or are they cracks in a still United whole?” While he found many differences which we would still see as Red and Blue America, he did not find the kind of contempt we would now describe as the culture war. In fact, he concludes that while we were divided in many ways, we were not contemptuous of each other, at least not to the extent that we are today. We can look at what has happened in the last 15 years, both individually and corporately and find many reasons why this has happened. However, this may not help us stop the trend.
So, what will help us to be that diverse group that can be together more instrumentally than we can be each in our own camps? Our culture together needs to find a way to honor each other for all our noisy, messy differences that make us the country that we are. We have done this before. It did not turn out perfectly, and maybe like that impromptu recipe that was born in the kitchen out of necessity, it will not turn out the same this time as it did the last. We need to recognize our own vulnerabilities and be present in ways that see the vulnerabilities of the “other”. Every corner of our country has been very influenced by the vulnerability we all share whose name is fear.
There is a place at the table for everyone. We can thrive together, or we may not even survive in our division. We can decide to live in a contentious divorce of sorts where everyone loses or try to come to terms with and even honor our differences. Certainly, there is a poverty in our separate camps as the richness that each brings will be lost.
Brooks, David, The Atlantic, One Nation, Slightly Divisible, December 2001 Issue
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