Today, I intend to write about politics, but I am scared. My chest feels tight and my back hurts. My breath is coming in short bursts.
Usually, I write without fear. To be clear, I have previously written about my brother’s suicide, my father’s temper, my mother’s neglect, my mistakes, and a detailed map of my body’s scars. I am an intimate writer, exposing myself in ways that other writers praise as “courageous.” My life is, literally, an open book, laid out for all to see in my memoir, Flashback Girl.
So, why am I scared to write about politics? First, I fear that I will instantly lose one half of my audience, because my political beliefs will brand me as “one of them.” Second, I fear that if I am insufficiently excoriating of the other side, “my side” will accuse me of being the Neville Chamberlain of our times.
Perhaps I better not write this blog at all. Yet, I have some thoughts to share, which I think could be helpful. So here I go.
Because I am a psychologist, I get a unique peek into the political divide. Politics are so important to most of us, and psychotherapy sessions frequently touch on people’s political hopes and fears. As a psychologist, it is emphatically not-my-job to argue or dissuade clients from their beliefs. No, it is my job to listen, to support, and to provide help whenever I can. So, I have been doing a lot of listening, and here are some things I have learned.
1) Everyone is scared: The Left is scared of the Right, and the Right is scared of the Left. The Left thinks the Right is going to ruin the country and dismantle democracy. Guess what? The Right thinks the Left is going to ruin the country and dismantle democracy. In fact, . . .
2) Everyone fears the other side are Nazis. Truly. Each side thinks that the other side might just be Nazis. Really. This is how it is.
3) Everyone thinks the other side is trying to steal the election.
4) Everyone thinks they would never start violence, but they would respond violently if they had to. But they themselves would never start it.
5) Everyone wants to get along but thinks it is impossible because of the media the other side hears.
The other day, a contractor came to our house. My husband and I wound up in a long discussion with him, in which he laid out his intense fears about the election, this country, and threats of violence.
We listened politely and I responded, “We have the same fears.”
“You do?” He looked stunned.
“Yes, but we think it’s your side who would do these things.”
“We think your side is violent. We think your side is stealing the election. We feel the exact same way, but we think it’s you.”
“Yes, really. And it’s sad because most of us want the same things. We all want a safe community, a comfortable place to live, and the little stuff like a good dinner or a sunny day. We all want the same things, more or less.”
I have my own theories about how this country got into such a mess. I don’t want go there, because I do have my own political beliefs and, as I mentioned, I’m scared to share them. So, let me put that part to the side right now. I want to talk about how we can heal.
In general, emotional healing comes from being heard. Our pain is lessened when someone listens to us with care. They don’t need to agree with us to help us feel better. They just need to care that we are in pain.
Connection also comes from being heard. When we feel connected to people, we don’t demonize them. When we maintain relationships with neighbors and relatives with differing viewpoints, it decreases our impulse to fear or even hate the other side. It might be uncomfortable sometimes, but it is good for us too.
So, I try to listen to people from opposite political viewpoints. Upon occasion, when it seems safe, I engage with people who think radically differently from me. In these discussions, I assume I will never change the other person’s mind. I know, for example, that no one will change my mind about my political values. I could be in discussion with the greatest political commentator of all time, but I will still hold to my political values.
The point of the dialogue is not to change political beliefs. The point of the dialogue to reestablish civil connection, and to remind the person that I too am a person, just like them. We may hold different political beliefs, but we are alike in many other ways. I think we need to remember that we are all just people, trying to get through life on this little planet that we share. As such, this is what I try to do.
1) Listen civilly: Sometimes it’s hard to listen civilly. Believe me, I find some statements outrageous. Inside me, I want to scream, “How can you say that?” But I don’t believe healing is accomplished by yelling at people and accusing them. In fact, I know that behavior is counterproductive. So I work to keep my voice friendly, my eye contact steady, and my tone respectful.
2) Affirm connection : I listen attentively for areas of common ground. Does this person love their dog? Are they a devoted mom? Do they like musicals? Maybe we even agree on something political. Do they uphold freedom of speech? Great, so do I.
3) Instead of disagreeing, ask questions: I have found that I have better conversations when I ask questions. Instead of verbalizing disagreement, I pose a question, “So when you say you want blah-blah-blah, how do you think that can work?” When I pose a question, the person usually appreciates it, and feels that I am taking them seriously. I find that asking questions, instead of making counter-statements, often turns a political argument into an interesting conversation.
4) Remember that we are all human beings: In the end, we are all people. We love our kids, we love our pets, and we are all Americans. Everybody celebrates Thanksgiving and wants a decent vacation now and then. Everyone bleeds red blood. Everyone hurts inside. Everyone will live and everyone will die.
May the ties that bind us hold stronger than the winds that seek to divide. Peace.
The author's memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor is earning rave reviews and is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader