Is it possible to reach across the enormous political divide that we now experience in this country? And if so, how?
The holidays are a perfect time to ask this question. People want and need hope, that people of different viewpoints can at least listen to each other and a divided nation can be healed. One reason for the divide is the divider-in-chief, Mr. T. A president carries enormous political and archetypal power. I wrote a piece a few months ago about how he infects all of us in ways that mirror an attack of malware on a computer. Except malware bytes do not protect us from him.
Both those who agree and those who disagree with him are infected. We might feel a wrongness at the center, and wary, that our level of trust has been assaulted. Many of us feel tremendous anger; many are anxious and worried. And, of course, there are good, rational reasons to be worried.
Programs to reach across the divide have been created and shown results. When people become familiar, on a basic, human level, with those they are supposed to hate, the walls come tumbling down.
Two friends enlightened me about an NPR Here & Now program. It told the story of how a group of people in Massachusetts reached out across the political divide to a coal-country town in Kentucky, and a meeting was planned. Much preparation preceded the meeting, skype, emails and phone calls. The people in Kentucky had to find out that they would be heard and accepted. They feared the people from the northeast would be angry at them for voting for T. Both groups thought they would be stereotyped by the other group.
But after sharing cultural events, dancing, theatre games and discussions, they came to understand, enjoy, even like the people in the other group. The people from Massachusetts discovered that, contrary to expectations, the Kentuckians voted for T not against their own interests, but to protect them. The day to day life of the Kentuckians centered on coal. To hear Hillary Clinton speak against coal was to hear their very lives threatened.
The people in Kentucky learned about immigration from descendants of the Holocaust and other immigrant groups. They learned the suffering caused by migration and refugee status and the pain of persecution is not only very real, but not much different from the pain of loss of jobs and income. Both involve “acute suffering.”
According to Arri Eisen and Yungdrung Konchok, in their book The Enlightened Gene: Biology, Buddhism, and the Convergence that Explains the World, humans often extend empathy and compassion only to those that fit their in-group. We are more likely to feel empathy and care for those we are familiar with. But the composition and breadth of that in-group is extremely malleable.
“You can be taught” both to hate and love, to fight and to care.
For example, studies show that after only 9 weeks of training with compassion exercises, novice monks are more compassionate to others, mindful, and happy; they feel less worry and are less emotionally repressed. Another study showed that random people who undergo such training demonstrate more altruism and activation in regions of the brain associated with social understanding and emotional regulation.
Children given educational programs in emotional regulation and pro-social behaviors not only improve their social skills, but they also score better on standardized tests. Learning emotional awareness and regulation, and how to evoke pro-social emotions like compassion, not only improve their mood but their thinking.
Our values, how we think about the world, and our beliefs all play a huge role not only in what we pay attention to but how we feel. As Tali Sharot says in The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others, we are motivated not only by what yields us rewards and avoids pain, but by what we believe will do so. Beliefs we form about an event can make us as happy or sad as the event itself.
So, the cause of the great divide in our nation is not simply the example of the divider-in-chief, (and a universe of cultural-historical forces) but the beliefs many of us hold about what it means to be a human being.
T models narcissism and a disregard for the well-being of others. The GOP in general model a belief in winning at any cost, in winning an election and maintaining their power even at the cost of the destruction of the democracy they are sworn to protect, even at the cost of the well-being of their constituents. They believe that we humans are at our core isolated, competitive, selfish beings, who benefit more from competition and selfishness than altruism and cooperation.
Our society would greatly benefit, and each of us would individually benefit, from questioning these beliefs and committing ourselves to mindfully studying our own nature and learning how to act with more compassion. This will help us not only to feel better but think more clearly. It is the best way to protect ourselves from the malware of hate (along with educating ourselves on issues and taking political action). It will enable us to reach across even to those who once saw us as enemies and begin the process of healing this nation.
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