Now that The Great Unraveling has begun and certain presidential candidates are being exposed as “not ready for prime time” players, I find myself thinking about something potentially far more dangerous than their candidacy, the Great Divide between my fellow Americans. Never have we been more splintered, or more in need of finding the common ground on which to function, and move forward, as a nation.
Having grown up with a Democratic mother and Republican father, the tension in our home during the Nixon-Kennedy debates was palpable. Norman Lear’s Emmy Award winning, All in the Family characters, “Meathead” (Rob Reiner) and his father-in-law, “Archie” (the late Caroll O’Connor) acted out these differences in front of a national audience every week from their home in Queens, New York, not far from where I was born. Turning off the TV after each episode, we were left to reflect about the polarities in our own families and the strife of our divided nation. What could we do about them besides bicker and tear each other down? Was it just in our nature to see things differently from generation to generation? Could we keep our families and nation together?
I could only conclude that it was all in the family and that we had a responsibility to not allow our differences to destroy our family, no less our community and nation. Tempted to build walls, I created bridges in my relationship with my father. And so it is today, as we bid goodnight to our loved ones and turn off our (carefully chosen) TV news. Having had our fill of the modern day Archie and Meathead’s, we’re left to fall asleep thinking about the (discombobulated) state of our family relationships, nation and world.
Households, workplaces, neighborhoods, communities and (un-united) states are as polarized today as they were in 1964 when I watched our nation unravel on TV news and debates. The media appears to be thriving on Reality TV Politics, vicious politically-charged e mails appear to be flooding cyberspace, “Bernie” bumper stickers appear to be cropping up on America’s roadways and auditoriums appear to be filling to capacity with celebrity candidate appearances. Families, friends, co-workers, neighbors and people working behind the counter at Starbucks meticulously avoid small talk about politics, fearing they will open Pandora’s Box. Or, they dip their toes into piping hot political waters, awakening the giant across the counter or dinner table.
Whether avoiding conflict behind a wall of silence or getting into a yelling match with someone in your family, we risk becoming polarized, and even radicalized, even further. There is, thankfully, another option besides walking on eggshells, avoiding conflict or erecting walls between ourselves and those with whom we disagree. It’s called “keeping your cool and communicating.” When we slow it all down and set our intention on building bridges instead of walls, we can usually find the common ground on which we can actually share our fears, hopes and concerns, and find ways to work together as Americans. Is this not what was meant by “…one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all” in our nation’s Pledge of Allegiance?
Keeping your cool and communicating involves listening, really listening, to what the other person is saying and getting underneath the dogma/story/bla bla/politics to the feelings they’re experiencing. Understanding each other’s greatest fears, sorrows, losses, wounds, worries and betrayals is as important as understanding their greatest joys, hopes, dreams, values and aspirations for their families and the nation. It also involves talking, expressing how you see things in a humble, respectful manner free of rigid, self-righteous proclamations that you are right and they are wrong. Listening and talking in these ways is a noble path to finding the common ground on which to reunite America.
Polarizing (i.e. self-righteously placing ourselves in the light while painting others as wrong) is easy. We do it in our closest relationships when we feel threatened. Most of us have had the experience of thinking we really knew somebody – only to discover we’d been courting Jekyll and Hyde. The emergence of an “ugly,” “uncivil,” “shockingly despicable” side of the other person eroded (and often ended) the relationship between friends, parents and adult children, siblings, neighbors and co-workers. Much like religion, politics can be a relationship deal breaker.
Handled respectfully, with empathy, understanding and constructive communication, talking about sensitive issues on which we differ can be a relationship, community, nation and world- unity builder. It’s our responsibility to build, not tear down, relationships with our partners, kids, families, coworkers and fellow citizens. It may be in our nature to disagree, especially about those things we feel most passionate, but let’s resolve to do so in a way that makes us all better, smarter, safer and stronger. Cultivating the civility that builds relationships may be a challenge in the heat of the moment when highly-charged emotions are flooding the room. But we must resist them and move to higher ground. It is, after all, all in the family.
Ken Druck, Ph.D. is an award-winning grief and resilience expert, speaker, organizational and family consultant, and author of several books including,The Real Rules of Life (Hay House). Follow Ken’s blog or find him on Facebook.
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