In the next few days, expect a heap of news articles and talking heads blathering about the State of the Union. What's fascinating is how so many people interpret the same event differently (each through his or her own prism of values and beliefs). It's one of the benefits of living in a democracy. Some people never really listened to the State of the Union. Before Obama said a single word, their reactions were pre-determined by assumptions, their favorite media pundits and personal biases about the Democratic Party. This is one of the costs of living in a culture where few people are trained in mindfulness and critical thinking.
What if we could be guided instead of governed by our brains? What if we could be open and receptive as we listen to people with views that differ from our own? What if we decided to think for ourselves instead of falling prey to political party allegiances? What if our leaders and elected officials could do the same?
For a few minutes, let me ask for your open, receptive attitude. There are a number of major issues facing the world right now, and too many people are reacting with automatic, reflexive political views. When did our society start assuming that our leaders would solve all of our woes in one year or less? When did our society start assuming that our leaders can do everything on their own, against any obstacle? There are no easy answers to complex problems and sometimes we have to tolerate some discomfort in the short term until solutions unfold. In a climate where the answers to most questions are a mouse-click away, I think we often forget that sometimes solutions take time. How long does it take to deal with an economic recession? Who the %$#@ knows? How long does it take to end a war and stabilize a country such as Iraq or Afghanistan? Who the %$#@ knows? I do know that everyone on the opposing side of the political party in power has an answer, but that doesn't mean they know. If there is one thing that social scientists have discovered, its that human beings are horrible at making accurate assessments about themselves, other people and the future. Knowledge of these flawed assessments is a starting point. Working together with people with diverging perspectives is another starting point. Increasing mindful thinking is another starting point.
With this in mind, I thought we would play a game of "would you rather..." Essentially, I am going to pit ideas against each other to see what you would do. There are no right or wrong answers. The goal is to discover what matters to us. The goal is to explore the motives behind our movements. The goal is increase tolerance of complex, ambiguous situations.
Would you rather give money to Haiti or the rebuilding efforts in Indonesia (after the 2004 tsunami)? Despite 35,000 deaths, the displacement of over 1,000,000 people, the destruction of over 100,0000 houses, and astounding joblessness, homelessness and crime rates, it appears that the world has moved on from Indonesia to the next disaster. Assistance, financial or otherwise, has dried up. If history tells us anything, the same will happen with Haiti. This is a recipe for failure. Short-term sutures are insufficient to aid people and countries in need. Perhaps we can learn something from what happened when we helped Afghanistan fend off a Soviet invasion but failed to stick around and devote resources for building communities, educating youth and thereby creating long-term allies.
Would you rather use your time and money to prevent the human rights violations in Darfur or the rape of children behind prison walls in the United States? I am sure everyone wants to say both. The reason for the forced choice is that people are mobilized for the former with bumper stickers and T-shirts to boot but nobody seems to be paying attention to what is going on in our backyard: Approximately 12.5% of kids in prison are being sexually assaulted whether it is by fellow prisoners or staff. Most of the victims are in prison for nonviolent crimes such as arson and theft. Is there a reason for this political activism blind spot? When it comes to children being violated, there should never be a blind spot.
Would you rather protest abortions outside of hospitals and Planned Parenthood Centers on a daily basis or adopt a child from a parent who couldn't afford to raise the child and was compelled to put him or her into an orphanage? If you are adamant that women should not have control over their own bodies, if you believe that this is not a personal, profoundly difficult decision, then please consider how you want to respond to the problem. One option is to attack women who are emotionally vulnerable and try to force them to abide by your values and decision rules (particularly interesting when most of the politicians and corporate entities with the strongest views happen to be men). Another option is to help deal with children outside of the womb without primary caregivers, rotting away in orphanages without sufficient love and affection. If you believe every mother should bring their fetus to term regardless of the circumstances surrounding the situation (their pregnancy is the result of a brutal rape, their own survival is unlikely), then are you prepared to care for that baby? Guess what? There are mothers with the same views who died in childbirth. In the absence of friends and family, there are babies who are alive without caregivers. If you are against abortion, are you ready to step in?
Which brings me to the State of the Union.
If you are not a fan of Obama or the Democratic Party, when he brings up plans to give health care to children living in poverty, when he brings up plans to start treating gay people like equal citizens, would you rather nod your head in agreement or hope that he fails?
Choose mindfulness, compassion, critical thinking, problem-solving, and an openness to perspectives that differ from your own. And take action instead of passively waiting for a savior to do it for you.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. For more about his books and research, go to www.toddkashdan.com