On November 17th, the New York Times had a front page story on the turmoil many families in the U.S. are facing this holiday season in light of the Presidential election. According to the article, people throughout the country are cancelling plans for Thanksgiving, for the Christmas holidays, and for other family gatherings.
The article profiled several people, including a U.S. citizen who was originally from Ghana. With her fiancé’s blessing, she is moving their wedding to Italy so that her fiancé’s grandmother and aunt—who are ardent Trump supporters—won’t attend. The bride-to-be said that the election felt like a message to her that she doesn’t deserve a place in this country even though she’s a citizen.
Bottom line: In some families, Trump supporters and Clinton supporters don’t want to sit at the same table together because each side feels under attack by the other. Are there constructive solutions? I hope so and offer a few here.
Is there a way to gather peacefully with those whose views differ from yours in fundamental respects? As I often do when faced with a difficult question, I turned to the Buddha for guidance. He told his followers that his teachings were intended “not to contend with anyone.” In today’s world, I see this as a call for open-mindedness and tolerance of other people’s views.
But how far does tolerance reach for each of us? What if a person makes a racist comment? After the Presidential election, a friend of mine posted on Facebook that although most Trump supporters weren’t racists, racism wasn’t a deal-breaker for them. His post garnered quite a few comments, some in agreement with him, others who thought a vote for Trump was a vote for racism.
Where did I stand on this? Racism is a deal-breaker for me and so, because it wasn’t for Trump supporters, does that make them racists? I wasn’t sure. Many of his supporters voted for him, not because they’re prejudiced, but because they’re scared about their ability to support their families in the future. They think that Trump as President will change the course of their lives—give them job security again, make them safe, restore their vision of getting ahead in this country. This is what matters most to them and so they’re willing to put up with his otherwise questionable behavior.
Here’s my suggestion for what to do when you find yourself in the company of people whose views differ from yours. Grant them the benefit of the doubt as to their intentions unless their views are morally indefensible to you. (My list of morally indefensible includes discrimination against people based on their race, religion, ethnicity, country of birth, gender, sexual orientation, disability.) Prejudice against any of these people is a deal-breaker for me because it’s an attack on our fundamental human right to be who we are and to live as we please so long as we’re not harming others.
I suggest that if a friend or relative crosses your deal-breaker line, speak up—but not in anger. Without attacking the other person—and with as much care as you can muster—state your views as skillfully as you can. Then, if the other person wants to start an argument with you, refuse to contend with him or her. I love these words from the Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah: “If there is no one to receive it, the letter is sent back.”
Going on record by stating your views on the matter at issue is important because it may positively influence others who are listening. However, engaging in a heated argument with the person who made the racist or other “deal breaker” comment is highly unlikely to change his or her position. You’ve stood up for what your heart and mind are telling you is right and, by doing so, have hopefully influenced others. Now it’s time to “not be there to receive” any argumentative “letter” that that this person might decide to send your way.
This is how I understand not contending. It may not work in every situation, but it’s worth a try.
What can you do beyond the family gathering—that is, out there in the world—to make things better? To quote Desmond Tutu: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” It’s been heartening to me to read about the many “little bits of good” that people are committing to in light of the election results, such as donating to civil liberties organizations.
Your “little bit of good” might be getting involved in politics. It might be lending a caring ear to those who are worried and scared about what the future might bring. Being a witness to other people’s pain is an act of compassion that helps alleviate their suffering.
Each of us has to honor our personal response to the election results and not compare ourselves to what others are doing. For some, the wise choice is to withdraw from political news for a while. I was raised to be a political animal by my parents, so I naturally move in the direction of keeping informed, so I am. But I’ve cut back on my exposure to the news by about 80% and that’s been healing for me.
In addition, I’ve been keeping a “Don’t-Know Mind” about what the next four years will be like. Don’t-Know Mind is a treasured Zen teaching that will be well-familiar to readers of my books. I could spend hours and hours mocking up one scary scenario after another even though, in truth, I have no idea how life will unfold in the years to come. So, instead, I keep a Don’t-Know Mind.
We can stay true to our moral and ethical principles by not letting racist or other prejudicial comments go by without responding to them. We can also do our “little bit of good” out there in the world.
My goal is to do both of these without contending with others. In my experience, a heated argument makes everyone who is present feel worse. That’s a dispiriting prospect for Thanksgiving, the upcoming holiday season, and other family gatherings. We can do better.
© 2016 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I’m the author of three books.
Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information.