The Divide That Matters More Than Red and Blue
In times of rupture, the bridge between us is our shared humanness.
Posted Nov 21, 2020
Q: I am worried about the intense political division in the U.S. People on opposite sides don’t understand each other, don’t know how to understand each other, and often, don’t seem to want to understand each other. I know this is not new, but it feels like it’s getting worse. And it’s scary. What can we do?
A: I am concerned about this, too. The red-blue-left-right-us-them divide has become a chasm among us. Across the chasm, from both sides, there are daily discharges of distrust, hatred, and meanness. There is an entire industry, the social media industry, that intensifies the division. Meanwhile, there are myriad other industries and assemblies of wealth and power that, so long as our political institutions are too polarized to function, get to operate without much oversight and accrue more wealth and power. It is a dangerous time for individuals, some who get hurt physically, some who get killed, when ideologies meet in the street, even more who get hurt emotionally and spiritually by the uncontained acid of self-righteousness and anger. It is a dangerous time for our democracy.
But the divide that concerns me more is a different one, a deeper one, without which this political and ideological divide would not exist and threaten as it does. There would still be ideological difference and disagreement—see the important work of Jonathan Haidt and others on moral foundations theory—but without this underlying division, our difference would not divide us, turn us into enemies, and stymie our ability to work together for the common good.
The divide that concerns me more is the one that exists inside each of us, the divide between us and the real-deal, heart-of-the-matter, name-of-the-game capacities and experiences that make us human. The warmth in our chest, the light in our eyes, the swell in our throat when we connect with another person (or with an animal, or a tree, or a sunset, or a song). The tingle of curiosity when we meet something or someone we don’t understand yet, but want to. The sorrow, the ache, the wrenching we feel when we lose someone, miss someone, or hurt someone. The sense of an anchor, of fullness, of resonance when we know who we are and what we need to do. These experiences are happening all the time—these are the days of miracle and wonder, as Paul Simon says—but we are cut off, too many of us, too much of the time, from noticing. We let ourselves become instruments of production and consumption, monkey-barring from task to task to craving to pleasure to purchase to hurry to worry to scroll to swipe to copy to paste to steal to cheat to lie to eat to drink to numb, monkey monkey monkey, human doings more than human beings. To ashes. To dust.
We place barriers, and barriers get placed, between us and our humanity. And thus divided from ourselves, asleep to ourselves, turned against ourselves, we turn against one another. We ignore the humanity in others and relate to them, instead, as a category, a red or blue devil to be damned.
Jesus’s ethical charge, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is connected to the psychological and spiritual insights that we do unto others as we do unto ourselves. It is not immediately obvious, but follow the descending trail of the psyche and you’ll find it to be true, that the bully who tormented a victim first tormented himself, that the man who objectified a woman first objectified himself, that the white person who was biased against a Black person first was biased against himself. This awareness doesn’t make it any easier to be the one bullied, objectified, or discriminated against. But it is a crucial insight all the same. Changes of behavior require changes of heart.
The United States has innumerable big problems to solve—the pandemic, the economy, the multiple impacts of climate change, poverty, race-related inequities, gender-related inequities, inequities in the education of children, violence, addiction, policing, the cost of healthcare, shall I stop here for now?—and solving them will require political action. I am not saying our differences on these issues do not matter or that all we need do to resolve them is hold hands and sing Kumbayah. But dissociated from our essential humanity, numb to the pulse of what moves us and what matters, we are without the wisdom, motivation, and other means that create sensible and effective political action. We need a change of heart. We need to keep reaching for humanness, our own and others'. It is easy to lose this connection at the pace we keep. And when this connection is lost, so is everything else. I am saying that.
One of the great benefits of being a therapist is that connection with our humanity—our clients’ and our own—is pretty much unavoidable. Sometimes we turn our clients into problems to solve, diagnoses to fix, or political enemies to resist or convert. But not usually, and not for long. Democrats, Republicans, Ever-Trumpers, Never-Trumpers—once we know the things they love and fear, and how much they love them and fear them—we recognize ourselves in them. Which is to say, we recognize ourselves.
“What can we do?” you ask. I don’t know. Not for sure, anyway, and not entirely. But I do think—more than think, I trust—that part of the answer is to nourish connection with our own humanity. The more we do that, unto ourselves, the more likely it is we can do that unto others.
The way to span the divide between us and them is to span all divides, including the one that disconnects us from ourselves.
So start here. Whatever you taste next, taste it. Whatever you see next, see it. Whoever you see next, see them. Whatever arises in you next—anxiety, joy, wanting, contentment, sadness, anger, hope—let it happen, let it breathe, let it be. Lend it your ear. Give it your heart. Be present to your own humanness.
It is the bridge between you and the other side.
This is a question-and-answer blog for therapists, therapy clients, and others interested in the intersection of psychotherapy and spirituality. If there's a question you'd like to see addressed in a future column, please contact me through my website, russellsilerjones.com.