The Hardening—and the Hope—of the American Heart

Can therapeutically informed dialogues save us?

Posted Oct 18, 2018

Robotic adherence to ideology, chilling authoritarianism, alarming levels of civil and political discord—this is our country in the fall of 2018. 

To be sure there are also positive developments but are they reliable, enduring?

While many of us are wringing our hands asking “how in the world we got here?” Perhaps the more accurate question is “Why, given our mercantile-materialist past, shouldn’t we have gotten here?”  In his 1978 book The Illusion of Technique, public philosopher William Barrett forewarned of the damage being done through our reliance on devices—rather than people—to staunch our moral predicaments; and we should have paid more attention.

Today we are stained with the legacy of all those who fell—wittingly and unwittingly—under the spell of a “machine model for living,” an "efficiency model for living." This model emphasized speed, instant results, and appearance and packaging; and it lured millions to the marketplace—or killing fields. The result, however, has been anything but “efficient”—at least in the larger sense. We created ease and convenience, to be sure. But we also set the stage for "black/white," mechanical thinking in a range of activities, from our speed of living to our assumptions about people to our engagement with gadgets; but our interior life, our life of nuance and complexity and wonder was left bereft--as was our ability to intimately communicate.  

The result is that, today, too many of us have become calculative and consumerist giants but emotional and imaginative dwarfs, steely and impenetrable, but bereft of subtlety, attunement, and depth;  and this is precisely our dilemma.

From my standpoint as a psychologist, there are two likely outcomes issuing from this dilemma:  One, our citizenry will devolve into drone-like functionaries, programmed for elemental self-interest or two, we will confront the moral crisis of our time—the quick fix instant results society—and engage our abilities to be more fully present, both to ourselves and those about us. This engagement will take time—more like what we see consistently in psychotherapeutic settings, but it will help us see each other as many-faceted people; both unique yet commonly disposed.

While there are myriad paths to the latter and more hopeful alternative of engagement, the grassroots phenomenon known as dialogue groups is exciting particular interest.  Consider, for example, a group called the “Better Angels.”  Comprised of ordinary and concerned citizens, the Better Angels is bringing liberals and conservatives together for “living room” dialogues throughout the U.S.  Moreover, these in-depth potentially bridge-building conversations are gathering momentum. According to a CBS News report of March 26, 2018, over a thousand people had taken part in Better Angels’ workshops across 31 states, and almost 150 towns and cities will be launching workshops this year.   USA Today has estimated that as of June 26, 2018, Better Angels had 3100 dues-paying members, and philanthropic organizations from the left-leaning William and Flora Hewlett Corporation to the right-tending Koch Corporation are supporting its cause.

This is a remarkable development that resonates with our other American tradition of tolerance for and discovery of the “stranger;” and it has the potential to reshape voting patterns. Indeed if the movement becomes large enough and enough voters see its logic, it could signal a radical shift to what I call the “fluid center.” This is a capacity to hold and work with contrasting and sometimes contradictory perspectives but within a stabilizing and supportive stance. This is a stance that has been sought after by luminaries from Rumi to Buber to King but that is virtually unprecedented as a grass-roots populist movement that could prod voters from a fear-based sectarianism to a more discernment-based ecumenism. Or to put it more broadly, it is a movement that could shift voters from what I have called a “polarized mind” or fixed mentality with nil capacity to hold competing points of view, to a more flexible, adaptive mentality. 

How then do we actualize this mentality? We will need many more living-room style dialogues as I call for in my book The Spirituality of Awe: Challenges to the Robotic Revolution [https://amzn.to/2uZOxa7] and as eloquently highlighted in Peter Gabel’s new treatise The Desire for Mutual Recognition: Social Movements and the Dissolution of the False Self [https://amzn.to/2LSw3lt]. We will also need the practical realization of these calls as promoted by groups like the Better Angels [https://www.better-angels.org], the Center for Nonviolent Communication [https://www.cnvc.org/trainingcal], the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogues [http://traubman.igc.org/dg-prog.htm],  and the Experiential Democracy Project [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g92cNF5-Tpw]. Finally, we will need many more substantive, thoughtfully facilitated encounters among persons, as opposed to the stick-figures portrayed in media or at political rallies.

In short, we will need a larger vision, not only of our country, but of life itself; a vision that jars us out of our comfort zones and opens us to the wonder, adventure, and indeed awe of coexisting with diverse lives.

Note: This blog is adapted from a similar piece called "The Coarsening Yet Hope of the American Mind" posted at the websites of tikkun.org and Better Angels.