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Protests: Potent or Impotent?

In politics and relationships, can protests make us feel good?

Protests occur all over the globe.

"You have to fight to feel good." In my twenties, when I was living in New York with a group of post-college friends, Bob was a tall handsome young man in our cadre who took this slogan about protests as his raison d'etre. Bob was sure that investing your time and energy in a cause invigorated your life.

The Occupy Wall Street protests reminded me recently of Bob's words, which, four decades later, I still vividly recall. I still wonder, as I did then, what kind of fight does make us feel good. Can protests leave us feeling impotent? Can fighting even wreck a life?

Some time after my New York years I traveled to the mountains in the Northwest Frontier Provinces of Pakistan. That's the area where Al Qaeda more recently has roamed. I was there to learn from a Sufi mystic.  Durrani Sahib had a phrase that, like my New York friend's saying, has long rung in my ears. "Cars run best uphill." Durrani Sahib's day job was as dean of the engineering school in Peshawar so while his words of wisdom consistently rang deep and true, he loved to use simple, practical metaphors. 

Durrani Sahib's words, that cars run best uphill, clarified for me the importance of focusing one's energy on a project.  Like my earlier friend Bob, Durrani Sahib understood that people feel good when their life energies power an activity that addresses a challenge. It feels good to fight for something, to be moving forward and upward, like a car on a hill, heading for a goal.

The Occupy Wall Street protests intrigue me in this regard. They do seem to generate balloons, friendships and fun energy.  The protestors also meet Bob's criteria in the sense that they have banded together to fight, united against "Wall Street." For me, though, their protests feel impotent rather than strong. Why?

Driving to work today I heard on NPR an interview with participants in the 1960's civil rights movement.  By contrast with the Occupy Wall Street protests, the civil rights movement had an uplifting tone.  Yes, the marchers were against segregation, but their language was about what they were for.  They were for racial integration. They were for equal rights for all Americans whatever the color of their skin. 

I thought then about the Arab Spring. To what extent have the demonstrations in Tunisia, in Libya, in Egypt, and now in Syria been against or for? The against has tended to be clear. They are against being ruled by fear. The protests are against the corrupt and cruel dictators who have ruled their countries.   

The for that these courageous citizens are fighting to gain has been more complex. Some are fighting for freedom and democracy. Others of the demonstrators are fighting for Islamic rule, the replacement of secular government with potentially dictatorial but religiously Islamic governments. 

Alas, while their shared goal of removing hated dictatorships has united the Arab protestors, removal of the dictators may or may not lead to a better life for the citizens.  So far, chaos and economic disaster look as likely to be the outcomes of the protests as free and fair governance. Clarification of what one is fighting for is essential for an energizing fight to lead to long term betterment.

My own current battle that I fight for is the institution of marriage. As a therapist I fight against dissention and divorce by helping couples to build positive and loving relationships.  On a societal level I fight to protect and upgrade the institution of marriage by writing blog posts, articles, books, audios, and videos, and a website with games that teach the skills people need for marriage success.

I've learned from my work that couples can benefit from taking a good look at their fighting. Are they fighting against, or for?  Do they complain and criticize, which are signs of fighting against, or do they talk collaboratively to explore their concerns and create new options?  Are they fighting against each other, or for solutions to their difficulties?

Protests have their place. Standing up against something can feel good. Righteous anger is invigorating. Yet both in politics and in personal relationships, protests that are against risk becoming impotent expressions of rage, "signifying nothing" and leading downhill to demoralization and divisiveness. 

By contrast, fighting for specific goals generates productive problem-solving. Clear objectives give a "fight" potency and well-being. That's the kind of fight that feels really good.


Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two.  A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is a marriage skills website,