The Political Conversation I Wish We Were Having
In December of 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson said in The Conservative, "The two parties which divide the state, the party of Conservatism and that of Innovation, are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made."
From a spiritual perspective, we know that the universe seeks balance, and this is reflected in our politics as well. A healthy society requires the existence of progressives to keep us moving forward and evolving, and conservatives to make sure that progress isn't so fast that we go careening off of the train tracks. A healthy democracy lives in the "middle way" of these two forces.
Progress can only occur as quickly as the majority of our fellow citizens are comfortable with, and right now, we're all dealing with a lot of uncertainty. There are big things happening now, and big things coming, that will affect our lives in unknown ways: inflation in the cost of everything, supply chain problems, labor shortages, pandemics, possible limitations on all sorts of freedoms we have begun to take for granted, medical advances, space exploration and UFOs, and surrounding it all, climate change.
Uncertainty is perceived by our body-minds as a threat to our survival. If what has kept us alive all this time is changing, what does that mean for us? How will we adapt? CAN we adapt? What if we no longer have a place in the tribe when we arrive at the place we're going? If we no longer belong, how will we survive? How will our children survive?
All of this uncertainty is stirring up our deeply rooted fear-response mechanisms: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.
A lot of us are responding to the uncertainty in our lives by digging in and lashing out. We're aligning ourselves with the ideological tribe that best matches the things we're afraid of and vilifying the "other side" of the debate. We talk and we don't listen. Our minds have become closed to viewpoints that don't perfectly match our own, and much less those that stand in direct opposition. We have lost our will to be curious about ourselves and those around us.
Many of us are responding to our fears by fleeing. We've stopped watching the news because it's just too much negativity to be bringing into our lives. We're planning moves to other countries, or we've already moved. We're becoming absorbed in our addictions. (My Harry Mack addiction has gotten real lately.) We're medicating ourselves to the max, with substances both prescribed and not. We're living in our fantasies about ourselves and our futures, because being present in the real world is too painful to bear.
Panic attacks are the new Tuesdays. And Wednesdays. And maybe Sundays too. Our society's current epidemic of depression and anxiety, which is particularly acute among our young people, is an expression of our "freeze" response. We're paralyzed by sadness about what's already happened and fear of what's to come. Because the problems on the horizon are so big, and we're so small, we tell ourselves that there's no way that we can have a measurable impact on any of it. We become stuck between fighting and fleeing, and never make a choice.
Part of the way that we manage survival fears is by making ourselves valuable to our tribe. Fawning is all of the things we do to be liked: we tweeze and laser and dye and lift, we pump all the iron and cut all the carbs, we filter and cut and do as many takes as is required to maximize our likes. We work insane amounts of hours at work, volunteer for every committee and project at our churches, and we're always there with our van when our friends need to move.
Some say that our society is currently the most polarized that it's ever been, that we can't even agree on what the facts are, much less what to do about the problems facing us all. But there are things we can do to start shifting our political climate in a healthier direction.
Shift from "us v. them" to just "us" - When we believe that there's some "other" force out there that seeks to do "us" harm, we set ourselves up for fear. When we understand that every human is just looking to survive and thrive in the best way that they know how, the same as we are, we can dismantle our fears and orient our thought process toward solutions. Instead of strategizing how to destroy the "other", how can we work together to make sure that each of "us" feels maximally heard, seen, respected, and supported to live our best lives?
Sit with fear - The news media feeds our fears, because fears lead to clicks, which leads to journalists being able to pay their mortgages and feed their families. We don't have to let ourselves be hijacked by our fears, though. We can sit with our fears, and remember that everyone else is just as afraid as we are, although we may be afraid of different things, for different reasons, because our life experiences are different. We can choose to refrain from acting in ways that make others feel threatened or excluded for having fears that aren't the same as ours.
Become curious - In times of great uncertainty, we lose our willingness to be curious and instead look for certainty, even if we have to invent it. We perceive any attempt to change our minds as a threat to our survival, and although expanding our understanding isn't a threat to our survival, it can certainly feel like it at times. After we've become skilled at sitting with our fear, we open ourselves to becoming curious about the fears experienced by those whose lives have been different from our own. Once we understand what each of our concerns are, and how those concerns may be similar to and different from our own, we can begin to engage in a productive dialogue about possible solutions.
Nurture our compassionate natures - One of the biggest obstacles to finding the political middle way is a mistaken belief that society is a zero-sum game, that if "they" get something, it can only come at the expense of "us". Let's be honest with ourselves that being a member of a society does require a certain amount of compromise. However, those compromises are a trade-off: we may have to give up something, but we get something in return as well. If we're just giving up something, that's not a compromise. The trick is in how we measure what we're giving up against what we gain in exchange. Humans are notoriously poor at this, naturally over-valuing what we already have and under-valuing what we can gain. We can counter this natural tendency by nurturing our concern for others' wellbeing, a practice which is a primary tenet of pretty much every religion that's ever been for a reason: it's a key requirement for a healthy society.
This is the political conversation I wish we were having: How can we discover what each of us is afraid of, hold those fears in our hearts and minds with respect and care, and address everyone's fears in a way that best ensures that every person feels vitally important to our society at all stages of the process? There's a way to the Way. We just have to lean into living it.