“One nation indivisible.” These words from the flag salute, written after all the divisiveness of the Civil War, hold a vision that again seems far beyond reach.
One of my friends said recently that he fears we are more divided now than even during the Civil War. Perhaps he is right. We cannot even agree on what is true, or on what is an accurate source of truth. “Alternative facts” and “fake news” are daily bywords. Family members on different sides of the divide fear to talk with each other. Our government is hog-tied, unable to function in a world where many crucial issues cry out to be addressed. It is a wound in our nation.
I recently listened to an interview with George Lakoff, linguist and cognitive scientist. He spoke of the way our beliefs and worldviews are held not only in our intellect, but imbedded in our neurocircuitry, embodied in our flesh.
After forty plus years of practicing Rolfing and studying the body language of my clients, I can certainly agree with him. The hopes and fears of my clients speak clearly through the gait, the angle of the head, the stiffness or fluidity of the spine, the way the chest is held, open or protected, and many other signals.
These beliefs, opinions about what is right and good, the worldview of a person are so strongly entrenched, that, as Lakoff said, “if information comes in that doesn’t fit, it’ll either be not noticed, ignored, ridiculed, or attacked.”
If we are so entrenched in our opposing views, how can we heal the wound?
For the moment, let’s not take on the huge world of politics. Let’s start with how we might relate to someone who has an opposite opinion about something important to both of us. One way to soften the boundary is to find common ground. My friend Cedar Barstow (Right Use of Power) has recently created a guideline for talking across the divide. It is focused around exploring our similarities and differences around whatever topic is at issue. By first establishing our similarities, we make connection. As in: “We both agree that the immigration system needs fixing.” Then as we go on to state our differences, we have a basis of agreement to work from. It is important, Cedar emphases, to state the difference in non-judgmental language. More about her approach can be found here.
Expressing ourselves in a non-judgmental manner is certainly a life skill worthy of practice.
What is tempting when confronted with a viewpoint different from our own, is to label the person holding that viewpoint as stupid or even evil. It is important to separate the person from his opinion. And to understand that our opinions and actions are shaped by the totality of our life circumstances. If we can really step into the shoes of the other, even an opinion that seems crazy or heartless can be compassionately comprehended.
Another strategy that is helpful is to seek to connect with the caring in the other. Lakoff tells of responding to a student who is afraid to meet his grandfather at Thanksgiving because they always have a terrible fight. He suggests that the student ask his grandfather what he is most proud of that he has done for other people. The student came back and said his grandfather had done a lot of good things. Lakoff told him, “Only talk to him about those things,” because that activates care and nurturance in his brain.
A challenging strategy: to look within and ask ourselves how much of the intensity of our assertions comes from the need to feel better than. I am good, because I have good, caring convictions. Therefore I am better than you who has heartless, stupid convictions. I think that most of us carry deep inside that need to feel better than. No blame, no shame. It is the ubiquitous wound of our Story of Separation. It can be quite hidden and hard to look at, but seeing it and releasing it can make a huge difference in how we relate.
For me, one of the most important messages in Cedar’s guidelines is to not try to change the other’s mind. I feel so sure I am right that the other person is bound to see the light if I point it out to him. But my experience has been again and again, and maybe yours has, too, that I run into a wall. I am not able to change his mind. Considering Lakoff’s findings about the entrenchment of worldview in the neurocircuitry and in the body, that is not surprising.
So Cedar wisely suggests that we not try. That instead we really listen.
Deep, compassionate listening is a gift beyond measure. What can happen if we listen with ears of our hearts, see with the eyes of love that other person who is also a part of ourselves?