Polarization is the word of the decade. It’s said the nation is divided with part on one side, part on the other. Between them is a deep, wide chasm populated by a rarely seen tribe of moderates. They’re unimportant, pay no attention to them. Is that the way it is?
We may be deeply divided but hardly polarized because there are too many poles to be counted. There isn’t one side and another. A better way to say it might be that we are divided into many groupings, each clinging to strongly held opinions centered on a few issues around which an entire world view is built, and against which all others are measured. Gathering around competing poles, groups warily seek temporary allies in a society where none can be trusted. It’s not a congenial environment for social stability, public welfare, democratic processes, or personal emotional health.
I was thinking about this when I stumbled on old notes from a Karl Menninger lecture of about fifty years ago. What he said then, the notes I took, and how I reflect on them now, may be poles apart, but I think they offer helpful guidance about ways to create conditions where good faith debate about issues of public policy can displace abusive polarization. As I recall, Menninger’s lecture addressed seven disciplines of life: living in reality; handling change with less discomfort; freedom from debilitating symptoms of stress; living into generosity; relating to others in mutually acceptable ways; sublimating hostility to useful purposes; and committing to life long learning. What follows is a brief take on each.
The ability to recognize and engage with reality helps one to disengage from living in fantasy, falling prey to tales of conspiracy, and making value judgments without evidence to support them. I suppose you could call it knowing how to tell the difference between real news and fake news. It’s the old trust but verify thing. Reality is always subjectively understood, but it has objective existence that can be defined through disinterested observation of verified facts to see how they relate to each other.
Improving ways to deal more easily with change is crucial in today’s society. Everything around us is changing with accelerating speed. It isn’t going to stop. There is no ground to stake out that will not move under our feet. Most of what passes for absolute moral truth is built on social standards of the day buttressed by highly selective appeals to scripture and tradition. When uncomfortable change is upon us, it’s too easy to believe that “…rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism.” (Emerson, 1841) Leaving old standards for new does not mean anything goes, but the new must always be challenged and tested. Challenged and tested by what? As an Episcopal priest, I recommend the Sermon on the Mount, the Two Great Commandments, the New Commandment, and the Ten Commandments.
Tension & Apprehension
Trying to figure out what reality is, and dealing with change constructively, all the while being confronted with unplanned events that disrupt lives, creates tension, apprehension and guilt. They can’t be avoided. That’s life. What can be avoided is allowing the symptoms that come with tension, apprehension and guilt to eat away at our souls. In the Christian tradition, confession, repentance, and giving and receiving forgiveness are the best practices for staying emotionally and spiritually healthy. Other traditions have their own best practices, and we’re the wiser to learn from each other. What we know, in our age of PTSD and high rates of suicide, is that when symptoms become health and life threatening, seeking help from qualified providers is essential.
Each of us can choose to live in lives of scarcity or abundance, which are not the same thing as poverty or wealth. Living in scarcity leads to anxious selfishness, excessive desire to control others, unwillingness to contribute to community well being, and a suspicious, fearful outlook on life. Living in abundance leads to seeking and finding the good in others, joy in sharing friendship, willingness to support others toward their own abundance of life, and a realistic but trusting outlook. Living in abundance becomes a life of generosity given and received.
Relating to Others
Improving the ability to relate to others in mutually satisfactory ways leads to amicable connections with others across political, economic, social, and ethnic divides. Agreement is not a necessity. One can have adversarial relationships with others that remain mutually respectful. It frees us from captivity in the exclusive company of the like minded to discover a wider, more interesting world. In my tradition, the discipline to do that begins with respecting the dignity of every other person, no matter who they are, or what their condition in life is. In every tradition it means laying down the school yard taunts that litter the Twitterway, and taking up the practice of authentic conversation.
Anger is sometimes accused of being an impolite emotion best held in check, hidden behind false smiles. Why? Some things are worth getting angry about. How anger gets expressed is another matter. Sublimating it to useful purposes works against its use as a means of revenge, control: an abusive hammer doing bodily or emotional harm to others. The rule is to let no evil come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up. It doesn’t delegitimize indignation over injustice, it directs it toward restoration of what is just.
Life Long Learning
Children are naturally curious about everything. What, why, how, where are their endless questions. Somewhere along the line curiosity begins to ebb, and for too many by middle age it’s gone. It doesn’t have to be. A life of curiosity in which learning never ends opens doors to new adventures, breaks down barriers, and demolishes prejudices. It’s hard to become trapped by polarization when a world yet to be explored lies ahead. Whether in quiet contemplation or energetic engagement, a life of curiosity, exploring new worlds, and learning new things has little time for polarization.
So Now What?
Polarization may be the word of the decade, but we can change it. It doesn’t seem to matter what one’s politics are, everyone is unhappy with it. I’m reminded of an old saying that everyone complains about the weather but no one does anything about it. The polarization of our society doesn’t have to be like that, but there’s no magic pill. There’s no “they” who should do something about it. Each of us, acting in our own spheres of influence, must take responsibility for becoming as unpolarized as we can. These seven disciplines are exercises that will help make it happen. Like any exercise, to do any good they have to be worked on with intentionality and perseverance. They have value only if put to use, one person at a time.