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Why We Have Hope

By Arlene Harder, MA, MFT, Resident of Villa Gardens

“A little more kindness, a little less speed, a little more giving, a little less greed. A little more smile, a little less frown, a little less kicking a man when he’s down. A little more ‘we,’ a little less ‘I,’ a little more laugh, a little less cry. A little more flowers on the pathway of life, and fewer graves at the end of the strife.”
—Mark Twain

I have been a marriage and family therapist for almost thirty years and an observer of people for 85 years. Yet, like most of us, I didn’t expect the armed insurrection of the capitol on January 6th.

On reflection, however, I realize it was a natural outcome of two common characteristics of the human condition: the need to belong and the need to feel special. These are the drawing cards of cults, religious extremists, and believers of weird conspiracy theories.

This pull to belong and to be special is why it is very hard to dissuade such people to see things from a different perspective. They are protected from changing their minds because they are RIGHT. Everyone else is wrong. US versus THEM.

The second reason the attack on Congress was almost inevitable could be seen in loud demonstrations across the country over racial and political issues. Shouting at one another almost never convinces warring parties to change their minds.

When was the last time someone called you a stupid idiot and you said, “Thank you. I didn’t realize that. Now I agree with you?” When have you convinced someone that you are right when you are shouting at them? Volume does not a conversation make.

How We Can Change the World

Is it actually possible to mend the torn social fabric of our country in such a climate? Yes—and you can be a significant piece of that healing.

As many of the residents of the retirement community where I live have noticed in our long lives, we have often used a technique that works in such situations. It goes like this.

First, when battle lines had been declared, there was no chance either of us would capitulate until we found the courage to step back and look less impasionately at the situation.

In addition to courage, we needed to call on other qualities of the human spirit, such as love, forgiveness, generosity, compassion, and integrity. Also, we needed a good dose of self-care and self-awareness, so we could be clear of our objective for winning.

Lo and behold, when we approached the situation in this way, we discovered that if we were kind to others, they tended to be kind to us. If we made an effort to understand others, they were more likely to make an effort to understand us.

While not easy nor quick, this approach was often successful in finding a solution that cleared the way forward. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Practicing Kindness and Understanding

Therefore, if the gap between you and another person, or a lot of people, causes you distress, just imagine what might happen if you said the following to yourself:

Kindness for ourselves and others and understanding of ourselves and others can help transform the world. Therefore, I will be as kind and understanding as I can be.

If you hold that thought in your mind when you next talk with someone who is opposed to your ideas, you may be surprised to discover that you agree more than you knew. Then you can work together to resolve your differences in a commonsense way that will benefit you both.

It is true, of course, that it will take time for you to gradually build trust with someone who believes in a complex conspiracy theory that makes absolutely no sense to you. But it has been done. One step at a time.

Okay, you say, you can see that such an approach to conflicts in your small corner of the world could benefit you and your relationships. But you may wonder why we believe that this can impact the broader world of government and institutions—after all, our power to control others is, admittedly, limited, and the problems of the world are huge and seem insurmountable.

They certainly are huge. From a pandemic to climate change. From disparities of wealth to racial conflicts. From destruction of natural habitats to depletion of the earth’s resources faster than they can be replenished.

Exactly how we can resolve these complex issues is not clear, but they are solvable—if enough people like you are willing to live a little more like Mark Twain suggests in the quotation above.

Our Boundary-less World

What do I mean? Look carefully at the photograph of the earth. Can you see where one country ends and another begins? You can’t. No place on earth is unaffected by the land and water around it.

Every person is connected in some way with everyone else, whether or not we understand those relationships. We all need each other.

In fact, we not only need each other, we all have the same basic rights. Shelter. Clothing. Food. Safe drinking water. Meaningful and secure employment. Satisfying relationships. Protection from abuse and war. The ability to worship as we see best. Most of all, we all need respect as a human being.

As Eric Liu, author of Becoming America, has said:

“We must be careful not to retreat into a bubble but to take a mindful approach to everyday life. . . . We’re a country bound together by nothing but a creed. . . . And you have got to be able routinely, regularly, as a matter of ritual, to reckon with that creed and to ask, how am I going to close the gap between that creed and our deeds?

. . . There’s a deeper game of our values. There’s a deeper game of our willingness to take responsibility. Are we willing to humanize each other across partisan and other lines of difference?

And that doesn’t mean agreeing with the people we disagree with. It just means understanding, how did you come to this world view? What pain, what hope, what trauma, what triumph led you to see the world this way? And how, in hearing that story, might I find some avenue in to say, OK, I get that?

. . . I see a great civic awakening happening, especially among young people, across the ideological spectrum and across the geography of our country. And that gives me hope.”

Watching this process unfold gives many of us hope.

When individuals—all over the world—live from their best selves in all they do, not only will their lives, and the lives of others near them, be richer and more satisfying. In a series of overlapping relationships, their actions will influence people they don’t even know. Some of those people will have the responsibility and power to make major decisions that can address major challenges the world is facing.

Just as with the vaccine, we only need a “critical mass” of ordinary people who believe in the reciprocity of goodwill. If you are willing to join that effort, we can help make the world livable for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.