“I, Cathy Cheng, living and working at my highest and best, am Honest, Curious, Generous, Humble, and Kind, so that I can cultivate the best possible relationships with and between all people.”
How does this statement land? On me, not on you. Well, maybe a little on you—is this how you experience me at my highest and best? The personal vision statement is just that—personal. It’s my own beacon to navigate life’s storms. But what good is it if it’s only for me? Shouldn’t it also be the light I emanate to make my best contributions in this one brief existence?
Thanks to Braver Angels pal Sharon Kristjanson and her Engaging With Difference class, I have protected time these two months to spelunk this inner work. Sweet! Though I have had a Why statement for a while, it’s high time to test and refine it. How does it hold up when relationships get really hard? What does it mean to be honest all the time? To be generous and humble when I’m tempted not to? What is the shadow side of curiosity?
It’s deep work, but not necessarily heavy. I’m not drafting a final life mantra for my headstone. I’m noodling with a saying that fits at the same time like my most comfy pajama pants and my most flattering black dress. I am my own best seamstress, taking in and letting out as my relational habitus changes over time and experience. I’m always me, with evolving roles, tasks, and projects. Playing lightly and lovingly with words, purpose, and meaning, in whatever context surrounds me, with a trusty journal and smooth-writing pen…this is an ideal weeknight! Adaptive. Resourceful. Connected. Possibility. Oh yeah, this is gonna be awesome.
I’m starting to hear echoes of 2016, when a friend posted, “Well, now we know where the dumb people live.” To some, if you voted this year to re-elect the president you are wholly and irrevocably: stupid, ignorant, racist, misogynist, monstrous, evil—and more. You are judged and defined solely by this one action. Nothing else need be known about you; you are garbage.
It’s us vs. them, good vs. evil, either/or, with us or against us.
This profound yet effortless oversimplification, this refusal to acknowledge, let alone explore, the inherent complexity of any given individual, poisons us all too easily. It is the venomous root of polarization. David Blankenhorn, co-founder of Braver Angels, describes it so well in his 2016 essay, “The Seven Habits of Highly Depolarizing People”. He asserts that “binary thinking—the tendency to divide everything into two mutually antagonistic categories”—is the most dangerous habit of polarization.
It’s to the point where I myself feel unsafe to raise any nonconforming perspective among liberals, lest I’m attacked for upholding the toxic patriarchy I profess to oppose. How ironic that the movement of tolerance and inclusion, that claims acceptance and diversity as core values, not only cannot tolerate but violently rejects even benign and earnest internal dissent.
Can we see our political opponents as more than a malevolent monolith? Can we allow for complex experiences we don’t understand? Can we withhold judgment long enough to recognize and honor our shared humanity, before we respectfully condemn each other’s wrong-headed ideas?
Can we ‘count higher than two’ in our attitudes and interactions? Our mutual survival may depend on it, and I know so few people willing to try.
Our voting choice was binary. Our thoughts, emotions, speech, actions, and relationships should not be.
So, what stands out most to you these days? Surging COVID cases and hospital admissions? SCOTUS aberrations? Election tension and drama? A sense of doom and nihilism about the future of humanity? Hope requires ever more effort to acquire and maintain, no?
So many people complain about how divided we are, how the country is headed toward civil war… How we can’t talk to our friends who disagree… As if there nothing we can do about it. But they attack my position, they just yell and scream, they get so emotional, I hear. It’s too hard to talk, so I abandon my relationships that used to bring joy and connection. And I blame the other; I take no responsibility myself.
What’s the phrase, Be the Change you wish to see in the world?
Maybe we could do this a little more?
And then elect people who can lead by a much better example? What would that be like?
Yes, it’s work. So. Much. Hard. Work. And it never ends.
We are all full participants here–the current state of things is the logarithmic sum of all of our relationships—the good, bad, ugly and all. For whom are we waiting to save us? How much longer will we each play the hapless victim?
We ALL share responsibility.
But it’s too hard, I hear. Yes, I know. I’m sorry, there is no way around this. And it’s okay! We can do hard things! Humans have dominated our environment, defied nature, and flourished for generations. And yet, we somehow still succumb to our most primitive and self-defeating tribal instincts—how fascinating! Sometimes I really do feel like we will drive ourselves to self-destructive extinction in my lifetime. But every day I wake up is another opportunity to avert this fate.
And it is hard! Every day I bite my tongue, moderate my thoughts and words so as not to slide down the rabbit hole of despair and denigration. I still commit ‘passionate trash mouth’ as a friend calls it—I often follow “Be the Change” with “Own Your Shit.” I’m not perfect. But my mission is worthy and I pursue it with fervor.
It doesn’t have to be anything grand or far-reaching. We can just remember a few things, for starters, to get us through whatever comes next—to exercise our own agency, each of us, to shape it all for the better.
The Opposition Will Not Be Vanquished. Neither will they stop opposing. Polarities are necessary and healthy in life. Both conservative and progressive ideals serve the common good. Competing and parallel goals and values will always co-exist—it’s a paradox—and the more we can accept this necessary and inextricable relationship, the sooner we can move with the push/pull flow rather than against it.
I lean progressive; you lean conservative. Rather than mutual categorical conquest, we can seek dynamicbalance—of power and goals, among other things. Life with other humans is a dance; it requires attunement and differentiation, give and take, and mutual cooperation for us all to thrive. Extreme ad hominem rhetoric and arrogant, self-righteous displays of disrespect fracture our relational foundations. Cracks then propagate widely and we find ourselves here, on the verge of violence and social disintegration.
Find and Acknowledge the Kernel of Truth. Life coaching taught me one of the most important lessons in life: Everybody’s right, and only partially. When the opposition criticizes you, your position, or the outcomes of ‘your side’s’ policies, do you validate the partial truth of that criticism? Do you even see it? Or do you maintain that your side is always right, and the opposition is always wrong? Give and take, remember? Admitting a flaw does not mean invalidating an entire ethos or platform. Complex adaptive issues cannot be solved or even managed with sweeping and yet oversimplified, sound-bitten solutions. I acknowledge the imperfection(s) in my program. And, my intentions and objectives are important and worthy. How can I learn from your challenging perspective and make mine better, more accountable and resilient, in service of more people? What small steps can we take toward mutual understanding and collaboration, rather than bickering and stalemate? How is my opposition actually my ally?
It Starts With Me. Stop bystanding—complaining and whining like a spectator. Rather, upstand for civil discourse—engage. When someone yells at/near me in criticism and contempt, I can yell back, give as good as I get. I can get defensive, stonewall, or disengage. These are the horsemen of the relationship apocalypse, as John Gottman describes them (read about the antidotes here). Instead of fight, flight, or freeze, practice tend and befriend. Acknowledge people’s emotions and core values on all sides. Empathize. Verbalize understanding. Voice your hurt feelings and invite the other to understand your personal perspective. Tell your story. Invite others’ stories and listen wholeheartedly. Scary, right? Vulnerable. Brave.
This moment calls us forth to peel off the heavy armor of hostility, binary thinking, and tribalism. We are called to meet the ‘opposition’ disarmed and disarming, offering humility and compassion, on the open field of shared humanity and common goals. We must advocate for our causes repeatedly with ardently calm and patient logos as well as pathos, and hear the others’ retort, calm and patient or not, with open hearts and a learning attitude. It is up to each of us to lead by example.
We cannot ‘beat’ them; we may or may not join them; and we can always meet them. Negotiation is always possible, and like in all relationships, we must all show up in good faith, and have some faith in the each other. We must commit and live up to our own trustworthiness first.
These are all skills we can learn, practice, and master. There are models all around us. We only have to look, listen, and emulate. If you’re interested in more formal training and practice, check out Braver Angels and Better Arguments. I’m signed up for another training session in December. Practice makes better.