Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Agreeing to Disagree

I was going through some old journals the other day and came across an email I printed out in October of 2004. It was a message I sent to my son, Mike, the morning after we had had a very angry "discussion" about politics.

Then, as now, we were days away from a major election. The Bush-Kerry presidential race dominated the news. Mike was pro-Bush. I insisted that George W Bush was the WORST president in the entire history of the United States.

It is embarrassing to remember, but we had reached the point where we were actually yelling into our respective phones -- him on his cell phone in Virginia, and me on my landline here on the "left coast." We were like people on those stupid political shows that spend the entire program trying to out-shout each other.
Then suddenly... there was silence. 
The battery in Mike's phone had died. I sat there for a minute, dazed. I was shaking from the emotion of arguing. I was ashamed of myself for letting the conversation get out of hand. The room was SO quiet - did all that shouting really happen or did I just imagine it? It was late, after midnight on the east coast. Should I call him back on his other line? I didn't want to continue the argument. But I didn't want us to end the day on such a negative note.

I was just about to call him when my phone rang. It was Mike. He started talking about something completely unrelated to politics. I was relieved. I began to relax. We chatted a few minutes, said our "good nights" and "I love yous," and hung up. The tension and anger had melted away.

As I fell asleep that night, I thought about my relationship with my son. We've been butting heads all his life. I was an anti-war, anti-gun, no nukes kind of a mom. And I wasn't too keen on the idea of motorcycles, either.
Mike is my polar opposite. He is career military, a gun collector and member of the NRA, a graduate of the US Navy's prestigious Nuclear Power School, and I have lost track of the number of motorcycles he has owned in his lifetime. 
In many families, those differences would be enough to destroy a relationship. Yet somehow we have avoided that fate. In fact, we really enjoy each other's company. As you can imagine, we had LOTS of arguments when he was growing up. But as I wrote in the email the morning after our argument 6 years ago:
"... we have never succeeded in changing each other's minds. But in spite of that, I always feel close to you and I always feel like we love each other. I love you just as much as I would if you and I agreed on everything. ... I personally believe that our relationships are more important than politics." 
His response: "I agree and I love you too."
Somewhere in this exchange, I felt like I had caught hold of something more significant than just me and my son arguing and making up. I had grasped the edge of a train of thought that I wanted to follow. It began with the question:
Why was it that I could have explosive political arguments with my son, and still have a good relationship with him? And why was it that with other people in my life those arguments led to bitterness, mistrust and deterioration of the relationship?
I thought about this off and on for several months. In the meantime, I became fascinated with Byron Katie's process of examining beliefs that she calls, The Work. The process is beautifully simple. You begin with a statement that you believe is true, ask yourself four questions, then turn the statement around. It is remarkable how this simple exercise can shift thinking just enough to allow for some major insights. It became my favorite new pastime as I went through my days, questioning my thinking on just about everything.

One of Katie's questions is: "How do you feel when you think this thought?" I applied this by asking myself how I feel during political arguments and there I found the answer to my earlier questions. When I argue with my son, I feel frustrated. (Jeez, why doesn't he GET it?!) But in political arguments with other people, I have often felt -- scared. 

Neither emotion, frustration or fear, is pleasant. But frustration can easily dissolve. All it takes is changing the subject or finding something funny in the situation. But fear is something else altogether. Fear evokes the fight, flight or freeze response. Stress chemicals flood the cells of the body, preparing us to deal with a perceived threat. If there is no resolution (and with political arguments, there rarely is), the body stays on high alert for a long time. And we feel miserable. No wonder we want to avoid people who insist on "talking" politics.

I began to watch people in social situations when political issues came up. It seemed to me that the most passionate political people often appeared to be the most fearful. Their "passion" was how they dealt with their fear. If they could get other people to agree with them, they felt better, safer. That led to another question:
What are we really afraid of? Why do we even care?
I think it's just this simple - we are afraid that somebody else's ideas will "take over" and we will have to do something we don't want to do, or be forced to stop doing something we enjoy. I don't think it is any more complicated than that. We see a headline, hear a particular phrase, observe someone else's fear and it triggers a sense of threat. When we're threatened, all we have at our disposal is a choice of stress responses: attack, run like hell or stand like a deer caught in the headlights. When we're scared, we can't analyze anything, access our creativity or even think straight.
I've decided that if there is any real threat to our existence, it isn't a conservative or a liberal, Republican or Democrat - it is FEAR.  
We all experience it, but we don't have to live in it. We get to decide if we're going to let fear (and by extension, fear-mongers) run our lives. We are free to examine our thinking and reach for thoughts that feel better. From that better feeling place, we can create a better world.
As Buckminster Fuller said, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." 
A "new model" for my own thinking is one that came, again, from Katie's work. At the end of each inquiry is what she calls a "turn around." That means taking the original statement and asking yourself if its exact opposite could be true.

The subject of politics is upsetting to many of us because we don't feel like we have any control over government. We elect people and hope for the best. We are stuck with whatever "they" decide to do. Government is something that's done to us, not for us. That's how I used to see it, until I turned it around. Once I was willing to consider that government might be bottom up, not top down, I felt more at ease.
I no longer see politics as the cause of our problems. Now I see it as the effect of mass consciousness. Politicians like to think they are leaders. But in my "new model," I see them simply as people who function as mirrors, reflecting our own thinking back at us. The macrocosm is a larger version of the microcosm.
This cause and effect idea might sound crazy to you, but I invite you to just tuck that idea into the back of your mind and observe. Pay attention to the conversations and behaviors around you. Think about the typical complaints about government: not listening; playing the blame game; wasting money; complaining and bickering; refusing to work with certain people; criticizing without proposing new ideas or reasonable solutions. See if you find any matches.

Watch also for the ways our collective fears play out. A politician who backs down on principles in order to placate someone is acting from fear. Attack ads are all fear-based. People say they hate them, but they work. They work because they tap into the collective fears of the constituency. Those ads only resonate with people who live in fear. If a politician wins a race primarily with attack ads, it is because the collective emotional set point of the electorate is fear. To a person who does not live in fear, those ads are either annoying or downright funny.

(Be sure to note the political ads Google serves up on this blog to see some examples of what I just wrote.)

Since that night 6 years ago, Mike and I have had many conversations. But we haven't had any more arguments about politics. Once in a while, he'll make a provocative comment and chuckle, waiting to see, I guess, if I'll take the bait. But I don't. There's not much emotional charge on politics for me anymore.
To paraphrase a classic Pogo cartoon, "We have met the government and 'they' are us." We don't have to change Washington. We have to change ourselves.