by Brandon Nappi
While a band of Trump supporters have found in their candidate a straight talking messiah and a gaggle of Hillary faithfuls have crossed their fingers extra hard, what I’m sensing from most Americans is a battle-weary exhaustion. Most of us are wondering how we got to this point. After nearly 250 years of democracy under our belt, is this the best we could do?
I hope we can look beyond the usual sources of blame—past Hillary’s emails and beyond Trump’s deplorable misogyny. While neither of these issues is defensible or even comparable, what they have in common is that neither defines the fundamental failure at the heart of this absurd exercise in political theatrics. The American soul has suffered a deep wound in this election. The harshness and angst are simply the symptoms of a deeper injury: the wound of personal and political alienation.
We have not gotten the politicians we deserve; we have gotten the politicians we’ve created from our own fear and suspicion. Maybe you, like me, have wondered, “What are we supposed to be learning from this political circus?” What post-traumatic growth might emerge after this political post-traumatic stress? In the midst of the partisan absurdity, I cling to the wisdom of the thirteenth century Persian poet Rumi who wrote, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” Perhaps this jagged gash in the American soul is a place where some light can shine. I offer the following principles as possible illumination to heal our political wounds.
Disagreement Without Hatred
We can disagree without demonizing the other. The marketplace of ideas at the heart of any healthy democracy has devolved from passionate civil discourse to an exercise in diagnosing pathology. In this climate, the people who differ are no longer simply wrong, they are commonly characterized as neurotic, scheming, foolish and pathologically evil. Ad hominem attacks have not only become acceptable but expected in the age of never-ending campaigns. We need a new humility of speech and temperance in language. An era of growing fragmentation calls for us to use language with deep care and restraint.
It is the human tendency to minimize our own imperfections and flaws while maximizing the deficiencies of others. Because we often assume the worst intentions of others while overinflating the nobility of our own motives, we employ insinuation and cynicism to our own peril. In the end, we become what we hate. There is another path possible amid such division.
We are all connected in this great American experiment. In fact, we need opposing voices that ardently disagree to be in conversation with one another to moderate and balance political extremes. By design, our country benefits from parties pulling in opposite directions. This recognition of interdependence brings ideological humility—the vital admission that no single system of thought solves every problem. None of us sees the whole picture. We need one another to address the blind spots in our own worldview. By recognizing our mutual need for one another, we begin to heal our habitual judgments and opinions that blind us from seeing clearly.
The capacity to see unity within difference is the most important skill of our time. This interconnectedness is fundamental to our personal happiness, harmony in our streets and health in our union. For too long we have demonized our leaders for working in a bipartisan fashion with indictments of selling out and compromising their values. There is a great danger in choosing only to associate with others who confirm our worldview.
We will heal our country by making ourselves vulnerable to the very people we have characterized as political opponents. We will care about one another only to the degree that we know one another. We will know one another only to the extent that we spend time together. We will heal America only to the degree to which we welcome the person into our midst who does not think, believe, speak or look like we do.
May we find the courage to begin a conversation with those who have a different opinion than our own and seek to understand why they believe what they believe. The quality of listening and the quality of understanding is more important that the quality of agreement.
The Common Good
The near absence of dialogue about the common good contributes to the polarization in the American electorate. The commitment to working toward what is best for most seems sadly antiquated in this age of special interest lobbying. The strategic approach of each candidate has been to meet with special interest groups and then convince them why he or she would be best for their specific set of concerns.
While there is nothing wrong with this focused approach, it becomes disastrous when it’s the predominant method of seeking political support. What seems to be tragically lost is the idea that we are an American community that seeks the good for all of us. We have a responsibility to vote for the candidate who not merely confirms our worldview and maximizes our own interests, but who brings the most benefit to the most people.
Sometimes what is best for the most people does not happen to serve our own unique interest. What may be best for me may not be best for the country. The American spirit rightly celebrates the individual. May we remember that this individual thrives in a community that organizes itself around the common good.
We have spent too much time distracted by cheap political theater. We seem all too happy to allow ourselves to be colonized by media pyrotechnics and anesthetized by a 24/7 news cycle. If we channeled one tenth of the energy that we spend staring at screens toward loving our neighbor, we could do amazingly transformative things in our country. I love cat videos and posting grainy photos of my dessert as much as everyone else, but our county will never be healed by armchair social media quarterbacking.
The current fragmentation invites courageous and compassionate action in our communities. So, bake a pie for your neighbor, read a book to children, coach a team, donate to a local charity, tell a joke, give without expecting anything in return, learn about what someone else cares about, but most of all, let’s soften our hearts. Let’s forgive one another and admit when we have caused suffering. I hope we can learn to be a bit gentler with our fellow Americans, for everyone is carrying a mighty burden in one way or another.
A Little R&R
We need to reclaim the sacred duty of reflection and responsibility. This is a moment of profound reflection and soul searching in America. To heal our collective soul, we must first ask: What do we want to be as a country? This inquiry begs another more fundamental question: Who do I want to be as a citizen?
The intensity of being against something must be channeled into being for something if light is to fall upon the wound in the American soul. The great temptation is to locate the problem or the solution outside of ourselves. Real change in our country happens first within each of us. A country is simply a reflection of the heart and soul of its citizens.
This election is a projection of the fear, anger and restlessness within us. Pain that is not transformed within us will be transferred to others outside of us. What is not healed within us will be inflicted upon others. This willingness to meet our own pain with courage and humility is a supreme act of heroism that our world needs more than ever.
We all need to take responsibility for what we have created. The extent to which we are not creating peace, compassion and understanding in our own lives is the degree to which we are responsible for creating the kind of election we’re experiencing now. No president will calm these inner anxieties. Cynicism will poison the soul of our country and create countless enemies.
The challenge of our time is to stand with each other as Americans amid disagreement and uncertainty. I remain hopeful that what divides us is far less than what unites us. America is not a noun; it is a verb, a work in progress. America is a single fabric continually being woven together from many strands. As we seek to weave our many stands into a single fabric of liberty and justice for all people, let’s rededicate ourselves to the motto that will outlive all of us: out of many one.
May it be so no matter who wins on November 8.
Dr. Brandon Nappi is founder and executive director of Copper Beech Institute, the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice. Copper Beech Institute is the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice offering more than 50 transformational programs to foster peace, resilience, and compassion in everyday life. For a listing of all retreats led by Brandon, click here.