Over and over again in the past couple of years I have been struck by the thought that if our culture were a marriage, we would be in the midst of divorce proceedings right now. This isn’t a new idea, there are plenty of others who have commented on it, but as a person trained in marriage and family therapy, my perspective is a little different.
As an MFT there were times when I could see that the couple in front of me was simply incompatible. They had so many variances in values, likes, dislikes and attitudes that I couldn’t see how they could possibly succeed long term, and they often didn’t.
What truly fascinated me, though, were the other relationships—the ones where compatibility was plentiful. They both liked dark humor, they shared political values. They loved to hike in the dark, they shared a love of family; whatever it was, it was there, but for some reason the trust had broken down.
I often had a moment of clarity and even awe when I saw this, because I could see (even if they couldn’t), that the key thing they needed was to be willing to risk again. To be willing to take a chance that the other wouldn’t devastate them, that the other may have been mistaken and was sorry, that they themselves may have been wrong or missing information, and that they could change their point of view with enough flexibility and the willingness to be vulnerable. That even if they ended up with different views, they could respect the rights to have these views rather than accept the view itself, and survive.
I could see, in fact, that what was needed was as simple–and as difficult–as a decision. A decision to risk, in order to perhaps rebuild trust. They aren’t the same, you know. We often mistake them for each other but risk is the road to trust, there is no other way.
Our culture is at this crossroads. We have begun divorce discussions, and it’s as ugly as war always is, because we are, in fact, in a digital civil war. This war has broken out into unending and horrific physical violence. It has broken into the political arena in the forms of civil unrest, protests, insurrection. It has also shown its face through corrupt legal and Supreme violations of our basic rights over our bodies and even our minds.
All of this is true and yet I feel a sense of déjà vu. I feel like I am back in the therapy room, marveling over the simultaneous simplicity and difficulty of the decision. We are essentially the same nation of people that we were 20 years ago. We are materially changed only by our decisions to push back at true injustice as well as at perceived wrongs, and yet fear has bred more fear, until that fear is now paranoia, which is a form of insanity.
So what can we do?
I have a friend, I’ll call her Dee. Dee’s husband supports Trump, and the two of them have a daughter and a genderqueer kid as well. I have watched in awe as she stays with this man. She gets angry, he gets angry and they argue, yes, sometimes fiercely; yet in the end they grapple and they choose to love each other underneath these seemingly insurmountable schisms in their ideology. It humbles me to see it.
It also makes me wonder. Didn’t we used to know how to do this, as a country? Didn’t we used to know how to make our voices heard at the ballot box instead of at the point of a gun?
Do I understand that there are underlying tenets of democracy that have broken down? Yes. I am not naïve, nor am I uninformed about key pieces of this history and the process we are in right now. Citizen’s United, vicious redistricting and the Patriot Act are three of many that have contributed mightily to corruption and the losses of our freedoms. But those things are not in my power right now, while these are:
To listen to people with whom I disagree. To read from multiple sources from all sides of the political spectrum–really, really read. Not skim. To vote. To push for alternative roads such as Ranked Choice Voting, which reduces the impact of redistricting and the risk of electing unhinged candidates. To challenge myself and my own beliefs about who cares more about people. To wonder if I could be misinterpreting, or mistaken about a key perception that could lead to a better conversation.
In short, I can risk. I can’t ask others to. They may not be able or willing to right now, and that is their right. As for me, I can decide to risk in these ways and I can decide not to give up hope. I can remind myself that despite the rhetoric, by wanting peace, I am in the majority. By wanting equality, I am in the majority. By fighting for human rights, I am in the majority. I will risk. I will observe who was worthy of that risk, and I will trust them; some for the first time…and some again.