Trump versus Biden, pro-police versus #BlackLivesMatter, masks versus no masks, online school versus in-person school, “open the economy” versus shelter-in-place. I yearn for the good ole days when Coke versus Pepsi was the biggest rivalry in my life.
During these turbulent times, how can we create a culture of healing instead of hatred? It begins with connection and compassion.
Living in a Divisive Time
In March, when COVID-19 forced us to stay home, I remember feeling a strong sense of common humanity. I knew that I wasn’t the only person going through this challenging moment in time—people in my town, my nation, and across the globe shared this experience with me. I felt connected to my fellow humans, and my compassion flowed freely. Since my nonprofit Compassion It works to inspire compassionate actions around the world, I felt grateful to see hearts opening around the world.
Unfortunately, I’ve noticed my “we’re-all-in-this-together” attitude subsiding. Instead of feeling connected to my fellow U.S. citizens, I’m feeling more and more disconnected from them. Our political system has driven U.S. citizens into two opposing corners, and the election and the issues it addresses bring us into the ring swinging with all our might.
It doesn’t help that we can spew discontent and divisiveness on social media, where we hide behind our screens and don’t have to witness the pain that we’re causing others.
It’s no wonder that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide ideation have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s clear that 2020 has taken a toll on the mental well-being of our family members, neighbors, and fellow citizens.
Because of stay-at-home orders and out of fear of COVID-19, people are spending more time than usual inside by themselves. Working remotely keeps some of us isolated from our colleagues, and we stare at the same screen and the same four walls every day.
This lonely living keeps us from building the bridges our society needs. As human beings, we’re wired to connect with others. We need connection and compassion for our mental well-being and to tear down the walls between us.
What Does Connection Do for Us?
One 2014 study indicates that it’s so painful for humans to be alone with our own thoughts, we’d rather do just about anything, including harming ourselves. Study participants sat alone in a room with nothing to do, which meant they had to sit alone with their thoughts, feelings, and emotions without any outside stimulation.
Well, technically, participants had one method for distraction. They could press a button and shock themselves. But who would want to do that?
Surprisingly, many of them did. In fact, 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women chose to shock themselves. It seems as if many of us can’t face what’s happening in our own brains, and many of us can’t handle being alone.
The more I learn about the human brain and human nature, the more I’m convinced that we need connection to survive and thrive. I recently watched the 2015 TED Talk “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong” by Johann Hari. He talks about the groundbreaking work of psychologist Bruce K. Alexander, Ph.D., who realized that research on addiction missed an important element: connection. Previous research on addiction focused on studying rats, and the researchers isolated each rat during the experiments. They gave these isolated rats two bottles from which to drink—one bottle contained water and the other contained heroin. Once the rats had a taste of the heroin, they continued to take hits from that bottle, and they became addicted.
Dr. Alexander wanted to see what would happen if the rats weren’t isolated. He created Rat Park, which was like a utopia for rats, or “Ratopia,” if you will. The rats could play, have sex, and eat delicious food. Most importantly, the rats lived with their friends. They weren’t isolated.
The rats in Rat Park could choose between water and heroin, as well, but they rarely drank from the heroin bottle. When they did, they didn’t become addicted.
So what does this have to do with 2020? Unfortunately, this pandemic has closed many of the human versions of Rat Park. We’re missing our friends, our families, and our communities. We’re missing the connection and compassion that can help us get through these challenging times.
Connection and Compassion to the Rescue
How do we form connections and practice compassion in today’s polarized, isolated society? I’ve been pondering this question for a while. One of my go-to quotes is from author Brené Brown in her book Braving the Wilderness, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.”
But I wonder ... how can I “move in” when I live in an echo chamber that reinforces my beliefs? Many of my friends share my political views, and I choose to spend my time with them. I follow like-minded people on social media, and I reach out to my progressive friends when I’m frustrated with the state of our nation.
When I really think about it, though, I can recognize that many people in my life stand in an opposing corner from me. The kind neighbors down the street don’t view the world through a lens like mine. Many of the people from my rural hometown in Illinois don’t share my political beliefs. Some of my college friends from North Carolina also view the world differently.
Do I think any of these people want to harm others? No, in my heart of hearts, I do not.
It’s time to stop viewing those friends as “others,” and it’s time to connect with them. If you care about compassion, I invite you to meet in the middle of the ring with extended hands instead of clenched fists.
There are a few ways to cultivate connection and compassion for people who don’t align with our political views.
1. Remember the Humanity of People
No matter what, we should not call someone (even a polarizing political figure) names like “rat,” “pig,” “monkey,” or “Cheeto.” I’ve noticed that during this presidential election season, people on both sides of the aisle use dehumanizing language. When we refer to someone as nonhuman, it’s much easier to act in atrocious ways. Dehumanizing an opponent fuels hatred and violence, and this can happen in the brain without you even knowing it.
Resist the urge to dehumanize by remembering that this person was once an innocent newborn. This person has friends and family members who love them, and this person wants to be appreciated just like you. You have more in common with this person than you know.
Research indicates that you can rehumanize someone by imagining them eating a favorite vegetable. Your brain will recognize this person as a human being, just like you. Give that a try during this election season, and let me know what happens! Can you notice compassion starting to emerge instead of anger, distrust, or frustration?
2. Keep in Mind that Individuals are Products of Systems
Aim your anger at the system that perpetuates violence and greed instead of the human being whose behavior was created by that system. For example, if you’re upset about police brutality, recognize that the individual police officers are products of our criminal justice system. It’s not the officer’s fault, it’s the system’s fault.
You might say, “But that officer is racist!” I encourage you to recognize that racism comes from systems, too. We are all products of our environments and upbringings.
To be clear, I do not condone racist or violent behavior. Individuals should be held accountable for their actions. However, that doesn’t make me angry with that person or feel hatred toward them. Instead, I choose to aim my anger toward the system that created the behavior. That allows me to feel compassion for the individual.
3. Consider the Other Person’s Values
I highly suggest you watch the TED Talk by social psychologist Robb Willer, “How to have better political conversations.” He discusses his research on political division and points out that conservatives’ values (purity, respect for authority, patriotism), differ from liberals’ values (equality, care, protection). His studies suggest that if you try to persuade someone on the other side of the aisle to agree with you on an issue, you need to appeal to their moral values.
For example, if you are liberal and try to persuade your neighbor to take steps that lessen greenhouse gas emissions, you shouldn’t say, “We need to protect the planet and all of its inhabitants.” Instead, you should say something like, “In America, we should have access to pure water and air.”
There’s no way we can lessen the gap between us if we don’t truly listen to each other. What if we listen with an open heart and mind and without an agenda?
I’m from a small town in Illinois, and many people from my hometown view political issues differently than I do. That doesn’t make them wrong or bad people. In fact, I know they are big-hearted, generous, loving people, and I’m lucky to have grown up with them. If I can get off my high horse for a moment and simply listen without trying to convince them of my views, I can create connections instead of division.
One more suggestion … maybe it’s best to not bring up politics right now. It might be better to just let that lie until the dust settles. We are on the same human team, and we are all in this together. I encourage you to reach out with your compassionate heart and connect to those around you. We need each other right now.
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