June 6, 2018 by Julia
We, as human beings, tend to get worked up. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I like humanity’s passion. But, too often, we lose sight of what we were upset about in the first place. The flurry of emotion, defensiveness, power struggle, and pride distract us.
I first noticed this phenomenon in my arguments with my daughter. Mothers and daughters probably know how to push each other’s buttons better than anyone else. Seemingly minor decisions, like what the daughter should wear for school picture day, can quickly escalate into all-out war. It was this kind of struggle between Fiona and I that perplexed me. I’ve never been a very polished person, myself – so why did I care SO much if my daughter refused to brush her hair? We would get into vicious, nasty fights about her hair. Clearly, it was about more than her hair.
It was about my fear of her suffering the rejection of her peers or other adults. It was about how her appearance reflected on me, as her mother, and my own fears of rejection. It was about me trying to teach her to take care of her body, and her utter refusal to allow me to grace her with any such lesson. It was about me wanting to show her that I do know some things better than her. Wanting her to use the shortcut of my parental wisdom, to save her some pain, rather than having to figure things out all on her own. It was about her not wanting to use my shortcut, her telling me, over and over again, that she will forge her own path, when it comes to her hair and body and self-image. It was about me knowing that the longer it goes without being properly brushed, the harder it will be to get the tangles out, and the more it will hurt, and we will both suffer through that. It’s about me wanting to save us both pain.
For her, it’s about asserting ownership of herself, and her life.
I remember being ten years old. I too had certain ideas about my appearance, and no one could tell me differently. A babysitter once tried to put combs in my hair so that my ears wouldn’t show – but I liked my ears to show. My hair was too fluffy and old-lady-ish when she did it her way, so I took those combs out and re-did it my own way. After all, it was my hair, and I knew my hair better than anyone else. I also had a giant blue sweatshirt with a teddy bear on it. It was my favorite. It was probably stained and full of holes because I wore it all the time. I don’t remember my mom protesting my constant, proud wearing of that sweatshirt, but I suspect I would have fought for it if she did.
So, now when I feel myself twisting up in fury, and I see my daughter digging in her heels, I do my best to walk away and calm down. It’s a nearly victimless crime, her un-brushed hair, but we have both committed serious verbal crimes against each other, because we both got worked up, and lost sight of what we were fighting about.
It helps to remember that everyone is usually fighting for the same kinds of things: autonomy, love, self-respect, security.
I think this must be the way to heal America, if America is meant to heal. Most of us want the same things. We just believe in different ways of getting those things. If we could detach ourselves from our volatile arguments, and our prejudices, we would find ourselves on common ground. It’s probably only from that common ground that we can discuss our most pressing issues in any meaningful, progressive way.
My cousin from the heartland of America and I sometimes engage in Facebook debates over gun control. We like each other despite these disagreements, and generally keep it civil. We also have a delightful common ground of owning guinea pigs, which helps.
My cousin and I both care about the safety of children in schools. He may think students’ safety is better protected with more guns and security measures on school grounds, while I think that decreasing the general availability of guns is the answer. There is a right and a wrong answer – I don’t want to pretend that there isn’t – but this is what we are fighting about. It helps to keep reminding ourselves of that, in the emotional, personal hurricane of arguments.
We must stay focused, when we argue. When we talk about wanting to keep school children safe from rampaging shooters, we are not fighting about whether Trump is a good or a bad president. We are not fighting about abortion. We are not trying to prove the hypocrisy of each other’s political party. We are not fighting about which political party has better values, or which party is smarter. All of these things influence our current political state and are quite possibly relevant to the issue. But the minute we bring extraneous things into the points we’re making, we go off the rails a bit, and everyone’s blood pressure goes up. If we can stay focused on the topic at hand – the safety of American school children in an increasingly violent public institution – it isn’t even a fight, anymore. It’s a discussion that could change hearts or minds for the better, or even provide a solution to the problem. And it doesn’t destroy the relationship between us.
Sometimes, we do have to walk away. When I am about to use the f-word in front of my kids, I need to literally walk away from them (thank God they’re old enough now that I can safely do that). When things seem futile in the online debates, when you have lost all respect for humanity, it’s a sign that you must walk away. I know it’s hard. We fool ourselves into thinking our rage cycles are helping, somehow. That staying informed about all the things we should be mad about is going to make a difference. And I don’t disagree. You never know when a life-changing discussion might occur, and if we aren’t up on the latest events, how are we going to be that positive influence on the world?
But rage, alone, without reasonable, intentional action, is too dangerous. Unless you have a feasible plan to deal with the issue you’re fired up about, that passion will get turned inward and go bitter. I get depressed when this happens, and obviously, I’m not alone. If you are on the rageful precipice, with no available tools or partners to help you carefully rappel down the cliffside, it’s time to slowly back away, even if the view is hypnotizing. Stop watching the news and stop reading the articles, and just love your people in your own little world for a while, until your faith is restored. Get more sleep. Read fiction in a book with paper pages. Clean your house. Take a walk outside. Hold an animal, or your kid.
And when you’re ready, get back out there, and diversify your circle. It IS possible to be friends with someone you disagree with on a fundamental level. It’s just about how much challenge you can handle without the relationship turning toxic. When I am mentally strong enough, I enjoy serious talks with people different than myself, about our different beliefs. I’ve learned to resist the urge to evangelize or change their minds, but also to resist the urge to dilute my own opinion. Unless you’re just preaching to the choir, it can be frightfully exposing to plainly state your opinion, take it or leave it. But it’s also incredibly empowering, not to mention interesting, to speak your truth in mixed company. If you can’t say it in a place where people might disagree, how will you ever know how strong your truths are? Be brave. Test those babies out.
We also have to care for the well-being of others, as an entirely separate thing from the ideas we’re talking about. I can put myself and my beliefs “out there;” in fact, I often feel an ethical obligation to do so. But I must also remain open to the possibility that I could be wrong. Acknowledging our shared humanity means staying humble, and respectful of every other person. I am human, I could be wrong. You are human, you want to be heard, respected, and loved. Just like I do.
To recap: Walk away before things get ugly. Focus on one issue at a time. Respect the humanity of others. Make a plan to deal with the problem, if you really care about it. And keep asking:
Daughter, what are we fighting about? Americans, what are we fighting for? Friend, what do we both want, here?
Why are we angry? Why are we afraid?
Keep asking. Often, the answer is simpler and less frightening than we think. Often, our answers are the same.