We have become incredibly polarized in our current time. Why are we fighting so much? Why is it so hard to see other people’s point of view? Why is Covid-19 now in the same category as religion and politics – not to be discussed in polite company?
What if we could not only stop fighting about this, but we could actually learn from each other, expanding our understanding of the world? What if we could use the controversy that we are experiencing to our advantage?
A few nights ago, my grown daughter called me wanting to understand why I saw the current situation the way I did. She said that she had done some research and just couldn’t come up with the same conclusions that I believed so strongly. She said that she respected my opinion and genuinely wanted to understand where I was coming from.
So, I presented her with “the facts” as I saw them. She responded with “Yes, but that doesn’t really add up to what you are saying.” Hmmm… So, I shared some more. Still, she couldn’t see where I was coming from.
I realized that I needed to share some backstory that I had gathered over my lifetime in order for her to truly understand. That once she had heard the experiences that formed my current thought, she might see how these new pieces fit perfectly into my personal puzzle.
Step 1: Understanding Our Stories
The reality is that each one of us sees the world from a very personal perspective. This perspective is formed initially from our upbringing and then from every experience we have after that. This story is our personal (sometimes unconscious) perception about how the world works.
Not only do we have different beginnings, we definitely have very different experiences. We have radically different belief systems. And normally, this is fine. We tend to select our friends based on having relatively similar beliefs. We have certain friends that we can discuss certain topics with. And if there is to be peace within families, we often know which topics to talk about and which to avoid. Right or wrong, this helps to keep the peace.
So, what happens when we have a world-wide pandemic declared? Suddenly we can no longer select whom we discuss this with. Social media is the new battleground for fighting about who is right and wrong… and we are often arguing with people that we wouldn’t even have coffee with.
The problem is that we aren’t always fighting about the topic at hand. Sometimes, we truly are arguing the facts. But many times, it is actually our entire world-view that has been brought onto the field. And because these perceptions of the world are so personal and strong within us, we often can’t imagine why anyone else wouldn’t see it our way.
And the biggest challenge is that these stories include the very topics that can end friendships and cause lifelong rifts in families.
If we aren’t careful, these topics are definitely grounds for battle.
There are those who trust the government implicitly. They have always been well-cared for. They are grateful for the opportunities that their society has given them. They appreciate the work of the government and the protection it gives. The government is a source of great safety and stability.
Then there are those who do not trust a word the government says. Perhaps the government has not served them well. Maybe they have experienced corruption and deceit and have no faith that their government is working in the best interest of the people at all.
When the government institutes mandatory lockdowns, how difficult would a conversation between people on opposite ends of this be?
Medicine & Health
Let’s say that you have been sick in the past and the medical community has served you well. This will create immense gratitude towards doctors and nurses and the whole medical community. This creates a sense of safety within the entire medical model which fills you with peace and gratitude. So, when the medical authorities give a particular recommendation, you have no reason to question this. It feels safe, true, and the right thing to do.
Alternately, if medicine hasn’t served you well in the past and you have had bad experiences in the medical community, you will easily pick up on all of the things that have gone wrong in the treatment of the patients. This anger is seldom focused specifically at the doctors and nurses themselves but more on the medical system that you believe is faulty. And so, when the medical authorities give a recommendation, you will naturally question it. Your guard will already be up.
How difficult might it be for two people with these opposite experiences to have a civil conversation?
Nature of People
I’ve talked to people who are totally focused on “how stupid” people are being and how they can’t be trusted to do the right thing. Whether it’s the topic of social distancing, lockdowns, or grocery shopping with your kids, these folks will think that anyone not doing what they personally are doing is stupid and risking the lives of others.
Then there are those who tend to see the good in all people. In this situation, they will see all of the wonderful acts of kindness happening everywhere and believe that the pandemic is really a gift to mankind. Just look at all the amazing people rising up to help others.
When the topic of whether people should be able to make their own choices comes up, what is the likelihood of these two people coming to an agreement?
There are many people who have had issues with vaccinations – usually because their children were hurt by vaccines and they had to fight to have their voices heard. The desire to learn more about the vaccine industry leads them to want to inform other parents about potentials risks and harm. Because it is about their children, this often becomes a lifelong focus.
Then there are people who have never questioned vaccine programs. They have never had any issues with them and perhaps also have a friend who had polio or who knew someone who died of measles. They will naturally have faith that vaccinations are a great help for everyone.
So, imagine two people of these different perceptions sitting in a room and an announcement is made that they are working towards a global, possibly mandatory vaccine for Covid-19. Can you imagine how heated the discussion may become?
Spiritual or Not
Then there are people who are agnostic or atheist who believe that there is nothing more going on than our current physical existence. Life just happens to us. Sometimes it’s pleasant and sometimes it’s hard. Life is simply about navigating these things to the best of our ability and hoping for the best.
Then there are those who believe that there is a higher purpose in all things. They believe that we must back up to see the “big picture” in order to understand what is really going on. They see our current time as a shift into a new consciousness. They see the revelations that people are having and believe that any suffering we are experiencing is simply bringing us to a new place on our journey.
These kinds of comparisons could continue on so many more heated topics: the safety of new technologies, chemical farming vs organics, whether we should fear death or not, care of the elderly, etc.
Our Own Personal Novel
It is like we have each written a full-length novel about what the world is all about. Within this novel is everything we learned as children, everything we took from our education, the opinions of family and friends, our own personal experiences, topics we have explored, hard experiences that formed new thoughts, etc.
Plus, we often play many roles within this novel. Sometimes we are the saviour, sometimes the hero, sometimes the victim. Sometimes we are the wise one and sometimes we are the loser.
The reality is that by the time we have been on this planet for more than a few decades, this personal novel of ours is pretty well fleshed out and is a big part of who we believe we are.
And then a pandemic hits.
There is information flying in from all sides. There is confusion about the facts. There are mandated orders given with no particularly clear story that sits right.
And so, we pick and choose what we hear and fit whatever makes sense into our own personal novel. Each “fact” that we take in fits so cleanly into our story, that we find an inner sense of peace that we know what is going on.
This is why it’s so easy to fight. We are each coming forward with an opinion based on a few facts plus our entire personal story that we have been writing for decades.
Step 2: Make Sure that You Actually Don’t Want to Fight
We have to be sure that our goal is actually to find common ground. Oftentimes, this isn’t the case.
Most of us have all kinds of unresolved issues from our past and oftentimes, we never actually get to confront the person we are angry with. Maybe it is one of our parents, a teacher in elementary school who said we were stupid, a large system of authority like the government, the church or the medical field that we have never been able to come up against, or even an ex-partner (or current partner) where we just can’t find any resolution.
When we have this unrequited desire to fight within us, a situation like the one we are in now gives us a great opportunity to get our inner frustrations out.
If this is the case, we have to look at the fact that our fight may not be with the person in front of us.
Another more passive way of wanting to fight is when we want to change the other person’s opinion. We must realize that on a deep level, we are telling them that their experience of the world is faulty – that we can see things clearly and they cannot.
Well, our desire for freedom of choice plus any self-worth issues we may have will rise and the battle will be on for sure – assuming both parties choose to engage.
Right now, we are dealing with fundamental questions of life and death, trust in authorities, health, and individual freedoms. We have strong opinions on them. We really have to be aware of our inner motivations.
Step 3: Revealing Our Stories
To have a conversation, we must reveal the novels/stories/bias that we are bringing to the conversation.
If you had a grandfather that had fought in the war, you would take this into consideration when talking about current wars with him. If you were chatting with someone who had just been told that they had 6 months to live, you would consider this before complaining about how much you hate your job. If you knew someone who had been badly hurt in a past relationship, and was nervous about entering a new one, you can imagine where they are coming from and understand how they would feel this way.
This is the kind of understanding that we need to bring forward now.
The key is to place our biases on the table. We each need to admit that “here is my perspective”. From there, we consider the other person’s viewpoint and realize that based on the information given, we can understand how they are seeing the current situation.
Being able to see another’s point of view doesn’t take away from our own opinion. In fact, it is just the opposite.
Step 4: Choosing to Expand Our Mind
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function“.
Having someone in our life who holds a different opinion than us gives us an amazing opportunity to expand our capacity for understanding, our intelligence, and our perspective on the world.
This is how all new thought comes about.
All societies function from a certain status quo. These ideals are not questioned until someone within the collective stands up and says “Perhaps we should rethink that.” Sometimes the ideas we have are based in times of war or famine. Some of our ideas stretch back to clan mentalities, superstitions, and religious intolerance. Challenging current thought is always difficult. But it often very necessary.
For example, there are have been many societies (even today) that think that someone of a different colour is not OK. This isn’t questioned until someone becomes friends with someone of this other colour (could be white, black, red, yellow, brown, anything). Once you become friends, we realize that this “assumed truth” is actually false. In the beginning, there is great pushback towards this person with their new friend because no one has ever questioned the legitimacy of the status quo. And then, as time goes on, more and more people realize the truth, and the status quo changes.
It was the same when women demanded equal rights. In the beginning, women were jailed for protesting for the right to vote or work. Today, it is hard to fathom. We don’t question whether women should vote or not. The status quo has changed.
It is the same with all of the controversial topics coming up right now. But if we have a friend whom we respect and they hold an opinion that is different than our own, then we have an amazing opportunity to expand our perceptions.
The first step is laying out our stories which explain where we are coming from. The second step is to realize that no part of us wants to fight. We are friends. The next step is truly finding that middle ground where we can learn about each other’s experiences that brought them to this place. From here, our own personal processing and sorting begins.
Hearing new information only adds to what we know. It is the pantyhose theory – once you take them out of the package and wear them, you can’t get them back in. New information expands us.
Personally, I have some pretty strong opinions about the world. But I also have very interesting friends who have had very different experiences. The very best thing I can do is to sit in their company and listen to their stories. Sometimes, I am just learning more about my friend’s life. But oftentimes, what they tell me challenges some world-view that I am holding.
Initially, I may feel a sense of “No. That can’t be.” But because I respect my friend, I ask more questions.
In the end, my opinion will not be the same as my friend’s. We are each unique individuals who naturally will see and fit into the world in our unique ways. But having integrated our stories, I get to expand my understanding. I am able to get closer to seeing the whole picture.
Then, when something new appears in our world, we can truly sit with it and “hold two opposing thoughts in our mind”. Our first response to anything will be based on our own perspective. And then, we will consider the experiences, perspective and thoughts of our friend, and our other friend, and our other friend.
From here, very interesting new conclusions are possible… which is truly what the world needs right now.