Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why Can't We Just Get Along?

(This is the presentation I made today for the Mental Health Association of Middle Tennessee.)


 My grandson is almost 4. His name is Jon-Mical. He lives next door to his best friend Cameron who is 5. They play together all the time. They ride bikes in the driveway, toss the ball in the backyard, and sneak out off to the park next door to their house. They get along great, except when they don’t. The other day Jon-Mical came in and said, “Cameron is stupid. I am never playing with him again.” His mom and dad would have no part of that. They marched him over to Cameron’s house and sat down until they patched things up. His parents sought reconciliation for Jon-Mical because it is good, it is right and they believe it is healthy. 

 Most of us are old enough to remember the Rodney King incident and the Los Angeles police in March of l991.  The videotaped beating of Rodney King by three policemen because an overnight world must-see.   The subsequent trial and acquittal of those policemen sparked a maelstrom of demonstrations and riots that divided not only LA but the nation.  Whatever side of that debate you were on, most of us resonated with Rodney King’s plaintive call in an interview that followed his arrest.  “Why can’t we all just get along?”  He pleaded.

 With the unbelievable effect on our world of the internet and instant access to almost every event on the planet, we are clearly in the most polarized and divided global culture that has ever existed.  We have always had differences but the accelerated awareness of those differences has driven us to an emotional frenzy as a society that is unprecedented.  The more we learn from psychological endeavors and neuro-science, the more we understand that we as human beings are emotional not rational beings. 

 The problems of most of modern history we have tried to resolve with rational thinking.  Descarte, the rationalist philosopher who opened the door to the Enlightenment period, led us to believe in the power of the rational, thinking mind. I think, therefore I am.

From his philosophy came the weight that we now give to Empiricism and scientific study.  This has deeply influenced English and American law, foreign policy, and economic theory.  Our whole approach to life is based on the assumption that we are rational people dealing with issues in a rational way.  To be irrational is to be something less than human.

 The truth is that we are coming to understand we are about 98% emotional and 2% rational.  When I sit in my office with a husband and wife deeply divided I always want to say “Now let’s just think this through.  What would be the rational thing to do right now?”  I never say it because I have learned both clients would punch me in the nose.

My guess is that all of us in this room understand that the preponderance of feelings and emotions in almost every situation demands that we work to resolution from an emotional perspective rather than a rational one. If that is true on a micro scale in our offices, I believe it is true on a macro level in our society.  And I believe it places even more onus on the mental health professionals to be agents of reconciliation in a divided society.

 Reconciliation is an admittedly Judeo-Christian term; Latin, meaning literally “to bring together again.”   In my mind it describes a state of willingness to co-exist and remain engaged in conversation with those that appear to be diametrically opposed to what I think, believe, or feel.  Reconciliation is just sitting at the table with the hope that some point of agreement will present itself.  It is not unity. It is not compromise. It is not even cooperation.  Reconciliation in the context of this discussion would be Islamic leaders and Christian leaders saying, “Our survival dictates that we engage one another as a means of emotional healing.”

 From this perspective, I suggest four objectives for the divided community.

1.       An assessment of value.

Douglas Noll is a peacemaker and mediator for the University of Oregon.  He writes this:

To understand how our brain deals with conflict, consider a simple emotional model. In this model, conflict starts with some problem. The problem is serious enough to cause anxiety, reflected in a feeling of insecurity. When anxiety or insecurity is first experienced, we have a choice between reactivity and reflection. If we do not make a choice, our default mode is to be reactive.

By being reactive, we might reject the problem, give up, or feel inadequate to deal with the problem. If the problem is persistent, we might struggle or exit. As the conflict develops, we perceive it as a threat, and we may blame, attack or withdraw. These behaviors constitute our fear reaction system. I like to call it our self-protective system. The brain systems associated with fear reaction are very, very old, dating back to the earliest vertebrae animals. Although highly adaptive in the uncertain and dangerous environment of 20,000 years ago, the system is largely maladaptive in our modern, complex culture.

If the choice for reflection is made, we have learned to reflect, relate, and relax. The insecurity arising from a conflict situation is recognized as pointing to a pathway of growth towards greater peace and self-realization. We are led by our curiosity to discover something new, find what is lost, or complete unfinished business. Success leads us to wholeness, authenticity, power and wisdom.

In other words, part of what we offer as Mental Health professionals is the idea that there is value in engaging and we as people will benefit more from coming together than pulling apart.  

2.      The second objective is establishing hope.

 Because we are emotional and not rational, we respond to the anxiety and insecurity that Noll cited, particularly on a global scale, by retreating into overwhelm.  We lose hope.  Our dreams of a civil society, a utopian society have died and we say with Peggy Lee “Is that All There Is?” A revolutionary Punjabi poet, Avtar Singh Sandhu wrote.

“Being robbed of our wages is not the most dangerous.
Being beaten by police is not the most dangerous.
The most dangerous is to have our dreams die.”  

I often tell my clients, “I will hold the hope for you.”  As a society, perhaps in the counseling profession, we do just that.

 3. The third objective is to provide coping skills. 

 While it is true that we are emotional creatures, we do have within us as individuals, and as a society the ability to make choices.  One blogger wrote:

Training, habituation and commitment are an important part of our makeup. How did so many very ordinary black people during the 1950-60s Civil Rights movement in the South manage to practice nonviolence? All were threatened, some were beaten, some killed. No doubt they were mortally afraid--and sometimes very angry. But they practiced nonviolence--together. Genetically we're social beings and we draw strength from healthy relationships--for thousands of years these were the foundation of human survival. We CAN choose--and in our era choosing behavior that keeps us emotionally and physically alive together is a crucial element of our future. 

To use a football analogy, I see myself as an offensive coordinator standing on the sideline calling out plays.  Those whom I influence have the responsibility to access strengths, read defenses, judge their own fatigue and make the appropriate audible.  But I still want to supply a list of possible plays that I believe can work. 

4.      Finally, we recognize worth.

 The emotion of the battle, the passion of the cause, the fire of the fight too often produces myopia in us so that through a dark tunnel I only see worth in one point of view.   As counselors, spiritual leaders, mentors, and clinicians our role is to recognize the worth in all human beings and diverse societal perspectives.  Without that, we are reduced to stomping on an opposing player’s head or burning down a mosque.  My objective, as a reconciliator, is to say there is some measure of intrinsic worth in every person that I come in contact with.  Understanding that, I have no choice but to engage.

We face complicated, convoluted, critical issues in our villages and in our universe.  Far better minds than mine have come to an empass time and again when seeking resolution.

I do not begin to imagine that I have the answers in me.  In addition, the issues are burning with the bonfires of emotion, anger, fear, insecurity, and hurt.   Frankly, I don’t know what to do.  But I do believe that to do nothing is not an option, that I have a moral responsibility as a healer and a human to continue to work for reconciliation and engagement. 

I know that this little ditty is far too simplistic on a geo-political level.  But, it just seems to ring true for us today.  It just feels right.
Most of what I really need to know about how to live, and what to do, and how to be, I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand box at nursery school.
These are the things I learned. Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you are sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are food for you. Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some and draw some and paint and sing and dance and play and work everyday.
Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out in the world, watch for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the plastic cup? The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why. We are like that.
And then remember that book about Dick and Jane and the first word you learned, the biggest word of all: LOOK! Everything you need to know is there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation, ecology, and politics and the sane living.
Think of what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about 3 o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankets for a nap. Or we had a basic policy in our nation and other nations to always put thing back where we found them and clean up our own messes. And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together. 
Dr. Mike Courtney


Douglas Noll

“Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?”

Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy

Gerald Corey

Brooks/Cole Publishing

“All I Ever Really Needed To Know I Learned In Kindergarten”

Robert Fulghum

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