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Overcoming Division

“It’s just not getting any better. We keep arguing and arguing, and all we get is angrier and angrier. I know I’m right, but how do I convince anyone of that? Whatever I say, she/he warps it to make me look like the bad guy. It’s hopeless.”

“I worry most about our kids. They’re depressed, angry, anxious. I don’t know what to do about them. Maybe when this is all over and we split up they’ll be better. I hope so because I don’t see us staying together.”

It may seem like it, but I wasn’t writing about marriage above. I was writing about our culture. We’re helplessly divided, and it’s having a significant impact on the mental health of our younger generations, generating issues they’ll be grappling with for the rest of their lives. So many people blame the pandemic for the rise in mental health needs. Frankly, they were rising before the pandemic. We want to blame outside forces, but it’s our hyper-polarization that’s causing so many to feel lost, anxious, angry, and depressed. The pandemic just poured gas on that fire.

Still, what we’re experiencing culturally is related to troubled marriages. We keep thinking that we can argue our way to resolution, or maybe win a revolution where we just overwhelm others who disagree. If we stay on this path, it will take a generation to heal emotionally from the trauma.

You wouldn’t expect a counseling center to be writing about national and international issues, but since our societal situation impacts the work we do, it’s hard not to talk about it. The reality is that mental health issues have risen exponentially as our national polarization has grown. Yet we’re not helpless in the face of it all.

You and I may not be able to change the world, but there are some ideas from the mental health and spirituality fields that you and I can embrace to bring about healing and greater unity in the situations we all face:

1. Recognize goodness in the other: Whether talking about our polarized culture or our marriages, division grows in direct proportion to the degree we stop seeing good in the other. The less good we see, the more polarization grows. How many divorced people speak of their ex-spouses, who they once cherished, as utterly bad to the core? How many people argue with friends on social media, thinking now that their friends have become utterly bad to the core? Unending conflict prevents us from seeing goodness in the other. A key step in therapy comes as we help the couple to recognize goodness in the other. It may not lead to reconciliation, but it can lead to better outcomes. Culturally we’re trapped in tribal divisions where each side sees the other as misguided, harmful, corrupt, and/or evil. At some point each of us needs to recognize that the other has good intentions, and wants what’s best, but they may just think differently from us. Purposely looking for and recognizing the good in another is a crucial step toward creating a healthier world.

2. Validate the other’s perspectives even if you don’t share their beliefs: A significant issue in any conflict is the unwillingness to validate the other’s perspective. When they share how they see things, we generally don’t listen to what they’ve said. We interpret what we THINK they’ve said. We interpret based on what we believe about them. If we think they’re misguided or wrong-minded, anything they say will be interpreted as bad, even if it’s good. A simple marriage therapy technique for validating the other is having partner B listen to and summarize what partner A has said. Then partner A either confirms or corrects what partner B has summarized. The point is to ensure both sides can accurately articulate the other’s point of view and validate the perspectives behind them, even if they disagree with what’s said. When caught in polarizing arguments, we generally respond to what we think the other is saying based on our beliefs about them. The debate over guns is a great example. Both sides fear malicious people wielding guns. One side feels safer in a world without guns, the other feels safer in a world where they can protect themselves with guns. Both sides have valid concerns and want to reduce danger. So start there by validating the other’s fears and concerns and discuss from there.

3. Look for areas of alliance: Building on the above, marriage counselors look for areas where the couple can work together positively, even if the marriage isn’t salvageable. It might be how to successfully raise the children; splitting income so both sides feel taken care of; or agreeing on how to interact in a positive way. Therapy focuses on creating a trusting and collaborative alliance. To get beyond where we are culturally, we have to create an ethos of alliance-building that resolves problems and builds trust by working together toward a common goal. Alliances begin with stopping trying to prove me right and you wrong, and instead looking for places where we can become allies in seeking a better option together.

4. Consider others from God’s perspective: This is the ultimate for me. I’ve endeavored throughout my life to consider people from God’s perspective regardless of where they are politically, philosophically, culturally, ethnically, racially, and personally. I deeply, deeply believe that God loves each of us deeply and equally and try to live that way. I had a tremendous opportunity in 2008 to speak at a national conference where I shared a B&B with the Rev. Dr. Lloyd John Ogilvie. He was a beloved, internationally-known pastor and chaplain to the U.S. Senate from 1995 to 2003. Over breakfast each morning and a glass of wine at night, he shared stories about his chaplaincy. With each story he emphasized how he endeavored to regard each senator as a person loved by God, and not as the repository for a set of political beliefs. It allowed him to be revered by senators on both sides of the aisles, and to be a wise and guiding voice to all of them. He chose to regard everyone from God’s perspective. Doing that takes so much intention. My work as a clergy spiritual director and clergy coach has me working with pastors from all different theologies and perspectives. What’s allowed me to do so is recognizing that this pastor may not think the way I do or share my theology, but he/she is called by God to love and serve, so I need to start there.

What I’ve written isn’t a magic bullet overcoming division, but it does offer a path, one person at a time, to create healing in our culture that actually could lead to better mental health for everyone.


Executive Director

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Thank you, Graham, for a terrific message of understanding, strength, unity, and the sacred. You shine a light on how: in our personal lives we grow healthy in gaining an understanding of our own complex selves; among family and associates we strive to build healing and sincere personal relationships; and in recognizing that as our best American social selves, we really do welcome what unifies us as Americans, especially when we find ourselves in actual (and sometimes even in virtual) public spaces. Loving God and neighbor, we go about our days in HIs presence. May God be with us in our efforts toward the betterment of our being human experience. Bless us and be with us today, and throughout o…

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