A friend asked recently if I got in fights with family about politics. Disagreements? Yes. Inner turmoil? Yes. Fights? No. But, oooooh, can it gall.
Given these times of extremely divisive political action and rhetoric, and the general breakdown in civil discourse, so often, where this hits the hardest is within. Even if we aren’t involved in shouting matches violence plays out in our inner field of vision, in inner tension, inner arguments, disbelief at someone else’s anger, hatred, xenophobia, support for policies that seem extremely damaging to the world. But of course, when the anger or resentment or resistance builds up internally, who is that harming, exactly?
So how do we recover an attitude, a disposition of loving-kindness? There are those who sling insults around on television or social media to create a divisive atmosphere, and that kind of rhetoric is going to continue in our public sphere, sure, but let’s do a little thought exercise.
Are there people you love in real life who bring to mind an extremely warm feeling of gratitude and loving-kindness who either are or would be ideological opponents?
You know the dynamic on social media or comments sections. Someone posts a comment or article diametrically opposed to someone else’s values. The other person responds. Things devolve from there.
We start seeing each other through a purely symbolic, ideological lens. We start seeing people as their value systems, in mental categories, rather than the whole person.
Part of that is due to more frequent interaction online through predefined forms and boxes than in real life with its fluid movement, hearing someone’s vocal tone, the warmth in the voice, subtlety of movement in their facial expression, divorced from their story that registers bodily when we interact with each other.
I’m guiltier than most here with my work-from-home position, but many of us, whether we work in offices or wherever, have our consciousness framed to a great degree through interacting with screens instead of people.
There’s no doubt this has an effect on our ability to engage with each other openly, warmly, assuming the best and working out our differences. Instead, so many interactions become existential threats.
When the news stories become more and more apocalyptic, there’s an undercurrent of anxiety to so much of our interaction.
But something shifts when we start understanding the way wounds, the way pain shapes peoples identities, fears, and ideologies. When we start with the wound, we can see through the surface veneer and understand the person much more deeply.
Even when we are interacting in person and someone’s pain is triggered, and they start berating, advocating violence and destruction in the name of peace, then we need to be especially prepared to see down to the wound and the protective mechanisms at work.
We can choose to hold them in that embrace and wish their healing, even as we accept everything that is going on in the present moment, without bringing psychological resistance, which grows the violence within us, especially if we seek to match whatever their energy is, to be right, to win the match. We get trapped in a zero sum mentality.
That’s what we’re called to transcend on this path.
This can be even more difficult when we’re going through some kind of deep loss or pain in our own lives. We get preoccupied with our own situation, insular and protective. We can lose that sensitivity to what is going on with others, and lose the capacity for right seeing and right action in the moment. We can cling more tightly to our protective strategies. This is precisely what the ongoing practice is intended to prepare for. A teacher told their students often to “write the words of God on their hearts,” and finally one asked “why?” “So when it breaks,” he said, “the words will fall in.”
So it is with daily contemplative practices.
Reflecting on the relationship of love to her own practice, critic bell hooks writes, “This is always the measure mindful practice, whether we can create the conditions for love and peace in circumstances that are difficult, whether we can stop resisting and surrender, working with what we have, where we are. Fundamentally, the practice of love begins with acceptance – the recognition that wherever we are is the appropriate to practice, that the present moment is the appropriate time. But for so many of us, our longing to love and be loved has always been about a time to come, a space in the future when it will just happen, when our hungry hearts will finally be fed, when we will find love.”
Amen to that.
Richard Rohr on Loving the Presence in the Present
Thomas Keating on Acceptance
Sr. Meg Funk Can We Talk Without Anger?