He said She said
We who identify as relational healers need to know, there’s a new challenge to relationships, and it’s serious: the Bubble Phenomenon. It’s dividing families, communities and our country. It’s not just about our differences – it’s about what we’re doing with our differences. In today’s world of social media, cable news, “your individualized Google feed,” and the rest, we are beginning to hermetically seal ourselves off from one another. You don’t like someone’s opinion? Un-friend them. Block their number. Is the news upsetting you? Switch channels, to the network with the facts you prefer. Each of us packed neatly into bubbles of like-mindedness.
The bubbles make our differences seem larger, and in turn help them deepen and widen. They’re not just a socio-cultural phenomenon; these bubbles have slipped into families, bringing a sense of ever deepening divide that cannot be crossed. Just yesterday a client sat crying in my office, lamenting the change in her once-close relationship with her father. “I figured out, he tells you what you want to hear. But he’s a phony. Like Trump. And he voted for that misogynist!! I used to respect him so much…”
Families have had differences forever. But bubbles aren’t just about differences in political perspective, or even values. Bubbles are about differences in truth. Bubbles can make families feel like members are living in difference realities. In his final speech as President, Barack Obama warned about bubbles, calling them a key threat to democracy and imploring us all to “pay attention and listen” to one another’s perspective. “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life.”
It’s not just strangers, though. It’s our intimate others. How do we help families burst the bubbles?
I am thinking of two congressmen – a republican and a democrat – from Texas who took a long road trip from Texas back to Washington. They managed to find what ideas they had in common and build on their shared values, and keep a respectful dialogue about their differences. I heard about it on NPR – and I think there was a blog about it. Being stuck in a car together for several hundred miles can help foster a respectful dialogue – given a certain degree of respectful listening producing a give and take dialogue.
My neighbor across the street flies an American flag, and underneath it, a “Don’t Tread on Me” –flag (a historic flag appropriated by the Tea Party). During the election season he had a “Hillary for Prison” sign in front of his house for several weeks. So, I went and got a “Hate is not Welcome Here” sign– in several languages – where it is displayed proudly in front of our house. But, he is a good neighbor – we chat on occasion – meet in the driveway and talk about the shiny chrome wheels of his pickup that he was polishing yesterday. A couple of weeks ago I went over to his house with two handmade wooden picture frames I had downstairs in my print studio that I wasn’t using and rang his doorbell and offered him the frames. He was gracious in receiving them. We’re probably not going to talk directly about politics, but I can join with him where I can – offer him a beer on a hot summer day, and be a friendly neighbor.
Yet, our bubbles are comfortable – hanging out with our tribe. We are less a tribal society than other countries – Iraq, Syria, Iran, or the Sudan or Somalia – for example. But still, after this past divisive election we seem more divided than ever, more polarized than ever. In the 60’s and 70’s, opposition to the Viet Nam war, the civil rights movement and the feminist movement spurred the left on. In the 80’s Newt Gingrich’s “contract for America” helped galvanize the right, as did the Tea party of the past 20 years.
There seem to be almost no examples on TV or social media of thoughtful civil discourse. No prominent models of collaboration. The Taos Institute is trying to promote this kind of dialogue though. Check them out – http://www.taosinstitute.net
Tribes…yes, it’s in our nature to seek the confirmation and comfort of the familiar, and that includes what matters to us, what we believe about the world and, of course, our people. Familiarity has organized humankind for millennia. Until the internet, that is. Modern technology has created a whole new relational context, and I don’t think we have figured out how to coexist well with technology. Fake news, alternative facts, “virtual” relationships, “reality” television, the instant gratification of access to infinite information and misinformation (and who can tell?) – and bubbles. If we don’t get ahead of this, we’ll have people marrying robots! Oh wait, I recently read an article that in fact someone just did so in China…
I am admittedly worried about all this, and know it’s a complex concern. But I want to make a difference, and can at least try to practice the same skills that make good therapists: Openness to listening deeply. Compassion and curiosity. Appreciating and seeking out differences. Not being quick to judge, or “fix.” Practicing empathy. Drawing others out, valuing what they have to offer. I looked at the Taos Institute website and was delighted to find an article by Sheila McNamee – only a page, but loaded with wisdom. In “Resources for Facilitating Differing Worldviews” Sheila reminds us about the value of seeking “multiplicity” – rather than unity – of thinking. I most appreciate what she writes about the practice of self-reflexive inquiry: “…question your assumptions, your understandings. Ask yourself how else things might be described and understood. Don’t be too quick to ‘know.’”
I’m going to go turn on Fox News now, and keep practicing.
Sheila is right in advising us to be wise and patient in our ‘knowing’. Without that, we run the risk of “dueling certainties” which generally results in frustration, walkaways, and hopelessness. My advice to people in conflict is – whenever you feel yourself becoming the least bit angry, or very angry at something the other has said – stop, take a breath, and get curious. Ask questions to get more detail about where the other is coming from – the deeper background of their ideas and beliefs. Get more of the context. When that happens, we may still disagree, but we understand the background and context of the other more fully. And that creates the possibility of seeing the humanity of the other, their sincere and treasured beliefs. We get more of their story, and learning more of their story we can see them with compassion. Once you know the origins of someone’s beliefs, you can understand what the mean to them. And understanding the deeper meaning, the background story with its dilemmas, its wishes, its pain and its hope. The other is transformed from just an “other” to another struggling human being like yourself. Krista Tippett said in her latest book, Becoming Wise, that each of us is undergoing great struggle. That makes a lot of sense to me. Either at a surface level or at deeper levels of consciousness, everyone is undergoing a deep struggle. When I make that wise assumption, that humanizing assumption, my heart softens and compassion becomes possible. Try it sometime. See what happens to you when you do.
By: Ken Stewart and Brier Miller