Lessening the discord among us

By Kathy Berken

Unless we have been living in a cave most of us have likely felt and experienced an increase in divisiveness in the lead up to this year’s presidential election. Some of us have lost relationships because of our stand on certain issues. Some of us have taken up causes in the name of justice. Some of us have had assaults thrown at our belief system. Frankly, all of this is exhausting!

The can’t-we-all-just-get-along mentality becomes decimated when we feel forced to have opinions on everything from politics, health insurance, immigration and raising children to taxes, drugs, religion and food choices. Social media does not help. Scrolling through my Facebook page, I feel bombarded with pictures and articles about everything that provokes an argument. Some days I just feel like moving into a cave where I can hear only the dust settle and watch water evaporate.

What, then, is a person who actually lives in the world supposed to do? Is this the way we live now, where being on the fence is considered weak or taking a stand is cause for a fight? Choose a side, darn it, and be ready to defend your position at all costs! As a result, I have found myself discussing the weather and other mundane things at gatherings so as not to offend.

We should have convictions and stand up for justice. We can use social media to connect with friends and family. But, do we need to sacrifice our values just to keep from going off the emotional deep end when we feel the pain of all this division eroding our sensibilities?

No, we do not. So, let me suggest an incredibly simple (though not always easy) life-changing solution. It will help us bring our life back to center and regain the peace we once had. Remember, almost nothing is black or white. This is the heresy of dualistic thinking, a way of looking at the world as either/or, no thanks to 16th-century French philosopher René Descartes, who said that, among other things, mind and matter are unique.

We are much more complex. Our Catholic faith teaches that we are one unified body and soul, with infinite possibilities! Here is the simple practice that speaks to this: first, take a deep breath and ask God for an open heart. Then honestly give both sides of the debate the opportunity to exist, because they will exist despite our denials.
“Dualistic thinking works well for the sake of simplification and conversation,” writes Franciscan Father Richard Rohr, “but not for the sake of truth or the immense subtlety of actual personal experience.”

We experience all of life subjectively, as a product of the awareness of our perceptions through our senses. If we can permit ourselves to sincerely view something from a different perspective, even if we disagree with it, we begin to close the gap and invite healing.

How humbling — but also strangely disarming — to acknowledge that we might genuinely understand an opposing point of view. We are taught to take a position and stick with it, come hell or high water: I’m right; you’re wrong. That can cause any bridge to crumble. We worry that seeing the other person’s point feels like caving in. It is not. I am convinced that if we see with the eyes of understanding, listen with open hearts and not stop until we truly understand the other’s view, we are peacemakers.

Jesus is a good role model for this. Re-read the Sermon on the Mount and his response to “Who is my neighbor?” “Love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you,” he also said. Jesus chose peace over conflict, compassion over ignorance and hate. A good resolution for the new decade.

(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch.)

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