“People respond in accordance to how you relate to them. If you approach them on the basis of violence, that’s how they’ll react. But if you say, ‘We want peace, we want stability,’ we can then do a lot of things that will contribute towards the progress of our society.” – Nelson Mandela
America is entering a very anxious, divisive, probably turbulent, and possibly violent time. There is so much anger and mistrust. Republicans and Democrats seem to be from different countries with entirely different realities. For many, neither party is speaking to or for them. Issues are wedges of division rather than topics of debate. We urgently need to learn to talk peacefully with each other and that means we must learn to talk from the starting point of what we have and want in common rather than what drives us apart, and we must learn to talk with respect rather than mistrust, anger and derision.
What do we all want? As Nelson Mandela said, we want “peace and stability.” Who besides someone insane with hatred or whose desire is to exploit these divisions does not want this? Our problem has always been how we define peace and stability, what do these words really mean, what are their implications, what do they include and require, and by what means are they achieved? If we begin to examine what attitudes and policies actually lead to peace and stability we might begin to find common ground.
Human history is dominated by structural social divides separating the powerful and wealthy from the common people. History has taught repeatedly there can be no system based on great inequality of wealth and power that will bring lasting peace and stability. Such a system lacks wisdom and it lacks compassion. It lacks understanding that peace and stability require unity of purpose and identity where all citizens possess a sense of interconnectedness in a worthwhile and noble endeavor; and with this interconnectedness, citizens come to realize they are also interdependent, sharing in this great endeavor together. As Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Yet tragically, we are possibly looking at just such a divide in this country. It is as if Americans function in parallel universes from each other. Yet – who doesn’t want peace? Who doesn’t want stability in their personal life and in the social fabric of the nation?
All too often the mistake is made of believing that peace and stability are the result of rigid authoritarian control. For a while, the iron boot of repressive law may keep a kind of stability, but eventually resentment and rebellion will result. Real and lasting peace and stability begin with compassion, the empathic emotion and response to another’s difficulties and pain, inclusive of all levels and expressions of society. But most people are limited to experiencing empathy only for those with whom they identify, and this is insufficient. If compassion does not also extend to those who hold differing political, religious, class or cultural perspectives, indeed to everyone, it is not real compassion.
Compassion, in order to be true, must extend to those with whom we disagree and to those with whom we have difficulty finding common identity. This is compassion’s redemptive and healing power. How can we do this? Here we come back to interconnectedness. We must see that we are interconnected in our common challenge of wanting peace and security, and in a larger sense, we are all interconnected in the human condition. It is this larger sense of compassion, the true desire to communicate with, understand and help people of differing viewpoints and cultural identities that we must cultivate if we want true peace and stability.
We are all human beings who strive for happiness and who seek to avoid suffering. Are we not? It is belief systems about the means and social structures for achieving happiness and whether all deserve to be included that separate us. We are conditioned by our cultures telling us for thousands of years to believe in separating lines of wealth and class and race and gender and philosophies and religions, emphasizing differences among us, telling us of differing rights to dignity and access for this or that group to the society’s fruits. It seems we lack the emotional identification necessary for compassion toward the full spectrum of humanity, all of whom are caught in differing belief systems.
History shows these lines of separation inevitably cause only conflict and instability. We fail to take the necessary step back from our customary perspective to see that we are all human beings together; we are all citizens of the world together. We fail to see that we are all commonly trapped into looking at each other through these lenses of separation, seeing one another as rivals, even enemies. We all do it, and it blocks our experiencing our common humanity. When we take this step back and look at each other in this way, compassion becomes possible. It becomes clear we ARE all in this struggle together. Then we can relate emotionally with all people.
We are human beings who share a common nation and a common planet. Can we see that? Can we talk with each other beginning here? If so, we have the beginnings for compassion, the potential for building peace and stability. Do we all love our children? Do we all want a good life for these children in a world where the nation and the planet we call home is beautiful and bountiful for endless generations to come? The answer is clearly “yes.” This we have in common. Now we are starting to look more like people who can identify with each other rather than the warring demographics politicians and pundits talk about and exploit. Do we want economic security? Health security? Educational opportunity? Opportunity to develop our talents and interests as far as we can take them? Do we want work that supports us within the norms of our society and feels meaningful and for which we are respected? If we compassionately include everyone in this desire, we will realize this can only happen within a system in which the most blessed and gifted give greater value to a life of creativity and service than they do to material opulence gained at the expense of others, and where the least advantaged among us are seen as the responsibility of all.
The motivation to excellence is inherent in every individual, and I suggest the motivation to the excellence of a peaceful and stable society that honors and celebrates every individual is the strongest of all. A peaceful and stable society must be one that sees that fostering hope and determination in all citizens is a society’s highest responsibility. This is compassion. It is also good politics and economics. Our society pays a steep price in loss of peace, stability and wealth by perpetuating an under-class of citizens excluded from the security of adequate income, education, health-care, housing and self-respect. Can we talk about these things?
We must remember that our founding principles call us to interdependence. Our Constitution addresses us as: “We the People of the United States,” not as a fractured collection of self-interests. It then instructs us to our purpose: “in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” We are told to be one people seeking the highest good for all into the future beyond seeing. To do this, we need to come out of our stances of oppositionality to stand alongside one another. We must be in this national endeavor together or we will tear this union apart. We must let go of our mistrust, suspicion and anger toward each other to stand alongside one another as one people seeking to create a more perfect union. We must reach to each other. Let us not argue and fight. Let us talk and heal the wounds that divide us.