My wife and I had an argument last night. We don’t talk often about politics but, when we do, it can become an emotional discussion. She’s a smart cookie, my wife. She was salutatorian of her high school class and a regular on her college dean’s list as she prepared for her career as a microbiologist. Politically, she’s remained pretty steady in the 25 years I’ve known her. I, on the other hand, have made a political pilgrimage that I have documented in my writings over the last months. I started out a little to the right of my wife on the political spectrum but, through many circumstances–chief catalyst among them, the GOP’s war on public education–I began to reexamine all issues and I have moved considerably farther left over the past 5 years. I now stand several steps to the left of my wife on the political spectrum. When our conversations turn to the political, that can now sometimes create friction.
Last night, she became upset as we were discussing the controversy about removing Confederate monuments. She takes no issue with the removal of the statues that glorify the leaders of the failed rebellion, such as Robert E. Lee. She completely understands that. She does, however, have real fears that all of this controversy could spiral out of control and open the door to changes that could rock the very foundations of our traditions and societal norms. She is deeply concerned about what she sees as unprecedented division in our country and she sees the potential that every traditional cultural American icon could potentially come under fire and ultimately be at risk of being torn down. She even mentioned, by way of example, that she could see a day where Christmas would no longer be allowed to be a national holiday. At one point, I started to chime in with something about the Constitution and separation of church and state and I quickly saw that was not what she wanted to hear from me at that moment. She was upset with me–the guy who writes about finding empathy–because I wasn’t understanding her most heartfelt concerns. I had somehow failed to notice that my own spouse had developed real fears about the direction she felt her culture is being pulled.
That moment gave me a lot to think about. It gave me a deeper level of empathy for a large segment of our country who are not alt right nut jobs, but stand right of center and are watching our nation’s current political landscape with growing apprehension.
When I finally understood what my wife was trying to tell me–when I finally started to truly listen to what she was saying instead of trying to fit her words into my own understanding–I was able to say something that helped her compartmentalize her fears into historical context. That skill is at the heart of what I do for a living–I teach U.S. history–and it’s exactly what I try to get my students to understand. Yet, in the heat of the moment, I sometimes forget it myself–and in this case, I’d totally missed the boat with my closest confidant. What I was finally able to put into words for my wife seemed to give her comfort and I hope to spread that comfort in what follows below.
This division that seems to be tearing us apart–which seems to be growing with each passing day–is nothing new. Our nation has always been divided–severely divided. In fact, it’s always been divided over the same issues.
Christians, for instance, have always felt like their chosen way of practicing their faith was under attack. Entire states, such as Rhode Island and Connecticut, exist because of such religious division.
Racial tensions have always run high. How divided was our nation when half of it split off and attacked the other half, resulting in over 600,000 deaths, the bloodiest conflict we’ve ever had by far? How divided was the country when Jim Crow and segregation laws ruled in states, north and south, within the memories of millions of people still living today?
The haves have always been greedy for more, the have-nots have always been used as pawns in the great political chess game, and the middle class has always been kept just fat and happy enough to be contented sheep.
There are a few reasons things sometimes seem so much worse to us today. For one, we have short and selective memories. It’s easy for us to forget even recent history. In the era when I was born, our nation was embroiled in its most unpopular war ever in Viet Nam, the Civil Rights movement was still battling for equal rights for blacks, and women’s rights still lagged far behind their male counterparts. The nation I was born into was a complete mess…yet, every generation could say the same.
Another factor is that there are just so many more of us. When I was born, the population of the U.S. was somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million. Today, it’s over 320 million. That’s a big difference and it tends to magnify our division.
Perhaps the biggest factor in magnifying our division is the rise of social media. We are all so plugged into the world now that we are faced with our national division constantly–there is never a break from it unless you choose to unplug. That tends to have a huge psychological impact and tends to magnify our national division exponentially in our perceptions.
The symptoms come and go and they manifest themselves in different ways, but they have one thing in common–always–they are rooted in our ever-present national disease. The disease remains the same.
As I see it, there are two national diseases that are at the root of all our troubles–all our division–and they have been there from day one. Those diseases are greed and lack of empathy.
No matter what crisis (symptom) that happens along the surface of the timeline of American history, it can be directly linked to one or both of these two underlying causes (diseases). Think of any divisive event, current or historic–can you link it to greed, lack of empathy, or both?–I’ll bet you can.
I am fond of saying that America likes to try to treat symptoms but we aren’t very good at trying to cure the disease. In fact, we don’t even like to think about the disease. Facing the disease is daunting and painful. It causes us to take a long, hard look into our own darkness–our frailty–our prejudice–our selfishness–our sinful nature.
So, we continue to plod along as a nation. We tell ourselves that we have gotten better–and in many ways that’s true, but in other ways, we are right where we started. We always seem shocked when a new things happen along the surface that reveal the fact that our diseases of greed and lack of empathy are still very much alive. They lurk there beneath the surface where they’ve always been, gurgling and bubbling like poison magma in our national soul.
To attack the diseases, it would require fundamental change within each of us. There is only one person we truly have the power to change and that is, of course, our self.
It’s a daunting challenge to change one’s self, let alone change an entire society. I’m going to try to work on myself. I invite you to work on yourself. In the meantime, don’t let the nation’s division drag you down. Try to remember it’s always been this way. All we can control is our here and now.
Let’s go out and begin to attack our disease one day at a time.