Countering the Undercurrent of Acrimony

Countering the Undercurrent of Acrimony April 12, 2018

An undercurrent is a sneaky phenomenon. The surface may appear still, but once you are in the water, the undercurrent will pull you in whatever direction it is flowing.

The same can be said about news, social media, and even good old gossip. They may seem innocuous to begin with, but once you are in the thick of it, the undercurrent of acrimony will carry you where it wants to go.

Of course, social acrimony is only present in our lives because it has been created and sustained by people. Unlike an actual undercurrent—which is ruled by natural laws—the bitterness, spite, rancor, animosity, and hostility that seems to be present just under the surface of too many human relations these days can only subside if enough people decide that it is time to create a new type of undercurrent, one of harmony. *

*Two articles that define harmony:
Harmony in the Human Orchestra
Harmony Exists in Many Forms

We Need a Spiritual Response

After studying the world’s religions in preparation to become an Interfaith Minister, I agree with Karen Armstrong’s view that all of them preach some form of compassion (although I also think there is more to it—see Experifaith).

Given that consensus, it doesn’t take a genius to see that the type of acrimony we are experiencing is the exact opposite of what compassion is. It seems like a lot of us are going in the wrong direction.

Therefore, it would probably do us good to look to spiritual scriptures and modern spiritual leaders for guidance. The most vocal and influential among us these days have to be Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama.

The Pope’s Warning

Earlier this week, on Monday April 9 to be exact, Pope Francis issued a new Apostolic Exhortation in which he warned of the dangers of acrimony, especially on modern digital platforms. Here is part of what he said:

“Christians too can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the Internet and the various forms of digital communications. Even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned. The result it a dangerous dichotomy, since things can be said there that would be unacceptable in public discourse, and people look to compensate for their own discontent by lashing out at others. It is striking that at times, in claiming to uphold the other commandments, they completely ignore the eighth, which forbids bearing false witness or lying, and ruthlessly vilify others.”

That is quite a strong rebuke of common practices. He points out that even though people may be working on behalf of other good causes, they have to be careful not to overstep boundaries and engage in “defamation” and “slander.”

The Dalai Lama and Jack Kornfield on Compassion

In recent months, almost all of the messaging from the Dalai Lama on social media has been about compassion. It seems to be his chief concern.

The same can be said about another prominent Buddhist, Jack Kornfield, who has changed his rhetoric in recent years from a focus on self-mastery through the practice of meditation to an intense focus on compassion.

Of course, it takes a certain amount of self-care and self-mastery to generate compassion, as I wrote about recently in relation to the Golden Rule, but these two spiritual leaders have made the message of warm-heartedness the alpha and omega of their ministries.

To give you an example, in a February Facebook post, the Dalai Lama wrote:

“We don’t have to give in to anger and hatred. Since compassion and anger cannot co-exist, the more we cultivate compassion the more our anger will be reduced. Compassion brings peace of mind and if we have that we won’t be deflected when negative events occur.”

A similar message is repeated again and again on his social media platforms.

Naturally, the Dalai Lama won’t be able to change the undercurrent on his own. More people need to join in for us to change course.

Easy to Slip and Be Pulled In the Wrong Direction

If we wanted to, we could collectively alter the undercurrent from acrimony to increased harmony. It would never be perfect, but it is possible.

At the same time, we should not underestimate the existing undercurrent. Even if we have good intentions and want to change the tone, we can find ourselves being pulled in the wrong direction, unconsciously engaging in the same type of acrimonious rhetoric that we are trying to change, just because we think we are on the right side of an issue.

Like swimmers, who get caught in the undercurrent of a riptide, we need to train ourselves in swimming to the side when we get caught in acrimony instead of trying to fight against the current.

Individual and Collective Efforts

For things to change, we need individual effort to begin with. If everyone practiced the best of what his or her religious or spiritual path preached, that would have tremendous positive effects. But only a collective effort can change the undercurrent. Outrage adds to the acrimony, so complaining and shaming are out of the picture. For real results, we need a collective effort of compassion.

Gudjon Bergmann
Interfaith Minister, Author, and Speaker
Founder of Harmony Interfaith Initiative

Note: If you are interested in talks, lectures, workshop and experiences that are designed to increase individual capacity for harmony, visit the Harmony Interfaith Initiative website.

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Pictures: and CC0 License

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