One of the sad realities of contemporary life is that some seventy percent of us claim that we have at least one family or friend relationship that is strained or broken based on some area of social or political disagreement. If this is not true for you, you are fortunate. My guess, however, is that it is also true that in general most of us handle our personal relationships reasonably well. We are likely to happily declare that our close relationships are the “sweet spots” in our daily lives. But the awareness that so many of us struggle with maintaining good relationships in our families, neighborhood and workplace communities stresses us all.
I can imagine that every community, in any place or time, has had a difficult member who is difficult to get along with. So that’s not new. What is new now is that frayed relationships so easily devolve into brokenness and often hostility. These are difficult and divisive times in general, so it is no surprise that relationships will be affected. Since the Trump election especially I’ve been trying to humbly fathom why this is so at a personal level, and then to strategically attempt to address it through our "Civility First…So We Can Work Together” organization we founded in 2017. Tonight I have some further thoughts to share.
I start by acknowledging that as individuals and as a society we cannot simply accept our cultural divisiveness as a new normal. We don’t want - or even can’t! - live as divided families, as communities and as a nation. It is not good enough to just ignore each other as much as possible and avoid confrontation with family members and others. We need to believe we are better than that, and we can change a difficult dynamic.
Perhaps a place to start addressing the issue is to try to understand what is behind our inclinations to pull away, to disconnect from one another. I’ve decided the most potent underlying reason we are so edgy is because we are all in the midst of a widespread, uncomfortable reckoning with fairly rapid and often very personally challenging societal and relational changes. I am so aware of how many times a day I am struck by how much my world has changed, certainly in the last twenty-five years, and most impactfully in the past five or six years, especially since the Trump election and all the political uncertainly that followed, including personally reckoning with racism, climate, and gender identification issues. And then we began venting our pent up divisions around disagreements about masking and immunizations. These rapid and often personal emotional shifts have understandably made us insecure and testy. So we are more likely to be wary and perhaps a bit paranoid about what more is expected of us when we are already often so bewildered by all the changes, especially, of course, when the divisiveness has been stoked by cable TV and social media. Given the precariousness of these underlying realities, it is no wonder our society is tense - and that includes each of us at some level. Perhaps we need to give others - and ourselves - some slack when we feel anger and resentments building in us - and then, of course, finding ways to let it pass or creatively, tactfully, deal with it if possible.
To counter the distrust and disconnects our Civility First effort has been to offer training that gives us tools so we can overcome our reluctance to disagree and be able to have civil conversations with the goal of at least being able to work together respectfully. If you are interested in our work, please find us at civilityfirst.org.
At a personal level I try to make it a daily discipline of acknowledging all those I meet with generous amounts of “thank you” and friendliness (in spite of my masking barrier!). I consider my personal outreach a small drop of healing that I believe will offer an alternative to all the distrust. I would like to believe our personal connections will be improved, multiplied and shared when we leave a trail of kindness in our daily lives.
I would welcome comments about how you understand the tensions in our world that then have become disconnects among us and how you are dealing with them. In any case, please keep trying to overcome the difficult divisions in your family and your daily life if you have them. We are all better than allowing our divisions to become a new normal that destroy relationships.