America, the Irrational.
Beyond reason, we are a nation of citizens with feelings and fears. For better and worse, that matters.
In the past two weeks, I’ve been unreasonably addicted to the impeachment hearings. They’ve taken over my life, dispiriting me, swallowing up precious windows of time. Driving my children home from school, as the chatter slows down and we could settle together into silence, I turn up the volume on the radio. Instead of focussing on a writing project beckoning my attention, I’m one-hand-coffee-one-hand-remote in front of the TV.
It’s big news, of course. History-making. As a citizen, I’m called to witness that history, but let’s be honest, there’s a deeper story here. My un-reasonable, addictive preoccupation with the impeachment hearings belies a hope that if I watch for long enough, some ‘truth’ or ‘fact’ might magically jump off the screen to save us all.
For over three years now we’ve lived in a country where each side of our political divide has been ardently reasoning why its side, alone, is true. Fox opinion writer, Steve Hilton reasons that “Trump faces impeachment because Democrats know he’s a success — and they can’t stand it.“ He continues, “Every single thing the Democrats accuse President Trump of — undermining democracy, ignoring the rule of law, abusing power — they are guilty of themselves.” Meanwhile, Democratic congresspeople and liberal news commentators grit their teeth, digging their heels in around their reasoned arguments, defending them with nightly fact-checked expert commentary. Hour upon hour of impeachment testimony sounds off like a litigious prayer that with enough filibustered words in defense of ‘the truth,’ Democrats will resurrect some purchase on it, some long bygone, consensus reality from the Cronkite era, (albeit that was a White reality, not consensus.)
It’s a noble effort, filling the airwaves with reel upon reel of what actually happened, but we seem to be facing the reality that citations from the Constitution carry the value of stock in a company that just went bankrupt. There is no truth that’s going to jump off a screen in today’s America. Gonzo.
Maybe we started making this bed for our country when our nation became obsessed with reality TV, stoking its passion for the blurred boundary between truth and drama. We drove up the ratings, revealing a longing to escape from something in our daily lives for the more entertaining performance of real-life. However, in this performance, today in America, the Congressional one, with its daily blur of reality and fiction, maybe the only truth I can point to is this one about myself: I’ve been un-reasonably glued to the hearings, hoping against hope, in order to escape my fear.
The Shared Truth of Fear
It’s not just me. America is afraid. While some of us may be glued to the news, others can’t get far enough away from it. It reflects the mounting survey results over the last two years showing an increase in anxiety since 2016 among Americans ruminating over health, climate change, politics. The numbers reveal steadily growing increases, with “extreme anxiety” especially around the issue of family safety.
If we are Democrats, we tend to think these numbers are our people’s. They reflect all us who are quaking in our boots over a President in bed with the gun lobby, that big bully of a guy and his wrecking ball twitter feed. But, we’d be misguided to conclude the anxiety belongs only to the Democrats. Fear abounds in a polarized climate like ours. Republicans are afraid, though we Democrats tend not to see their fears as legitimate. And, bullies, of course, are also terrified. They just try to hide it with all that bluster.
As I noticed myself dialed into the TV with my fantasy of a “savior fact,” however, I came across a different kind of savior moment. The one that comes when you actually see yourself in the middle of something you really don’t want to be doing but are: I saw that I was afraid. In the moment I saw this, I suddenly realized how useless all these rational facts are when the biggest observable fact in the room isn’t rational anymore, but emotional.
It’s time we began facing the fact that reason isn’t driving the bus in America anymore. But if reason isn’t, what is?
America is facing a constitutional crisis, yes, but that’s partly because Americans of all backgrounds are facing an existential one — one that’s reaching us in different ways at our psychological core, shaking at the foundations of our identities and values systems. Yes, plenty of us are damn scared about an unstable President with a magnificent penchant for spinning falsehoods, but the world of Trump’s base has been rocked by the rapid, super rapid, changes mobilized by progressives in America in the last twenty years. I may not like what white, patriarchal America does when it gets insecure to the core, but let’s not pretend when that activation kicks in that there’s not a lot of fear and anxiety there. What are we afraid of? What if that’s the bigger story?
This isn’t America the Beautiful, this is America the transitional. It’s America the irrational because America, and the world, are changing, fast, and America is scared. This is the deeper truth — not at the reasoned fact level, but the feeling level — that may, ironically, unify us. To be sure, what we’re afraid of varies widely depending on who we are, where we live, what we think is at stake. But what unites us, no matter who we vote for, the only place where we get to be human together, as crazy as it might sound, is that we are afraid. Perhaps this, then, not whether Trump lies, is what we need to be talking about. Or, at least that we need to be talking about as well.
Not Democrats or Republicans: What Makes Us Human?
I hear you. I hear what you’re thinking: “Are you kidding! You think in this climate we should be talking about our feelings!”
It sounds nuts, doesn’t it? That we need to stop talking so much about the truth, facts, and reason and start talking more about feelings. But, then, you gotta agree, what’s happening inside the beltway these days is pretty nuts, itself. Right? Maybe in desperate times, we need desperate measures? Need to take risks? Need to open to something we might have previously thought absurd.
First, a return to my personal anecdote:
Only when I found a strip of daylight that morning, between my finger on the remote and noticing my fear, did I get enough space to become a thoughtful person again. Getting that I was afraid was necessary for me to be a reflective, aware, potentially reasonable, citizen. Then, when I actually got space from my reactivity was I able to get perspective, the very thing we’ve sorely run out of in this country. But that’s not all. Part two has to do with understanding.
Noticing how fear was driving my hope for an unreasonable outcome helped me connect with parts of my personal history and my concern for my children’s future that are triggered by the daunting news in today’s America. When I could see this, I felt compassion. I could also see where I had the capacity to act and where I didn’t, which made me feel a bit safer and more confident. Finally, while a stretch, this somehow made room for compassion for those folks on the other side who, while gesticulating wildly and raising their voices in contempt, are also very scared.
“Yea, right,” you say, “You think Trump-supporting Republicans have anything like that level of emotional sophistication. You think they will even acknowledge they’re afraid! Those guys don’t go there. Let alone…are you kidding… compassion?!” “Are you suggesting we start sending Devin Nunes our love vibes. You’ve got to be kidding!”
OK. First of all, I am a tried-and-true Democrat, but I know more than a few Republicans who’ve felt compassion in their lifetimes. Shocker! Second, let’s start with the feelings behind these “reasonable” reactions? Check it out… Some fear, perhaps? It’s totally understandable if so, but stepping back and noticing this helps us see what’s driving our ideas about each other. It’s vulnerable to go there, seems crazy, but with courage and confidence, it may be the only thing that can open the door to anything potentially sane.
Beyond Dueling Facts: Understand Experience
Consider this account of a young Trump supporter during a focus group conducted by Van Jones during the 2016 primaries. I love this story and have shared it repeatedly because it says so much about something positive that’s possible in our climate, but quite tragically not happening enough.
Jones’ team assembled a diverse group of Americans variously supporting the broad range of primary candidates. At one point in the interview, Van focussed in on a young, white man, 20 something, wearing a red MAGA hat. (The following is paraphrased, as I haven't been able to access the transcript.) Jones addressed the man personally, let’s call him Steve. ‘So, Steve, what about you, why are you supporting Donald Trump?’ The young man proudly responded with the now-familiar rally cry about Hillary and that email server. ‘She should be locked up!’ But Van didn’t settle for that.
With warmth and with a concern that was palpable enough to elicit the young man’s honest response, Van challenged him. ‘I get it,’ he said, ‘that’s what a lot of other Trump supporters are saying right now, but what’s really going on for you personally. Is there anything in your daily life that’s behind your support for Trump? What are you concerned about?”
The truth is, Van Jones didn’t walk out of that room with a MAGA hat flung at the back of his head. In fact, if anything, that young man looked at him, almost as if he was ready to make a friend for life.
At that point, something remarkable happened that should be happening all over our news networks daily, though we barely see a lick of it. This young man’s hardened, righteous face softened. His center of gravity dropped down beneath his ‘reasoning’ head into his heart and body. His eyes, now visibly tender with anxiety, focussed on Van as if he was almost confused.
As I watched on, it looked like this young man almost felt like he was being seen for the first time. You mean you care? his expression seemed to say. That kind of dialogue just doesn’t compute in this climate, after all, right? But, yes, Van Jones was taking his feelings and his fears seriously.
Responding to Jones, the young man began sharing details about his life. He included concerns about a black friend of his at his church and some economic uncertainty in his family. In some respects, though, while these details mattered, they were less memorable than the tone or feeling in that moment between these two men of very different political persuasions. The facts of his life, while important, mattered less than the quality of what got understood on the level of feelings.
This young man’s defiant, righteousness, in fact, gave way to the realness of a human, no, two humans, connecting, listening, with their different worldviews suspended long enough for a bridge to be built, an unspoken language of honesty and humanity in a moment of heartful vulnerability.
It takes a journalist like Van Jones, who’s confident enough about the value of his own inner, emotional world to invite someone to speak more honestly about the fuller story in their lives. Jones helped the surface-level of the story drop from reactive reasoning to recounting fears, feelings. It moved to that deeper “truth” which the lion’s share of today’s journalists aren’t chasing down. He asked the right questions with the kind of heartfelt curiosity that helps to weave a diverse, embattled country together. Had Jones not brought the exchange to that level, it would have stayed where it is today, the fiery, ping-ponged platitudes of the impeachment hearings I’ve now stopped watching.
Those liberals amongst us, myself included, like to think the Democrats are being the reasonable ones, and yes, in the land of Guiliani conspiracy theories, we are closer to the facts here. But isn’t there something unreasonable about our continuing to believe that our reasoned arguments will save us in this emotionally fraught, post-fact era? We think of ourselves as more evolved, but when it comes to taking these kinds of risks, standing creatively, and boldly in the leadership of our more ‘evolved’ view of humanity, something seems to elude us. What keeps us from talking more directly on this level? Shame? Fear of rebuke?
The truth is, Van Jones didn’t walk out of that room with a MAGA hat flung at the back of his head. In fact, if anything, that young man looked at him, almost as if he was ready to make a friend for life. I believe that’s because Van was able to talk about what’s going on in people’s lives without compartmentalizing away important dimensions of who we are as people, as citizens. We’re not just our ‘rational’ judgments, projections and platitudes, we are also our quaking, caring hearts.
We Are More Than “Rational” — And That’s A Good Thing
Our times are wild. Crazy-wild. They reflect a great deal of fear in a changing America on a changing planet. We’re not just in a country reeling from Trump’s daily orchestrated headlines, but an America that was changing for some time before Trump showed up in the White House and one that will be in the throes of rapid change, no doubt after he leaves.
In fact, one dimension of that change has been the growth, over the last fifty years, of a broadened definition of what makes us human — one that pays more attention to the fact that humans have feelings. In the first half of our century, there was still little intelligence about emotions, how to understand their importance, communicate about them, how to relate to them purposefully. There was plenty of cultural fear and ignorance. However, more ever before in human history our understanding has grown in the areas of psychology, brain research, attachment, trauma and child development research, leadership and coaching wisdom, input from a greater female presence in public dialogue, and the seismic growth of people, male/female, across the gender spectrum, who have been exposed to therapy and/or addiction recovery.
These developments all point to a population and culture with a growing wisdom that’s challenging the ‘rational, self-reliant’ human model we’ve taken as a ‘norm’ for centuries. Yet while this wisdom qualifies for discussion on talk-shows and influences the screenplays of Hollywood, it hasn’t caught up with politics and the News Media. Here, the norm remains that emotions should be seen as precisely the thing to contain in order to promote rational public discourse. All that irrational stuff is meant to be kept private, it belongs to women, children, the movies, not “men”, “professionals” and definitely not politics! For journalists, opening that door just makes it worse, right? It all gets subjective, what can we agree on if we’re just talking about feelings?
To be sure, sharing ideas, well-researched proposals, perspectives and opinions matters in a working democracy, but what about when democracy ceases to work? What then happens when we can’t agree on the facts either? Really can’t agree?
It’s ironic, today, that we fear any curiosity about feelings or dialogue about fears in public discussion will only make the conflict more heated and polarized. This actually may be making our problems worse. We all have feelings, and in spite of the ideal of the ‘rational politician’, those feelings seem to be actually running our country right now. No amount of evidence will prove the Constitution’s been violated when feelings are dictating how this is question is even being thought about. We could either say this is the problem, those feelings have to go away so we can start thinking together again, or…we could take a look at the elephant in the room. What are these feelings telling us?
Maybe instead of sidestepping or quarantining the big emotional elephants (and donkeys), we need to expand our understanding of the-human-that-is-a-citizen. At this critical and painful impasse in our country’s ability to think together, perhaps those who have a public voice in America today — journalists, writers, politicians, commentators — face a choice: Continue to operate under the myth that reason, alone, will guide our decisions in governance or, start asking the kinds of questions and sharing the kind of commentary that creates space for citizens to take a more humane shape. A broader understanding of what it is to be human, man or women, citizen or immigrant, black, white or brown, includes the truth that we all have hearts, we all care, we all fear, we all have feelings. It’s not a weakness to hide, or something to be ashamed of, it’s just part of what makes us human. Whether Republican or Democrat, if we look at our lives honestly, really honestly, this thing about feelings isn’t fiction, it’s fact.
America Needs Couples Therapy
The polarization in our country feels, at times, as intractable as the hostile state of contention between a warring couple on the brink of divorce in a therapist’s office. Any therapist worth their salt knows that trying to get a couple like this to agree on the facts won’t get them back on track. The therapist has to suspend the stories couples have about each other long enough to get to a deeper level of what’s going on. Only something that touches beneath the story has the hope of restoring the ability for any compassionate mutual recognition — or even co-parenting. You need to know you are two human beings, not each other’s projections, in order to reconcile. Acknowledging the ‘irrational’ feelings, giving them a safe space to be shared and heard, is, ironically what allows reason and mutual recognition to again gain a foothold.
The problem is, when we don’t acknowledge feelings when we don’t make space for them and try to understand them, they control us, they take over reason, they make us irrational, and before long, we conflate feelings with reason, compromising the value of both.
It’s a leap, for some, to connect the country’s polarization with a couple in crisis. No doubt, there are plenty of Republicans who would rather die than go to therapy or acknowledge the emotional level of their experience, Donald Trump, of course, being the most obvious example. But every Republican isn’t Donald Trump and when we liberals see it that way, we’re afraid. We — the more ‘evolved’ — close the door to unlocking the impasse, even, who knows, for a few.
Perhaps we’re afraid of being mocked, diminished, belittled, talked over, powerless? To be sure, the patriarchal masculine norms of our culture have provoked these fears in women and those who are vulnerable, but we are in changing times. Those of us who know better — and there are more of us now than ever — know better. We know it is not “bad” to be afraid, it’s human.
When it gets harder to love, let’s love harder. — VAN JONES
America can’t afford setting the bar with the reactive judgments we have where we hide our all-too-human fears and feelings from one another. If we called on a greater intelligence, when we can, where we can, one that knows we are more than our projections and judgments, perhaps we can begin to avert more crisis. After all, when couples don’t engage a deeper level of listening to each other, they divorce, but when countries don’t, they go to war.
Claiming Citizenship At A New Octave
What if today, in America, as with the Civil War and the 1960s, we’re experiencing the painful, sharp, growing pains of democracy. Harsh, frightening, and forcing us to stretch beyond what’s comfortable, we’re being asked to grow the soul of our Nation’s citizenship. What if for this to happen with any degree of success, this time, this revolution needs journalists, politicians and ordinary citizens, like you and me, to take leadership by refusing to deny the deeper, heartful octave of our human-ness.
What if it doesn’t start or end with the outcome of the impeachment trials? What if it starts when, one citizen at a time, one journalist at a time, one politician, one leader at a time, we turn off the TV and shift the dialogue, finding the courage for a more compassionate interest in what really matters in our and others’ lives. What would this look like? How would our news be different? What would it sound like in your life as a citizen?
After all, if we can’t seem to communicate with any purchase on reason anymore in America, maybe we do need to start a new conversation?