by H. Kimball Jones, PhD
From the beginning, 2017 has been a year marked by extreme political chaos throughout the world and particularly here in the U.S. There has been toxic divisiveness in the country as a whole, in communities, even in families where communication has broken down because of differing political alliances.
As one who has been practicing psychotherapy at PSI for more than 40 years, I cannot remember a time when my clients have been struggling so profoundly with the tension created by the political climate. Anxiety is rampant and many people are finding that their tolerance for stress is being pushed to its limits.
The question arises: from the perspective of both mental and spiritual health what is required of each of us in this chaotic time? How can we achieve a mental and spiritual balance while remaining true to the values that we espouse?
One of the clues to finding an answer to this question lies in our understanding of the human brain and how it works. Recent research on the neuroplasticity of the brain is one of the most exciting areas in modern medicine. It has demonstrated clearly that the brain is plastic and malleable and can be changed at any point in the lifespan. The firing of neurons within the brain that determine what we think can be altered from day to day, even from moment to moment.
This means that the brain remains vulnerable to all data and information that it receives. This has both positive and negative implications. It is positive in that no thought pattern, however negative or destructive, is irreversible.
But it can be problematic in that when receiving too much information, the brain can be overwhelmed, confused, distressed, leading to anxiety, depression and fight-or-flight behavior.
I would suggest that while there is much that many of us appropriately find troubling going on in the current chaotic political climate, we are being bombarded both in the public media and in social media by opinionated and divisive rhetoric and images which, while sometimes helpful, often contributes to a pervading sense of divisiveness, pessimism and often cynicism.
It is important to be informed about what is going on in the world and to try to form opinions that are based as much as possible on facts to guide our responses and actions. But in the midst of the current political chaos the media are doing us no favors in helping us to achieve this. The reporting over the last several months, particularly in televised news, has been largely sensationalistic and repetitive (which is what the corporate sponsors want. It sells their products by attracting more viewers). In its obsession with presidential politics, the media has invited us to join in this obsession and to ignore the fact that there is a world out there beyond the White House.
In a recent interview on the Tavis Smiley show on PBS, the Cognitive Scientist, George Lakoff spoke of how, in his studies of the brain, it has become clear that the repetitive language that we hear on the news “activates a frame in the brain.” If repeated enough, over a period of time, we may come to believe what we hear, even if it seems irrational and contrary to fact. Indeed, this can be a subtle form of brainwashing. (1)
Not everyone is equally vulnerable to this kind of suggestion. Lakoff suggests that one of the best antidotes to it is self-knowledge, some understanding of how our thoughts and beliefs have been shaped in the past. He adds that we can often resist entering into the negative obsessions of the media by consciously seeking a more positive note in our discourse with others.
He uses the example of a person who is afraid to spend a holiday with an uncle who holds opposing political beliefs, a scenario that many families faced over the recent Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Lakoff notes that the anxiety and stress about such an anticipated reunion is most likely based on the assumption that discussion will center on the points of disagreement which are loaded with emotion and volatility. He suggests that what would be much more fruitful than confronting the uncle would be to ask him about what accomplishments he has found most gratifying in his life and to establish common ground on shared values. This begins the discourse with a mutual positive framing. Indeed, Lakoff suggests that this is the way all fruitful discourse should begin.
What has been missing in the chaos of the current political scene is positive, civil discourse. One sees very little of it in the media, or even among the political leaders of the country. That is troubling to say the least, but we do ourselves no favors when we mirror this in our own behavior. Inflammatory statements on Twitter or Facebook do not serve us well. They do not further our attempt to find sanity and balance in the midst of what seems at times too much like an insane world.
So what can we do? One thing we can do is to spend less time watching depressive, manipulative news or sharing horror stories on social media. Being informed does not require being obsessed with the news, as many of us may be these days. Such an obsession tends to make us depressed and anxious, which does not make us more productive and effective human beings. We need to spend adequate time on activities that nourish our souls: exercise, reading, music, mindful spiritual practices. These things help keep us sane and balanced.
We also need to look inward. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung felt strongly that self-knowledge is the only effective antidote to projecting our own weaknesses onto those with whom we disagree. If we are to enter into helpful civil discourse with those whom we perceive as political adversaries, we need to become more aware of what we take into that discourse. We can easily get caught up in competitive one-upmanship and perfectionism that impedes our ability to relate honestly and productively. The psychoanalyst Winnicott, in speaking of parenting (which can be applied to all relationships) suggested that a healthy goal is not to achieve perfection, but rather a “good enough relationship.” (2)
Similarly, the writer Alain de Botten, who has written much about healthy relationships, suggests that the best place to begin in seeking close relationship with another and particularly those with whom we disagree is with the understanding that we are both scarred and damaged in different ways. “This is my craziness, what is yours?” If my goal is to change you, this will not work because it will be driven by ego rather than love. A relationship based on love is driven by a mutual desire to “teach each other how to become the best versions of ourselves.” (3) I find these to be wise words. They echo the teachings of Felix Adler, the founder of the Ethical Culture Movement, who taught that the ethical dictum which should govern all relationships is “elicit the best in others, thereby eliciting the best in ourselves.” (4)
To achieve such goals, particularly in difficult times, requires a high degree of self-knowledge. Such knowledge can come from introspection, from psychotherapy, from spiritual practice. One practice that I have found particularly helpful both for myself and those with whom I work is meditation. Meditation as a daily practice helps to clear the mind of external noise and disturbing thoughts. It helps us to become more in touch with our spiritual center which has the potential to help us see our common humanity with others – what unites us rather than what divides us.
Looking inward should not be seen as a way of avoiding life and the real world. There are real social, political and ethical issues which affect all of us and which we need to take very seriously, particularly now in the political climate in which we find ourselves. The purpose of becoming centered and self-aware is not to escape the world, but rather to become better equipped to play an effective and productive role as agents of change, free of the distortions of our destructive projections. Action based on self-knowledge and not just on external cues can help us better to achieve balance as we face the challenges posed by the chaotic times in which we are living.
(1) George Lakoff on the Travis Smiley Show, PBS, 2/07/17. pbs.org/video/2365951602/
(2) Quoted by Alain de Botton on the Krista Tippitt Show, Public Radio, 2/09/17 org/programs/alain-de-botton-the-true-hard-work-of-love-and-relatioships/
(4) Jane Johnson Lewis. “What Did Felix Adler Really Say?” Ethical Platform, NewYork Society for Ethical Culture, February 2009: ethical platform.net/leaders/tag/felix-adler/