Joe Biden is President. Kamala Harris is a historic Vice President. A 22-year-old poet stole all our hearts, and she referenced Micah and vines and fig trees like I did a couple weeks ago! When I grow up can I be her, please? Executive orders are being signed, an impeachment trial is being planned, all Americans are being asked to wear masks… and half the country is jumping up and down with glee, while another large proportion feels like the world is crumbling around them. Biden kept talking of unity in his inaugural address and meanwhile most of us have no idea how that is possible or if we even want it. What are we to do?
In my sermon I gave this past Sunday, I talked about two different kinds of justice: a fear-based justice and a love-based justice. I contrasted visions of a world that come from fear vs one of love. The insurrectionists at the Capitol (which I wrote about here), as angry as they were and as angry as they made most of us, were operating out of fear.
We (and by “we” I mean… mainstream media followers, I guess) talk about them in terms of trying to destroy democracy to keep their people in power. I believe that is true. But I also believe that a great majority of them had deceived themselves – and were deliberately deceived by leaders who 100% knew better – to believe the Big Lie. They thought the election was stolen, they thought their rights were about to be snatched up, and they were afraid. The world got divided into sharp good / evil; right / wrong; safe / dangerous dichotomies. Of course the people are afraid.
Something I tell my counseling clients when we’re struggling to work through difficult feelings about someone who has hurt them is this: Can we find the place in you that understands how that other person feels?
I’ll go first (and no, I definitely do not tell my clients this. If they find my blog, that’s on them). Over the last, oh, four years, when someone brings up politics (which these days, is nearly everything since the ‘Rona has been so politicized), my brain’s fear and stress response system (my amygdala) gets completely hijacked. Including in counseling sessions. What this looks like in me is that my face flushes, my heartbeat gets rapid, I start to sweat, and it feels like mild panic. It can also feel like anger. As a therapist, my job is not to persuade anyone about my beliefs or try to change theirs, so you’d think this should be a much more innocuous event. But my body reacts as if it is literally in danger*.
Okay. Okay. I think I found the feeling – the feeling of fear, and in its extreme version, abject terror – rational or not. Am I able to imagine that this is how their bodies feel? To have compassion for the sense of terror and fear that hijacks the brain?
I think it can be assumed that ideologies of love are better than ideologies of fear, but as my example just demonstrated, we all exist with ideologies of fear to some extent. But how much can we choose love?
As my husband and I watched the inauguration festivities Wednesday night, for me it brought feelings of patriotism, joy, pride, hope, and excitement. I loved seeing the celebration of diverse people and music. I thought back fondly to an Asian-American supervisor in Boston, my beloved chaplaincy supervisor of Puerto Rican descent in Indiana and his beautiful Spanish accent, and the nurturing African-American women from seminary who took me under their wings and called me Sister. I remember the Mexican and Central American kids I’ve worked with through the years and how endearing and enduring they are, and the swell of optimism I feel about a new immigration plan being proposed. I think of my Nicaraguense familia who took such good care of me when I spent a summer down there.
My amygdala is calm; my limbic [emotional] system is sending my body signals that all is well.
But I can imagine how “the other side” feels. I don’t agree with how they perceive they are threatened, but I can imagine the emotions. I remember how my body feels when it is terrified, even if it’s of the exact opposite thing they are afraid of.
Within the Christian tradition, in my sermon, I called upon the notion of biblical justice – or God’s justice, or love-based justice – to progress us forward. It is a justice that seeks the well-being of all, especially the lowly and downtrodden and oppressed. It trusts that there is enough love and goodness and justice for everyone. It is one thing to say; it is another totally to live out. But we must try.
First priority for me is striving for justice for the oppressed. This will always get priority. But on a more personal level, another incredibly important task – especially here in Trump / Jim Jordan county – is extending love and compassion to those with whom I have deep ideological differences. It’s a little easier now that I can tell my hijacked amygdala it’s safe, for now at least. The fear in me can understand the fear in them, which creates a little bit of room for empathy and compassion. I want to be clear: compassion does not mean lack of accountability, and it does not mean compromising with lies. It does not mean we strive any slower towards the good and just. But it does mean to stop hating.
We’re being called toward unity, and even though it still feels impossible, I think I know where I need to start. An ideology of love leaves no room for hate.
*I will save for another post how we need to help our bodies process the trauma of the pandemic, and for many of us the trauma of the last four years.