Resisting Polarization and Encouraging Compassion

Double rainbow and seagulls over Niagara Falls, with onlookers

We humans like to place people into buckets: good and bad, left and right, us and them. This seems to be an age-old tendency, and it isn’t all that surprising that the rise of social media and the proliferation of news and opinion platforms have allowed our divisions to become more entrenched and more apparent. We can choose to read and listen to only those sources that affirm what we already feel and believe, and we can respond to those who disagree while protected by a screen that keeps us from seeing and experiencing their humanity, their emotional reactions.  Our quickly typed words can be amplified through shares and retweets, carried far beyond the small circles that might once have heard them.

Many, many people have written about the heightened state of polarization in which we live these days, lamenting how destructive it is and postulating about what led to this environment.  It is distressing and disheartening.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We can’t control the words and behavior of others.  That is why online trolls can be so frustrating.  We can, however, control our own words and behavior.  We can manage our inputs — the ideas, information, and conversations to which we expose ourselves — with the understanding that our thoughts and moods are heavily influenced by what we feed our minds.  We can make a conscious effort to introduce ourselves to different points of view with the intention of understanding rather than debating.  We can notice and question our own reactions:  My heart is beating faster as I engage in this comment war.  Why did that statement make me angry? Is this how I want to feel today? Is this interaction truly important to me?

In addition, we can — and I think we must — work harder to develop compassion for one another.  Yes, compassion can be nurtured within ourselves, even toward someone with whom we feel greatly at odds.  The next time you feel disgusted with another person, try to dig a little deeper.  What might this person have experienced in life that led them to hold that belief, to act that way?  What can you learn from this person?

The practice of loving-kindness meditation involves intentionally directing well-wishes to difficult people.  Picturing a difficult person you know and then sending them kind thoughts can be quite challenging.  It can be learned, though, and doing it often enough can dramatically change your mindset.  In a recent podcast interview, loving-kindness guru and evangelist Sharon Salzberg offered some advice for viewing our enemies more compassionately:  try picturing them as helpless infants, or as they are dying.  We are all born helpless, and we will all ultimately succumb to death.  Surely we can at least extend love to each other in those circumstances — love that can then expand to the whole person.

We can also be more mindful of the conversations in which we take part.  You don’t have to participate in the gossip or the judgmental rhetoric.  You can question the assumptions verbalized by those around you.  If that feels too uncomfortable, you can change the subject.  Or you can simply walk away.

Thank you, friend, for reading this post, for listening to my thoughts.  I am grateful for you, even if we don’t see eye to eye.  May you be well, safe, happy, and loved.

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