Healing the Division: It’s Time to Listen

There is no denying that polarization is taking place within the United States. People are at each other’s throats daily. With misinformation, disinformation, alternate realities and all the divergent points of views we can’t seem to agree on anything. We have forgotten how to be civil with one another, how to talk to one another and, most importantly, how to listen to one another. Our perceptions are warped by the beliefs we have taken on and we chose to see the world only through that prism. What we need to do is to see what is happening through a different lens that can help unite us instead of dividing us.

The political discourse has become so toxic that it is not just seen on Capitol Hill or on television. It is seen in all our daily lives, within our communities, with family members who do not talk to each other anymore, with neighbors who stopped meeting up for dinner, or parents who no longer let their kids play with other kids. This is something that I am sure many of you have experienced to some degree, possibly within your family or neighborhood, or with a work colleague. It is something which is replicated right across the United States and it is difficult to see a way back. 

For a community to survive and thrive it cannot be in the stranglehold of this adversarial dynamic which leads to constant bickering and fighting and, in some cases, violence. A community needs to have the collective strength and a real willingness if it wants to change the tide and heal the rift that divides us. A political forgiveness process can be a powerful mechanism to do this by initiating a true dialogue which can foster a change in our thinking and if need be, lead us down a path of forgiveness. Unfortunately, what has been taking place within the United States, and in many countries around the world, is rhetoric being shouted out on either side of the divide with people not listening to each other nor respecting one another. 

In what seems like a lifetime ago, people may not have agreed with one another but they respected each other enough to listen, to still be friends outside of the issue or politics, be able to live side by side and to have constructive discussions and engagements. It is the case now in the environment in which we find ourselves that people have become so disrespectful, dismiss the opinions of others, and only see the issue and politics and not past it.  For a community to work together, as they have done in the past, there needs to be a coalescence around a common ground and an ability to see people for more than their political affiliation or their political background. For people to come together, they need to talk to one another with an open mind, discuss their viewpoints, forgive and move forward constructively. We do not always have to agree, or even like another’s opinion, but we have to respect the person and seek to rise above the hatred.

What do we do next? Where do we go from here? This is where engaging in a political forgiveness process becomes important. We need to decide to come together with a willingness to listen and to understand one another’s ‘truths’. This requires a commitment to engage in a conversation from the standpoint of respecting each other, remembering that you can disagree with someone who has different views from your own but you can still respect the person. When we can show respect to others it is easier for them to then show respect back. It is not about relegating people to being a democrat or a republican, or if they voted for Trump or didn’t vote for Trump. People are more than that and it is time we recognize that. If we only focus on different points of views, we are only focusing on a very small part of who a person is. Can you remember a time prior to the last six or so years where people would walk around town saying, “I’m a Republican” or “I voted for this guy” and seek to antagonize others? This is the kind of behavior which has led to the polarization we are now experiencing. We are all more than the party we vote for or some beliefs which we hold. We always have been and we need to start recognizing this again.

How can we have constructive dialogue? We need to begin by giving people the space to share their story as to why they believe what they believe, what’s behind this belief, and to especially discuss fears and anxieties around it. Empathy and listening is important here realizing that beneath all our points of view is an element of fear. There has been too much talking and not enough listening. If all you do is talk, talk, talk and not actually listen to the other side you are not getting an understanding of their opinions and why they believe what they believe. We need to understand not only what has happened in people’s lives that has informed their worldview but we need to understand the meaning people have given to the events which have left an impact. Dialogue is the way forward and the way through to people. As a result of focusing on talking and not on listening, you narrow the possibility of understanding the viewpoints that you are hearing. When you hear someone’s story and what is significant for them then it is also important to talk about how to overcome what has happened and how to stop the animosity people feel towards one another, including the violence that may also be taking place. We need to discuss in a healing capacity how we can overcome polarization and deal with our differences and why we see situations so differently. These are the kinds of questions a political forgiveness process focuses on when holding a dialogue.

It is important to recognize that we all have a role to play in this process and we all have a purpose whether it be in our own family, our neighborhood or in our community. Wherever it might be, all of us have a responsibility to move past this collective impasse that we are in now and move forward in a more constructive way. Changing mindsets becomes paramount. We need to look within first, question our own values, beliefs, and perceptions, and be committed to making our community a better place. If we don’t do this, what we are about to lose is what we hold dearest, our democracy. If we do not play our part and take responsibility for our actions there is only one direction of travel down the same path we are on, making it impossible to bridge the divide and harder to bring us back together. 

Political forgiveness is a powerful process. Engaging in the dialogue just described is a first step but learning how to forgive ourselves and one another is also part of the process which begins to build the foundation for a culture of peace. When we can heal ourselves and build understanding then we can develop healing mechanisms which not only can have a positive effect on our communities, but it can also support the healing of our nation as well. It is the hope that a political forgiveness process can bring which shines a light on a brighter future for all of us. Respect. Listen. Educate. Engage. 

The Truth About Thanksgiving

“For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie  — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

John F. Kennedy

Thanksgiving is a very special holiday in the United States, where loved ones gather for a festive meal in gratitude for their bounty. Thought to have begun in 1621, it is tradition now and is passed down from generation to generation. We all learnt about the Thanksgiving story as children. We were told how the Pilgrims and Indians sat down together to enjoy an epic feast as friends and a community. This story is more fairytale than fact however and it is something we must be cognizant of. Native Americans weren’t honored guests at this meal and were probably not even invited. A myth developed which downplayed the bloody conflicts and the injustices that occurred between the settlers and Native Americans which continued over the centuries which followed.

The myth took hold that a group of friendly Indians welcomed the Pilgrims to America. This unidentified group of Indians (who were actually Wampanoag Indians) taught the Pilgrims how to survive in this new land. Then the Indians gave America to the Pilgrim settlers so they could create a nation based on liberty, freedom, and Christianity. In other words, it was about the Native people conceding to colonialism. What this myth allowed for was essentially a whitewashing of history and allowed people to believe was that colonialism was bloodless and victimless, that it had nothing to do with the Indian Wars or slavery. Americans could feel good about their colonial past without confronting its deep darkness.

Why is it so important for us to understand what really happened? Can we not just leave the past in the past and not tarnish a holiday? What we don’t realize is this fairytale story which we have been told perpetuates a myth that still harms Native Americans today. It marginalized the truth of what really happened in North America. In the words of Raymond Foxworth, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, “we need to understand and acknowledge and share our true history”. He went on to say that “only by doing so can we start to move toward healing and reconciliation between Native people and European colonizers.” Are you and I to blame for what happened? No. However, as is every leader’s duty to apologize on behalf of a nation for the wrongs of the past, it is our duty to listen, take stock and seek to atone for what was done to these communities (Andersen, 2021).

Most of the Thanksgiving myths we have grown up with are not true, as David Silverman shares in his book “This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving”.  The first Thanksgiving which took place in 1621 was not a ‘Thanksgiving’ which was filled with gratitude and contemplation. It was a party including drinking, militia drills and target practice (The New Yorker, Philip Deloria, 2019). Nor did the Wampanoag Indians receive a warm welcome at this ‘Thanksgiving’ from the Pilgrim settlers. They came, not to partake in festive activities, but to help the Pilgrims hearing gun fire and assuming the Pilgrims were under attack.

Years went by with sporadic occasions celebrating Thanksgiving on and off and most were more solemn with a focus on fasting and prayer. Some Thanksgivings followed bloody victories over Native American people. The Thanksgiving which we know and celebrate today only came about two centuries later when, on October 3rd, 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November to be a national holiday. It was then that the myth of the Native American – Pilgrim feast took hold, and the Pilgrims of New England were seen to be the perfect image of what this nation would be founded on with the character of Americans centered on family, hard work, individualism, freedom, and faith (The New Yorker, Deloria, 2019).

So how does one confront a myth such as that of Thanksgiving? According to Silverman it begins by deconstructing the process through which it was made. In the case of Thanksgiving, this can focus on exposing the self-serving aspects of the story. In deconstructing myths Silverman cautions about the temptation to offer a counter-myth to suit current times but to tell a more honest story of what took place, albeit not a pretty picture. Many places around the world have held onto myths. The content may be different, but the form is the same. These myths when not questioned can lead to violence, mass murder, genocide, and even civil war. We have seen that myths have led to the Nazi holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. Some countries have been able to move beyond their myths by recognizing them, and to varying degrees, have been able to engage in emotional healing or reconciliation processes to move past them and deal with the reality of what had gone before. Holding onto myths or beliefs to the detriment of any progress is something that keeps us stuck in the past. Those too wedded to beliefs, myths, and the philosophies of the past or allegiances to political parties are blinded and unable to see the reality of what is going on in front of their very eyes. This is the real danger of holding on to myths. People remain in denial of reality and, as a result, we in the United States for example are in denial of the richness of our past and our diversity in this country.

Myth breaking is hard to do. It requires the questioning of our ‘stories’ that uphold the traditional social order, making the heroes less than heroes and acknowledging the complexities of what it means to be human. This challenge is difficult to face. People will feel uncomfortable but if deep healing is to take place this is the path we must take. Myths should not be held sacred, our values should be however. This Thanksgiving, let us celebrate with family, friends, and loved ones but let us do so by acknowledging the hurt of the past and where it all began. It is our choice now and our responsibility to atone for what was done to our native people. It will be hard but let us at least try.

Are Americans Ready for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

South Africa had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help the country heal from the wounds of apartheid. Rwanda had a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission to help reconstruct Rwandan society and identity following a brutal chapter in its history. If we look even closer to home, Canada established a truth and reconciliation commission to address what occurred involving the Indian Residential School system. This was established to guide a process of truth and healing, leading toward reconciliation within Aboriginal families, and between Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal communities, churches, governments, and Canadians more generally. Today, in the United States there have been calls for some form of a reconciliation process over issues such as slavery, racial justice and more recently the attack on the capitol which took place on January 6th, 2021. Are Americans ready to face the truth of the past? Are people ready to embrace such a process?

Truth commissions are not new and all that have formed are unique to the situation they have been established to address. Initially, there needs to be a consensus that a truth commission is required and then a consensus on what the issues are that need to be addressed. This initial requirement is often where the best laid plans fall apart. The problem in the United States is that there is no consensus, even for the need of a truth commission, let alone what the issues are that need to be addressed. We do not know what reconciliation would look like in a country facing so many challenges, especially since the country is so polarized.

Healing is necessary in this country. It couldn’t be more apparent after what we witnessed on January 6th, 2021. Recent years have seen growing polarization across the United States, people seeing those with different viewpoints as “the other” and lesser than those with whom they agree. Even if people have a desire to come back together, how do we begin the conversation about what really divides us? It is complicated. There has been so much fear and distrust on both sides of the divide. Each party is afraid that the other will gain more power and sees the other side as an existential threat coming. This is not a healthy democracy. We need to lessen this fear and get to the truth, everyone’s truth, and understand what really happened on January 6th, 2021, and why it happened.

Danielle Allen wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post on January 21st, 2021, and spoke about “The four kinds of truth America needs to pursue for reconciliation”. Allen, who is a candidate for Governor of Massachusetts, outlined the different stages of a reconciliation process in the US. It begins with forensic truth, getting the facts and holding people accountable for their actions. This is what takes place in the courts and involves eyewitness accounts of what has happened while developing an historical record of what took place. To move forward we must first determine the full facts of what happened and hold those responsible accountable for their actions.

Next comes the personal ‘truths’ where people share their stories, their personal truth. The United States began this process when the Capitol Police officers were testifying in front of Congress, explaining what they encountered and were subjected to. The officers outlined the cruelty and brutality of the day, the violence they experienced and the abuse they endured.  It is important we all carefully listen to these stories without judgment or prejudice if we want to ever make sense of what happened that day. We must bring these personal truths to the table to truly understand. The personal truths that were on display on January 6th demonstrated how far apart people’s beliefs really were. People on the left saw Confederate flags and a white supremacist insurrection. People on the right saw participants as embodying the spirit of 1776 in a morally legitimate uprising. (Danielle Allen, The Washington Post, January 21, 2021.) These chants of 1776 go back to the tea party movement in 2009.

There clearly has been discontent within the United States, within communities, and even within families. Yes, there have been extremists in charge and conspiracy theorists have been given license to perpetuate their mistruths in the mainstream but there has also been some ‘truth’ which has affected conservative ways of life. We must understand the different societal world views, why they developed the way they did, the validity of these world views and the needs that are represented by these world views. Why else do so many people feel that they have lost control over their lives? The point is that understanding where people are coming from gives us an opening to pursue a shared social truth. We need to listen and understand to begin to discuss and move forward. We need to understand what caused people to align with certain worldviews. We need to hear different perspectives which are seeded by these ‘truths’. It helps us begin to sort through all the noise so a social truth can be constructed which can empower people and embrace our diversity.

Allen, in her opinion piece, also spoke of restorative truth. What kind of policies and institutions do we want to have in place that support who we want to be as a people? Some in our communities have felt disenfranchised. We need to have economic policies which reflect the needs of every American, to empower them, and this includes having the ability to access good jobs and work flexibility which can restore dignity to one’s life.

What Allen touches on, and what my work focuses on is a political forgiveness process. This is a process which involves people coming together in safe places, telling their stories knowing that people are really listening. It is about reweaving the fabric of our society in such a way that brings a community back together, where everyone is empowered and embraced. The process restores dignity by seeking structural changes to take place in policies and institutions that can allow society to move forward, as one people and one community.

This is not an easy process. It is time consuming, requires real commitment and leadership and an honest desire to move forward. If we want to do the deep healing which is necessary to set the stage for a reconciliation process to take hold then this is the task at hand. We must approach it with an open mind and a genuine will to make things better. The bottom line is that it is important all Americans need to feel empowered and included in our multicultural society. Yes, this is difficult but we can do it. We need to have a strong desire and will but if we truly want to have a great country this is the path we need to take. This is the path towards healing and reconciliation. This is the path to repair the divide, to bring communities and families back together. We must act now as we have no time to waste.