The Way Out of Divisiveness
Ideological warfare, the battle between the sexes, holy war, jihad. Language is fraught with vernacular terms to describe conflict, ever on the tip of our collective tongues. The sheer familiarity with these terms and their availability suggest one thing: conflict is a given in life. Adversity and strife seem to be inherent in the human condition. Though many of us are uncomfortable with conflict, clearly it has its value. Evolutionary theorists posit that every behavior, convention or institution that persists over time in society benefits the propagation of the species in some way. It’s well known that humans grow, evolve and transform solely through crisis. In life and storytelling (from mythology through religion to literature and cinema) conflict resolution is the means by which thematic content (or message) is delivered. The protagonist, the goals of whom are precisely what we are invested in, resolves his or her conflict, prompting the listener, reader or viewer to resolve cognitive dissonance, to synthesize seemingly opposing thought forms, and thereby arrive in new territory. To transform.
In my own life, having grown up in a rather chaotic environment, I grew comfortable with conflict. I may have even developed the peptide addiction that led me to seek it subconsciously, the way an alcoholic and an enabler or an abuser and a victim with find one another across a crowded room at a cocktail party, like magnets. I never identified as a drama addict; quite the opposite. But I knew nothing other than low-level fear, so I found myself remaining in volatile or dysfunctional environments throughout life, long after others would have hit the highway. I simply didn’t have the tools to look out for myself. In my youth, perhaps as rationalization, I adopted Thomas Moore’s view that we must ‘embrace the shadow,’ and other heady ideas about the value of the yin to the yang in balance, the western compulsion to assign value judgments like good, bad, right or wrong to neutral events that simply are. All around me I saw passive-aggression among those uncomfortable with confrontation, and the damage that resulted from indirectness. Rather than going straight to the source of angst, most were apt to remain silent, then vent to (and ostensibly bond) with others about the perceived perpetrator. Everyone loves a common enemy. I pined for effective communication and directness with every breath. Flash forward thirty years, and I am just like everyone else on the conflict/confrontation front; I’d rather not, thank you.
But my policy on conflict is not based in avoidance. My view of it, at this stage of my life, is simply that it’s unnecessary. It’s been decades since I felt the need to utter the words ‘I disagree,’ ‘you’re wrong,’ or even the ever popular, ‘let’s agree to disagree.’ These phrases are the handiwork of mind and ego, and nothing else. In most cases, with a very slight shift of perspective, broad enough to shift semantics, most seeming contradictions can be reconciled. It’s more than the skill of ‘passing the talking stick;’ on the individual level and the societal, what’s missing is the ability to take a step back. To nurture a meta-self, a conscious observer that can step in for mind and ego.
In case the prospect seems daunting, let me digress. Throughout life, and even now, I have had trouble signing up for any personality profile that attempts to categorize the vast, complex amalgam of traits that comprise an individual—from type A or Type B, astrological sign and introvert versus extrovert, to any of those wacky Scientology types. You get the picture. A few weeks ago, at fifty-one, I was invited to fill out a questionnaire to determine which Enneagram profile I adhered to. It was for a friend whom I greatly admired, and I really was open and receptive, owing in no small part to her qualification: “It’s not cut and dried; each of us is a combination of all the types, just in different proportion, one being dominant.” Even so, I struggled with the questions, a very familiar sensation dating back to the ‘80s, when my friends and I would allow ourselves to be plucked off Hollywood Boulevard to be tested by Scientologists, having been mistakenly identified as young and impressionable. My dilemma was this: each question had an implicit inference with which I did not identify. Three of four qualities or tendencies one was asked to identify with was always lumped together with an incongruous, and often silly and distasteful trait only a Neanderthal would exhibit. More to the point, my mental reaction to most questions sounds a bit like this: (in the spirit of this article) when you ask, ‘are you comfortable with conflict?’ do you mean the twenty-two year old me or the thirty year-old me or the current model who rides a dinosaur and farts dust? Do you mean the temperament and disposition I was born with, that is arguably my essence, or what I’ve done with it along the way? Don’t we all evolve and transform? Aren’t all of the traits in this questionnaire universal and innate to the human condition and don’t they all resonate via the power of suggestion? Isn’t that shared reservoir of human experience what made Emile Bronte a great writer despite zero life experience and what makes Meryl Streep a three-time Academy Award winner?
At the risk of sounding elitist (I am well aware that ship has already sailed) the other overarching sentiment behind my resistance is the voice in my head that protests: Anyone who would identify with all four suggestions lumped together in this leading question clearly hasn’t an introspective bone in his or her body, nor have they been to therapy a day in their life. Aren’t these implicit characterizations base tendencies—primal, childish trappings that we grow out of?
I acknowledge that most of us do have a baseline temperament and disposition with which we are born. But it’s primarily physiological. Beyond that, both nature and nurture get their hands in the clay, crafting personalities comprised of hormonal and chemical components. Social conditioning and learning by example have their way, fixing world views and thought forms (familiar neural circuits) and paradigms. Peptide addictions seek to maintain homeostasis, the very reason we all see cycles in our lives, choosing the same type of partner (usually our mother or father) time and again. Those with a spiritual sense posit we repeat the same patterns because we are meant to conquer certain challenges in our redemption. Despite the above (potentially damning) forces at work: nothing is fixed. I cannot count the times I have heard the parroting of the declaration “Personality is fixed by the age of six, or seven, or (insert number of preference here) without a thought toward parsing what is meant by ‘personality.’
Neuroscience and studies in brain plasticity tell is in no uncertain terms that neural circuits—counterproductive thoughts (or ‘ruts’) can be disentangled at any time and replaced by new thought forms. Meditation, in many traditions, keeps the mind ‘clean’ in this way. Remaining intellectually curious and committing to the introduction of new and novel stimuli can keep dendrites moving and promote the formation of new neural circuits. These changes of scenery (literal and mental) can keep the pipes clean of the plaques that characterize Alzheimer's. Everyone who has ever lost a motor skill due to injury and had to relearn it knows the power of brain plasticity.
The very repetition of the notion that ‘personality is fixed by the age of___’ is an example of a limiting thought form counterproductive to an individual’s transformation, and by extension, that of mankind in his journey toward human potential. It is no different than the limiting thought form ‘aging equals deterioration of body and mind’ or ‘people are inherently selfish’ or ‘men are dogs.’ A child who is told time and again that she is clumsy, will inevitably never excel in figure skating. Once negative messaging is internalized, each one of us is destined manifest the words we put out into the universe.
The good news is this: modern studies in epigenetics are devoted to parsing the mechanics by which we craft our DNA within our own lifetimes—the very genetic makeup we will pass on to our children. Our choices, habits, lifestyles, conditions and yes—thought forms inform the methyl groups that squelch or suppress, conversely, every potential trait on the DNA strand to which we are predisposed. Among the many things that becomes encoded on DNA and passed on, according to a recent study, is the chemical makeup responsible for a tendency toward depression and even psychosis. In this way, the implications are enormous.
If individuals took the responsibility of actively co-creating the makeup to be passed on to their children, the macro would benefit by extension: the paradigms, thought forms, and—possibilities—of society would be limitless. At this seemingly insurmountable moment of strife, we are being called to evolve, as is always the way of conflict. We are being called to actively contribute to our evolution, both biological and moral.
What does all this have to do with divisiveness? With ideological warfare? Most of what divides us is an illusion—from the political divide to racial inequality to the fight for tolerance and marriage equality. From the civil unrest and complete upheaval of the Arab Spring and the Christian/Muslim standoff to the imaginary divide between science and faith, from backlash against the patriarchy and imperialism behind centuries of destruction to the dissolution of gender roles and the integration of left/right brain sensibilities, this is what evolution looks like. It is full of growing pains. There is solace in knowing all evolution and transformation is rooted in adversity. But I’d be willing to bet that if more exercised their relationship with perspective and shifted their subjective semantics, our differences might appear less glaring. We might recognize our interconnectedness and heed a calling to contribute to our evolution. In short, we might transform without having to reach the brink of extinction.
I have often said that ‘all good things come to an end,’ even democracy, which has never lasted too long. America was a great experiment, and it will be sad to see it go. But what must be must be. For that matter, humankind has had a pretty good run. The detachment is not defeatist: it’s called faith. In the universe’s ongoing dialectic, the intelligence behind the persistence of life ensures that the pendulum will swing as necessary toward that end. A recent documentary on climate change suggests that the Earth will be just fine, with or without man. In that way, many subscribe to the notion that ‘all is just as it should be.’ But I am not ready to give up on humankind as a (perhaps less destructive) inhabitant of planet Earth.
Before we kill each other off—whether by habitat destruction or global warfare or Zombie Apocalypse, I would hope the critical mass might rise to the challenge of the moment—that of swapping out paradigms. As Ghandi once entreated us, we must Be the change we wish to see in the world. Michael Jackson followed suit in his conviction that changing the world begins with The Man In the Mirror. It is my personal contention that the solitude and isolation demanded by Covid-19 is no mistake. That universal intelligence is, among other things, forcing many to confront the dark, cobwebby corners of their minds. With faith that this unpracticed introspection impacts the collective, I offer this final thought to chew on:
It may well be that we are evolving out of obsolete thought forms and paradigms that no longer serve us—institutionalized ideologies like patriarchy and Imperialism that have absolutely led to exploitation of resources, our fellow human, the planet itself. It’s entirely possible that these ideologies have birthed entitlement, capitalist greed, manifest destiny and other forms of shortsighted hubris. It’s pretty clear that the current impasse—the divisiveness and unrest and strife—is a call to transform. In the meantime, the younger generation who identify as the solution and see the older generation as the problem, need to remain civil around the dinner table at Thanksgiving lest someone carve more than the turkey. Whether or not the young truly have a monopoly on cutting edge thought form, I would urge them not to throw out the baby with the bathwater…to consider that one bad apple does not spoil the bunch. In this less-than-perfect mixed analogy, the bad apple of an archaic value that is the product of grandma’s generation, does not nullify the wisdom informing other aspects of her worldview. Put another way, one cannot argue with the perspective that comes with age and experience; certain universal conventional wisdoms do not retire, and we might be wise to preserve them. Revisionist history is not the way to go. The young do not know what they do not know. I would wish that we all come to appreciate the value of all of it—to say amen for all the forces at work in our ongoing dialectic—even the dissonance—and understand that all exists in concert, dovetailing for the greater good.
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