Healing from the Polarization Pandemic

Just about everyone I talk to these days agrees on one thing: our communities and societies have never felt more divided. Whether it’s Democrats vs. Republicans, Liberals vs. Conservatives, people for and against vaccine mandates, opposing camps on racial justice or immigration policies, factions within religious and spiritual communities, or the debate on international responses to climate change, there is a pervading experience – a pandemic – of polarization across globe.

Polarization is not an inevitable outcome of conflict. It is a condition that sets in when our differences are left untended and unexplored. When we are polarized from others, it is because we have allowed a narrative to seep into our consciousness that says:

  • There is an “us” and a “them.”
  • “They” are lesser in goodness, intelligence, or humanity.
  • “We” must ensure that “they” are stopped from ruining everything.

The drivers of polarization are manyfold, including a complex layering of political and economic interests playing out through conventional and social media. So, let’s start by acknowledging that, while we all make choices about the way we show up in relationship to others, we do so within conditions that are not of our choosing.

Is polarization a bad thing? Like all human behavior, polarization surely serves an adaptive purpose. I know from experience that it feels good to be right, and it feels even better to belong to a group who agrees with me and will fight for beliefs that I hold dear. Our insider status goes like a magical elixir straight into our nervous system, resolving (for a moment at least) our more ancient question: Do I belong?

But we have all seen the ways in which polarization is also deeply maladaptive. Accordingly, healing from polarization seems to begin with a choice. Is it enough for us to be right and be affirmed in this righteousness by those within our social sphere? Or do we sense a greater promise in a more expansive kind of belonging?

If the choice is the former, the rest of this post will likely be uninteresting. If it is the latter, then let us sit for a moment and reflect. What does it take, on a psychological, emotional and spiritual level, to heal from polarization?  Put another way, how do we cultivate what the author and activist Valarie Kaur refers to as “Revolutionary Love?”

When we train mediators and restorative justice facilitators – those whose job and daily practice it is to stand in a place beyond polarization – we have long come to realize that teaching skills is not enough, but that the work must take hold at a core level within the individual. We invite them – and now you the reader – to reflect on four “core capacities” which together form a vehicle for navigating beyond polarization.

  1. Radical Curiosity: As the poet David Whyte wrote, “the first courageous step may be firmly into complete bewilderment and a fine state of not knowing.” Radical curiosity is an invitation to “reboot” ourselves into unknowing. We can aspire toward an authentic desire to know and understand the heart, mind, experience, and needs of the other. This requires an emptying of pre-conceptions about the other’s intentions and needs.
  2. Unconditional Positive Regard: We are invited to witness and uphold the inherent value of all people, and the validity of their expressed needs.  We are guided by a belief that even harmful and destructive expressions are often rooted in fundamentally positive needs and values (safety, justice, fairness, respect, etc). And through compassion, we may accompany others in exploring and expressing such needs and values in new ways.
  3. Committed Self-Awareness: We can commit to an exploration of the self; to a deep dive into intentions, implicit-bias, and, internal motivations. We may aspire to: active exploration, self-acknowledgement, and commitment to overcoming implicit-biases; understanding internal triggers and practice skills to overcome them; own our personal experience and reactions to others; and, express impacts without blaming or judging others.
  4. Presence: As blogger Kate Pabst has written, “our steadiness allows our companion to lean into us for support, as our presence provides an environment in which they can be free to move.” Her words invite us to consider the person who opposes our views as a companion. And the steadiness she speaks of is not the same as immovability. Rather, it is a quieting of internal chatter, a state of enhanced awareness and connectedness where authenticity is possible.

Speaking in the United States context, Valarie Kaur opens her book “See No Stranger” by describing a talk she gave to a group of religious leaders in Washington DC in 2016, during a time of great political uncertainty and polarization. “The future is dark,” she began:

“But what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind us now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ear, ‘You are brave’? What if this is our nation’s greatest transition? What does the midwife tell us to do?

Breathe! And then? Push!

Embarking on the personal work of healing from polarization is just the beginning of the kinds of collective transformation our communities and societies may be laboring for. But it is the critical first step which may prove to free us from this pandemic of polarization and birth something new…

Whether your initiative is large or small, urgent or strategic – we are ready support you.

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