A house divided against itself cannot stand. —Abraham Lincoln
We live in the most divisive of times. Political parties hardly talk to each other. Sports teams are divided between the winners and losers. People can lose entire careers for an incorrect political opinion. Too many of us are alienated from each other: Rich and poor, city and rural people, Liberal and Conservatives, Pro-choice and Pro-life believers, white people versus people of color, men versus women, church goers versus atheists, and the list goes on and on. It’s like none of us can get along with each other and there seems little room for compromise, forgiveness, compassion or commonality.
Some of us don’t see ourselves as divisive. We may be rather smug. We’re so sure of ourselves and “in-the-know” that we cannot imagine another reality besides the one we know. We may become indignant and self-righteous in our positions and insist on apologies from people we differ with. In the worst cases, we resort to self-justified haranguing or violence to assert what we believe. The reality is that all of these divides we see outside of ourselves already exist inside of ourselves and what we hate in others is also what we dislike in ourselves. When we are crying out against injustice in others, we may be quite blind to the injustice in ourselves. When we despise prejudice, we may turn a blind eye to our own. In fact, the enemy we see in others already exists inside each and every one of us. Living a divided life, whether from others or ourselves, is not sustainable. It cannot stand.
The most important human need is the need to belong, even to people we disagree with. It is not enough to belong to the group of people who think like us. In fact, we don’t have all the answers and we need to be challenged by people who don’t think like us. Let us have the wisdom to need each other and integrate the broken halves inside of ourselves and between ourselves and others. This can be done on a personal level even when the battles of divisiveness rage outside of us. Divisiveness is a choice, not an inevitability. Each of us can learn to appreciate the complexities of life and to learn to “live and let live.” We are all not that much different from each other, no matter how much we differ from each other. We need each other way more than we already know.
Hatred is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die.
What is divisiveness?
Divisiveness is the quality within and between people that creates hurtful separation from others through prejudice, polarization or hatred. It is sometimes unconsciously used as a power tactic by people in power in a “divide and conquer strategy.” Often such people are reluctant to get emotionally close and get other people to fight one other. Any of us can have our moments when we become divisive with others even when we are generally peace-loving. If you can allow me to show my vulnerability to you, I will give you examples from my own life to illustrate the point of this article, how one can learn from personal shortcomings.
I am not that proud of this story, but I am very glad it happened because I grew from it. I like to think of myself as an open-minded person who accepts people of all races. Actually, I am quite liberal.
So, I wound up joining an athletic club in a predominantly African American neighborhood because it offered complete gym services for $30 per year due to a grant from the city. It was a great deal! Since I grew up in a largely black neighborhood in my early childhood, I never thought of it as a big deal to be the only white person in an athletic club with mostly black people. I just didn’t see myself as racist in any way. Was I in for a surprise! As soon as I went down to the club I noticed a certain tension in me. I started checking on my car in the parking lot several times a day to see if I had been robbed. I always left things locked in my locker. I was actually quite suspicious of the desk people to see if they would accept me. I stood out like a sore thumb!
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skins but by the content of their character. —Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963
Well I put a stop to that as I didn’t want to be separate. Just the opposite happened. I decided to risk getting to know the people of color at the club. I chose to reexamine my own attitudes and not get polarized. I took a wait-and-see approach. Actually, my fears and prejudice were transformed into affection for people at the club. My car was never disturbed. I never had anything stolen from me and the people at the desk were so incredibly welcoming. This happened over and over. In general, we overcome prejudice by making personal connections. My initial fears of being robbed seemed rather foolish. My wife asked me if I would react this way at our all white club in our upscale neighborhood. I answered her with, “I guess not.” She told me that African American people are used to being around white people all the time, so I didn’t really need to be uncomfortable. Actually, I found that many of the black people at the gym were way more friendly and humorous than the people in our predominantly white status-conscious neighborhood. I was often personally touched by their kindness. I never checked my car again. Over time I became so relaxed that I loved going to this club and made many good friends, most of whom were black, some of whom I continue to see today. I’m sure my attitude made me more appealing to people I met.
Now I wouldn’t be so embarrassed to tell you this story if I had originally focused on real crime in the neighborhood. Instead I focused on race and I mentally assigned imagined danger to people of color. When I was a child I lived in a crime-ridden neighborhood where having eyes in the back of your head made sense. However, I carried those irrational fears into my current adult life. I certainly understand better when people say that racism is a major issue in today’s world and that we are not over it as a society. My fears actually melted when I over and over again found people of color generally to be kind, welcoming and honest. At the core we are very much alike. I began realizing that people of color would not necessarily have the same experience if they were surrounded by all white people. We have a long way to go for true racial justice. It starts with ourselves and our attitudes.
Some of us get separated by income inequality as the following story illustrates.
I grew up in a poor working-class neighborhood with a strong work ethic. Everything you owned was not handed to you. You had to work to earn it. To fit in you never wanted to show off what you owned; you just owned it. These same blue-collar attitudes operate in me today. I drive a 20-year-old Toyota sedan and dress casually. I think of myself as grateful for having had humble beginnings. So, you can imagine my reaction to seeing this suave businessman with blond hair in a tailored suit stroll into a local coffee shop after coming out of his beautiful blue Maserati. He looked like an image from the magazine GQ. So, I went up to him, asked his name, and then pressed him, “So what are you? Some kind of lawyer or something?” He smiled at me and said “No. I own my own accounting business.” He asked my name and we were off to a good start. I asked about his car. He told me he had three other cars like his Maserati, lived in several mansions all over the world and employed over two hundred people in a major accounting firm. I became jealous and judgmental. Clearly, he represented the image I wish I had of myself. So, I said, “Life can be hard at times.” He laughed again and we initiated a good connection with each other. I told him I worked as a psychotherapist and helped people with problems. Over time he went into a painful melodrama about his new girlfriend and I said it sounded difficult. We met for coffee fairly regularly, me in my sweats and my new friend in his tailored suits. He told me about his working-class upbringing and about how hard he worked for all his money. Often, he would be rudely approached by several people at this working-class coffee shop who might say, “Who do you think you are?! It’s exactly people like you who are ruining this world.” My friend mostly stayed quiet but sometimes got into it with people. He would say, “You really don’t even know me!”
Well indeed I didn’t even know him either. I had many judgments of my own about wealthy people that were quite prejudiced. So, I decided to change things and get close to a rich person who originally turned me off. I questioned my own preconceptions towards this wealthy man. I asked him many questions about himself and found out that, quite contrary to his public persona, my friend was quite a deep and generous person. I found out that he gave millions of dollars to youth program in the Twin Cities and mentored many young people in their work lives. His acumen as a businessman gave him “a lot of smarts” when understanding the national news. He continued employing more people in his firm. He was interesting and entertaining to listen to and had a vast appreciation of what it takes for people to go from a rags-to-riches story because that’s what he had done in his own life. My buddy frequently invited me to see his mansions and have dinner at his amazing houses. I was never overly impressed by his lifestyle but I did get personally moved by just how much he really cared for others and how well he treated his employees. He reminded me many times that wealthy people in his gated community often have the same good character he has and are not like the stereotyped rich person. He and I continue to be good friends, he in his designer suits and me in my sweats. I treat him like a regular Joe, and he shares his acumen with me. I am so glad I decided to not let my envy divide us.
We have met the enemy and it is us. —Pogo in Winnie the Pooh
Building bridges with people we dislike can often seem impossible, makes us very uncomfortable and totally turn us off at times. That’s exactly why we ought to do it! As long as it is safe to do so, getting to know people different from yourself may help you discover hidden, darker sides of yourself and may reap many awesome rewards. You may find that many personal fears are ungrounded, that there is a hidden, more hopeful, side of life beyond what you already know, and that you yourself are capable of healing wounded, hidden parts in yourself. You may feel much less alone in a troubled world. So, let us take the risks to get to know people who are difficult for us to know and see where life take us. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Prejudice is the disowning of our own inadequacies by assigning them to others.
Remember that opening ourselves up to people who are different from us doesn’t mean we have to agree with them or do as they do. We simply need to listen to who they are and see what we have in common with them. For many of us, we certainly can be secure enough with ourselves to do so. In fact, if we make friends with people we dislike we may develop a whole new level of peace and confidence we never knew we had. So, let’s get curious, not judgmental. The following story illustrates what I mean.
My wife and I were on a bus trip through a local travel agency in the Twin Cities. Several miracles happened on this trip. Our group was required to meet up with a smaller group of people from the back wood hills of Tennessee. We were all off to the mountains of Colorado. At first, I couldn’t imagine hanging out with some hill people from Tennessee. After all what we would we talk about? What would we have in common with a bunch of hillbillies who were likely Bible thumpers and Trump supporters? I had stereotyped people I didn’t even know.
So, we met the hill people and the first thing I noticed is that I couldn’t understand their language with all the twangs and colloquialisms from their area. I didn’t want to be alienated from them and decided to get to know these folks and used humor to make a bridge with them. I said, “So what kind of English are you guys using?” They obviously understood each other and laughed at my confusion. As they began apologizing for their language I said, “No, no don’t apologize. It’s a beautiful dialect you’re speaking. Please explain what you’re saying and teach us how to say things.” They laughed again and apologized for not being educated like us. They taught us all to say “Looville” instead of “Louisville” and “Crick” instead of “Creek” and a whole slew of other words in their dialect. Clearly a certain healing was occurring as we bonded with these hill folks from Tennessee, whose language we still couldn’t understand but very much admired. Actually, we were communicating to each other beyond words.
Truly our group of “educated” folks cuddled up to this Tennessee group. We found out that practical knowledge and know-how was way more important to them than a formal education. Many of these folks lived in the hills and had at best a high-school education. They helped each other out all the time, running each other’s farms when one of them was disabled, getting together for blue grass playing on their porches and fixing each other’s plumbing, heating and medical problems. They, despite being Bible thumpers, were extremely moral. Despite voting for President Trump, they hated his morals and only liked him because he told them they were important. Much of their region was politically and socially neglected and Trump made them feel they were worth something. They were not sure they would continue tolerating his behaviors for the next election. What they disliked about Minnesota was how everybody, in their eyes, was looking for a handout. In their area each person took care of their own business. They didn’t like “free loaders.”
Just as were having this discussion, an ironic event happened. Our bus, in the mountains of Colorado, broke down. I turned to my wife and said, “Oh we better call AAA!” All of the Tennessee folks burst out laughing. They said, “It will take hours for AAA!” and then they asked where the tool box was kept on the bus. Several of the older gents found the tool box, replaced two broken belts, and had the bus on its way in 30 minutes! “That’s just how we do things back home” they said. I was way impressed by the brilliance, good-heartedness and amazing sense of humor of these folks. They, on the other hand, realized we could be down-to-earth too and “real.” At the end of the trip the highlight was having them invite us all for a wild boar hunt in their neck of the woods. Actually, the best part of our Colorado trip was hanging out with these Tennessee folks. I didn’t even need to see the scenery of Colorado. The Tennessee folks were the whole trip for me!
When the discord within us dies, we are never alone.
When love overcomes fear in us, there is hope
And we become one.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.