“I notice in your writing about politics, that you don’t take sides. You don’t seem to judge others. How do you do that?”
I was asked this question by a reader of my new book, “Tilt: Seeking Balance in Troubled Times”. It is a book of stories exploring the pandemic year of 2020.
The predominance of social media has caused a torrential rain of access from all sides of the political spectrum and fanned the flames of hostility between groups. The USA has been grappling with monitoring “hate speech” on one side and “cancel culture” on the other side. There is a sea change in society, as many academic, professional and corporate entities are making political statements and mobilizing from their political stance. Christian churches are wading deep into politics, and fighting over who Jesus would be more like, the left-wing socialists or the right-wing patriots. Some Christians see the devil as helping or controlling the perceived enemy.
I read an article about how therapists should act in this time of political hostility in the US. The author feels she has a responsibility toward activism and a responsibility toward sensitivity, especially of systemic racism. However, in her practice, the author only deals with people on the same side of the political fence that she is on. What about dealing with people on the other side of the spectrum? Political extremism can make listening difficult. We are often not interested in entertaining a forum with those we disagree with so vehemently. The decision on how active to be politically is a central question for many of us. What is my stance?
It isn’t that I do not have a political viewpoint. I do, and I contribute to causes that I support. It isn’t that I am not offended by injustice, I am. Maybe it is my temperament, as I am often drawn to look for balance between extremes. As a psychotherapist, I have spent forty years trying to understand everyone. As soon as someone expresses an extreme view, I may feel taken aback, but then my brain immediately wants to dig down below the surface and figure out why they think the way they do. If it is a client, I listen with empathy to pick up clues. I want to find out how the behavior or belief makes them feel seen or more secure in the world. What is one of these conspiracy theories and how does that affect the individual?
We watched a Q-Anon documentary, which showed the adamant attraction toward a seductive leader who pulled his followers in by using their fears and prejudices. One follower puffed up his chest with pride at having found a “home” in this group. “Q-drops” were intermittent directives from the mysterious leader. One Q-Anon belief is that their enemies are kidnapping and cannibalizing children. There is no data proving these claims. How does such a distorted belief hold sway for so many people? First, it mobilizes a need to protect one’s most innocent members of the tribe, children, from perceived danger. Next, people indulge, as they do in every war, in dehumanizing the enemy. Then, the more those untruths are reinforced (say by a constant Twitter feed), the more fear and outrage increases, and believers can ride an inner tube so far down the river of distortion that they break with reality.
As a therapist, it is my job to follow that inner tube whether it is on the right or left bank of the river, and to explore the fears and comforts it brings to the believer. If the person is suffering, we untangle the knots until they feel better balanced. As a citizen, I get to decide what level of political involvement to indulge in. And so do you. As Frodo told Gandalf when they were lost in the dark mines of Moria, “I wish none of this had happened.” Gandalf responds, “So do all who live to see such times; but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”