Finding a Path without Anxiety or Blame
Spiritual director and retreat leader Jack Shitama offers some alternatives to living in fear or casting blame on others as a new American presidential administration begins.
Here is the video transcript. Please remember that it will read like a conversation, not a term paper (maybe that’s a good thing).
Hey there, Jack Shitama. Today is January 21st 2017, the day after inauguration day. That means the Obama administration is over. No cheering. And that means the Trump administration has begun. No booing. And for the most part we’ve had a peaceful transition of power, something that’s a hallmark with our country.
I want to share with you that I love Barack Obama. I loved what he did and stood for as a president. I love his family. I love how he carried himself in the office and so I’m sad to see him go. Before you start yelling at me I need to share with you that I do not make decisions about my values rationally. They come from a place in me that’s deep and not logical and I don’t really understand. I am biased. I make my decisions about my values and then I rationalize it.
Now here is something you need to understand. You’re not rational either. None of us makes rational decisions about deeply held things or even economic decisions. If you don’t believe me Google “behavioral economics.” There’s all kinds of research that shows how we don’t make decisions based on logic. We make them based on something else and then we rationalize them.
So here we are on January 21st, 2017 and we have people who are happy about the new Trump administration. We have people who are angry. We have people who are fearful. We have people who are troubled. All of these people disagree but that doesn’t necessarily make any of them bad people.
I think we have a problem in this country. Clearly, we’re divided but it’s not even the division of belief that’s the problem. It is that we demonize those with whom we disagree. We make them into the enemy and I believe that that comes from a deep rooted anxiety in our country. I don’t know if he originated this statement but, Seth Godin says that anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. And there is something about the way our country is right now that people are anxious about the future and they are experiencing the demise of our country even before it happens.
I read a book this fall by Edwin Friedman, who wrote Generation to Generation about family systems theory. The book is called A Failure of Nerve and in it he says that we live in a chronically anxious society. And this anxiety makes it hard for people to function. It makes it hard for leaders to innovate. It makes it hard for communities and for states and nations to see a path into the future, where they can feel hopeful.
One of the symptoms of this chronic anxiety is blame. Friedman calls it “blame displacement.” What happens in a chronically anxious family, in a chronically anxious system of any kind, a chronically anxious country, is people blame other people for their own problems.
Let me try to make everybody mad here. Just think about this. How many people are blaming blacks or whites, the rich or the poor, manufacturers or Mexicans, police or Planned Parenthood, corporations or congress. Well, everybody is blaming congress. Even that’s not fair because congress or legislators are our representatives. They are a reflection of who we are in our divided country. Our country is designed so that when things are divided in this way things don’t happen very quickly. So give your legislator a break, they are doing the best they can.
Getting back to this blame displacement, when we start to blame others for our own condition, what it means is we are not taking responsibility for our own feelings, for our own beliefs, for our own situation. When we don’t do that it is nearly impossible to find a path into the future. So what do we do about it?
Viktor Frankl was a survivor of one of the Nazi death camps in Auschwitz. After he survived, he wanted to see what it was that contributed to those who survived versus those who didn’t. One of the things he found, he shared in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. According to Frankl, the most important factor in survival was the ability for someone to have a vision of the future that included hope. Even in the situation where one is in a concentration camp and likely to die, those who survived could envision getting out. They could envision a future where they were living a productive and decent life again. They could envision a future that didn’t include the death camp, a future that included hope.
Here is what Frankl says about our human condition. “Everything can be taken from a person but one thing, the last of the human freedoms. To choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances. To choose one’s own way. When we are no longer able to change the situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Between stimulus and response there is a space, in that space is our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
So whether you are hopeful or nor right now about the direction of our country, the question is, how are you going to respond to people who disagree with you? How are you going to respond to those who don’t believe what you believe? I think we can choose to show respect. I think we can choose to value another even if they disagree with us. I think it’s critically important if we’re going to make any kind of progress in our society.
Now that doesn’t mean that you don’t work for what you believe in. You can work to change laws, you can work to change policy, you can work to make a difference in the world but just because somebody disagrees with you doesn’t make them evil. They are another person and they are worthy of our respect.
In that space between when we’re stimulated by somebody that we don’t agree with, we can choose to respond with anger, with blame, or we can choose to respond with respect. More importantly I believe as a Christian we can choose to respond with love.
Less than a week ago we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. Dr. King was an ordained minister and his movement of non-violent change was based on his following of Jesus. Because Jesus was the one who showed us how to love others, even those who persecuted us, even those whom we think are evil, even those with whom we disagree.
Here is what Dr. King said “We must live together as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools. Hatred polarizes life, love releases it. Hatred confuses life, love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life, love illuminates it. Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend”.
Now there ARE evil people in this world. There are people who do things that are clearly evil. But Dr. King reminds us that even in that case, we are to hate the evil but love the person. And I want to suggest that most people aren’t evil they are just different. They are not any more rational than we are and they have beliefs that are deeply held.
I learned a few years ago that people don’t change their deeply held values. So rather than trying to convince them to change their minds, can we own our own feelings? Can we say this is what I believe, this is what I stand for but also love and respect the other? I think if we’re able to do that, we’re able to change the dynamic. We won’t get the other to agree with us but perhaps we can live with the other differently, with love and respect.
This is not easy, it means that we need to look inside of ourselves and ask ourselves the question, what is it in me that’s making me angry? What is it in me that makes me want to blame? And then ask God to fill us, to take that away from us and to fill us with love and with grace so that we can show care and respect even those with whom we disagree and those that seem hateful to us.
This is not easy. It’s hard work. Leadership is hard work. And if we are going to be leaders who help change the world, if we are going to be people that help show others that there is a way of hope, then I think that’s our responsibility.
That’s our challenge for today. To be the kind of leader that is able to show love and grace to everyone, especially to those that we want to despise. If we can do that we can change our culture. It’s not going to be easy.
Brene Brown has done a lot of work on vulnerability. I was listening to her on a podcast recently and she said, “One of the things I’ve learned is to choose courage over comfort.” To show love and respect and grace is not easy, it makes us vulnerable. But can we choose courage over comfort? I believe that if we can, we can change our world and we can find a way together, even with those with whom we disagree.
The Rev. Jack Shitama serves as the Executive Director of Pecometh Camp & Retreat Ministries in Centreville, MD. He blogs at www.christian-leaders.com, from his posts are republished with the author's permission.