“Polarisation is not an act of disagreement. It is an act of disconnection.”
Our hearts are breaking. We love each other. We do. But we cannot talk to each other. We used to be able to. We used to hear differences between us and make it through the conversation all right. Usually. But something has happened. Something since Brexit. Or climate. Or Trump. Or Covid. Something. Something has happened and we now, as a nation, as a world, but more painfully as friends, and most painfully as family, cannot talk. Not now. Not about these things. We skirt. We scream. We scatter. And sometimes we don’t return. We simply cannot, will not, listen any more. Not to that. Not to those differences, those felt monolithic differences of view, of alignment, of allegiance. Not to that slinging of threat.
That is what it is to us, a threat. That is why we cannot go there, or if there, we cannot stay. When we enter those subjects and hear those differences, we register a threat so profound, so fundamental, we rage. We become out-raged. We close out; we want out. We leave.
Why? What for heaven’s sake has happened? They call it polarisation. “We are polarised,” they say. Fine. So now what? Now we can….? Get over it? Apparently not. One of my colleagues said it exactly: “I don’t want to get over it. I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t want to understand them. I want to stay me.”
To stay me. That was the moment I got it. These particular differences are different because they strip us of “me.” Or seem to. We feel they do. We feel that the other’s different view on these topics is a threat to our very being. And here is the disabler: we feel that merely to listen to the different view, even to listen to understand (forget about to convince) the other, is to prostrate ourselves, our actual selves, at the putrefying feet of a view so wrong, so elementally flawed that even to hear it through is to risk its putrefying us. It is, we feel, to risk the dissolution of our core identity. And we will not agree to that destruction of self. So, yes, we rage and flee. Or we simply don’t start. We go.
There is, though, something else we can do. I didn’t think there was. For a while I thought that polarisation was too big a thing for one person at a time to affect. But it isn’t. Polarisation is precisely one person at a time. It is one person interrupting another person, and that other person interrupting the person who interrupted them, so that within fewer than 3 minutes polarisation snaps into being and gestates like a mad thing until it is all there is in the room.
Interruption. Can it be that simple? No. Because interruption is not simple at all. Interruption is a complex killer. Its arsenal is adrenalin/cortisol, the hormone slayers of thought and respect and love.
It works like this: You speak. What you say shocks me. It is different from what I think. The more I hear, the more differences I hear. Soon I cannot believe that someone I respect could hold that view. I stop hearing the nuances in your thinking. I no longer respect you. I label you. I roll everything I’ve heard into one generic take. You are a “______“. How could you be that? You as a danger to me. And then, to protect myself, I interrupt.
Stop there. Here is the breeding moment. The conditions are set. My brain has just cocked the hormone triggers, preparing to retaliate. And having interrupted, I keep speaking. You barely hear me. You hurt. And within 11 seconds or less (says the science) you strike back. You interrupt. And then I do and you do and I do and you do.
We are not just disagreeing now. We are severing.
We turn away. Doors close.
Welcome to polarisation. It wasn’t disagreement that produced it. It was disconnection, produced by interruption, that complex killer of thought. And love.
Disconnection breaks our hearts.
But wait. Let’s redo this. Let’s agree that from now on we will not interrupt each other. At least for twenty minutes. In fact, let’s promise not to. Let’s promise, absolutely promise, we will give each other attention, staying as interested as possible in where the other will go next with their thoughts, and let’s give each other equal turns to go there. Let’s promise.
As we do, three things start to happen:
First, we breathe out because we know we will have an equal uninterrupted turn, too. We even have faith that at least some of what we say will be understood.
And so, we start to understand the other’s view a tiny bit more, not to agree with that view almost certainly, but to begin to understand it. So we do not feel a threat to our identity. (Understanding is like that. It is interested in difference, not threatened by it.)
Therefore, neither of us disconnects from the other. Yes, we disagree. Even fiercely. But that is all. That’s a lot, of course, when it comes to highly sensitive subjects. But that’s all it is. Just disagreement. We can live with that and love with that, and maybe with that arrive together at some new place, some place even vaguely, very vaguely, elegant. As long as we stay connected.
Kimberley Crespo, whose famous photography work requires highly-developed human connection, said, “The promise ‘I will not interrupt you,’ has transformed all of my relationships. It has made them richer and deeper.”
“Richer, deeper,” she mused again.
She’s right. The promise of no interruption, the promise of connection, changes everything.
Getting Beyond Hope
Maybe hope is not what we need. Especially now at a time of universal suffering, maybe hope is not the answer.
Maybe confidence is.
There is a difference. It is subtle. But important distinctions usually are. Let me see if I can find words for this one.
First, I know this is delicate territory. Hope is sacred. It is not to be trampled. In the midst of suffering hope is essential. It dismisses despair. It dismembers cynicism. It lifts our spirits. And so it helps us think. And for that monumental gift I, too, give thanks for it. And espouse it. With all my heart.
Hope also, though, stops short. It is one step only. It is not the journey. Hope on its own allows worry. It allows fear. And so it allows passivity. If we achieve hope but then sit down (hope does not object to sitting down), we’ve risen from despair, yes, but paradoxically we’ve collapsed into powerlessness . If we only hope, we don’t influence. We say from our seat that we cannot shape the outcome.
In that way when we hope, we are not quite home; we are wandering, still on the edges, looking ahead, desiring but not taking charge. Leaning, not leading.
Early on in its life as a word, ‘hope’ did provide solid ground. It took us all the way home. In Old English, circa 1100 B.C.E., ‘hope’ (‘hopa’) included ‘confidence’ in its three definitions: ‘trust, wishful desire, confidence’. That must have been nice. Back then we could desire and wish for something and take action with confidence.
No longer. 3200 years later ‘hope’ is not so sure of itself. To wit: ’Are you confident things will improve?’ ‘No, but I am hopeful.’
Dale Furtwengler said it this way:
While the technical definition of hope is ‘a feeling of expectation and desire’, the vast majority of us, when using the word hope,
have little expectation and a lot of desire.
Hope hints at imminent set back. It allows us to sway in the wind. It lets us want, but not assume we can form, what happens ahead.
Confidence, on the other hand, lands us on our feet. It says we can contribute to the outcome and are taking charge wherever we have influence. It says we’ve researched the facts. It says we know what others are doing and can trust their contribution, too. And confidence is smart. Smart enough even to resist becoming certainty. It keeps its eyes wide open as it steps.
Confidence strides. Hope hovers. Confidence sings. Hope whispers.
A few years ago I began to question society’s universal reverence for hope. I began to wonder why it was that although it is true that hope ‘springs eternal in the human breast’, it does so hand in hand with oppression and defeat and suffering. In that way achieving hope seemed to me only part of the answer. I saw a problem in the hallowed halls of hope. I sensed that although hope itself is not the problem, stopping at hope is.
For nearly three years I played with this heretical defrocking of hope. I was careful whom I told, which was no one because everyone worships hope. Hope shows up in almost every religion. In Christianity (the religion I know), it is one of the three great virtues. It doesn’t make it to #1, though. Love (agape) does that. But hope is right there next to faith which is prominent enough.
I have emerged from that solitary critique of hope, resolved. I esteem hope, but it is no longer my grail. In the face of suffering I summon it and honour it and then de-mystify it. I regard it as a beginning. But I summon confidence as the full journey.
I now experience hope and confidence as a kind of mother and child. It takes hope to birth confidence. But it does not take confidence to birth hope. Hope comes first. On its own hope is barren. And in the face of human suffering barren may be good enough for survival. But it is not good enough for flourishing. Flourishing requires confidence. As with any child, confidence is the path to the future.
And yet our lore reaches for hope as if it were everything.
Without hope (vision), the people perish.
Proverbs 29:18, The Bible
Yes. And that is vital. But that hope is sufficient if only ‘not perishing’ is our goal. If healing or thriving is our goal, we need to go beyond hope. We need go all the way to confidence.
But confidence takes work, work that comes from a still place, a being place, a focused place, a, yes, hopeful place. But work nevertheless. Confidence takes getting up, noticing where we have influence, and acting on it.
Of course there are lots of things in life we cannot influence at all. For those things hope on its own is perfect. I am fine only hoping that a meteor bypasses earth today. Or that fewer women than yesterday get raped. Or that there is no drought in eastern New Mexico.
But otherwise, when I do have influence (and that is far more often than any of us dares admit), I thank hope and then get beyond it. I reach for confidence by assessing what I can do.
The other day I was wondering what might happen if, when faced with human suffering, we were first to embrace hope and then, just as an experiment, ask ourselves:
What could I start doing right now
that would give me confidence in the face of this suffering?
Regardless, I think we can consider this addition to Proverbs:
With confidence the people flourish.
We are different – from each other.
I know it is cosier to think we are the same, but we’re not. It also is politically energising to think we are the same. We certainly organise, caucus, march, and draw a circle around 'us' as if we were. And we write books about 'our' 'collective' histories and victories and traumas and triumphs. The same as 'each other' we assert. We are women, so we are the same. We are black, so the same. We are Trans, or liberal, or over 65, or working class, or Flemish – the same. We even concoct elaborate diagnostic tools to assess us, categorise us, label us and shove us into rooms of sameness, explaining everything about us. These ones are the same as each other. And these are the same. And these are the same. There. What a relief. Now I know who you are.
No. I don’t. You and I are different. Inside that appearance of sameness, we are almost entirely different from each other. As Homo sapiens we are the same, of course, up to a point. But even inside that sapiens sameness we diverge in so many directions and at so many depths and with so many nuances we would keel over counting them.
I know. Every evolutionary sociologist will tell you we are hard-wired to belong, to get into groups and defend our sameness. And we probably are. It makes sense: if my group needs food and territory and so does yours and there is only so much of it to go around, I’ll cling to my apparent sameness of identity and face you off. Fair enough.
But even then I am not actually the same as the others in my hungry gang. We see sameness among us, but it isn’t there. We build loyalty on it as if it were. And that keeps us phalanxed when the ‘yous’ try to kill us. But the sameness was illusory all along.
I think this matters. Not just because it is what is real, and it matters that we see what is real. Which it does. But because to the extent that you see me as the same as you, you are likely to require me to think the same as you. And that is long-term indescribably more dangerous to our deep species-survival than the rival hungry clan advancing towards us.
We’ve gotten this far, you might argue; asserting sameness seems to work. Why risk dismantling it? Because, I would say, of the mess we’ve created on that very survival journey. Look at it. Look at the trail of homicides, genocides, suicides, ceticides and ecocides we’ve laid. Mostly look at the ‘concepticides’ that led to all of that carnage in the first place. Every one of those strewn pathways goes back to untrue-assumption-ridden, samey thinking, conformist, belonging thinking that stops new ideas before they get started and explains exactly why our history 'repeats itself'.
Facing this fact frees us. You get to be entirely you, and I me. We also get never again to be disappointed in each other for failing to be like each other. Instead, we get truly to see each other. For who we are. And for what we really think.
I like these questions: If you were not trying to be the 'same as', who would you be? How 'different' are you?
Who are you anyway?
I say I don’t worship. I distrust worship. The bowing, the looking up only to bow again. The surrender. The handing over of self to robed determiners of who’s clean and who’s not. The closing of the circle in the name of the Right Way.
Maybe I do worship. Maybe I worship reason. And today I wonder what happens to reason if it is worshipped. Does it collapse because worshipping closes the mind? Can I keep reason alive if I am worshipping it? If I am bowing, too?
And if I am closing my mind, what am I closing it to?
Context, I think. Maybe it’s context that is holy.
Something is reasonable only in context. There is no such thing, with apologies to Kant, as pure reason. There is no such thing as pure anything. Everything exists in reference to every other thing; and it is the job of the human mind to tease out the relevant facts, line them up, assess their reliability and organise them into coherence. We reason our way forward only with what is before us and inside us and around us. Every reasoned conclusion depends like the fibre in a tightrope dancer’s wire on the lived life and human composition that get us to the other side. Reason breathes with more than its own lungs.
So if I worship reason and whip it like canon into view without allowing the non-facts: the experiencing, the feeling, sensing, hinting, learning, nodding, from-nowhere seeing, the preceding, the unbraiding that also comprise it, I have destroyed its biosphere and lifted it as my own self-swished chalice.
Reason is resplendent. In context. Meticulously-observed. With caution. With eagerness to see error. Reason is no craven image.
I am loving Isiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox (pp. 74,75, 77). He speaks of the ‘permanent relationship of things’. He says that ‘we are immersed…in a medium that, because we take it for granted, we do not and cannot observe from the outside.’ ‘We cannot even be wholly aware of it because it enters too intimately into all of our experience. It is too closely interwoven with all that we are and do to be lifted out of the flow’ of our lives and ‘be observed with detachment.’
‘We cannot examine the totality without some (impossible) vantage point outside it, because there is no outside it.’
This promotion of context, of course, is fraught, leading as it can inexorably to flash-paper assertions that all conclusions are valid, all points of view true.
But that is for another Today; today I’ll savour, not worship, context.
’Wisdom is the ability to allow for
the unalterable medium in which we act.’
Joy is Privilege. According to Adam.
But his view is common enough: people are suffering, dying, lying, shovelling yearning madly into a hole of not-loved, having no idea in the world how to touch and linger, how to delight, wailing from loss down the ages and now. People hurt. True.
Itaque, pain is Nature. It is It. Inherent. Inherited. Inevitable.
Pain is the only Real.
Joy? Only Privilege. Aberration. Distraction.
Return to Others’Pain fast. That Only, that Be-all, that Home.
And Adam does. He suffers. Properly. Dependably. His brow rarely softens; his lips rarely lengthen. He sits, he attends, he lectures, he reaches, he loves, he achieves, he marries, he publishes, he advocates, he hovers, he listens – suffering. Duty’s man. Nature’s man. Pain the default because the only Real.
Others’Pain? Honour it. Be it. Take it home.
I say rejoice. I say let joy resound through our days and nights and throughout our unfathomable-but-there-nevertheless universe. Let us sing with lilt and laughter and light. Let us heal Others’Pain with OurJoy! OurJoy made us. OurJoy came with us into this world. OurJoy builds brain and beauty and perpetuation of sapiens – OurJoy given and received, reliable and authoritative and embedded and remembered and drawn on and resurrected and unmatched and rewarded and there at conception and birth and before and at death and afterwards if there be one.
Nature uses joy to make life. Nature uses pain to warn.
Joy must be. Pain comes then goes. Joy is and stays.
Honour it. Take it home.
Pain? Heed it. Flee it.
I picked up Silent Spring just now. ‘1962’ it says. Mother was passionate about this book. When I was 16, intelligent people, especially Rachel Carson whom Mother revered, could already see that we were tipping the earth into imbalance. It’s worse now. It’s now called ‘ecocide’. I wanted to read just two pages before starting work today. I said I would read this book one day. So I began.
Carson’s quotations of E B White and Schweitzer made me want to cry. Then her own eloquence made it too hard to keep reading. I kept thinking about Mother and being glad I had said what I did about her in the introduction of ‘Time To Think’ . I now wish desperately that she and I had had the conversations about the earth we could have now.
She would also love reading Billions and Billions, and we would talk long about the particular things that allowed our abused earth to emerge in the first place, and we would try to wrap our minds around the idea that it did not exist 4.5 billion years ago and that there are several billion galaxies. We would have fun with billions. It all would be a mystery, not a problem. We would sit for a few moments together in wonder and gaze out the big window across from the sofa.
We would join forces somehow. We would harness our wonder. We would resolve to unsilence the Spring.
I miss her this morning.
Dignity, I pine for you. Please come back.
Stride right through the muck and its apologists, its mealy-headed dismissers and addicted adorers, and announce your return. Gently but decisively crowd out vulgarity, revilement, nuancelessness, wilful ignorance, moral vacuity, hyperbole, mendacity, frozen ego masquerading as macho certainty, self deception requiring others’ self- betrayal. Dignity, return. Please.
Restore our national souls to our national ideals. Remember those – the ones that require care of word and choice of thought? Dearest thought, where have you gone?
But, you say, this leader, whether by strategy or instinct, does ignorant and savage things for three reasons: 1) to keep public attention on him; 2) to look good to his base; 3) to distract and dizzy the public so that we don't scrutinise him, so that he controls us. Let's say, in other words, that he doesn't want to convince us of his views, racist or otherwise, or legislate them, but wants only to keep us fractured and glued to him. Him. Let’s say that is his only focus. Himself. All of the time.
Is that analysis supposed to help?
Brian Klass says no. He reveals that a leader’s orchestrating focus on himself is the behaviour of a despot. The craving of attention is a despot's lust. All despotic moves lead to attention. Despots are terrified of losing control, admiration and attention. These three. And the greatest of these is attention.
A leader like that is an apprentice despot, says Klass. And what turns an apprentice into an actual despot? The system. Not the bleating ego. No despot in history has emerged from a mature, two-centuries-old democracy. They have emerged from non-democratic systems or very young democratic ones. Whew. So far our mature democracy has withstood this own-face-gazer. But he has said he hates checks and balances, the very sinew of democracy. So should our fine democratic system falter, he would shake it all the way loose, and rule. He would. That is how he has always run things. That is how he struts.
So, hold tight, dear ones. Breathe out. Stay supple. Keep thinking. Open your eyes. See his desperation. See it. And use every democratic tool to thwart it. But don't pretend this is a man with purpose or intention to help the jobless, the alienated, the outsiders. This is an outsider trying to be inside, flailing like a lassoed rattler to sense with his darting and venomous tongue some admiration in the air wherever he can, and to strike anything in his way. This is a need iced in childhood. A need for generative, real attention then. Unmeetable now. And howling.
No, knowing he is looking for himself, licking himself, ticking only for himself does not help. But it informs. And that is our power. So we will be vigilant, anticipate his next love-me move, and not be thrown. We will night-watch through the corridors of our checks and balances to be sure there are only oiled and pristine parts there.
You have to wait. She knows you are here. But she won’t perform for you. Nature.
Earlier, in spring, the Blackbird sang. A Thrush’s song, I just discovered. I wanted that. I had made it up that he was a Thrush because ‘the echoing timber’ of my Maryland woods each time allowed me to hear Thrush in his song, and because it ‘doth so rinse and ring the ear it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing’. Thank you, Hopkins. For capturing one ecstasy with another. But Mr actual thrush does not know I exult when he sings. His lightnings, mine.
But summer, now he blesses without song. Children grown. Who is he now? He still hops from the under- laurel. He still pecks blades, and tops the trellis. That’s a song. So say I.
Oh, humans. We anthropomorphise. I’ll stop it. The Blackbird sings for his own reasons. I love his music and his hopping and topping. But I make him into me in order to revel. I doubt he makes me into him.
I’ll try it.
Tomorrow I will love him. Just him. Not myself all along.