We Can’t Change Each Other

It’s nearly impossible to consume any news or social media these days without seeing how divided and reactionary we are. Protests and counter-protests. Ridicule and scathing rebuke. Fear-mongering. Anger. Unquestioning loyalty to a political figure or party or cause. There is also plenty if despair, apathy, nihilism, and disenfranchisement that intersperse it all.

I’m not attacking one group or another. As someone who grew up entrenched in one side, migrated to the other, and is currently disillusioned with most sides, I have a broad range of connections whose content I see daily. I don’t think it will come as any shock to anyone that things are not looking good on multiple fronts.

One of these fronts is values. Many of us don’t seem to take the time to discern if our thoughts, actions, and words are in alignment with the values we profess to hold. As a result, we are caught in a cycle of reacting to everything in the moment, without taking time to evaluate the kind of people we want to be and if our daily responses and choices are taking us closer to–or farther away from–that desired version of ourselves.

I see people lash out at others for doing precisely what they were doing four years ago: either ridiculing and dehumanizing the person in the Oval Office or idolizing and unquestioningly supporting the person in the Oval Office. I find people claim one set of values on one issue and then demonstrate the exact opposite values on another, without any seeming cognition of their own contradiction. Many of us have resorted to withdrawing or shutting down because it is all too much. I am hard-pressed to find thoughtful, holistic approaches to current events, and when I do, they are not shared or promoted nearly so much as the cringe-worthy, heart-breaking, biased content (or the scathing take-downs of said content) that seems to churn endlessly through news feeds.

When we align ourselves so completely with an ideology, institution, or organization–be it a religion, a cause, or a political party–that we see it as above questioning, we are at risk. When we unquestioningly follow and support, without stopping to examine if what we are following or supporting is truly in alignment with our values, we have given our personal power away. And when we engage in an endless cycle of reaction, ridicule, and ranting, there is no time for mindful, meaningful action.

None of the above are a way that anything gets less terrible.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t speak up about what we see as wrong and unjust. I’m not suggesting that we turn a blind eye to suffering and harm. I am saying that when we focus on the calling out and the ridicule and the outrage and direct them continuously at “the other side,” we are allowing our time and energy to be misfocused. When our time and energy are misfocused and we aren’t living in alignment with our values, we are contributing to our shared misery.

For some time, I’ve been trying to find just the right words, hoping I might inspire a change in people and maybe start feeling a little less hopeless. But then I remembered something: we cannot change each other. I could write for all my waking hours, I could pour my heart and soul into paragraph after paragraph for weeks on end, and we would still be where we are. People would think what they think and share what they share and no words from me would make one bit of difference.

I can’t change your mind. I can’t change you. We can’t change each other. But what is desperately needed right now is for us to do some soul searching and see where we need to change ourselves. Change for the better. Not to all align our politics. Not to all believe the same things. Not to act like we all agree. But rather, to hold our own deepest truths and values up and examine them in the light of our hearts. To be honest about the kind of people we are and the kind of people we truly want to be. We need to untangle from the rhetoric, the ideology, the cycles of reaction, and the expected behaviors of “our side.” It is time for us to move past “How dare they!?” and ask instead “How dare I?”

How dare I minimize another person’s suffering because I am not suffering in the same way? How dare I ridicule a fellow human and say degrading things about them because I do not like what they have said or who they support or what they believe? What am I accomplishing by shaming someone rather than showing them by my words and actions that we can treat each other better? Disgust and anger and frustration will certainly be among our initial emotional responses to things that go against our sense of decency, but that does not mean that we must put decency aside and react in ways that dehumanize ourselves and other people.

Perhaps if more of us were willing to pause and think and examine ourselves, we would learn there is truth in the adage that how we treat others reveals much more out us than it does about them. We just might discover that even if we are angry, sad, disappointed, disgusted, frustrated, or overwhelmed by what others do and say, we can respond in ways that are life-giving for us. We don’t have to resort to ways that lead to more hurt and to unhealthy discharge of our emotions. It is possible that spending less time caught in the churn of self-righteous reaction would free up more of our energy to actually do something productive and meaningful to make our own lives and the lives of those around us better. It might even begin to open space in our lives for a glimmer of understanding and mutuality to take hold.

I can’t convince you or anyone else to do any of what I’m suggesting. I can’t even tell you where to start if you decide to try. I don’t know for sure what practices would be the most helpful to keep you on track if you determined for yourself to take up the challenge.

What I can do is decide for myself that this self-examination is something I believe is important and will commit to cultivate more regularly. I will do this work so I can be better aware and call myself out when I start judging other people by a different standard than I judge myself. I’m going to try to think about the person behind what is upsetting me, what circumstances I may not understand about their motivation, before I mindlessly react in ways I will be ashamed of later. And I can return to a practice of daily contemplation to support myself in these intentions.

I know there are a lot of problems in the world right now and I know that what I’m suggesting isn’t going to fix them. But maybe if enough of us choose to disengage from the reactionary mindset and make changes to the ways we interact with others, some things will get less terrible.

And I think any amount of less terrible is something we could all use right now. I can’t change you. You can’t change me. But we can change ourselves and I hope we do.

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