(This post was written the day after the US presidential election, 11/9/16):
If you're a U.S. citizen and you voted yesterday, this morning, you're likely feeling one of two ways:
Grieving. Bewildered. Frightened of what is to come.
Vindicated. Hopeful. Heard, at long last.
Yesterday, the voters in the presidential race stood up and spoke to their needs, their hopes, their desires.
Some of them were very surprised by what others were saying.
I have a master's degree and live in a city on the West Coast. My friends are diverse in terms of economic status, family structure, religion, and race, but politically, they are pretty homogenous. I have family members who voted for Donald Trump, but this election has underscored the extent to which I surround myself with ideological mirrors. I'm guessing you, like me, were "with Her" yesterday. If so, I'm writing to you the message I'm giving myself this morning. If you voted for Donald Trump, you're likely excited about the next four years, and I hope that what I have to say here is heartening to you, as well.
As I walk through my surprise and grief, as well as my fear for the future of many rights and protections I cherish for all, I feel a steely determination to protect those things and fight for the continued progress toward justice and sustainability in our country and on our planet. I also feel a dawning recognition that what Trump's supporters were responding to was a "listening" that they hadn't been getting from the "establishment" or the "elites" for a long time. The "elites" they feel angry with include me.
In the wake of the vote yesterday, I feel not-heard, not respected, ignored, dishonored, and frightened. I'm angry and afraid that I can't trust that I will be safe as a woman, that loved ones will be safe as gay, African American, Asian, Muslim, transgender, differently-abled, Latin@, that the environment will be protected. I feel frightened of nuclear war and endless omnidirectional terrorism.
I am also reminded of a line I have heard countless times in my work with couples:
"I feel so unheard… so not respected, so ignored, so dishonored. I'm afraid I can't trust that I will be safe in this relationship I'm worried you won't hold my best interests at heart, believe in my earnestness, or care about my needs when they aren't convenient for you to meet. I feel like we're adversaries, so my instinct has shifted. The urge to offer love and receive yours has given way to an instinct to ignore you, mistrust you, and fight you. To handle my own needs my way rather than trying to find "our" way together. I don't want to compromise, I don't want to give you the benefit of the doubt. You've hurt me too much."
Our self-protective instincts make so much sense.
They're what the brain does with painful experiences: it spills highlighter ink all over them… Trained by millennia of experience, our brains record with painstaking precision: DANGER LIES HERE. And they don't want to forget and chill out and make peace with those enemies. No! Our threat-detectors mark and remember them. We go into survival mode.
Self-protection is part of why staying together is hard.
Loving someone, living with them, and being human means we DO hurt one another. We both bring triggers to the relationship, and we create more by being fallible in our loving and living, day by day. And sometimes, we wind up at this impasse where one of us speaks to the other, or to a relationship coach or a therapist the kind of hopeless-sounding complaint I quoted above.
Your partner feels the same way - but there's hope!
"What? NO, I'm the one who's unheard here. Dishonored. Ignored. Betrayed." Nope. It's mutual. I've been there myself. I kicked and I screamed until slowly, painfully, I came to see it. Kurt did really feel the same awful way about me and my dented, tarnished love for him as I felt about his imperfect, not-workin'-for-me love for me. We'd both been less-than-relational, less-than-loving in our treatment. Not as openhearted as we liked to think of ourselves as being. Not as spiritual, or expansive, or inclusive. Not as forgiving and not as devoted to learning and growing and going deeper in love.
That's where we are today as a nation. We're like a struggling couple, each blaming the other for the mess we've gotten into.
The mess won't be easy to clean up. But it's also not an easy — or good — mess to walk away from.* Our country doesn't need another civil war, and it doesn't need a despotic ruler. Our planet doesn't need nuclear blasts, anywhere.
We need to listen.
And the "elites" who've had jobs and prosperity, whose civil rights have been intact or expanding, whose urban lives and good schools have insulated them from the challenges our rural neighbors have faced, and whose sense of open-mindedness and spiritual perspective have led us to feel certain that we're inclusive and compassionate and want the best for everyone…. We're the ones who need to start.
With couples, once everyone has caught at least a glimpse of the wild reality that "we're both feeling the same level - and KIND - of hurt," I help them decide individually whether they can "go first." I ask them each to look at whether they can summon the resilience to listen before they're heard by their partner. They can get heard — and have likely felt heard — by ME first, but for the next step, they have to be the ones to set aside their desires, needs, and hurts and deeply receive their partner's.
It's a high art, indeed, to listen when you feel wronged.
I think it's what Jesus was talking about when he said "turn the other cheek". He meant, "drop your defensiveness and your aggression, and take in what this person is upset about... why they hit you in the first place. Assume they have a good reason, deep down. Get curious about what that is, and how you've managed to ignore it so long it's come to blows." By listening deeply when we feel most justified in NOT listening, we claim our relationship healing superpowers.
The healing potential of listening first is that we transform the logjam of accusations into fertile soil for compassion and a way forward. When we set our grievances aside, we do many amazing things:
- We give a gift of kindness and embrace. It's overdue, at this point. There's something our beloved deserved in the past that we neglected to see was needed or felt justified in withholding or were too busy or distracted or unskillful to give. And now we're stopping long enough to really get it.
- We get the information we need to "know what to do." That feeling of helplessness and stickiness is the worst part about contention and despair. We don't see how we could help when we feel utterly invisible or victimized. But when we see what WE have been ignoring, we know where we can direct attention and energy to do good.
- We provide a model and an inspiration for our beloved to mirror. Whether our listening and attention are reciprocated immediately or not, we can find more ease in our knowledge that what we're doing is not just self-reinforcing "righteousness" but is actually us being constructive and beginning to undo some of the hurt. That can give us hope that, sooner or later, we'll build the capacity and care between us all for the listening and compassion to be reciprocated.
Does the scared little person (and the equally scared, nearly just-as-little, fierce protector) in each of us want to be the first one to be heard? So badly! Yes!
What we need to find, to be able to do this "I'll listen first" magic, is a sense of, in fact, being heard. By a wiser part of ourselves. By a skillful friend. Or by a powerful professional ally. You absolutely deserve to be heard first. So does your counterpart. What you don't deserve is to live forever in a pissing match. FOR YOUR OWN SAKE — choose to build that skill and listen first.
I'm talking to us as a nation today. And I'm talking to both partners inside every hurting couple.
You might not see in yourself the potential to be the first to listen. But if there's even a flicker of resonance with what I've said, then that little spark is coming from your capacity to be that kind of healer. Blow on those sparks. Give them fuel. Fan them into the flames of a compassionate, determined fire that can burn away hostility and hurt and light the way to a new relationship… between loved ones, between fellow citizens, between warring factions, between nations.
Our neurobiology has many systems wired to perpetuate mutually-assured destruction.
Our threat detectors are effective at detecting, but they're not particularly discerning in their devotion to "avoiding dying." They won't build the relationships or the world we really desire. Luckily, our prefrontal cortex, our higher mind, has ways — when we protect its engagement by cultivating calm, mindfulness, self-reflection, rest, steady blood sugar, and a sustainable pace - of creating the beautiful relationships we can imagine but which we have not yet seen. It's from that more intentional system that we can take on the kind of potent listening-first that can transform our lives and the world.
You're not alone.
If you're grieving the simpler-seeming, less-fraught, "everything's pretty much okay" privilege you enjoyed before this new awareness was thrust into your face, you're not alone. But I hope that your question, "why me?" receives a clear answer as you begin to listen earnestly for it.
Why you? Because you were born for this.
This is a calling, and it's worthy of all your gifts and hard work. You've got this. And you'll be glad you were given this chance to demonstrate that, to yourself and those you love.
I adore you. I grieve with you. I celebrate with you. I'm here to support you in the days ahead.