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Polarization is a Spiritual Problem

by Jonathan Robinson

Whatever the issue, we Americans have found a way to turn it into an us vs. them experience. We are drowning in polarization and feelings of self-righteousness. Yet, what does our turbo-charged sense of separation get us? Well, it gets us in a nasty mood, a broken political system, and a nagging feeling like something is deeply wrong with the world.

In 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step to recovery is admitting you’ve got a problem due to an addiction. Well, I admit it—I’m addicted to feeling like my side is right and the other side is not only wrong—but also a bunch of idiots. Self-righteousness is like the crack cocaine of emotions. It’s not only very addictive, but it’s also terrible for the heart and soul. Whatever the issue-- guns, Trump, abortion, global warming, etc., we seem unable to come together in a way that honors each other’s humanity.

While the various issues facing America may seem to stem from broken politics and separate news and media silos, I believe there’s a more underlying cause. We are suffering from what could be described as a spiritual problem. By “spiritual” I mean a lack of seeing our shared humanity and our shared purpose as human beings.

For the last 40 years, I have made it my mission to interview over 100 famous spiritual leaders for books I’ve written. I’ve interviewed everyone from the Dalai Lama and Deepak Chopra to the late Mother Teresa, Dr. Wayne Dyer, and Ram Dass. Initially, I always asked these wise people, “What are we human beings here to do? In other words, what’s the meaning or purpose of life?” Incredibly, virtually everyone I asked gave almost the exact same answer. It didn’t matter if they were Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, or Moslem—it was always the same basic answer.

So, what was the answer? Sorry, but it’s not a shocker. The answer that spiritual leaders consistently gave was we are here to find love and peace within, and then do our best to help and love one another. No one I interviewed said we should fan the flames of self-righteousness and then prove how wrong the other side is. No one. Yet, that seems to be what many people and some religions have chosen as their mission. We need to do better than that.

With such a widely agreed goal as to what we’re here to do, why is it we seem to be hopelessly addicted to being right and trying to tear each other down? Well, the truth is it immediately feels good to make others wrong and feel superior to them. On the other hand, listening to and loving your “enemies” is hard work. It takes patience, empathy, and curiosity. It takes being willing to see that it’s not so much that our politics are broken, but we are.

Whenever I encounter someone with a different political or worldview than mine, I begin by noticing exactly how my instinct to fight quickly arises. I feel the rush of adrenaline as I get ready to go to battle. Then, on my best days, I take a deep breath and remember I am facing a fellow human being—not a tiger. I attempt to become curious. I ask questions so I can better understand their view.

As a psychotherapist who works with couples, I get to see how polarization not only corrodes our politics, but also our marriages. It seems that all couples who experience great difficulty share two common problems: a desire to blame their mate and a lack of really understanding each other. I’ve never had a couple come to my office and say, “We understand each other really well; that’s why we want a divorce.” By better understanding our fellow human beings, we open the door to dismantling our cult-ture of polarization.

In my battle with my own self-righteousness, I’ve found a couple of things to be helpful. First, I try to tap into compassion. With true compassion in my heart, I think to myself, “It must be hard being them.”

When I encounter someone who displays self-righteousness and a lack of open-mindedness, I think to myself, “How am I sometimes like that?” As Jesus said, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” We need to focus on our own lack of love, open-mindedness, and curiosity rather than get caught focusing on what we see in others.

In the end, we’re all frail human beings just wanting a little more safety, love, and understanding. What goes around comes around. Great spiritual leaders and virtually all religions have repeatedly told us we’re here to love each other. Now is the time to take what we know in our hearts—and practice it before things get even worse. We all need some hope that the future can be better—and that we can be better.

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