Tolerance → Acceptance → Understanding → Love

Some years ago, when I had had two heart attacks within a week, I decided that part of my recovery would be to visualize my heart healing, moving from damaged to strong. I painted two watercolor pictures, one very literal, showing my sick heart developing collateral circulation (which it did) and the other more abstract. And I thought long and hard about broken hearts.

There are many ways hearts are broken. Some, like mine, are literally, physically broken. Hearts are often broken by hardship and despair. When our emotions are severely damaged, we are broken-hearted. Failure and loss can cause heartbreak. Relentless conflict can break us down.

Right now, the political conflict in our country makes a lot of us feel as if we’ve suffered a collective heart attack. Pain, along with shock, followed by disbelief, fear, and anger. Weakness and anxiety. The knowledge that nothing can ever be quite the same. Dread of what may come. Uncertainty about what may and may not be possible. A recognition that recovery and rehabilitation will require a lot of very hard work.

That hard work has barely begun. Severe damage has been done to our assumptions about who we are as a nation, and to our concepts of civility, government of the people, and human unity. Political action from all directions may spur us to deeper thought about these things, but more is needed in the long run. Resistance, hate-filled rhetoric, and the reiteration of established biases, both right and left, won’t heal our hearts. We need to stop complaining and begin building bridges, not citadels.

The movement we need as a nation, and as a world, isn’t political. It isn’t a matter of institutions, parties, and religions. It’s a matter of consciousness and spirit. We need to find the sacred wholeness that underlies everything. Then we can move from tolerance to acceptance, and from there to understanding and even love.

The world can seem to be full of violence and hate. In such a world, too often about the best we are able to manage is tolerance. Tolerance says, “I acknowledge your right to exist, but I don’t really want anything to do with you. I’ll leave you alone, as long as you stay in your assigned place and don’t annoy me with your differences.”

In our real, ordinary, daily lives, we often do much better than mere tolerance – with people around us. We may truly accept people we know, even when we disagree. People at a distance, people we don’t really know, may be a different story entirely. It’s not so very hard to distance ourselves from people we don’t encounter at all, and label them as “different” or “enemy.”

Even at its best, acceptance has its limitations. Acceptance says, “I’m willing to interact with you, even to care about you, but there are boundaries. When your ideas and convictions are in conflict with mine, I don’t want to hear about them. Keep to the safe subjects, and we can be friends.”

The positive aspect of such acceptance is that it recognizes the important things we have in common. It acknowledges our common humanity, in spite of our different opinions. The problem is that it doesn’t let us see one another wholly. We walk around with blinders on, happily assuming that everyone else is just like us. We rarely feel a need to consider the value of our own ideas, because we don’t even hear the alternatives. And because we are imperfect creatures shaped by what we have been taught and by our experiences (and therefore biased – yes, all of us), we can be startled and repelled to find that someone is different in some way. When we discover that someone we have accepted is in some way contrary to our biases, we feel betrayed, or angry, or badly confused. Our acceptance changes.

We need to go deeper. We can’t take our own beliefs to be some sort of monumental truth that everyone should agree to. Acceptance is a normal human need. But deeper than that, we all yearn to be understood. Not just recognized, not just accepted, but truly known. We need understanding, understanding of ourselves and understanding of those who think otherwise.

Understanding requires that we listen to one another, at all possible levels. We can’t refuse to hear the ideas of others, even if we find them repellant. We don’t have to agree with them or keep quiet when we disagree, but we do have to listen and accept that those ideas are as real as ours are, and as sincere. It helps to remind ourselves that others can disagree and not be wrong. Ignoring or belittling sincerely held beliefs and concepts only leads to deeper division.

When we truly listen to others, we come to understand not only what they believe but also why they believe it. With that understanding, we can begin to see one another’s true selves, and our hearts can begin to heal. As understanding grows, so does our awareness of our connection. Whether or not we are in agreement, we are connected, and we can build on that connection. We can build bridges and discover our underlying unity. Diversity doesn’t undermine that human unity – it makes it richer.

Understanding says, “I see you as you are, and I respect your being even when we don’t agree. I value you as a person, and I can see your truth, even when it isn’t mine. We are all flawed and incomplete, but we are connected, and together we are more than the sum of our individual selves.” Understanding is not totally sequential, nor is it a straight path. It’s a spiral that grows upward and outward and deeper and richer as it progresses. We move back and forth and around on that spiral, and as we reach fuller understanding of others, we also gain fuller understanding of ourselves. The two go together.

Love grows out of understanding. It’s very hard to hate or despise someone whose deepest beliefs and feelings you not only know but understand. When we truly understand one another, we recognize our mutual humanity and the spiritual reality that connects everything that is. And what is that but love?

Time to Pass the Torch

The political analysts, along with the rest of us, have been hard at work for over a week now, trying to figure out why things turned out this way. There are, of course, many reasons offered, some of them conflicting, and almost all of them at least partly right. But analyzing this election is rather like the analysis of the elephant done by a group of blind men. We all get hold of a little bit of the truth, but we can’t see the whole animal. And of course we’re only feeling around on the surface.

I’m as confused and conflicted as anyone else. But it appears to me that something profound is going on. So let’s go deeper.

There are some huge discontinuities in our world that this election has made unavoidably obvious. Discontinuities, as in the mathematical point of change at which a curve shows an abrupt shift. As in the boundary between rock types deep in the earth’s crust, where seismic waves shift. There are discontinuities in cultures, too, when perceptions of truth and purpose change abruptly (see the work of Michel Foucault). In such social earthquakes, shifts can move in several directions at once.

Such shifts occur when the weight of power becomes unbearable, or when things are no longer perceived and known and accepted in the same way. The rise of democracy in the eighteenth century was the product of one such shift. The end of colonialization is another example. The rise and fall of the Soviet Union is yet another. These shifts may be common enough, but they’re also profoundly difficult.

My generation – Boomers and pre-Boomers – lived out such a discontinuity when we were young. Our parents were themselves young in a time of great discontinuity. Our parents’ lives were shaped by the Great Depression and the Second World War. They grew up in a time of upheaval, uncertainty, and deprivation. By 1945, with the end of the war, what they wanted most was peace and stability. My generation, in contrast, grew up in a time of relative comfort compared to our parents. And some of us, at least, saw the stability they valued as complaisance and even selfishness.

We thought the world needed to change, and we thought we could do it. We made a lot of noise, we marched, we protested, and we did in fact help bring about some pretty significant changes. The Civil Rights movement was largely fueled by some members of our generation, as was the feminism of the 1970s.

Now we’ve had a black president for eight years, though we’re still a long way from losing racial bias. When I started teaching, women made up less than ten percent of the faculties of public universities; that number has tripled by now – but it’s still below 50%. Notions that were revolutionary in 1970 now seem normal to many younger people: racial bias is wrong, equality matters, women who work are normal, people are just people no matter what their gender, skin color, religion, or sexual preference may be. Our commitment to social justice did make some progress.

What we’re seeing now seems to be another cultural shift, one that has been going on for a long time and is now shaking us like an earthquake. The volcano of hatred that erupted in the Holocaust has sent out seismic waves that still rattle the earth. While some parts of our culture have been steadily shifting away from old assumptions and biases, others have been shifting into a mode of self-protection characterized by anger and fear at what they regard as a threat to their own beliefs and their own safety. This is manifested as ethnic and racial hatred, and contempt for anyone who isn’t a heterosexual while male.

At the same time that many young people function comfortably in a multicultural world, we’re in the midst of a tsunami of bias, bigotry, misogyny, and racism. And it isn’t only the old who fuel the tsunami. There is a reactionary wave among younger people as well as older ones. The current discontinuity is throwing off shifts in many directions.

Part of what enables all this is technology; our culture has been working through another very large discontinuity, with the shift in communications brought about by computers and the Internet. I was in my early forties when I bought my first PC. The Internet was just getting started, email was new, and there was a pretty frequent need for Norton Disc Doctor. Young people in 2016, in contrast, easily master sophisticated electronic options. By now, I’m pretty computer-savvy for a seventy-something, but what I know about computers, tablets, and smart phones is way below the understanding of the average teenager.

Before the rise of the personal computer and the Internet, hard as it may be for young people to imagine, serious information was found through card catalogues, indexes, and periodical publications. Communication took place in person, through letters (remember those?), and through telephones that stayed in one place and did nothing but provide a connection for direct speech. But if it’s hard for a twenty-something to imagine what it was like to gather information and communicate before computers, it’s equally hard for me to imagine and appreciate the connectedness those twenty-somethings experience as normal.

The deeper, more profound shift we’re experiencing is a change in the way human relationships are perceived. There are profound generational differences in how issues of privacy and transparency are viewed. Connectedness is valued in ways many of us who are older can’t understand. Perhaps we are seeing a movement from the old American ideal of the rugged individual to a different vision of global community. In any case, old patterns of relationship are shifting.

If I’m right, and we’re living in a time of particularly strong discontinuity, it’s no wonder this election has caused – and reflected – so much polarization. Things are different now. My generation can no longer offer leadership that represents the best in our culture and at the same time generates enthusiasm and support. It’s time for new leadership. Time for ideas that will inspire a powerful movement in this country and in the world in the way that President John F. Kennedy’s statement in his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, “I Have a Dream,” inspired us.

It’s time to pass the torch. Time for new leaders. Time for new voices. So to all of you people not yet into middle age, please move on. Take over the political parties, or start new ones. Find new ways of using your experience (and ours), new ways of understanding the world. Don’t let my big and noisy generation tell you how to be. We can still be useful as advisors, but always remember that our perspective is not yours. And the world is yours, for better or for worse. Here’s your torch. Run with it.