It seems to me that our country (and our world) is more divided than ever. An interaction with the new husband of a long-time friend at my grandson Luke’s bar mitzvah celebration is a great example of what’s killing us.
I’d just gotten a drink and was winding my way to the dance floor when I stopped to connect with him. I paused to ask how he was and he told me that he hadn’t been able to stop crying during the ceremony. Even as the music was pounding and a hundred kids were jumping, I was eager to listen to why.
I told him that I had been crying throughout as well. I’d been swept up in the emotion of history and wonder how my sweet baby boy, who only a short time before slept on my chest as I sang to him, could be speaking to an entire congregation. It was so poignant to find this beautiful child immersed in the study and reflection of a young man, how he declared himself, shared what he’s come to believe, and took his place in his community. The source of my friend’s husband tears was different. One part was appreciation for Luke’s parents’ dedication, their commitment to promoting values of education and contribution. Another part was despair – how Luke is inheriting a world in chaos and run by greed. “Our president,” he said, “is a disaster for this country.”
I offered a different perspective, “We needed this president. We deserved him.” He jumped, “I couldn’t disagree more,” and proceeded to validate his position and explain why I was wrong. Thus, we entered the land of toxic polarization, where our beliefs are 180 degrees different and we are frozen in our positions. Just as he began launching into his diatribe, I interrupted, “Would you like to know why I said that?” “Oh, sure,” he hesitated, courteously. But I had the distinct impression that he was simply waiting for me to finish so he could resume mounting his defense. I had blindly assumed that he, an educated man, a successful attorney, would be more open.
It was immediately clear that he was suffering from a pervasive, yet curable disease I call single-reality syndrome. That’s where people look for the truth as if there is only one. It’s an ancient malady we might attribute to Aristotle, one of the original speakers about truth. The truth, he is said to have said, “is to say what is that is or what is not that is not.” In our hunger for The Truth, we’ve become blind to the actuality that there is little that is fixed or true about our world. Mostly we have opinions about it. And while it is possible to truthfully state, “mathematics is hard,” or “Trump is a jerk,” it is not The Truth. By saying it, we make it so, as though “jerk” is a permanent and genetically encoded feature. Labeling shuts the door on a universe of other possibilities.
Let’s take this out of the political arena and look at the truth in sports. One undeniable fact is that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the top scorer in the NBA. You can look up thisTruth in the World (38,387 points) in multiple record books. While Kareem was certainly the top scorer, he isn’t necessarily the best player. For “best player,” there are any number of different standards we could apply – points per game, field goals, etc. You could endlessly argue this, but until you come to agree on the standard you’re measuring against, you’ll be stuck in a protracted debate. Debating an opinion is phenomenologically impossible, a waste of time, and destructive to relationships.
It’s natural to feel disagreement. Different opinions define us. The problem is – our culture seems to have limited us to a “two-bucket” response – agree or disagree – to whatever we hear. The cure for single-reality syndrome is a simple set of lenses that allows us to see the world from different perspectives all at the same time. All we have to do is be mindful enough to put them on. Theses lenses eliminate the illusion of righteousness.
Wearing multiple-reality lenses, rather than saying, “You’re wrong,” we become inclined to express wonder at why someone would say something that feels so incorrect. To honor another is to accept them and their perspective as legitimate. To deny them is to sow disdain and separation. By cultivating a third bucket – curiosity, we acknowledge that there is a wider world than we can see alone. “Tell me more,” is a powerful response to disagreement that expands us. In the process of listening for understanding rather than self-validation, we inevitably discover the reasons others feel the way they do, their experience, their hurts, and joys. Empathy is a natural outcome.
A more united world starts with each of us. Rather than waiting for the world to change, we can start paying attention to our own inclination towards righteousness and see how it sets up polarization. On a daily basis, start to keep track of the times you and others might say, “You’re wrong” and “I disagree.” Accept your blindness and lead on the path that brings us together as one.