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Traversing the great divide

Traversing the great divide
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Katy Byrne, MA, LMFT, is a Marriage and Family Therapist living in the Bay Area for over 35 years and author of The Power of Being Heard. ConversationswithKaty.com.

I think we're missing something in our thinking about the great divide.


What we have overlooked or denied as we stare at the lack of unification in our world, is our individual responsibility in fueling divisiveness.

In America we shun anyone different than us, or judge and yell at those who disagree with our views. We resist working through conflict with loved ones, gossiping about them or swearing at them under our breath instead.

We need to name the root of this problem first before we can change it. There is a destructive force inside each of us.

I’ve seen this by watching clients in my psychotherapy office. They enter the room resistant, feeling “right” about their rage or defended against feeling hurt, longing or fear. They criticize themselves or each other. They can’t ask for what they need. Their vulnerable wishes and emotions - like fear, hurt or shame are covered up by blame, despair, giving up, anxiety, break ups, self-harm, shunning, abandonment, exhausting arguments, stonewalling, lawsuits, and more.

I have the honor of witnessing clients in psychotherapy repairing broken places, bridging their internal or relational gaps or becoming more whole. They heal and learn to regulate their harmful impulses. They bow to the humble, tangled task of understanding themselves and each other. Their feelings under their defenses are hurt and fear, although hard and embarrassing to admit. But these softer emotions open up hearts, connections and worlds.

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They don’t lose power, they gain it and a voice - by asking for their wishes. These heroic people admit their deeper needs, their longings, fears and concerns. In this way they create communication and unity in their homes and lives. I believe this new way of having difficult dialogue can be duplicated within politics, in organizations and within debate everywhere.

We are each a part of the torn fabric of a larger community. Without our cohesion, we are like a frayed sweater - unable to support each other and therefore weakened in our own alliances whether it’s our volunteer activities, our neighborhood gatherings, workplaces, families, friendships, marriages, etc.

We can criticize and blame all day, which is what we spend most of our political conversations doing. We can change laws or policies and create some momentary safety - better freeways, more jobs, affordable housing, or more trained police, fewer guns, etc. We can improve things – all activism matters…helping the animals, picking up trash instead of throwing it, or joining organizations. But, in the end, we have to learn to bridge divides. At the root of anger and argument, violence or destruction is pain and fear. The personal is political.

I want to be clear, pro- action is profoundly important. Without Rosa Parks,

Gloria Steinem or Abraham Lincoln we would not be as far along as we are. Without brave people speaking up and blowing whistles, like Bob Woodward’s breaking apart Watergate and as far back as Joan of Arc, Thoreau's civil disobedience, many brave souls like Lincoln and Mandela have forged a path. This includes so many more humans, the people who rescue dogs or deer, firefighters and brave citizens, without them we would be in even more danger, you who write to the editor and join helpful organizations all matter - without you we would not be as far along in the evolution of our species.

National defenses are much like personal defenses. We, the people stonewall each other, we are resentful and revengeful, we shoot to kill with our words or deeds. The round ball above our necks - the amygdala inside the brain is a worthy opponent, a problem. It insists on the "fight or flight" impulse, it likes war. Humans lurch into rage even when someone comes too close to our car bumpers.

People have almost completely massacred our world at this juncture. We have to get to the roots of our repetitious compulsion, our insistence on fury and fighting – the

real weeds or they will grow back. We can meditate or believe in God, but our instinct to anger or judge others is the problem. And it has great force. Like weeds, we can pull them, spray them with poison, complain about them each spring, but they will grow back- even through thick cement - unless we understand them better.

I watch it happen before my eyes in my therapy office, as they bug out of my own head. I feel like I am sitting in the front row of a panoramic movie theater as I hear couples and family debates, the fights they have had over and over or shut down in an effort not to argue. Often someone rolls their eyes, "I thought we talked about this. Do we have to go over it again?” And I say to them, "you can yell at the weeds for growing back, but the roots will pop back without tending.” And underneath their impatience is their own fear of criticisms. We all want to be heard and seen.

I show them a new way to hear each other and I hear them exhale. Their relief can be heard like an echo through the ages. These couples and families find themselves and each other through transparency, their true stories and excruciating vulnerability.

I sometimes imagine a huge water balloon that they are holding up between them as they argue. When it breaks, the baby is born. I know peace if possible.

The urge to dominate and destroy emerges from anxiety - even Trump is defending against his own shame and inadequacies. He couldn’t possibly have really lost the vote, so he flails and attacks others to prove that he is in fact, okay. We all defend against our own vulnerability.

Just look inside, you will find your own inner terrorist is resentful at someone else or at yourself. The inner critic says we are too fat, too flat, too old or too short or someone else is. This inner terrorist, Darth Vader is alive in us all and needs somewhere to go with that fire. So, we project this inner tyrant out and tear at the fabric of our own relationships every day.

In the end, better freeways, free food, money and war will not save us, though they will help a lot – but the great divide we are all so concerned about, the possibility of more dictatorships and desecration of our place here on the planet will only be repaired by learning to regulate our anger, more insightful education, teaching the kids communication skills, conflict resolution, more mediators and mental health support. Weaving the sweater back is work.

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