Citizen, Heal Thyself
A country cannot heal unless the individuals of that nation heal themselves. We cannot expect this country to come together if each one of us, in our individual capacity, remains divided.
As I sit down to write this post, all major U.S. news networks have announced that Joe Biden has been elected the 46th President of the United States of America. The country finds itself divided now elected the 46th President of the United States of America. The country finds itself divided now perhaps more than it has ever been since the start of the Civil War more than 150 years ago. I trust, however, that most decent people, regardless of political persuasion, long for the return of a country united by common aims and values. Now is not the time for recrimination, anger, and resentment. Now is the time for healing.
What does it mean for a nation to heal? To answer this, we must acknowledge that a nation is no more than a collection of individuals. A country thus cannot heal, unless the individuals of that nation heal themselves. Individual reconciliation is a precondition to that of the whole. We cannot expect this country to come together if each one of us, in our individual capacity, remains divided.
I write a lot about polarities or paradox – natural, healthy tensions within each of us that, if integrated, enable us to lead and live more effectively. If unattended to, on the other hand, these tensions lead to individual and collective suffering. Let me explain.
As you grow up, you begin to form beliefs about yourself, others, and the world. These beliefs occur largely in response to your environment – your culture, your upbringing, the events that happen in your life. Most of these beliefs are designed to keep you safe, to make you feel included and loved, to make sense of the chaotic and uncertain world around you. Certain of these beliefs become incredibly important to you. We call these values. They help guide how you spend your time, the choices you make, and the behaviors you engage in. They serve as a sort of program that directs how you live your life.
The problem with values, however, is that, for the most part, they remain subconscious. They automatically drive your behavior. Your actions, therefore, are oftentimes not the product of choice, but the automatic results of a set of unexamined rules. More importantly, because values represent your deeply held beliefs, it is unlikely that you have the capacity to question them. You likely lack the ability to see much possibility, if any, for the truth of anything opposite to what you deem most important.
Now imagine a country of 330 million people, most of whom are automatically driven by a set of unquestioned, deeply held subconscious values. And that many of those values conflict with each other. Over time, without attending to these differences, the country will divide and polarize. Worse yet, the more a system polarizes, the more likely it will be that the individuals in that system move farther to either end of the polarity. What results is a vicious cycle that more often than not ends in a complete rupture. There is only one way to avoid this outcome. And, like most things of importance in life, it begins with you. With each of us.
I’ll offer an example. For most of my life, I had a deeply held belief, or value, around personal freedom. This value, no doubt, was the product of my childhood. I essentially became the parent of my household at a young age. Someone telling me what to do was antithetical to who I was. I thus gravitated to relationships and career paths that allowed me to call the shots and avoid being told what to do. Like almost all values, personal freedom has its opposite. In this case, it is accountability to others. For many years, I did not have the wisdom to see my strong preference for freedom nor the maturity to appreciate the importance of accountability. Too much accountability to others represented a sort of psychological death to me. So, my entire life was constructed around the subconscious value of personal freedom. I made it work. But as my life became more complex – marriage, children, increasing levels of responsibility at work – my internal state of polarization left me increasingly unable to live and lead effectively. Imagine a spouse who demands almost total personal freedom and finds it difficult to make the personal sacrifices necessary for a healthy relationship. That was me. That I can now say I have a healthy and loving marriage is due largely to the amazing patience of my wife. It is also the product of my taking responsibility to grow up and to reconcile the divided part of me. I began to see that I was stuck in a false dichotomy, where I believed I was forced to choose between personal freedom OR accountability to others in my life. Everything changed when I undertook the hard work of integrating these two opposing values. I realized that I could embrace and enjoy the benefits of BOTH personal responsibility AND accountability to others. By the way, I’m still very much a work in progress and will always be. This is the nature of life.
I assert that each of you reading this post has the opportunity to begin or continue the work of personal reconciliation. The work is not easy. It requires you to take on values that you have likely held as sacred for much of your life. The key is to recognize that this work does not mean abandoning those values. It means expanding your beliefs to include the benefits of the opposite. It requires letting go of the fear of the opposite that drives the preferred value in the first place. If you commit to this work, it will provide you with the ability and freedom to navigate an increasingly complex world with more ease, understanding, and compassion, without compromising what is most important to you. You will begin to see value differences not as a source of inevitable division but as an opportunity to come together. Most importantly, your individual work will serve as a necessary precondition to the collective work we must now all undertake – the healing and uniting of this great nation of ours.
A quote I’m pondering. “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins – it never will – but that it doesn’t die.” John Steinbeck
The last sentence of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address is worth revisiting: “With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
I finally got around to reading Zen in the Art of Archery by Herrigel Eugen. All of 52 pages, this book is a sublime meditation on the subject of mastery, written by a German philosophy professor who spends six years in Japan studying under the tutelage of a Master in the ancient art of archery. If you’re interested in mastering anything in your life, perhaps most importantly yourself, I highly recommend it.