We Need an Emotional Revolution

How we deal with these difficult emotional experiences becomes critical to the way we move through our lives, adding to life’s satisfactions or burdening us with chronic distress.

Oh, 2020. The problems that we all face during this terrible, remarkable year continue.

It’s completely normal for us all to be dealing with very strong emotions; mounting isolation, anger, frustrations and fear can overrun even our favorite coping skills. How we deal with these difficult emotional experiences becomes critical to the way we move through our lives, adding to life’s satisfactions or burdening us with chronic distress.

It seems to me that learning to manage ourselves is the work of a lifetime and our earliest teachers are parents, siblings, grandparents and other close relationships who model how to deal with life’s challenges.

As we move toward the expanding social network of school and neighborhood, we inevitably take one of two emotional directions: we either gain the skills of self-management of distress tolerance and cognitive emotional understanding (sometimes chronically soothing our pain with less-helpful substances like alcohol) or, we seek relief by pushing our pain onto others. That displacement looks like blame, denial, verbal or physical intimidation, bullying, or violence.

No doubt you’ve noticed as I have a recent cultural shift toward externalizing fear and frustration that fuels the rhetoric of division, cynicism, judgment and hate. Whether it is the dangerous rise in hate groups, shootings and public violence against others or the distrust and bitterness of partisan politics in governing, none of us have been spared the real results of people who don’t deal well with frustration and pain.

This cultural and personal failure to manage our struggles has dangerous, real life consequences. Minimizing public health science has meant we have continuing, dangerous exposure to pandemic. Not acknowledging our national bias toward white, European history and our legacy of slavery means people of color are still judged as less worthy, less human and experience bias and bigotry every day. Not being willing to look at the mythology of capitalism and the American Dream means the rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer — the poorest ending up homeless on our streets, in our neighborhood parks and our prisons.

Social psychologists like Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind, The Happiness Hypothesis and The Coddling of the American Mind) study moral reasoning and ethical leadership. They research and study the way we behave together. They have helped me better understand just what has been stoking our country’s increasing violent speech and actions in recent years. And it is no one person or political party’s fault.

One of the most shocking findings of their research is the way social media has impacted our shift toward emotional acting out and political extremism. Social media platforms are designed to keep us spending time on the site as a way to generate income (in the way of paid advertising) for the media companies.

How have sites like Facebook, Reddit, Instagram and Pinterest been engineering our attention? By creating easy ways to form interest groups and ways for us to react to one another with comments, like buttons, emojis and post sharing, all rapid emotional reactions that tend to fuel more responses.

The recent Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, describes this strategy with candid interviews with the engineers who designed these sites. For the last 10 years, millions of us have spent untold hours reading, reacting and sharing information online, and now bad actors, including foreign governments, are exploiting these sites to stoke anger, despair and distrust during this bitter election and pandemic.

So, what can you do about it? Take a look at how you communicate. How do you manage your interactions in real life as well as online? If there is ever a time in our lives when we all need to hold ourselves accountable for our emotions, for the way we think, comment and react to other people and their ideas, it is now.

Assess how you show up in public spaces. You are in charge of your emotional responses, in person and virtually. Bring your best self to your Facebook page, your news article comments, the internet memes you share.

It’s time for an emotional revolution. One that values honestly, humility, toleration and facts. We can turn our national mood around, but it will take every one of us to grow up and manage hard emotions better.

Originally written for “Spiritual Reflections,” a weekly column appearing in the Savage Pacer newspaper.

A Divided House

Perhaps like you, I have been thinking continuously of how we have failed to overcome our national crisis of pandemic while other countries, such as New Zealand and Canada have had such different progressions of disease. There is a reason the pandemic continues in our country: we haven’t found a way to come together and fight this virus as one people.

Over the last 5 months our nation’s leadership seems split in two camps, one urging attention to strict social mitigation strategies, and the other minimizing the severity of the danger and ignoring the direction of our nation’s public health and infectious disease scientists. A portion of the population protests wearing cotton masks in public while others in their communities die. So, this is how we are going into a new school year: attempting to get back to in person learning, while trying to be safe, generally assuming that teachers, staff and families may all, at various times, come down with Covid19.

         I have run out of words to describe my feelings about the sorry state of our national attitude toward science, public health, the vulnerable, the poor, and necessary sacrifice for the common good. I am so sorry that you and I are kept from friends, from grandchildren, from vacations, graduations, weddings and normal on-campus college classes. But it’s not just our summer we have lost. Service and medical workers are exhausted and getting sick. Seniors are suffering from isolation and deep loneliness in nursing homes. Indigenous people on far flung reservations are falling ill without adequate fresh water sources or health services. Young adults are frozen in their job searches, businesses declare bankruptcy and millions have lost their jobs and benefits. And just this past week, current efforts to re-size the Postal Service come just as millions of Americans plan to vote by mail, threatening to impact the outcome of our November presidential election.

The days are long past that people of faith can say politics is not appropriate in church. White clergy have kept silent long enough. Many in our country seem intent on returning our nation to some kind of nostalgic vision of its past self, where we can pretend that black lives don’t matter, that individualism cloaked as “freedom” is the highest good, that we can build walls to keep out anyone who isn’t here already, and that white wealthy business owners know what is best for every American. If that is what Christianity looks like to you, you have only come in contact with a kind of white cultural American Christianity, one that worked hard to insulate itself from the actual life of Jesus Christ.

The God I believe created the world is the same God who, in Jesus, sought out the powerless, healed the sick, blessed the forgotten and challenged the way some accumulated wealth, privilege and power at the expense of the weak. He spoke of God’s kingdom as the power to free us from selfishness and fear and turn toward healing the world. This kingdom talk so threatened the men in power in Israel 2000 years ago that he was whipped and publicly crucified in order to silence him.

         I believe many Christians are so offended by Jesus they don’t want to hear how his priorities judge human politics. The values and policies we vote for and fund are exactly the way that we live our faith in our hometowns and states. Jesus called us to recognize the dark powers of sin that exist in us all, to turn from their illusions and be sent to live courageously in community with one another. What that means to me is that I’m called to be consistently for my neighbor and not against her.

         In a few weeks’ time, voters will again get a chance to choose a direction for our nation at the highest levels. No set of candidates is perfect because perfection isn’t humanly possible. But I urge you to reflect on how your faith intersects with politics, because if we claim to be Jesus followers, his kingdom critiques how we live together, how we solve problems, set laws and create vision for our nation. May we find a renewed commitment to become one people from many, as we seek to recover from such a difficult year.