Since Donald Trump entered the national consciousness in 2016, he has harped on everything wrong with America. While it’s healthy to confess the bad things we’ve done as a country in order to do better in the future, it is also vital to remember the good stuff. Or, in the words of the Buddhist Thomas Bien: Water the flowers, not the weeds.
Concentrating on negativity is contagious: If we listen only to gloom and doom on the news and social media, pretty soon it will seep into our subconscious, causing weeds to proliferate within us. Unfortunately, politicians are capitalizing on that.
According to Stanford University research, online incivility on Twitter surged 23% after Trump became President. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in our cynical age, politicians were rewarded for following the President’s example: the more uncivil their tweet, the more attention, and approval it got, as measured by “large quantities of “likes” and “retweets” on the platform.”
It now appears politicians believe they must fight dirtier to keep up. It’s a race to the bottom.
I’ve also observed this trend spreading to usually broad-minded Democrats. In cascading numbers, they are copying the other party, vilifying not just their policies but the character of Republicans themselves. Everything has turned into a hyperpartisan street fight where those with the sharpest rhetorical elbows get the most attention — which, at least in the short term, puts them on top.
My question is, is it possible to stop being so toxic? To find an answer I turned to Krista Tippett, the host of On Being, who is a genius at untangling moral snarls. Back in 2018, she tackled the question, “what does civility actually mean and is it enough?”
She quotes Rainer Maria Rolla, who counsels that when we cannot live the answers to our questions because of societal discord, we are called upon to live the questions by having conversations with those with whom we disagree.
Tippett says we must prepare ourselves before encountering someone who doesn’t think like us. We must “summon in yourself a readiness to encounter them as human beings and not just as their positions or ‘that other side,’ to open ourselves up to let them surprise us, to let them not be quite as simple or as evil as they may have become in our mind.”
As a psychotherapist, I was trained to do just that: To be open to the moment and harbor no preconceptions when meeting new patients. Inevitably, by getting to know them first without prejudgement, I found everyone to have highly commendable qualities flourishing within an complex maze of personality traits.
Because the client and I were involved in a therapeutic relationship that dealt with patient pain, not politics, it might be a long time, or perhaps never, before I found out how they voted. Often I was surprised at how they had voted because they did not fit the standard stereotypes.
It’s a terrible thing to be prejudged as unworthy, whether one is a Republican or Democrat.
However, civility is not simply making yourself say nice things about someone while angry steam is hissing from your ears. That’s a passive-aggressive weapon, Tippett cautions, resulting from a simplistic, binary understanding of civility. It doesn’t work with complicated selves like our fellow Americans — any more than it would succeed with us.
On the other hand, “caring is not capitulating:” civility is opening up to each other because, like it or not, we share a life together; it’s “about being willing to be present one human being to another.”
To establish strong relationships with others, We must be able to honestly self-disclose to each other without fear or preconceptions. And, when alone, it’s equally important to do the same thing, opening up to ourselves without prejudgment. I find meditation helpful to accomplish this: it pulls me into the present moment, squelching ruminations about the past and fears about the future. The result is calming and restorative, allowing me the luxury of “just being,” something exceedingly rare in our frenetic modern age.
However we do it, it’s very simple: Water the flowers, not the weeds.