How To Avoid “Troubles”

 We in the United States have been experiencing troubles. “Troubles” is a term used to describe public unrest and disorder. On January 6th, we witnessed the storming of our Capitol and violent attacks on Congress. Riots and protests brought on by racial injustice, mass shootings, and hate groups fuel our troubles. Conspiracy theories and the spreading of dangerous misinformation spark our troubles.

Amidst our troubles, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem persuaded the state’s legislature to spend almost one million dollars to establish a new South Dakota Civics curriculum. She said the “common mission and key objective needs to be explaining why the USA is the most special nation in the history of the world.”

That comment made me recall a Pickles cartoon in which Grandma tells Grandson, “You’re unique and special, just like everybody else.” Some people believe in American exceptionalism – we’re the best and the brightest ever – but what about the people who question that or who think every nation is special in its own way?

If our mission is to teach students the USA is the most special nation in the history of the world, are we going to let students use their critical thinking skills to analyze that statement – or will we insist they accept American exceptionalism and feed them only information that supports that goal?

I’m proud of the ingenuity, tenaciousness, and strength my pioneer ancestors demonstrated as they survived and even thrived on the Dakota prairie. They came from Sweden, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, and who knows where else, and they worked hard to create a better life in what was to them a new land full of much needed opportunity. But I’m not going to deny the slave ship captain in the family tree that was discovered by my historian uncle, or ignore the duplicity and inhumanity that allowed European immigrants to acquire the land of the Indigenous people.

It’s natural to want to feel good about ourselves and our nation, but not at the expense of truth and excellent reasoning skills. If we’re truly patriots who love America, we embrace our country, warts and all, and accept the fact that all people – and nations – have strengths and weaknesses. If we can’t be honest about our mistakes, our faults, our ignorance, because we’re clinging so tightly to our superior identity, we won’t be able to develop, to adapt, and to learn from anyone whose viewpoint is different from ours. 

From 1968 to1998, Northern Ireland experienced the conflict commonly called “The Troubles,” a turbulent time in which a low-level war was fought between Catholics (Irish nationalists) and Protestants (British unionists). Catholics wished Northern Ireland would become one with the Republic of Ireland and Protestants wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom.

I visited Northern Ireland several years ago and learned that the Catholic position in The Troubles did not necessarily have anything to do with religion. As our taxi driver stated, “I’m Catholic, but I’m not religious.” The Troubles resulted from a history of injustice and prejudice, and they were eased through cooperative efforts to reduce anger and promote greater fairness throughout society.   

Northern Ireland suffered The Troubles because Protestants thought they were more special than Catholics and vice versa. But The Troubles became less troubling when Queen Elizabeth apologized for the injustices her government had inflicted on the Irish Catholics. On my tour of the Republic of Ireland, our Irish tour guide became quite emotional as she expressed her gratitude for Queen Elizabeth’s acknowledgement of oppressive actions and injustice on the part of the British. When someone sincerely apologizes and takes responsibility for the harm that was done, fear is reduced, and trust can be established. We really can’t trust someone who isn’t aware of the pain they have caused, because people are unable to change if they do not recognize what needs changing.

Education for Mutual Understanding was a program established in schools in Northern Ireland to ease The Troubles and they are currently promoting a curriculum entitled “Integration Works – Transforming Your Schools.” Students are taught to listen and empathize and are given skills to help them respond to personal and systemic injustice with compassion and creativity instead of anger and aggression. Healthy forgiveness is emphasized, meaning having the courage to confront issues with a genuine desire to understand, while working for peaceful solutions beneficial to all. Students are not taught that one group is more special than another but are instead asked to respect the inherent worth of all people.

Our brains are programmed for survival in wild environments and therefore our default system leads us to revenge, aggression, and competitiveness as we fear we won’t have enough resources or will be harmed by “the others.” We may grasp conspiracy theories instead of scientific explanations because they fit our preconceived notions and biases and require less effort to understand.

To avoid troubles, we need education that helps us understand how our brain works and that improves our thinking skills. Misinformation and conspiracy theories are dangerous, but the good news is we can be taught how to evaluate information and search for valid, reliable sources. We can learn skills that help us appreciate different perspectives and develop the ability to disagree without being disagreeable.

While teaching high school, I encountered students who were surprised to learn they could be angry without lashing out or running away. Because I didn’t lose my temper (usually, anyway) they assumed I was never angry. I assured them I did get angry, and we talked about ways to be assertive instead of aggressive or passive – to control our anger so it doesn’t control us.

I remember a situation in which students in rival gangs were invited into a mediation session that focused on creating win/win solutions. Students were amazed to discover that their foes had feelings and concerns much like their own. What was the secret to their discovery? One student explained, “I’d never listened without interrupting. I’d just assumed I knew what the others were thinking, and I only cared about what I thought.” Members of each side were able to express themselves without interference, and they then worked on fixing the problem, not the blame.

In that mediation session, the students were forced to listen to each other. The desire to listen compassionately to those outside our in-group doesn’t come naturally. Why? Because we may hear something that could upset our view of the world and our cherished beliefs. Changing our thoughts and behaviors is stressful. We worry about what our in-group will think. We could lose relationships and important connections if we’re seen as sympathetic to “those people” – the others who aren’t like us.

But it can be exciting and freeing to break down the wall we’ve constructed with the building blocks of fear, unclench our fists, quit gnashing our teeth, and let new insights and awareness flow through us. There is freedom in forgiveness and there is joy in learning and discovering.

Recently, Northern Ireland has again been plagued with violence. Brexit and economic problems have sparked rioting. These new troubles remind us our ability to effectively resolve conflict needs constant work and effort. Our mental and spiritual health requires tending in the same way our physical health does. If we do not keep working on our forgiveness and peaceful problem-solving skills, they will atrophy and our fight-or-flight instincts will predominate.

If we truly want a peaceful, just world where all human beings are respected and treated fairly and kindly, we won’t choose a curriculum that dictates one nation or one type of person is more unique and special than another. That’s the type of curriculum that was taught in Germany and Japan before World War II. If we want to avoid troubles, we will teach our students how to be kind, respectful, generous, and forgiving to everyone, not just to their own group. We will give them the skills needed to analyze and evaluate information.

And we will remind them they are unique and special, just like everyone else.

How to Win the Blame Game

Fix the Problem, Not the Blame

I hate it when I lose the blame game. It hurts my pride to admit I’m wrong, and it’s no fun suffering the consequences of my bad behavior or thoughtless words.

If I’m playing the blame game, I try to point the blame elsewhere, so maybe I can escape some pain. If I can transfer responsibility to someone else, maybe I won’t have to do the work of finding a positive resolution to whatever disappointing or hurtful event occurred. It seems easier and safer to be a victim of someone else’s errors than an empowered problem solver. However, it’s only easier in the short term – and only if I’m at ease with fooling myself.

We sometimes play the blame game because we want justice. Those who are to blame for what has gone wrong need to be punished. And we certainly do want there to be consequences and accountability when people, ourselves included, harm others. But retribution alone often creates more problems than it solves, as one bad deed leads to another. We may end up like the infamous Hatfields and McCoys, feuding for decades. Better to listen to Martin Luther King, Jr., who left us with a more fruitful legacy, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

There’s a Difference between Fault and Responsibility.

When someone treats us badly – abuses us, lies to us, disrespects us – it’s not our fault. However, if we want to take power over our lives, we must take responsibility for our reaction to whatever happens to us. We can learn to problem-solve instead of blame; seek to understand versus seek revenge; discover how to heal, not hurt.

As a research psychologist, I’ve interviewed people who’ve forgiven major offenses. They weren’t to blame for the abuse they suffered or the pain caused by others. Sadness and anger were their natural reactions and some of them spent time playing the blame game, creating a personal prison of fear, distrust, and loneliness. What they had in common, though, was that they each eventually chose to discard the identity of victim, take responsibility for their thoughts and feelings, and create a courageous, inspiring next chapter in their life story.

One man, who described himself as “a recovering racist,” said when he was angry and unforgiving he felt “like a rat scurrying around in the dark.” One woman, who was finally able to forgive an abusive parent, said she “could now be a light for others.” A Lakota woman turned to prayer after the murder of family members and before her heart could harden. She knew she wanted to be a good role model for her tiospaye (extended family).  

The people I interviewed weren’t to blame for the pain they experienced, and they needed to grieve, but they knew blaming and complaining made them victims. Taking responsibility for their feelings, thoughts, and actions empowered them and allowed them to move forward in a moral manner that gave them peace.

Individuals, Groups, and Nations Play the Blame Game

Individuals play the blame game and so do groups. Racial and ethnic inequality and discrimination are big, tough problems we Americans face. To escape blame and escape efforts to improve the situation I hear statements like, “I didn’t steal the Indian land. I didn’t have slaves. Don’t blame me. Why don’t those people just get over it?”

Unfortunately, we don’t “just get over” historical trauma, colonialism, and other injustices. Those issues are real, difficult to overcome, and not the fault of those who’ve been oppressed.

But fault is different than responsibility.

It takes strength for the oppressed to beneficially deal with a traumatic past and speak truth to power.  It takes courage for those in power to admit to past wrongs and the need to resolve injustices. But the only way to avoid more oppression and trauma is for all parties involved to acknowledge the harm, combine justice with compassion, and repair the broken parts of our system.

Individuals and groups play the blame game and so do nations. Most people know about the Holocaust and how the blame game was played against the Jewish people and other groups in Germany. What’s not as well known, however, is how the aftermath of the Great War, or World War I as we now know it, laid the groundwork for World War 2. The winners of the “war to end all wars” blamed the losers for the senseless and horrible destruction and death that occurred, and the Treaty of Versailles was all about vengeance. There was plenty of fault to go around on both sides, but the Treaty of Versailles harshly punished Germany and its allies, leading to hardship, feelings of unfairness, and a receptive environment for Hitler and the Nazi Party’s propaganda. Blame didn’t lead to progress, it led to yet more blame.

We can learn from our mistakes, however, and one of the great accomplishments of the post-World War II era was the Marshall Plan. Instead of a vindictive aftermath as in World War I, the United States, blessed with being distant from the combat and economically advantaged by the wartime mobilization, developed an aid package for rebuilding Europe. The goal was creating political stability. Secretary of State George Marshall said, “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.” We decided to fix the problem, not the blame, and Germany and Japan became allies of the United States.

Playing the “Who’s Worse” Game

Sometimes we try to escape blame by contending that the other side is worse. I remember asking a German exchange student in my world history class what he was taught about World War II. He replied, “We did some bad things, but the Soviets were worse.”

I can think of many conversations I’ve overheard and regretfully participated in that start with an issue of some kind and turn into a contest to determine who’s worse. For example, let’s say your significant other admonishes you – “You forgot to take out the garbage.” Instead of an apology, you might retort – “Well, you forgot to take the dog out last week and I had to clean up a huge mess.” If we’re not careful, we may spend the evening recounting past wrongs, and adding to a list of hurt feelings.

It’s not easy to abstain from the “who’s worse” game, but in a more constructive scenario we would respond to the recognition of our deficiency with a reply like – “I’m sorry. I’ll put it on my to do list so I don’t forget next time.” Followed by our loved one’s compassionate reply – “That’s okay, honey. I forget things too.”

Political conversations between people from different political parties playing the “who’s worse” game may go like this – “I think Republican Senator Ned Narcissist should be charged with corruption.” Followed by – “Well, your Democratic Senator Sid Sicko is far worse. He lies about everything.”

Again, if we’re not careful we may spend unproductive hours describing offensive behaviors by politicians from the “other side,” uselessly trying to persuade someone their side is worse than ours. We become polarized and the more someone tries to convince us we’re wrong, the more we dig in and defend our position. Our polarization paralyzes us.

If we want to resolve an issue, we need to focus on solutions, not on who’s worse. We need political conversations more like this – “I’m really worried about Senator Narcissist’s actions. I wonder what we can do to reduce corruption in politics.” Followed by – “Yes, Senator Sicko seems to be making bad choices as well. How do you think we could improve the system?”

Unfortunately, no one’s behavior improves just because someone else’s behavior is worse. Neither the blame game nor the “who’s worse” game fixes problems.

So what does? Getting our fears under control, taking responsibility, opening our minds and hearts to others, and working on solutions.

How do you win the blame game? By refusing to play.

Left Wing Loves Right Wing

What if I told you the left wing and the right wing belong to the same bird?

– Author Unknown

My husband and I have been married 38 years. My husband is a Republican who is quite content being part of South Dakota’s majority party. I’ve been a Democrat since I registered to vote at age 18 and am quite content to remain part of South Dakota’s minority party. What is perhaps surprising is that we both are also quite content to stay married to each other until death do us part.

Have our political party labels caused some problems? Yes.

My husband has been asked questions like, “How can you be married to a Democrat?” Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and powerful politicians say all sorts of horrible things about me based on my political party label. I know because I listen to KOTA radio and I read their tweets. Since I live in South Dakota, I don’t hear as much criticism of Republicans (unless they’re criticizing each other), but I realize nasty, demeaning name calling plagues both political parties.   

Marriage and relationships are difficult enough without certain politicians and media maniacs doing their best to hinder our efforts at understanding and unity. Powerful people are encouraging us to distrust and disrespect each other. It’s frightening because it wasn’t all that long ago that we had a horrible civil war in our country in which family members, neighbors – fellow Americans – fought and killed each other over issues that continue to plague us today.

I’m an educator and have spent my career in the service sector. My husband has spent his entire career as a businessman. I love teaching and the community service work I have done and do, but I count myself lucky to have fallen in love with someone who could show me a different perspective. I’ve studied and taught economics but being married to a businessman has helped me better understand the complexities of a sector I wasn’t previously connected to. My husband gets to hear from me about the education and service segments of our nation. Ideally, we will always appreciate the insights and awareness each of us brings to the relationship and use our diverse experiences to make wiser decisions and produce more intelligent opinions. And often (not always unfortunately) that is just what happens.

There’s a myth out there that we can’t talk about politics or religion in polite company. We’re just too different and can’t agree. It’s true that our pride, egos, and lack of self-control can really derail a conversation and ruin a dinner party. But if we don’t communicate, we’ll never understand those with different life experiences and concerns. We’ll never see the whole picture and we’ll be stuck with our limited vision, unable to let in the light of knowledge and empathy, unable to courageously explore new ideas and adapt to an ever-changing world.

Another myth is that it’s weak and wishy-washy to change our minds or consider compromise. If we believe it’s weak to admit uncertainty or seek balanced solutions, we certainly won’t listen to anyone who challenges our self-declared righteousness, especially if they’re from a group or political party we’ve been told is inferior and trying to ruin our country. We cover ourselves with a shield of defensiveness and pride and attack those who disagree with us. Just as detrimental can be hiding behind a shield of shame and denial, afraid to challenge lies and injustice.

Tolerating uncertainty, listening to different perspectives, and striving for cooperative, win-win solutions isn’t just kind and nice; it’s productive, intelligent, and wise. Imagine if we tried not to impose our views on others and not to conform to the demands of others. Instead, we shared our thoughts freely and respectfully, without fear or manipulation, and listened to the stories of others with open minds and open hearts. That behavior could result in genuine dialogue that focused on solving problems and finding answers that unify, not divide us.

If we want to fly, we need our right wing, our left wing, and everything in between working together. We can trade in our shields of defensiveness and denial and pick up the shield of love and compassion. That takes courage and effort.

My husband and I may be labeled differently when we go to vote, but we, like most Democrats and Republicans, have so much in common. Both of us support equal rights, affordable health care for all, clean water and air, parks and wilderness areas, freedom from unnecessary regulations, sensible gun laws, responsible fiscal policies, child protection, and the list goes on. We value generosity, honesty, hard work, conscientiousness, compassion and respect for others, and the list goes on.

There will always be conflict and struggle because we’re humans who have different needs, experiences, and personalities. We’re not always logical or rational and we get emotional about issues that matter deeply to us. But we don’t have to be enemies, and we don’t have to listen to people who try to convince us that we are. We can dare to fly using both our wings.