“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” — Mother Teresa
I want to talk with you for a minute about the United States as a Relationship System.
When I say “Relationship System,” I mean something that’s in some ways quite similar to the nervous system in your body. For example, imagine you’re running a marathon. You’re determined to beat a certain time you’ve set in your head, and you’ve been training your body for months to achieve that goal. But on the day of the race, at about mile 14, your right heel begins to scream in pain. Now nothing else in your body is hurting, at least not yet. The vast majority of your body is signaling All Systems Go, except for this annoying heel, which is screaming at you that something isn’t right. So what do you do? How do you respond to that signal in your heel?
This is similar to how a Relationship System works. A Relationship System is a web of people who are linked together via a network of relationships. Such a system can be as small as two individuals (such a married couple) or as large as the entire population of the world. At whatever level you parse it out, however, every relationship system tends to function a bit like a living organism, like the body of the athlete running the marathon. No one part of the system has a complete picture of the Current Reality. Rather, each part of the system provides vital (but partial) information back to the whole, and the “whole” must collectively decide how to proceed based on that information.
Right now in our nation, we’ve all begun to recognize that there’s a significant breakdown in this information loop within our National Relationship System. A large segment of the nation perceives the current reality in our country in a radically different way from another large segment of the nation. We’re all looking at the same picture, but perceiving very different realities. It’s like we’re the marathon runner, but the signal pathways between the major parts of our body have been cut off. Part of us is feeling one way, another part is feeling very differently. But the connection between the two has been severed, so neither part understands what the other part is experiencing. Thus the whole body suffers.
Now, I have some very good news about all this. In Relationship Systems Theory, which is a big part of the work I do every day, there is a simple solution to this system-wide breakdown. It’s so simple, in fact, it almost sounds too simplistic to be true. But my experience, and more importantly loads of research, have demonstrated that it works, time and again.
What is the solution?
We have to listen to each other. Really listen. Not to argue, or to change anybody’s mind about anything. But simply listen to understand, and to empathize.
You may ask, “How would that solve anything?”, but that’s where the magic of Relationship Systems comes into play. Because as soon as any Relationship System empathically listens to all the voices within it, the entire System automatically begins to transform. It automatically shifts into a new, more wholistic perception of itself and of Reality, opening it to new options, new possibilities, and new potential solutions to its current challenges.
This is the essential next step for so many of the seemingly intractable challenges we face as a nation.
You want to address racism in the U.S. in a way that actually changes the system? Then safe forums must be created where all voices within the system are given equal space and honor to tell their story. The story of what it’s like to grow up African American, yes, but also what it’s like to grow up White, what it’s like to grow up Asian, or Hispanic, or Native American. All voices heard and honored equally. Do that, with empathy and without trying to force anything, and the system will change.
The same applies to our great political divide. Regardless of who becomes president in the next election, the most transformative thing we citizens could do for our country in the wake of our toxic election cycle is to create safe spaces where people of opposing political and social worldviews can sit down and listen to one another—again, not to argue or try to change anyone’s beliefs about anything, but simply to understand and empathize with your fellow citizen’s experience of life in our country. If we were to do this, the entire System would shift for the better.
Of course, I fully recognize that what I'm advocating here, though simple, is far from easy. Such conversations would require intentional humility, an honest curiosity, and a willingness to stand courageously for hope and positive possibility in our common life. But even so, a conversation like this is not beyond the reach of any of us.
You want to be part of the solution? Begin with your family. Find the one in your family who doesn’t perceive the world the way you do, and ask them to tell you all about it. Listen. Don’t argue. Practice empathy. Fight to understand. And if they’re willing to listen to you, too, share your perspective as well. Don’t try to change anyone’s mind. Just tell your story.
From there, move on to your neighbor, your coworker, that Facebook friend you so passionately disagree with. Listen to them all. Strive to get a more complete picture of what’s really going on in the nation, not just from your point of view, but from everyone else’s point of view, too.
What we need most right now is not a Revolution, or a War, or a Secession, or Some Way to Stop Those Crazy People. What we need is a Listening Movement. We need to humble ourselves, to begin with the premise that each of us is wrong about at least part of what we think we see, and to acknowledge we need each other to find the Real Truth beneath it all.
We really can get through this, one willing conversation at a time.
Will you listen?
A week after posting this blog, this TED Talk interview with social researcher Jonathan Haidt was posted online. Titled “Can a Divided America Heal?”, it’s well worth the 20-minute investment for anyone interested in helping heal the political divide in our communities across the nation: