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Relationships / Society

Compassion for the Holidays

Compassion for the Holidays

It’s been a tense year, to say the least. Political polarization is at an all-time high and people on both sides are angry. Many people don’t just disagree with the other side’s views anymore; they think the other side’s views—and the people who hold them—are abhorrent.

It can be hard enough to navigate political differences with strangers and acquaintances. But what are we supposed to do when the ones holding the views we find abhorrent are sitting across the Thanksgiving table from us?

Before we rush to disabuse our relatives of their political views, we should consider another important lesson we’ve learned this year: People aren’t just angry, they’re also hurting. From the #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport movements to the tragic suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, we’ve seen a lot of pain emerge in 2018.

As people have shared their heartbreaking experiences over the past year, we’ve discovered that there are a lot of people suffering in silence, under a weight of hidden depression, anxiety, trauma, abuse, or addiction. We’ve learned that we don’t always know what other people are going through, even the people under our own roof.

There are a lot of people and causes out there that need our attention, but sometimes the people in need of attention are sitting right across from us at the dinner table. So, as much as we might want to argue with our relatives about politics, we should first consider: What does my family really need in this situation, at this time?

Pain and suffering are not partisan issues; they’re universal. And sometimes, this requires putting politics aside and just being there for each other. Not because we agree, but because we’re family.

Like many millennials, I disagree with my parents on a lot of social and political issues. However, that has never stopped them from loving me. My parents don’t love me because of my political party; they love me because I’m their daughter. And in a world where so many people want to know what side we’re on before they decide whether to listen to us, we need this.

We need a place where love and support aren’t dependent on us agreeing with the other person. A place where our acceptance is not based on how we vote or how we protest or what we say on social media.

Taking time to love our families despite our differences isn’t just good for our families, though; it’s good for our country. It gives us a chance to get out of our isolated, polarized camps and find common ground with those we disagree with. And it’s only when we find common ground with those we disagree with that we can start building.

Decades of research has shown that debates on contentious issues rarely change people’s minds. People generally aren’t changed by facts and figures or by talking points from sources they don’t trust. People are changed by relationships.

When we get to know people on the other side of the aisle, we begin to see that people are more than just their political party. People aren’t just Democrats or Republicans; they’re also parents, spouses, neighbors, teachers, doctors, friends.

From my own experience, I know that nothing is quite as effective in getting me to question simplistic political stereotypes than thinking of people I know who don’t fit those stereotypes. Having grown up in a conservative family in the Midwest and having spent the past several years in the liberal halls of academia, I now have friends and family members on all sides of the social and political spectrum. And although debates with my family and friends don’t always change my mind on the issues, my relationships with them do. They help me see the world in more nuanced, less dichotomous ways.

When I hear people talking about those they disagree with in stereotypical terms, my first instinct is to think of the people I know. When I hear liberals say, “Conservatives are greedy,” I think, “Wait a minute, many of the most generous people I know are conservatives.” And when I hear conservatives say, “Liberals are lazy,” I think, “Wait a minute, I know a lot of liberals who work long hours to build a better life for themselves and their family and to do good for society.”

That doesn’t mean there is never a place for political debate or a time for expressing disapproval. It just means we need to be cautious. Before we start talking politics over dinner, we need to evaluate the strength of our foundations. Have we established mutual trust? Are we willing to listen and learn from the other person or are we just trying to win a debate and show the other person they’re wrong? Is the other person willing to engage in a respectful dialogue? Do they even want to talk about political issues?

Politics is a heavy load. A strong foundation of mutual trust and a willingness to learn from each other might be able to support the weight, but weaker foundations may collapse. As countless studies on interpersonal dynamics have shown, contempt is one of the quickest ways to destroy a relationship.

Sometimes we make the most political progress by not actually discussing politics, but by building relationships, listening to people’s stories, and finding common ground. There is a time for setting politics aside and just loving each other. And what better place to start than at home? As Mother Teresa reminds us, “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.”

This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts government and politics from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.

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Jen Zamzow has a Ph.D. in philosophy and cognitive science from the University of Arizona and teaches ethics for Concordia University Irvine and UCLA. She writes about faith and doubt, meaning, morality, and motherhood at jenzamzow.com.

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