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Posts from — March 2016

Nothing Personal

Nothing Personal

Once I saw a greeting card with these words on the cover: “The secret to happiness is…” and on the inside: “Try not to get too personally involved in your own life.” I consider this a fine bit of wisdom, rarely found in greeting cards or anywhere else these days, because this habit of taking things personally seems to have infiltrated our national character to the point that people kill each other over parking spaces. In the age of terrorism, with violence escalating on both sides of the law, we’re all a little jumpy, and would do well to take a deep breath and a few steps back. It is possible to “fight fair,” to find common ground, and along the way, to disagree without being disagreeable, to discuss charged issues without raised voices, finger-pointing, or churlish swagger.

To illustrate: Sometimes in couples counseling, one person comes to the session with the complaint that the other did some hurtful thing, and in the cases where the suffering runs the deepest over, say, having been lied to or disregarded and so on, part of the narrative invariably is, “I can’t believe he/she did this to me.” You see, this “to me” is the bit that confesses that the hurtful action is being taken personally. So, the first thing we try to do is see what happens to the complaint if we subtract this “to me.” We step back and take a deep breath and ask the one who was hurt by the act to reframe it so it becomes simply, “He/she did this.” When we make this little change, what else changes? Suddenly, a space opens up around the problem. Reactions slow down; there’s an easing of the constriction, and it becomes possible for the hurt party to look at what happened more on its own terms. As the firestorms of personal reaction subside, both parties become less defensive, and the one who committed the act can take newfound responsibility for its consequences. Most of us don’t do things “to” anyone. We do things. We have our reasons. Sometimes those reasons come out of inner contradiction, unexamined assumptions, life script imperatives, or pathological imbalances that never got addressed and resolved. When the wounded person lets go of the “to me” and considers the hurtful act in this broader light, it becomes possible to take it less personally, less as a betrayal, and perhaps even to begin to understand it, to see it for what it was, and in this seeing, compassion enters the conversation. The act was destructive. It was thoughtless. Maybe it was a deal breaker. But it wasn’t personal. We can hold to our human and ethical and emotional requirements without making ourselves a victim and someone else the “bad guy.” I’m not saying hurtful actions are never committed with the aim, wittingly or not, of inflicting pain of one sort or another, but this sort of thing appears to be rare. In those cases, where it actually is personal, the problem is more serious, and a different sort of intervention is needed.

Which brings to mind the current political climate here in the U.S. One can hardly turn the television off fast enough, as there seems to be no end to how low candidates are willing to go in taking things personally, name-calling, and puerile posturing. It is not something the electorate should tolerate. We have a right to expect maturity, disinterest, and self-possession from those who claim to be fit to lead the nation. Most of what these candidates have shown us about their character should have disqualified them months ago, but their belligerence and demagoguery seem to have captivated and rallied the disenfranchised. These days, more than ever, we need our national leaders to be mature, thoughtful men and women who can engage the issues calmly, consider diverse approaches and creative courses of action, encourage real dialogue between polarized factions, and bring people together to work out inclusive and healing solutions, to “build not walls but bridges,” as Pope Francis put it recently. In a volatile world where violence has become increasingly hard to predict and prevent, the last thing we need is a volatile president fighting wars of arrested development and taking matters of state personally. I, for one, certainly hope that come November, the national electorate will prove to be at least as wise as a greeting card.

March 27, 2016   Comments Off on Nothing Personal