Talking It Through: Can We Have A 21st Century Conversation?

The bottom line is, it’s about how we honor the love. First, the love of those we have lost, then, the love for those who remain. Lincoln at Gettysburg said, “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.” Just as we cannot compensate for the lives of those who are gone to those who lost them. The loss is too great. Our work now is different.

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work… to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion… – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

It’s equally true in our private lives and in the nation. We grow when we are able to derive greater strength from the adversity we face. To suffer successfully is to get the wisdom from it. Suffering expands us, or contracts us. Growth is not a guarantee. It is a choice. We can suffer unsuccessfully.  With crises the nation can rise to a new horizon of its promise, or it can sink into rancor and division. We choose. How we come to view each other as a result of our suffering is the key.

The anguish from such horrible loss as we have experienced since 12/14 grips us all with a sense of powerlessness over the workings of fate. This powerlessness activates our most primitive survival responses of fear and anger. Unless we treat this sense of powerlessness wisely, this fear and anger can dominate our thinking, feeling and behaving and undermine our character. Their corrosive effects disrupt our relationships and corrupt our civil discourse. These emotions have the power to set us against each other needlessly causing us to see enemies where there are potential allies. These base emotions limit our options and make our world smaller when our diversity, if activated by a compassionate united vision, could unleash undreamed of human potential.

There is a choice to be made when these frightened and angry feelings well up.  When our sense of powerlessness grips us we can choose to see it as the sort of shared experience that unites us all as human beings. This is the human condition: we are powerless over much of life. Suffering and powerlessness should lead us to recognize our common humanity.  They are shared experiences not only between us and our spouses and loved ones, but also in our town and beyond to the country and all of humanity. This recognition of our powerlessness is the beginning of compassion if we keep it free from the contamination of fear and anger and instead, blend it with our bottom line, with love. This is what suffering successfully is about.

If we don’t make this choice, our grief is distorted into anger and blame, to fear and despair. Alienation then breaks the bonds of relationships. The promise of a deeper intimacy and the hope of the possibility for a deeper nurturance from others and greater commitment to their welfare is lost. We start to inhabit camps of “Us” and “Them” when there is really only us.

If we loose site of the opportunity for growth in compassion and unity that suffering presents to us, we tragically focus instead on the futile attempt to have power over the uncontrollable. We fight over symbols of control. Our lack of control over money, policy, the opinions of others only fuel this sense of powerlessness and lead us into these understandable, but ultimately destructive patterns of angry social discourse. This is the unnecessary, avoidable human-caused tragedy that is layered over the initial tragic loss over which we had no power.

As we move more deeply into the exhaustion of our response to 12-14, we will need to be vigilant to see the natural tendencies of fear and anger as they rise up in us as a result of our powerlessness over life. The despair and blame they create are corrosive to us, our relationships and to the fabric of our community. These very responses have poisoned the national dialogue and paralyzed our ability to govern ourselves.

There is another way. We can choose compassion when everything in us screams anguish and despair and anger. For our own health, the health of our children, our relationships and community, we have no other choice. This is the unique position we find ourselves in as citizens of Newtown. Through our struggle to find a compassionate way, we can spark a new kind of dialogue here and in the wider circle of the country.

To do this, we must first take control of our own suffering: to choose compassion when we are triggered to anger. To choose to see friends where our tendency is to see enemies. To give the benefit of the doubt to others who are also struggling, sometimes failing or making human mistakes. Then, we must choose a new way of speaking to each other. We need to learn mature 21st Century methods of problem solving together that are respectful, cooperative and creative and abandon 19th Century partisan extremes. As a result, we will benefit in our personal lives, our families, and our community and possibly set an example for others to follow in the nation we all love.

Sandy Hook Promise has called for a new type of dialogue in the community. As a result, they have partnered with the Unity Project to launch a series of home-based workshops to develop the resilient skills needed to move forward this phase of our growth together. These workshops will then help participants learn the skills needed to have a new type of 21st Century conversation that nurtures our common growth.  The launch of this initiative will begin on April 11 at 7 pm at the Middle School auditorium; I will speak on building resilience. Please come and bring friends and loved ones to begin this walk together.

(John Woodall, MD, is a Board Certified psychiatrist who lives in Newtown. He is formerly of the faculty at Harvard Medical School and is the Founder and Director of the Unity Project, a resilience-building program helping thousands of children in New York after 9/11, New Orleans and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, former child soldiers in Uganda and now at Newtown High School. His blog, The Resilient Life, is at www.johnwoodall.net and contains videos specially made for Newtown residents.)

More stories like this: 12/14, Talking It Through, resilience
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