Why has everyone gotten so mean?

I was just listening to a radio program on the lack of civility in public and political discourse, and it stirred up a lot of stuff in me.

It seems to me that so much of our discourse, both public and private has gotten very adversarial, and that saddens me.  I also find it scary.

It saddens me because angry, vitriolic speech is always hurtful to the receiver of that communication.  And it saddens me because it points to a lack of empathy, and therefore, a lack of compassion, in the speaker.

I find this scary, too, because I believe that all actual, physical violence (including war) has “enemy thinking” as its root. So, as thinking and speaking becomes more violent, action in the same vein is more likely to follow.

This is also a spiritual problem.  One of the most universal and fundamental tenets of most spiritual and religious traditions is the golden rule – act toward others as you would have them act toward you.  And yet, this basic and beautiful rule is so often ignored or forgotten.  That’s sad, too…

I don’t “believe” in the separation of “spirituality” and “psychology”.  In my worldview, they are simply different names for different aspects of the same universal human impetus to grow.  If the goal of that growth is to become more kind, more loving, more compassionate and more joyful, what does that say about the yelling that we find so often in the world – whether on our social media platforms, our media programs, or in our neighborhood?

So, I think that all this anger is, at root, a psychological/spiritual problem.  In A Course In Miracles, we read that “You are never upset for the reason you think”.  How I interpret that is that someone who upsets you is not only speaking to an issue that’s “on the table” now, but also triggering a response from an old, unhealed wound – mostly from our early childhood.  John Gray, in “Men, Women and Relationships” asserts that 10% of the upset we feel has to do with the present, and 90% relates to the past.  And I say, “When you’re upset, it’s never about the other person”.

That last point may seem bizarre to some.  What it means to me is that when someone “upsets you” they’re unknowingly poking a stick into an old wound.  If we were enlightened beings, and experienced someone saying (or screaming) hateful things at us, we would be able to stay calm, and centered, and simply project love and compassion at the person, realizing that, if they are acting that way, they must be in a lot of pain.  But few of us are able to manage this.

Michael Brown, in his excellent book, “The Presence Process”,  calls anyone who upsets you a “messenger”,  because they have a message for you about something in you that needs to be healed (he uses the word “integrated”).  So he cautions us not to “shoot the messenger”.

One of the biggest “light bulbs” that ever went off in my head about this issue was when I was in a workshop on Non-Violent Communication (NVC) the communication model developed by Marshall Rosenberg.  In it, one of the steps in illustrating the model went, “I’m angry because I have a need for…”  That “I” was the thing that hit me.  The conventional message is, “I’m angry because you did something, or said something…” .  What a difference a pronoun makes!

Understanding the mechanism whereby people’s issues get triggered doesn’t make it any easier to take.  It also doesn’t make it any easier for me to understand why it seems to have become more acceptable, recently and currently, to say unkind or violent things to someone who upsets us – or even simply someone who has different views from us.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in summarizing Voltaire, famously wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  This speaks not only to freedom of speech, but to a respect for opinions and viewpoints differing from ours.

These days, it seems that hearing different opinions (especially political ones) mostly leads to a vitriolic, or even contemptuous response.  And, contempt is the most corrosive emotion with regard to civil, respectful discourse – whether in the private or the public orbits.

And this is not just about creating a “kinder, gentler” world, in the words of George H.W. Bush.  An adversarial, contemptuous process of communication simply doesn’t work – especially with regard to politics and governance.  Most governments consist of people with differing viewpoints, and, if we’re not able to listen to those viewpoints with a certain amount of open-mindedness and respect, it’s unlikely that negotiations around that issue will be successful. The result?  Gridlock.

This didn’t start with most conservative politicians’ intense (and often racist) dislike of President Obama.  In 1996, no fewer than 14 senators signed a letter saying that the reason they had decided to retire from the Senate was that things had become so acrimonious, and so partisan, that they didn’t think they could get anything done any more.  And that was just too frustrating.  Sadly, I think things have gotten even worse since then.

So, what’s the solution?  One of my favorite quotes from Ram Dass (nee Richard Alpert) is, “I can do nothing for you but work on myself…you can do nothing for me but work on yourself.”  This is the bottom line, I believe – we can’t create a kinder, gentler world until we have healed the wounds in ourselves that lead us to “spray” our anger unrestrainedly at any “messenger” who pours salt in those wounds.