As a divided nation prepares to come together again for the holidays (Hanukkah starts next weekend; Christmas décor is already in full bloom), it’s worth looking back at Thanksgiving 2018 and reflecting on how well we were able to digest diverse political opinions along with turkey and pumpkin pie.
Thanks in part to President Trump’s ongoing effort to divide families – at the table as much as at the border – our nation is currently split into two distinct sides that can scarcely listen to each other, let alone share any understanding. As the language of each side grows harder for the other to comprehend, the process of listening is itself under attack. What’s a loving and thoughtful hostess to do?
Mindful of the unlikelihood that any holiday-gathering political debate will actually change any minds, the host can try various maneuvers to minimize conflict, such as setting a rule that Democrats can yell only at Democrats, and Republicans can yell only at Republicans. Another possibility is to ask every guest to write down political preferences on paper before crumpling the papers up and throwing them into the fireplace (outside of California) or waste basket. But best efforts often fail, so it makes sense to examine psychological factors at play at these family celebrations.
If the goal of your holiday gatherings is to enjoy the company and warmth of the people you love, despite their political predilections, then listening becomes the most important element of communication. The only way to talk is to listen – to process and metabolize views that you may not agree with, without having to respond in kind. As a psychoanalyst with over forty years of clinical experience, I understand that the silence that accompanies and facilitates listening can help people feel encouraged and accepted. This dynamic that is so effective in the consulting room can help establish respect – and even rapport – among disagreeing family members.
Listening is easier when we focus on what we have in common. Take heart in knowing that even those of us on opposite sides of the Trump divide may have more in common than we think. For starters we all think we’re right and they’re wrong – and Trump wants us to think that way.
As infants and young children, we all split our experiences into good and bad, an early, primitive defense against anxiety that persists to some degree throughout life. As a candidate, Trump managed to tap into his followers’ need to feel good, especially after feeling ignored by Washington for so long; as president, he has activated the same response in his opponents – so that both sides feel that they are good and that the bad belongs to someone else.
By pigeonholing those with opposing beliefs as the “other,” we don’t have to listen or think or have our preconceptions challenged. The illusion of certainty masks the anxiety and fear of chaos, suspicion, and anger that lurks underneath. This also serves Trump’s agenda, which relies on the deep divisions he has exposed in our culture that fester in the absence of communication between sides.
When we listen instead of talking, we can recognize the common feeling of being good that exists in everyone. We can even share the sense that our self-absorbed president doesn’t really hear any of us. My information is anecdotal but most comments I’ve gotten after Thanksgiving were that there was less acrimony than feared.
Widespread reporting suggests a dramatic acceleration in the deterioration of Trump’s psychic state, however, reminding us how utterly he has failed yet another vital but rarely discussed duty of his office: helping the nation’s citizens manage their anxieties. That process is called containment, and it has been an unspoken but ever-present quality in previous presidents. But Trump’s arrested psychological development leaves him unable to perform this function; he has to rid himself of whatever makes him anxious, unable to sit with it, and instead makes the rest of us anxious - leaving it up to us to manage our collective anxieties. This means that our abilities to contain our own anxieties, our own rage and fear, are compromised. If we can pay attention to and contain those feelings — our own and others’ — we can start moving towards a level of national healing and unity anathema to our divisive president. This holiday season, listening is not only peacekeeping; it is resisting.