It’s not really surprising to me how this election has gone. The fact that we ‘ended up’ with the nominees that we did on both sides, the trend of seemingly ever-increasing polarization, each side out-doing the other in ad-hominem attacks and blow backs each day, frequent new leaks of scandal-inducing info that triggers media frenzy, each group of followers continuing to shout louder and listen less (if they ever were listening)…even the ones jumping ship with indignation in the chaos…I’m disappointed, but I really can’t say I’m too surprised. And I don’t mean that in a downer sort of way, more so in a realistic way.
We are up against some pretty significant obstacles as a society right now, and if we read the signs of the times through Election 2016, I think we get a realistic picture of how we’re doing as a nation.
I wouldn’t even say it’s really about Democrats v. Republicans – although it seems our two party system helps fuel the polarization, I think what’s different it that this go-around we were much less able as a nation to manage the tensions, and the tensions seemed higher. I’m not a political analyst, and I don’t know all the facts, but here’s what I see as the challenges of election 2016 and why I’m not surprised about them.
We live in anxious times, folks. I think election 2016 has been so rough, volatile and divisive largely in part because as a process connected to life, it reflects the state of our nation today, the state of our relationships, the state of our families – of us.
What makes it so anxious?
There’s a lot of places we could look for answers. I’ll submit three areas of focus as a suggestion:
- Breakdown of real relationships with each other – a lack of solid, enduring and yet flexible bonds with others
- Over-connection in the superficial and sound-byte sense with each other and the world through constant media input
- Breakdown of man’s primary relationship with God
1. Break down of relationships and community
Our social infrastructure is tensing, cracking and splitting. You can look to the European immigration crisis, the police shootings across the US, or any of Pope Francis’ writings. Our relationships are suffering, our families are suffering. Pope Francis says we live in a “throw-a-way” culture, where bonds and relationships are discarded along with the disposable plasticware, and he has said that the family is “in crisis.” (This Year of Mercy has been a beautiful response to that, which is a whole other post…but you might say that God knew we were in such a place where we really, really needed His abundant mercy in a special way.)
Fr Joseph Kentenich called it “homelessness.” He said that modern man is “a collectivistic person,” and that he is “the all-around homeless one who has radically severed all bonds between self and God, self and neighbor, between self and earth.” In the way he described this homelessness, he said it was “the issue at the heart of today’s culture crisis.” 1 These broad-stroke images echo for me with what I see each day when I turn on the news, when I chat with my friends. And they remind me that we didn’t just ‘end up’ with Election 2016 – it’s a part of the bigger picture of our recent history, of all history.
What does it mean that we’ve severed ties with our neighbors?
Well, how often this Election season have we talked with someone on the other side of the fence? Do we even have friends “on the other side?” Even in the media, it’s been really hard to find journalists who can get objective about both candidates. I remember watching the last CNN breakdown of the third debate – it totally devolved into unproductive yelling, and most of the air time was given to reactive attacks on the other, instead of objective analysis . (I do think Tom Ashbrook on On Point and David Brown from the Texas Standard have done a pretty decent job throughout the election of trying to look at both sides with perspective and respect).
I think we’re struggling in general not just to talk to the “other side” about what we think (whatever side you’re on), but also struggling just to think clearly. I think it’s a challenge to think for ourselves and sort through our values and make decision about things like who to vote for. With all the pressure and noise in the air, who’s objective these days? Who really steps back and considers from ground zero what they think, without just adopting their ideas blindly from someone else? Then to share those thoughtful, value-based decisions with those whom we care about, with our families and our coworkers, our close friends who know us well…that’s a whole other challenge.
It sometimes seems like a high bar to bring up a topic when I feel like I can predict that everyone is going to get upset, push back, or shut me out. It often seems that few relationships are flexible enough to allow for disagreement. It’s like there isn’t enough room for the two people to be each their own person. I often sense this demand that everyone accept what one group thinks in the name of tolerance, without that group actually tolerating anyone else thinking for themselves. These are pretty broad statements, but perhaps something here sounds familiar?
2. Over-connection to the media (and break down of faith in it)
So if it’s accurate that relationships are struggling today, constantly ingesting large amounts of data and being constantly connected to social media seems to magnify and speed up the anxious reactions among all of us. This makes getting objective about political information even more difficult.
Let’s look at it from three angles. First – what is happening with technology and social media:
Here’s a clip from a Time Magazine article that seemed to really strike home for me:
“It’s a problem of quantity as much as quality: there is simply too much information for the public to accurately metabolize, which means that distortions – and outright falsehoods – are almost inevitable […] Mainstream journalists are no longer trusted as gatekeepers to verify the stories that are true and kill the rumors that are false. […] At the same time, the information revolution has eroded faith in the institutions that once served as arbiters of reality. Mainstream journalism, government reports and academic research have lost the weight of truth for much of the population. From 2006 to 2016, Americans became 10% less likely to have faith in Congress or the media.” – Charlotte Alter & Michael Scherer, The Truth is Out There
Do you see the interplay between information and relationships? There is a broken faith in the people who used to help us process all that information and suspicion on many sides. And again, slanted journalism is nothing new, but the intensity seems to be going off the chart.
Second angle – what that does to our relationships and society. Here’s what family therapist, leadership consultant and rabbi Edwin Friedman
“Ironically the very advances in technology that mark our era tend to intensify the “herding instinct” characteristic of our anxious society. This kind of enmeshment inhibits furthers the kind of individuation that is the essential precondition for bold leadership and imaginitive thinking…these regressive processes are pervasive throughout American civilization today in families, institutions, and in society at large. In fact, it is the automatic and reciprocal feedback among these three emotional fields that makes society’s anxiety systemic.” 2
So we’re inundated, over-connected…when was the last time you turned off the radio or didn’t read news in any form, for at least a few hours or even a least a day?
Third angle – within the individual human person.
Along with modern man’s exterior “homelessness” of broken bonds between self/God, self/neighbor and self/earth, Fr Joseph Kentenich often spoke about there are also unnatural separations within us, in our inner life. There is an artificial separation or lack of harmony between our mind, heart and soul:
“The heart of the modern person is affected by the same atrophic illness. You will reply: That can’t be true; moderns have only lost the ability to think clearly. Consequently, in their hearts you find a certain overcompensation, at most. True, their emotions have not died out altogether. Nonetheless, in many cases a modern person is only a bundle of feelings. In those who do have feelings these have not matured fully on the level of the heart. Their emotions change quickly; they are neither constant nor warm. On the one hand, the mind and will can no longer regulate and settle the stirrings of the emotions, while on the other, the emotions cannot captivate the mind and will satisfactorily. The heart cannot make the ascent.” 1
Let’s pull those three angles together for another broad picture: within us the balance of our emotions and thinking is off, between us we’re constantly plugged in across social media, and we’re also constantly digesting way too much information. Do you think there is truthfulness in that picture? Is it possible we’re getting close to why Election 2016 has been so challenging?
3. Breakdown of our primary relationship to God
Lastly, and most importantly – the breakdown of our most vital connection, our relationship with God:
“We must add, however, that even religious persons not only face the interior prospect of this shadowy faith but are also constantly exposed to countless influences, incessantly shaken and jolted by the impressions and problems of present-day life; [they are a part of] today’s mentality in which image upon image runs together. All this makes a person incapable of seeing – hence and all the more incapable of looking calmly into the eternal light, into the divine.” Fr Joseph Kentenich 1
So what does our bond with God have to do with Election 2016? I don’t think it’s about praying for your candidate to win…I think it’s about “my soul finds rest in God alone.” (Ps 62:1). Again, how often do we unplug? And how often do we check in with ourselves before our Creator in silence? And do I allow God into my daily, normal life?
“Please keep in mind, because they have crossed the whole supernatural reality out of their lives and for them it no longer exists, moderns must master the burdens of life on the natural level. And they cannot manage. Life’s happenings have lost their meaning altogether. People circle around themselves and have no criteria, no standpoint from which they can understand the meaning of their life. We acquire these only if we expose ourselves to the world beyond. […] You shouldn’t think, now, that such narrow horizons, that such a lack of meaning in one’s own life, exist only on the other side of the fence. We find the same thing in our own ranks. In our case, the supernatural world may not have faded altogether, but it has certainly become significantly obscure.” Fr Joseph Kentenich 1
We see the challenges, now what?
Here’s a few things that have been helping me in my efforts to stay centered, calm and connected during this election. I’d love to hear your ideas too!
- First – prayer. Time alone with the Lord so that He can center me, help keep me honest before Him about my own responsibility and short comings, broaden my horizons and anchor my heart.
- Talking to my family and friends about what I think, especially when we disagree (paying attention mostly to keeping myself calm, and just letting them be). Working to tell them what I think without needing them to ratify it.
- and listening to what others think (paying attention to when I get reactive, managing myself and trying to stay open to the other). Allowing others to help me get more objective – we all need each other’s help to see beyond our own noses!
- Unplugging from the news, kicking back and just having fun.
While we are in desperate need of strong leadership, our nation will not be fixed by the President. It will be renewed from the bottom up, from you and me taking up our personal responsibility to build a culture of encounter, as Pope Francis says, where lasting bonds are forged. It will be healed by each us of seeking our original mission before God (in every stage of life), and working to bring that original image of God to our relationships and to the world. It will be renewed in the family. Brothers and sisters…I think we’ve got to start this renewal today, with each of us, and really keep it in our sites
no matter what the outcome on November 8th. Peace and blessings to you all!
- Fr Joseph Kentenich, Forming the New Person, pages 40-48 (Texts from a pedagogical conference in the 1950s)
- Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve