The Vatican has announced Pope Francis’s new encyclical, Fratelli tutti – dedicated to “fraternity” and “social friendship”.
“We live in a time marked by war, poverty, migration, climate change, economic crises, and pandemic. Recognizing a brother or sister in everyone we meet…reminds us that no one can ever emerge from the present hardships alone, one against the other, the global North against the global South, the rich against the poor or any other excluding differentiation.”
These words resonated with me as our nation faces the outcome of one of the most difficult and consequential presidential elections in our history. Americans have become so divided we appear to be two separate peoples. Our country was nearly equally divided in our support for Biden or Trump. Biden has been announced the winner and Trump vows to continue fighting the results. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris face tremendous difficulty healing a nation so deeply divided. How can we reach the hearts and minds of America when we find it so difficult to understand or accept the ‘other side’? Can we overcome our mutual distrust and dislike of each other?
Biden/ Harris will face many immediate issues demanding their attention including the worsening COVID-19 pandemic and the uneven and deepening economic impact on Americans. They will need to address systemic racism in policing. They will need to face security threats from from foreign countries as well as national militias who claim they are willing to use violence to support Trump. Biden/Harris will need to reestablish political norms nationally and globally. And last, but certainly not least, they will need to address worsening climate change.
None of us will likely get what we want, but perhaps we’ll get what we need. Here are some suggestions I think might help.
1. Let’s agree on the facts
“We are entitled to our opinion but not our facts.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan. We can ‘agree to disagree’ as long as we accept the same facts. Many people obtain information from limited media sources that may be heavily biased. In order to move out of a biased ‘echo chamber’ and listen to more non-partisan, unbiased information we need to actively check our sources of information, both left and right. There are news sources that are less biased who provide highly factual information. I make it a habit to check my media sources. It doesn’t mean we can’t listen to our preferred information sources, but we should be able to recognize biased information and accept it cautiously. Often biased information is delivered with highly charged words designed to elicit an emotional response. The best way to talk to someone with whom we disagree is to agree on the facts and keep our emotions in check.
2. Become better informed
When we search for truth, we become better informed. There are always some truths we have yet to uncover, and we need the courage and patience to search for them. Sometimes information will threaten our views. That’s okay. In seeking truth, we search for knowledge and hopefully find wisdom.
The internet is a powerful source of both information and disinformation. We need to be selective in choosing what to read. There are many excellent, knowledgeable thinkers and writers probing the multitude of issues the world faces. Take time to discover what others have to say and learn to distinguish truth from lies and propaganda.
3. Avoid confrontations and set aside anger
A simple trick that helps to avoid confrontation is start our statements with “I think that…” rather than “You think that…” Start with our own ideas rather than characterizing someone else’s.
If we want to avoid confrontation we have to make a conscious choice to avoid inflammatory statements, insults, or promoting false narratives. We can also decide not to rise to them when they are directed at us. Choosing our facts from good sources and recognizing our own biases (we all have them) we state our positions simply and directly. We choose to get beyond confrontation and the anger it breeds. If you find that something someone says angers you, ask yourself, “Why does this person’s statement feel like a threat to me?” It helps keep anger in check if we keep our voices less strident and avoid inflammatory or emotionally charged statements.
We should not assume that others must accept our point of view, nor that we must accept theirs. We can agree to disagree. We can acknowledge that everyone is deserving of respect. We must give respect in order to receive respect. Everyone has cultural biases formed over our life’s experiences. We are separate but equal citizens with a voice we want others to hear.
4. Understand the source of other’s fears
Every issue is interconnected with every other issue and eventually impacts us in some way. Maybe your family has lost a wage earner and you need to secure a source of income in order to keep a roof over your head. Maybe police in your community have shot an unarmed black man at a routine traffic stop, and as a black family you justifiably fear the police. Maybe you own or work for a business in a city where peaceful protests have turned into riots and you justifiably fear the possible destruction of your hard work and livelihood. It’s important to see issues from different sides and understand why others feel the fears they do.
Maybe you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have lost a loved one or have someone hospitalized with COVID-19. Maybe you have an elderly family member in a nursing home whom you can no longer visit or care for. Each of us is dealing with the pandemic in our own way. There are many ramifications of this illness; grief, fear that someone may not survive, dealing with a long and difficult recovery, struggling to pay healthcare bills, or fear you will lose your source of income and home. It justifiably angers us when we are struggling to deal with our fear and uncertainty and others refuse to take the virus seriously. Take time to think about others and understand the source of their fear and anger.
5. Challenge racism and hatred with firm civility
Learn how to challenge racism, lies, insinuations and other forms of disrespect calmly and effectively. We don’t have to like each other’s views but we do have to treat others as we want to be treated. Forms of exclusionism based on culture, race, gender idenity, sexual preference, or religious beliefs make our problems worse. They are corrosive and damaging to a healthy society. We need to stand up and challenge biases, misconceptions, and disdain for others whenever we encounter it, without becoming violent or disrespectful.
Take for example income inequality and poverty. It is a problem in our country that too many people (Black, White, and Brown) are struggling to make ends meet with little hope of getting ahead, while a few are getting ahead in rapid fashion. We may believe we get what we deserve in life and we may not see how others have helped us achieve our goals, but rarely are rewards only of our own making. In reality we depend on society for our education and opportunity. Most of us will need help at one time or another through no fault of our own. Poor, dispirited people are often blamed for their conditions because we often believe that getting ahead simply means working harder. It is far easier to do well in life when we start already wealthy. When everyone has the opportunity to get ahead in life, all of society benefits from their success.
6. Caring for ourselves
Pope Francis writes: “To care for the world in which we live means to care for ourselves. Yet we need to think of ourselves more and more as a single family dwelling in a common home. Such care does not interest those economic powers that demand quick profits. Often the voices raised in defense of the environment are silenced or ridiculed, using apparently reasonable arguments that are merely a screen for special interests. In this shallow, short-sighted culture that we have created, bereft of a shared vision, “it is foreseeable that, once certain resources have been depleted, the scene will be set for new wars, albeit under the guise of noble claims”.”
Maybe you believe deeply that unless we address climate change all of life on earth is in danger. Perhaps you think that everyone must change their lifestyle in order to reduce demand for resources and consumption of fossil fuels, because if we don’t, humanity will fail to prevent catastrophic damage to life on earth. There is good evidence to support this view, but when others don’t agree with us it can create frustration and anger. In some ways it is less important that we change others than we change ourselves. Mahatma Ghandi offered this advice.
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
It will take all of us working together to deal with climate change, to care for our common home. Even working together there are no guarantees we will succeed in avoiding catastrophic impacts. We won’t all work on the issue in the same way, but we can find satisfaction in making the changes we believe necessary.
7. Help others, don’t blame them
Most of America is suffering…from the pandemic, from economic insecurity, from violence, from debt, from weather disasters, etc. We rightfully fear that our way of life is collapsing around us. We hear an abundance of voices clamoring that our country, our civilization, or our way of life is in danger of unraveling. Indeed it’s not difficult to see danger almost anywhere one looks.
In times of stress and insecurity, our response is often to blame others, “If these people weren’t behaving this way, we wouldn’t have these problems.” Assigning blame only fuels resentment and hatred. It does not address our problems. Instead of letting fear become anger, try to find compassion for others who are suffering too. Anger is the greatest threat to our peace and stability. For generations, Americans have been willing to help others in times of need. Indeed, it is a legacy in which to take pride. The next time you meet someone in need, someone who is clearly suffering or upset, stop and ask them “Are you okay; is there anything I can do to help?” Reach for your better angels.
8. Inspire others.
We need leaders who inspire us and lead us towards our better angels. I am not Catholic, but I have found comfort and inspiration in the words of Pope Francis. In his newest encyclical Pope Francis explores the spirit of his name sake, Saint Francis of Assisi, offering us a vision of reconciliation, hope and encouragement… a message that I found particularly relevant today.
“We are impressed that some eight hundred years ago Saint Francis urged that all forms of hostility or conflict be avoided and that a humble and fraternal “subjection” be shown to those who did not share his faith.
Francis did not wage a war of words aimed at imposing doctrines; he simply spread the love of God. He understood that “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God” (1 John 4:16). In this way, he became a father to all and inspired the vision of a fraternal society. Indeed, “only the man who approaches others, not to draw them into his own life, but to help them become evermore fully themselves, can truly be called a father”.
In the world of that time, bristling with watch towers and defensive walls, cities were a theatre of brutal wars between powerful families, even as poverty was spreading through the countryside. Yet there Francis was able to welcome true peace into his heart and free himself of the desire to wield power over others. He became one of the poor and sought to live in harmony with all. Francis has inspired these pages.
Although I have written it from the Christian convictions that inspire and sustain me, I have sought to make this reflection an invitation to dialogue among all people of good will.
For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all. Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.
Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all.”
Amen to that!