One of my favorite quotes from the Dalai Lama is “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito”
If you think you are too small to make a difference in the “red” and “blue” divide in our country consider two stories from the book “Therapeutic Improvisation” by Michael Alcee, a clinical psychologist at the Manhattan School of Music.
The bawdy comedian Sarah Silverman after saying that she is open to conversation with others whose political views are diametrically opposed to her own, receives a troll from a man who calls her the c-word; a word that many women detest.
Instead of retaliating, she holds steady, seeks a place of empathy within herself and looks for the hurt in the man.
“In a tweet exchange,” writes Alcee, “she tells him that she sees what he is doing, that his anger and hate are ‘thinly veiled pain,’ and she wants him to choose love. Sharing her own parallel vulnerabilities, she connects to his pain through her own, creating an empathic bridge.”
The man begins to describe his hurt, his history of sexual abuse, his crippling back pain and he has no insurance to cover medical expenses. He feels powerless, bitter, broken and lonely.
Silverman helps him go more deeply into his pain, becomes sensitive to his traumatic background, and sides with his opposition to those that violated his trust.
Touched by Silverman’s compassion he apologizes for his insult.
She is surprised how a single insult can turn into a moment of transformation for both.
With an extraordinary act of generosity Silverman calls on her followers to visit his GoFundMe page and eventually pays for his medical expenses herself.
As an advocate of psychotherapy, the gains she is making in her own therapy enabled her to reach across the “red” and “blue” divide. Seeking help with her own trauma was a passageway into the man’s trauma. Hurt people hurt people; hurt people also help people, as she did. She is a “wounded healer.”
Silverman is a liberal activist who apprises political struggles from that perspective and yet shared humanity became more important than belief.
Check out the surprising response from the other side of the political spectrum. A Black Lives Matter leader attended a Trump rally. As reported, Trump worked his followers into a frenzied lather of grievance and revenge. Not this time. Organizer and Trump supporter Tommy Gunn invited the BLM leader Hawk Newsome, to the stage, writes Alcee.
Gunn says the rally is to end violence and promote America, where there is freedom to express oneself without fear of reprisal. In this powerful move the audience became receptive. His actions formed a basis of listening and dialogue.
Newsome, the BLM speaker, talks about being an American too. He said: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
He described the deep despair and hurt black people face every day when justice is not fair, and blacks are killed disproportionately, often for petty offenses.
Grumblings of anger began to erupt in the crowd, he listened to his detractors, held steady, and said that police officers and all lives matter.
Then he finished his comments with a call: “If we really want America great, we do it together.”
Writes Alcee: “In this lovely example, we see each side following the hurt rather than the hate, of holding on and listening to each other, recognizing that both are part of the problem and solution together. The sweetest surprise came at the end of Newsome’s speech when asked by a fierce Trump supported if he could get a picture of him alongside his blond-haired, blue-eyed little boy.”
We live in the echo chambers of social media where insult and solidity of belief are fortified by hypersensitivity and narcissistic pride. A logjam of opposition precludes listening and dialogue.
As Silverman, Gunn and Newsome illustrate, this does not have to be the essential motif in our country. I agree with the recommendation by fellow psychotherapist, Michael Alcee: One: “follow the hurt not the hate.” Two: “We are part of the problem and the solution.” Three: “If we stay through the process together, surprising transformations will emerge.”
Psychiatric pediatrician D.W. Winnicott was asked, after the Second World War, if the field of psychotherapy, being an individual pursuit, was able to address the systemic causes of fascism. Winnicott replied, in essence, that if one person can find release from their projections such change will contribute to others in their community. He intimates that change will move outward like ripples of water in a stream.
The two stories have already made a difference in my life, especially when I feel discouraged by the systemic folly and banality that is part of our political discourse.
I call on the Dalai Lama once again: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”