Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
October 2010 - Volume 10, No. 10
It’s Easier to Divide
Let’s face it, it’s easier to divide than to unite. That’s fundamental to human nature. Also it’s an underlying task of civilization to successfully counter that tendency. When we’re stressed, anxious, angry, or simply in doubt about what to do, the tendency is to divide, or separate ourselves, externally as well as internally.
I spend some professional time observing couples fighting among themselves - at times with difficulty getting a word of my own in edgewise. The ‘conversation’ so easily degenerates into “well, but you...” like petulant 6 year-olds. A frequent pattern is that when the woman speaks, the man separates - even if just going into his head to defend himself. A useful tactic of mine is to tell him to “listen to her and don’t think.” That helps him really hear her, one of the best tools I know to bring a couple together. It’s often true for a man, that when he thinks, he’ll tend to separate things. Women are by nature more uniters, but when they are not heard, there’s a split that forms within themselves. You can ponder that, I’m moving on.
In either case, when we’re split within, we’re tempted to project that split outside, onto others. Much of mental health difficulty comes from the phenomenon of projection. What we don’t want to deal with (or can’t) we project as blame onto others. A primary example is the current U.S. Congress. It’s easier to defend one’s party than to work for the benefit of the Republic - and the atmosphere of fear prevails over hope these days in Washington. President Obama had to know from the beginning that this would happen to him - he was a great student of Abraham Lincoln.
Each of us carries divisions within us. I’ll often call them ‘splits.’ There are issues, often from our upbringing, that we’ve never resolved. A spouse can be both critical and supportive, perhaps loving and controlling or both big-hearted and mean - often alternating at random. Children from highly conflicted or divorced parents often carry those patterns unresolved within themselves, as do children of addiction homes. And it is my observation that couples choose each other for the complementarity of their ‘splits’ - usually not the same issues, but the same ‘pattern’ of unresolved inner divisions. That’s why the resolution of much couple conflict needs to involve both parties working simultaneously on inner issues.
The concept of ‘scapegoat’ emerges here. When I can’t deal with something inside me, I put it on someone (or something) else. The tribe gathers and places all it’s ‘sins’ on a goat, which is led out into the wild to perish. All too often parents put their ‘sins’ onto one or more of their children. In some European family traditions, one son becomes a cop, one a priest, and one daughter a nun. Having all the ‘problem’ areas covered, the rest of the children are free to pursue their own individual destinies.
As a culture, we will ‘sacrifice’ a particular group of people for the perceived benefit of others. The history of our own nation can be documented by the prevalence of such patterns. From the sacrifice of Native Peoples to the sending of our young men and women into battle, to the desire for more prisons, the pattern is ubiquitous. In the end we have divided and conquered ourselves, and the soul-price is enormous.
Often the work of psychotherapy involves recognizing our projections, and reclaiming them - pulling them back home (often inside us) where they ‘belong.’ When I give up responsibility for something by projecting it onto someone else, two things happen: 1) the other person can’t deal with it because it’s not theirs, and 2) I can’t deal with it because I’ve given it away. I can only redeem it by 3) reclaiming what is my own responsibility. Carl Jung called this ‘eating the shadow.’ Like Winston Churchill’s comment, “I have had to eat my words many times, but each time they proved most nourishing.” What was so easily projected onto somebody else, enhancing division, now comes introjected back home, inviting an inner unity, which in turn no longer seeks to divide the world. It can be difficult personal work, but in the end life is enhanced.
It’s a lot of work to hold things together, when the natural tendency is to divide or split. (The word ‘religion’ comes from the same root as ‘holding together.’) My understanding of the role of the good leader is to hold the center - and sometimes that can be a pretty lonely place.
The Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote of despair in 1921 "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold... " These words from “The Second Coming” are some of the most memorable lines he ever wrote. But the center is also the only place where the transcendent can enter. In religion, it’s the Deity. In our government it’s the Constitution (which ironically is being used these days to divide people). In law it’s Justice - blindfolded against influence and holding her scales aloft. And I contend that it’s in the center, where the divisions are healed, the splits of life are contained, where human nature is triumphant over itself - this is where life is. This is where Passion (with its double nature of ecstasy and redemptive suffering) resides, this is where couples find blessing, and children are nurtured.
By whatever grace or endeavor, by the struggles of honest life, we can prevail against division, wherever we encounter it. That’s the way of responsible life.
So be conscious when you’re tempted to divide things, or let divisions happen, wherever you are. Instead take the high road - do the work that holds the center. It’s yours and mine to accomplish.
Fear and Love
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