I’m a therapist. It’s my job to listen, right?
In the office, yes. Out of the office… It’s becoming my job to speak. I’m impatient to speak.
Our political divide has deepened insidiously into families, communities. It has deteriorated from name calling on Facebook to brother disengaging from brother. We are rapidly losing points of human connection in our society, and with it, our democracy.
The Civil War has always felt like a strange and distant historical phenomenon to me in my upstate New York home. But last weekend, I visited a Southern plantation. I learned the history of a New York regiment destroying the original buildings of the plantation. I imagined a nation turned against itself. The strange and distant historical phenomenon felt less strange and distant.
We know a divided nation; it’s ours.
We tell stories of friend turned against friend (or rather, unfriended); Thanksgiving dinners gone silent; separations over discussions that I used to call “politics” and I now call “matters of human decency.”
I have hesitated to speak out; I didn’t think it was in my job description as a licensed mental health counselor. But since the election, in our divided nation, the listening is just not enough.
To meet diagnostic criteria for various anxiety disorders, often an individual’s reaction must be considered out of proportion to the threat at hand. Panic in the face of an angry tiger would not constitute a disorder; it is, in fact, a survival mechanism. Some situations require that we address the tiger in the room, not just work to accommodate the response of anxiety that results. The listening is just not enough.
There is a term called “gaslighting” in the world of psychology, in which one person in an abusive relationship attempts to distort another person’s experience of reality. For example, if you witnessed the tiger situation and told the tiger survivor that he or she was overreacting, that would be gaslighting. Even more so if you were the person who placed the tiger there in the first place.
Our presidency is condoning the erasing and confusing of facts. We are all in danger of becoming victims of gaslighting. How can we fight gaslighting?
In therapy, I can fight it by validating individuals’ emotional experiences. Outside of sessions, we need to speak alongside those whose stories are being erased, confused, humiliated. This is why we need rogue national park websites, scientists who resist, and journalists who risk imprisonment to report on the state of our world. This is why we need peaceful protests, pink hats and “I voted today” stickers on Susan B. Anthony’s grave. This is why we need our brave voices. The listening is not enough, as democracy disintegrates.
We need validation. We need human connection. We need to speak.
We need human connection because we are losing one another – and the validation of our unique experiences – in the widening political divide. We can disagree without undermining our humanity, without denying the realities of those around us.
I can disagree with your opinions and your actions and I can still treat you as a person, in all your humanity, with respect. I may not respect your opinions, but I do respect you. I can validate your struggles with compassion in my office. I can shake your hand from across the aisle in church. And I can speak my disagreement.
I can respect your opinion if you do not like running. I cannot respect your opinion if you think that my friend is less of a person because she is transgender. Or a refugee. Or black. I will shout from the rooftops that I disagree with opinions of intolerance.
I disagree with actions that humiliate.
I disagree with a president who mocks individuals with disabilities and objectifies women, who enables vast policies of disrespect and widespread groups of hate. I disagree with the local mom who opposes anti-racism training in schools. I disagree with those who are emboldened to threaten the lives of others with interpersonal hate speech, with spray painted ugly words, with KKK fliers, and with bomb threats at Jewish community centers.
In a dangerously divided nation, we need validation. We need connection. I need to activate my voice. The listening is just not enough. I am a therapist, and I need to speak.
Hear me speak.