The Life-Changing Magic of Taking the High Road

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We’re seeing quite a bit of unfortunate low road behavior in national politics right now, from all sides.

That’s one reason why Michele Obama’s speech at the DNC has been lauded as powerful and deeply moving.

Michele had a perfect opportunity to take a swipe at the opposition and in fact, some people were hoping for it. After all, her very words from the 2008 presidential convention had been famously plagiarized. What an opportunity she had to take the low road, while claiming to be on high moral ground, a nifty sleight-of-hand routinely employed by low roaders in both public and private venues.

Instead, Michele addressed the high road directly, as a mother of her own children and as a role model for the nation’s children (and ideally, its adults.)

Her words were simple and clear: “When they go low, we go high.”

I’ve put several totally positive, celebratory political comments and quotes on Facebook recently, and people who don’t know me have taken the liberty to post rude and unkind personal attacks on me for doing so. (Yes, I know. I don’t have to allow people I don’t know to post. But that’s not the point. It’s low-road behavior. I’ve allowed comments from “friends of friends” for years and it’s been overwhelmingly positive and a great way to connect with new people.)

While I welcome open conversation and don’t mind a disagreement on the facts, telling me that I’m “juvenile,” “blind,” and “self-congratulatory” is straight out of the low-road playbook, and evidences out-of-control anger. Yet, in the face of such attacks, I’m going to make sure that my responses stay on the high road.

The problem exists in other arenas, too, well beyond the political scene.

Recently, I’ve shepherded several clients through relationship difficulties and breakups. My clients’ partners have gone low―they’ve cheated and lied, made ugly, personal verbal attacks, and broken up abruptly, without giving their partner an opportunity for conversation and closure. In some cases, my clients were publicly humiliated on social media. They were hurt and rightfully very angry.

As we worked through their pain and discussed their options, we talked candidly about some mean-spirited, low-road options. Should I tell their family about this? Destroy their phone that was left behind at my place? Post what they did on social media? These are ideas coming from really nice people who are in pain and having low-road thoughts.

Such thoughts are almost inevitable when we’ve been badly hurt and are in touch with our anger. What a perfect opportunity to claim the high road while actually traversing the low road!

My response has been the same in each case. Making important decisions when you are hurt or angry is never a good idea. Work through your hurt and anger and pain before deciding what kind of action, if any, you’re going to take. From there, you can fully explore the consequences of your actions and whether or not you want to live with the fallout that might ensue, including the fallout from violating your own moral principles.

Anger is an emotion typically accompanied by powerful bodily urges. It provokes us to do something. Hit! Punch! Retaliate! But when there’s no actual physical danger present, there’s a big difference between thinking about revenge and retaliation and acting on those thoughts.

We all have spiteful, mean thoughts from time to time. It’s part of being human. Imagining throwing your ex’s clothing onto the street seems deliciously satisfying when you are in the throes of a breakup. A nasty comment on Facebook might seem cool at the time. But doing it may have unforeseen consequences when you haven’t taken the time to cool off first.

The low road comes with an illusion that’s a fundamental lie: if I hurt them, I will feel better. If I lash out, my anxiety will be relieved. But that kind of relief is very temporary. It never lasts. Typically, after the immediate “high” of a low-road act or remark, remorse and second-guessing sets in. More anger erupts. Good people rarely feel good about it in the long run.

The low road actually prolongs our suffering by distracting us from the work of healing and growth. The low road leads to escalating arguments and complicates our relationships. It clouds our sense of our basic goodness until we lose touch with it.

When we take the high road, we feel more settled and proud of ourselves, even when the basic situation—the breakup, the affair, the nasty words—still hurt. We can choose our words and actions carefully, and respond thoughtfully, deliberately, appropriately.

The truth is this: you will feel better when you work through your pain and anger, when you allow yourself to fully feel your feelings and grieve your losses, when you can talk openly with a trusted friend or guide, and when you can see through the illusions of your anger and vengeful thinking. In the case of politics, you will feel better when you put your angry energy to work for your candidate—volunteering, knocking on doors, making phone calls.

What we need is to find our way back to our center, to that grounded inner place of surety and knowingness that resides within each of us. That’s the place of resilience and restoration and reclamation.

So go ahead and have those deliciously juicy low-road thoughts. Think about making nasty Facebook posts, scorching your enemies, and sliming the opposition. But be sure to recognize the difference between your thoughts and actions.

Finding our way back to a place of peace even in the middle of a maelstrom, is truly a place of life-changing magic. I suspect many of us will need to get back there, over and over, in the months to come.

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