It’s easy to get overwhelmed and heavy-hearted in the current political, environmental, spiritual, and social climate. It often looks like the problems are unsolvable - at least they are if we expect them to be solved by the talking heads on the news. Some of the environmental concerns seem unlikely to be rectified unless we change courses immediately, and yet we lack consensus about how to define the problem, let alone taking the very first steps toward improvement.
I’m comforted by the notion of disruptive technology (which may be my version of magical thinking), but I choose to believe that something is going to come along and save us. Something we can’t yet foresee or even imagine, but something that will be simple and absolutely necessary.
I also take comfort in my work. Mediation and parenting coordination give me an up close and personal reminder of the transformative capacity of humans. Nearly every day, I witness people sharing their stories of anger and frustration with the person who they have seen as the cause of their pain. When those stories are heard, their load is lightened. They can go on to craft agreements that they both agree upon and that serve their children. It is nothing short of a miracle when two people who come into my office hating one another leave with a set of agreements that allows them to not only exist peacefully with each other, but rise above the perceptual limitations that had previously confined them.
How does this happen? I am forever trying to crack that code and determine the implications for the larger human experiment. Here is what I have come up with today:
1. See One Another
Every single person who has entered my office carries some sort of burden. I’m guessing that every person alive does. We carry pain, loss, shame, guilt, sorrow, judgement, and trauma. We believe we are the only ones that have experienced these things or somehow our story is unique. We desperately want to rid ourselves of these imagined flaws so we create elaborate strategies to hide, apologize for, or explain them away.
One cure for this is witnessing. After all, we all just want to be seen and accepted. Having someone bear witness to our pain relieves us from some of the burden by reminding us we are connected. We are not alone in our imperfections. We are part of a human family of flawed, striving creatures.
In mediation, if one party can sit across the table from the other party and share a personal experience and emotion, the pain is reduced even if the party listening doesn’t acknowledge responsibility. Just simply remaining present and allowing that person’s experience to exist eases the sense of isolation, particularly if a neutral third person can witness this act of vulnerability without trying to assign blame or solve it.
This is true on a collective level as well. When the pain of racism, the shame of economic insecurity, or the fear of violence is heard by a person who we think bares responsibility, we feel relieved of some of our burden.
2. End Dualistic Thinking
Individuals enter mediation or parenting coordination with a belief that they are right and the other person is wrong. They are victims and the other person is the perpetrator. They are trying and the other person is not. They are smarter, kinder, and less self-serving than the other person. This is dualistic thinking. Once we reduce a matter into two overly simple notions, we are bound to choose one over the other.
The us/them thinking is familiar to everyone living in America today. Republicans vs. Democrats. Pro Choice vs. Pro Life. Black Lives Matters vs. Every Life Matters. We choose from these categories as if that explains what we really care about and really believe. By defining ourselves with these labels, we separate ourselves from “Them” and create a greater barrier to actually seeing one another and being seen for who we are. We gloss over the nuances of the full story and settle for the Cliff notes which doesn’t quite capture our own take on the situation but gives us a shorthand way of saying what we do and do not believe.
Mediation encourages people to set down their position and find shared values and common desires that brings us together in our humanity. It allows us to create agreements together that serve everyone’s needs. For example, parents begin with a shared set of goals and build a plan for their children based on those goals. What if instead of choosing a Democrat proposal for environmental regulation or a Republican proposal, we started by developing shared goals? We could all agree we want safe drinking water for everyone - right?
3. Develop Life-Giving Stories
At times I believe that truth is entirely relative. I nearly always believe that although we can’t change reality, we have complete control to change the story that we tell about what presents itself to us. That alone gives us all the agency we need.
Sometimes, clients come in with a story of pain due to abandonment, or a story of being lied to - or unfairness in one form or another. If they choose to drop that story, they can tell a story of triumph over adversity, following their intuition or rising above comparative thinking. Let me share a seasonal example with you:
The father’s story: “Every year, I try to help my child make an original, homemade Halloween costume. I like making things and want to enjoy this activity with her, and I want to teach her the values of creativity, handmade items over commercialism, and original thinking. Every year, my daughter begins with interest but it wanes as we approach Halloween. She tells me she wants to be some commercial princess and that mom will buy her that costume. Mom is undermining my ability to convey these important values. She doesn’t hold those same values and she doesn’t support me as a father.”
The mother’s story: “Every year in early October, my daughter comes home from Dad’s excited about a costume that they plan on making together. Over the course of the month, I hear little or nothing about it and then nothing is produced. I am forced to run out and get her a costume two days before Halloween because Dad didn’t follow through on what he said he would do. Dad is someone who often doesn’t follow through on his grand ideas and he’s teaching that to our daughter.”
A shared story: “Every year, I/he attempts to help our daughter create an original, homemade costume. I/he wants to enjoy that activity with our child and to teach her the values of creativity, handmade over commercialism and original thinking. Every year, our daughter loses interest in this activity because it’s challenging and because she knows that she/I will give her a way out by buying her a store-bought costume. That is easier and more like what all of her friends will be wearing. Because we never spoke about this, both of us thought it was the other parent’s fault and we were both peeved about it. We both share the values of creativity, avoiding commercialism, and following through with what you’ve started. We will help our daughter learn these values by communicating effectively and assuming the best about the other parent.”
The Elusive Truth
Even if truth exists, it’s awfully elusive. Even with the best that science has to offer, we have to choose what we’re going to believe based on the information currently available. Whatever stories we choose, we get experiences that confirm that. By choosing stories that bring peace and meaning, stories that acknowledges our adversity but don’t pit us against each other, we build unity rather than division and healing rather than antagonism.
I’m pretty sure that one of the things we’re doing here on this planet is learning lessons so life can get easier and richer as we age. Conflict is one of the greatest methods of learning. Let’s also learn from the disruptive technology of mediation when we look for solutions to those conflicts. It’s easy to see that war and violence solve nothing and only perpetuate themselves. I would suggest that verbal debate, the legal and judicial systems, and civil disobedience also compel us to remain hostage to the dualistic thinking and victim storytelling that inhibits true connection. Whoa… I’m not saying that I see no further use for these tools, but that they work best for keeping order and changing power from one side to the other. When it comes to expanding ourselves, connecting and healing, we need new strategies.