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Us vs Them. But Where Are ‘We’?

Tasnim Rashid, LMHC

Since 2020, the country seems to be experiencing a civil war of ideology. There is a heightened sense of “us against them” everywhere I look. Patriotism has become controversial and vaccination (or not) has become an over-simplified signal of virtue. Are you a friend or a foe? Our conversations with friends and family are permeated with division. It is exhausting. I am exhausted. And I know I’m not alone in saying, “I miss family.”

Through all the uncertainty, fears, disruptions, and challenges of the long pandemic, one of the hardest things of all has been our separation from our people, whoever they are. When times are tough, we need to weather them together, but the virus has blocked our ability to gain strength and joy from each other. And we have lost people to the disease.

For some people, they have also lost loved ones to ideological conflicts. Holidays are normally my favorite time of the year, or they used to be. I have been fortunate to enjoy the entire family gathering, eating good food and exchanging fun stories. Now, not only do we have to strategize how big a gathering is safe, Covid testing before and after, social distancing blah blah blah … the conversations seem to start with vaccine hesitancy and end with fights about who has the real facts. Social and political issues are infecting the spirit of my family. I have started avoiding phone calls from aunts and visits to cousins. But I have to ask myself: is all this worth losing people I love?

Is it worth losing someone I love?

My clients struggle with the same dilemma too often. People have panic attacks and don’t know how to manage this level of stress. For some, an “us vs. them – you’re with us or against us” way of seeing the world may have already strained their feelings of connection and acceptance in their families. The current climate may finalize being rejected from family. Or you may feel you have to stand your ground and choose between your own authenticity and conformity to the family culture. How could we choose between our family and our ideals without losing something essential? For those who have lost family through the conflict, there’s grief and loss. There are no easy solutions and none without difficulty. But there may be a navigable middle path worth trying.

How do I maintain relationships without losing my voice?

It’s not easy but we can aim for an equilibrium. Learn to accept that the conviction you feel about your beliefs is matched by the other person’s commitment to theirs. Practice having an open mind, even if you have to start with gritted teeth. Allow others the opportunity to explain why they support an ideal and how they landed on it. That will allow you the opportunity to gain their perspective on life. A difference in opinion does not make a bad person. Listen to understand, not to reply.

Sometimes there is no right answer or being right is small comfort if you lose the people you love. Often we have debates having already decided “I am right”. It goes on for hours adding frustration, focused on winning rather than communion or growth. No one is willing to concede. In such cases, try telling yourself, right is not always clear. And sometimes we just have to agree to disagree and walk away. Accept that even though you may think someone is wrong-headed, they are probably doing the best they can with what they have.

At family gatherings, avoid sensitive topics and focus on your shared history, stories, and connection. Search for the positive, even if it’s tough.

When meeting people, you may need to prepare in advance neutral topics of conversation. Explore the new person’s life, talk about family, careers. Avoid causing yourself or anyone else to feel stressed at a time when everyone should be enjoying themselves. If someone else brings up a ‘third rail’ topic, practice a respectful way to decline and change the subject.

We are all trying to survive through these times with the tools we have. None of us has all the answers, but if we can find even a small spot of common ground, we may be able to comfort one another. We can hope that the current disconnections aren’t permanent and hold space for change and healing in better days ahead.

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