The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is described as a conservative think tank. Recently AEI President, Arthur Brooks, shared a message about how the problem with politics is really about how we talk to each other. He says we don’t have an anger problem in American politics, we have a contempt problem.
Brooks says contempt is defined by social psychologists as “the utter conviction of the worthlessness of another human being.” According to Brooks, if you listen to people talk to each other today in political life, they talk to each other with pure contempt. We never totally get over it if someone talks to us with contempt, according to Brooks. Brooks postulates that if we really want to solve the problem with political polarization today, we need to solve the contempt problem. He related his conversations with the Dalai Lama (with whom he sometimes writes) and how he asked the Dalai Lama for advice on how he can deal with this problem when he feels contempt. The Dalai Lama suggested Brooks answer somebody’s contempt “by practicing warmheartedness.”
Brooks thinks this is true and that practicing warmheartedness can be “utterly world changing,” asking us to imagine if we had our leaders practicing warmheartedness, and if all of us choose to answer contempt with warm heartedness. Brooks asks if we are going to do the right thing and show true strength and answer somebody’s contempt with warmheartedness.
Having served as a Democratic state Senator, and being admittedly politically wired, I admit that my first instinct upon surveying our country’s broken political landscape is to trot out my Democratic talking points and accusations to blame Republicans for creating the political brokenness of today. And then Republicans would perhaps respond in kind because, well, that’s what we continue to do in today’s broken America. We appear to be tentative or even afraid of trying new ways of engaging each other in our broken politics.
Maybe the marches I have attended, and the millions who turned out to protest the path this country is headed down since President Trump took office, is the catalyst required to motivate and propel us all to start practicing warmheartedness. What if the millions of folks who participated in the marches pledged to move forward practicing warmheartedness? Maybe that’s what is finally needed to be able to get anything done, to live together, and because at the end of the day it might just be the right thing for each of us to do as human beings.
Imagine Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, elected by us to represent us, sitting down together over a meal, regularly, with a commitment to practice warmheartedness. To many this idea sounds painfully naive, unrealistic and out of touch with today’s real world. Remember, a key to this is “practice.” We all need practice at doing things in our life to get better at doing them.
The older I get the more I struggle to intentionally push myself to practice those things I am not good at. We seem wired to want to do things we have a competence at or comfort level doing. Practicing warmheartedness will push our comfort boundaries. We will screw it up and clumsily make our way forward. That’s how we learn, by practicing. Hopefully, by practicing we will become more proficient. . . and warmer hearted.
I ask you in good faith to consider what is our workable alternative to “practicing” warmheartedness to start the process of mending America’s brokenness, before it can no longer be mended. More of the same? More marches? Uniting Democrats to change things? More demonizing of our neighbors who are a different color, religion, rich, poor or a host of other divisive and cold hearted practices we are used to following? More Tweets?
We should also be asking how we are educating the next generation, our children, with respect to the need and value of their practicing warmheartedness in the world. The Dalai Lama has said “I have always had this view about the modern education system: we pay attention to brain development, but the development of warmheartedness we take for granted.” The Dalai Lama believes a wam heart is teachable. Are we currently teaching our children how to practice warmheartedness? If not, why not?
It seems America is laser focused on trying to ensure that its children are educated in ways that allow them to “compete” globally, taking great pains to emphasize the need to be more than just competitive in math and science. We can’t fall behind the rest of the world. I agree with the need for our children to be able to compete in the global work force and not be left behind. I wonder if we paid as much attention to teaching our children about the importance, the humanity, of practicing warmheartedness, if we might be preparing them to be more thoughtful global citizens, neighbors and even political adversaries.
I look to my Christian faith for guidance as to how I am called to practice warmheartedness. Where is our willingness as Christians to practice warmheartedness in our political interactions with our neighbors? Are self professed Christians intentionally ignoring the call in Mark 12:31 to love their neighbor as themselves? Did Jesus mean he was expecting us to love our neighbors as ourselves in our every day life, except for how we practice our party politics, because that’s really hard so we are somehow free to do whatever we please? I’m guessing not.
Following Jesus with a warm heart is hard.
Practicing warmheartedness will be be immediately tested. Reimagining how we meet the contempt that crosses our path in social media and our interactions with folks in the world by practicing warmheartedness will likely reveal our own human shortcomings and limitations. But it may also reveal and help us cultivate strengths we did not even know we possessed. And that is both wonderful and terrifying.
Perhaps those strengths might include listening generously to understand and respect another’s contrary position and our need to be in relationship to get anything done. Perhaps it might lead us to the self discovery of new strengths and weaknesses we have not yet imagined.
Let the practicing begin.