I present this essay just days before the presidential election of 2020. Tensions are high and some predict that the results may be a long time coming. Lawyers are gearing up. Will this be another election decided by the Supreme Court? Whatever the outcome, I think we may be looking at hard times ahead.
The political partisan divide has become so extreme that we think of our opposite not just with dismay but with contempt, as people to be avoided, disappeared, a hostile alien tribe. Yet some members of my opposite tribe are people I hold in high esteem, often worked with to both of our advantage, people I really like but with whom I’ve lost contact. For me, this is reason enough to seek to reestablish valued connections, all the while knowing that our conflicting beliefs will not dissipate and might even strengthen in the months and even years ahead.
And an even broader purpose emerges for reducing this alienation. As the election approaches and the divide grows ever wider, there is nothing to suggest that our national schism will moderate. Scholars of history look to the past, and to other countries, and predict that a populace so divided is ripe for the acceptance of authoritarian leaders and actions that will significantly undermine our democracy.
For several years now I have been following the work of social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind (Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics). As a recognized expert on social movements, when asked how this rift can be breached for the good of the nation, he spoke of healing this fracture with love, referencing an ancient philosopher. Frankly, at first blush, I thought this naïve or at best impossible. Now, with further thought, study, and consultation with equally concerned friends, I’ve become a believer in the premise that: loving friendships across the political divide will make us more resilient when hard times come.
So, how are we to rekindle the filial love once enjoyed, even in the face of our continuing political differences? Last month I suggested that perhaps by coming together and purposefully setting aside any discussion of our partisan differences, we could pose questions to each other genuinely designed to encourage self-disclosure, lower the protective barriers we typically maintain, and deepen our knowledge and connection to each other. I believe we could grow to respect our differences and even reveal ways we are alike.
Every few months I meet for lunch with the son of a dear departed friend of mine. I watched him grow up. He was a good buddy of one of my sons. He is a reserved fellow, self-contained, and our conversations typically deal with each of us reporting on our current lives and those of other family members. Recently, we lunched on an outdoor patio and I described my plan and asked him to serve as a guinea pig and answer some of the questions I had gathered. He agreed, and for an hour or so he addressed many of those on my list. In this short time, I gained greater insight into this young man (now in his 60s but still young to me) than I had in the many lunches we shared over the last few years. A few days later, he wrote,” Your questions were insightfuI and cut to the very root of who I think I am.” I was delighted. It worked. When we meet again, we will both respond to a few additional questions on the list. Our relationship is becoming ever more meaningful.
I’ve gathered my questions from a number of sources, initially from psychologist Arthur Aron who some years ago famously published a series of 36 questions designed to enhance relationship building. Although later popularized as a device for strangers falling in love, originally, in 1997, they were formulated for speeding up intimacy among strangers.
Aron used the questions regularly in his lectures and freshman classes, pairing up students randomly or experimenting with cross-race friendships to better understand prejudice. The questions have even been used to improve understanding between police officers and community members where tensions run high.
Friends with whom I shared this proposed venture offered additions. They are questions that call for thoughtful responses and offer insights I would never otherwise gather. Here are just a few examples:
“If you could change one thing about your current situation, what would it be?”
“What would constitute a perfect day for you?”
“For what in your life do you feel most grateful?”
“What if anything is too serious to be joked about?”
I would be happy to send the entire list, as developed to date, to anyone who wishes to have it. The experiment is still in the making. The results are yet to come.
But my belief in the premise is strengthened: loving friendships will make us more resilient if and when hard times come.