Happy Valentine’s Day! Will you be my valentines, all fellow humans of earth? Is it too much to ask every person in the world to make every other person in the world their Valentine? Not the romantic kind, but the kind of Valentine you made with glue and sparkles in Second Grade. Valentine’s Day in grade school was all about inclusion and friendship as the teachers forced us all to get along. The world needs a similar group activity.
Despite reasonable pleas of “hey, it’s the 21st century,” no one seems to want to take seriously the opportunity to advance as a society. We still seem stuck the evolutionary reaction to conflict: fight or flight, or the modern version, argue or avoid. No in between, because we are all animals protecting our territory and tribe.
Reasonable people agree that we all could benefit from a little more genuine connection with our common humanity, and a little less of the bitter instinct to embrace conflict, confusion, and chaos. Unfortunately, we stumble upon too many opportunities to throw reason out the window. Then, we end up throwing other things out the window, such as throwing screams out the car window at traffic, or shouting down someone on the Internet who believes healthcare is a compassionate human right (i.e., Microsoft Windows).
I believe compassion should be our default response to all conflicts we face, no matter how wrong it feels inside to show compassion. I struggle daily with this concept as I try to make my way through the worst traffic city in the US (according to traffic expert and gentle Wall Street critic, The Financial Times). Add a few annoyingly cautious drivers who want to make sure six lanes of traffic come to a screeching halt before they can safely merge, and I too often launch into my adult tantrum, complete with frantic arm waving and mouth foaming. I try to remind myself to love the person. Just because she is in my way, doesn’t make her less of a person. She is a human being that wants to be loved, with a whole life of struggles, mistakes, and victories. She doesn’t drive poorly because she wants to undermine my sanity. She barely even knows me.
Finding compassion will remain a challenge due to our love of arguing. Admit it. You love to argue. I know I love arguing. It’s a cinch to start an argument. Just let your emotions boil to the surface and blame someone else for it. Of course, I also hate arguing. It’s uncomfortable. It’s scary at times. Your pride is at stake. It’s the reason that so many arguments with your spouse end in hurt, confusion, and if you’re lucky, some sort of personal growth -- painful, painful, gut-wrenching, ego-crushing personal growth.
Arguing with a stranger is even worse. You’re so much more vulnerable because you don’t know if it could turn violent, especially online! That’s the worst, by the way, when the angry commenter comes through your computer screen and chokes you. You have to get a new computer, and you feel embarrassed when they stop to comment on your messy apartment.
I feel lucky in my marriage, because the love is time-tested and intentional, and the arguments are a breeze. My wife and I use a specific dialog technique to resolve the difficult issues. The process creates a structure to the conversation that slows down the argument to a crawl, while protecting each person’s vulnerabilities and emotions. It’s something we learned in therapy 18 years ago, and we still find it extremely useful and helpful. The amazing result of this process is that you feel safe to bring up deeper issues, and you both remain allies to each other instead of bitter combatants. You also discover in most cases that you are not really arguing about the issue you think you are.
Many couples default to the standard argument technique of raising voices, insulting, and threatening. Eventually someone apologizes, and perhaps they engage in some sort of, uh, activity to make-up for it. The other technique involves avoiding the issues altogether - pushing them deep down inside you until you are traumatically numb, and completely unaware that you even have issues.
The numb avoidance technique is my favorite, because it leads to the oddest behavior. People become like robots that forgot their programming instructions, meandering around the house, occasionally remembering to stock the fridge with groceries, and dazed in their American suburban existence.
My upcoming web series Co-Habits (about the absurd interactions of cohabitation) celebrates the raised voices technique, as well as the numb avoidance technique. So, you have that to look forward to enjoying!
I chose to focus on those interactions because they highlight our absurdity as a modern society. Those simple arguments contain some of the same DNA as our conflicts with friends and strangers. Despite my successes in my marriage, I still follow the numb avoidance technique when it comes to those social issues I hold dear. We can’t seem to find the “in between” – the place where we could find compassion for each other and our fellow man together. It’s too bad we can’t engage the same dialog technique for political arguments.
I suppose it’s too idealistic to consider opposing groups of people could sit down and hold a real dialog with feelings and exploration of inner motivations. Sure, it’s difficult to get millions of people in the same room for such an event, but the real hurdle would be getting everyone to open up that place of compassion required to really hear the opposing group’s experience. Plus, if everyone could somehow magically keep honest, you would quickly see the power imbalance and inequality as the real barrier. Those who change the rules so they can keep most of the money would slip out the back door.
I suspect that majority of earthlings want so many of the same basic things. If you look deep under all the rhetoric and arguments of politics, and under the complicated dramas we weave in our personal lives, it all comes down to feeling autonomous, feeling loved, and sharing our lives with those that we love. It’s what we want from our partner, and I feel it’s what we should have with everyone on the planet.
So, please, go to the Hallmark store and get a few billion Valentine’s Day packs. They’re cheaper in bulk. Pass them out – nicely – and everyone will get a cookie when the bell rings.
If you disagree with my idea, please don’t bother arguing with me unless you are willing to start a dialog of vulnerability! I’m just not in the mood!