Healing divisiveness

To become happier as individuals and as a society, we need to become more tolerant of each other, seek out a higher purpose, and give generously.

Frederic Luskin, PhD, the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects and senior consultant, Health Promotion, has for many years explored and explained forgiveness therapy to people ranging from those who have suffered from violence (Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, World Trade Center survivors); to caregivers, teachers and corporate employees seeking ways to tame stress and enhance emotional competence; and, most recently, to athletes looking for better concentration, focus and teamwork.

While Luskin will forever be known as “the forgiveness guy,” in talks he has given over the past year, and in HealthySteps to Wellness’s recent interview with him, we have noticed several important extensions to his theories — no doubt, at least in part, a response to the political and social changes in the U.S. over the past year and the “national divisiveness” now plaguing our country.

We wanted to know if this national divide is akin to the divisiveness within an individual psyche, or within an interpersonal relationship (such as a struggling marriage). What certainly becomes clear as Luskin speaks is that “the work” must begin at the individual level.

We’re wired for anger

As Luskin explains, “Our nervous system and perception receptors are so threat-centered — that that’s our default.” Because of man’s need to survive in the wild during our first centuries on earth, we developed heightened fear, anxiety and consequent anger, which initially served us well in the protection of our families and groups.

As we’ve evolved, it has become clear that much or our anger “just triggers anger in the opponent.”

“We’re so easily stressed, and tend toward feeling so threatened, and our brains have such a negativity bias, that we’re more comfortable taking the first approach: this is a threat, it must be stopped, and only fight-or-flight thinking is available.”

What results, on both an individual and community level, is “intolerance, hostile hearts, contempt, grudges held across time, and hatred.” And, says Luskin, “We really think that our hostile opinions define us.”

The two kinds of anger

Luskin embraces research showing that there are two kinds of anger:

  • Constructive anger is for protection, for finding solutions to problems, for helping people in danger: “It’s a galvanizing force that recognizes wrong and does something about it,” explains Luskin.
  • Destructive anger comes about “either when constructive anger doesn’t work or the remembrance of the offense becomes perseverative, until you just habitually remind yourself how angry you are — and then you limit your creative intelligence and start to stress out because your thinking is not very clear.”

What happens on a community level is that angry, agitated people band together in groups for protection. States Luskin, “When you then identify with a certain group that has another group as ‘an enemy,’ membership in the first group can help those sensors which are threat-centered orient together against a perceived threat.” Unfortunately, Luskin insists, “our hostility and righteousness … are low levels of evolution, and a result of foundational anxiety that we project outward all the time.”

Anger vs. constructive protest

We challenged Luskin to explain how an individual or group can protest against perceived evils or wrongs and bring about needed change without getting angry.

Luskin’s view: “You don’t have to protest with anger… because more good gets done when the motivation is love vs. hate.” He explained further that the great “do-ers” in history not only embraced non-violent protest, but many, including Martin Luther King, voiced the concept of being “for” something instead of merely “against” something else. Luskin recalls King stating that he wasn’t just against  racism, but rather he was for  the good and dignified treatment of every human being.

“When you are ‘for’ something, you don’t have to be so angry, with a brain bursting with righteousness and aggression; you have a noble purpose that can sustain you for a long time. You don’t create an enemy in the other side, so you can probably continue to talk to them and begin to see them in a more nuanced way… and when you don’t hold on to such extreme positions, you allow for other information to come into play, and you don’t have to walk around like you’re the only one who is right and with the only positive view on the planet.”

On an individual relationship level, such as in a marriage, this has pertinence:

“If your relationship gets to the point where you are angry and resentful, you aren’t going to be effective at making that relationship better — you’re just going to be discharging tension. If you have a goal of improving the relationship, you can still be firm and assertive with your partner, and even tell them what’s wrong, without presenting them as an enemy — so that you can actually talk to them!”

Disagreements you just can’t get past

We challenged Luskin further, asking him how all of this works if you truly feel you have no common ground with another individual and their views.

Luskin posits, “We have almost unlimited common ground with each other. Our DNA is about 99.9% the same, and the basic qualities humans have are the same: we all want to be happy, to be loved.” He insists that while people may go about it in different ways, we share the basic traits almost completely.

“If you think you’re so unique, it only means you’ve been adrenalized, and adrenalin triggers fear in the body, and makes you think you are alone and helpless… so that the trigger is seen as dangerous in the enemy. Sometimes that’s true, but sometimes it’s just a habit.”

We all must remember that there will always  be people who disagree with you. “If you don’t have an opponent, there’s no game.”

Purpose and generosity:
The antidotes to divisiveness

Beyond addressing anger and working to keep it constructive vs. destructive, Luskin has really been honing in on the concepts of purpose and generosity as key antidotes to divisiveness.

Divisiveness: narcissism is at its heart

Luskin has become convinced that much of our national divide, not to mention our individual psychological struggles, center on the unhealthy emphasis on “the self.” Early in our development, Luskin explains, we quickly built up what he calls “fear-based selfishness.” We had to protect ourselves and just a small circle of our loved ones, and then later we sought to protect one culture, at another culture’s expense.

“If you don’t work against the constricted, selfish mind, you will create deficits and grudges all over the place — without even recognizing it.”

Step one: mortality, humility

For Luskin, to evolve beyond narcissism and all its dangerous fallout, you must first recognize and truly accept that you are mortal, which in turn results in heightened humility. Luskin says you need to continually ask yourself, “How tolerant am I?” “How kind am I?” “How compassionate am I?”

Step two: appreciation

Emanating from humility and compassion are feelings of appreciation and gratitude. As Luskin explains, “hostility and righteousness are low levels of evolution… appreciation is a higher level of evolution” that we must all strive toward.

“When you appreciate the privilege of just being here on earth, and you see how staggeringly beautiful the world is, and you’re thankful for what you’ve got instead of constantly feeling angry that ‘the world hasn’t given me enough,’ you’ll begin to experience more consistent happiness.”

Step three: purpose and generosity, united

“We have a culture characterized by unimaginable greed.” A tough statement, but what Luskin means is that key to healing divisiveness is (a) finding a purpose greater than yourself and (2) giving, generously, to make that purpose produce results.

Interestingly, this brings up a rather heated topic in “the happiness field”: Which is the most important and basic need for people: happiness or purpose? Luskin clearly leans toward purpose, or at least the idea that purpose is a requirement for happiness. He quotes the psychiatrist and author (of Man’s Search for Meaning) Victor Frankl, who said: “He who has ‘a why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how.’” Frankl’s therapy texts built upon this very sense of purpose, which Frankl observed and embraced when he was in a Nazi concentration camp. Those in the camp that had a purpose outside of themselves were more likely to survive, Frankl observed. Luskin notes that “Frankl remains the leading thinker on purpose.”

Luskin recalls his own work in Northern Ireland. The groups there who were more able to identify as people from Ireland working together, versus just as an aggrieved subset, could develop a wider sense of purpose; e.g., healers could help people because they perceived they were in a larger, more diverse group. As Luskin explains, “Anger can come out of a purpose that’s limited to ‘protecting myself, my family, or my small group’” because such isolated protectionism “doesn’t allow for enough compassion or connection with anybody else.”

Luskin sees, therefore, that we are at the point in evolution where mankind must go beyond just banding together in groups for protection. “We see within those groups that humans have evolved the capacity for altruism and compassion and generosity, but it does not appear to have extended beyond the groups they have identified with for protection.” However, Luskin is hopeful that “because we do see pro-social movements and unselfish relationships within our identified places of safety (home, workplace), in time we might be able, more and more, “to expand the reach of compassion and gratitude.”

The reason that generosity is so inextricably linked to purpose can perhaps be explained this way, says Luskin:

“You ‘take’ to soothe your unhappiness, whereas you ‘give’ when you’re happy.”

Only when you can get over your selfishness can you be truly good to other people. In short, says Luskin, “if you constantly feel the world hasn’t given you enough, you’re constantly pissed off” — which results in friction, divisiveness, and a world where, as Luskin puts it bluntly, “people can be horrendous to each other.”

Luskin notes, importantly, that purpose need not be some largescale national movement or drive to change legislation. Luskin recommends the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, written by Barbara Ehrenreich, in which she goes undercover as a journalist and takes a series of minimum wage jobs across America. Luskin’s synopsis:

Nickled and Dimed in America showed that even in minimum wage jobs, there can be ‘purpose’ that makes you feel good about your day if you are helpful, agreeable, kind to customers… the times in the book when the jobs were unsatisfactory were when the corporate supervisors/bosses thwarted the natural efforts of certain employees who were inclined toward being more giving and helpful with customers.”

To Luskin, these kind and gracious employees epitomize the nobility of human beings who live with purpose.

Purpose and empathy:
How can that connection be better developed?

It became clear talking with Luskin that for him, purpose and empathy go hand in hand. Greed and a lack of empathy make purpose unobtainable. So, what can we all do to improve our ability to empathize and find purpose?

Meditation and compassion practices

Luskin’s current work focuses on both meditation and compassion practices, both of which have been shown to further an individual’s capacity for empathy. Meditation “lowers the activation of the part of us that is threatened by other people,” he explains.

“If more people started a sincere and sustained meditation practice… you’d have a bit less reactive population. Some of the effect of quieting the mind and focusing attention reduces some of our omnipresent sense of danger.”

Compassion practices do the same, in that “you almost have to cultivate a concern for the ‘other’ to counteract our biology of being so wired for concern for the ‘self.’”

Luskin cautions, however, that these practices are far from an easy fix, which is why they aren’t as widespread as he wished they were.

“Everybody struggles with meditation. Because we’re so threat-centric, which means our attention is focused outward to protect ourselves, any inner focus is challenging. Plus, when you quiet the mind down a little, you might see how crazy you are… and that’s frightening… you see the habitual patterns that have made you miserable.”

Luskin’s final thought in our talk was this: it takes willpower to practice meditation techniques, and to calm the mind. But he insists that you don’t need to sit still to meditate, and you don’t need hours to do it, either.

“All you have to do is try to limit your attention, like to how beautiful the day is as you walk. If you can make the decision to try, for ten minutes, while walking outside, to bring your attention to the beauty around you, and not let thoughts about how much work you have to do back at the office take over, you’re doing good.”

At the conclusion of our talk, Luskin was on his way to coach the Stanford Women’s Beach Volleyball team in the practice of meditation and centered attention/focus. His last thought:

When you calm the mind, and spend less time ‘hating’ the opponent, you waste less energy and you don’t keep limiting your perspective unnecessarily… There’s something to that in every aspect of the world in general: it’s not created to go just one way, even though most human beings would still like it to go just their one way.”

Interview by Lane McKenna
June 2018