Posts tagged: reconciliation

The Wounds of the Heart

The last two months have been challenging for me, hence my lack of blogging. They aren’t limited to losing my advisor. But what I have seen running throughout many of these challenges is a kind of a deep psychological conflict that I will call wounds of the heart.

A wound of the heart is an emotional hurt that generates intense, seemingly unbearable psychic stress and that can create long-term damage to one’s personality due to overpowering negative moral emotions, like resentment and hatred, and that may last for the rest of one’s life. They are typically caused by some act by one’s close friends, family, or community. The wounded person believes the act signals that the offending group bears him or her bad will, and that the group does not love or support the wounded person in the way he or she had counted upon in the past. It can overwhelm the wounded person’s agency, leading them to lash out and creating a new harm, and perhaps wounding the hearts of others. When multiple parties to a relationship have wounds of the heart, that can spell the death of the relationship, even if the relationship continues pro forma.

One remarkable feature of wounds of the heart is that they can easily lead to false beliefs about the purported wounding individual or group, not merely that one’s family, friends, or community is corrupt or toxic, but that the group has been corrupt and toxic all along. We who are wounded revisit the wounding event, coming to a darker and darker reading of it, attributing worse and worse motives to those involved, all to comfort ourselves in a way that never quite works. In this way, a wound of the heart can trap the wounded person in beliefs that make healing impossible, even when the purported wounding party is in fact open to reconciliation and healing, and indeed yearns for it.

Healing wounds of the heart is an urgent moral task, in no small part because it can create new, negative character traits, and even break the unity of one’s soul and agency. But it is very difficult to begin the healing process. Usually the wounded person is so overwhelmed with hurt that he or she has had to close herself off emotionally in order to endure the hurt. Proposing to heal the wound is a psychic threat in itself because it creates the possibility of new hurt and pain. But without healing, things will only get worse, or they will settle at a level of harm that becomes too ingrained to heal.

I try to cultivate a desire to heal the wounds of the heart I have played any role in, but those desires have always been frustrated. And the pain I’ve felt in my inability to heal those wounds is one of the reasons I became so interested in trust and reconciliation in the first place. But those I have wounded have refused to speak with me, or have insisted that I see the world in their way before any conversation can begin, even when that is a wholly unreasonable demand.

I also have my own wounds of the heart, ones that I struggle to heal every day with prayer and repentance. But they remain a never-ending source of grief and anger. I am not sure my wounds of the heart will heal in my lifetime. Until then, it is my responsibility to manage them, keep them in check, and to pray that God will give me the opportunity to heal and even reconcile despite them. It is essential for the health of my soul that I do this. This level of pain can overwhelm anyone, distort their personality, and cause staggering moral decline. Perhaps this has already happened to me, perhaps the damage is permanent, but today I am recommitting to soldiering on. May I be healed of my wounds of the heart, and may I play some role, however small, in healing the heart wounds of others.



Lamenting Grandstanding and Stopping It

I’ve just finished reading Grandstanding by my friends Brandon Warmke and Justin Tosi. It’s a marvelous little book and is both well-written and well-argued. I did find myself a bit saddened by the book because I tend to think I ought to do all I can to attribute good motives to others, even if I end up having some falsely nice beliefs about them. But Brandon and Justin have convinced me that I need to rethink that. I need to downgrade my opinion of the moral worth of human behavior.

One reason I try to think well of others is because thinking poorly of others can often lead to broken relationships, and needlessly broken relationships. Brandon and Justin argue persuasively that we shouldn’t accuse people of grandstanding because it generally won’t do much good. But now I’m worried I’m bound to do less good because I now find myself generally thinking more poorly of others. I feel more suspicious, and less committed to bringing people together. How can we bring people together when much of their behavior is driven by base motives, motives that they often do not recognize, or would refuse to admit to were they to realize it?

One thing I have learned in my life, especially as of late, is that reconciliation is a two-way street. However open you are to reconciliation, and however much you desire it, and indeed however much you offer the chance to heal with those you are divided from, you may still be turned down. Things are worse in cases of grandstanding, since you’re dealing with people you don’t even really have a relationship with and will probably never meet. How on Earth can we hope to develop and sustain things like relationships of civic friendship and solidarity if our public actions are aimed at something other than agreement, persuasion, and/or the common good?

The most obvious thing to do is to stop your own grandstanding. You remove some cruelty, condescension, deception, and self-deception from the world. In some cases, that is all you can do.

You can also stop rewarding others for grandstanding, though without openly accusing them of doing so. That can play some small role as well.

But I also wonder if there isn’t an additional duty or at least good one can do by trying to create social media environments that do not reward grandstanding, such as private groups on Facebook dedicated to valued, common tasks, like close professional networks dedicated to improving one another’s work, or committing to meeting in person with people more often, where grandstanding is often easier to identify and discourage. Finding organizations with a common task that people have to contribute to with effort can lead people to invest their efforts in activities other than grandstanding.

But I admit, these are very small things we can do to improve public discourse and avoid the pain, hurt, and division so often found in these sites of social interaction. But if all you can do is a little, a little is all you can do. To micro-reconciliation!

Important Religious Liberty Victories at the Supreme Court

Important victories for religious liberty today, but the Little Sisters decision far from settles their “legal odyssey” (as Alito puts it). All that happened is that the Court let the Trump Administration broaden the exemption from what the Obama Administration offered. From what I can tell, you’d need new litigation to stop a future Democratic administration to re-narrow the exemption again, but someone correct me if I am wrong. Here are some of my quick reactions. (I’d write in more detail, but I’m knee-deep in copyediting for my next book, Trust in a Polarized Age.)

1. The good news about today is that the large majority of the Court is prepared to defend religious liberty, and to force the federal government to seek other methods for facilitating contraception access, LGBT equality, and so on besides compromising the liberty of religious institutions. That’s essential for justice, and the political stability of the country. Progressives, you’ll govern the vast majority of American public institutions in accord with your conception of equality; you just have to make some exceptions for the sake of peace and mutual respect.

2. These religious liberty issues are part of the basis for Trump’s support, and I hope my progressive readers will factor that into account in deciding how hard to fight these battles. For me, the contraception mandate was the deciding factor in my decision to vote for Romney in 2012. I didn’t vote for Trump, but I was not able to oppose him with my whole heart because of these issues. There are many like me, progressive friends. We want to join you, but not when you ask us to choose between opposing Trump and harming the Church. 

3. Most of my readers are secular, so let me quickly review how I think about the morality of the Little Sisters case (the details of which are more complicated than you may initially think). Basically, the case at issue, if you describe it in terms of the perspectives of groups like the Little Sisters, is that the federal government is forcing them to choose between a divinely-given vocation and imperiling their souls. Contraception, for some of these groups, is often seen as a *mortal* (roughly, damning until confessed) sin, and facilitating contraception in any way is also a mortal sin. So basically, from these groups’ perspectives, the feds are pressuring them into the possibility of an *infinite utility loss*. I know what it is like to fear for your soul. It might be the worst thing ever. And it’d be nice if the feds would find a way to ensure contraception coverage that didn’t have this implication. I hope my secular friends will try to take our perspective here.

4. I actually think when you get into the details, the Little Sisters themselves may not even be the subject of these legal strictures since their insurance provider is exempt, so it is kind of misleading to make them the public face of the religious liberty side of this case. But the other side is in many ways worse, claiming that women would be harmed by these exemption but were (from what I can tell) unable to find an instance of it. So the case is more political than I realized at first, which dampens my enthusiasm somewhat. So that needs to be said. But remember that this isn’t the end of seamless contraception coverage. The feds just have to pay for it directly, rather than making religious institutions into their instruments.

5. I agree with David French that Gorsuch may well have a plan to impose a religious liberty compromise on the country that is probably a good idea, and not unlike the Utah Compromise, where LGBT people come under equality before the law in employment, but extensive religious exemptions are provided to institutions that have a traditional view of sexual morality. I think it is a stable legal equilibrium, one that makes neither side happy, but the legal settlement that is most likely justified to the widest group of people. I don’t like that the Supreme Court is imposing the compromise on the country, but neither of the major parties are willing to compromise on the matter, and so at least we’re getting the right result, if in a non-ideal way. But Gorsuch may be intent on making the religious liberty/LGBT liberty less red hot, and as someone who believes in the values of peace, trust, and mutual respect, that gives me some hope. This is what reconciliation often looks like, folks. It isn’t victory, there is loss, but there is a beauty to it.

Reconcile When You Can

One of the reasons I focus on the ideal of reconciliation in my work and my thinking more generally is that I think broken relationships are among the greatest harms that humans endure. Almost nothing hurts well-being more than the loss of a loved one, or becoming estranged from one’s partner, children, parents, or friends. Indeed, many people spend most of their lives in dysfunctional, even abusive, relationships because those relationships provide them with meaning and value, and many other goods besides. Reconciliation has supreme value because it is the resumption of these lost relationships.

Reconciliation is also valuable as a process because it requires us to engage in morally admirable acts, such as admitting wrongdoing and forgiving others. In reconciliation, we express regard and love for another person, and are often prepared to humble ourselves in order to restore the relationship to working order. That’s why I find the process of reconciliation one of the greatest beauties the world has to offer.

One main barrier to reconciliation is pride. People who have broken the relationship often cannot admit to others, or even themselves, that their actions have done so much harm. As a result, the unreconciled retreat into their own emotional worlds, often guarded by the false belief that the other person is at fault, or that the relationship was broken by forces outside of their control. Reconciliation has value because in reconciling, people can break through self-deception, unfairly blaming others, and social isolation. The other main barrier is simply overwhelming hurt; reconciliation means reopening old wounds, which might not get healed, and so many refuse the opportunity based on their assessment of the risk of how it will go. When people pursue reconciliation anyway, they exhibit a kind of trust or faith, and indeed courage, because they care enough about healing to take a chance.

These are all very good reasons to try to reconcile with others. But there are two good reasons not to pursue reconciliation. The first is if you have very good reason to believe that the other person does not want to reconcile. That’s because reconciliation is a two-way street, and trying to force or cajole others into reconciling can often backfire, and even further damage the relationship by creating an additional source of resentment and division. The second is if you think the resumed relationship is likely to be harmful to you, the other person, and/or some third party. For instance, resuming a relationship with a drug-addicted friend might lead you back into addiction as much as it might lead the other person away from addiction.

But before refusing to reconcile, we need to be fairly sure that the other person does not want to reconcile and/or that reconciliation would be harmful in some respect.

A final point. Most people stay in bad relationships too long, but others err in cutting people out of their lives too quickly. In my experience, the most painful harms people are endure are being cutting out of others’ lives, and their former lovers, friends, or colleagues refusing to communicate with them, so that they have no chance to heal or even ask for forgiveness. In many cases, people end relationships based on past grievances that could be healed even by a simple conversation. Many people will endure enormous pain and loss, and give into anger and fear, rather than spend five minutes with the person who hurt them. While such conversations are often painful, the benefits of the attempt usually outweigh the costs, if for no other reason than that we do not always know how the other person thinks about the loss. In my own attempts at reconciliation, I’ve often found that the other person is hurt for reasons I could not have anticipated, or that they think I have attitudes towards them that I simply lack.

So reconcile when you can. And if you’re refusing to reconcile with another person who wants it, reconsider, at least for a moment. Reconciliation is one of the great joys in life, and breaks us free from the chains that hurt and loss place on our hearts.

Six Reasons Why Ellen is Right to Remain Friends with George W. Bush

There’s been a bit of a Twitterstorm over Ellen DeGeneres’s friendship with George W. Bush, which became clear when they were seen at a football game together. Some complained on the grounds that a good person like Ellen shouldn’t be friends with an ex-president with problematic views and who did terrible things in office. The Huffington Post recounts the incident here. Here’s a CNN article on the same.

Ellen defended herself:

“I’m friends with George Bush,” DeGeneres said Monday on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” “In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have.”

I think this is the right response for six reasons.

(1) We have little effect on political outcomes, so basing friendships on politics will undermine friendships based on factors one cannot change. By foregoing the friendship, then, little is gained. And much is lost if the friendship is otherwise worthwhile.

(2) Politics isn’t all that matters even if we can change political outcomes by rejecting friends because of their politics. We should base friendships on many factors, not just shared beliefs.

(3) Having friends with different views helps you to understand the rationale for your own views, to change your mind and/or the mind of your friend. So there are lots of epistemic benefits to having friends with diverse perspectives. The case for Millian free speech writ small!

(4) One might reply that one shouldn’t be friends with W because of the Iraq War. That is a reason to criticize him, but it’s also a reason to try to connect with him and be a safe place for him to express remorse and to heal.

(5) I think it’s clear that W has real remorse, given his intense practice of painting the portraits of soldiers he sent to war. If someone expresses remorse, even privately, we should praise and encourage such a person, not shun him.

(6) In a heavily polarized culture, we should praise high-status people who form friendships with people with opposing political views. They set an example for depolarizing and restoring trust by showing that we can connect to others for reasons other than politics. They show that our differences can be overcome. Ellen has made a choice that helps others to reconcile.

I’ll end the post with more of Ellen’s fine words: “When I say, ‘be kind to one another,’ I don’t only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.” Yes, indeed.