Dear drama observers,
It’s become cliché to say we live in polarized times. The Civil War is often described as a time when “brother fought against brother.” While we’re not charging each other like the armies of George Meade and Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, we’re currently in a civil war of sorts in which family members can stop speaking to each other or friendships can end over differing political alignments.
Somewhere along the way, I heard two statements that caught my attention. These have become the central concepts shaping my professional commitments.
The first is: Intimacy in marriage comes from working through differences. I believe that. Other factors like compatibility may play a role but when it comes down to it, relational problem-solving is the essential ingredient. I’ve always liked what Billy Graham told Oprah Winfrey when she asked him to explain the secret of his long, successful marriage. “Ruth and I,” he told her, “are happily incompatible.” When prompted to elaborate, he said, “We’re not the same person, we’re different in most every way and those differences have caused us to clash. But we’ve learned over the years how to work through our clashes and we’re happy with the outcome.” That’s called happy incompatibility.
The second is: You can’t reason with unreasonable people. Unreasonable people—or drama people as I refer to them in this weekly letter—lack what’s needed to engage in relational problem-solving. Reasonable people can solve conflict problems if they learn what to do and practice what they learn. But drama people have neither the ability nor willingness to learn reason, so they resort to their only relational alternative: drama. Dramas are fun to watch but aren’t so fun when you’re in them. With drama people, you have what we might call unhappy incompatibility.
Part of my time is spent helping people—and not just couples—get along despite their differences. The other big chunk of my time is spent helping people navigate relationships where the other side’s idea of “getting along” involves drama. Where relationships “work” only if you’re willing to play your obligatory drama role.
So, back to our societal polarization and to something else we hear a lot about these days—tribalism—which I’ve written about several times before. Tribal instincts are part of human nature and have been around as long as humans. We’re simply witnessing the most current rendition of it.
There are many negative things we could say about tribalism but the aspect I’d like to highlight is the detrimental effect it has on people achieving happy incompatibility. On people getting along despite legitimate differences. Normally reasonable individuals become collectively unreasonable when allegiance to tribe trumps everything else.
If you’ve signed a tribal pledge so to speak, how can you get along with non-tribe members when the pledge obligates you to an “us versus them” mentality. Tribal members are less interested in persuasion and more interested in condemnation. They have more interest in “making the right people mad” than they have in convincing others to join their side. And tribal members who display anything less than 100% tribal fealty are somehow viewed as traitors to the cause.
So, the ancient coalitional instinct of humans manifested in what we today call tribalism is partly to blame for our polarization. And it’s fueled, no doubt, by social media. But I like what Arthur Brooks said recently. “It’s not like 50 percent of Americans thinks one thing and 50 percent thinks another thing. No, 15 percent on each side are effectively controlling the conversation and 70 percent of us don’t hate each other.”
I could go on and on about the negatives of tribalism but let me lighten this heavy subject a bit by giving a couple of non-tribal examples.
First, there is Cambridge and Oxford professor C.S. Lewis. Lewis built arguments but didn’t destroy people. It was said that he, “reviled many dogmas but seldom those who held them. He had vigour without venom; he was generous.”
“Lewis would not allow disagreement to become personal,” writes Michael Ward in C.S. Lewis and the Art of Disagreement. “He could always distinguish the man from the man’s opinion, and he knew the difference between an argument and a quarrel. He would not allow himself to be betrayed into aggression, but would, where necessary, draw rein on a dispute with a wry smile and an agreement to disagree.” By resisting the tribal urge, he thus became one of the most persuasive individuals of modern times.
Would that there were more C.S. Lewis’s in today’s political climate.
The second example has to do with a very current controversy—what NFL players should do with themselves when the national anthem is played. This is one of those areas where people tend to be viciously polarized along tribal lines. But take 2 minutes to watch this as an example of how opponents took the non-tribal path on the way to resolving their difference.
Man, I wish we had more examples like these.
The uniformity of tribalism (what happens when we follow our natural inclinations) means allowing no contrary opinions and trashing those who hold them. The unity of reasonableness (what happens when we follow our better intentions) means getting along despite our differences.
May we learn to be happily incompatible. It can be done and, indeed, people sometimes do it. It just doesn’t happen very often these days.