November 2, 2018

Dear Drama Observers,

“People disagreeing everywhere you look.

Think I wanna read a book.”

Bob Dylan

If by throwing out a handful of twinkle dust, some cosmic sorcerer could suddenly eliminate conflict from the planet, I’d be out of a job. Conflict has been a running theme in most every counseling session I’ve conducted for 30 years. Conflict between spouses, conflict with family members, conflict with friends, conflict at church, conflict with neighbors, conflict at work. People never come into my office complaining about their workplace widget machine not working. They come in distressed about the jerk at work that runs that widget machine.

Unless you’re like one of those Japanese soldiers found wandering in the jungle in the 1970’s because he didn’t realize the war had ended decades before, you’ve probably noticed a whole lot of conflict going on. Watch or read any news, and you’re reminded of our national verbal slugfest that seems to be intensifying. “We have come to live in a society based on insults, on lies, and on things that just aren’t true.” Colin Powell observed recently. “It creates an environment where deranged people feel empowered.”

In my opinion, Colin Powell is tragically correct about that.

We’re wired for relationships and are driven by something social psychologists refer to as the coalitional instinct. We naturally band together into groupings or tribes, if you will. But when we coalesce, something else about our nature becomes manifest—our imperfections. Theologians call this our fallenness. Immanuel Kant referred to this as the “crooked timber of humanity.”

Consequently, problems come with closeness and to “get along,” we need problem solving skills—things we’re not born with. Philosopher Hannah Arendt once noted, “Every generation is invaded by barbarians; we call them children.” We start out barbaric and become “civilized” with age as we’re trained to better handle our inevitable conflict problems.

That’s what’s supposed to happen. But some people emerge into adulthood having never developed those problem-solving capabilities. They have grownup bodies but childlike abilities to solve people problems when they arise. Any yet, they’re still driven by the coalitional instinct—they want relationships. So, they’re now faced with a dilemma: How can I have relationships when I lack what’s needed to relate normally—to resolve conflicts.

That dilemma is resolved by… You guessed it… DRAMA. Drama becomes an alternate method of relating and it works like this: My role in the drama is this; your role in the drama is that. As long as we both stay inside of our roles, we’ll “get along.” So, relational “success” with a drama person is contingent upon drama participation. And as I’ve said many times in this weekly letter, drama participation takes a toll on those who participate. It also takes a toll on those who observe.

Which brings us back to our national Jerry Springer Show. It’s becoming increasingly hard to distinguish between actual news and reality TV where combatants behave more like barbarians than civilized adults. They’ve coalesced into us-versus-them tribes who seek, not to persuade their opponents, but to crush them. Tribes are collective versions of individual dramas which operate according to the maxim: We’re right; you’re wrong; end of discussion.

Recognizing the power of our tribal tendencies, our republic was originally set up to keep these primitive impulses in check, leading to what’s often referred to as a “civil society.” But when tribalism goes unchecked, we devolve back into barbarism and our society becomes uncivil. As Nelson Mandela once said, “When we dehumanize and demonize our opponents, we abandon the possibility of peacefully resolving our differences and seek to justify violence against them.”

Here’s something I tell couples all the time:

“You’re going to have conflicts; they’re unavoidable. Your natural tendency when problems arise will be to either blow up or shut up (very barbaric tendencies, I might add, although I’ve learned not to use the word “barbaric” with couples I’m helping—that seems to offend them for some reason). Your better option will be to open up. That is, talk things through to a resolution. Every time a conflict goes unresolved, it disconnects you just a little bit. But every time you resolve something, it connects you a little bit more. If you want to be close, don’t avoid problems but push on through to resolutions.”

When couples take this to heart, counter their natural tribal tendencies, grow their previously missing problem-solving abilities, and learn how to resolve conflict problems, they become less barbaric and more “civilized.” Granted, that’s easier said than done. But isn’t that true for everything in life that’s worthwhile?

I wonder if there’s such a thing as mandatory “couples” counseling for our two political tribes. I’ll check into that.

Till next week.

6 replies
  1. Gini Diane Collinson, LCSW
    Gini Diane Collinson, LCSW says:

    Dr. Godwin, how I wish that you were mistaken about the current state of the union.

    I attended an all day seminar you gave earlier this year. You were able to keep it lively and interesting, despite the curtained conference room. I’ll be keeping my eyes out for your next gig!

    Reply

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