Dear reaching-for-the-mute-button drama watchers,
Do you ever have life lesson moments? I’ll tell you about one of mine.
I had finished my graduate course work and, to become license-eligible, I was required to complete a year of post-doctoral residency. I worked out an arrangement to complete that year in the office of my residency supervisor, a guy named Kurt who was one of my former clinical psychology professors. I had—and still have—great respect for Kurt and felt very privileged to be under his tutelage.
It just so happened that at the same time I was to begin that arrangement, Kurt’s lease expired so he decided to move locations from one office building to another. One Saturday afternoon, all of the officemates got together to move everything from the old suite into the new one. Kurt brought his young teenage son along to help with the task. We spent the better part of a day moving in all of the old stuff along with some new stuff—tables, lamps, pictures, etc.
At one point, Kurt’s son was carrying into the suite a brand new, beautiful picture that was to hang on the wall just above the waiting room love seat. As he walked into the suite, he got a little careless and knocked the picture against the door frame. Everyone close by heard this dreadful cracking noise. We stopped to survey the damage and in the upper right-hand corner, there was an arc of broken glass. It wasn’t very noticeable but . . . this was a brand new, never-been-hung, very expensive picture.
Kurt’s kids were older than mine and I thought to myself, “What would I do in this situation? What would I say if my son had done that? I want to see how Kurt handles this.”
Kurt examined the picture and said something appropriately corrective to his son. And you know what he did next? Kurt took that picture with its newly-cracked glass away from his son, grabbed the picture with both hands, walked across the room, hung it up over the loveseat, and left it there. Nothing else was said. Everyone then went on with their move-in activities. And during my residency that next year, the picture with the cracked glass hung there over the waiting room love seat.
We never had a discussion about it but I know Kurt well enough to know that had I asked him about it, he probably would’ve said something like, “The world will still turn on its axis if there’s a crack in that glass. Most people will never notice it and, if they do, so what? We’ll just live with it.”
I seriously doubt Kurt meant that to be a life lesson but I took it as one. Sometimes, the glass of life has cracks in it. It’s our ability to tolerate those cracks that helps us cope and maintain our sanity. “The test of a first-rate intelligence, noted F. Scott Fitzgerald, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I have this beautiful, expensive new picture. The glass is now cracked. But other things in life are more important to me so I’ll just live with it and continue to function.
I refer this as one’s integration ability. Integration is what enables you to tolerate yourself, others, and world in general as mixtures of both good and bad aspects. It’s not “either/or” but “both/and.” A person with well-developed integration abilities has a self-esteem based, not upon perfection, but upon the ability to tolerate imperfections. You can live with yourself as a flawed person who’s cut, as Immanuel Kant said, from the crooked timber of humanity. You think neither too highly nor too lowly of yourself.
And the same goes for others. You neither idealize others to the point of worshipping their greatness nor scornfully trash others when their imperfections show up. You can tolerate others as mixtures of good and bad because, after all, you’re one, too.
Which brings me back to drama people whose inventory runs low in the integration department. For them, it’s all or none, in or out, up or down. You’re my friend or my enemy. You’re either for me fully or fully against me. There’s no middle ground. It’s one way or the other. And when drama people become politically involved, they bring their integration-deficient performances to the political stages on which they act.
Everyone’s talking these days about the polarized state of our politics and I can’t help but figure that integration-deficiency has something to do with that.
Things are becoming more “tribal” as they say. Tribe A and Tribe B hate each other. Each views the other as an existential threat. Life as we know it will cease to exist if the other tribe gains power. Members of the other tribe don’t just have bad ideas; they’re bad people. Therefore, it’s justified to argue not with words and ideas but with grenades and flame throwers. Tribal ideas are clung to like religious dogmas and failure to subscribe fully may get you cast into the outer darkness where there’s wailing and gnashing of teeth. And variations are disallowed. If you’re a member of Tribe B and dare to consider the merits of a Tribe A idea, you might get labeled as a BINO (a B-in-name-only).
In an opinion piece entitled, “The Dying Art of Disagreement,” Bret Stephens recently wrote:
“So here’s where we stand: Intelligent disagreement is the lifeblood of any thriving society. Yet we in the United States are raising a younger generation who have never been taught either the how or the why of disagreement, and who seem to think that free speech is a one-way right: Namely, their right to disinvite, shout down or abuse anyone they dislike, lest they run the risk of listening to that person — or even allowing someone else to listen.”
If intelligent disagreement is our lifeblood, then disagreements between integration-deficient tribes is our terminal illness. As long as winning the moment is more important than winning the argument, our political polarization will remain in place.
This just in: That picture with the cracked glass I mentioned earlier? Still hanging there after 28 years.