Of Polarization and Sailboats

Sailboat 6617 - Of Polarization and Sailboats
Photo by Bengt Nyman.

My last two entries for the New Existentialists have focused on the nature and influence of fear, and how American culture has shifted from a more adventure-based society to a fear-based society. As a society—whether speaking about politics, religion, militarization, communities, neighborhoods, or individuals—we operate from an approach that is opposite of the Golden Rule—“let us do to them before they do to us.”

The current debate over what role the United States should play in the current events in the Middle East is a perfect example of this change in our basic philosophy. A large percentage of political leaders, as well as citizens believe strongly that we should take aggressive action to fight the insurgence of ISIS in Iraq. Not only does this group believe we should act now in a major fashion, but they are also quite vocal about how we left Iraq too soon and did not maintain a presence in the country when we withdrew. At the same time, another large percentage of our political leaders and citizens believe we should be cautious and purposeful in determining what action, if any, we should take. Aside from these groups agreeing that there should be no boots on the ground, there is a stark and clear division between the two sides.

This argument demonstrates very clearly the first summary point Kirk Schneider makes in The Polarized Mind (2013):

Polarization, the privileging of one reality to the wholesale exclusion of competing realities, is one of the chief scourges of humanity. Polarization is responsible for countless deaths, degradations, and breakdowns; and its impact extends to all levels of humanity, personal, collective, psychological, and spiritual (p. 158).

The prevailing fear in our culture of losing our station in life, our identity, our position of power and authority is pushing us in a direction that creates a larger and larger chasm between groups and individuals. As Schneider points out, this polarization we are experiencing is not new or unique to current events or our society. However, more than any other time in our history as a nation, we are wracked with polarization, and there are no signs of these increasing breaches diminishing or stopping.

Again, as Schneider points out, this polarization extends to all levels of humanity, and is the primary source of death and destruction experienced at all these levels of humanity. The setting in which this polarization has the greatest impact for therapists is working with individuals, couples, or families. We see families or couples where walls have been built between child and parent, between siblings, or between parents, and there is no evidence of potential for compromise, cooperation, or reconciliation. We see individuals who have been damaged and degraded by polarization based on sexual preference, racial prejudice, economic status, or deeply held values. How does one attempt to help clients such as these find meaningful healing and well-being in the midst the pain and chaos?

In this scene from the television show The West Wing (2001), Bruno Gianelli, the President’s campaign manager, is confronted by President Bartlet about including a question concerning the Bartlet family’s Thanksgiving plans. Here Bruno plays the role of therapist, and the President is the client:

BARTLET: My family is off limits.
BRUNO: Sir…your candor about a terrible illness was off limits. Your regimen of self-medication was off limits. Due respect, you’ve used up your off limits.
BARTLET: I’ll decide when I’ve used them up. You don’t poll where my family goes, am I making myself clear?
BRUNO: Mh-huhmm…Sometimes I have a difficulty talking to people who don’t race sailboats.
BRUNO: I have difficulty sometimes talking to people who don’t race sailboats. When I was a teenager, I crewed Larchmont to Nassau on a 58-foot sloop called Cantice. There was a little piece of kelp that was stuck to the hull, and even though it was little, you don’t want anything stuck to the hull. So, I take a boat hook on a pole and I stick it in the water and I try to get the kelp off, when seven guys start screaming at me, right? ‘Cause now the pole is causing more drag than the kelp was. See, what you gotta’ do is you gotta’ drop it in and let the water lift it out in a windmill motion. Drop it in, and let the water take it by the kelp and lift it out. In and out. In and out, till you got it. The voters aren’t choosing a plumber, Mr. President. They are choosing a president. And if you don’t think that your family should matter, my suggestion to you is to get out of professional politics. And if you think that I’m going to miss even one opportunity to pick up half-a-mile boat speed, you’re absolutely out of your mind. When it costs us nothing, when we give up nothing?! You’re out of your mind. (Sorkin & Abner, 2001)

Like Bruno’s experience of removing the kelp from the side of the sailboat, our role as therapists is to go with the flow of the client. In addition, much like Bruno describes allowing the water to guide the pole in removing the kelp—“In and out. In and out, till you get it (the kelp),” our function is to experience with the client his or her pain, and little by little assist the client in removing or reshaping those things that have created the sense of insignificance and hopelessness in their lives. This approach is not a “fix it or fail” approach. Rather, it is wandering and wondering together until the client discovers new perspectives and insights about him or herself or the circumstances that prompted the therapy.

Schneider (2013) summarizes it this way:

We also know that each of the power-centers discussed were precisely great where those who represented them could face the perplexities of their past; where they could wrestle with those perplexities and entice people to be more fully present, discerning, and creative in response to them. In short, the power-centers throughout history became great precisely at those precious points when they humbled themselves and became generously, inventively bold. (p.157)

It is our role as therapists to empower our clients to face the perplexities of their past, wrestle with those relationships, events, and circumstances, and enable our clients to be more fully present so that they may create a better future for themselves and others.

Schneider, K. J. (2013). The polarized mind. Colorado Springs, CO: University Professors Press.

Sorkin, A, & Abner, A. (Writers), & Barclay, P. (Director). (2001). The Indians in the lobby [Television series episode]. In A. Sorkin & J. Wells (Producers), The west wing. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers Television.

— Steve Fehl

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