Yesterday there was much media coverage of reactions to the election of Donald Trump. For many the election result was genuinely traumatic and extreme emotions are being expressed. The election outcome represented a jolt to the collective identity. Much like 9-11, the election result made us all aware of realities that existed, but that were not previously seen. People were in shock after the attack, and we needed to redefine the nature of the world and determine how to live in it — just as we do now.
Yesterday, my mind went back to the election of Ronald Reagan. For decades the country had been spending heavily on social welfare programs and we were teetering on the brink of financial disaster. The election of Reagan represented more than a shift from one party to another: it represented a shift in the fundamental philosophy of the country. Many people reacted as people are reacting now. Given the assumptions we make today, if we went back in a time machine and watched the reactions we might find them curious but instructive.
A few days after the election, I was facilitating a retreat for approximately 60 leaders of the New York Stake Department of Mental Health. It was the largest such department in the country. At one point a man was making a presentation on the next budget. It was clear that the external flow of funds was about to dry up and the new budget called for dramatic cuts in every area of activity.
The presenter had barely started when a woman stood up and began to scream. She expressed that she had spent her entire professional life building up programs to serve certain disadvantaged people and that this man was deserting the responsibility to care for those people. Another person stood up and began screaming back about financial reality. Then others jumped to their feet and began screaming. Soon every person was screaming. No one could hear anyone else but it did not seem to matter. It was a collective, professional phenomenon, unlike anything I had ever seen. It went on until I finally banged some objects together and caught their attention. I said, “We might want to take a 15 minute break.”
The room went quiet and people filed out. I had a knot in my stomach. With such extreme conflict, I had no idea what to do next. An amazing thing happened. People came back in and sat down. The man was asked to continue. People sat quietly and slowly began to participate as they might have in any such budget discussion. They were actually listening to each other and making decisions together.
The experience was extraordinary. I pondered it for years. The brief transformation was a microcosm of what was then happening throughout the country. The Reagan election was not only the selection of a personality it was also a significant, symbolic event. It was a signal calling our attention to a part of reality that was being ignored. In the face of this macro change, the people needed to create meaning, to establish a narrative or collective identity so they could work together.
In the coming months we will continue to see the expression of intense emotion. From time to time some bad things may happen. Yet underneath it all, a learning process will be unfolding and a new collective identity will be emerging.
If we understand this, we can begin to function more effectively by shifting our focus from the fear of loss to the facilitation of the construction of a new future. We can do it by asking a self-empowering question; “Looking across the dynamic whole, with compassion, what contribution can I make to help people around me to hear each other, learn, and work together?”
It is a question that requires serious work. In answering it we shift from the helpless victim role, to the role of the constructive contributor. The internal shift does not eliminate the external conflict in the world, but it does give us the power we need to function constructively in the midst of that conflict. Answering the question will replace fear with hope. We will begin to grow and so will the people around us. If large numbers of people answer the question, the entire process of creating a new collective future will be accelerated.
What does it mean to look across the dynamic whole with compassion?
What needs to I see in the people with different views than mine?
What are my strengths and how could I use them to make a constructive contribution?
How could I use this positive passage to help others?