How to be a Contemplative in Today’s Political Climate

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I was speaking recently with one of my Patreon supporters (Patreon is a crowdfunding program to support writers, bloggers, musicians, etc. This blog is made possible by the generous people who support it through Patreon).

She asked me a blunt question.

How do you do it? How do you, as someone who writes about contemplation, respond to the political moment that we find ourselves in?

Such an important and vital query, and not one easily answered!

When I first started this blog (almost 20 years ago now!) I very much tried to avoid writing about politics, not because I lacked conviction (believe me, I have strong views) but because I believed that prayer and mysticism are topics for everyone, not just people who vote like I do. I did not trust my own ability as a writer to persuade people in terms of core political values or perspectives. I largely still feel that way: I believe some of us are neurologically wired to be conservative, and others are wired to be liberal; I believe God made us that way and in a democracy we have to figure out how to get along.

But over the years that I’ve been writing, I have watched the train wreck that is American politics — aided and abetted by an increasingly partisan media and the divisive nature of social media — foster what seems to be at least the image of Americans getting more and more hostile toward our political opponents. Of course, I have to remind myself that the image of America becoming increasingly divided might not always be the reality — if we look back to the 1930s or the  1960s, we can see the same kind of civil unrest and extremism (complete with violence) that seems to be bedeviling us today. When it comes right down to it, the Weather Underground of the 1960s and the Proud Boys of today are practically mirror images of each other, both supremely convinced of the rightness of their cause, both frighteningly unafraid to employ violence, or at least the threat of violence, in the service of their political aims.

But even if we can take some small comfort in the idea that America is no more divided today than it’s always been, my patron’s question still remains. How can we meet the political conflicts of this time (or any time) with the heart of a contemplative?

Here are just a few thoughts.

  1. Don’t demonize one another. Just a cursory glance through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook reveal a disturbing tendency across the political spectrum: for people to express contempt and even hatred toward those with whom we disagree. I understand how angry we can get when we feel so passionately about an issue — especially when current legislation, court decisions, or public opinion is opposed to “our” view. Such anger can lead to a sense that the other side is not just wrong, they’re… well, evil, demonic. For contemplatives, demonizing your opponent flies in the face of the conviction that all people bear the divine image and likeness. Demonizing others can lead to violence or abuse. Unless we want political violence like the 1969 “Days of Rage” or the January 6 insurrection to recur again and again, we all have to find a way to fight for what we believe is right, without fighting against our opponents as “bad” people.
  2. Tell your story — and be honest about how we see things differently. I believe the only way we are going to find a way forward out of our divided political climate is for people who disagree politically to begin talking, in person — around family rooms, dinner tables, and other “real life” settings. Posting clever social media posts where we “own the liberals” or “own the conservatives” creates heat but not light. We have to meet eye to eye, and find ways to tell our stories to one another. This is not easy to do, and many of us who are contemplatives tend to be introverts and conflict-avoidant. But if people of good will do not learn how to come together, then we are abdicating the political conversation in our society to the extremists (on both sides). And we all know where the extremists will take us. But how do we talk about disagreements? We have to learn to say “I see things differently.” Telling your story needs to be about your story, not about how everyone else is so wrong. If you see the world differently than someone who votes differently, we need to find ways to talk about those different perspectives.
  3. Listen to one another with discernment. There’s no point in telling our stories if we also cannot practice the art of listening to one another. Once again, this may be difficult, particularly when people are separated by economic status, education level, skin color, gender, sexuality, religious belief, and other values. But again, the question is: how do we as contemplatives navigate our political divides? Contemplatives practice the art of listening-as-prayer, so we need to apply that to the challenging matter of listening to those whose life experiences are very much unlike our own. Listening does not mean uncritically accepting everything anyone says, of course. We need to learn how to listen with a sense of discernment, a willingness to consider conflicting viewpoints in light of the larger questions of what is good, what is true, what is best for society as a whole.
  4. We need to emphasize our common ground. We all know how social, political, economic, religious and other divisions seem to erect barriers between different groups of people. But if we let those divisions have the final say, then we are just condemning ourselves and our society to a never-ending cycle of mistrust and suspicion. We have to find ways to relate to one another, in spite of our deep divisions. One way to do this — and again, this needs to happen on the local level, in person — is to balance our concern over what divides us with an appreciation for what unites us. We all want a world where our children can thrive. We all want safety, freedom, and the capacity to enjoy the fruit of our labors. We all want clean air, clean water, affordable housing, accessible healthcare, and civil liberties. We have to keep reminding ourselves, and each other, that what unites us matters just as much as what divides us, and our common ground provides us a powerful incentive to work together for the common good.
  5. Be patient when possible. I know that many of the hottest issues our society faces are not only divisive, but carry a sense of urgency — we can see how people can be harmed or even might die because of specific policy decisions. Naturally, we will fight more aggressively when the matter at hand is urgent. But there is also a long game in politics that we should not ignore, even in the midst of many pressing issues. We need to patiently work on how we can establish or restore civility, neighborly good will, long term policies that benefit us all, and other goals that may take years or even decades to accomplish. Patience, perseverance, resilience, and fortitude are not just abstract virtues — they are necessary qualities to keeping society healthy and productive over time. Martin Luther King Jr. was known to quote the 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Trusting that long arc — and working to support it — is just as important politically as fighting for the life-or-death issues facing us today.
  6. Speak with courage and conviction: but also be humble. Here I’m really restating #s 2 and 3 above. It’s been said that we need to speak the truth, even if our voice shakes. Amen to that. Political progress is not made by people keeping their opinions to themselves! But contemplative spirituality with its roots in monasticism understands the importance of humility — in other words, recognizing that we don’t always know everything, or have all the answers, or have everything figured out. And “we” refers not only to us as individuals, but also to our political party or “side” as well. Humility seems to be in terribly short supply these days. Maybe contemplatives can model a generous politics of humility, by being willing to say “I wonder” and “I don’t know” when such is the case.
  7. Keep praying. I know that “thoughts and prayers” has become a loaded phrase, thanks to the question of how best to prevent gun violence in America. I agree that our thoughts and prayers should never be something we do to avoid the important and necessary action that we need to take to address the problems we face. But I also believe it’s just as dangerous to act without prayer (or, at least, without careful contemplation). Yes, in emergencies we have to act quickly — which is why we need to be contemplative every day. Cultivating a spirit of thoughtful listening, compassionate wonder, willing silence, and heartfelt desire to enact the will of Divine compassion, mercy and justice — once again, this is  something we all need to be doing, but perhaps contemplative practitioners can lead the way.

I’m afraid this post will strike some people as pollyannish, but I believe we have to hope for the best, and to proclaim that hope so that it can guide us even when we have to make difficult decisions.

So, back to my patron’s question. These are the points I keep in mind as I attempt to maintain a contemplative approach to the political challenges of our time. Please let me know if you see things differently — or if you have additional suggestions on how contemplatives can contribute to improving the political climate in today’s world.

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Carl McColman

Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Centering Prayer Presenter, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.

By Carl McColman

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