by Robert Wright
Today and tomorrow, many readers of this blog will be hosting or attending holiday family dinners, which can always rather fraught events, particularly if there are strong and sharply divided political views in this Age of Trumpism seated around the table. For that reason, LobeLog is providing a relevant excerpt from the latest edition of Robert Wright’s “Mindful Resistance Newsletter,” a valuable new web publication that offers a summary of the important news of the week before with pithy, witty, and wise analysis from Bob himself, a serial New York Times best-selling author on evolutionary psychology and religion who also writes about foreign policy and is founder and editor-in-chief of bloggingheads.tv.
It is not with a deep sense of familial pride that I say this: Three of my four siblings voted for Donald Trump. But this fact does have its upside. It gives me the credentials to join in America’s newest holiday ritual: Advising people on how to cope with relatives whose political views should have long ago gotten them sent to re-education camp.
Actually, my credentials aren’t all that strong. I spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with my in-laws, and those gatherings are 100-percent Trump-supporter-free. Still, I do have some relevant experience: in the summer of 2016 I attended a family reunion with my siblings and their families, which meant spending five days with about 40 people, most of whom were Trump supporters.
And here is the approach I took to handling intra-family tribal tensions: Avoid, at all costs, uttering the word “Trump.” Everyone else followed the same rule—presumably because they knew that if the subject of Trump came up, the result would make the barroom shootout scene in Inglorious Basterds look like the opening scene of The Sound of Music. (Trigger warning: If grotesque cinematic violence bothers you, do not go to YouTube in search of the first scene, and if saccharine musicals bother you, do notgo to YouTube in search of the second scene.) Amid this moratorium on political discussion, a good time was had by all.
I was lucky: My Trump-supporting relatives had implicitly signed on to a non-aggression pact. Not everyone is blessed with Trump-supporting relatives who are as wise as mine. (I know what you’re wondering: If my relatives are so wise, then why….)
So what is my counsel for those of you who are afflicted with Trump-supporting relatives who, unlike mine, have the bad manners to talk about Trump in mixed company?
Well, at the risk of sounding like a meditation teacher: When your relatives say something about Trump, pay attention to the feelings that arise. This may, if nothing else, distract you for long enough that you don’t say anything in reply—which, if your temperament is like my temperament, is a good thing in itself.
But that’s not the ideal outcome. When the mindful awareness of feelings really works, it gives you a kind of critical distance from the feelings (although, ironically, that distance coincides with, and indeed results from, being more in touch with your feelings, and in that sense closer to them). If you have enough of this remove from—this non-attachment to—your feelings, then the things you say in reply to the person who aroused the feelings won’t be governed by the feelings.
So, for example: 1) you feel anger; 2) you observe the anger; and 3) as a result of the observation, angry thoughts don’t dictate your next utterance. You don’t say something whose salient subtext is that the person you’re talking to is either an idiot or a bigot or both.
Easy for me to say! Because my Trump-supporting relatives are so wise, I didn’t have to employ this technique at my family reunion. And the one opportunity I had to employ it—during a phone call with a sibling on the night before the 2016 election—I was so emotionally reactive that I never got around to even trying. (It’s a wonder we’re still on speaking terms.)
Still, sometimes I do better. Maybe you can, too. If you give this a try over the holidays, let us know how it works: firstname.lastname@example.org. See you in the New Year.