Politics, polarization, and the Coronavirus

In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt covers a range of themes about which liberals and conservatives disagree. One is the care/harm theme in which the two polarities differently attribute definitions and causes of hurt and assign the responsibilities of society toward those who are vulnerable. In another, the polarities take varying stances toward people with power.

Our relationships toward these two themes are running beneath the surface of many COVID-19 conversations. Who is to blame for the spread of the virus? Who is supposed to do what about it? How well are our leaders serving us in this crisis? Who is the boss of me and my comings and goings as recommendations for ever more stringent social distancing guidelines are urged?

Right now these questions are only helpful insofar as they reduce the spread of disease. Beyond that, they are ingredients for introducing even more anxiety into a system that is already highly reactive. Still, the questions aren’t going away.

For leaders, then, the need to self-differentiate is more important (and difficult) than ever. If we can be with our people rather than react to to them, we’ll model ways to manage self and begin to infuse the system with more stability.

What does self-differentiating in a pandemic mean? Here are some thoughts:

Listen deeply to others. When people feel heard, seen, and valued, the tension in a conversation drops.

Stay curious. Seek to understand, whether or not you agree.

Don’t try to change minds. Be clear about what you believe, but prioritize the relationship over the position.

Neither under- nor overfunction. This helps distribute responsibility throughout the system, evening out the emotions.

Balance thinking and feeling. You need both, but too much of one or the other will make it hard to keep connected with people.

Stay present with people. If you can be grounded where you are, there is always the potential for care and respect.

Take care of yourself. Self-differentiation is hard work. Shore up your support system as needed.

Your leadership matters. While others panic, blame, or scoff, your self-management is helping make it possible for those in your care not just to cope, but to assign meaning to this unprecedented experience.

Photo by cloudvisual.co.uk on Unsplash.

What’s on your playlist?

I once had to sit in my office, waiting for the members of my congregation’s personnel committee to invite me into what was sure to be a difficult discussion. A misunderstanding with the wrong person had quickly spiraled out of control, and I was finally going to have the opportunity to engage in a solution-focused conversation. I was excited and anxious and angry and terrified, and I couldn’t go into the room with all those emotions roiling just below the surface. So I made a playlist on my phone, which included “Freebird,” “I Will Survive,” the title song from the musical Rent, and other high-energy, tail-kicking songs. I sang them LOUDLY. I punched the air. The music gave me an emotional workout, after which the endorphins were pumping and my feelings were more defined.

Creative Commons "Trolley and Daniel" by Rudi Riet is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Creative Commons “Trolley and Daniel” by Rudi Riet is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

As the mother of a preschooler, these days my playlist is mostly comprised of Daniel Tiger songs. But I have found Daniel’s short, simple ditties very helpful at times: “When you’re feeling frustrated, take a step back and ask for help.” “It’s ok to feel sad sometimes. Little by little, you’ll feel better again.” “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a step back and count to four.”

Music can be a powerful motivator, a calming agent, and an empathetic expression of our grief, not to mention a community facilitator and even a force for social change. What needs to be on your playlist when you’re headed into a dreaded meeting, when you’re having trouble focusing, when your heart is weighed down with sadness? How can music help you feel connected and prepared and alive?