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No 147. On living in a polarised world

The last couple of years have been full of shocks and surprises, politically, not just in the uk but all over the western world. The pattern appears to be polarisation, people migrating to either the populist far right, or to the socialist far left. It's an exciting time because you never know what is going to happen next. It is also a dangerous time, because polarisation lies at the heart of every revolution and every war. Those of us who look on at these events, maybe with excitement, maybe with fear, can find ourselves feeling helpless. What can we do to assuage the divisions, the hatred, the intolerance, that seems to be the hallmark of these times?

I met a woman the other day. She was deeply sad. She told me that until a few months ago she'd had a wonderful friend; they'd talked together, sang together, spent time with their children together. She'd never met anyone she got on with so well, was so close to. Then came the referendum on Europe. Her partner, she told me, was an intelligent and learned man who read long books on economics and politics. She was less engaged with these things herself and tended to defer to him. He thought and thought and read and read and, in the end, he decided to vote to leave the EU, as he reckoned that while it would be hard in the short term, economically, in the long term we would be better off. She felt ill equipped to make an informed choice herself so she took his lead and also voted to leave. She mentioned it to her friend. Then came the result and since that day her friend, so upset by it, has withdrawn from her. She is still there, at gatherings, at the school gate, but there is a coolness in the way she speaks to her, and a distance between them that cuts her like a knife. My heart went out to this woman who had lost her beloved friend.

'It's like she's decided I'm something I'm not, a racist and an awful person, and there's nothing I can say to change her mind. She won't even talk about it,' she said.

These stories are replicated all over the country. Friendships over, marriages threatened, children not speaking to their parents. The same kinds of stories come out of America and I suspect the situation is the same in Austria. Spain, France, Holland, where opinions are similarly polarised.

We are all watching this, worried but helpless.

But we are not just watching it, of course, we are part of it. We all have our own opinions, and it is likely that we are in one camp or the other, as that is the nature of how the world is right now. We too judge those who have different views to our own, and pile a whole lot of assumptions on top of the often pitifully small pieces of information we have about them.

Last year I had a wonderful trip to Costa Rica, meeting my Canadian cousins there, mixing a bit of travelling around the country with some down time at the beach. After two weeks I took leave of my cousins in order to catch a flight from San Jose to Chile, where I was joining my daughter. We were in a seaside resort on the west coast at the time, in a place called Tamarindo, and I had booked a place in a private minibus that would take me to San Jose.

The minibus picked me up at eight in the morning and then went on to collect a few other passengers. One of these was an American man who climbed into the front seat next to the driver, amidst a lot of shouted comments, the details of which I couldn't hear above the noise of the engine. If I'm honest I probably wouldn't have heard what he said anyway, I was too busy judging his American loudness at 8 in the morning. A man in his sixties or seventies, he was wearing shorts, an open necked Hawaiian-type shirt and a khaki cap. He shouted whenever he spoke, in that American way that is so inimicable to the average middle class Brit. I completely dismissed him and hoped he would shut up soon.

After a couple of hours the driver took a break and we all climbed out and made our visits variously to the banhos and the cafe. When I came back the American man was standing waiting by the bus. I noticed that his cap had 'Vietnam veteran' embroidered on it in red and I wondered if he had been in Vietnam, was he old enough, or if perhaps people wore those caps like they would wear a cap bearing the name of their favourite baseball team? I thought what bad taste it would be if the latter were true - I had recently been reading about post-traumatic disorders among Vietnam veterans - and added that possibility to my other judgements of the man.

And then suddenly I decided to speak to him, I don't quite know why, but I had a change of heart. As we were headed to San Jose airport I asked him if he was flying off somewhere today. No, he said, his face immediately opening up to me, he lived in Tamarindo and he was going to the airport to pick up two old friends who were arriving from the states. They were going off on an eight day fishing trip together. He spoke with a hollow rasp in his voice, and with obvious affection for his old friends, and in his eyes I saw an openness and vulnerability that touched me deeply. We were in kindergarten together, he said.

He asked me where I was going and I told him. Ah Chile, he said, I hear that's a very nice country. I'd like to go some day.

You know, he said, I've got this trouble with my voice, and I went to see the doctor about it yesterday. I thought it was just a bad throat but no, the doctor says it's my thyroid that is inflamed. Has he given you something for it, I asked.

Oh yeah, he said, and he paused for a moment as if deciding whether to say more. I've got a few things going on, you know, gesturing his body and his walking stick. But, he smiled ruefully, I'm still here!

I offer you this story in humility as I felt very ashamed of myself. There was my prejudice about Americans, my intolerance of noise in the mornings, my willingness to dismiss someone on the basis of tiny pieces of information. And there too was all I would have lost had I not had a change of heart - a very touching encounter with an injured and open-hearted man.

But it did made me think about the role we can play in this polarized world, where in fact we are not so helpless after all. Because while we are powerless either to change the result of the referendum or change the minds of those who are still upset by it, and we are powerless to affect what people vote for in other countries, and what those elected people do in the world, we can choose to do one thing in this polarized atmosphere, and that is not add to it.

Try this:

  1. Think about someone you disagree with strongly over something and notice what you think and feel about them. Notice how open or closed you feel in relation to them, how close or distant you want to be in relation to them.

  2. Now, consciously open yourself up to that person, become curious about them, what drives them, what do you know about them that could explain those opinions that you find so unpalatable? What do you like about them, quite aside from this particular issue? What do they do well in their lives?

  3. Finally, what do you have in common with them?

Wishing you a peaceful and happy 2018.

with love


"We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us."

Jo Cox, late member of parliament for Batley and Spen

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