A Catholic psychologist on maintaining peace of mind during the election season
Question: “This election season has been one of the ugliest that I can ever remember. It seems that each time I turn on the TV I find myself inundated with hatred and fiery rhetoric from each side. The rhetoric has even spilled into everyday conversations with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances! First of all, what is going on, and second how do I remain engaged with people but maintain my peace of mind?”
I truly empathize with you and your question as I too have felt the same way. One of the wonderful aspects about our republic is that we have free elections, but at the same time that is no guarantee that any political party will put forward a worthy individual. Yet, the Republic has been in worse positions before and is still here. Thus, I do still have hope for our nation.
Allow me first to put your problem into proper context. On a mass group process scale, the nation is using a psychological defense seen in children known as splitting. Splitting is a phenomenon where individuals divide people into an all-good or all-bad category. Clearly, splitting is a primitive defense since any mature adult would tell you that people are neither all-good nor all-bad. Instead, people possess both good and bad aspects within themselves simultaneously. This insight, though, introduces doubt into people’s minds that may be initially intolerable to them. An example of splitting within this election would be that both sides of the aisle have idealized their candidate to the point of making them a quasi-deity. One candidate, according to supporters, will bring back thousands of jobs and will bring America back into its high place within the international community. Another, according to supporters, will make us stronger together. In both cases, the candidates believe that the other is an enemy of the state and should never be allowed to hold public office, warning us that we need to do whatever is necessary to defeat the opposition since they are a danger to the very soul of America. Naturally, such rhetoric has spiraled down into the ranks of each party, which has led to our current predicament on social media.
In addition to splitting, there is another more powerful reason that the national conversation has eroded to this primitive state: fear.
When attempting to keep your peace of mind I suggest the following. In the first place, take a deep breath. I know this may seem simplistic, but when you examine what happens when you become upset you will notice that you stop breathing. When you cease breathing, you are suffocating your brain. Intentionally breathing allows your brain to have the oxygen it needs to think through issues and remain calm in the face of stressors. Second, you should rationally understand that a person’s beliefs do not change his or her worth and that everyone has particular beliefs for particular reasons. Instead of spending time figuring out how to dismantle those reasons, it would be better for you to spend that time trying to understand your friends’ reasons for their beliefs. After that, you will be in a much better place to discuss each other’s beliefs. Finally, focus on the fact that you are both adults and that political differences should not tear your friendship asunder. We have God-given free will, and as such we can choose whether or not to react to our anger over political issues.
Every day we are faced with a choice: either give into pessimism and have a dreadful day, or choose optimism and have the chance of having a good one. This basic concept also spills out into the rest of our lives. Either we can live with hope (as Pope Benedict XVI spoke about in Spe Salvi), or we can focus on the negative in life. As Christians we are called to pick the former, especially because this life is not the end. Our end is with the most worthy of leaders: Christ.
[Editor’s Note: Take the Poll – Can we be civil about this election?]