For all our sakes, let's resolve to move together into a better future
If there is one word to sum up 2020, I believe it would be "polarization."
In the past, when we as a country experienced intense stress, grief and loss, it brought us together. People -- and especially elected officials -- who were divisive, rude, overtly racist or dishonest were relegated to the sidelines. A national health crisis resulted in a coordinated, science-based federal effort, working with state and local governments to promote consistent messaging and mitigation.
This year, all of those things have driven us apart in destructive ways that show no sign of disappearing soon. The basest of human instincts have been upheld, celebrated and defended. Levels of disdain and even hatred for the "other side" are often paired with credible threats of violence. In my field of death and grief studies, my colleagues and I are seeing a growing wave of complicated grief and mental health issues that promise to persist long after COVID is controlled.
Just one aspect of that wave is our collective grief over the state of our country and where we are headed. Yet, even that grief sometimes comes from polarized positions.
Some grieve because they believe the election was stolen, while others grieve because they remember when the integrity of elections was respected and honored even in defeat. Some grieve because they believe the U.S. is losing its identity as a white, Christian, male-led country of power that puts its own interests above all else, while others grieve because they believe the U.S. is losing its identity as a melting pot of diversity upholding women and minorities while collaborating with other democracies on a global scale. Some grieve because there are too many government regulations, including requirements to act in ways that guard the health of others, whether businesses can pollute if it keeps costs down, whether poor people deserve a safety net, whether climate change should be combated, etc. Others grieve because government regulations regarding health, pollution, safety nets and climate change have been systematically dismantled. Some grieve that misinformation and conspiracy theories get labeled as such by social media sites, while others grieve that social media gained so much power that misinformation and conspiracy theories abound. Some grieve their inability to consolidate absolute power and loyalty, while others grieve that our democracy could be lost to autocracy.
Because those in each position believe they alone are correct and the "other side" is totally wrong, it is splitting families, friendships, political parties and our nation. In fact, there is a small but growing segment whose goal is to promote civil war, the breakdown of institutions and societal chaos. Is this who we want to be? What do we do going forward?
First, it is imperative upon us and especially those of us with the privileges, wealth and status that allow access to power, to return to our roots, recommit ourselves to the good of all our people, relearn how to listen to each other and achieve compromise, condemn hatred and violence in any form, uphold diversity and inclusion and ensure life, liberty and justice for all.
Second, we need to take a deep breath, recognize our own many levels of grief and see the grief of others. The emotions we all feel are normal grief reactions. It's OK to feel sad, angry, frustrated, worried, pressured or whatever you're feeling at the moment. Emotions are neither good nor bad; they just are. What we do with emotions may be good or bad, destructive or healing, but the emotions themselves are not. So allow the tears, confusion and emotions without judgment. Share them with others who can nod with you and say, "Yeah, this is really tough, isn't it? I'm here for you. We can cry together. We can support each other and get through. You are not alone."
Release anger in nondestructive ways. Hit a pillow. Stomp your feet as hard and fast as you can, even for only 10 seconds, or more if you wish. (Try it -- it works!) Write in a journal or notebook, where you can say anything you want and no one ever has to see it. Use paints or color to express what it's like for you.
Allow moments of joy and lightness, even in the midst of grief. Find excuses to laugh. Sing out loud. Put on music you like and dance like no one is watching.
Refuse to respond in kind to rudeness or cruelty. Maintain your composure and your integrity. Recognize that emotion directed toward you says more about the angry person than it says about you; you are usually just the convenient target. Sometimes you can even turn the tables. Say "You sound really angry. Tell me more about that. I want to understand your position." Allow them to vent and then thank them for helping you understand where they are coming from, whether or not you ever find yourselves on the same page. Being willing to listen without arguing back can be key.
Through it all, take care of yourself. Soak in a hot bath. Several times a day, do deep breathing exercises and blow out the stress slowly and completely. Go for walks outside if you can. Listen to music you enjoy. Talk to a friend. Practice conscious gratitude. Make a list of everything and everyone for whom you are grateful and read the list out loud every evening. Then add one more thing from that day that you're grateful for and add one thing you said or did that day to make someone else smile.
Finally, take this opportunity to reflect on what is truly important in life. Develop a habit of telling people you care about how much they mean to you. "I am so glad you are my friend, my partner, my child, my sibling, my spouse. I appreciate you. Thank you for the gift you are to my life. I love you. You make me a better person."
Re-prioritize your life around what is truly important. Decide to do whatever you can to bring healing, justice and peace to our world. Decide to live as fully as possible every day that you are given. Decide to love fiercely with your whole heart and soul.
And decide to live your life, to the greatest extent possible, so that if you had died last night (and you could have), you would have died with as few regrets as possible.
If we can all do those things, then we can work to move into an even better future together.
Let's do that.
• Amy Florian, of Hoffman Estates, is CEO of Corgenius, a professional training organization that helps companies and individuals deal with grief and life transitions.