In tracking divorce statistics, relationship researchers have identified the number one indicator that predicts a relationship will fail: contempt.
What starts out as a sarcastic quip here, or an eye roll there, in time devolves into disgust, animosity, and at worse, hatred.
I bring this up because even the most cursory glance at social media, online article comments, or news footage shows us to be a society riddled with contempt. Joni Mitchell saw it way back in 1994. “Everyone hates everyone.”
When contempt is in play, it doesn’t matter what the argument is or the case to be made, it’s not going to happen. Any meaningful progress toward change is dead in the water. The only resort is separation, and usually an ugly and violent one at that.
And it’s not just ‘us’ vs. ‘them.’ It’s ‘the real us’ vs. ‘the sellout us’ and ‘the stupid them’ vs. ‘the evil them.’ Degrees of purity and righteousness parsed out to the nth degree.
Smackdown. Clap back. Jaw drop. Burn.
COVID19 has added stress to our fractures, and we’re starting to crumble. We’ve passed the car keying, burning-clothes-on-the-front-lawn stage of our relationship. We’ve now entered the territory of commonplace domestic violence. People are getting hurt. People are getting killed.
Is there a way back from the brink? I’m not sure.
To restore love to a marriage crippled by contempt takes tremendous willingness and effort on the part of both parties. It takes lots of space. It’s messy and hard. And even when both parties give it their best shot, things more often than not don’t work out. Grim stuff.
For us as a society, and for all of our families, clans, affinity groups, and communities that make up that society, the first thing we have to do is accept and acknowledge we’re in this together. We may retreat to our corners, but in the end, we all have to find a way to live together. To argue that fact is to entertain the validity of genocide–the ultimate expression of contempt.
Not only do we have to find a way to live together, but we have to find a way to live together equitably. “Them that’s got shall have and them that’s not shall lose” won’t cut it anymore. We’re too connected. People chest thump and piss match at the slightest provocation. Any sustainable way forward has to be good for everybody. Not the same for everybody necessarily, but equally good.
As with most major social change, it starts with individuals. Individuals who are willing to do the hard work, chart a course, lead the way, and help those behind along. When enough individuals move in a new direction, things reach a tipping point. Possibility becomes inevitability.
But with things the way they are, where do we start?
For me, I have to go all in for love.
“Hatred does not cease through hatred at any time. Hatred ceases through love. This is an unalterable law.”
The Buddha understood the workings of the human mind and the human heart like no one else.
Even if our neighbors are unlikeable, aggressive, and engaged in bad behavior, we have to leave enough room in our heart to recognize they, like us, are trying (skillfully or not) to be happy and not suffer.
What passes for Christianity these days seems to have abandoned Jesus’ command, “Love your enemies.” Because it’s hard. When you love your enemies it’s hard to dehumanize them. To make them monsters.
“But they are monstrous!” you might think. “They are doing horrible things, and they need to be stopped. They need to pay for what they’ve done!”
That may be true. But that’s not what we’re talking about just now. That’s the work of justice.
What I’m talking about is how can I, as just one person in the chaos, practice dismantling contempt, defusing hatred?
Where I try to start is with our shared humanity: No matter who the ‘other’ is, they get hungry, horny, mad, and sad just like I do. They probably don’t like to be talked down to, shouted at, or insulted. They have insecurities and worries. They don’t like to feel dumb or wrong. They have people they love. They have issues they feel strongly about that shape their views of the world. And they are struggling with attachment, aversion, and confusion just like me.
Next, I try to tap into compassion: Whatever I add to the mix, I want it to further the liberation of myself and others from suffering.
Finally, I have to work with my own anger, contempt, and disgust. I have to be real about the fact there are folks I think are despicable. Whose actions and attitudes turn my stomach. If I’m not careful, that palpable aversion will eat at my insides, knock me off balance, and turn me into the very thing I object.
I have to be present and mindful. Bear witness to how anger and animosity arise for me. Hold space for the heat and the storm. Realize that these are human emotions with a life of their own. Just as they arise and run through me, they arise and run through everybody else. It takes a lot of skill and tenderness to transmute rage and anger into energy that can be skillfully directed at alleviating suffering. Without lots and lots of practice, it’s nearly impossible to do on the fly, in the heat of an encounter. Our reptile brains kick in and we fight, flee, or freeze before our emotions even get processed into thought.
And then there’s the justice aspect I mentioned earlier. I have to be clear for myself what I’m about in my life: I want to help liberate all of us from suffering and to advocate policies and social norms that will help heal our broken hearts.
I also have to realize that there are people who could care less about alleviating the suffering of others. Especially others who they don’t consider “their people.” Some folks are fueled by righteousness and power. They believe their way is the right way, and they will work towards their ends no matter who gets hurt or alienated in the process. There are some folks who are solely self-interested and work exclusively for their own happiness and to get their own way. And there are also folks who just want to watch the world burn–people who like to fight and pit folks against each other and who get off on the ugly parts of humanity.
Unfortunately, a lot of these folks, myself included, are trapped in patterns of emotion and behavior that we inherited, aren’t aware of, or don’t understand how to change. Some people respond to compassion and kindness. Some people have to be contained or blocked.
If a toddler is screaming and kicking and biting a path directly into oncoming traffic, any responsible adult is going to keep the kid from getting flattened first, and then sort out the emotional side of things second. The same is true with grownups. If someone is engaged in destructive behavior and if they are not willing to communicate, they may have to be contained or blocked.
The trick for me is to figure out what role is appropriate for me to play. There are lots of proverbial ‘Karens & Kens,’ ‘social justice warriors,’ and straight-up fascists too, who love to police the world. That is not a skillful approach for me.
I try to discern the direct way in which suffering is being caused in any given situation and try to identify a way to alleviate that. I’m most effective if I can avoid taking things personally. I try to work from a place free from bias and preconceived notions and try to look at situations with a fresh, creative eye. I certainly don’t want to add harm or suffering to a situation. Sometimes I succeed at this. Other times not so much.
One of the most difficult things for me to learn is when to shut up and butt out. Not every exchange requires my comment or intervention. Often others are much better suited to resolving the heart of a conflict. Others often know way more than I do and have more firsthand experience.
The trap there, of course, is not to bypass my responsibility or become apathetic. Sometimes I don’t want to engage because it’s hard and messy and I can’t see a clear path forward.
As with everything, the first step is to be mindful. To show up and be present for life as it is.
Everything changes continuously. Nothing is permanent. Whatever resolves here will tangle something over there. It’s a never-ending process. It goes on and on. Trying to find a permanent solution or get solid ground under our feet is crazymaking.
Disgust and contempt are part of the human experience. That’s never going to change. If left unattended that energy gets thick, sticky and knots up. It will break up eventually. The question is will that happen in a violent explosive way or a healing transformative way?
That part is up to us and how we choose to respond to things as they are.