James N Kraut, Psy.D.

After the unspeakable horror of the Valentine’s Day 2018 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a powerful out crying from Douglas students and their parents sent the country a message: “The time for change is now!” Those in agreement with the message resonated deeply with the strong, heroic Parkland students cum gun lobbyists, who were still clinically traumatized yet embracing the arduous challenges of their new positions: enduring outrageously aggressive responses from the fearful other side, who were taking things just as seriously.

This, dear friends, was Divided America in full bloom. The victims and their supporters were pushing with all their hearts against a strong and seasoned gun lobby, their goal being to enact more strict gun control legislation aimed at reducing the possibility of more school shootings.

Meanwhile, the folks more aligned with the NRA feared a cataclysmic loss of their right to self-defense, framing the conflict as a Second Amendment issue. Each side was completely convinced of its absolute correctness and demonized the other side. Whichever side you took, the chances are quite good that your rage toward your opponents was palpable. And today, nothing has really changed. The feelings are what they were a year ago.

Now, step back…

And try to imagine, without any personal involvement or judgment, all the conviction, fear, frustration and anger on both sides, seeing it as a whole. Remember that everyone wants to be happy and that we define our happiness in our own unique ways.

Zen Buddhist Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay, as he is often called, has said that the best method we have available to us to break down ideological division and heal conflict is mindful listening. He’s not talking about the “Yeah, I heard you” kind of listening. Mindful listening requires that we take whatever biases our egos have and set them off to the side. It requires that we maintain unwavering awareness of the other as a human being like us who wants to be happy and free from suffering as we do. Most of all, it demands that we accept that what makes no sense to us DOES make sense to the other. Active, mindful listening can take us over that bridge to an awareness of what makes sense to the other, which leads to empathy and compassion.

As a way of pointing out how Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindful listening works, consider this: As part of his work with trauma victims, Thay has done workshops with American Vietnam veterans whose combat experiences had resulted in severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Even though Thay is Vietnamese himself, representing the country these vets associated with their trauma, through mindful listening, he was able to bring them to an open, peaceful state in which they were able to resolve their trauma. The importance of absolute trust in that process cannot be overstated. Take a moment to appreciate how incredible it is that Thay was able to cross cultural and traumatic lines to establish that trust simply by listening.

So here we are, a year after the Douglas shooting and the country is still in a state of dangerously intense divide and conflict, gun rights being just one of many issues that serve to maintain the division. I ask you to consider trying to understand the side you don’t agree with and even try to dialogue with them. In fact, I have a very liberal friend who did just that with a man he ran into on the far right. They had a long and emotional conversation during which my friend stayed open and kept listening. His opponent said respectfully to my friend at the end of the conversation, “You’re the most reasonable liberal I’ve ever met!” My friend was justifiably proud of that moment.

Remember, folks, the biggest problem we’re facing is the division and we must develop deep understanding of the way the other thinks to get past it. Escalating anger will only exacerbate the problem. Try to listen…

(This article has been also created as a video for your conveinence)

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