Can We Change the Emotional Climate? It’s Just as hard, and Just as Possible


We can’t teach our children about the brutality that our species inflicts on one another without offering them a pathway to change it. The idea of God has typically served as our moral compass and mechanism for transcending our animal instincts, but as our world becomes smaller and polarizations envelop us, religion has become another polarizing concept and is losing its effectiveness as a solution. Can we discover a new set of questions and a technique to help move our children from anxiety, depression, and surrender to creative problem solving and a new, shared morality? I believe we can. 


The Problem

I’m starting this post on Thanksgiving, a holiday that calls my attention to the dramatic shift in our country’s perspectives. We once taught our children about struggling Pilgrims breaking bread with Indians and giving thanks for their survival, their food, and their friendship. Now many schools teach them that colonizers with more powerful weapons destroyed Native lands, Native people, and Native perspectives. Similar shifts are happening with regard to our perspective on race. Once we taught that our wonderful country freed the slaves, gave them the vote, and made one of them president. Now students learn about the pervasiveness of white privilege. Antisemitism remains pervasive as well. It would have been wonderful if lessons were learned and attitudes changed after the Holocaust, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. Our history demonstrates severe abuses and destructive events. Our children are confronted with these realities at a young age, seemingly helpless in the face of their persistence.

Christmas and Hanukah are rapidly approaching. When we were less interconnected, we were better able to teach our children the history, laws, rituals, and the meaning and meaningfulness of our individual faiths. Whether we interpreted the stories literally or metaphorically, a shared goal was to push us away from our animal instincts and toward community and morality. Different belief systems imagined that pathway differently, but most of them advocated transcending our instincts and reaching toward God – a literal God, or the godlike, good-person nature we longed to possess.

The world is smaller now. It’s rare that children can grow up in a faith and remain there throughout their lives without struggling with the awareness that the truth they were taught is one of many. For the new generations, the idea of God is fuzzy at best. 

We teach our children about different religions from intellectual or cultural vantage points, but public schools don’t teach them about God. The idea of God infuses everything, but we’re too polarized to imagine a way to teach God that bridges the divide between believers, different kinds of believers, non-believers, and anti-believers. 

We expect ourselves to stop hurting others, to stop bullying, to stop acting on our instincts, to stop being selfish, to stop being the animals that we are. But we don’t know how to imagine morality, or why we should be moral. In many arenas, e.g., allocation of financial resources, abortion, climate change, immigration, gender and sexuality, guns, and support of wars around the globe, we don’t even agree on what a moral stance should be. We tell our children not to bully, but the adults around them do it all the time. The news media regularly mocks the opposing political party.

Let’s face it. We’re good and we’re evil. We’re brilliant and we’re killers. We’re believers and we’re not. We search for truth while struggling to respect people whose truths differ from ours. Is it possible to reconcile these paradoxes in a way that allows us to move forward as a species? Can we present these contradictory ideas to our children in a way that invites them to directly face, not just the reality of our collective propensity for violence against our own kind, but their ability to address these contradictions in a potentially useful way?


The Theory

Our identities are formed at an early age. We can grow, learn, and adapt, but when confronted with the problem of otherness we experience difference as a threat and our instinct is to fight, flee, or freeze. We’re surrounded by a psychological armor that allows us to preserve our sense of self, but that same armor prevents us from assimilating the worldviews, desires, and needs of others. We can do it intellectually – we can write an article about the perspective of a person who comes from a different religious or political center – but we can’t take in that new perspective while preserving our own at the same time. Despite sometimes excellent arguments, it’s enormously hard to change the perspectives of political partisans or religious and non-religious people.  Our country clumsily moves from right to left to right to left, while conflict remains our most comfortable form of discourse and truth, morality, and creative problem solving rarely rise to the surface.

When we’re in the physical presence of a person who is different from ourselves, our capacity for empathy tends to rise to the surface. We respond to expressions, tone, attachment, and the desire to connect. We’re more likely to listen and try to understand, or at least not get caught up in conflict. But in social media, the opposite happens. Good people with beliefs that matter to them are experienced as disembodied and offensive words on a page, so we feel free to attack, ridicule, shame, block, delete, unfriend, and ghost them. 

It’s not just the people we label “racists,” “sexists,” “white supremacists,” and “antisemites” who do this. Most of us have the capacity to treat others with pre-judgment and criticism, especially in the inhuman world of the internet. In fact, instantly labeling someone with derogatory terms like racist, sexist, white supremacist, and antisemite, without engaging with them about what they believe, the way they express themselves, and the way we perceive or misperceive them, is itself a dismissal of the humanity we all share. 

I maintain that this toxic emotional climate CAN be changed. We MUST change it, or it could kill us before Mother Nature’s climate shifts do. 

But how? 

Very, very slowly, with shared insight, shared desire, and an understanding of human nature that can be taught to our children.


The Technique

If the force is as powerful as I describe, is change really possible?

The fight/flight response has been studied as a response of the sympathetic nervous system to perceived threats. If we assume this response is inevitable, we will not make efforts to change because we will assume change is impossible. Or we will try, denying how powerful the force against us will be, and get frustrated quickly. 

I’m talking about change that needs to happen very slowly, but also relatively quickly. Once we see the need for it, light bulbs will go off, and we will work together to discover ways to bring it about in individual and large group arenas. 

I find it helpful to imagine the next evolutionary leap being made in our brains, consciously and deliberately. This leap would modify the fight/flight response and allow us to integrate the other without sacrificing our own identities. The theory of neuroplasticity teaches us that our brains can change through reorganizing structure, function, and interconnections. It happens after injury, but it can also happen with conscious effort.

Our psychology books can come alive in these arenas. We can learn to respect and engage with different defense mechanisms, different thinking styles, and different perspectives arising from different lived experiences, our own as well as others. We can imagine concrete and abstract ways of conceptualizing without arguing one against the other, and we can learn to use clinical concepts like “transference” and “projection” appropriately, not as a weapon, to understand the different ways that all of us mis/interpret the perspectives and behaviors of others. 

If we look at a person and see something that emerges from within ourselves and doesn’t adequately represent them, others tend to label that a prejudice. That leads to intense criticism and defensive and offensive behaviors. It’s much easier to correct if we normalize it, see it as human and ubiquitous, and gently challenge it from a place of empathy and respect. 

Below are links to pilot projects that my organization, Waging Dialogue, produced. The first is a dialogue between a Trump supporter who was present at the Capitol on Jan 6, and me, a left-leaning NYC psychiatrist. It is followed by a discussion of that dialogue by a group of psychoanalysts. The second is a dialogue about climate change and generational differences between a young left-leaning Jewish man and an older black woman who considers herself a Christian nationalist. 

Our goal during these initial meetings was to make friends and actively listen to one another. The next step would be to repeat back what the other person is saying before responding with a different point of view. Misunderstandings are common. When we assume the person believes something, we will hear their words in the way we’re inclined to hear them when that may not be their intent at all. 

The refrain of “climate denier!” echoes, so listening to Matt and Helen talk about climate change was eye-opening for me. Matt talked about his desire to control chaos and the fact that, if we can, we should try. Helen believes that the world changes in ways we can’t predict, and young people are too anxious and too desperate to gain control rather than relax and accept life for what it is. As individuals, we can agree with one side or the other, but both perspectives emerge from worthy places in good people and need to be honored en route to a shared solution.

“Abortion is murder” is often reframed as “they want to control women’s bodies.” Maybe that’s an underlying desire for some, but if it’s not in the forefront in their conscious minds, accusations will fall on deaf ears. For people who believe that abortion is taking a life, responses must begin from that center.

I use abortion as an example because the model I’m describing worked for me in this arena. For a long time, I understood and agreed with both sides. It seemed as if there was no way to reconcile them psychologically or politically. Only after active engagement, over a long period of time, with people who held powerful, opposing feelings, was I able to come up with an idea that reconciled the conflict for me. 

I realized, if we’re a species that kills our own kind in so many real and metaphorical ways, why not add abortion to that list? I’m motivated to help us find a way to slow down our instinct to take the lives of others so easily. But until then, making one kind of killing illegal while rationalizing so many others will never be effective. My solution is to agree with the right that abortion is a kind of killing, even in the early weeks, but to take the side of the left and say that the solution should not be mandated by law and enforced by the courts. 

There’s a larger problem that needs to be addressed first. Why has our species emerged as one that’s brilliant in so many arenas – we can fly to Mars, cure diseases, and communicate across oceans – but we can’t stop ourselves from killing, or “killing,” our own kind.

The theory must emerge, and it will. A technique to change it must also emerge. I believe that we won’t be able to stop the killing without learning to express our “killer” instincts in words. 

I’m not trying to convince you that I’m right about abortion (okay, maybe I am….). I’m trying to convince you that if we make a long, hard effort to engage with the humanity and the perspective of the other, creative, moral, truthful solutions will be more likely to arise. Our brains will adapt, and our children will benefit. 

My long-term goal is to intrigue enough people to start a movement. Perhaps we can call it Uncancel Culture. Reconnect with the friends you blocked, unfriended, and ghosted, and invite them to talk. Work at it. When the going gets hard, figure out what the obstacles are and work harder. Be true to yourself, true to the other, and just-plain-true, at the same time. Fight honestly and tolerate the discomfort when you’re met with a head-on verbal collision. Come together in moments of insight. 

Challenge your friends to try it. Host a Dialogue Party. Post on Tic Toc. Develop an app. Design a study. Share the outcomes. Realize you’re on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing.