Our Divided America
Our country needs therapy for its split identity.
By Gregg Henriques
I am a therapist and I am here to tell you that America needs therapy. Therapy is what folks need when they are suffering, when they are having serious conflicts in their relationships, when they are confused about their identity, and their lives are clearly headed in the wrong direction. Given that, I ask us all to stop, take a moment, and look around.
The first task of therapy is the process of becoming aware of what is going on. The second is the process of accepting the pain and discomfort that comes with awareness of one’s problems. It is only after that, comes the third step, which is when folks can actively start moving toward valued states of being in the future.
Let’s start by opening our eyes to the fact that, as a nation, we are suffering. Suicide rates have skyrocketed. So have rates of drug abuse and depression. When a family is in trouble, it often shows up in the children. And our children are suffering. College students, high school students, even middle schoolers are more anxious and distressed than ever.
One of the things that make kids suffer the most is when their parents are fighting. The two parties are our parents. The Democrats represent the feminine, caring, communal side. The Republicans represent the masculine, competitive, self-centered side.
Although we need both sides for a healthy family, our parents are in the midst of a horrible identity crisis. They are increasingly defined against one another. And, as is often the case in families, some of us are aligned with the father, and some with the mother. As they can’t get along, we can’t get along.
In 2008, there was great hope that maybe we could find a leader who could unite us. Someone who could speak to blue America and red America, black America and white America, educated America and working-class America, and rural American and urban America.
It did not happen. The distance between our identities was too great. As he himself has acknowledged, Obama was unable to bridge the fundamental gap between Red/white/rural/working class America and Blue/black/urban/educated America.
As a therapist, I am here to plead with America to wake up and recognize that this divide is the divide that is at the core of our problems.
The reason is as plain as the nose on my face. These are fundamentally different identities. They can’t be married into one, at least not the way we are currently going about it. They don’t go together because they see different things, feel different things, and hope for different things. There simply is no direct bridge between the folksy common sense of my white neighbors in rural Stuarts Draft, VA, and the sophisticated critique of our culture offered by authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates.
When technology appeared and allowed us to be more “interconnected,” many hoped that it would also help us get along. It didn’t happen. As it turns out, we humans like people who are like us. We like members of our own group, we like people who share our identities, and who think the way we do and value what we do. So instead of reaching out, we grouped ourselves together, perhaps more tightly than ever.
When the major news organizations lost their monopoly, many hoped the diversity of outlets would broaden our horizon because we would get exposed to many different ideas. It didn’t happen. Instead, we plugged in to get the news we wanted to hear.
In short, although it launched him on the road to the presidency, Obama was simply wrong in the 2004 speech that made him famous. There most certainly was a Red/white/rural/working class America and it was different from the Blue/black/urban/educated class America. The differences, which were with us when Obama spoke, were, at that time, small ripples relative to the wave that was coming. Even though Obama had lived both the Black and White experience, he did not know how to stop the wave. And he lacked a psychologist’s understanding of identity and group polarization to keenly discuss it.
Despite the fact that he failed to achieve a legacy of national unity, Blue/ black/urban/educated America thought he did pretty damn well, given everything—especially, the hostile obstruction from red/rural/white/working class America. And so Blue America thought the time was right to fully affirm their progressive identity. A black man handing a baton of the Presidency to a white woman would be, for Blue/black/urban/educated America, the ultimate rejection of our country’s history of white male dominance.
Of course, the choice of Hillary Clinton was experienced by the other side as a complete rejection of Red/white/rural/working class/masculine America. Blue America claimed it was into diversity and tolerance, but everyone in the Red camp knew they did not give a shit about rural, white, working-class men. In fact, Hillary said it best. They were the “deplorables.” That word caught fire because it revealed to the world what she really thought. And if, you have any doubts, just ask Ta-Nehisi Coates. Given his reality, in many ways, they are quite deplorable!
The feeling of Red/white/rural/working class America was: “After eight years in power, you, Blue America, still think of us as a bunch of deplorable racists? And now you give us Hillary, of all people? It is ridiculous.”
And so, more than anything, Red/white/rural/working class America wanted to say: “F*ck you! We hate how you look down at us. We hate your elite universities and fancy vocabulary. You think you know so much. You preach tolerance and acceptance. But you don’t see us at all. You don’t see our lives rusting away. You don’t see the drug abuse and the suicides. Instead, you just want to use us as your racist whipping boys, all while you talk about the evils of slavery from centuries ago. It is obnoxious. It is hypocritical. It is bullsh*t.”
All they needed was a weapon, a leader who could channel their energy and show the world their anger and their complete rejection of Blue America.
And there he was, coming down the elevator. The master divider. The master attention grabber. The carnival barker, circus showman who could dominate the news cycle and draw out the contempt of Blue America and spit it right back in their face. He was the perfect Red American “middle finger” for Blue America. And the joy that gave them was crystal clear in the euphoric chants of “Lock her up!”
And so, here we find ourselves. We are a family that is coming apart at the seams. We are a family whose parents seem to hate each other more and more each day. And we have a leader that thrives on grabbing our attention by creating division. And we are a family whose children are suffering because of it.
Instead of glossing over our divisions, my position as a therapist is to say we need look squarely at them. We need to label them and understand them. The reason is simple. You can’t solve the problems that you don’t label. That was Obama’s big mistake.
So, we, as Americans, need to take the first step and open our eyes to the world we are actually living in. That is the first step of therapy, the step of becoming aware, of being honest about what the hell is actually going on. So, as a therapist, I invite you to open your eyes and see what is going on. As a fellow American who is on this train with you, I beg you to open your eyes. We must stop driving this train down these tracks because there is a cliff at the end of the line. The evidence is all around that we are headed in the wrong direction. There are fires everywhere. Just look at the misery of our children. And of our planet.
As we become aware, we then need to take the step of acceptance. Accept the pain of this being the world in which we find ourselves. Hold, with empathy and compassion, your own pain. And push yourself to hold, with empathy and compassion, the pain of the individuals against whom you are defined. See it. Read about it. Accept it. It is what it is.
Now, once we have done this, once we have allowed ourselves to see where we are and feel the pain of the self and the other, we can then ask where, as a family, should we go from here? Given our reality, what can we do? What would lead this family to better, more valued states of being in the future?
Let’s us start by saying what the solution cannot be. Trump was Red America’s middle finger to Blue America. It was a primal scream, a profound rejecting of the direction Blue America was taking us. It must be seen as that. Maybe Blue America deserved it. Maybe they did not. But that is what happened.
And, as such, it must be recognized by reasonable people of goodwill that Trump is not a long-term solution. The solution to a divisive family crisis cannot be following the master of division. It is ridiculous on its face. The Trump train is driving us off a cliff. The only real winners on the Trump train are the cynical, wealthy, corporate tycoons lobbying for tax cuts while everyone else is too tied up and distracted by identity battles to notice.
Of course, as I tell my neighbors in rural Stuarts Draft, we cannot turn the clock back to the “good ‘ole days” that the likes of white men like Roy Moore long for, where the face of Christian piety masks the evils of racism and sexism. We have left those days behind for good reason.
However, we must also tell Blue America that we cannot advance as a unit toward the world of social justice warriors, reparations, or more white guilt.
If we all just open our eyes, we can all see clearly that none of these extremes is the solution that can save our family as a unit.
What will save our American family is a deep and ongoing honest conversation about what we have been, what we are, and where we can go. We must look honestly at our differences with what I call a calm attitude. That is, we must learn to slow down and see both ourselves and the “other” with a sense of curiosity (versus criticism), acceptance (versus rejection), and loving compassion (versus hatred and contempt). And from that stance, we must be motivated to move toward valued states of being for us as a country.
That is what successful family therapy looks like. And it is what we must work toward as a system, if we are to return our great country to its rightful place on the world stage. Not only should we do this. We must do this. We must do it for the sake of our children.