Banking on the notion that a new year offers opportunities for new beginnings, a new self, New Year's always brings with it the expectation of making resolutions. The idea of self-improvement has deep roots in American culture, most familiar probably in Benjamin Franklin's autobiography; though really rooted—regardless of Franklin's own rejection of religion—in the country's Puritan forbearers. Despite believing in predestination, they constantly strove to act in Godly ways with the hope that doing so might indicate that God had saved them. I am a big believer in self-improvement. While I'm not sure I would go as far as Socrates' assertion that "an unexamined life is not worth living," I generally agree. When we examine ourselves and work to be better people, we have the opportunity to make ourselves feel more fulfilled. That said, I'm not a big person for New Year's resolutions. It feels like an arbitrary time to me; I prefer to seize the opportunities for self-improvement as they arise: when something happens that forces self-examination or when I read something or hear a speaker that prompts a reexamination or a recalibration of behavior. Such an approach feels more organic and, my guess is, more likely to meet with success (people fail to sustain New Year's resolutions at a notoriously high rate). I have recently taken up two resolutions, both of which started before New Year's so they don't really count, but I'll use the new year as an excuse to share them. The first I have been working on for several months already; the second I will tell you about in my next column.
As I mentioned, a speaker or something I read will prompt me to pledge to change my ways in some fashion. In my quest to figure out how we can move beyond the intensely partisan environment in which we find ourselves, this summer I read The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity by Sally Kohn. Kohn, who began life as a community organizer, is now a columnist and news commentator. An avowed progressive who has worked as an activist on LGBTQ issues, Kohn has also worked as a news contributor for Fox News. After the 2016 presidential election, she set out to find out how we could all get along better. Researching her book, she travelled the world interviewing people who had moved beyond hate: the Palestinian peace activist whom the Israelis jailed as a terrorist and whose daughter died from an Israeli bullet; the reformed skinhead; a Rwandan who married the son of the man who killed her father. She studied hate, learning that while humans can very quickly develop deep antipathy towards another group, we can also unlearn hate; in other words, there is no reason we have to hate each other.
Kohn's overarching argument is that to overcome hate we need to interact with people whose views differ from ours. As we know, however, we Americans increasingly live in communities segregated by political views (along with a number of other characteristics). Kohn urges us, however, to find opportunities for "connection speech" and "connection spaces." Connection spaces involve creating opportunities for people of differing views, backgrounds, etc. to come together. This takes some organization, probably an organization to make happen. Connection speech, however, we can all practice. She recommends an ABC sequence: we begin by affirming (A) what the other person has said; we create a bridge (B) that connects what the person's assertion (which we affirmed) with what we believe using the word "and" (not "but" which immediately signals disagreement); finally, having acknowledged the other person's concern/position and connected it to a belief we share, then we can move to present our argument—what we wanted to say from the beginning—allowing us to convince (C) the other person of our point of view. (36) Of course, this may not always work (especially the convincing part), but at least we are able to have a civil conversation and perhaps learn more about the other person's thinking. By the way, this approach could also be helpful with teenagers.
This is certainly useful advice, and Kohn's stories of people who have overcome hate are inspiring; however, my resolution is even easier than connection speech. I engaged Kohn to speak at a conference for heads of school that I was helping to organize, and in her talk, she recommended a step that could be called a prequel to connection speech: simply stopping saying negative things about people you don't like/disagree with. That is my resolution, adopted back in November right after her presentation.
I have actually done this before and I know it works. Several schools ago, I worked with a very difficult person, someone who undermined me whenever he could (he reported to me), someone who claimed academic freedom when he used completely inappropriate language in class, someone who was pompous and intellectually arrogant. You've got the picture. To make matters worse, I discovered that he made more money than I did, but that fact isn't relevant to this story. My fellow administrators shared my low opinion of this person. We talked about him regularly. Indeed, he provided plenty of material for our mill of derision. There are some individuals in the world who are truly good people and don't talk about others when they are not present. Unfortunately, most people are not that admirable. I confess that I am not. I participated enthusiastically in our negative talk about this colleague. Finally, one day I decided that I needed to stop. It felt as though our banter at his expense was getting out of hand. It was undeniably unprofessional. I pledged to my fellow administrators that I was no longer going to speak negatively about this person. I made no requests that they join me in my abstention, but I did ask them to serve as witnesses to my pledge and to hold me to account. From that moment forward, I stopped criticizing him, joking about him, or saying anything pejorative. It wasn't always easy, but I held my tongue and the most remarkable thing happened. His and my relationship changed. He stopped undermining me. While we certainly weren't friends, we were able to work together in a reasonably collegial and professional manner. I have no idea whether he knew we talked about him behind his back. I'm positive he knew nothing about my pledge. And yet, my change in behavior, a change unbeknownst to him, completely altered our relationship.
Since November, I have worked hard not to speak negatively, especially about a particular person. It's hard to resist because people around me often do so, but I have managed the vast majority of the time. The result: I'm a happier, less stressed person. Give it a try. I think you'll find it can make a significant difference without a great deal of effort.
Since this week we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., may I suggest that you listen to his "Love Your Enemies" sermon. He exhorts us to go beyond connection speech and well beyond simply refraining from speaking negatively about others to love, love as defined by the Greek agape, our enemies. It's a powerful message worthy of consideration.