We are being bombarded with so much breaking news so fast that sometimes you can’t fully understand in the moment what any of it really means.
So step back a few days with me — about an eternity in today’s news cycles — and take a fresh look at what happened when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was confronted with the word “hate.” In the immediate news cycle, this was covered as a smackdown of the reporter who asked her if she “hates” the president. As time passes I’m beginning to think something bigger was happening here and if we can see beyond “winners” and “losers” there is a lesson that could help all of us navigate our toxic public dialogue.
To get the full meaning of that moment, try to do something so difficult these days: Try to get outside our tribes and not see this as Trump vs. Pelosi.
A political leader (insert your tribal chief here) who is usually tightly scripted delivers prepared remarks and walks away, until a reporter triggers her by asking if she “hates” her political rival.
As she walks back to the podium she faces the challenge most all of us face in these days when the world’s temperament seems even more unstable than its temperatures. She faces the same challenge so many of us do when an in-law/co-worker/stranger/Twitter troll gets in our face and punches our hot button. Do you come back hard or ignore it? Fight or flight? Conciliate or annihilate?
In Pelosi’s case she chose to put on a master class in compartmentalization, drawing bright lines between politics, duty and faith. Starting by pulling no punches, she called the president a coward on gun violence, cruel on immigration and in denial about the climate crisis. Then she built a wall between these political stands and how she sees her duty to the Constitution with impeachment. Then came the kicker: She said she prays for the very person she just eviscerated.
Really? Can anyone actually believe she could go from splay to pray in 60 seconds? Well, I absolutely do. In fact, compartmentalization may be the only way we don’t fall through the gaping fissures of today’s ideological battles.
It would be so very simple if all we had to do was try to just be polite to each other, to walk back to that microphone — or smile at bombastic cousin Bobby — and say, in our best Minnesota Nice: “Well, that’s different. Thanks for sharing.”
Get real. The issues we are navigating right now can’t be swept under the rug. In fact, so much of what divides us — race, gender, climate and much more — has gotten worse because we spent so many years avoiding the honest conversations we needed to have for so long.
Walling off our heads from our hearts — our political views from the way we see the human beings spouting them — is not easy, and it shouldn’t be. If I think we need urgent action to save the planet but you think my solution will jeopardize your job, we can’t expect a simple, calm conversation — any more than if you think I’m trying to overturn an election when I think you are letting the president commit treason. Anyone else learn that lesson over the Thanksgiving table?
Facing what we face, no one should be expected to witness what they see as deeply wrong and passively “turn the other cheek,” but it is both possible, and so very necessary right now, to “hate the sin and love the sinner.”
If, in the end, you can’t see into the other person’s heart, think about your own. When I was finishing my last term as mayor, while I was also in the middle of some pretty toxic experiences in national politics, I came to the conclusion that years of heated battles were turning me into someone I didn’t want to be. The only way I could find to clear away that corrosive patina of, yes, hate clogging my own heart was to make a list of people I considered a “permanent enemy” and resolve to somehow make it right with each one before I die. A few years later I’m still muddling through that list, and it’s a whole lot harder than I originally thought, but each time I believe I see at least one small glimmer of light into one of their hearts, something grows in mine.
So much of my time these days is spent in near-desperate mourning for the parts of the country I love quickly slipping away. It’s possible you see that too, but maybe for exactly the opposite reasons. Sometimes I can’t imagine what you’re thinking, and I bet you wonder the same about me. We can, however, try to understand how each of us feels. If both of us can remember the saying “when your heart speaks, take good notes,” maybe our humanity can lead our politics from the brink.
R.T. Rybak is CEO/president of the Minneapolis Foundation and author of “Pothole Confidential: My Life as Mayor of Minneapolis.”