People often believe they disagree when, in fact, they only interpret a word or phrase in different ways. If they clarify their interpretations, the “disagreement” disappears.

A party to a lawsuit might puff up his chest and declare he’ll never settle if, in his mind, “settle” means give in or compromise. But if I can coach him toward a true win-win solution, he will agree to “settle” out of court.

Awhile back, one of your fellow blog followers sent me an article entitled “How to Stay Sane If Trump Is Driving You Insane: Advice from a Therapist” by Robin Chancer. After a few sentences, I thought, Wow. This disputes some of my primary beliefs, like the power of optimism and the Law of Attraction.

Chancer writes:

There are times when optimism is not appropriate or possible, and this is one of those times. Our President is delusional, lying, or ignorant; disastrous climate change and war with North Korea loom; marginalized people in our society are suffering. Faced with these calamities, catastrophic thinking is a rational response. History teaches us that many arcs of history did not “bend toward justice.” …We need only speak to a Native American to understand that collapse is entirely possible.”

But on rereading, I noticed different interpretations of some famous quotes.

In 1853, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker preached, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways…But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” [Emphasis mine] Martin Luther King, Jr. shortened this to, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

From these quotes, I visualize one huge arc that began with the first humans and continues to evolve. To me, the Parker and King quotes mean that, though particular injustices occur, the overall moral compass of humankind as a whole gradually improves.

Chancer writes of multiple arcs that have come to their end points, unjust end points, as in the collapse of indigenous Americans’ civilizations. She refers to arcs “of history,” rather than to Parker’s and King’s arc “of the moral universe.”

So, when we define our interpretations—in my case, one great arc of the moral universe that is still forming; in Chancer’s case, a number of completed arcs in history—there is no conflict. She’s right, new instances of injustice continue to occur. But I, too, might be right if I believe that, overall, human morality continues to improve.

But, what about optimism? Is it, as Chancer seems to suggest, wrong to be optimistic at present? Am I wrong to believe in, and practice, the Law of Attraction? The answer depends on interpretation of the term “optimism.”

Chancer says:

Instead of blind faith in progress, I offer a specific, practical system useful for maintaining mental health in a paranoid, post-positive world…Pain cannot be avoided. Fighting against pain, however, is what drives the majority of our suffering…When something terrible happens, our natural reaction is to fight against it: “This should not have happened! I can’t believe it! I would do anything to go back in time.” …We are better served by accepting what happened, allowing it to change us, and working with what is left…Remember that acceptance is not condoning…It is to say, “This is what is.” 

I might not characterize our world as paranoid and post-positive, but if Chancer’s optimism means blind faith, then I agree we should avoid that attitude.

And her advice not to fight painful realities, not to get stuck wishing to turn back time, is squarely in line with the Law of Attraction. As stated in The Secret, “What we resist persists.”

So, once we define our terms, Chancer and I are on the same page, or at least on pages that overlap a lot. Her “practical system for maintaining mental health” coincides with many of the same skills I teach:

  • She advises, “Don’t allow his [Trump’s] Tweets to play over and over in your mind. If you read them, register them as insane, and move on to the next moment. Even better, pay little attention to his stunts. Don’t waste your energy getting riled up.” Likewise, I’ve lost count of the number of blog articles in which I’ve urged people not to wallow in ain’t-it-awful conversations.
  • Chancer says to see things in shades of gray. “Individuals are not selfless or selfish; they are selfless and selfish. Our political terrain includes progression and regression…We accept what is and we work toward change, in a dynamic, continually evolving process.” I couldn’t agree more.
  • Do good things because they’re good, though results aren’t guaranteed. Agreed.
  • “Compassion, love, and affirming values exist because people intentionally work toward them. Claiming responsibility focuses our attention on what we can do to improve our world.” Agreed.
  • Practice mindful attention. “Each time the tapes of despair and anger play in your mind, doggedly shift your focus…The anxious mind will scream, ‘How could our President cut Meals on Wheels? What a monster! Those poor people!’ Then, shift focus back to the good, ‘The program has seen a 500% increase in volunteers since the cuts were proposed. Maybe I could get involved!’” I agree, agree, agree, and so does The Secret: “[I]f you’re anti-war, be pro-peace instead. If you’re anti-hunger, be pro-people having more than enough to eat. If you are anti-a-particular politician, be pro-his opponent. Often elections are tipped in favor of the person that the people are really against, because he’s getting all the energy and all the focus.”

So, I thought I had read some things I strongly disagreed with—that we should not be optimistic, that the arc of the universe doesn’t bend toward justice. But when I examined what the author and I each seemed to understand by these concepts, I saw that the problem was not opposite opinions, but rather, different interpretations of words. Then, I read on to discover that Chancer and I teach many of the same skills and practices. We could, justifiably, be each other’s cheerleaders. Her article makes a good read for anyone obsessed with repetitive ain’t-it-awful thoughts.

Since I was dealing with a published article, I had to use my imagination, analyze the author’s exact language, and work out her probable interpretation. But when you are dealing with personal acquaintances, you have an advantage. You can simply ask them. “What does ‘optimism’ (or other term) mean to you?”

Think of the last time you argued with someone. Recall the words. Might some of those words mean different things to you and the other person? Why not contact the person and ask? You’ll find that the only thing more satisfying than resolving a conflict is discovering that it wasn’t a conflict after all.

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