08/02/2010 10:55 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

America's Politically Adolescent Behavior

A year ago the headlines screamed about townhall protests and the birth of the Tea Party. Since then, media coverage of the Tea Party, its antics and its political darlings has been non-stop. In Tim Wise's recent blog, "Imagine if the Tea Party Was Black," (on the Don't Tea on Me Blog), he rightfully flings at us the chilling picture of how most Americans would react if Black Americans spewed the easy hatred and de-humanizing rage pronounced at the "white and right" rallies that have become acceptable around the nation. Wise posits that it would not matter if group leaders claimed that the hatred was being shouted by a few bad apples on the fringe. They would certainly be kept off the air if they routinely made similar violent threats with the openly expressed intent to damage and erase the rights and lives of whole groups of people.

I must admit that I find myself at once riveted and nauseated by the constant coverage of Tea Party protests, not only because of all the hatred that is so clearly a part of their group rhetoric, but because too many of us have found the stuff laughable. Perhaps just as bad, we have formulated a picture of ourselves as superior to the hatred that is evidenced in a movement that promises (even threatens) us with Presidential hopefuls who are so far to the political right that they scare hell out of me.

Sure, I could stay plugged-in to the hating of what and whom I am seeing in print and on TV, but I have forced myself to pull away and look into the adolescence of it all. I have not only been looking outside of me in the blame game that lures us all but in the mirror of my own distraction and fear of doing damage by stating out loud what I know. For example, in today's realpolitik, to question Israel is tantamount to killing it. Two years ago, for any progressive to have questioned candidate Barack Obama would have been equal to digging his grave and putting Sarah Palin a hearbeat from the Oval Office.

And so I must admit that while I celebrate the centrality of the human shadow and our need to integrate all sides of ourselves, even I have failed to dare to see that anyone who was as smooth as Obama and promised all things to all people had to be a liar. I was afraid to do damage or to be shunned. I didn't want to see, and now I have to see precisely my own part in passively refusing to grow up and gain my truth and my voice.

Too many of us look to complete ourselves by having the perfect leader who will rescue us from our woes, and, perhaps unconsciously, we ignore signs of danger precisely so we can heap our unexamined anger onto that same leader. Basically, we set up who will lie and cheat and disappoint us in the end. Those on the political right search, not so much for self-completion (that would be too much government control), but to expel the bad elements who threaten the purity of what they believe it means to be "American."

Psychologically speaking, we are all like kids in a playground fighting for the wrong reasons, entangled in our rage and temper tantrums. There is accusation but little in the way of alternative actions or of guidance should we emerge from fighting with each other and be confused. We are out of practice with what it takes to see the truth and be civil to ourselves and each other.

In my clinical practice, I have actually seen and tried some of the ways that might represent a pathway to transition our society from a culture of hate to one of listening. When I work with families for example, sometimes I meet people who have constructed a flimsy existence based on power struggles and tantrums all around. There is the panic: What to do if they stop punishing each other? What to do when we realize we have married a replica of our parents and we are battering the other person with ugly shows of yuck? Amazingly, I'm also seeing many of those who are hurt by the burden of lies and a compulsion to measure up to impossible standards actually welcome the admission of defeat. Honesty becomes contagiously relieving. "I'm imperfect, you're imperfect," can be a liberating game if our goal is to invent newer ways of behaving together and realizing there are people to help us.

Let's look at the example of a young girl who came to my office hysterically tied up in knots with her father reciting all of the usual oncoming punishments. I explained that by relaxing and understanding one thing in the situation, we could help her calm down and join the conversation. What we experienced was that she gained a form of structure. Inevitably, the dad sighed with relief. As the therapist, I did not shame him for stamping his feet, rather I helped him recover from his episode of impatience and confusion. I kept him company by offering understanding and acceptance of his side and that of his daughter. In therapy, we find that even those who don't want to be controlled do want and need company to sustain viable alternatives. They do not need advice that comes from the ceiling and disappears as the office door closes.

People yearn to be known, especially once they decide to change, because change is confusing and because all of those in our lives who don't want us to change will try to bully us out of it. So it can be freeing to see and admit our imperfections. Often, some of the most intense moments become sort of funny, at least after the fact.

Similarly in society in general, it is tempting to look for purity in our political leaders, especially if we hate ourselves for the lack of it, or if we refuse to see the mixtures and impurities in the world and feel the need to project ugliness onto foreigners and the others we make evil. The brilliance of many a dictator has been right here: knowing how to harness the wish for a purity fancied to have existed once upon a time. Kill those who harm our purity, and give us back our goodness. It is brilliant and demonic since it justifies killing--for-the-greater-good. Another method is to put someone on a pedestal and justify the tearing down of that person. This is still violent, and it still results from our not taking responsibility for our passivity and unwillingness to see truth and reality in the first place.

In America today, we are being consumed by noise machines that tap into our tendencies to hate, to panic and to bow down in the fervor of division just when we need to unite first with ourselves so we can possibly listen to and learn from each other.

In hope for perfection, I must recognize that I am still the midst of growing up. At the same time, with courage growing inside, I'm bolstered by knowing and having seen how the right kind of support can help people deal with the chaos that comes whenever we dare to change. Nobody embraces uncertainty easily, and yet, nobody likes being played the fool or being incited to hate by those who only want more power and money.

One of the secrets here is that we are all imperfect. Yet that very fact could be one of the seeds of our capacity to learn, to share, to cooperate and at times to love.