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Carol Smaldino Headshot

Shut Up and Listen! And That Means All of Us!

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The other evening, a friend became cranky once the health care discussion began after dinner, so he turned to me for comfort and clarity about the issues in the newest national team sport of health care reform. Never having enjoyed professional soccer or football, he hadn't been privy to the culture of fans who fight to the death against the opposing team and have been known to kill disappointing players. He didn't get why constituents were so riled up. I apologized, I was less informed than I should be. I had read some accounts but had stayed in a cloud of dismay, distracted by the degree of outrage, fury and aggressive accusations over this one issue.

I felt like everyone was playing different music at the same time, with the resulting cacophony of blaring but discordant sounds signifying -- not nothing -- but instead that our patriotic insistence that our democracy is worth not only emulating but exporting was mistaken. Not only are marriages and families in trouble for lack of communication, but it is an epidemic. I had just returned from several weeks in Italy where yes, this was in the news, but the sounds didn't emanate from paper or from television.

I suppose the voices I was hearing became rather quickly overwhelming. The clamoring for attention or distraction or mob participation was becoming deafening. In what I refer to with tongue in cheek as an understandable condition of Psycho-Political Mood Disorder (not yet listed in the DSM, but no doubt soon will be), I began to withdraw from the fray and desist from even trying to learn about the issues.

Then a friend jolted my lethargy. Kimberly Krautter's recent column on the Huffington Post, entitled "Did the Inglorious N.O.P. Bust a Cap in Health Care Reform?," seemed to jump off the page, with a sassy Southern stream of consciousness in a diatribe of facts about health care reform and the disgraceful mob rule (that would be the GOP, not the Mafia). She was Barack Obama, not saying "Yes we can," rather "Yes we had better, and snap to it!"

My inspiration was to awaken from my own withdrawal, to break up the brawls, and issue a rather simple but loud and clear, "Shut up and listen!" We need some decorum here and our President Barack Obama and company need some pre-school teacher training to quiet down the audiences and to remind all of us that democracy requires citizen participation. And that freedom only exists with discipline, so quiet down, speak one at a time, and you shall not only be heard but listened to.

My psychotherapy experience reminds me that when anyone is screaming out resistance to change (and we all fear change), we need to attend to both content and meaning since change doesn't occur through conquest or by vote alone. Change needs a process so we who are in favor of health care reform have to be sensitive -- not in a manipulative way -- to resistances, and see if we can bend and compromise or better explain what may be confusing.

However, as isn't uncommon in my experience, I was missing the "one true thing," which came out over dinner last night. A group of four liberal human beings, including myself, were discussing this very issue of health care reform. And guess what, even we couldn't do it. We couldn't listen and respect each other. Unfortunately, we have deteriorated into interrupting each other, hurt feelings cutting the conversation short.

And so I return to my own difficulty and that of other liberals in really listening, to one another. We, who want to be the better people, pay way too little attention to setting limits, to shutting up and really listening with respect and to practice what we preach.

The suggestion of a mandate for change in the way we proceed and process is not popular within the liberal enclaves. They are fairly segregated with each "cause" standing on its own. So the emails come, about Darfur, about abuses towards women, about accountability for military and psychologist-inspired torture, and of course about polar bears. I am not the President, and so I don't really need to apologize to any one group. This is not to say polar bears are unimportant, okay?

However, if we destroy the human potential for communication and collaboration, we will destroy the whole planet.

Ecology isn't solely a quaint word about going green. It means all things and people are connected. In the present case it translates to the warning that if we don't create a climate of communication, of listening and translation, there will be no health care reform, much less climate repair. Even if health insurance is voted in, it can be voted out. The GOP is waiting to swoop and Sarah Palin might be picking out her new clothes for the job. We who are liberals had better get our act together.

And part of why it's never easy being green (as Kermit The Frog once sang to us) is because to work at any of these problems, we have to start with ourselves, with what might be our own private demons that provoke our ire and righteousness, and so we have a tendency to react by drowning out other opinions and feelings.

So here goes my revised message: Shut up and listen, all of us. Before we listen to others, let us look in our own mirrors, and reflect not merely on appearance or fantasies of being more pure than any other human being. And may we strive for honesty about our own capacity for honesty, first with ourselves.

Yes, the GOP is mighty and can be big and bad and mean and manipulative. But we, the tenderhearted are losing our senses and our sensibility. If we watch Rome, or America rather, burn with hatred, we are simply not doing our best to account for our own sins of omission.