"We define self-deception as not knowing - and resisting the possibility - that one has a problem." - Arbinger Institute
We came dangerously close to driving the car off the cliff recently with the debt default crisis. Come January of next year, we'll likely be there again. I can say that with confidence because the way Congress works -- or more accurately, doesn't -- reflects the lack of conflict resolution skills in our own divorced and remarried families.
But there is a ray of hope, and like most good things that happen during a crisis, it came as a total surprise.
Hours before the October 17 deadline when the country and the world would have slid down the hill together, I listened live to the fourteen senators who had worked behind the scenes to create a compromise.
One by one, they expressed their pride in reaching across the aisle, genuinely listening to the opposition's priorities and brainstorming possible solutions together. They marveled at their ability to practice give and take while crafting legislation that would pass both the House and Senate and head off financial catastrophe. I was heartened that their efforts had yielded tangible and important results.
But almost without exception, these same senators expressed dismay that the process of forming consensus was now seen as something antiquated from bygone days, left in the dust along with mutual respect and the ability to see beyond one's nose.
A hateful, at times enraged myopia has taken over our society. We have only to look at the current state of marriage and parenting to see how far off course we have gone, even as individuals.
Ask yourself: if I knew my children would grow up to be me, with my existing levels of love, life purpose and problem-solving skills, exactly as they are right now -- would I take it? Many of us would say no. But somehow, the reasons why are always qualified, temporary, due to extenuating circumstances or someone else's shortcomings.
The forces of denial and fantasy are strong in all of us. As children, we increasingly recognize our parent's flaws and smugly assume we'll do better. As parents, we naively imagine a future for our kids where they'll glide through smoother, more fulfilling lives and won't stumble and fall, as we have.
But they will, inevitably.
In a misguided effort to address the pain from our own past, we have unwittingly created a culture where children are entitled, indulged and very little is asked of them, lest they struggle and damage their fragile self-esteem. In attempting to protect them from failure, we have eliminated opportunities for them to develop a healthy sense of self -- one cultivated through trial and error, hard work and by making a contribution to the communities of their family, friends and school.
Now, the biggest priority is comfort. As adults, we're modeling an addiction to short-term, random technological validation. We are present but absent, providing for our children thousands of visual impressions of a back hunched over a computer or the top of a head, peering down into a cell phone.
When they follow suit with their own devices, it's both a strange relief and a never-ending source of guilt. We're now into the second decade of this experiment and seem incapable of identifying or addressing the negative effects.
We retreat into ourselves, seeking entertainment, numbness or a productive way out of the chaos, strengthening our entrenched perspectives in a crazy feedback loop. Google serves up an echo chamber of tailor-made search results that reinforce what we already believe. We compulsively scan and modify our own values, mentally agreeing or arguing with the cacophony of online opinions.
We mistake the intensity of our feelings as proof of the veracity of our thoughts. Instead of being shocked at the venomous, violent irrationality of a random comment on YouTube or a politician's interpretation of the opposition, we have become immune to spin, outright lies and most importantly, the potential consequences of our lopsided frames of reference.
It was all right there for us to see last month, played out in the debt ceiling debacle. It didn't seem to matter that if you were going to shoot the other side down, you were going to shoot yourself in the foot as well. And it's evident in our daily lives too, as we jockey for position in our divorced family relationships, household against household.
As I followed the Senate floor live stream, I was especially moved by a conversation Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) had with her six- and nine-year old son and daughter:
My daughter Kate asked me: Mom, why can't you just get the government open? What is wrong? Well, why can't you get this solved? . . . Think about the lessons we try to teach our children. Are we not always trying to teach them that when they get into a conflict, you have to work it out? That, yes, you do not get to get everything your way. . . . I guess I would ask the question that I ask to my children [when they make a mistake]: What did we learn from all of this? . . . I hope we never do this again. I hope we learned our lessons. I ask my children to do that, I am going to ask myself to do it, and I am going to ask others to do it.
The way out of this mess on a local level is actually simpler than we realize.
We must turn toward each other and bring our presence to our families and close friends. We must get off the treadmill of busyness and self-importance, which is really just the flip side of fear and self-doubt, right? We must handle our addiction to technology. We much choose to be in this moment with the people we love right now, without checking email or work or Facebook or our cell phone every five or ten minutes. And we must continue to do so even after we repeatedly forget, something author David Richo refers to as creating "an atmosphere of mended failures."
In this way, we can begin again to listen. To feel the inner world of another. To shake up our sense of certainty about how things really are. To bring to the daily challenges of life a nuanced maturity.
It's not as easy as black or white, right or wrong, us against them, the sinners versus the saved. We can ask our children to do more now because we won't be avoiding our guilt altogether, leaving it to someone else in their future to teach them harsh life lessons about humility and self-discipline.
We may not be able to wave a magic wand and fix the way Congress does or doesn't work when we stare down the financial cliff again. But we can make a real difference by reconnecting with our families and applying even a modicum of that same respectful presence to the other household. We can make it possible for our children to feel good about eventually becoming who we are, right now.