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Coping With the "Crazies" in D.C. and Elsewhere

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A friend recently posted on her Facebook page something that seemed one part lament, one part request: "How do you deal with crazy people?"

Answers came swiftly and predictably: "You don't," said one.

Others offered consolations, as if she had been diagnosed with a terrible affliction, namely crazy people.

Her post, I suspect, strikes a chord, a deep place in most of us these days, as the rhetoric of hostility has been amped up in almost every conceivable corner of society.

Look on the comments field of an any given article and you'll often read through fiery blasts of cutting sarcasm, bloodied rhetorical noses, a virtual reality consisting of white-hot editorial reactions.

"You idiot!" screeches one commenter, as she slashes at back another poster. And it goes on and on.

Posts to the comment field behave almost like a collective thermostat of indignation. Watch the mercury rise: the more cutting, the more votes; the more laced with acid, the more favored.

And the rhetoric at the top of the outrage heap, Washington D.C., is only the most glaring instance of our inability to communicate. It "trickles" down from there, into partisanship, so-called news reporting, and into our homes, classrooms, and workplaces.

It makes me think that perhaps global warming is not our only environmental crisis; as the temperature of our rhetoric continues to rise, it threatens that other "glacier," namely civility, which keeps our ideological tempers in check. Without those glaciers of civility, we risk losing our ability to talk with one another about difficult and complicated issues.

It's time to dial down our collective temperature, lest we cook ourselves and the world God so loves into oblivion.

To begin that process, we have to confess our own complicity: We're neither entirely helpless nor even guiltless. It is true in personal relationships as well as collective ones that our judgments, especially when fueled by adrenalin (as is often the case), are rarely as accurate as we imagine.

Adrenalin not only makes us react more quickly, but it also acts as a filter, blurring anything that detracts from the fight or flight mechanism within each of us. Adrenalin, of course, is a good thing when a bull charges you: you move faster, ignore (for the moment) abrasions, jump higher, and run more vigorously than you'd ever do without it.

But in the more delicate context of conversation about difficult issues, the adrenalin rush often reduces our ability to hear and consider ambiguity, act diplomatically, ask legitimate questions, or entertain constructive criticism which, in the right environment, might lead to genuine insight.

I am speaking as one who lives in an academic environment and ours is not always -- or even often -- an irenic setting.

Not long after my current appointment, I remember the flared nostrils and apoplectic eyes of a colleague as he screamed at me, hurling his best abuses at me from across the conference table that separated us. And by way of confession, I've also been on the "messaging" end as I rifled my words with biting sarcasm.

How do we temper these "rifled" barbs and hot-tempered outbursts? Well, I suppose we begin not with the "crazies" in our offices and workplaces, but with the "crazy" in us. Often we don't notice our own "crazy" until it's too late. What we lack is time or distance in tense situations and that's precisely what we need to cultivate.

One practice I've found helpful is to gently take my pulse during a tense meeting. Most people won't notice what you're doing, not if you do it discreetly. But on a good day, if my pulse is racing, I refrain from speaking. And mostly, it works. I focus just enough on how my body is behaving so that my field of vision and ability to hear improve.

There might be other practices as well. One figure from church history, whenever there was a painful debate, would write on a sheet of paper, "More light, more light." It was a prayer, a way of naming the blindness of human certainties. It was a prayer for inner wisdom rather than fleeting moments of rhetorical victory.

Another practice I've found helpful when dealing with a difficult conversation partner (aka "crazy") is to listen to what they say in a spirit of salvage. Try to salvage something true, something you can empathize with, something you can name in common.

The etymological root of salvage appears in the word salve and in salvation. When someone acts out in a manner that isn't rational, it often reflects a deep wound, a feeling of not being heard, of having been actually ignored, perhaps by us, or perhaps by the system, or by a more significant figure such as a parent or spouse. The only way to "get" the attention needed is by becoming unbearable, a lesson my three year old son knows instinctively.

But the test of community is whether we are willing to bear with one another. Try to remember that there is, even in the most incoherent rant (including a toddler's), something that can be salvaged. Try to name that act of salvage: "You've helped me today and I want to tell you how . . . this is the difference you make."

Sometimes, however, an act of salvage like that is hard to come by, maybe impossible for mere mortals. At times like those, I am reminded of Dorothy Day's account of the Catholic Worker houses in Loaves and Fishes. As urban houses of hospitality organized during the Great Depression, they offered shelter and human fellowship to all comers, many of whom struggled with poverty, but also with addictions, or even deeper forms of self-destruction.

One such character was Mr. Breen who, by Day's account, was a proud and unrepentant racist. Unmoved by the preachings and prayings of this community, his abusiveness extended all the way to his deathbed. As Day and others prayed beside him, he suddenly stirred and said, "I have only one possession left in the world - my cane. I want you to have it. Take it - take it and wrap it around the necks of some of these bastards around here."

Finally, he whispered, "God has been good to me." And he died.

One member of the community sighed, "A house of hostility. . . ." It sometimes seemed as if they were nothing but a house filled with angry words and hate rather than the love they sought.

Only partially in jest, Day commented that at minimum such persons gave them a chance to practice their commitment to nonviolence. With deeper insight, she also recalled the words of St. John of the Cross: "Where there is no love, put love and you will take out love."

As All Saints Day approaches, maybe we are reminded of Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian church. As his body succumbed to the abuse of an enraged mob, he refused to surrender love's surrender: "Lord," he cried, "do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:30).

Saul, who stood nearby, approved the killing. This one who "breathed threats" would later become the Apostle Paul. According to tradition, he penned the "Love Chapter" of 1 Corinthians 13: "Love," he sang, "is patient; love is kind; love is not envious, boastful or arrogant, or rude. . . . It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

Stephen did not witness this change in Paul, but he nevertheless testified to the love of One who is more compelling than the stones of hostility that separate us.

Perhaps Old Saul was listening.