Editor’s Note: Kirsten Powers is a CNN senior political analyst and New York Times bestselling author whose forthcoming book is “Saving Grace: Speak Your Truth, Stay Centered and Learn to Coexist with People Who Drive You Nuts,” from which this article is adapted. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook @KirstenPowers.
In 2018, barely two years into the Trump era, I hit a wall. I was in a near-constant state of agitation, emotionally and physically exhausted and with contempt coursing through my veins for large swaths of people I had never even met. If this state had been helpful to anyone or any cause I cared about, perhaps it would have been worth it. But it wasn’t.
America felt as divided and toxic as it had ever been in my lifetime. Little did I know, we were just getting warmed up.
While the US was hardly a Valhalla of comity before Donald J. Trump became president, there is no question he quickly became a dividing line in many relationships. Sixteen percent of Americans told pollsters they had stopped talking to a family member or friend because of the 2016 election.
By 2019, when researchers asked Republicans and Democrats if they believed that members of the opposing party were “just worse for politics” or “downright evil,” more than 40% in each party chose “downright evil.” Twenty percent of Democrats and 15% of Republicans agreed with the statement, “We’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died.”
I wasn’t wishing death on anyone, but I was finding it close to impossible to interact with (or even think of) people who held different political views and values without demonizing them. I was spending an unhealthy amount of time engaging in what Brené Brown calls “common enemy intimacy,” in which we bond with others over our shared hatred of the same people.
When we are high on this kind of counterfeit bonding, the ideas of compassion, empathy, and mercy – are often dismissed as weak-kneed accommodation of the enemy and a betrayal of the community.
When I hit that wall, I came to see clearly how toxic our culture had become and how I was contributing to it. It’s true that many people saw me as a thoughtful, grounded analyst – “the voice of reason” as I heard so often – and much of the time I was. But it’s also true that sometimes my behavior was less than admirable and even toxic –especially on social media or in my writing. Even when I seemed to be calm and collected on television, my mind often was ticking through all the ways my opponents were irredeemable and rotten to the core.
My “aha moment” came when I noticed how my thoughts and behavior were not aligned with my faith or values. While I could have justified myself by pointing out how badly other people were acting, my standard for myself simply couldn’t be the horrible behavior of other people.
I had an intuition that the solution to what ailed me, and our country, was the widely misunderstood concept of grace.
Yes, I know that talking about grace in our current environment can feel wrongheaded, like throwing down one’s sword in the midst of battle. But it’s actually the opposite. Now is exactly the time we need to be laboring to create more grace in our lives and culture at large.
But first we have to let go of some misconceptions: grace does not mean being doormat or being silent in the face of harmful behavior or beliefs. It’s not about being nice or polite. Grace is not a tool to maintain the status quo or bypass accountability, though we must recognize it’s been weaponized for those purposes and we need to stay alert to this kind of misapplication.
So what is grace? It’s an empowering inner orientation that helps you see others in all their humanity – people who are doing the best they can with the tools they have. Just like you.
The Christian formulation of grace as “unmerited favor” is instructive. Grace, by definition, can’t be earned. When we extend this idea to each other, it means that others deserve grace no matter who they are or what they did. If you can only see the full humanity of people who think like you, that’s not grace – because on some level they have done something to earn your favor.
But what may be surprising is that the biggest beneficiary of grace will be you. Practicing grace means using boundaries, not bombast, when you encounter problematic people. Demonizing and even dehumanizing is replaced with discernment so you can clearly identify issues that need to be addressed.
You no longer marinate in other people’s toxic behavior – which if you are anything like me causes misery, anxiety and worse – and recognize that their behavior belongs to them, not you. This helps you stay grounded, rather than being pulled to and fro by the actions of others.
There’s a reason the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Hate is too great a burden to bear.” We hurt ourselves when we hate others. We bear the burden, not the offending person. It’s drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
The truth is, there are many things we can do when we feel activated that don’t involve demonizing other people or firing off a mean tweet. There are organizations that need volunteers and donations; there are columns and letters to the editors to write; there are informative social media posts to create and amplify. This doesn’t mean that social media is never a tool for drawing attention to harmful behavior. Social media has given voice to many people who have traditionally not had a seat at the table. It’s both a revolutionary tool for change and a place that can get us jacked up on judgment and hatred.
If you think it’s “weak” to use grace, then you simply have never practiced grace. Labeling, judging, shaming and “othering” our opponents is actually quite easy. Trust me, I know. Practicing grace – seeing people as more than the sum of their worst attributes, who have the potential to be different – requires effort and intention. Like many transformational habits and practices, it’s agonizing when you start, but over time becomes freeing and empowering.
Practicing grace involves unlearning many of our ingrained ways of being that fuel the toxic levels of “ungrace” – a term popularized by the author Phillip Yancey – in our culture.
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It’s about understanding how to stay grounded in the midst of the tornado; speak your truth without spitting contempt; and coexist with people you don’t even want to share a planet with, let alone a country.
As we head into the midterm election season with so much hanging in the balance, grace just might be what helps you, and even our country, survive. After all, if I could manage to figure out how to use grace to buffer the blows in the fight-club arena of American politics and media, then it just might be possible for you to do the same in your part of the world.