I was a young therapist, still in training, when a family walked into my office — father (“Deke”), son (“Ian”, age 12) and step-mother (“Lucy”). On their intake form, Deke and Lucy stated that the problem was Ian’s temper, that he yelled and threw things. When we met for the first time, the adults politely shook hands. Ian stomped to the farthest chair and glared at me, an obvious So What Are You Going To Do Now? challenge. Within twenty minutes, Deke and Lucy were bellowing at each other about a disagreement involving dirty dishes. I called a TIME OUT when Lucy threatened to throw her purse at Deke. Ian watched closely, sat rigid, said nothing.
Clearly, screaming and throwing things was not an Ian-Issue, but a Family-Issue. The challenge was how to break the cycle of screaming without listening, of turning a disagreement into a mine-field. Having only a few months of experience with patients, my confidence was low, and I doubted I’d be able to help this family get ahead of their own self-destructive impulses.
They proved me wrong.
They never missed a session, determined to find a better way. Ian turned out to be extremely articulate, wickedly funny, and a gifted artist. Deke was the first to gain access to his own tears, and showed his family the emotional value of being able to cry. Lucy realized that her anger came from many sources, often mistakenly focussed on her husband and step-son. She modeled a healthy use of insight, and they all followed her example. They learned to call their own TIME OUTs. They began to work with each other, instead of against each other.
I wonder if the United States can follow their example.
My homeland has taken several catastrophically wrong turns. Citizens are devolving, turning against each other. Insurrection. Banned books. Don’t Say Gay. Bathroom bills. Gun violence. Assaults. LGBTQ+ rights under attack. Racism. Anti-semitism. Women’s rights gutted. Voting rights kicked in the teeth. The list goes on.
Even as we deal with the aftermath of Donald Trump and Mike Pence’s four years in the Oval Office, we’ve emerged with the painful knowledge of what We The People can become. We’re standing face to face with our worst selves. The MAGA mindset is alive and well — and extremely dangerous.
A rough road lies ahead. We don’t have to like all of our teammates, but we do have to work as a team. In this age of division, we’ve become obsessed with our differences. We’ve built emotional, political and socio-cultural walls which have exacerbated old problems and created new ones. Too many walls lead to the threat of isolation, and many people have lost track of our potential common ground — basic decency, factual truth, the love of our country. We need enough empathy for each other — just enough — to recover our self-evident truths. If we’re going to reclaim our inalienable rights, equally for all, then we need to work with each other, not against each other.
If it takes a village to raise children, then it also takes a village to navigate adulthood. As I try to help, I’ll keep in mind that I’m lucky to have three role models: Ian, Lucy and Deke. I’ll think of the strength and tenderness they found under their layers of rage. I’ll remember their unshakable bond hidden under their divisiveness. I’ll feel their fierce commitment to finding a healthier way, their refusal to give up hope. Then I’ll step forward, into the pain and the beauty of my troubled country, and write for a better tomorrow.
*All identifying information about “Ian,” “Lucy” and “Deke” has been changed to respect their privacy.