Paul Wilczak

Paul Wilczak

At a dinner party my wife, Priscilla, and I attended in 2016, the hostess banned discussion of the presidential election. Later, a family member mentioned at breakfast that it was impossible to discuss President Donald Trump peacefully with a friend.

Such avoidance seems common now as one kind of path to peace. The hidden toll it exacts, however, is a loss of dialogue and understanding.

Fear gets in the way

In 1969, I was in my 20s, engaged to Priscilla and in clinical training at the University of Chicago Hospitals and Clinics. My fellow psychiatry students and I observed Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross —who famously identified five stages of grief — as she interviewed patients who had received terminal diagnoses.

While standing in the dark observation room, I was thinking ahead to my wedding in December and vaguely noticed Dr. Ross welcome a patient into the bright interview room.

A beautiful, young woman with long brown hair, the patient told Dr. Ross her name was Eva. They began to talk.

Eva, like me, was in her 20s and planning a wedding. I felt as if I had been punched in the gut and had to sit down on the floor to catch my breath. This strong reaction surprised me.

Looking back, the emotional logic makes good sense. Eva had been unexpectedly diagnosed with leukemia two weeks earlier. In my heart, I sensed the question, “Could such a thing happen to Priscilla and me?”

A glimpse of the shadow of death darkened my vision so acutely that I could hardly breathe, talk or even stand for a moment. My peaceful reverie had been pierced.

Ideological sinkholes

I believe something similar happens when, in our families, friendships and social interactions, we cannot hear something without significant upset.

A pop-up appears on our mental computer screens, we experience a punch in the gut and the ground on which we stand seems to give way. The reality of Eva’s situation shook loose an internal danger sign that threatened my peace.

Such threat is present in other situations, too.

When our convivial conversations morph into verbal fights, what triggers the change is a sense of danger, something life-threatening. It has the power to erode the common ground in families, friendships, churches and professions.

Such threats are likely begotten by what I call sinkhole ideological conflicts. A lavish buffet of them was served up during the 2016 presidential campaign: hot-button issues that included the election itself, abortion, homosexuality, gender parity, climate change and terrorism. These topics plunged us into sinkholes that made discussion impossible.

We must resist the effects of the sinkhole, and engage even when we’re afraid. Consider the witness of Lancaster County’s peace churches — the Brethren, Amish, Mennonite and Quaker churches.

Brethren and Mennonite churches work with immigrants and refugees and emphasize welcoming the stranger. Lancaster’s Amish community modeled forgiveness for the world after the 2006 massacre at the West Nickel Mines School.

The late Michael McConnell, of the American Friends Service Committee, said we need to “show the human face of an issue” so as to “engage” and help understand what is before us.

Better angels

When Eva sat before us in Dr. Ross’ seminar, she became, to me, the human face of dying too young. And I felt the ground give way.

What gradually stopped my descent into the sinkhole were the many supportive conversations among Dr. Ross, our clinical staff and my fellow students. This sharing allowed our better angels to guide us. Our better angels give us the courage to stand strong, to resist the temptation to flee from what threatens us. They allow us to witness with the full power of our presence, to listen and to speak respectfully.

Heeding our better angels may be how we counter the sucking pull of ideological sinkholes.

More perfect union

When we are at table with family, friends, colleagues or even strangers and hear something critical of the political party we support, we should ask ourselves: Are the other persons’ feelings, thoughts, hopes and fears as meaningful as our own? Are they as important to us as we are?

Empathizing with their feelings — understanding their thoughts, imagining their hopes and appreciating their fears — will help us feel less threatened.

Then perhaps the pull of the sinkhole will give way to a moment of peaceful companionship. Perhaps the moment will expand and become mutual, growing into a shared experience of human equality and compassion.

The U.S. Constitution does not use the word “peace,” but rather employs the phrase, “a more perfect union.”

The qualities of such a union, however, describe the kind of peace that marks a good life: “domestic tranquility,” our “common defense,” the “general welfare,” and “liberty” for us and our children. This is democracy at peace, if we can keep it. And it begins within our hearts and expands to include our neighbors.

If the stands we take are rooted in such American values, I believe we will be able to talk honestly, even humbly, about threatening issues without sliding into the sinkhole.

But this will require us to examine what we find threatening about a particular issue. Instead of demonizing any person who might remind us of the threat, can we penetrate its meaning and reduce or resolve the threat by carefully cooperating with others? Can we manage our gut reactions enough to be able and willing to break bread with those who see and think differently? If so, perhaps threats can be reshaped into trust and adversaries into partners.

We must answer these questions and test their promise for ourselves. In short, we each must ask this question: Will I permit peace to begin with me?

Paul F. Wilczak, Ph.D., is a retired psychologist living in Manheim Township.