Monday, October 20, 2008

Overcoming Political Addiction

Before my conversion, my political behavior used to be different.

I used to obsess about politics. In fact, it used to be one of my main topics of conversation. In election season, it became virtually my only topic of conversation. Whenever an election season started to ramp up, I would begin to obsessively turn on the news and check the election coverage every night. Shows featuring political/election commentary became my standard TV fare. During the day at work, in between political conversations with co-workers, I would go several times a day to or other news-oriented web sites and check the latest polls to see how "my" candidates or issues were doing. More importantly, I became inordinately emotionally invested in the outcomes of political campaigns.

I wouldn't say I consciously made agreement with my political views a criterion for friendship, but I did have a tendency to hold and express strong views on political subjects. I did so often enough and strongly enough that it certainly -- however unconsciously -- shaped my circle of friendships and acquaintances in such a way as to exclude anyone who didn't pretty much agree with 99% of my political views.

My conversion changed all that.

My conversion made friendships and relationships with people primary, which naturally forced political concerns to the second or third rank in terms of my conscious priorities. Now, instead of just blurting out my political views to anybody I met, with the assumption that if they didn't like it, they could just take a hike and go talk to somebody else, my primary interest was the other person, and feeling that person out and understanding them, and being more sensitive about not saying something that might turn that person off or prevent us from getting to know each other better. And beginning to attend church regularly at my LDS ward meant that I was certainly getting to know people with political views different from the views I espoused prior to my beginning to attend church there in the fall of 2005. Certainly there are members of my ward who are politically liberal like I am, but that was no longer the most important point for me in a potential friendship. Rather, the most important point was shared faith and testimony, and strengthening and loving each other. I began to learn that being a Saint meant love and unity had to take priority over political solidarity.

Layered into this growing people-oriented awareness is my sense that there are certain sorts of behavior that very quickly cut me off from the Spirit. Political attitudes, emotions or behavior that have the effect of cutting me off from the Spirit include: fearing, blaming, condemning, attacking, and arguing. I was finding that much (if not most!) of my emotional investment in politics was tied up with these negative postures. My "political addictive" behavior was leaving me feeling cut off from the Spirit, and so, without making a necessarily conscious decision to do so, I just naturally found myself deciding -- in order to stay grounded in the Spirit -- to stay focused on my work and not to obsessively log on to or keep talking about political issues with co-workers or to watch news all the time at home. It's not that I don't still try to stay informed, and it's not that I don't converse with others about politics, or that I don't occasionally get sucked into the old sorts of conversations. But I do make conscious choices to try not to indulge the "dark side" or to do so obsessively in the same way I once did. And I find myself having to consciously "re-ground" myself spiritually when I do.

A growing awareness is emerging from this shift in behavior. Yes, political decisions are important -- morally and spiritually. I have always believed that and I still believe it. But I need to let go of specific political outcomes. Or rather, I need to be concerned about political outcomes in ways that are grounded in a more holistic, more positive view of the world. I need to understand that the political means to an end that I find most persuasive may not always be the only or even best means of achieving a morally desirable end -- such as peace or economic justice. I need to accept that others who desire those ends may have very different views on how those ends can be achieved. And sometimes they may be right and I wrong, and sometimes it may be a good thing that the political means I personally have espoused don't succeed. Sometimes I have to be open to learn from others.

If my political views cause me to feel intense anger or even hatred toward another person or a class of persons, it is a sign to me that I am on the wrong track. If the political means I espouse are causing a major rift or dissension or contention or hatred, maybe I need to question those political means or even let go of them. If political action leaves me feeling burned out and angry and frustrated, maybe it is the wrong sort of political action.

On the other hand, if political engagement leaves me feeling energized and positive and happy and more hopeful; and furthermore, if I can see a clear connection between that political action and the good, hopeful things in non-political areas of my life and my community; those are signs that I am engaging in the right kind of political action.

This emphatically doesn't mean never doing anything controversial. But it does probably mean never doing anything that is calculated to provoke, ridicule, or divide. For instance, I see my decision to go with Göran to California last July to get married, as falling into this more positive category of political action. Our journey to get legally married was simultaneously personal, social, familial, and political, all at the same time. It was not something non-controversial. But at the same time, it was an act that attacked and demeaned no one, that detracted from no one. It was something I knew in my heart to be the right thing to do. It empowered me and energized me personally; it made me a stronger and happier person, and Göran, Glen and me stronger as a family. It left me feeling more spiritually grounded and joyful than almost any other single thing I've ever done.

Finally, reflecting on this has given me insight into a particularly Mormon understanding of the connection between politics and religion in a democratic society. I've always believed -- even in my non-Mormon days -- in the fundamental truth encapsulated in this Book of Mormon text:

And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land. (Mosiah 29:27)

I certainly believe that there will be in the divine scale of things a reckoning for any nation that chooses militarism over peace, that chooses economic inequity over concern for the poor, that chooses pride of race or class or gender or sexual orientation over justice for those who are politically weak or who are minorities. But I do not believe that people who make unwise political decisions are necessarily unrighteous. Only God, who sees the heart of the individual voter, the individual political agent, knows what motivates that voter, knows whether a decision is made out of pride or love, hate or concern, indifference or empathy. A voter -- or a nation of voters -- may have a good heart and still make mistakes. The difference between a good heart and a bad heart is that the good heart learns from mistakes and tries to do better. And we may nurture hope even in the face of potentially devastating political mistakes if the heart is still good.

Very often, American political behavior has been motivated by a bad heart. For instance, it is hard for me to interpret the history of American slavery (and its racist after effects) in any other light than that very many Americans chose greed and pride over fairness and love. Though I do believe many good people were caught up in slavery and in racist institutions, who were doing the best they thought they could (though maybe not doing enough).

It is nurturing the good heart that demands our very best and highest political efforts, to keep love flowing in our political and our nonpolitical lives. The more I foster that awareness, the more I can once and for all put political addiction behind me.


Beck said...

" primary interest was the other person, and feeling that person out and understanding them, and being more sensitive about not saying something that might turn that person off or prevent us from getting to know each other better."

I like this. I've always tried to keep politics 2nd or 3rd level down from the primary focus of friendship. It does lead to arguments and contention more than sensitivity to others. And when it does come up, I tend to listen verses fight.

Maybe that's because I'm weak and don't want to spend the energy to fight, I don't know... It just doesn't seem as fundamental or important to me to seek like-mindedness.

That doesn't imply that I don't care about the issues of the day, or seek to inform myself of the choices before me.

I know you've personally demonstrated to me that sensitivity to the ideas and interests of others is primary to you.

Bravone said...

Thank you for the great perspective. I needed that. I know it is important to be involved politically on issues we deem to be important, but I appreciate the reminder to put people above politics. Well said.

Bill McA said...


I hope I'm not co-opting your thread, but I know you like to interpret dreams....

Speaking of politics (and I'm addicted to them also) I had a dream last night that I was in junior high school and Obama was my teacher. He was very nice and I remember thinking in my dream that it will be cool when we can say that our teacher is now the President (and I'm Republican!). In my dream he noticed a pimple or a boil on the side of my neck and asked me what it was. I said I didn't know and he then proceeded to take care of it like a doctor would, doing it in front of the whole class.

What does it mean?

J G-W said...

Beck -- As far as you are concerned, this post is really preaching to the choir... You're the ultimate people before politics kind of guy...

Bill -- That's really funny! I've had two Obama dreams, myself.

In the more interesting of the two, it was election night, but instead of watching the election returns with my family and friends, I spent the night cleaning and scrubbing our whole house top to bottom. In the morning, I saw that Obama had won the election, and he was standing there in my living room. I took one of the sponges I had been using to clean house and baptized him with it. (Not baptism by immersion, obviously!)

I've also had a dream with George W. Bush. In that dream, I was introduced to President Bush by my father (who is a Republican). I thought I was going to be angry at him and hate him, but when I met Bush in person, I saw that he was a person like me. He looked old, tired and nervous, and I felt sorry for him. He asked me for help, and I decided that, even though I felt I disagreed with everything he stood for, it was my duty to do whatever I could to help him... Later, my father told me that President Bush was very grateful for the help I had given him.

Your dream sounds most similar to that last one. You encountered a political leader who represents a party or an ideology that you generally disagree with. But you allowed him to help you in a very intimate way.

The boil on your neck might represent some personal flaw or weakness. The neck is a part of the body we typically associate with pride, or stubbornness. That association makes sense, especially since, in the dream, he is tending to your wound "in front of the whole class." In other words, this healing requires you to swallow your pride.

They say that every character in your dreams is actually an aspect of yourself. If you choose to interpret it this way, then Obama the Democrat may represent some aspect of yourself you're having a hard time accepting. But your dream is a kind of recognition that a willingness to learn from this part of yourself will result in curing yourself of some annoying personal flaw...

That would be how I'd read a dream like that... It's a beautiful dream, a very powerful one! Very cool!

Bill McA said...

Wow, thanks!

Ron Schow said...


This is a good reminder at this time of year for some of us who are "political junkies." I think I'm doing ok in not being too overbearing in my views and hopefully remembering that relationships are more important, but I have to be really careful, and especially with my own grown kid who now have their own ideas.

I too have been feeling sorry for George Bush lately, even though in general I am so unhappy with his leadership. It seems to be a lonely thing to be President and to have so many with strong views who dislike you. Whoever wins, I hope our next President can do something to bring us together and I hope he won't emerge in a few years as an isolated, disliked and despised person....for his sake and ours.

Maraiya said...

Amen! I am a swing voter and picking candidates can often be difficult. More than anything, I am consistently put off my discussions (either official debates or just random conversations) where anyone is asserting that their viewpoint is the only one to be held and that if you differ, you are seriously wrong and have erred in your fact-checking or in your personal morality. There is always more than one side to an issues and ignoring the rest of the country, because they disagree, seems awfully undemocratic to me.

J G-W said...

Maraiya - Thanks. I realized this morning that one of my favorite TV commentators is David Gergen. I guess I have a soft spot in my heart for people who insist on speaking to "both sides."