Transforming memories into hope

Returning civility to America’s democracy: the promotion of civil dialogue

By Paul Graves
Reader Contributor

While many of us in this region are mesmerized and frustrated by the national political circus called the Presidential Campaign, a few of us struggle to understand what came to public light last week in Bonner County. It suggests that political anger has dramatically surfaced in the District 1 legislative race.

To summarize: On Friday and Saturday, the newspapers reported the Democrats wrote a strong letter to the Idaho State Attorney General over some serious harassment of their 21-year-old field organizer. The men accused of the harassment wore clothing that showed them as supporters of Heather Scott. Scott offered “no comment”

Additionally, the 90-year-old mother-in-law of Scott’s opponent, Kate McAlister, was approached by a Scott supporter and challenged because of a “Kate” sticker on her car. I know the man who approached her. He is physically imposing, and carries an equally imposing gun on his hip.

Suddenly Bonner County became a visible microcosm of the out-of-control abusive political and very personal rhetoric that many persons think they’ve been permitted to now use. It’s like their theme song is “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

My few minutes of reflection today may sound fairly simplistic. I would rather hope the reflection be heard as “radical”, in the sense that I really want to point to the root, the radix, of what I think has disrupted democracy.

As I thought about today’s topic, the word “memories” kept sneaking into my consciousness. We all have childhood memories. Some of those memories are very pleasant. Too many memories can be horrendous in some abiding way.

So I honestly wonder how much impact those destructive childhood memories have on the way our brains’ prefrontal cortex develops—or not.

I also honestly wonder if how we choose to respond to especially negative stimuli, is impacted by how our prefrontal cortices develop. Our early-childhood experiences that we may only consciously know through our memories may unconsciously direct our decisions. I don’t know, but I do wonder.

My imagination was tickled in this direction as I read “The Mystic Chords of Memory,” a chapter in the book Conversations with Elie Wiesel, by Wiesel and Richard Heffner. In that chapter, he speaks eloquently of how he chose to respond to the potentially devastating memories of how he survived the Holocaust.

Wiesel opted for the “redemptive quality of memory. I always try to say it’s because we remember that we can be saved from further punishment. So I am saying to myself, ‘Maybe memory is not the answer. Not the only answer or entirely the answer.’ It is the main component of the answer.” (p. 145)

To me, this strongly suggests each person has a choice on how to use our memories. We can use them to punish ourselves and others. We can use our memories to make our lives stronger, healthier, and more responsive to the needs of others.

The fuller truth may be that we use our memories to do both. And a civil democracy is at its best when we encourage that fuller truth, where our memories may punish one time but redeem another. But redemptive memories take hard work.

For over 22 years, I’ve written and spoken about what I call “God’s Radical Hospitality.” The root of God’s nature is Love — not frivolous, vindictive or manipulative judgments. That love is most often experienced in some form of unconditional hospitality, an unconditional welcome of another human being.

This is the spiritual basis of my thoughts on civility and incivility today. I have spent my professional life, in its many incarnations, trying to live into that radical hospitality. It hasn’t been easy!

And it seems to be getting harder these days. As I experience other people, and engage in self-reflection, I cling to a bit of wisdom from Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and my virtual spiritual guide.

In a number of his writings, he reminds us that: 1) If we don’t transform our pain, we are bound to transmit it; and 2) Spirituality is what we do with our pain. That wisdom challenges me daily.

It reminds me that everyone – everyone – struggles every day with many kinds of pains. And how we deal with those pains is the essence of our spirituality – our search for meaning in life. When we don’t feel welcome in our own soul, we can lash out in peculiar ways.

In the welcome and safety of God’s Radical Hospitality, I can bring my pain to tentatively dance with another’s pain. In that dance, we can discover together that underlying our pains is a reality called Hope. Hope is not mere wishful thinking. It is a patient action.

Jim Wallis, of Sojourners, describes Hope as “believing in spite of the evidence, and watching the evidence change.” I paraphrase his affirmation to add “work to watch the evidence change.” I believe that hope is an essential ingredient to genuine dialogue. My hope is pragmatic that way. Maybe yours is, too!

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