‘Lead Kindly Light’ In a Culture of Contempt

“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’ encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.” St. John Henry Newman

Two of the most effective couple’s therapists in the country have saved thousands of marriages in their careers. They watch new clients most carefully for signs. One as it turns out is the most troubling to them. Observed as one spouse talks about the other, divorce is reliably predicted within a year or two if not healed, if not forgiven. Not screaming or arms crossed silence, not tears or obscenity, but derisive eye rolling is the sign of the most significant damage.

Dr. John Gottman and his wife Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman have been in the forefront of studies and counseling for couples for decades. Cofounders of The Gottman Institute, they have created “The Art and Science of Love” weekend workshops for couples and have written bestselling books on the subject, including “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” and “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.” Dr. Gottman was named one of the Top 10 Most Influential Therapists of the past quarter-century.

They have written much on the four signs of trouble that must be remedied [i]in a relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. The most destructive of these is contempt with eye rolling its signature. Contempt is a deadly habit in any relationship and the most dreadful communication threshold to cross. Once crossed, it is most difficult to cross back. Memories and pain are soul deep when our very humanity has been violated, when the basic dignity and respect due to us as human beings has been nullified by the person we ought most be able to trust and to whom we have made ourselves most vulnerable and intimate. Our humanity and personhood have been denied. Contempt is chilly disgust, not hot anger. At least with anger, there is emotion and a sense of importance to the argument. With contempt, even the ashes grow cold.

“Teach not thy lip such scorn, for it was made for kissing, lady, not for contempt.” Richard III, William Shakespeare

Dante in his “Inferno” depicts not fire at the deepest level of Hell, but ice, and the immensely powerful Satan frozen in it. Just as contempt signals the death of a marriage, contempt in our public discourse and relationships signals a death as well. A visit to Facebook or other social media makes it apparent that political enemies rarely engage in debate, civil or otherwise. The opposition from either side of the divide does not hate those with whom they disagree; they de-humanize them; they despise them. They are not wrong or ill-informed or capable of learning or worthy of an attempt to teach them; they are stupid and evil: “morons” or “Nazis” with no room for discussion. And it is ripping us and our culture apart.

The most fundamental of these is respect for the human person. Absent that, neither the family nor government on its own can make up the forfeited ground. Once respect and regard for one another is lost, the great divide and breakdown of the culture are inevitable. As Dr. George wrote, “When liberal democratic regimes go awry, it is often because a utilitarian ethic reduces the human person to a means rather than an end to which other things, including the systems and institutions of the law, education and the economy, are means.” Disdain for one another expressed publicly reduces those with whom we disagree to dehumanized objects of that contempt. Our political divide so often lamented is a trailing indicator.

We hear often about a lack of civility in our debates. Mere civility is too feeble a contraption by a wide gap — timid and insufficient to overcome outright disregard for the humanity of our political rival. What can be done? What must be done if this great experiment of ours is to survive?  

Dr. Arthur Brooks, social scientist and former President of the American Enterprise Institute, now teaches courses at Harvard about loving one’s enemies as the solution. From the left or the right makes no difference. In case that advice seems familiar, as old as Scripture, well, it is.  He converted to Catholicism when he was sixteen on a family visit to Mexico City and the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Dr. Brooks is a team member of Bishop Robert Baron’s “Word on Fire Institute.” For many years, he has consulted with and is a friend of the Dalai Lama, who helped inform his worldview. His recommendation is both urgent and kind. He is better speaking for himself in this short PBS interview with Judy Woodruff. Better yet is this longer talk he recently gave which outlines some of the nuts and bolts of his suggested solutions from his book, “Love Your Enemies.”[iv]

As the cliché states, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem, and rare is the person who has not piled on during a social media exchange, including me. Let’s throw the flag for late hits at ourselves and try to do just a bit better. A simple and elegant commitment we could all make suggested by Dr. Brooks is similar to what the Gottman team recommends for couples headed for divorce. Before acting out on those cutting impulses, do the following: make five positive comments about the other person before you hammer them and engage that oh so justified self-righteous indignation.

We find after the five building-up remarks about what’s good in the other person, our vindictive lower self will slink back into its corner and sleep. In fact, one or two will probably put the monster away. Now finding five positive things about Nancy Pelosi or Donald Trump may be a bridge too far for you, but presumably the social media friend who posts about them must have friend history with us sufficient to be able to comment on the reasons they are friends in the first place. Say a prayer for the politicians, but good will towards your on-line or personal contact should be easy to find. If you can’t, keep your counsel to yourself. After all, no one, ever, has had their opinion changed on a gut ideological or political issue by a Facebook post.

Dante’s hell may have Satan fixed in ice, but he is busy at work, cunning, and he picks his targets with telling effect.

“It can never be too strongly emphasized that the crisis which Western man is undergoing today is a metaphysical one; there is probably no more dangerous illusion than that of imagining that some readjustment of social or institutional conditions could suffice of itself to appease a contemporary sense of disquiet which rises, in fact, from the very depths of man’s being.” Gabriel Marcel, Man Against Mass Society, (St. Augustine’s Press, 2008)

[i] The Four Horsemen: https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/

[ii] Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. “Conscience and Its Enemies” Dr. Robert George, ISI Books, Paperback Edition 2016

[iii] Benjamin Franklin quipped that democracy (without checks and balances) was two wolves and a sheep sitting down to discuss what’s for dinner. Checks and balances are not primarily found in the Constitution but in the human heart and human friendship.  Dr. Gerard Mundy wrote last year: “Writing in 1957, Russell Kirk argued that love of, and attachment to, community are native to the American spirit. ‘Our city, township, and county governments; our flourishing voluntary associations; our innumerable fraternal and charitable bodies—these are the forms which have been realized by our desire for true community.’ Indeed, it is necessary that the six communal institutions—the nuclear family, the extended family, the neighborhood, the church, the voluntary association, and the employment/workplace association—are healthy, for government cannot by its nature alone teach morality without devolving into totalitarianism.”(Public Discourse essay by Dr. Gerard Mundy https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2019/10/56308/)   

[iv] “Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt”  Dr. Arthur Brooks, Harper Collins, 2019


Filed under Culture views, Faith and Reason

2 responses to “‘Lead Kindly Light’ In a Culture of Contempt

  1. Anthony Vinson

    Good to hear from you, Jack. I have ruminated and written extensively on this subject for years and, shock and surprise, have opinions. Here’s a distillation.
    For me, it is not about loving one’s enemies, or searching for any positive attributes they may possess, but rather accepting them. Not tolerating or supporting or excusing, just accepting. Once I accept a person as they are, I can see through the haze and fog of confusion and understand that they are who they are for reasons far beyond their control. As am I.

    I have a good friend, Dan. We have known each other since high school and remained in casual touch throughout the years. Social media has made it easier to communicate. Dan is a hard-right conservative Christian supporter of Trump. I am a slightly left-of-center independent atheist who would prefer the Trump go away. We frequently disagree on issues, Dan and I, but agree that ultimately, we both want the same things, and those things are easily described using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a template. Dan and I remain fast friends despite our political, philosophical, and theological differences because we accept one another.

    When I am able to achieve acceptance of others, I am far happier, and that happiness is expressed as joy and cheerfulness toward them. When I am able to accept others as they are, we all benefit. I do not consider anyone an enemy because of their political opinions or spiritual beliefs or sexual orientation or self-perceived gender or whatever. Problem is, sometimes I must fight and fight hard to achieve even a modicum of success. It goes against our very nature. Our brains betray us, signaling danger when there is none and activating what is commonly called “fight or flight.” It’s an autonomous chemical process over which we have little control once it begins. In essence, we are fighting ourselves more than we are fighting others.

    There’s a story, its origins murky, about a grandfather explaining to his grandson about two wolves living within his spirit in constant battle. One wolf is jealous and angry and vengeful, the other is kind and accepting and loving. “Which one wins the battle?” asks the grandson. Answers the grandfather, “The one I feed.” Indeed. Feeding our battling natures requires consistent vigilance and herculean effort. Before that though, we must achieve an understanding of ourselves. But who has the time or inclination? After all, thinking is hard, while feeling is easy. In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Chait uses the metaphor of an elephant (emotion) and a rider (reason) to illustrate our difficulty taming our emotions. Seems apt to me.

    Perhaps Depeche Mode expressed the question best, “People are people, so why should it be, that you and I should get along so awfully.” Well, because we’re human, of course. What other answer could there be? But in that answer is the solution. Accept our humanity, but don’t use it as an excuse. In the words of the great Buckaroo Banzai, “Don’t be mean. We don’t have to be mean. After all, no matter where you go, there you are.” Or, as I like to put it, don’t be an asshole.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Always good to hear from you, AV, and thanks very much for taking the time to add depth and perspective to the conversation.

    Only a couple of points of departure. One, of course, on atheism, but that is a very long discussion worthy of a long dinner and after dinner drinks. And one I’m loathe to debate with texts and emails. But anytime you come North, let me know.

    The second is that we are who we are without any control over it. I hold out hope because I have seen people change. Maybe not in rooted nature, as you suggest, but in behavior, and that’s good enough for me. We can often not control our emotional reactions, but can and should control our responses.

    I’ve always loved the two wolves story, and it has much to commend it. Feed your good wolf. I think it’s a Native American story, no?

    Finally, your last line reminded me of a great George Carlin line (paraphrased because I don’t have time to look it up): People respect you for being honest, until you are honest about them, then you’re an asshole.

    Be well, wonderful story teller, and keep fighting the good fight. j


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.