The advice given to author and social scientist Arthur Brooks by the Dalai Lama seemed simple — perhaps even naive. Brooks asked, “Your Holiness, what do I do when I feel contempt?” He was searching for the answer to how, in our modern, increasingly polarized context, we can move toward civility when disagreement occurs.
Speaking at the Sutherland Institute Annual Gala in 2018, Brooks put it this way:
We have to break the habit of contempt by putting something else in its place. When you feel contempt rising in you because somebody says something that you think is stupid and idiotic and maybe a little evil, and you want to express something else, what do you do?
“Practice warm-heartedness” was the Dalai Lama’s answer. Brooks wasn’t sure what to make of the challenge — it even sounded a little “weak” to him — until he began to think about the Dalai Lama’s history as “the leader of the Tibetan people” who “was exiled in the 1950s by the Communist Chinese when they overran Tibet.” Instead of fading into irrelevancy as the Chinese government intended, he became a spiritual and moral icon.
How? By the Dalai Lama putting into practice exactly what he preached and even “praying for the Chinese leaders.”
Brooks was initially astounded, given Tibet’s tragic history of communist oppression, but it soon became clear: if this works for someone who has lived through unimaginable heartache and tyranny, perhaps we should all pay attention to the lesson.
Now, the intent here isn’t to sell anyone on the overall merit of the Buddhist worldview, but there are universal values to be drawn from the Dalai Lama’s exhortation. Brooks himself noted how Matthew 5:44 in the Christian Bible gives a strikingly similar charge to those of us seeking truth and restoration in our dealings with others:
But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.
The words of Jesus Christ from the Sermon on the Mount are just as applicable in our day. While true, lifelong enemies are often rare, most people have experienced the sting of an intentionally offensive comment — some of us have even by the instigator and had to seek forgiveness. Social media has only further complicated this dynamic, since it is often easy for someone to hide behind a computer screen and spew vitriol.
In a previous column, we already discussed the rise of the “woke” left and its compulsion to spread “cancel culture” throughout society and, in extreme instances, commit wanton violence to further a political message and goal. While this will remain an ever-present problem to peacefully confront, there is a way to minimize the acceptance of radicalism in our communities: call it out strongly and specifically, but also practice warm-heartedness for people.
When faced with any kind of hatred, do not become like it — otherwise, you lose the moral advantage and ability to persuade others that there is another path to take, one that leads to virtue, tolerance, and love. This is much bigger than one political movement, after all. Increasingly, our culture appears headed toward disaster as disagreement is leading to an intractable polarization in which moderating voices get drowned out entirely.
Misconceptions we hold about each other further abound, as if nothing is to be learned from someone with a different view. Perhaps, instead of automatically making another person an enemy, there could be an effort made to understand that goes far beyond the outrage machine of social media and our current political discourse.
But it doesn’t end there. An inherent responsibility is also part of the equation: you can’t get offended. Disagreement is a natural part of life and it isn’t a threat to your beliefs, so taking it personally is the coward’s way out. Without restraint, bitterness can set in, and with that, a host of deep-seated heart issues that only dehumanize the object of your rage. It doesn’t have to be this way.
A united, rational majority must accept that competing ideas are a healthy part of any free society. Debate passionately — from a place of conviction and purpose — without demanding that the other person believe exactly the same or resorting to character assassination. It was the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who said, “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people.” If we could even get to this point, we would be much better off.
But what should be done when tempers flair and a situation spirals out of control? Try taking a deep breath and do something that doesn’t come naturally: practice warm-heartedness. This could very well save American culture from the ash heap of history, which is littered with the remains of once-powerful nations that destroyed themselves from the inside, never to become whole again.