As American politics becomes more and more toxic, poisoning everything it touches (which, increasingly, is virtually everything), what can Americans do to detox?
I suggest something relatively simple but by no means easy. Restoring some amount of health and normalcy to our society will mean accepting that our crisis is spiritual in nature and that the solution is profound moral transformation. No spending bill, media blitz, or electoral victory (no matter how large) will suffice adequately to confront this challenge at its root.
The primary, driving force in American life today is resentment. The “oppressed”—sexual and racial minorities, women, the disabled, immigrants, and so on—resent those whom they have been told oppress them—straight, white, heterosexual Christian men. And the “oppressors” in turn resent those who have viciously and baselessly smeared them as moral monsters: racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic. The so-called oppressed resent their so-called oppressors because they perceive themselves as victims of hostile forces outside of their control, while the so-called oppressors, in turn, resent the so-called oppressed just as fiercely and also out of a sense of victimhood—because, in their case, they have been unjustly maligned without any recourse.
Both sides, in reality, are victims, and not just because they see themselves as such. It is more because both are awash in resentment, which is itself is a prison, a waystation to death.
That resentment holds such a privileged place in our politics and culture makes sense, since resentment activates, in a twisted way, the human need for justice, which, according to Federalist 51, “is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be pursued, until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” Because justice sits at the heart of politics—a people’s common life, its means of pursuing the common good and human flourishing—it is only a matter of course that its perversion, resentment, is similarly central. So, how can we dispel resentment and restore our collective sanity?
By recognizing resentment’s active presence and operation in our lives and then resolving to abandon the supposed “right” to vengeance that it seems to license—to stop daily feeding our revenge fantasies.
It will help to make this concrete. Those who join Alcoholics Anonymous are invited to journey, using “the Big Book” and with the help of a sponsor, through the 12 Steps, a path of spiritual awakening and growth that, if diligently followed, frees them, one day at a time, from their compulsive use of alcohol. After taking the first three steps—recognizing that they are powerless over their behavior and that their lives have become unmanageable, that a higher power can restore them to sanity, and that they need to turn their will and lives over to the care of their higher power each day—they arrive at Step Four: “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
This requires alcoholics to consider the “common manifestations” of “self” which they have become convinced have “defeated” them up to this point and kept them nursing the bottle. What do they find when they create this inventory?
Typically they find that “[r]esentment is the ‘number one’ offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stem all forms of spiritual disease . . . [and] we have been spiritually sick. When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.”
What makes Step Four so effective is that the addicts’ many resentments against people, institutions, and principles—which have threatened their self-esteem, pocketbooks, ambitions, and personal relationships—are set out in black and white, on paper; there, they can no longer be evaded and must be confronted head-on. But what makes doing this so difficult is that “this world and its people were often quite wrong.” In other words, the alcoholics are, in some sense, justified in being resentful. They really have been wronged; it was not all in their heads. So, how does this inventory help alcoholics overcome their destructive urge to nurse their grudges?
They come to resist that urge because, in examining their resentments list, they come to see that those who had harmed them were also “spiritually sick,” just as they themselves were (and still are), and because they make a conscious effort to “[p]ut . . . out of [their] minds the wrongs others had done, [and] resolutely looked for [their] own mistakes.” In so doing, the alcoholic learns to take responsibility for himself and extend grace and mercy to others, just as he wishes to be treated and how he would treat a dear friend. Critically, he learns to forgive so as not to be imprisoned by his emotions and cut off from growth and healing.
To be clear: I am not naïve enough to suggest that America is about to embark on a kind of collective 12-step journey anytime soon—or ever. After all, there are numerous powerful, vested interests, seen and unseen, that profit in many ways from incessantly inflaming societal resentments across every dimension imaginable, especially race. For one thing, it is much easier to distract, control, and plunder a bitterly divided society than one that is healthy and harmonious.
For alcoholics, “to drink is to die.” In a similar way, unless the American people, all of them, can learn to give up their resentments—and the poisonous, righteous fury they license—we will continue to indulge our compulsive, addictive rage, which eventually will destroy us.