Today, I have been hanging out with my daughter’s father and his family in Antalya, Turkey.
Yup: Vacationing with my ex-husband, ex-in-laws and ex-extended family.
My daughter’s Egyptian/Syrian/Turkish relatives are far more conservative than we are, more religious than we are, much wealthier than we are, and follow far more traditional gender roles than we do. If we were to begin talking politics, philosophy or religion, we’d find ourselves super polarized.
Nevertheless, we vacation together with ease these days, and it got me reflecting upon what has made this possible for us.
The younger version of me who left that marriage was simply not able to do what I am able to do today.
I felt trapped in a social structure that was stifling me. My independent, counter-cultural voice was not valued, and the pressure to conform to traditional gender roles was immense.
Fifteen years later, none of them have changed (it’s seriously like entering into a time machine), so, what has?
Two things come to mind immediately: The life-affirming influence of both choice and deep personal growth.
First, I’m choosing to be here.
I know that this is a temporary arrangement and I trust myself to leave if I need to. I am here to visit, not to stay. When I am in touch with my choices, I feel more settled. My nervous system can calm down. When I can trust myself to take myself into situations, and out of situations, I find that I have a much greater capacity to sit with discomfort and tension.
The simple fact of knowing that I am choosing something makes unbearable things so much more bearable.
If you are feeling triggered or flooded in situations in your own life, it might be helpful for you to figure out a way to get yourself more grounded in your choices – It makes a massive difference in our ability to respond in more resilient ways.
Second, I have spent (at least) the last 15 years actively and deliberately working on myself in a few specific ways: increasing my self-trust and self-empowerment, transforming my fears and working on experiencing life through a less judgmental, opinionated and defensive lens.
As I re-interpret human behavior as attempts to meet deeply universal human needs, I find it far easier to connect with people whose beliefs used to trigger me. I separate the person from the beliefs far more easily, I’m able to access curiosity and I am more attuned to what people are feeling and caring about underneath the content of the conversation.
I may not agree with what people think, but I can join them in caring about safety, security, meaning, purpose, community and social cohesion. Our strategies may look different, but the interests we are serving are often very similar. I can keep the conversation focused on mutual goals, instead of debating differences and getting heated.
As I do this, I find myself settled in more compassion, more understanding, more grace.
If you have any healing work of your own left to do, I highly recommend it! The more fear you drain from your own system, the more empowered, energized and resourced you are to stop recreating the past, and start creating a new future instead.
And thirdly, despite our differences, many cultural norms over here simply make it easy to be kind to one another.
We greet with hugs and kisses. We smile at each other and look at each other. We laugh together and tell jokes. We show each other many common courtesies – passing food at meals, tending to each other’s well-being, including one another in conversations.
I am aware that they wish I hadn’t let my daughter get a second piercing in her ears. I know they judge me for not raising her more religiously and for not insisting that she learn Classical Arabic and Q’ran. The subtle disparaging remarks about American culture are not lost on me.
But as I sit on the Mediterranean coast at sunset, listening to at least four different languages being spoken over dinner, I can’t help but appreciate the warmth, the kindness and the willingness we all have to work with one another as we are – despite some massive cultural divides.
I think about how different our world might be if we all just worked on being that much kinder to one another.
We don’t have to agree on everything to see one another’s essential humanity.
We aren’t dependent on everyone seeing things the same way in order to feel safe and secure with one another.
Differences do not need to divide us.
In addition to the tools of nonviolent communication that I often write about, here are some additional resources and tools that might inspire you on your own journey:
12 Kinds of Kindness: Two New Yorkers created a series of 12 steps as a way to become kinder, more empathetic people – they practiced these for 12 months.
Better Angels: An organization dedicated to reducing the red/blue polarization in the United States
Safe Conversations: Empowering people to talk without criticism, listen without judgment and connect beyond differences.
Whatever journey you are on, whatever differences you are trying to bridge, whatever triggers you wish to be free from, I hope you find some meaningful and transformative tools to inspire you onwards!