We’ve all heard the “America as a dysfunctional family” analogy; but if you’ll indulge me, I think it’s a particularly helpful framework to reflect on the way forward after what has been the longest and most contentious election cycle of my lifetime.
If your family is anything like mine, you probably don’t agree on much of anything. But that doesn’t seem to matter much, does it? Whether you agree with the other members of your family has very little to do with the way you feel about them. What is it about the family unit that makes it so resilient? It’s the answer to that question, extended to our fellow citizens, that may ultimately help us understand how to heal the bitter divisions that are tearing us apart as a nation.
For nearly twenty years, President Reagan and his wife, Nancy, were estranged from their daughter Patti. But like all good parents, they never lost hope. They wrote countless letters imploring Patti to set aside their differences and to come back home. Rumor has it that Patti sold some of these letters for drug money. Think about that for a moment; a father’s desperate plea was effectively used as a means to drive the wedge between them even deeper. Even still, the Reagans chose to believe that one day they would reunite their family.
I find this letter particularly touching. At the time the letter was sent, they had been estranged for about 17 years. I think it provides a useful framework for how to come together and heal as a society. It’s short; but it contains a tremendous amount of wisdom.
Notice how the letter begins: a kind word and a touch of humanity. The lyrics of a familiar song evoke a shared experience and identity. What if every time we engaged with those with whom we might disagree, we began with a kind word, and acknowledged our shared experience and identity? This sincere “human touch” is sorely lacking in today’s political climate.
The letter goes on to expresses Reagan’s desire to come together, to find common ground. This was three years before Reagan’s Alzheimer’s would be diagnosed, or become public knowledge. He was celebrating his 80th birthday — he realized that the time for reconciliation was running out. Reagan understood that speaking and listening — dialogue, not monologue — is the first step to reconciliation. So he suggests in the letter that he and Patti simply have a conversation, not that they agree, just that they hear each other out. This seems a small ask for something so rewarding.
But in order to have a productive, reasonable conversation, Reagan understood that both sides needed to be able to agree on the facts, thus providing some kind of objective basis to judge the validity of the other’s point of view. This election cycle has been a case study in just how hopelessly unproductive a national dialogue can be when we can’t seem to agree on the facts. There will always be extremists on both sides of every issue; we can and we must choose to be reasonable.
We all know that even reasonable minds can, and often do, disagree. Reagan acknowledges this in his letter and asks: “Even if there are differences, does this justify a family separation? Can we not disagree without abandoning our family relationship?” Back to our analogy. Do our differences as Americans justify the bitter divide that exists in America today? Can we not disagree without abandoning one another?
In my own very flawed way, I have tried to bring people together under the banner of shared ideals, principles and values; but families don’t stick together for these reasons alone. There’s something else at play. Families come together because they choose to come together, day in and day out. They agree, consciously or otherwise, that the differences that exist between them do not and will not justify a permanent schism in the family. If your family remains united today, it’s because each member chooses to do so.
In the last line of the letter, notice that Reagan tugs on Patti’s heart strings, reminding her that when she was a child she once sat on his lap and asked him to marry her. What shared memories can we conjure up that might help us feel for one another again, despite our differences? Perhaps the way we came together in the aftermath of 9/11? Or a more recent example, the way we responded to the horrific shootings that took place in Dallas this past July.
Three years after this letter was sent, Patti reconciled with her parents. Her father died 10 years later. Patti remained close to her mother until she passed away 12 years after that. I don’t know Patti Davis, but I imagine that she regrets the 20 years she lost. I’m sure she cherishes the 22 years she would have lost had she decided that the differences justified the separation.
Today, regardless of who has won the election, we need to resolve to listen to one another. I, for one, have decided that the differences that exist between us do not justify the division in our country today. Let’s turn it around. The next time you engage with someone with whom you may disagree, take a lesson from President Reagan: start with a kind word and a touch of humanity; remember that, as Americans, you share a common experience and identity; try to ascertain and agree on the facts, be reasonable; and finally, if there are still differences between you, think long and hard about whether they are so significant that they justify terminating the relationship.