At that time, the world was facing the consequences of an all consuming war, the end of which was mercifully in sight. In the years preceding, there had been death and destruction on a scale never before seen on the face of the Earth, promulgated by those who were supposedly humankind’s most advanced peoples.
Roosevelt had been at the helm when civilization had teetered on the brink. From that lofty perch, he revealed to us what he saw as the only solution to the world’s problems.
Here is what he said:
“Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships – the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together, in the same world, at peace.”
How would the world have been different if we heard what this great President intended to say on that day?
It is impossible to know if Roosevelt’s words would have been heeded. What we do know is that great progress has been made since that time in the “science of human relationships.” To a large extent, we know what people need to do in order to forge sustainable and workable connections.
In my field of psychotherapy, visionary relationship practitioners like Harville Hendrix, John Gottman, and Susan Johnson have improved the lives of untold numbers of people with their theories and techniques. They stand on the shoulders of giants in the fields of attachment theory, neurobiology, systems theory, and inter-subjectivity theory.
These leaders, each in their own way, tell us that the secret to good relationship is being able to enter another person’s world. We can only grow and change, that is, we can only find solutions to seemingly intractable problems and differences, when we can truly see through the eyes of the other.
How can we make this leap across the abyss and truly comprehend another’s experience, especially if it is diametrically oppossed to our own? Neurobiology tells us that in order to take in unfamiliar information, we need to feel safe. In order to feel safe, both parties need to agree that the purpose of communication is to understand, resolve, and connect.
As a therapist and husband, I have seen how effective these methods are, both in the lives of the couples I work with, and in my own relationship. Without these approaches, we hold onto anger, convinced we are right, and nothing changes. By using them, we gain a different perspective. We recognize that change does not come from convincing the other that they are wrong; it comes from seeing how we are wrong. We come to see that our story isn’t the only truth, and that our partner’s intention is different than what we assumed. With those understandings come compassion and love, instead of fear and distance. Then we are more likely to do something different, and that can lead to movement, creativity and resolution.
If Roosevelt was right, many of the problems we face in our world today, whether they are rampant divorce, congressional gridlock, or the threat posed by Iran, are the result of relationship failure.
If we understand how to have good relationships, why do we seem to be in such bad straits?
One central reason is because good relationship practices have been rejected by most of the world’s leaders in politics and media. These techniques are not widely taught to the greatest share of our population. This all reflects that our culture does not prioritize good relationship.
What we are taught, by the examples we see on places like Fox News, is that not listening to others, fighting, hurting, defending, dominating, and defeating are the relationship values to be prized.
With that adversarial approach, real communication between people with differences never happens. Connections are not formed with those who do not share our beliefs. By never acknowledging personal responsibility for a problem, nothing changes. This view, which is held by many politicians of all stripes, has been particularly championed by a sizable number of conservative Republicans. This is a fundamental cause of the gridlock that has impeded us from solving so many of our huge national problems. It is exemplified in Governor Romney’s statement that, “a real leader never apologizes.”
It is as if one fundamental difference that divides us is our approach to relationship itself. There are those of us who are stuck in the Newtonian world of mechanics where the best means for getting something to move is to knock it out of the way. There is another group which has begun to grasp our new quantum world, where we see that we are all interconnected, and that we all benefit from the harmonious working of all the parts of a greater whole.
President Obama’s central vision reflects this holistic view in his constant belief that “we’re all connected as one people.” His promise was that through his relational approach he would heal the country’s divisions and we would be able to find common solutions to our problems.
However, when he attempted to implement this approach, he was met with a push-back of monumental force. If the old system had been causing so many problems, why did so many defend it so vigorously?
There are two basic forces in systems: one is to keep things as they are, and the other is to grow and change. As the world moves slowly but inexorably toward the interconnected model, there has risen countervailing, reactionary forces which strive to keep us stuck in the old, dysfunctional way. This makes sense in our culture: why would those who have the power and wealth want anything to change? This opposition to social evolution by those in power has been evident since at least the time of Jesus, one of our earliest promoters of good relationship. We know how the plutocrats of his day reacted to his admonishment to “turn the other cheek.” We remain stuck in intractible conflict because it serves somebody’s interest.
It can appear that the forces bent on maintaining the current power structure through the use of ineffective, Newtonian, relational models is winning. How can a willingness to step beyond one’s narrow view overcome a rigid, destructive opposition? Ironically, the state of so much of our national discourse makes Roosevelt’s 70-year-old view seem more visionary and radical than ever.
Overcoming this resistance is a central crisis in the Obama presidency. If he is to succeed, those of us who understand both the importance of good relationship, and how to teach people to live this way, need to dedicate our lives to doing all we can to make Roosevelt’s, and Obama’s, dream come true. This begins by saying what Roosevelt never got to say: the only chance we have in solving our difficult problems in the home, society, and the world is by making good relationships the central value of our society.