One month later, the tragedy at Sandy Hook has caused us to reflect on what kind of society we have become. Increasingly it feels like we have become a land of strangers and estrangement that has lost our relational glue. The metrics of our growing relationship fight and flight are excruciating: over the past few decades divorce is up 50 percent, marriage is down 50 percent, single-parent children born to those under 30 are the new normal hovering at 50 percent in 2012, people without any close “go to” friends has tripled, community involvement is waning, unemployment is near 8% and employee turnover rates of skilled and management positions doubled prior to the 2008 recession, customer defections grew 30 percent for the same period, the rate of exit from political parties has doubled and the exodus from religious affiliation jumped a third in the past five years.
This hemorrhage of relationships is no accident. We are a society trending toward isolation, separation, bullying, and uncivil discourse. We value things over relational connection, distrust our political and religious institutions, have disdain for ideological differences and rely on technology that too often drives out interpersonal interaction. Powerful, society-shaping advancements like technology and a consumer society have benefited us in many ways but unfortunately they have also produced unintended consequences. As technology, self-focus, and money have gained ground, our relationships have lost ground. The strength of our relational infrastructure – parents, friends, colleagues, communities -- shapes us and our culture. And, that infrastructure is certifiably crumbling.
Perhaps we have missed the unfolding of the larger narrative of our relational unraveling because we mostly study, report and discuss our relationships in the chunky bites that our silos produce – the social scientists talk about family, friends and community; the business experts dissect customers, employees, management and shareholders; the political scientists harangue over the state, government and politics; and, the theologians and students of secular values discuss religion, belief and the spiritual realms or the lack thereof. Yet here in the real world, we live our lives across the four key domains of home, work, politics and faith/values. And the relational carnage has begun to pile-up and seep into other parts of our lives – chaos at home, bleeds into problems at school, eventually hurting performance at work, making us less competitive in global markets, lowering personal and corporate tax revenues and driving up deficits, feeding political divide and gridlock that ultimately leads to tangible outcomes – like the downgrading of the U.S. credit rating.
As we attempt to deal with this latest mass murder, many well-intentioned, highly passionate people will have strong opinions and even righteous indignation about what needs to be done about the problem of protecting innocent life. Yet if we are not careful, in our zeal we will advance an already disturbing cultural trend of devaluing relationships. Surely relational decline plays a role in senseless violent acts from Oklahoma City, to Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, and Arizona—and now to Newtown, Connecticut. How we conduct this discourse can either reinforces our love for what unites us or feed the hate that divides us. Three suggestions:
First, as the debate now unfolds regarding gun control, mental health and school security, let us not ignore what this unspeakable tragedy at Newtown has yet again taught us: our relationships are the most valuable and value-creating resource we have and we need to be intentional about cultivating them like never before. We were built for relationships and the history of humans as far back as we can discern has been about working together in families, tribes, groups, villages and more recently large organizations. As Andrew Carnegie saw it, the creator of wealth was the community. Relationships are difficult, painful and messy but they are a cornerstone for a civil, caring, productive society. We cannot build better lives and stronger societies on the back of disintegrating relationships.
Second, in attempting to fix our problem, we must engage in a way that strengthens society’s relationships. We can each point to our favored culprit for the physical and emotional violence we now inflict on our fellow citizens: we have become a violent, uncaring culture because of – fill in the blank – too many guns or semi-automatics, not enough guns, violent video games, movies that glorify killing, baby-killing abortion, loss of religious faith, growth of religious faith that encourages judgment and hate, consumerism that has edged out relationships, technology that helps isolate and even enables attacking each other via cyber bullying and so on. No matter how passionate we are about fixing the problem, if we direct our words like assault weapons to destroy others, the result will be more isolation, pent-up anger, estrangement – and violence.
Passionate discussion and disagreements are inevitable and healthy, but at the extreme can overwhelm any solutions we might devise. The emotion that John Gottman, the iconic relationship guru, considers most defining in killing relationships is contempt – trying to speak from a higher level while attempting to push another down to a lower level. In essence it attempts to exclude and isolate others from the “in” community – sound familiar. It feeds the very kind of monsters we are trying to stop.
Finally, relationships are the key to our healing. The former head of global health, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has said “the most important healthcare system in the world is a mother.” Relationships are a powerful force for healing. As a wounded society there is nothing we need more right now than to share in our tragedy. Stronger communities and more resilient bonds become a powerful defense for preventing and then treating our destructive ways.
Perhaps we need a new goal for each of us to carry with us as we work on building a safer, more productive society. Thomas Friedman in discussing the changing nature of war in Iraq and Afghanistan that requires winning hearts and minds has proposed replacing the old measures of K.I.A.s (killed-in-action) with a new one called R.B.s (relationships built). He concluded that one relationship built with a local mayor or imam is worth much more than a KIA. In the battle over how to make a safer, more productive society we must shift our focus from adversaries vanquished to relationships built. Because winning the peace is very different from winning the war.
Robert Hall is a noted author, consultant, and speaker on relationships. He is the author of This Land of Strangers: The Relationship Crisis That Imperils Home, Work, Politics and Faith. www.RobertEHall.com.