If your brother wrongs you, remember not so much his wrongdoing but more than ever that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you.
Epictetus, Enchiridion, Ch. 43
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How many family members living under the same roof or attending the same family gatherings, or staying in touch by Facebook, have stopped talking to each other since Nov. 8? The 2,000-year-old advice from Epictetus does seem a little dated. Even naive, when linked to the fireball of estrangement in today’s political landscape.
Judging from the bitter attacks vented on social media and in opinion pages, a bunch of the acrimony probably is intrafamily, where political differences among relatives have bloomed into estrangement. It’s raw estrangement, stop-talking estrangement, between brother and sister, uncle and nephew, aunt and niece, parent and adult child — all because they marked opposing names in the ballot booth.
A recent story in the Washington Post mentioned Trump supporters at a Florida rally saying that since the election “they have unfriended some of their liberal friends or relatives on Facebook.“ I heard about another family in which the nephew wrote to an aunt who was promoting the “wrong” candidate: “Don’t ever contact me or my family again.”
Of course, political divides don’t start just with elections. Partisan differences usually bubble away under a crust of “agree to disagree” standoffs, or simmer in feuds that boil over at Thanksgiving. But this election and the “first hundred-and-some days” have witnessed high-decibel partisan sound and fury. Our time feels like payback time: get over it, love it or leave it, this land ain’t your land, coastal elites out of touch, fear and loathing in the countryside. Really bad blood.
Estrangement in families often is tied to issues of addiction and mental illness. But resentment, fatigue, jealousy and other feelings bruised in political arguments can blow up in a gusher of animosity that overwhelms whatever civility remains. We can be deeply offended by how a relative votes. As if we had any say in the matter. Strangers voting for the candidate we oppose merit a disbelieving shake of the head. But relatives or family doing that — blood boils.
So maybe no political reconciliation is on deck right now. The gap between voters is too big, the political scene too volatile. But Epictetus had his finger on something. Family members are supposed to be there for each other for life. Why should an election change that?
The enemy of the American people is enmity. If we don’t deal with antagonism within our families, we probably won’t confront it very productively as citizens. Are red and blue states in different countries? We’ve all read about the deep split between those elites on the coast and the blue-collar folks in the country’s midsection. But most families I know here in the heartland have family members living on the coasts. Most of them actually still talk to each other. Families cross all kinds of alleged divides. Once geographic barriers split up families, we’re in trouble.
Ending enmity means finding common ground. That involves resistance, in the best sense of the word. When political upheaval starts causing breakdown between blood relatives, it means we’ve stopped resisting at a very core level. We’ve stopped protecting the roots of the family tree. We’ve let the floodwaters of public rancor pour right through the front door.
Voting is seldom the unforgivable sin. It’s always our duty. Passionate disagreement is not worth a lifetime of separation. Ensure the Union stays strong. Resist family estrangement. Make the call.
Paul Mohrbacher is the author of “Brothers,” a novel published by Keen Editions in 2014; www.keeneditions.com. He lives in St. Paul.
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