The Great Divide

by Andrea Chilcote

To say this is a time of great change is of course an understatement that would surprise only the very naïve. But have you noticed the vast differences in how people are reacting to that reality?

I’m observing distinct and polar responses to the uncertainty that is life in 2012. One camp, if you will, seems locked in, dug into rigid belief systems, clinging for dear life and fighting against anything or anyone that challenges their paradigm. They appear stressed-out, self-centered and indignant, trying to control that which is futile. At the heart of it may lie an abdication of true responsibility. It is easy to blame and accuse when your world is out of control.

The other group seems to be riding the wave of change, sometimes exhilarated, sometimes terrified but usually hopeful and open. As ungrounded and unsettling as it feels, they seem to maintain a semblance of perspective – including a sense of humor — through it all. And they seem to take responsibility in stride, even when it would be easy to take a victim stance.

Now my premise is a generalization I realize. Yet my experience of late has been made up of these curious polarities. My work gives me a peek into the hearts and minds of a diverse cross section of people, though it’s a bit skewed toward clients who are trying to adapt to and align with new realities, even as they look for help and support. Flying to visit those clients, especially on connecting flights through busy hub cities, affords me ample opportunity to observe the general public. And there are many who want to argue passionately with anyone who will fight back. It’s not unique to one political party, one religion, or any other belief system. People are ranting about macro dogmatic views, as well their own victimization, heavy or trivial. At one moment I am hearing a tirade about an American’s unalienable right to bear assault weapons, and the next witnessing outrage over the location of one’s airline seat. Here’s an example – a true account from last week’s trip.

After a three-hour delay due to severe weather, I was finally onboard a plane bound for my destination, taxiing prior to takeoff. The flight attendant was mid-way through her safety demonstration when, from a row toward the back, came a woman’s voice:

“I can’t smoke? I have to smoke!”

Our truly charming flight attendant, Christie, settled the woman, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. No one wanted another delay for the arrest and removal of a disorderly passenger. As Christie resumed her safety announcement, another passenger spoke out.

“I paid for first class and I demand you make this a first class experience,” she shouted. (We were on a 45 minute flight aboard a regional jet, not on a flight to Paris). “All this carrying on about smoking and the like has to end. Make it stop now!” She grabbed the flight attendant’s arm.

Pulling away, Christie looked over at me, dumfounded. “I don’t know what to do,” she whispered. Then, with a sudden wave of confidence, she turned and prepared the airplane for departure.

When I landed, weary as it was now close to midnight, I made my way quickly to the car rental kiosk. “I’m late,” I told the attendant flatly, admitting my tardiness before he could scold me in the way I had grown accustomed to by many service personnel that evening. He replied: “I was late today too.” He went on to tell me about his car breaking down earlier that day, and quickly moved to a lament about how little regard or compassion his company has for their employees when they fall upon hard times. I did nothing to encourage him – yet he followed me to my car, his story deepening. I felt like Christie the flight attendant. I didn’t know what to do. So I listened for awhile, offered what turned out to be meaningful advice, and eventually went on my way.

That evening shed much light on the phenomenon I am observing. Many of us who have been accustomed to always knowing what to do, simply no longer do know. So we admit that – then take some kind of calculated action, the best action for that moment. That’s what compassionate responsibility is. Responsibility does not rant and criticize. It does not demand of others when others are, for whatever reason, incapable of acting. Responsibility means that we acknowledge reality and then do something about it, however small.

What has been your experience of this great divide? Please share your reaction to my observations.