The New American Way: Forgiveness is the Healthy Thing

By Octaviano Merecias-Cuevas (July 4, 2018)

If I ask you to think ten positive things that come to mind when you think of people on the opposite political spectrum, how long would it take you to mention them? What if I ask you to think 10 negative things? Is it easier to add negative dimensions as you consider the other?

Psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov tell us that when judging faces after an exposure time of 100 ms, we perceive trustworthiness and competence; meaning how safe that person looks to us or how threatening. Other researchers tell us that in one-twelfth of a second we can identify someone based on race, age, gender (Susan Fiske, Amy Cuddy, Peter Glick, et, al.) We judge, sometimes without knowing; not all the judgments are negative, but it is our actions of distancing ourselves that creates that gap in time and space. We live in times of continued distancing and intimate and uncomfortable real feelings. I was inspired to write these words from many conversations that I hosted with friends and family; some conversations look similar to the following video: Can Trump Supporters And Immigrants See Eye To Eye?

I live in the Portland metropolitan area, the epicenter where ideas are clashing. Just a few days ago, Antifa and Proud Boys clashed violently in what I can better describe as the symptom of our socio-political times.


There are extreme examples but also everyday ordinary examples of an air that feels and breeds separation. What’s the most radical thing that we can do today? I asked a group of friends. Almost all of them added fuel to the fire; except for a few, they all mentioned that they are sick and tired of navigating these stressful toxic times. I think both sides of the visible political spectrum may feel the same: anger, frustration, increased isolation, depression, anxiety…

New findings provide evidence that sociopolitical events can impact the psychological and physical functioning of people.

Lindsay T. Hoyt, an assistant professor of psychology at Fordham University studied young adults in the United States experiencing an increase in biological stress after the 2016 presidential election. Professor Daniel P. Keating has led several studies to monitor the nation’s health related to toxic stress; he mentions that the principal drivers of stress and anxiety are fear, uncertainty, and a lack of control over one’s life and future, and these have grown markedly over the past year. Professor Steven Stanton at Duke University conducted a study on the stress hormone cortisol response in people on both sides of the political spectrum in 2008 after the elections in North Carolina and Michigan. The results: John McCain voters had increases in post-outcome cortisol levels, whereas Barack Obama voters had stable post-outcome cortisol levels. I’m not sure about the studies related to independent voters; Google it.

Family separations cause anger, depression, anxiety worry, clashes in your city between opposite sides of the political spectrum. The added constant negative newsfeed on social media adds more fuel to the fire. Worst yet, families, friends, neighbors that I know for many many years stop talking to each other. Their distancing has created a bittersweet emptiness. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Yes, some knew each other for 20 years, 16 years, and most recently, a social media argument between two superb friends ended dramatically.

In February 1865, 400 people were executed as crowds, reporters and politicians observed; this was after the end of the civil war. This was an unusual execution. However, during that time, Lincoln, a fervent Republican, issued many pardons for war-related offenses. Weeping mothers claimed for their husbands. Many generals did not agree with Lincoln on the pardons because it was a sign of “weakness.” Many historians have documented the limits of Lincoln’s mercy, but what we often hear is the triumph and the victory of the Union over the Confederates. It’s extremely hard, to listen, to hear, to even look at the opposition when so much pain, suffering, and acts of cruel and inhumane can be attributed to them. Trust me; I’m angry right now at family separation and many other things.

What’s the most radical thing we can do now then?

Perhaps the new American way is not the distancing and affirming our ground and holding on to our flag to be right (no matter the cost), but the freedom to explore righteousness; not only because the whole world is watching but because the wellbeing of the next generation depends on our actions today.

In 1961, Dr. King delivered a sermon at Central Methodist Church where he argued that Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies was not “the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer” but the words of a “practical realist.”


He then follows with the words “Put us in jail, and we will go in with humble smiles on our faces, still loving you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we will still love you. . . . But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.” We can also look at the movement a group that was founded by former violent extremist committed to compassion, education and countering hate and discrimination.

As people of color, we know what is like to suffer constantly. I think is time to give the new American way the chance to be healers and unifiers; however painful and awkward is the beginning of the conversation. Of course, this may apply to a micro-level and inter-personal level; the macro level requires a more complex conversation.

George William Russell wrote once as he reflected on forgiveness: “Our common sorrow, like a mighty wave, Swept all my pride away, and trembling I forgave!” I’m not saying that suddenly neighbors, friends and distancing militants will drop everything and hold hands to dance kumbaya (I don’t even know how to spell it) I’m saying that a new door or window of potential courageous opportunities awaits. It’s 4th of July; first impressions last longer, small but significant gestures of positivity can lead to gigantic socio-political-cultural changes. We have more in common in our political diversity that what we have with the barons that are profiting monetarily and politically from our division.

On April 3rd, outside of Petersburg Virginia, Lincoln rode his horse past the lifeless bodies of a bloody war; he quietly turned to Ulysses Grant and said in a reflective tone… “We made it possible for one another to do terrible things.” He then instructed for a peaceful transition; the painful and intimate decision to forgive and at some time to apply justice.

In Italy, six researchers conducted a study on forgiveness employing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) looking at the response to painful emotions, anger, hostility, and the desire for revenge. “Granting forgiveness was associated with the regulation of affect through cognition, which comprised the precuneus, right inferior parietal regions, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.” Translation: forgiving is a healthy thing to do.

To my friends and neighbor’s: What’s the most radical thing that we can do? We can begin a small difficult, courageous, and controversial conversation with those who we perceive as different than us yet… so close to us; the new American Way.

PS: I’m an indigenous immigrant with radical ideas on my mind when it comes to community healing, diplomacy, and courageous conversation; you know where to find me… extending my hand. No, I do not have my bbq grill on today.


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