The Art of Overcoming Resentment

Sometimes even the most unlikely moments of outreach can yield something remarkable.

The Art of Overcoming Resentment
Illustration by Alana Berger.

Nearly eight years ago, at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama uttered seven words that quickly became something of a catchphrase: “When they go low, we go high.”

Obama was referring to the power of restraint in the face of rage and frustration; the value of composure; the importance of resisting the urge to treat a bully the way a bully treats you. 

“Going high is the only thing that works, because when we go low, when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others, we just become part of the ugly noise that’s drowning out everything else,” she explained a few years later. “We degrade ourselves. We degrade the very causes for which we fight.”

Naturally, not everyone liked the idea. Arguments circulated online about the one-sidedness of her summons: questions about whose job it was to be the bigger person and who could get away with “going low.” Race and gender no doubt play a role here, and there’s certainly a thin line between “going high”—as Obama intended it—and failing to hold people who promote abhorrently offensive views to account.

But, unpacked a little, the idea of “going high” doesn’t only have to mean taking giant steps to moral superiority. It can also be seeing past differences and recognizing common values. It can be a determination to explore whatever unites, rather than focusing only on what divides. It can be treating fellow humans as fundamentally decent, and looking beyond a person’s politics or past. 

Often (though not always) it’s women who take the lead—something that might be attributable to research showing that women demonstrate higher levels of empathy than men.

History is littered with examples of people who have gone high by setting aside political differences to foster friendships and even marriages. The U.S. Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg often scowled at each other as they staunchly represented ideologically opposed sides of the bench, but all the while they cherished a profound and un-compromised friendship. “What’s not to like [about her],” Scalia once said. “Except her views of the law.”

The Democratic consultant, James Carville has been married to the committed Republican Mary Matalin for more than three decades. She served under President Ronald Reagan, was campaign director for George H.W. Bush, and an assistant to George W. Bush. He is best known for helping Bill Clinton win the 1992 presidential campaign.

It’s in this spirit that Rosie O’Donnell, the producer, comedian and actor, a few years ago executed her own version of going high, when she drove 86 miles to visit inmate No. 86067-054 at Otisville Prison, who, among other things, was the brains behind Donald Trump’s vitriolic smear campaign to destroy O’Donnell’s reputation: Michael Cohen.

Cohen served as an attorney for Trump from 2006 to 2018. He was Trump’s fixer at a time when the former president delighted in flinging insults at O’Donnell. Asked in 2015 by the Fox News host Megyn Kelly about his use of language like “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs” and “disgusting animals” to describe some women, Trump fired back immediately: “Only Rosie O’Donnell.” O’Donnell, for her part, hurled abuse at Trump too, but not of the same dehumanizing nature.

Nonetheless, it was O’Donnell who overcame her resentment and initiated contact with Cohen, according to a recent New York Times article

Last week, as a nervous Cohen took the stand during Trump’s stranger-than-fiction criminal trial, it was O’Donnell who pep talked him from a distance: “breathe - relax - tell the truth - u got this - i love u,” she texted him, according to The Times. And later: “Ur doing great.”

At moments of intense political polarization, it can feel tempting to allow anger or hate to dictate action. But doing so too often makes a bad situation worse. And sometimes, even the most unlikely moments of outreach can yield something remarkable. 

In May 1972, Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress visited a man named George Wallace in hospital after he’d survived an assassination attempt. This might’ve been unremarkable; after all, Chisholm was known as an empathetic, principled leader who cared about people. Only, Wallace was a vitriolic segregationist. In 1962, after being elected governor of Alabama, he made a famous speech, declaring "I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." 

I have a framed Shirley Chisholm campaign poster hanging above my desk. I often look at it and contemplate what it must have taken for a Black woman who was still fighting against every social norm and stereotype in pursuit of her political goals, to set all of that aside. 

In her 2016 book, ‘The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency,’ Ellen Fitzpatrick notes that “Chisholm wanted to convey, in part, her belief that it was important in a democracy to respect contrary opinions without ‘impugning the motives’ and ‘maligning the character’ of one’s opponents.”

The Chisholm-Wallace example is extreme. And it’s impossible to consider it without noting the double whammy of racism and sexism at play which Chisholm had to navigate at every twist and turn of career. Simply put, she didn’t have the privilege Wallace did. Even today, women, and particularly women of color, are held to a much higher standard than men: They have to be agreeable and bend to the expectations of society. 

But Chisholm nonetheless made a gesture—not unlike O’Donnell—that exemplifies one of the best qualities of any leader; indeed, of any person: the ability to see an adversary as human. And no matter who we are—no matter our race or gender—we can all learn from this.

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