Mental Health Matters: Remember, we’re all in this together (opinion) |

Mental Health Matters: Remember, we’re all in this together (opinion)

Andrew Whyman
File photo |

“Would you shut up,” his voice rising in anger.

“But I asked you to take out the garbage last night,” she responds irritably.

“I’m out of here,” he sputters, slamming the newspaper down, exiting the house.

Sound familiar? This scene plays out everywhere; Aggressive anger, countered by more anger, responded to with angry escalation.

In general, emotive communication between people tends to be “complementary,” or similar. A warmly disposed communicator tends to be met with warmth, much as angry or hostile communications beget angry responses.

Then there’s “Would you shut up,” his voice rising in anger. “I’m really sorry to bother you,” she coos, grasping his hand momentarily, “but the garbage smells terrible, and I need to get the kids to school.”

“OK. Sorry I lost my cool,” he allows, rising to take out the garbage.

Here’s a true story, culled from the wonderfully informative NPR show, Invisibilia: A warm summer evening, the backyard of a suburban home, friends gathered around wine and cheese.

Suddenly, a long gun appears over one guest’s shoulder, hoisted by an intruder; “Give me your money or I’ll blow your head off.”

Shocked and fearful, gasping for a response, one guest suggests, “We have no money, but please have a glass of wine with us.”

The intruder, suddenly disoriented, lowers the weapon, accepts the wine, followed by accepting an additional offer of cheese. 

The intruder then asks for a hug, says he has the wrong address, and exits the premises.

What in the world is going on here? Psychologists call it “flipping the script,” or “non-complementary behavior.”

In general, emotive communication between people tends to be “complementary,” or similar. A warmly disposed communicator tends to be met with warmth, much as angry or hostile communications beget angry responses.

It’s pretty much built into the DNA, a survival mechanism through the millennia; hostility connotes danger, and danger can be overcome by aggression, a fight to the finish.

But brains are also built for thinking, and it turns out that responding to anger with empathy, warmth and understanding can defuse hostility.

Gandhi understood this dynamic and was the first person to apply it to large groups; warfare by another name. Meet violence with violence and you perpetuate violence. Meet violence with empathy, understanding and nonviolent resistance, and you might avoid further violence.

Here’s another true Invisibilia story: Young Muslim men in a town in Denmark start to disappear, first one, then two, then dozens. Parents fear the worst, and the worst is true; their sons have disappeared to Syria, rapidly “radicalized,” to fight.

The local police are inundated by desperate parents wanting their sons back. A “War on Terror” response would entail arresting these young men, should they return home, convicting them of “terrorism,” and sentencing them to lengthy jail time.

That didn’t happen. Instead, the local police let the entire community know that these men would be welcomed home, invited to the police station for a cup of coffee, and offered schooling, support and/or job training, whatever it took to integrate them into the community. Over 100 would-be jihadists took the offer and successfully returned home.

Of course there is a difference between stone cold killers and confused, alienated, desperate young men searching for an accepting and meaningful life.

Unfortunately, the “authorities” frequently fail to understand the difference, and, too quick to label alienated youth”terrorists,” end up promoting the problem they seek to prevent.

Nicholas Kristoff, writing in the New York Times, 8/14/16, tells another story: In Georgia, a Muslim man, shortly after buying a gas station and convenience store, is shocked when it is burglarized and damaged. He struggles to stay in business.

A local pastor tells his congregation, “Let’s shower our neighbor with love,” and 200 congregants drive over to make purchases. Says the pastor, “Our faith inspires us to build bridges, not to label people as us and them, but to recognize we’re all part of the same family.”

Might that Muslim man, feeling aggrieved, hurt and angry, become “radicalized” as his investment in the gas station and America soured? We’ll never know, because a vandal’s hate was met with communal empathy rather than indifference, or worse, corrosive blame.

And speaking of blame, what about those Republicans and Democrats? If the Parties are doing their level best to stoke our worst fears, our most base instincts, they’re doing a bang-up job of it.

So, during this political season, and beyond, the next time you run into one of “them,” i.e. an angry spouse, a bewildered or alienated son, an aggrieved “Trumpkin,” a fan of “Lyin Hillary,” or folks with an angry scowl, a perturbed demeanor, be calm, empathize, seek to understand and realize we’re all in this together.

Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at

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