Responding with Respect

Peaceful Communication in Politics By Brian N. Baird

The Honorable Brian N. Baird is serving his third term in the House of Representatives representing the third district of Washington State.

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Having studied and intermittently practiced mindfulness for a number of years, in the autumn of 2003 I was looking forward to a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh arranged for members of Congress. A week or so before the retreat I received an angry and accusatory letter from a constituent who was upset about a particular vote I had taken on an environmental issue. Members of Congress are constantly receiving these types of letters; however, this one came from a long-time friend and supporter. The essence of the letter was that based on this one vote, the writer concluded that I had lost all sense of principle, reason, courage, and decency. He added that I was clearly only interested in reelection; that I was a bitter disappointment to him; that he could never support me again in any election; and that he would in fact back my next opponent, regardless of who that was.

These letters are never pleasant to receive, particularly when they come from friends, and especially when the writer’s focus on the single vote neglects countless other areas of agreement. What made it more troubling was that much of the writer’s anger was based on inaccurate information that he had received from some other source; he apparently reached his conclusions and fired off a letter without checking the facts.

My immediate emotional response was frustration and anger because I felt unjustly attacked and accused, and because all the other work I had done was not being acknowledged or appreciated by the writer. In response, I sat down at my computer and worked late into the night penning a harsh response that might be tremendously cathartic emotionally but was not constructive or appropriate to send. Fortunately, I chose not to send this letter, but instead let it rest for a while.

A few days later, I attended the mindfulness retreat. While there, I found that the practice of meditation over three days had a healing effect in many aspects of my life. Through breathing, walking, and eating mindfully, I was able to let go of some of the stress and pains that build up in this line of work, and I found instead a deeper level of patience, peace, and calm. Somewhere during the three days, I began to reconsider sending the letter. I realized that the tone and content were based on my own hurt, and that responding with anger in turn would not further understanding but would ultimately be counterproductive.

Several days after the retreat, I wrote a much different letter. Rather than lashing back, I offered a respectful explanation of my vote, then acknowledged that I had been personally troubled and hurt by the writer’s attacks because of all the other issues we held in common and all the work I had done on those matters. Further, I crafted a brief list of “self-reflections for disgruntled Democrats,” which I enclosed with the letter. The purpose of the list was to invite those who might send such hostile missives in the future to take a moment themselves to think before writing or acting on their own frustrations and anger. After letting this new letter rest for a couple of days as I continued to practice mindfulness, I made some further revisions and then sent the letter to my constituent. My goal was to be sure that I was sending the letter from a position of peace, compassion, respect and understanding, rather than anger or hurt.

A few weeks later, at a community event, I happened to see my friend who had written me the letter. At first I felt a tension between us, but then he approached me to thank me for writing, to apologize for his initial communication, and to express understanding for the first vote, and appreciation for the time I had taken to write. I, in turn, thanked him for his past support, for taking time to read and consider my reply, and for his apology. Since then, we have restored our friendship and have agreed that while we may agree to disagree at times, the values we have in common are far stronger than the issues on which we may not concur and we will work together to understand those differences if they do arise.

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This story illustrates to me on a small scale a much larger principle relating to mindfulness and its application to public life. Whether I am responding to a letter or voting on an issue of international importance, in political life it is especially important to be as clear as possible about my own motivations and emotional state and to approach my responsibilities from a position of mindfulness. The clarity and understanding that mindfulness brings make my life more rewarding and my actions in relation to others more respectful and compassionate. The challenge and opportunity for me personally is to continue the practice and to continue to learn and apply what I discover as a result. I sincerely believe if this were more common in the Congress, the institution and our nation would be better served.

Brian Baird attended the retreat for members of Congress with Thich Nhat Hanh in Washington, D.C. in 2003.

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