Poetry for a Polarized People

By Anna Mercedes

My biggest fears of late have not been of the obvious things. Those are also fears: the earthquakes and the hurricanes and the floods. The upheaval in Afghanistan.The Delta variant.

Yet my biggest fear has been of a different instability, one that in the U.S. feels as wide as the pandemic itself. My fear is of the vast pandemic polarization: a fortifying of opposing camps, divisions already present before Covid-19 but now proliferated and increasingly locked down. This is not strictly a political or partisan polarization although that too is clearly present. Rather, there is polarization of “in” and “out” groups on pandemic issues regardless of political party.

I happened to cross paths recently with a friend in state legislature. “It’s never been as bad as these last weeks,” he said. “People used to be talking to me. Now there is just yelling. It’s the mandates.”

Indeed, by autumn 2021 there is yelling on all sides of all the Covid-19 issues, whether masks, immunizations, or lockdowns, such that the most prevalent lockdown I observe is a blockaded ability to hear and regard each other, a blockade across our ability to hold on to each other across difference.

This pandemic polarization feels newly unstable. Though the American society around me was never very good at listening across difference and though polarization was always an issue, there were attempts to undo polarization. I saw these attempts in Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice work. Thus, when in the fatigue of 2021, people I’ve known to be committed to justice and inclusion suddenly started drawing hard lines against people who feel differently on Covid-19 issues, it was a major tell of a new polarization. I’ve heard people dedicated to unbiased care—especially doctors and religious leaders—near demonization in the way they talk about those who disagree with them on Covid. It’s unsettling to behold.

Even the U. S. president officially addressed the nation with the divisive category of “we,” implying a recalcitrant “other.” “We’ve been patient, Biden’s said, “but our patience is wearing thin.” But we are all dangerously threadbare, on all “sides,” with very little patience or capacity for compassion left.

I’m not surprised we got here. People don’t think clearly in the middle of trauma, and Covid is a global trauma overwhelming humanity’s collective nervous system. That system was already overwhelmed in webs of oppression and violence, webs that contributed to the differences in the ways different groups experienced the pandemic.

Bessel van der Kolk, in The Body Keeps the Score, describes what happens to thinking capacities under trauma. It’s not simply that we don’t use our brains when overwhelmed in trauma—for we do, in speedy ways that help us fight, flee, and survive. We do, however, bypass the parts of our brains that allow for deep social connection. Under trauma, our first response is not empathy or the consideration of complex, divergent options. We skip to immediate survival, and complex relationships stagnate. As van der Kolk puts it, “Without flexible, active frontal lobes people become creatures of habit, and their relationships become superficial and routine. Invention and innovation, discovery and wonder—are all lacking” (pp. 59-60).

Pandemic polarization  is a response of our survival brains. We have today good reasons to be afraid, but the danger of staying afraid may be bigger than the things we fear. Climate disaster, political collapse, and pandemic death are not well handled by a polarized people with a great number of weapons in our homes and militaries. These issues require our best and deepest brain capacities for innovation and connection to address a sine qua non of human existence: our bodies and how we care for them.

Pandemic polarization feels to me like a collapse of social poetry. We lose all the space between our insistent, polarized claims; we lose a sense of play. We fill our social space instead with emphatic diatribe, whether lengthy position papers or short, brutal yard signs and memes. Two popular yard signs in my rural Minnesota area are so explicit with profanity that I wish my young children weren’t old enough to read them. At the same time, multiple memes in my social media, while less profane, shame anyone who would hesitate to get the Covid vaccine.

Yet empathy and collaboration despite differences are our best tools to save the day. How can we access them again?

Perhaps we should think instead of the open space in a poem.

Remember the ways a line of poetry can easily mean more than one thing.

Recall the breath between sound in a poem read aloud.

Contemplate the meter that works because of a remainder where words are not.

Poetry gives us a space to hear another voice or idea. Poetry opens the possibility of something more than the contents of our minds. Poetry can be the deep breath that reactivates our complex, social thinking.

There is no “fix” for society’s polarized lockdown save tenderness. We thaw the freeze of polarization not with argument but with feeling. From here, the societal organism feels its way forward. We heal our way out of a health pandemic. We cannot conquer it. We heal our way out of warring. We do not win it. We heal our way out of climate catastrophe. We do not manage it.

Healing is not choosing the right side but no longer needing sides. It will be about letting down the guards that fear, pain, and loss have built so that co-creating a less hazardous world becomes possible.

It feels big. Let’s start with poetry, with a posture of poetry, especially in interactions where you feel most at odds with others. When you are most sure someone you encounter is on “the other side” of the polarization, might you invoke a space of poetics between you? Might such a space induce a thaw? Might you, in listening a few seconds longer, or in softening the edges of your own words, or in allowing a breath of silence, discover not that anyone has changed sides, but that the sides no longer are as important as the poetry of relation between you?

Poetry in pandemic polarization doesn’t take fancy rhymes. It needs a social posture of space on the page. It needs the memory that we can always mean more than one thing. It needs breath in a culture short of breath, and any of us are qualified to give it a try.


Anna Mercedes is Associate Professor of Theology and Gender Studies at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University and is ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  She is co-director of the Becoming Community grant funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and director of a project grant on White Privilege and Theological Pedagogy funded by the Wabash Center. She is the author of Power For: Feminism and Christ’s Self-Giving and the forthcoming Interrupting a Gendered, Violent Church in the Fortress Press Dispatches series.

Counterpoint blogs may be reprinted with the following acknowledgement: “This article was published by Counterpoint Navigating Knowledge on 22 September 2021.”

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Photo: Ahmad Dirini on Unsplash

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