Waterville, where do we go from here?

The splitting of Waterville has come full circle. It started with people saying that Mayor Nick Isgro should apologize or be recalled for posting hateful comments, and now Isgro has said that these people should apologize. About half of Waterville voters took each side on the recall vote. So now we are split, judging each other harshly, some of us seeing enemies where we used to see fellow members of our community. City Council meetings have become tense and sometimes threatening, and people do not do their best thinking when feeling threatened. Working together — finding common ground — is much harder now.

So where should we go from here? Jesus and psychologists would both say that forgiveness is a good way out. But it’s not easy to forgive when we have been disrespected or wronged. And why should we forgive, or even just move on?

Nelson Mandela said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Holding a persistent grudge releases stress hormones in the brain that can kill brain cells, and it releases stress hormones in the body that can cause high blood pressure and ulcers. So it really is not good for us — and it just feels bad.

So the first step towards forgiveness is simply making the decision that we want to stop drinking poison.

The next step can be much harder if we have been seriously wronged, and this involves working through the feelings. It can help to talk or write about resentment and all the other feelings that underlie it, like feeling insulted, hurt, threatened, humiliated, etc. But this only works if we can focus on expressing what we feel, instead of focusing on blaming and repeating the list of wrongs that have been done to us. And it only works if our listener can refrain from joining in the blaming.

Christian beliefs can help if you are Christian. “To err is human, to forgive, divine,” and, “Turn the other cheek.” It really is human nature to judge, to resent and want revenge. We all experience it, but we don’t have to cling to it. The simple passage of time can help us move on, as long as we aren’t still retaliating and getting retaliated against.

Social psychologists tell us that the quickest way to get people to reconcile is to give them a common enemy, and here’s one. I recently talked to someone from Augusta who was having a great time making fun of the political divisiveness we have been having in Waterville. Let’s not be the laughingstock of Maine.

So what does this mean practically? There are some things to avoid doing: maligning anyone’s character, making exaggerated accusations or accusations without evidence, and demanding apologies. Apologies are powerful if they come from the heart, but a forced apology is humiliating to give and unsatisfying to receive. We have to wait until the heart is ready.

Finally, let’s avoid talk of any kind that seeks to split, and thereby weaken, our community: “United we stand, divided we fall.”

And there are some things that we should do: Assuming good intentions is key. People don’t go into city government with the intention of making things worse for the city. Our representatives all have good intentions, but they have different ideas about how to make Waterville better. Ideally, government is all about working through these differences of opinion, not about making enemies of one another. And showing good intentions through simple acts of kindness can go a long way towards ending a longstanding conflict.

Judging one another harshly and becoming divided is surely one side of our human nature. None of us are perfect. We don’t need to blame anyone for this, but we don’t need to stay stuck in it either.

The other side of human nature is our ability to respect and care for each other. We can learn something important from these past months about how easy it is to slip into blaming and judging harshly. Let’s assume good intentions and seek to strengthen our community again.

Richard Thomas is a Waterville area psychologist and member of the Universalist Unitarian Church.

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