Just Say No to Contempt

casual seminar-style discussion table with diverse adults of all ages

A snapshot in time and a brief personal memoir

I retired from the Seattle City Council two years ago, happy with my decade of public service but tired of the full-throated negativity that had become so common during my three terms on the Council.

As soon as my last council meeting ended, I packed a few suitcases and was off to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Some thought I was slightly touched because, at 68, I had enrolled as a fellow in Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative.

I joined 60 others who had already had full careers. I chose courses in many departments. At the Chan School of Public Health, I learned the impact loneliness has on older people, and I read convincing studies showing that young adults are struggling with loneliness, too. Sometimes loneliness is caused only by isolation; sometimes it is exacerbated by hateful social media.

I worked with a group called Silvernest, helping it develop a program to allow older people to stay in their homes while simultaneously housing graduate students struggling with Seattle sky-high rents. Silvernest screens students and connects suitable candidates with older homeowners. The project is in its early phase in Seattle, but shows promise.

Among the many advantages of returning to school at my age is that I wasn’t worried about grades, which allowed me to take classes simply because they were interesting. I took technical courses such as the science of climate change, system design, and landscape architecture. I sharpened my mediation skills with Harvard Law professors, and I practiced complex facilitation with business school professors.

I mentored students, and this turned out to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the program. They pumped me for information, hungry to know what path they should choose. I drank a lot of coffee with bright young men and women and became newly energized in the process.

What did you learn?

Since returning to Seattle, I’ve been asked repeatedly, “What did you learn?” That’s a hard question to answer without sounding glib. I read thousands of pages on topics ranging from Protecting Democracy (EJ Dionne), Party Polarization (Professor Robert Blendon), and “Making Change When Change is Hard” (Professors Cass Sunstein and Samantha Power).

Beyond the academics, I tried to connect—and to a limited degree succeeded in connecting—with people who have opinions different from mine. I want to understand why so many consider it morally appropriate to ostracize those with opposing views.

My goal became to incorporate recommendations made by one of my favorite professors, Atlantic writer Arthur C. Brooks, in my daily life. I found his recent book Love Your Enemies both helpful and hopeful. The primary theme of Love Your Enemies is “Contempt is the problem in our culture today, and it is never the solution.” I agree.

COVID-19 has exacerbated feelings of isolation. Based upon the explosion of angry tweets and negative social media, it is apparent that many people are finding comfort staying home alone and writing mean and often untrue things about others. This destructive behavior crosses political and ethical lines. It tears families and friendships apart.

Foster happiness and stand up to contempt

In alignment with Brooks’ recommendations, here are some of the actions I have found helpful in my attempt to foster happiness and stand up to contempt:

  1. Restore broken relationships. This takes courage, but it’s worth trying. Saying “I’m sorry I didn’t respond well the last time we talked” can open the flood gates of forgiveness. Even if the person on the other end of the conversation doesn’t respond as I’d hoped, I always feel better for trying.
  2. Listen, don’t criticize. It’s so easy to assume ill-will when we disagree. Asking open questions and searching for deeper understanding can work wonders.
  3. It’s okay to turn it off. When I was a councilmember, I read the news incessantly. I felt it was my responsibility to know everything going on in my city. Now, when I read the news, I scan the headlines in my favorite publications, and I only read the articles I find fresh or especially interesting. I never, ever read mean tweets.
  4. Only do what brings me joy. An energetic new friend who had been CEO of a major corporation told me recently that he was learning to say “No,” as he shed most of his old responsibilities. I’ve been trying on his line for size: “I only do what brings me joy.”
  5. Do something you deem useful every day. It’s so easy to get in a rut, feeling bored or sorry for ourselves. I loved working a 60-hour week at Seattle City Council; now I’ve cut back but I still look for opportunities to do something that will improve the situation around me. I assist my kids digging up blackberries and knotweed in their yard. I pick up garbage on the sidewalk (yes, I use gloves). I volunteer, even if it’s just baking cookies for neighbors who can’t get out. And I feel better.
  6. Just say no to contempt. Back to Brooks—behaviors like eye-rolling and sniggering destroy any hope of good communication or understanding. I’m convinced that most people are unhappy with the political and family divisions around us and hunger for genuine connection. Reaching out to others who have a different point of view clears a path to understanding and builds that much-needed bridge. Kindness opens doors—say no to contempt.

I am delighted to be back in Seattle and look forward to working with you in this beautiful city. I’ve seen evidence elsewhere that we CAN move forward on the big problems, such as homelessness, inequitable education and housing, public health and safety, and so much more. We will transform our world by allowing space for grace and saying no to contempt.

Sally BagshawContributor Sally Bagshaw is a Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative alum, former three-term Seattle City Councilmember, and former Chief Civil Deputy for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Sally is a lawyer, mediator, and advocate for government that functions responsibly.

Read Sally’s previous AgeWise articles, “A Swiss Army Knife for Affordable Housing” (April 2021) and “Addressing Disability and Age Discrimination: Fighting Judgment of the Outside with Compassion for the Inside” (March 2021).

This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of AgeWise King County.