A whole lot of you have just spent a day with family and, despite what was served up for dinner, the holiday might have left a bad taste in your mouth.

Truth is, while America is not in a declared civil war, families and communities are more separated into blue and red camps than perhaps ever in history. 

And fewer are willing to travel between the two. A recent poll from Franklin & Marshall College found that about a third of the folks in this country have lost a friendship or family relationship in the 2016 presidential election.

That’s about 110 million Americans.

A paper from 2017, by Keith Chen of UCLA and Ryne Rohla of Washington State University and reported by The Washington Post, suggests Thanksgiving dinners have been shortened by about 25 minutes for families with partisan differences on the menu.

And there are plenty of other surveys and polls recording the angst of these divided times, when it seems anger usually gets the red-hot win. 

Except no one is winning, really. No trophies are being handed out for “Unreasonable Jerk of the Year.” 

I have a friend who is courageously determined to help people better operate in this new era, to understand how to disagree and still care about each other. 

How to be red or blue, true to one’s beliefs, but also purple.

That’s why she’s founded Sanity Media and is on a energetic tear to sew up the ripped fabric of our society, if only enough to remind America how beautiful being in one piece can be.

Let me tell you about Audrey. One of the bonuses of my reporting job is the trazillion people who cross my path in one way or another. 

Every once in awhile, a connection forms and sticks past the professional moment. Audrey Scagnelli is one of those.

I met Audrey in the way I meet most everyone — through email. Then a phone call or five. Then in person when her boss, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, came to town.

As the U.S. Representative’s press secretary, Audrey was my go-to for stories needing a legislative voice. 

She was respectful, accessible and fast, a reporter’s dream. Occasionally she told me a few humorous bits about her parents in Florida. 

She listened when I talked about my kids living with prenatal brain damage. 

We traded emails within our job description, but I couldn’t help encouraging her to find ways to relieve stress while living a political life.

In May of 2015, Audrey was off to another job and in 2016, she hit the campaign trail for Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina. 

I already knew that to be Audrey is to run at full tilt. Now that she wasn’t part of my coverage, I “mommed” this bright, creative and funny young woman. I reminded her to drink water and eat healthy while running around the country, asked after her family and lectured that she needed to take time for herself.

When Audrey was asked to be the national spokeswoman for the Republican National Convention, she was initially unsure of her answer. 

Although the convention would not be nominating the candidate Audrey had hoped, we agreed it was a paycheck, no matter what. 

We couldn’t know then what we know now, that the 2016 election would send out wider, stronger and deeper ripples than just about anyone could truly forecast. 

It was what Audrey calls an eye-opening experience, and rather than drowning in the storm of toxicity, she stepped back from politics after the convention.

Going back to school after that to pursue a masters in business administration gave Audrey a fresh and wider vision, she recalled. 

“Your perspective really shifts. You can see more clearly in some ways, and that’s a positive thing.”

About a year ago, that clearer picture showed Audrey political discourse was no longer civil discourse, and Americans of all stripes were losing optimism.

“It was fairly depressing,” she remembered, “and I wondered what could be done to tackle that.”

Not that everything people are mad about came with the last election or the current President. 

Extremism has always traded on emotional triggers and the power of anger. But recent studies show people are more lonely now, more isolated — and without others to question your perspective, everyone you see in the mirror agrees with you. 

Audrey quotes New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks, who wrote this in April:

“There’s a mountain of evidence suggesting that the quality of our relationships has been in steady decline for decades. 

In the 1980s, 20 percent of Americans said they were often lonely. Now it’s 40 percent. Suicide rates are now at a 30-year high. Depression rates have increased tenfold since 1960, which is not only a result of greater reporting.”

Audrey has seen it in and out of politics, she said. “Fear, anger and loneliness is a scary combination.” Social media has served to exaggerate it all.

It is a complex situation with no easy answers, but Audrey wants to be part of the solution. 

She is drawn to inspiring stories, of people trying to solve this problem “that seems gargantuan in size.” Maybe others would also find healing that way.

She launched Sanity Media in October as a way to highlight the many, many voices trying to change the country’s conversation by talking about what’s going right. 

Only no one can hear them over the roars of indignation and righteousness. That’s where the Sanity podcast comes in, to get those voices inside homes, cars, lunch breaks: wherever people find themselves seeking a taste of hope.

It’s a quest to help disenfranchised citizens stay sane — positive, even — despite today’s political climate, Audrey noted.

“We spotlight Americans who refuse to surrender to the divides facing the country and instead have set out to do something about them.”

That “something” is a mix of kindness, respect, compassion and decency, heralded in eight podcast episodes this far. 

Audrey has invited liberals, conservatives, moderates and people who don’t give a fig about politics to share their stories on the air.

Like the owner of the Red Hen. You might remember that name, the Virginia eatery that in June asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders to leave after staff became agitated at Sanders’ presence.

But Shelley Deproto owned a different Red Hen and her establishment was in Connecticut. Shelley, in fact, had never heard of the Virginia Red Hen.

Overnight, her restaurant started getting eyeballed and blamed for action that had taken place in another state. 

Shelley’s Yelp review dropped from a high rating to the basement, even though she’d never encouraged political messaging in her establishment. 

But the restaurateur refused to devolve into the fight. 

Instead, she used that moment of infamy to spread a message of welcome and kindness. Her regular customers jumped in with all their red and blue feet; one older fellow gave Shelley an envelope with a check for $50 as a sign of support.

That’s the sort of optimism Audrey says she wants everyone to hear about.  

Always smart and inquisitive, my friend is understanding more and more.

“I’m a ‘right of center’ person,” Audrey explained, “but one thing I think I really learned is to really think through the facts and where different sides of a perspective are coming from, and the ‘whys’ of that perspective.”

Americans, she fears, are too quick to form opinions and reach conclusions about a topic, and then they are ready to fight. Social media arms everyone with whatever weaponry they desire. 

But enough is enough — Audrey says she wants people who are working in the best interests of our country to prevail. 

For the flames of fury to be extinguished. For families to talk to one another again.  Since starting the podcast, she’s more convinced than ever others want the same.

If you’re into making New Year’s resolutions, perhaps consider how you can contribute to such conversations in 2019. 

You can get a starter’s kit by listening to a podcast or several at Sanity, sanitymedia.com. Then tell someone else about the podcasts. 

Maybe by the next holiday meal, we’ll all have less anger to swallow, meaning there will be more room for dessert.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.

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