Essential Reflections

Communicating across Boundaries

We have significant and gratifying experience in the EE workshop communicating across the boundaries that often separate us.  Younger people and older people get to see each other as people.  People with money or status and people with little of either also get to see each other as people.   Barriers of race, gender, education and religion are often overcome in the EE process, with the result that graduates feel more able to communicate with people different from them.  We all have our fears and our struggles, our families and our losses, our celebrations and our goals.  We are reminded from our experience that we all have common ground with other human beings seeking to live their lives.

This helps us to imagine that the most intransigent struggles might be solved, that peace is possible.  We need not be so afraid, mistrustful and defensive about others different from us.  Yet, the world, as we know, is not the workshop.  Each day we hear of atrocities and dangers to which we naturally react with a tightening in the chest, a lump in the throat, perhaps even a balling of the fists.  Our present political and civic life is polarized and divided in ways that make it hard to see how to proceed.   It is tempting to opt out, not to listen to the news, not to attend to political life, to avoid confrontation.  We feel this temptation as we enter this political season, a temptation to retain peace of mind by blocking it out.

I want gently to challenge this strategy, and some other related ones.  An important value we share, I want to suggest, is the value of participation.  We are invited in the workshop to be participants in the fullest sense we can be.  Each of us struggles with this temptation.  This is too hard, too painful, too pointless, we say, but then we overcome this turbulence and find value when we participate.  Participation is the essence of being a “citizen.”  This means more than voting every now and then; it means contributing our thoughts and feelings, our energy and insight, to the common project of living together.  It means being part of the conversation about the common good.

In this project, it is not enough to be good-hearted and open-minded.  These qualities are necessary but not sufficient.  Being good-hearted and open-minded is the passive dimension of participation; the active dimension requires that we cultivate skills and practice them.  We must be patient with ourselves and others, as well as courageous enough to take risks.

One of my students brought me an illustration that encouraged me that we might make progress.  He was at his Thanksgiving dinner with his family.  As these things go, members of his family were disagreeing, in increasingly aggressive terms, about how receptive we should be to Syrian refugees.  He listened for a while, thinking as he listened about a strategy we had been discussing in class for finding common ground.  He interrupted his elders and suggested that they might want to discuss this issue in a different way.  Instead of talking about who had a “right” to what, why not talk about what would serve the good of everyone affected?   He was astonished that they agreed and even more astonished to see the change in tone of the discussion.  People spoke about the interests of families in Syria, of neighbors of the refugees in their new country, of politicians seeking to foment fear, and many others.  Others listened and responded, rather than, as before, blustering at each other without listening.

A small victory to be sure.  The problem is not solved.  But these small victories, small ways in which we overcome the barriers, increase our ability to hear each other and take small steps toward respectful and productive conversation.  We move out of our isolation, our fear and resistance to participation.

Some worry that this kind of engagement means sacrificing principle.  How can I even talk to a supporter of Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders without pretending to be willing to compromise values I am not willing to compromise?  Here is one of the skills we need to cultivate: An ability to hold principles at the same time as listening seriously and openly to others that challenge them.  Another skill:  The ability to challenge others without disrespecting or alienating them.  These are elements of the ability to be a participant in conversations about what really matters, about what shapes the common good.  Perhaps they are among the skills at your growth edge as a participant, not just in the workshop and your community of friends, but in the larger world.  This political season will certainly present many opportunities to experiment and to participate.