“If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends.You talk to your enemies.”
~ Desmond Tutu
Many of us define ourselves based on our affiliations and beliefs, assigning ‘us and them’ categories to our fellow humans. Such divisions have nothing to do with our common humanity and everything to do with our public image.
They are represented by political parties, religious beliefs, educational background, greenness and dietary choices. We create and often delight in brands, promoting them on everything from social media to bumper stickers.
These are the things that we use to find “people like us” and “people not like us,” even if those decisions don’t rise to the highest level of consciousness. They separate us from other people. They make us smug and judgemental, and at their worst they fuel crimes and create war.
How can we expect world leaders to negotiate, reach understanding and create peaceful solutions when we can’t have a civil conversation with someone who eats meat or votes for Mitt Romney?
If you think you don’t do this, take a minute to consider how you truly identify yourself, and if you would feel comfortable with someone who was your opposite on even one significant issue or belief. Is it shocking and disheartening to learn that a friend is pro-life, or in favour of the death penalty? Do you discuss it, or do you decide that you will avoid the topic or the person?
No gaps are bridged by walling off the uncomfortable chasm. To save the world, we have to go down there and check it out.
It’s not enough to be polite, to refrain from actually saying things like “you’re a fucking idiot.” The gap is bridged only by engaging, by going deep with an “other” or even an “enemy” and trusting that the common bond of humanity will be enough. We all want love, peace, and good things for our children—we just don’t all agree on how to get there. How can we ever hope to make change, to persuade those who disagree on fundamental matters if we hide behind our righteous stance and surround ourselves with like-minded people?
I do not mean to sound superior or preachy (although I can be both): my life genuinely depends on narrowing divides and seeing past my own beliefs.
I am a liberal Democrat married to a libertarian who votes Republican most of the time. It’s tough. When I wrote a piece about my “mixed marriage” on another site, the comments were vitriolic: “I don’t care how nice he is, I don’t know how you can live with a pro-life homophobe who wants to destroy public education.”
None of those things are actually true. My husband is not pro-life, he is not a homophobe, and he works professionally with public schools. We disagree about many things, and we have debates that pass “heated” and go straight to “nuclear,” but I know, always, that he is an incredibly and deeply good person.
Our differences are really more about procedure than values: I think “trickle-down economics” is a farce and a failure, he thinks it’s viable economic policy. We both want people to have enough money to thrive, but we disagree about how to accomplish that goal. We remain political opposites, but we have both come to understand and respect the other’s opinions.
I am also a practicing Buddhist working at a Protestant church. I was raised by an atheist and a Jew. Conflicts arise often—and I see them as opportunities for understanding and compassion. A member of the Protestant congregation at work sees my Buddhist tattoo and tells me, earnestly, that he will pray for my salvation. I tell him that I appreciate prayers on my behalf, but that I am not concerned about being saved.
A relative at a family funeral sees the same tattoo and reminds me that Jews don’t get tattoos. If my mother could see it, he says, she would “die all over again.”
I explain that I’ve chosen a different religious direction—one that my mother knew and understood.
But it’s not just the traditionally religious contingent that likes polarity. At least once a day I hear or read that Christians are basically brainwashed morons who need “crutches” like a paternalistic God and a fictitious heaven. My own, atheist father is given to saying that “organized religion is the root of all evil.”
I do not share the beliefs of the Christian faith, but the Christians I work with are intelligent, sane and compassionate—as much as any non-Christians I know. They believe that following Christ’s example requires them to serve, and to work for peace and justice. When I “go deep” on religion with a co-worker, we nearly always share common beliefs about compassion, non-judgement, prayer and even mindfulness. Being a Christian does not automatically mean that one is a Westboro picketer. Or an idiot.
And this happened: I am a passionate gay ally, and few years ago I was asked to edit a Master’s thesis for a young seminarian. It turned out to be an argument in favour of “deprogramming” therapy to “cure” homosexuals. I didn’t want to read it, I didn’t know if I could read it, and I really didn’t think I could edit it without a chance to express my bone-deep disagreement with its premise.
I read it, I edited it, and I ended up having an incredibly moving, revealing and enlightening discussion about how we both came to our (very separate) positions across the ideological canyon. We met at the bottom, we were civil, we listened carefully, and in the end we returned to our opposing spots. But in the end we were both better informed, and neither of us will ever again take for granted the inherent “badness” of those who disagree.
Bottom line: it’s awesome to be lefty, green, spiritual-but-not-religious, pro-choice, vegan…whatever you are. It is, however, utterly meaningless and hypocritical if your attitude is one of superior separateness rather than inclusion, compassion and genuine interest in every human you encounter. Reaching out, making yourself vulnerable and making an intensely human connection is the only way to make a difference.
The only way.
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