“Both Sides”

After a clash of demonstrations that turned deadly last August in Charlottesville, Virginia, the president notoriously commented that there were “good people on both sides”. Since then, whenever I hear the phrase both sides, my antenna go up.

The other day, a news reporter said that people on both sides of the immigration debate were upset by a recent decision. Senators from both sides of the aisle are contemplating impeachment, and both sides of the abortion debate are reeling from recent legislation. This language might lead us to the conclusion that many of our issues are binary — pro or con, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, black or white.

But isn’t most of life more complicated than that?

Is it even possible to break the US population, which today is 328,983,273 strong, into “both sides”? Can we neatly fit three hundred million people into two (or even three!) groups that would be able to agree on a political stance, an ideological framework, a common belief system? To me it seems unlikely — I can’t even get consensus on what to put on a pizza.

Yet spurred on by this type of rhetoric and our own human nature, we continue with this binary thinking — this either/or mentality — that puts us one against the other, fingers pointing, heels dug in, and shouting. We have assumed a posture of opposition, and in my experience, opposing forces with no intention of bending can do little less that push against one another and cause damage.

People in opposition.

Is that what we’re aiming for?

My coworkers and I were recently discussing strategies for shifting a student who is resistant to instruction. This is an important discussion where I work because most of our students have experienced failure after failure in the classroom, and we are asking them to do the thing that is most difficult for them, usually for several hours a day, five days every week. It makes sense that they start out resistant and often return to that resistant stance over and over again. It’s pretty easy to spot. Just this week I saw a little boy, lower lip hanging, eyes brimming, sitting across from an instructor, refusing to engage with the questioning that is at the core of our programs.

What’s an instructor to do?

Will yelling at this child inspire him to engage? “Tommy! You’ve got to do this instruction! You don’t know how to read! We’ve got to do this right now!” No. That just leads to more resistance.

How about guilt? “Tommy, your parents are paying a lot of money for your instruction. Right now you are wasting their money and wasting my time.” Effective? Hardly.

Begging? “Please, Tommy, please, will you read this word?” No; at best this is a short-term solution.

What I’ve noticed throughout my years of teaching, but most vividly in the environment where I currently work, is that relationship has to come first. The student needs to see that you like her, care about her, and want to have fun with her. She needs to see that you are willing to get in the trenches with her, that you care about what she has to say, that you are invested in the process, and that you are willing to be flexible.

Time and time again, I have seen students on the first day of instruction, believing that they will never improve their ability to read, sink into a chair, turn their eyes down, and prepare themselves to resist. Just as many times, I have seen a well-trained instructor start by building rapport, explaining the steps simply and carefully, then setting the climate for teamwork and fun. Slowly, the student sees that he is not alone, that he can take a chance, that he can begin to believe differently. Maybe, just maybe, he really can learn how to read!

If we can create a space for our students to step into, if we can show them the possibility of a world in which they can, with our support, learn how to read, then they will more likely be willing to shift from their position of resistance in to a position of cooperation.

What if we took that approach when speaking to people on the “other sides” of the discussions that we are having. What if we started by building rapport (which would require that we stop shouting)? What if we explained our positions simply and carefully (which might require that we think through the complexity of those positions and understand our own reasons for our beliefs)? What if we set a climate for peaceful, even fun, conversation (which might require that we refrain from blaming, oversimplifying, and name-calling)?

Could we, in this way, create a space for all of the sides to step into, where they might imagine not binary discussions that tend toward polarization, but complex discussions that are willing to wait patiently for resolution?

I’ve recently been part of a study of Ecclesiastes, a book of the Bible, that is built on the premise that Ecclesiastes, a book of wisdom literature, was specifically written to teach people to live wise lives. The study defines a “wise life” as one that makes right decisions because it’s willing to ask the right kinds of questions. If one is truly pursuing wisdom, she has to ask these questions with open ears, an open heart, and an open mind. She has to be open to the possibility that she might be wrong.

Gulp.

What would that look like?

What would it look like if all the sides were committed to making the right kinds of decisions because they considered the right kinds of questions? What would it look like if all the sides entered the conversation with open ears, open hearts, and open minds? What would it look like if all of the sides were open to the possibility that they might be wrong?

Would we approach one another with humility? Would we ask one another to help us understand the reasons behind our positions? Would we listen carefully without mentally forming rebuttal? Would we pause and think before we replied or asked for further clarification?

Would we first build rapport?

(Hi, my name is Kristin, I am happy to be having this conversation with you today. How are you?)

Would we explain our positions, after having considered our own reasons?

(I come from a Christian perspective, and my life experiences have complicated some of my earlier held positions on political matters. I am wondering if you would be willing to step into that complexity with me.)

Would we set a climate for peaceful, even fun, conversation?

(Would you join me for a cup of tea and maybe lunch. I am not expecting any solutions; I am just wanting to toss around some ideas. Maybe when we’re done being serious, we could get some ice cream or see a movie.)

What might shift if we created such spaces? if we created an environment where folks didn’t have to cling so tightly to positions that they may not even fully understand or agree with? if we could stop pointing fingers, look into the eyes of the person sitting across the table from us, and see their humanity?

It certainly wouldn’t be as simple as having two sides. That’s true.

Is it worth the time and energy to admit that we might be more complex than that? Are we brave enough to try a different way?

Are we willing to make right decisions because we have considered the right questions?

Are we willing to stop believing that we are merely both sides?

It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise

    than to hear the song of fools.”

Ecclesiastes 7:5
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