“Both Sides”, one more time for the people in the back

I wrote this piece last summer, and I ran it as a ‘re-visit’ in January, but as we head into the Democratic and Republican conventions over the next two weeks, perhaps we can take a moment to remember that although the US is largely a two-party system, the complexity of beliefs and political viewpoints in this country is vast. Would you be willing to challenge yourself to lay aside assumptions and create some space for discussions with people you might have previously assumed were on the other side?

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 331,002,651 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.

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 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 a student on the first day of instruction, convinced that he will never improve his ability to read, sink into a chair, turn his eyes down, and prepare himself 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 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 people to step into, where they might imagine not binary discussions that tend toward polarization, but complex discussions that can envision creative alternative solutions?

I’ve recently been part of a study of Ecclesiastes, a book of wisdom literature, which 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

Righting the Course, Re-visit

I wrote this post last year, while my husband and I were on our annual vacation. This year, we were supposed to be on a 30th anniversary celebration trip, but due to Covid-19, we are instead resting at home — not North, not South, not East, not West. Nevertheless, we have had time for rest, for recovery, and for remembering and celebrating the course we’ve been on.

Three years ago at the end of May, my husband and I retreated north, so far north that we couldn’t get a cell signal. We each brought the materials we would need to plan the courses we’d be teaching that fall. Away from the Internet and the daily routine, we found time to go for walks, take naps, eat well, and outline goals and objectives for our in-coming students.

Two years ago, we escaped south — we spent two weeks in Fort Myers and even rented a car and drove south, south, south, until we got to Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States. We didn’t plan for classes on that trip — no, we’d been particularly busy all year, so we devoted time to beach exploring, CSI Miami binge-watching, puzzling, and pleasure reading.

Last year was the year of the Great British Baking Show — the year of sitting on our couch, the year of grief, the year of remembering how to breathe. We didn’t go north or south — we were doing well to stay right where we were.

This year, in the middle of winter, we marked off this week to head north. Our bags are packed, and we’ll soon be on our way. We won’t be writing any courses this year, but we may continue ‘righting our course’.

We’ve been ‘righting our course’ since we came to this little house by the river. We weren’t really planning on that. We knew it would be a new season with our kids all moving into adulthood and us moving back to our home state, but we didn’t really know how much our lives would be under reconstruction.

We knew that we were stepping into change — my husband was leaving congregational ministry and moving into a much different role at a university, our kids were moving on, and I was committing to healing. What we didn’t know was that my physical healing was just the beginning. Our move back to Michigan would be the start of a much more global transformation.

We’d been living a propped up existence — caulking leaks and mending seams with duct tape — for a long time. We’d been moving too fast to make thorough repairs in the moment, so we’d patched up what we could and just kept moving, unaware of the extent of the underlying structural damage caused by years of neglect. My health crisis was the impetus for slowing down and dealing with the repairs, and once we started looking, we kept finding more and more projects. However, since life doesn’t have a pause button so that you can do a full renovation before you move on to the next chapter, our reconstruction has been a work in progress.

In the past five years, we’ve witnessed our children move into adulthood — facing and navigating obstacles, chasing and re-defining dreams, finding and losing love, losing and finding themselves. We’ve watched, supported, and done our best to encourage, while we have at the same time found ourselves figuratively pulling down dated wallpaper, exposing water-damaged drywall, and tearing up old floor boards.

As each project has presented itself, we’ve surveyed the damage with crossed arms and furrowed brows, and have then chosen — sometimes reluctantly — to do the hard work of repair. We’ve addressed our health through different approaches to diet, exercise, physical therapy, and medication under the supervision of myriad medical professionals. We’ve examined our emotions through intentional work together, separately, and with therapists. We’ve explored our work/life balance through experimentation with different levels of responsibility and various forms of recreation. We’ve invested in our spirituality by spending time with our congregation, our small group, and our own individual study. And bit by bit, little by little, things are starting to come together.

And, now that we are able to sit comfortably in this reconstructed existence, we are finding ourselves sipping tea, taking walks, and questioning our thinking — testing long-held positions on most every imaginable topic.

Every day it seems, my husband and I look at one another and say, what’s God doing here? how do we feel about that? why do we feel this way? what steps should we take? what needs to shift? how do we still need to heal? what is the root of this problem? what is our part in the solution? where are we going? what are we doing?

We don’t have any answers — just a lot of questions.

This is new.

We have been the leaders, the doers, the deciders for most of our adult lives. We have written the courses, made the plans, and mapped out the journeys for ourselves and others. We have called the shots, made snap decisions, trusted our guts, and driven the bus.

But guys, we found ourselves on a course set for collapse.

And now that we’ve taken stock and submitted to a period of reconstruction, our posture is very different. We are realizing that life is full of nuance and complexity: we couldn’t possibly know all there is to know. We have admitted that we got some stuff wrong, and, we are asking some serious questions.

And the interesting part of all this is that, now in our fifties, we aren’t scared. In fact, I would say that we are energized. We’re reaping the benefits of the changes we’ve made in these last five years, and we are on the edge of our seats, big goofy grins on our faces, waiting to see where the questions lead us.

So this trip north is going to be a little different. We’ve packed sweatshirts and flip flops, notebooks and pens, trail mix and tea, and so many questions. We’ll carry them with us — tucked in our pockets, shoved in our bags, and strapped to the roof of the car. We may take them out and look at them, we may discuss a few, and we may leave a few on the beach among the rocks, but I am picturing most of them will come back with us unanswered. And that does not discourage me, in fact, it’s a relief, because I am reminded that we are no longer in the season of having all the answers.

We have moved comfortably into the season of holding all the questions. And you, know, I’m starting to like it here.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

John 6:68