Kellie's Nashville Notes: Our First Weekend of Collaboration

I’m exhausted.  

When Heidi and I hatched a plan to create workshops where we could facilitate people of differing opinions and belief systems to relearn how to connect to each other’s humanity, I knew it would require effort—I just didn’t fathom how much. 

Not so much effort in formulating curriculum and nailing down logistics (although that was considerable in its own right), but the astounding amount of effort involved in keeping one’s heart and mind open despite being surrounded by people who do not share my world view.  And as hard as I worked, I didn’t have it tough, because really, it was simple to fall in love with everyone I interacted with. Even the mayor of Nolensville (the bedroom community of Nashville where Heidi lives) was lovable—he, an enthusiastic Trump supporter who had attended the Inauguration and happily loaned us his souvenir MAGA hat, Trump scarf, and Trump flag we needed for an illustration during our workshop. He was someone I wish I’d had extra time to converse with to understand more of his world view so very disconnected from mine. I was struck by his desire to come to our workshop due to his stated recognition of needing to learn what we were offering. That I found myself wanting to hang with someone who actually went to the Inauguration (and bought the T-shirt) of a man I fundamentally oppose was shocking enough, and hearing him express a willingness to grow in a way that I never would have expected from such a person gave me grounds for dismantling the boxes into which I had so easily and reflexively put him— as well as others like him.

But, I digress—I’m exhausted.  

And here’s why: endeavoring to stay open minded and open hearted, altering language and metaphor to accommodate the very different evangelical Christian world view surrounding me, and resisting my own unconscious tendency to be guarded and safe over risking personal transparency all took a tremendous amount of psychic energy. It was like running a marathon—one in which I had to pull myself out of the beckoning weeds every 50 yards or so. I really got why our country has evolved to this point where each major geographical area hosts a homogenized belief structure in which people only hang with their own tribe: It’s so much easier. Hanging with different paradigms takes work. 

And, I’ve got to admit it—I trend towards being lazy in this arena. I’m thinking we all do.

But, I pushed it—and I know that Heidi pushed it too.  A self described “turtle” when it comes to communication styles, Heidi admitted to me her tendency to avoid conflict and stay away from triggering conversations. Funnily enough, I have exactly the kind of communication style designed to retract her “inner turtle” head. My father taught me the love of a good intellectual and philosophical tussle—and I got to indulge in one with her husband Brian—a pastor—over a beer one night. However, Heidi is not one to find fun in such exchanges (she shared later that she wanted to crawl under the table while Brian and I gleefully sparred over religious belief)— she experiences them as painful and dangerous and makes her think that the relationship is on the verge of collapse. The way my energy sparks and intensifies in such conversations only adds to her discomfort. So, this weekend required us to push our edges. For her, the learning edge involved staying engaged and persevering beyond where her fear told her to stop. For me—the edge involved slowing myself down, tempering my reactivity, and working even harder to listen when I wanted to steamroll her with my opinion.

Heidi and I met in Junior High when her family moved to my southern California neighborhood. We shared the same world view back then—both of us Christians living in a conservative suburb.  We also shared a love for drama and creative, imaginative play. She’s always been easy to love and fun to spend time with. A new job moved her family away just prior to her senior year, so we tried to maintain contact through letters. 

As a college student at the University of WA, I experienced a falling-away of my religious conditioning. I no longer connected to a world view where a parental Supreme Being rewarded or condemned people for holding specific beliefs. Admittedly I wasn’t gracious about communicating that with Heidi in our correspondences on the subject—my aggressive communication style triggered her tendency to pull inward, and we lost touch as a result.

At our 20 year High School reunion in 2009 we reconnected—so easily—but, our friendship since then was one of courteous civility that avoided venturing into the weeds of our divergent world views. The 2016 Election interrupted our avoidant pattern, and now here we were, at Nolensville Town Hall the day after the Inauguration—treading into the places with each other that we had eschewed for so long. We wondered if we were plum crazy.

The workshop was a glorious mess.  We erred on the side of too much information—rookie mistake—but, despite ourselves, we watched people slow down, open up, and share hearts which contained a complexity of experience. Given, everyone there was willing simply by virtue of signing up for such a class, but intellectual curiosity gave way to emotional presence—and it felt sacred to witness.

After the workshop we sat with Heidi’s husband Brian at a local pub while drinking a celebratory beer. He made interesting points about how his world view made hearing God-language from me in a visualization exercise I led that endeavored to incorporate the predominant religious paradigm in the room a non-starter for him—he needed to trust that the messenger shared his beliefs regarding the message sent.   

Fascinating.   

Well, we’d just tweak our delivery next time then. 

The world view divergence posed ongoing challenges in navigating fundamental philosophical differences over the weekend. I had forgotten that Christians see humans as essentially sinful, and newly learned they see our hearts as intrinsically deceitful. My own spiritual belief sees us all as coming from Love and returning to Love upon our demise—with evil coming from psychological damage and fearful forgetting of what we truly are. In my world view I trust the higher knowing of the heart; in Heidi’s world view, the heart can’t be trusted unless it’s aligned with God’s love. We had to navigate slowly and carefully, creating and editing our curriculum in such a way to land upon a framework that reflected the Venn diagram of where our paradigms intersected. It was another element that caused exhaustion for both of us—but we both knew it was worth it.

I went to church with Heidi and her family the next morning—for only a portion of the main event—which gave me a snapshot of what it must feel like to be enveloped in such a community where everyone experiences a unity of thought and belief.  I could see the perks.  The music was amazing, providing a lush soul-bath of emotion and intensity, and again, I got how easy it would be to just fall into Jesus’ arms in such an environment—had I been the type to do so. It was a curious experience for me to just be there without putting up an energetic wall around myself. I could have myself without defending against anything—and be there with all of them too. I appreciated that insight.

That night, at dinner with Heidi and Brian’s Christian Community group, I had the opportunity to track my internal process in response to circumstances I’ve historically had trouble connecting to. In sharing my story about how I ceased to identify as Christian, I recounted the experience of seeking a new church youth group in my college neighborhood and of being repelled by the evening’s activity of sharing countless coming to Jesus stories. Fairly shortly after my anecdote, people at the table one by one began to share their own stories of coming to Jesus. Internally I became aware of a choice at hand. The well traveled path for me in such a situation was one of trigger, irritation, and the need to shut people down. But, I was here to travel another path, one that showed me how people at the table were deeply sharing their hearts with me, one that gave me the opportunity to keep my heart open and share it in return. It wasn’t the easy path to choose, but it was richer in the rewards offered, and I came away from the evening feeling like I had made a table full of new, truly dear friends.

The next day had us visiting two English classes taught by Joy Patton, one of the women present at the dinner the evening before. Bless young adults, because they tap into and emote our collective id so completely. A brief journal entry they wrote after our presentation gave instant feedback as far as how well they’d assimilated the material. Heidi’s lesson on asking a “What” question that probes for stories and context instead of a “Why” question that probes for self justification (“What were the influencing factors that brought you to this viewpoint” versus “Why do you believe that?”) resulted in one student writing “What made you such an arrogant jerk?” as an example of a curious “what” question she could ask the person in mind when reflecting on a past difficult conversation. Well, obviously we had more work to do on refining our message. Fortunately, a follow-up email from Joy indicated an overall positive response, which included several enthusiastic statements from her students. My favorite was "Before I heard their speech I had a completely different mindset on the topic. I thought it was so much more one-sided than it actually was." Knowing that at least one kid got the importance of holding complexity in regards to considering another point of view felt like a win.

And — Cece Wilkes! We actually met with Cece on Saturday afternoon, the day of the main event. Heidi had heard of her through a friend who had raved about the amazing dinner Cece hosted between Republicans and Democrats in her community. What struck me was her wisdom in formulating a series of questions designed to create personal reflection and move into collaborative brain storming—“What is a bridge?” "Are you a bridge?” "What people in your area need you to be a bridge for them?"  We recorded our conversation and hope to either post it or transcribe it, because we so want to share her perspective as a bridge builder and as a woman of color.

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Many people have called me brave for going into the heart of red state America to do this work. It's a nice ego stroke, but honestly doesn't feel well deserved. Once I decided to drop my anger and step into curiosity, it didn’t feel all that brave to just go listen to people. Besides, people who are on the winning side of the aisle usually have a larger capacity for magnanimity— and as long as my shoulder chip was in check, I was fairly well-assured of a pleasant time with the community there. 

The truth is, I feel much more of an edge around doing a Heart Perception Project workshop in Seattle. My tribe is afraid, they're angry and devastated. Each new day in the Trump presidency brings news of what my community perceives as a systematic erosion of ecological, intellectual, and social values and freedoms-- so extending the hand of understanding and friendship to those who helped put Trump in office is not an easily accessed intention. Triggers and reactivity run high, and as anyone who has ever been in a grief process knows, there's little latitude left for cultivating an open, risk-taking heart.

This was brought home to me by an interaction I had with a close friend soon after my arrival home. She wanted to know how my trip went, and in the course of recounting the adventure that was still swirling in my brain, I stepped on a landmine that triggered a reaction in her, freight train-like in its intensity. Her reaction triggered judgment in me—and soon I was on my own freight train as well, later wondering how I got there given having spent an entire weekend encouraging people to let that train pass them by. 

Ugh. 

It ain’t easy work, and it’s tricky business besides. Because, getting on the Love Train carries with it trappings of the shadowy underbelly of intolerance for people who don’t want to ride it too, or who just need more time to feel and express their pain. If I can’t hold that space for my own tribe, and encourage others to do the same, then my efforts are disingenuous. Allowing and witnessing another’s experience in order to deeply understand them, thereby creating connection, means doing that for everyone—and I can see just how much I have to grow to stay in that awareness. I honestly don’t know how such a workshop would go over here, but I take heart in the many local friends who have expressed appreciation for what we’re trying to do, despite admitting to not being able to get there themselves. 

Baby steps.