More and more I just see that we all have love-seeking hearts.
Take one of the local conservatives I met this weekend at the workshop Heidi and I led, a person who triggered a few of the fellow liberals in the room, someone who both Heidi and I were concerned about when we viewed his Facebook page upon his registration for our event, but who ended up revealing a heart as large as any as I’ve experienced. I went from circumspection at first meeting, to a wide open hug at second meeting—this is how I’m more and more experiencing everyone when I regard them from a place of curiosity and openness, regardless of ideology.
And it still takes a huge amount of work. Less so, for me, in maintaining curiosity and openness with the “Other,” but rather more so in holding space for enough light to get through for someone who’d rather react to consider curiosity and connection instead. Work, because I can understand all of the reasons why not. And work because I don’t have watertight reasons for why yes when someone resists being curious about the extremes. Work, because this work pushes people up against their fear and pain and survival strategies.
Take the lesbian high school senior, one of about 120 students we spoke to last Friday at a Shoreline high school. We’d asked the students to write about a difficult conversation they’d had, one that left them feeling bad and reactive, and walked them through an exercise that had them identifying not only their own unmet needs in the interaction, but guessing those of the other person involved.
With a mottled face indicating peak emotions, she referenced a hateful family member in regards to her sexuality—and demanded to know why we expected her to strive for curiosity and understanding of this person’s own experience. Wouldn’t getting to an understanding of this person’s fear and intolerance come at the price of internalizing the hatred and condoning it?
This is the crux of it.
How do we make space for others and their experience while still deeply and uncompromisingly holding space for ourselves? It’s difficult, and most people choose to turn away from the straddle—usually after attempting, unsuccessfully, to mitigate it via changing the other person into a “safer,” like-minded entity.
No, I don’t expect people who feel deeply threatened to lean in to curiosity about those threatening them—it’s not for me to tell them what to do; we all get to decide where our interest and energy lies and whether we are safe enough to engage. But for those who decide they can safely lean in, there are others who have gone before them, people who’ve stayed present long enough with those that spewed hate at them to reveal the humanity underneath—with breathtaking results. Google African Americans Daryl Davis and Ann Atwater who befriended Klan members, and Orthodox Jew Matthew Stevenson who befriended white supremacist Derek Black—and you will see what the power of holding space for those with the most vile belief systems can lead to.
But most opposing people we deal with are not at the extreme ends of the spectrum; their ideas might not physically threaten us in the moment, but they can still make us profoundly uncomfortable. And, for the most part, it’s really hard to change people’s minds—it’s really rare, it takes time, and it usually involves being in deep relationship with them.
So, if people likely won’t change their beliefs, what’s the point of engagement? We were asked this question multiple times, but in different forms at the Town Hall Q&A session after the panel discussion we took part in Monday night on bridging the ideological divide. If I don’t like their stance, and they won’t change to join my team, why should I waste my time connecting with them and asking them curious questions?
Because the end result of not engaging, of taking our ostracism of the Other for not being like us to the furthest it can go is a disturbing prospect. One that we’re getting a taste of now. We expect conflict outside our borders, but with the term “Civil War” bandied about in regards to the level of conflict in our nation right now, we’ve come to a point where not engaging in empathetic dialogue is leading us down a disastrous path.
I don’t expect Heidi to change, she and I have very different viewpoints on several things, and yet my life is so much richer for leaning into an ongoing dialogue with her. I hosted a dinner the Friday night she and her two fellow Christian conservative friends were here visiting from Nashville—I invited a small cross section of liberal friends, specifically selected to represent some of the social elements not commonly accepted by the conservative movement: a gay married couple, a mother of a young transgender daughter, and an older, staunch environmentalist activist couple. I didn't expect these local friends to change the conservative minds, but I knew that just a connection made between them all had the power to affect perspective and understanding. It was rich and heart-centered, and not without moments of tension. In the end, Heidi looked at the gay couple and my friend with the transgender daughter and said “I commit to you that I will say something if I hear someone being hateful towards gays or trans people.” And she asked the same of us in regards to hateful messages aimed at her Christian community.
Did the exchange change how the visiting conservatives will vote? Not likely, but they personally know people now in the communities their votes have worked against—just as I now have relationships with people in her conservative Christian community that I have stood against—and in the way we can, without compromising ourselves, we have become allies for each other. Allies, because we gave ourselves the gift of seeing that we each just have love-seeking hearts.
And that’s a start.