|An odd couple / Cindy La Ferle|
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This essay was originally published in December 2016 and updated in 2017.
While clearing out the planters and perennial beds, my husband found the small gnome, in the photo above, buried in a tangle of expired morning glories. Setting the little guy next to a garden angel on the window sill, Doug didn’t realize that he’d gifted me with a photo opportunity — and inspired a philosophical reverie.
As soon as I noticed the unlikely pair perched together, I thought about the tact and discernment it takes to find common ground with people who don’t share our point of view. And then I thought about how our nation has become so tribal and angry and polarized on matters of politics and policy.
I’ve been struggling, unsuccessfully, to come to terms with this awkward divide in my own social life. With the exception of my closest friends, everyone else seems to be avoiding the difficult political conversations. Everywhere I turn, there’s a big, fat, invisible elephant in the middle of the room, and I’m really tired of tip-toeing around the damn thing. I’m exhausted from playing the “Let’s Just Pretend Everything’s OK” game.
The safest thing to do, of course, is to stick with non-controversial topics. This makes perfect sense if you’re trying to maintain professional boundaries with colleagues and coworkers — or you’d simply rather keep acquaintances or relatives at a cordial distance.
But as any good therapist will tell you, the things we don’t talk about are the obstacles that stand in the way of creating deeper intimacy in our relationships.
I’m equally guilty of practicing avoidance techniques.
Over the past year, I’ve had in-depth political discussions only with my trusted tribe — the friends with whom I feel safe, validated, and comfortable. Whenever I’m the least bit unsure of someone’s political stance, I tend to soft-pedal my viewpoints or avoid discussing them out of fear of being judged or shamed — which has happened often enough to discourage me. It’s human nature to gravitate toward others who mirror our beliefs, values, and politics — not just our hobbies or interests.
I know this is a painful topic. And I’m not looking for hostile or confrontational discussion. Instead, I’m talking about opening our hearts and minds to each other on a deeper level. As sociologist Brene Brown writes in Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead: “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
Conversations on “safe” topics like recipes and fashion aren’t enough to sustain close friendships. Self-disclosure is the bridge to something more.
I enjoy engaging with fair-minded people who are willing to discuss the big issues. I want to know what my friends and family are thinking about current events, local and national leaders, and more. I want to know what they’re reading and watching. I want to understand the moral compass that guides them, how they study the issues, how they make difficult choices, and what truly matters to them politically as well as personally.
When we read the Sunday papers, my husband and I make sure we read at least two opinion pieces written by newspaper columnists who don’t share our political views. At the very least, we might admire their writing or learn to view an issue from another angle we hadn’t considered.
Today, more than ever, the political is personal. I’m willing to listen and learn — even when I don’t agree with what I’m hearing.
Our country is in deep crisis. I haven’t lived through a more unsettling, stressful, or tumultuous time. If we can’t even begin to talk about it, well, I suppose I’ll have to leave it at that. ~Cindy La Ferle