This blog features an article originally published on Susan M. Glisson’s Sustainable Equity blog. With Susan’s gracious permission, we share this reflection with you today.
In an increasingly polarized social and political climate, I’ve been searching for sources that attempt to analyze what is at the heart of the discord that appears to exist between so many of us. I believe that the vitriol and division are deeper than that which exists between the political parties, which was reflected in the recent acrimonious election, though they are a symptom that has its own side effects.
For too long now, we as Americans undervalued being informed, a condition which generally comes from a rigorous education with training in critical thinking. For too long we have settled for corporate-driven media, owned by a small number of folks, who have made fortunes titillating us with every salacious rumor about “celebrities,” such that our election cycles now seem much more like an American Idol competition than a serious investigation of values and policies that care for each of us and support our unity. We’ve replaced those sources with social media, which too often isolates us in our own echo chambers of reinforcing and not always accurate self-narratives. And we have avoided or ignored talking about the painful parts of our history, the patterns of which, if studied, reveal a deep divide founded in racial discord, in a mentality that values one group over others (in our case it has looked like white supremacy; other countries have manifested their hierarchies of human value in other ways). (And by the way, “whiteness” and racism haven’t just harmed and dehumanized people of color; they have dehumanized “whites” too.)
We have valued dollars over people. We have disconnected ourselves from the land and from the water that supplies our basic needs and from each other and from Spirit, which renders us diminished in soul, empty and angry. But because we haven’t valued critical thinking and authentic connection, we too often lack the tools to understand why we are where we are and what we can do about it. And so we anesthetize ourselves with literal and figurative stuff we don’t need and which doesn’t fulfill us (just go check the profit margins of the self-storage industry or say the comments section of any news article).
We have become complacent, which means literally to please one’s self, self-satisfaction in spite of or because of ignorance of actual dangers. In short, because we do not really know ourselves or each other deeply, we do not truly know each others’ sorrows and joys. So we do not know what others have experienced that causes them to make the life choices they do. Sometimes, we don’t even know why we do what we do!
Here’s the good news. Complacency is cured by proximity and authentic connection to others, especially to those we deem “not us.” We can repair the damage we have done to ourselves and to our country. We can “come home to” ourselves and to each other, as the Latin origin describes “repair.”
I’m not speaking of an industrial project, on massive scales, mechanized and largely independent of human involvement. I’m talking about the grassroots, community-level kind of work we must all do. We can punish and exclude based on who others voted for or we can try to understand, to empathize, and to embrace.
The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued that, “Ultimately evil is done not so much by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves and who do not probe deeply.” We need time to fall in love with each other. To listen deeply to each other, one-on-one and in small groups, face to face, as Puanani Burgess says. Nothing else will replace this everyday, local work.
And here’s how such a conversation might go: ask each other first, “what your highest hope is for your community?” Allow as how you might not know everything and would like to understand where the other person is coming from. Ask open and honest questions, ones you don’t know the answers to. Do this over and over again until you build the muscle memory of respectful and civil and truthful conversation, until you create a new pattern of interacting that is healthy and whole and second nature to you. If we commit to such a process, synergy and consensus about what we should do together will emerge. I promise because I’ve seen it happen every single time a group has done that hard work of listening and learning together.
When we do this, we will create the world our children deserve, because justice, as Cornel West has said, is what love looks like in public.
Susan M. Glisson is the co-founder and partner of Sustainable Equity, LLC. You can learn more about her work and background, and explore these valuable resources on building movements. To dig deeper, you can listen to a NPR story featuring Susan’s work with Sustainable Equity and the “Welcome Table” model.”