I just got off the phone with a colleague, who called with an “semi-urgent” matter. A student group representing one side of a particularly contentious rivalry was having an event that would undoubtedly be upsetting to a group of students representing another side. He was asking for advice as to how best to handle the situation. As a public entity, the institution by its nature permits the free expression of ideas, with the exception of those that directly incite hatred or violence. Educational institutions in particular are expected to provide spaces where opposing ideologies can be expressed, potentially disputed, but hopefully mediated, explored.
We talked for a while exploring various ideas as to how to approach the situation to keep it from escalating into protests and counter protests, with battling bullhorns, and chaotic conflict. I found myself sighing. I am a would-be peacemaker, a conciliator who tries to move toward resolution rather than engagement. I have been about deescalation and reconciliation. I should also add that I am a dreamer.
As I listened to him, I kept bringing us back to the idea of creating a space for dialogue between the opposing groups, of developing a system or structure that would allow the individuals to listen and learn from one another rather than shout each other down. With all the life and death struggles and conflicts all around us and across the globe, what would it be like if we could sit down and talk about them. Did I mention I am a dreamer?
The work that I do in the world and have done in some form for the last 30-plus years is rooted in the idea that we must be open to listening to others and seeking to understand the points of view and life experiences of the people around us. We have to also understand the systems and structures that have been put into place that have historically advantaged some groups and disadvantaged others. We need to know that in order to improve the quality of life of people everywhere, we have to understand how so many systems and structures are in place to keep things exactly the way they are, creating a nation, a world of haves and have nots. It is exhausting work, largely because there are a whole lot of people who are deeply invested in keeping things the way they are.
So I come in with my dreamer self thinking and talking with others about creating spaces for dialogues that invite people in to deeply listen and learn from one another, not with the intention of changing one’s mind, but perhaps touching one’s heart, of quickening their spirits. It really is true that at the deepest parts of each of us, we really do have more in common, are more alike, than we are different. That some of our most basic human needs and desires are, in fact, very similar.
Throughout much of my career, I have changed some minds and some hearts. Or perhaps I should say that I helped to open them, and the individuals themselves went on to change their attitudes and behaviors. But it is long, slow, arduous work, and I sometimes bear the bruises from banging my head against the brick wall of their intractability and refusal to “give in” and let go of their firmly held (and often misguided) beliefs. When I look around at the state of relationships between different peoples in this country and around the world, I am sometimes overwhelmed with the enormity of the challenges we face in bridging the gulfs between us. How can we hope to make a change, given all the strife around us?
And then a light goes on and I remind myself that it starts and ends with me, doing what I do where I do it. If I focused on all that needs to happen in the world, my heart would go out of me at the near impossibility of the task. I have to remember that it is not my job to change the whole world, I need to work in my own back yard. Jesus preached to the masses, healed the sick, raised the dead, walked on water. I can’t do any of that, but I can preach (talk) with whomever is around me, touch the lives of the people I interact with, reach out with as much kindness and compassion as I possess. That is the way to change the world: by changing my world.
Some people are destined to change hearts and minds of the masses–they are the rare miracle workers, sages, yogis, lamas, and others whose reach extends around the world. But most of us are mean to have a more local and intimate impact right where we are. Over these 40 days and beyond, I continue to ponder the impact I can have where I am. What would Jesus do? How did he do what he did, and how can I do what I do? These are questions worth pondering.