How we shape a better future

January 27th, 2021

In his inaugural speech, President Biden called for unity. To his credit, he did not ask us to sweep our significant social and political differences under the rug. On the contrary, he recognized that disagreement can and should be the engine of democracy.

Disagreeing with each other is not our chief problem. It’s how we disagree that has been producing cracks in our national foundation. Instead of genuinely talking to each other about our differences, we shout over each other.

We use inflammatory rhetoric to win points with those who already agree with us and spend very little energy on listening to those with a different perspective. As a result, we rarely devise innovative solutions to our persistent problems.

You won’t find an era in U.S. history, or in world history for that matter, during which everybody was of one mind about important issues. What marks our own time as especially perilous is the contempt and even the hatred we feel for those with whom we disagree.

Many of us are so entrenched in our own point of view — and in our loyalty to a political affinity group — that we can no longer listen to and learn from voices different from our own.

For some time now, left and right, rural and urban haven’t just seen things differently. They have grown to despise each other. Contempt-laden conflict leaves only winners and losers. To borrow a phrase from the nuclear arms race of the previous century, it leads to mutual assured destruction.

Any hope of moving toward a more perfect union includes committing ourselves to a path of reasoning together. That path is paved with the hard and patient work of give and take, back and forth, and mutual edification.

To really talk to each other, we have to believe in our heart of hearts that other people have something to tell us and to teach us. We have to be willing to listen.

Our own perspectives are limited. We may be wrong or our understanding may be lacking. In other words, really talking to each other requires humility.

And as it turns out, this point in our history is a juncture where those who have taken up the call to follow the example of Jesus may just have something especially helpful to offer.

Mind you, America is not a Christian nation. And you don’t have to be a Christian — you don’t have to be religious at all — to be fully American.

Nevertheless, the Christian concept of humility — a concept that we share with other faith traditions — reinforces the American notion that we are all equal. Equal in a way even deeper than the rights guaranteed by our Constitution. And our ability to talk together requires that we acknowledge that equality.

All of us share in the same human condition. We are all equal in our fragility, our imperfection and our finitude. No matter how rich, smart, good looking, or talented you are, you never know what hand life is going to deal you next.

Whether you have a PhD or, like my maternal grandfather, you finished only the third grade, there will always be something you don’t know. Probably more than you know right now. And you will always have something vital to offer all the rest of us.

Nobody chooses their family of origin, and the Grim Reaper eventually knocks on every door.

Our finitude means that each of us always has a limited perspective and that we’ll make flawed decisions from time to time. None of us knows the whole story and everybody screws up in ways known and unknown.

Nobody’s point of view is complete. No one is perfect in character or conduct. We are equal in weakness and in the short-sightedness of our mind’s eye.

And so we need each other. Sometimes we need a helping hand. Sometimes we’ll be the one who lends a hand, to echo the new president.

And this is especially so when it comes to figuring out how to confront our common challenges. We do our best social and political work when we humbly learn from and interact with each other’s perspective and insight.

Humility makes it possible for us to hear and learn from each other. And that is how we shape a better future. Together.

Or, to borrow Ram Dass’ oft-cited phrase, we are at our best when we remember that we’re all just walking each other home.

This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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