Understanding The Other End

The political and social climate in our country right now has become charged and tense. Many good people are fighting for the things that they feel are right; protecting our water, women’s and LGBTQ people’s rights over their bodies and sense of selves, immigration, voting, making a living wage, and many more.

There have been other people who have been trying to find a way to repair the damage done between what more and more seems to be two opposing sides of our country. How can we live and work together? How can we be neighbors and even family together? How can we reach out to one another and heal after this?

Both of those are worthy goals to work for. In some ways, its almost easier to work on the first one. You can lay your path out in clear ways, you can make specific plans and find like minded people to work on direct action together with you. It’s hard, but you may know where to start.

If you are in the second group though, you may already be suffering from burn out, losing hope, feeling lost, confused and alone. When we are the people who place ourselves as intermediaries in the middle, often we feel isolated, because we don’t have as much of the support network. We are the ones creating the support for others. We feel like we’re in a tenuous position, because we are. Those bridges that may have been there once were burned down, and we are the few out there reestablishing those connections. It can be lonely, and difficult.

How We Do We Fix the Bridges While Maintaining Our Mental Health?

One important thing to remember if we chose to be the people reaching out to others with very different views, in our families or neighborhoods, is that when people are building a literal bridge they take safety precautions.

How do these safety precautions translate to our conversations with people who may have radically different views? It may seem counter-intuitive, but a large part of it involves going out of our comfort zone, and making ourselves a little bit vulnerable, and being very honest. In building a bridge, people clearly mark areas that aren’t safe, and they watch out for one another, verbally warning if any equipment falls for example. When talking to other people, be clear but kind about establishing boundaries. For example, if you are uncomfortable talking about sexual violence against women, and you are talking politics with your neighbor, don’t rely on them to guess by your body language. Most people are willing to be respectful. If someone is not being respectful, give yourself permission to back off of the bridge for a while. Have some coffee, take a break. In real bridge construction, people work in shifts, and get days off! 🙂

Be clear. Lay out the warning signs, and let them know. A lot of “conservative” people mock the idea of safe spaces and trigger warnings because they have read about it only in a framework that deliberately creates confusion around the ideas and terms, but when presented with actual situations where a person may need to take some space to a safe space, or preface things they say with a trigger warning, those same people generally understand, they just may think of it or call it something different. For example, “I would love to talk with you about our different ideas about the Affordable Care Act. It’s something I care a lot about because I get medication from it that I need to survive, so if I start to get too heated let me know, and if you say something that is too much for me, I’ll let you know, ok? I’m glad we feel like we can talk!” Sometimes it’s hard to take that first step to be vulnerable, but you might be surprised at how awesome it can be! To quote Dumbledore, “The Truth is generally preferable to lies.”

Another important thing when building a bridge is to make sure you are tethered in. Before engaging in what could be a very emotionally taxing conversation or interaction with friends, family, neighbors, etc, make sure you are emotionally grounded and up to handling a conversation right now. Also, in the event that the conversation gets away from you, do you have a tether? Something that can help you get back to a good place. That varies for different people. It can be your sister that you text who always cheers you up, or knitting which is a meditative process, or your favorite podcast, or some person or activity who helps you find your best you and not fall down into the deep emotional abyss where you get depressed, stop caring, or even make personal attacks.

Lastly, when building a bridge, having the correct and quality tools, materials, and training is a must. With the metaphorical bridge this means using information from good sources, not attempting to deceive or troll as a tactic, creating an environment of mutual trust between you and the person building the bridge on from the other side. It also means recognizing when you have the skills you need and knowing when you may need to gain more skills. This may mean in the course of talking to family you might realize you want to take classes on mediation to facilitate conversations better, or when having conversations in your neighborhood you might realize you don’t know a lot about a certain person or groups’ beliefs and you can read up on that. Also, remember that bridges aren’t built alone, and if you need help with a particular challenge, seek out other bridge-builders to help you answer questions, help educate, and find ways to help you grow in the ways you want and need to.


Communication is Key

Doing our best to be clear in our communication is probably the number one thing we can do when we’re starting out trying to engage with people in our communities who have vastly different ideas from us. It may seem simple, but it can be one of the most difficult things to master. We should always be asking ourselves if we were understood, and if we could have been understood better. Our whole lives, we should be gaining new tools, ideas, and methods for communication. Not just to talk about politics, but because everyone communicates in different ways, and if we want to be understood and to truly understand where other people are coming from, we need to be growing.

I read once that when Captain Cook landed in Australia he pointed to one of the animals and asked the Aborigines, “What is that?”, and they said “Kangaroo” which in their language means “I don’t understand you”. I also read that when Cortez landed in Mexico he asked the natives “What is this place?” and they said “Yucatan” which means “I don’t understand you”. I’m sure both Captain Cook and Fernando Cortez thought they were being very clear and reasonable with such simple questions. However, by failing to think outside of themselves, we have as part of their legacys today those small monuments to the lack of empathy and understanding.

How Can We Avoid Cook/ Cortez Communication?

In life we as humans, generally have a desire to learn more about the world around us, and to share in the experiences of the people we meet, but we are limited by our abilities. Sometimes we just don’t comprehend the things people say. Or we interpret them differently than the person meant. Sometimes we aren’t able to pick up on visual cues, such as body language or facial expressions. Everyone’s brain works in different ways, and so we each have to overcome the small ways our own mind prevents us from getting the full messages other people are sending.
Cook and the Aborigine both saw the same animal, but they had yet to develop the skills they needed to properly communicate that together. Sometimes it’s the same with us. We all live in this world together, and to some degree we see the same things. But some of us are seeing them new, some of us rely on those things, some of us like them or dislike them, or are afraid of them, or love them, or hate them, or don’t understand them.
In astronomy when you don’t know the coordinate of an object in space, but you know the coordinates of two other nearby objects, you can use somethings called parallax to figure out where the other thing is. So maybe, if we want to better understand the world, we should use a sort of parallax principle: If we come to understand an issue, and come to better understand ourselves as human beings, we will be able to find the empathy we need to better understand other people with different thoughts on the matter.
It seems like a circular argument to understand people when you’re having misunderstandings, but maybe its just that, like parallax, for a while, you need to lose sight of the thing you were originally trying to figure out, to get a place where together you can communicate and understand together.
How? Through meditation and mindfulness, through walks in nature, friends and support, reading and learning opportunities, community and volunteerism, and whatever works for you. Some people find help in spirituality, some people find it in physical labor. Find what works for you as you take care of yourself, and then are able to reach out to others!


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