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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

414 How can we, “through conversation and encounters, deeply know each other across differences.”

Day 414 Tuesday May 4th 2021

How can we, “through conversation and encounters, deeply know each other across differences.”

REACHING OUT TO EACH OTHER a Brother Toby Reflection

Charles Dickens began his novel A Tale of Two Cities with the well-known sentence, It Was the Best of Times; It Was the Worst of Times. We are immersed in the wonderful month of May — and yet Dickens’ opening line hangs in my mind.

First, the good part. When I wrote Seasons: Through a Year With a Contemporary Monastic Family, I was overjoyed to burst out of the gray winter months into May! The first flowers are beautiful. Blossoms on the fruit trees are fragrant with the promise of more to come. So many birds are flying around, as are the bees. In other places around the world there are things like Maypoles and dances.

I walk slowly past the opening rose buds on the bare branches of the bush. I am reminded of something Damien (1840 - 1889), the famous “leper-priest” of Molokai, once said: “God permits us now and then to pick a beautiful rose among sharp thorns.” This leads me to recall a very special day:

I was visiting Kalaupapa, the former leper colony on Molokai, and was troubled by the suffering and agony of those who had lived there. In late afternoon I returned to the neighboring island of Maui where I was staying with my family. We attended a luau organized by local children. My mind was still on Kalaupapa. This somber preoccupation was interrupted by a young dancer, about 10 years old, who had apparently left the stage in response to my troubled expression. He was suddenly standing beside me. Slowly the boy took the lei from his neck and placed it on mine — with a kiss on my forehead — and a laugh! He returned to the stage. He was smiling and I was too. I kept that lei for years until the last petal turned to dust.

Now, the difficult part. An increasing number of commentators are referring to the “political tribalism” that keeps Americans from working together toward the common good. New York Times columnist David Brooks (1961- ) recently wrote, “America is facing a crisis like never before.” He backs that up with statistics. The Economist-YouGov poll found that over 75% of President Biden's voters think that “It's a big, beautiful world, mostly full of good people, and we must find a way to embrace each other and not allow ourselves to become isolated.”

However, two-thirds of those who voted for the former president believe that “Our lives are threatened by terrorists, criminals, and illegal immigrants, and our priority should be to protect ourselves.” There are many who feel that this latter attitude is leading toward a serious civil conflict.

One of the toxic tools in this cultural warfare is the spread of disinformation made possible by social media. Increasingly people tune into sources that tell them what they want to hear. News programs are often more about ideology than journalism. In the past few days misleading stories have spread to millions: that “forcing” children to wear face masks is child abuse, that the present administration would forbid people from eating red meat in their program to combat climate change. Both are untrue but incite folks who already believe the “American-way-of-life” is under attack.

So Brooks wonders,

How can we, “through conversation and encounters, deeply know each other across differences.”

Well, put aside the Maypoles and the leis — welcome to May 2021!

This is a time when we must be aware of the thorns as well as the roses. These days I'm fast becoming something of a hermit. I hadn't been to see a doctor in over a year, and when I went I was much more apprehensive about the relatively short drive than I had been years ago when I was taking off for Romania. But our Sister Julie makes up for my social reticence and aversion to Zooming. I asked her what we should do to get out of this venomous social climate.

Her feeling is that we ought to, when possible, listen to each other and be very sensitive about simply pressing our own points of view.

I think she's right. It doesn't do any good to hammer each other with our opinions or judge each other for having different points of view. If we listen to each other, it may be possible that we can find common ground where we can join together as neighbors and earn mutual respect that we can call upon when we do have strongly divergent views.

Sister Julie’s perspective reminds me of the great opposition from neighbors we encountered at Starcross when we first started caring for children with HIV/AIDS. But through a process of listening to each other, and respecting each other in places where we could work together, that opposition turned into support. Those were much simpler times than what we face today, but I know it can be done.

The purpose of this reflection is not to suggest an answer but, as our Quaker Friends would say, to urge people to consider a “query” that may lead to living in harmony. Parker Palmer (1939 - ) speaks of “honest questions,” which he defines as “ones I can ask without possibly being able to say to myself ‘I know the right answer to this question, and I sure hope you give it to me’.”

What I am asking all of us to do is to think deeply about those queries, not only in relation to political and cultural issues, which may be a prelude to the destruction of the democratic process in this country, but also in things like getting vaccinated, taking a gap year from college, having a child at this time, and on and on and on.

And, my dear friends, as you wander down this path, should you come across these honest questions that may lead us to harmony, please share them with me for I find it a confusing time in the story of the nation.

How can we cultivate and encourage empathy in our fellow citizens who might never personally experience the unique burdens of societal woes like xenophobia, extreme poverty, homelessness, gender discrimination, and a criminal justice system that is so often unjust?

Sometimes it only takes one person at the right moment. I remember a large community meeting many years ago in which there were a lot of hostile expressions toward HIV/AIDS programs and care. Then a neighbor, primarily known for her interest in Elvis Presley (1935-1977), stood up and said, “My brother has AIDS.” The mood of the gathering changed immediately. She brought the issue home to the group. She didn’t have to speak — but she did. Those few words were of great importance to the men, women, and children impacted by the pandemic. I think there are many people among us like her, with the courage to speak out honestly and empathetically, and that is my hope for the future.

However, though there may be thorns on the rosebush, as Damien reminds us, there is also the rose! Now I think I will hobble out and discover what it is that the birds find so fascinating about the tall grass blowing in the wind.


Generous Listening

A conversation can be a contest,

or a game of catch with invisible balloons.

They bounce between us, growing and shrinking,

sometimes floating like cloud medicine balls,

and sometimes bowling at us like round anvils.

You toss a phrase and understanding blooms

like an anemone of colored lights.

My mind fireworks with unasked questions.

Who is this miracle speaking to me?

And who is this miracle listening?

What amazingness are we creating?

Out of gray matter a star spark of thought

leaps between synapses into the air,

and pours through gray matter, into my heart:

how can I not listen generously?

- Marilyn Nelson


U2 - Beautiful Day

Roxette - Listen To Your Heart

The Avett Brothers - A Father's First Spring


Sweetest surrender of winter

She put up a flag, it is waving

The thunder of summer is rumbling in

And I haven't seen you in days

And, my, how that feeling has changed

Oh, I have been homesick for you since we met

I have been homesick for you

I've got to take to the sky

And I'll tell you what that means for you and I

If I die it's for you

If I die it's for you

I never lived 'til I lived in your light

My heart never beat like it does at the sight

Of you baby blue, God blessed your life

I do not live 'less I live in your light

I do not live 'less I live in your light

The realest thing I ever felt

Was the blood on the floor and the love in your yell

I was a child before

The day that I met Eleanor

The kiss of the wind in the hills

The clearness of morning, the late evening thrill

Blurry and grey like the roar

The wheels of the highway, above them I soar

When I'm in the sweet daughter's eye

My heart is now ruined for the rest of all time

There's no part of it left to give

There's no part of it left to give

I never lived 'til I lived in your light

My heart never beat like it does at the sight

Of you baby blue, God blessed your life

I do not live 'less I live in your light

I do not live 'less I live in your light

I do not live

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