let’s (actually) talk politics

Written last week, but I think still very timely:

It was an innocuous breakfast table comment to start the day: my grandfather simply mentioned that, as is happening across the country, people were out in full force at a local town hall meeting to declare their views on the current health care reform situation.  But then he took a breath and showed sympathy for one side, saying he, too, disagreed with a plan that called for euthanasia.

I spoke up, a little too quickly and rashly, and said simply, “That’s not true.”

A few more sentences were exchanged between the two of us before he declared, “That’s it.  I’ve always made a point to not talk religion and politics.”

And that was that.  No more opportunity to share thoughts and ideas.  No time to see what beliefs we shared in common and how we differed.  No chance to try and separate truth from fiction.  We left the table carrying the same beliefs, opinions, and likely some falsehoods, that we had held minutes before.  Did he understand that I, too, have issues with euthanasia, but it was his facts I was questioning?  We never got far enough for me to find out.

I know my grandfather isn’t the only one to avoid the topics of politics and religion.  Every Thanksgiving, we are reminded that a civil gathering will include no mention of the recent election, the new Supreme Court justice, and whether God ordained marriage to be only between a man and a woman (just to name a few taboo topics).  Everyone knows that it never ends well when people “talk politics.”

And that’s just the problem.  We don’t talk politics; we scream them.  The recent congressional forums are just the latest example of groups staking out their ground and shouting their beliefs to anyone who will listen, or at least so that no one else can be heard.  Everyone is talking, but no one seems to be listening.

When I moved in with my grandparents this Spring, I decided to attend a discussion at their church that connected current events to the Bible.  Religion and politics, all in one place!  The first week I attended, I quickly discovered that many participants held political convictions contrary to my own.  As I listened to them talk, I thought to myself how easy it would be to simply not show up next week and find some people who felt like I did, who “understood me.”

But as I thought about it, I realized just how much we needed each other.

In our current society, we insulate ourselves with people who think just like us and believe exactly what we do.  We watch talking heads or listen to radio commentators who reinforce our beliefs,  who reassure us that it’s not we who are crazy, but it’s “those people.”  Religious figures either avoid anything that could be called political, so as not to alienate any of their followers, or preach loud and long a particular ideology to tap into one group or another.  And because we cannot choose our family, we simply avoid hot button issues with relatives altogether.

Should we really wonder why the political divide continues to widen and people become more entrenched in their views and ideologies?

I decided to stick with the current events discussion group, and it became the one place where I can have civil discussions with people I disagree with politically and still leave with no hard feelings.  We talk and we listen.  We make no commitments that we’ll agree with one another or change our minds about topics, and that’s OK.  We respect one another, recognizing that while we might not hold a similar view or opinion, that doesn’t make it any less valid for that person to hold their particular beliefs if they have the facts straight.

If there is hope for this country (I personally remain unconvinced), it’s not going to be found in one “side” taking power over another and imposing their will upon the minority.  Instead, it’s to be found in people sitting down with those they disagree with and openly listening to what others have to say.  Nonviolent communication is a practice where you engage with others, recognizing that you each hold some piece of the truth, listening for what exactly that might be, and moving forward with newfound insights toward a positive outcome.  If our communication continues to be the violent yelling of fundamentalists unwilling to listen to those who believe differently, we are doomed to fail.

We face many intricate and difficult challenges as a country, but they have still not reached insurmountable status.  Instead, we find ourselves at a turning point, all the more reason to put down our sandwich boards and get off our soap boxes right away and engage in some constructive conversation.

The fate of the country depends on it.

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