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Happy Valentine's Day! And LOTS of Questions.

It's the morning after the Super Bowl. I don't go looking for comments about the event (well, I am not really interested in the hoopla event, tbh - other than commercials and halftime shows - I know - sacrilege!) but what people have to say is leaking into the regular news and the comments can't really be avoided.

Rihanna's special surprise at her half-time show? A baby bump! She is pregnant with her second child.

Favorite commercial? The Dunkin' Donuts one with Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez is getting a lot of play.

Head scratcher? A thumbs-up for Chris Stapleton's rendition of The Star Spangled Banner from a congressperson, followed by a weird comment, presumably about Sheryl Lee Ralph's Lift Every Voice and Sing - or maybe Rihanna? - "But we could have gone without the rest of the wokeness." Why?

Head scratcher. It was that and more for me. My mind, heart, and body react to comments like this one - go into frustration, anger, sadness, tension mode about the divisiveness that pervades our times, about the mean-spiritedness that seems all too common.

I don't like feeling this way - there is a personal cost to staying there for any length of time and, more importantly, it doesn't move me toward the curiosity and empathy that I think are essential for bridging the divisiveness.

It does not move me to wish a Happy Valentine's Day to that person that I see as mean-spirited.

Fortunately, Krista Tippett is back with her On Being podcast - such a vast repository of wisdom. Her recent outstanding interview with journalist and author Amanda Ripley provided some breathing space for me today as I sat with my head scratching anger and sadness. Ripley has added mediation and conflict resolution training to her journalism skills as a response to her realization that she and other journalists often unwittingly excise "the other side" from their writing and thus contribute in some way to the divisiveness. Her new book, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out arose from her exploration of this issue. We can all get trapped until the conflict is no longer about the issue in question - the conflict becomes about the conflict and the desire to maintain an us and them situation.

Think for a minute about a time when you have been in the midst of an intense conflict interaction that gets your heart racing in a not-so-good way (another way of saying it - gets your blood boiling). What thoughts come to mind in the moment? What would you like to do or say in reaction to the unpleasant situation? Let's say you do want to work through the conflict in a constructive manner. How we respond to conflict has the potential to add another brick to the wall, further dividing us, or to pull some bricks down, making a window so that we can better see each other across our differences.

Conflict is inevitable. I am really uncomfortable with it but I keep learning that conflict itself is not necessarily bad. Conflict can become toxic when we dehumanize and demonize the person who is on the other side. But healthy and effective resolution of non-toxic conflict can take us to good places.

In the interview, Ripley described many questions that we can consider in situations that involve significant differences about specific issues or even about a general perspective of humanity and our responsibilities to one another.

I am finding it helpful to think about these questions OUTSIDE of conflict-laden situations, to deepen my resolve - my desire - to better understand who is on the other side of the wall. I want to do this not necessarily to change the other but to find some common ground and mutual respect.

Here are some of those questions that can be tweaked for particular interactions.

  • What do you want the other community to know about you?

  • What do you want to know about the other community?

  • What are the hopes and fears that you bring to this?

  • What in your own position causes you discomfort?

  • What do you admire in the position of the other?

  • What is oversimplified about this issue?

  • How has this conflict affected your life?

  • What do you think the other side wants?

  • What’s the question nobody is asking?

  • What do you and your supporters need to learn about the other side in order to understand them better?

I also find it enlightening to ask questions about and to deeply listen to a person's origin story. How did they come to believe X or to feel Y?

AND most important is to ask ourselves all of these same questions.

I have been involved in groups whose purpose is to address environmental destruction and the climate crisis from various angles. I have taught graduate students about the negative impacts of these forces on our well-being (as well as the benefits of a healthy environment for all living beings).

One night I brought a local environmentalist to talk to our class about his work. I was in awe of all that he had done through his leadership, art, conversations with legislators - work that was changing hearts and minds and leading many people to better understanding of the issues and to more responsible behaviors. Would I ever be able to effect or be part of such change in my community? At that time, I was at best a toddler in my own activism; I didn't even know what I didn't yet know.

As I looked around the classroom, I saw many different expressions on the faces of the students - some seemed skeptical, some scared, curious, excited, tuned out and numb. Later that evening, the students placed themselves, their bodies, at appropriate points on an imaginary line that represented their own knowledge about the issues being discussed (lots of knowledge to none at all), their interest in them (really interested to not at all interested), their emotional reactions to hearing and learning about them and so on. And what can I say? We. were. all. over. the. place.

Our guest speaker acknowledged that he had been in many different positions along that imaginary line throughout his journey.

In other settings, these differences might have been experienced as divisive.

I realized that as a small community in that one class in that one moment in time, we had the opportunity to learn about one another, as well as course material, from places of empathy and respect. We approached our time together with the genuine curiosity exemplified by Ripley's questions.

As I write this, I feel awe remembering the courage displayed by the students. I feel goosebumps remembering how we celebrated together at the end of the course - we knew that there were still differences among us, that we each still had lots to learn, and that we cared about and respected one another's journeys.

Happy Valentine's Day, my friends.

And PS - what to do when your efforts meet an immovable brick wall? Food for thought for another day 💜

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