Common Ground

You and I

Social media has been flooded with pronouns lately, but some aren’t getting enough floor time. Take the pronouns…you and me (or as your grammar teacher would say…you and I). At the very heart of all relationships is two people, wanting to share space and spend time together, trying to find common ground on which to have a connection. That connection might be about a casual exchange over the fence or at the grocery store. Or it’s about a joint work project, a common vision, or even a shared faith. The connection is about the closeness among family and friends, or even the intimate communion of love and life between married spouses.

At the best of times, relationships are a challenge, which of course, makes it all the sweeter when they’re satisfying and fulfilling. But during the current COVID climate, relationships are strained by so many things…stress and uncertainty about the unknowns (and the knowns!), media overwhelm, differing political opinions, and reasonable worries about our health and that of our loved ones.

Us vs. Them

It can seem sometimes as if forces are conspiring against us, and against all the “us” relationships that we’re working so hard to keep. Too often, the policies and political views that are so “out there” right now can contribute to more of an “us vs. them” attitude rather than the “you and I” relationships that we all desire and need to feel fully human.

Our Common Humanity

We don’t have to go far back to realize that an “us vs. them” mentality was responsible for some of the most horrendous atrocities known in human history. And we can also imagine how true solidarity and authentic unity can transform the world, one relationship at a time. We ARE in this together, but not because we’re all reading from the same script, standing in the same line, or making the same decisions. We’re in this together because we’re human, made in the image and likeness of God, given a rational mind, a free will, and a very human desire for connection.

If our solidarity lies in our humanness, then how do we relate to one another when there seems to be such little common ground? A relationship between two people really lies in the space between overlapping circles (think Venn diagram). Even though current differences might be making that space smaller, we can still work to find where we do agree and share common values and interests.

Converting vs. Connecting

Think about evangelization. We all know how off-putting a pushy “faith freak” can be. If we’re genuinely interested in connecting, we check out to see if the other person is open to a discussion. If we’re being respectful of the other’s boundaries, we don’t try to convert someone who doesn’t want to be converted. That would be manipulative, controlling, and well…plain rude. To take a page out of Amoris Laetitia, charity “perceives and esteems the ‘great worth’ of another person…It makes us approach a person with immense respect and a certain dread of causing them harm or taking away their freedom” (127). Not even God crosses our free will boundaries. He’s a gentleman, and He respects our right to make our own decisions.

The same etiquette can apply in our discussions with others around health issues and social boundaries. We all have enough to worry about making sense of the ever-changing rules and mandates, restrictions, and regulations in the public square without letting them affect how we relate on a personal level!

Listening is Not Agreeing

Why DO we let those public P’s and Q’s dictate our private lives? Maybe it’s because we feel a moral responsibility to share what we believe is the “right” thing to do. Maybe we’re worried that we’re going to be held accountable by God if we DON’T speak up. Or is it because we’re afraid of consequences if we don’t get others on board? Or perhaps we’re so consumed with worry over health risks – this seems to be true for everyone, regardless of the ground we stand on – that we let our fear lead to control of others’ thoughts and decisions. And BTW, most attempts to control are rooted in fear…just saying.

Listening doesn’t mean we have to agree, condone, or participate in another’s stance if it affects us negatively. It means we’re trying our best to find out what the other person’s thoughts, feelings and opinions REALLY are rather than what we THINK they are. Listening is about connecting, and connecting with others is the first step towards communion. Isn’t that our goal?

Walls Don’t Really Have Ears

So if you’re having difficulty taking that first step towards connecting, especially on those hot button health topics, check to see if you’ve put up walls to protect yourself in these “unsafe” times. Maybe we’re afraid or anxious, or determined to push our own point, or not really interested in hearing the other’s perspective because it might challenge our own assumptions of the truth.

If you find yourself struggling to listen, ask yourself these questions…

“Do I want to understand or be understood? (Remember St. Francis?)

“Do I want to be right or do I want to be loved?”

Finding New Ground

Try to listen beyond the facts to the feelings. Be a detective and listen for what the other person is NOT saying. Make it your goal to find new common ground and work to widen that space where you can dance together. If you and I are both doing this, we’re going to walk away from our discussions feeling connected, loved, valued, and respected. And that’s when a true change of heart is really possible.

Here are a few more tips to help you navigate those difficult conversations:

  • Don’t go into discussions locked and loaded. Seek understanding, not argument or agreement
  • Use I statements…I think…I feel…I would like…I want…I need…I hope…
  • Don’t shoot from the hip. Try giving the other person the complete floor for a time, take notes, ask questions, then pause and ponder before arranging a time when you can respond rather than react
  • Ask! “How do you feel about…?” “Are you OK with…?” “What are you comfortable with…?” “How can we make this work…?”
  • Have the courage to say “Tell me more!”
  • Keep connections inclusive…plan a walk in a snowy park, go tobogganing, listen and laugh around a campfire, or share a hot chocolate by a frozen lake

And above all, remember what brought you together in the first place. Chances are it’s because you’re looking for connection and communion, and that’s a great place to start building new ground to stand on together.

So, during this wonderful Christmas season, try a few of these tips as you gather with loved ones to celebrate the birth of Our Lord. You’ll be amazed to see common ground and peace grow, as true love casts out anxiety and fear.