This Thanksgiving, I find myself thinking about how we can create a table (literally and figuratively) where we can have the ideas and commitments we feel strongly about, and yet stay connected to each other. How can we set the table that holds a shared commitment to curiosity and inquiry – together — to understand how we can care deeply for each other — and also understand what it is that may be hard to understand.
It is no wonder. My passions have always been coherency and coordination. I did not know those were the terms until I met Barnett Pierce in 1998, but essentially those two things are what I yearn for. Maybe these yearnings relate to the degree of confusion and dissonance in my home growing up. Maybe I was socialized early to confusion and lack of coherence. I grew up feeling safe in a community that had a drum beat of “never again”. Yet we stressed embracing a less fortunate “stranger” out loud while we whispered that you can never full trust a powerful and unnamed “them” .
Last week I was in a conversation with a client about inclusion.. When we talk about inclusion we inevitably create a sense of exclusion for some – for anyone who doesn’t include themselves in that conversation. Sometimes, that person is someone who is not used to being labeled with a social identity– be it race, gender, no binary re race gender culture etc. I shared a metaphor that has been my go to recently– that of a bridge. In order to build a bridge, we need strong footings. We need to be rooted in a structure from which to bridge. Identity is that structure. And yet, identity is complex.
As I anticipate Thanksgiving, I have much to be thankful for. I have an amazing family My children are not just people I love dearly. They are my first choice of people I would like to spend time with; I like them; I respect them; and I learn from them continuously. I love my extended family and am enjoying the ever-expanding list of second and third cousins that are showing up thanks to ancestry.com. And I have friends who are my chevre – a Hebrew term that cannot be translated when it comes to a package of qualities – friends, confidants, and people who show up for each other. In many ways, the foundations of my bridge are strong.
And yet, as I anticipate Thanksgiving, I know that there are some conversations we will have quietly on the side so as not to offend. I had an insight in the past year regarding social engagements with others who may have different political views. I have come to conclude that the very agreements and commitments I facilitate with my clients to prepare for deep and potentially challenging conversations are becoming important for our social spaces. You know – those familiar agreements that include:
- Listen listen listen
- Notice where you are uncomfortable – and explore that for yourself
- Be curious
- Notice your judgements and hold them lightly as you seek to understand
- Pause and breath
I came to this conclusion after an unanticipated conversation last year brunch I co-hosted with a group of friends. Some guests took for granted homogeneity of views among those present. When difference surfaced, the conversation took on a quality of debating who was right and who was wrong; who was being vilified and who was justified. People were frustrated with each other. The conversation went from debate and fact checking to superficial chatter. After people left, there was a flurry of phone calls — mostly expressing frustration with what had transpired. Nothing felt resolved; people were more set in their own stories than ever.
Following that day, I thought long and hard about what I could have done. Here is the very work I do with clients every day, and I failed when it came to hosting a brunch. And then, I thought about what it is that supports creating the bridge when working with challenging conversations. In order to have the bridge, you have to have the foundation, your own grounding in your identity. But you also need something to support the bridge as it reaches out over open water, and it needs to be flexible.
The forces of the public discourse have become such that reaching out over that empty space feels more perilous than ever. We have to intentionally remind ourselves of our values and of the conditions for creating a feeling of safety– even in an informal setting, and setting conversational norms helps us do that. At first glance that could feel like shifting from a social space to a workshop, but in my experience it helps support the structure of the bridge even in informal conversation. And I am not the only one who recognizes this. In some families, they have made a rule that politics is not to be part of the Thanksgiving table conversation. I have been in a cab where the driver informs me that he has a “no politics” rule. If we can say what we do not talk about, let’s begin to be more explicit about what IS important to us–respect, listening, love– and make that the highest context.
And we do that– we do that when we welcome those we love; when we open with a prayer of gratitude– and that is what I will do when I host this week.