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Dad Next Door: Across the Great Divide



A little encouragement from across the fence

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

On November 9, we awoke to a nation split down the middle. Half of America celebrated that their country had been given back to them, while the other half despaired that it had been taken away. One election, one result, two completely different outcomes. We stared across the chasm at the people on the other side, wondering: “What in God’s name are they thinking?”

The vitriol of this campaign was shocking. Basic civility gave way to name-calling, threats and slurs. Collectively, we sustained deep, festering wounds, and unless we figure out how to heal them, they are the legacy we will pass on to our children. We have to do better than that. But how?

This rift didn’t open overnight. It began years ago, with the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s, the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, and the shrinking of the middle class. But perhaps no wedge has driven us further apart than the emergence of the internet and cable news as the lenses through which we see the world. 

Twenty years ago, most people constructed their opinions from the same building blocks: network news, the local paper, TIME and Newsweek, the hair salon and the corner bar. But now we have access to hundreds of media outlets, tailor-made for every conceivable audience and point of view.  

In theory, this explosion of information should have created a well-informed society. In practice, it did the opposite. Now that we have a choice, most of us select news sources that confirm our biases and validate our views. We glide through cyberspace like self-contained satellites, consuming pre packaged diets of Fox News or Huffington Post, drifting further and further apart.

But recently, someone I know managed to reverse that trend. A childhood friend of hers reached out on Facebook after losing contact for 30 years. At first she was delighted, but soon realized that they had grown up to occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum. Their differences were profound, and threatened to snuff out their rediscovered friendship before it began. But instead of giving up, they tried an experiment. For one month, they each read, watched and listened to the sources of information that had formed the other’s point of view.  For one of them, this brought a deeper understanding of the other’s faith and the way it translated into belief. For the other, it dislodged some deeply held assumptions, and triggered a political shift that continues today. Their friendship not only survived, it thrived and deepened. 

I love that story, both for the hope and courage it gives and for the path it offers going forward. The secret sauce that made it work is our way out of this dumpster fire, and it’s a gift we can pass on to our children: curiosity.

When confronted with ideas that contradict our own, the first thing humans do is resist. We launch counterarguments, judge the motives and intelligence of others, and reinterpret the evidence to fit our beliefs. But there is another option. Instead of sitting in judgment, or preparing for battle, we can turn toward those who see the world differently and ask: “Why?”  We can be curious. 

To practice curiosity is to embrace the unknown and the unexpected with an open heart and an observant mind. That’s a lot harder than it sounds. It’s always more comfortable to assume we have the answers than to risk being wrong. And whether we mean to or not, that’s the message we give our children. We reward them for being correct, not for admitting their mistakes. We grade them on their answers, not their questions. And rather than modeling curiosity and openness, we rush to judgment again and again. 

After this election, many worry that our deep divisions will explode into violent conflict, or paralyze us with endless discord while urgent problems go unsolved. In the face of all that, a prescription for simple curiosity seems insufficient and naive. But I would argue that the simplest changes are often the most profound. Unfortunately, they are also the most difficult.  

When you find yourself smack in the middle of an ugly, desperate, seemingly irreparable mess, your first impulse is to walk away. Don’t. This world, no matter how damaged and deranged, is still the one our children will wake up to tomorrow. We have work to do.

There’s an old story about a group of students who sought out their rabbi for advice. They knew the importance of early morning prayer, but disagreed strongly about the exact moment when morning begins. The rabbi listened patiently as one by one, the students argued for their particular point of view. When everyone had spoken, they asked him to decide, once and for all, when night gives way to day. 

“It is the moment,” he said, “when you can see your own face reflected in your neighbor’s eyes. That is when the darkness finally ends.”

Jeff Lee is going through denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance of the Electoral College in Seattle.

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