Friday, January 14, 2011

A Mixed Message January 11 and January 14, 2011

Here we are on the other side of 2010, digging in to the reality of this new year.  There are already things to celebrate - including one that will be perhaps a bit obscure to some of you, though it makes me smile.

Last year, before 2010 blew up for me, I had the privilege of working with two local park associations to help them work/think through the possibility of merging their organizations.  The associations had already begun the work - they had a small group of board members from each organization ready to meet to discuss the pros and cons of the effort and had agreed about the importance of really exploring this big change.  All they needed was a neutral party to help them organize the discussion, ask the hard questions and stay on track to reach a decision.  I was lucky enough to be that neutral party for their initial discussions.

On January 11 the Daily Triplicate - our local newspaper - printed a front page article about the culmination of those discussions.  Where there were two organizations doing much the same work, there is now one.  Where there were two boards of directors, there is now one.  Where there were two similar visions and missions, there is now one and it's focused on helping the local state and national parks in our magnificent corner of the world.

Although I was only able to work on this project for a few early months, I am crazy proud to have been a part of it.  These excellent, focused people have accomplished a small and wonderful thing that will, I truly believe, make a difference to these parks and the thousands of visitors that enjoy them every year.  And this small miracle was accomplished in a desperate state budget situation where many organizations are struggling to keep their piece of the "pie," instead of coming together in a common sense way to view the work differently.

The example of this merger is, for me, a shining juxtaposition to what happened in Tuscon over this past weekend.  It may seem like a big jump in brain work (which I have been known for) to go from a successful local organization merger to national sadness about the tragic deaths and injuries of so many people, but I believe they are related in fundamental ways.  In one case, a new, shiny and good thing emerged from lots of talk, compromise and relationship building.  In the other, people lost their lives because an isolated (and mentally ill?) person short-circuited opportunities for talk, compromise and relationship building.  While most of us will never - thank God - use a gun to express our opinions, there are still aspects of the Tuscon tragedy that reflect disturbing trends among us.

I don't understand how we've moved so far apart that many of us are unable to listen to others, that so many of us seem to have highly personally negative opinions of people who don't agree with us, that so many of us are absolutely positive in the 'rightness' of our beliefs and the 'wrongness' of others.  I know that we have always been a nation of folks with strongly held opinions.  I just wonder when we came to believe that 'we' are so perfectly right that respectful listening has turned into opportunities to gather cynical insight into how 'they' think.  I wonder when we became so polarized that there is no room for respectful discourse, for enlightened discussion, for compromise and caring.

I grew up in a world where strongly held opinions were frequently expressed at loud volumes - whether about the latest kid mistake (there were more than enough) or political events.  I learned to be very quiet and to listen - in fact, I learned not to participate and to actually hate the kind of heated, out of control debate that politics often engenders. In these settings, I have always felt most comfortable in the listen and don't participate mode, but I also have felt a little like something was wrong with me because I didn't want to dig in and express my own strongly held opinions.

I've always worked in systems to make change...calmly, in an organized manner, with thoughtful debate about potential outcomes and solutions.  Lots can be accomplished this way.  The parks association merger is a great example.  After what happened in Tuscon, I believe more and more that we must all find calm, open and appreciative places to listen, discuss, work together and change.  We have to move back from the brinkmanship and the terribly nasty word-slinging that has become today's trademark.  What do we gain with all the mud and negative verbal energy?  How does it help us come together to shape our lives, communities and nations?

At the Phoenix memorial for the dead and injured on Wednesday evening, President Obama spoke a moving tribute for us to consider.  Here are a couple of particularly key points he made:

"But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized — at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do — it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we're talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds...

As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let's use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together...

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy — it did not — but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud."

Those of you that know how much I hate politics and political debate - for the reasons above - also know that I have thought about this blog long and hard.  I hate to be preached at and I don't like preaching...but this seems like such an important full stop in our busy worlds, a place I've really needed to think about business as usual and what that means today.  I've decided that I need to re-resolve to listen, to try to hear, to try to understand others' points of view...even if I never fully agree.  I need to remember that we all have strongly held opinions and that sometimes hearing opens up areas for compromise.  I need to do my part to solve problems and not just create more divergence.  I hope you'll think about it, too.

We each have the opportunity to make our worlds a tiny bit better every day.  Lots of tiny bits make for big change over time.  I'm going to keep trying. 

"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." Mother Teresa

BTW:  on the cancer-free front, I'm getting better every day.  I realized yesterday that I actually spent each and every day this week with my head above parallel to the ground (I didn't have to nap).  I know it seems silly to feel like this is an accomplishment, but when you've had to stop and nap virtually every day for the past nine months, it's progress.  I do still sleep 10 - 11 hours most nights, however.  Radiation skin has almost gone...hooray!

I hope you are all well and enjoying these first few weeks of 2011.  I'm still convinced this is going to be a fine year!