The frail woman gawked at me in complete disbelief; her anxiety etched into the lines of her face and held rigidly in her body.
“How can you sit there calmly? How can you not care about this? What if the terrorists win? What if the world economy collapses and we all end up standing in food lines?”
I was unsure what exactly it was she needed me to do in that moment? I was unclear how my freaking out on a summer afternoon in a small town in west Georgia was going to stop terrorism, hatred, fear, or the ultimate demise of the planet.
“What will you do if we all end up in food lines?” she pressed.
“Well,” I said as I gathered my thoughts. I wanted to give as honest answer as I could from my current vantage point. “Well, I guess I will just stand in food lines with everybody else. I guess I will lean on my friends and family when I need to and when I can and I will try to be aware of where I can be of service to others. Hm…” my ideas were starting to form more coherently now. “I guess I will try to do what I do now, which is just try and live my life to the best of my ability, as authentically as possible, under whatever circumstances I find myself in. I’m not sure what else to do other than that.”
That was several years ago and I hear myself echoing these same words on social media and in conversations as the negativity and anger and polarization heat up and often boil over in this country as we approach another election.
Today my husband and I were walking in our neighborhood, when a car we didn’t recognize pulled up to us. We didn’t know the driver; turns out she lives just a few blocks away. She was extremely angry about a few teenagers who had been causing problems in the area. In truth, I knew who the kids were, and I agreed that they were acting without regard to the safety and rights of others.
I should just go ahead and be very clear about my ever-evolving relationship with neighbors. When my children were little, I had to have words with a neighbor’s teenagers about speeding on the street. We have been the home to host neighborhood ice cream parties and the neighbor others have come to for help.
We have also been the neighbor who had the pound called on them because our dog was a world class escape artist for the first four years of her life. We have also been the neighbors who have caused others to call the police when my oldest son lived at home and played drums, though we tried hard to communicate with neighbors and be respectful of their needs.
I had complete sympathy with this particular woman about her issues. I believed that the kids in question were making life difficult and potentially dangerous for others. I appreciated the efforts she was making to keep our neighborhood safe. It is also important to me that I live in a connected and happy neighborhood and this woman was not using words that made me feel connected or safe for myself or the children she was speaking about.
We listened and talked with her a little, trying to find common ground and to ignore her remarks that were filled with anger and hatred. A couple of times her rhetoric crossed a line for me, especially when she bordered on wishing that the kids would get hurt. At that point I’d had enough.
“You know,” I interrupted, “I agree with you about the problems and I appreciate what you’re doing to address it, but I just don’t agree with the anger and hatred, and I certainly hope no one gets hurt.”
This, strangely, stopped her in her tracks.
“Well…no,” she flustered. “I don’t really want anyone hurt either. I am really angry though and I want it stopped, but, no, I don’t want anyone to be hurt.”
It would have been easy enough to join the bandwagon. It certainly would have been more comfortable to ignore her comments or laugh along, but it wouldn’t have been authentic. And in that moment, that was enough. It was enough to stop the momentum of her rant and it was enough to just call it out in a neutral way. It was not necessary to criticize or belittle her. It was enough to come from the place of community; a community that includes this woman, myself and these children.
And this is how we create change.
You are enough. Just you. Right here. Right now. Just you being you. Just speaking your truth from a point of connection and community. In this way, we change the course of our culture and move toward a more common ground as we face our varied needs and values together.