Saint Francis prayed, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be understood, as to understand.” We love those words but seldom find the strength to live by them. We darned well want to be understood.
If only our adversaries could understand our views. Liberals and conservatives alike seek not so much to understand as to be understood. The inevitable result is that power and its abuse inevitably substitutes for understanding.
Admittedly I’m not good at understanding some folks. The thought processes of conservatives and Tea Partiers escape me. Judging by my email, mine escape them. Some believe this divide is genetic.
I think it’s more nurture than nature. My Dad was a proud member of the Teamsters Union. Mom was a waitress. Growing up in a blue-collar home, I learned to value labor unions and social justice at an early age. My parents told me stories of Franklin Roosevelt, how he saved the country from the dust bowl and the great depression. Democrats, they taught, cared for the “common man” while Republicans took care of big business.
Growing up with diverse friends, I never understood racism, homophobia, or sexism; discrimination just seemed wrong. To this day that’s what I believe and who I am. Those are my long-held beliefs.
What do we do with our long-held beliefs so we “may not so much seek to be understood, as to understand.” Perhaps that’s the key to avoiding the sort of political crises that are a now integral to American politics.
NY Times writer Thomas Edsall gave me pause for these thoughts. In an editorial titled “Anger Can Be Power” he wrote, “The depth and strength of voters’ conviction that their opponents are determined to destroy their way of life has rarely been matched, perhaps only by the mood of the South in the years leading up to the Civil War.”
Edsall cites a Bloomberg column offering a way of understanding conservatives. “Their party,” he writes, “is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities. A lot of Americans were not ready for a mixed-race president. They weren’t ready for gay marriage. They weren’t ready for the wave of legal and illegal immigration that redefined American demographics over the past two or three decades, bringing in lots of nonwhites.”
On the other side, we liberals won’t accept a country that isn’t ready for a non-white, even female president, or a country that doesn’t expand opportunities for minorities, or that doesn't allow people who love one another to marry. We aren’t ready for a country that won’t relinquish white-privilege or deports 12 million human beings who see America as the last best hope for their lives. We welcome what we know is coming, i.e. a nation where our neighbors of color outnumber our white neighbors.
We’ve embraced the science that warns us of the threats of climate change and supports a conclusion that people are who they are because that’s how God created them. We’ve embraced cultural and religious diversity.
But c’mon! How can anyone communicate with those who cheer when Ben Carson (a conservative celebrity crass enough to publicly insult the President to his face) says, “Obamacare is the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” Really? Worse than a Civil War, two world wars, the Great Depression, 9/11?
Or the Cheyenne Tea Party rally speaker who said “If we don’t turn America around in the next two years, you better be right with God.” It’s the old “God’s on our side, not yours” conversation-ender.
Or Larry Klayman of Freedom Watch, who screamed at a weekend rally, "I call upon all of you…to demand that this president leave town, to get up, to put the Quran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up.”
Where does one begin to understand, much less reach common ground with, people who say or cheer such babble?