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What Each of Us Can Do to Unify

If we want our nation, our places of worship, our communities, our workplaces, and our homes to be unified, the task is up to each of us. Yes, leaders can do much in this space, but let us not underestimate our own agency in creating environments, larger and small, in which people are united in a common cause and at the same time are respected and valued for who they are, what they do and how they do it.

The biggest hinderance to unity of the larger whole is our own personal righteousness.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines righteousness as 1: acting in accord with divine or moral law: free from guilt or sin. 2a: morally right or justifiable a righteous decision. 2b: arising from an outraged sense of justice or morality righteous indignation.

It is interesting to me how this definition shows what a slippery slope righteousness can be. It begins will acting in accord with a divine or moral law. All good.

Then it moves to being free from guilt or sin – great to strive for, impossible to achieve.

And then the paradox – of the outraged sense of justice or morality righteous indignation.

I observe this righteous indignation on the right and on the left. By Republicans and Democrats. With MAGA loyalists and with never Trumpers. Of people from the full spectrum of religious beliefs: the Evangelicals, other faith traditions and even the unchurched. I see it in myself, and that grieves me.

Righteousness goes awry when it becomes narrowly defined without a larger context. It is toxic when it morphs into an outraged sense of justice or morally righteous indignations. It subverts the quest for adhering to moral law the moment it moves into the belief that one (or one’s group) is free from sin and as such, have the right to be outraged or control other’s behaviors or beliefs.

Righteousness does not often make us right. It is more likely to make us rigid, judgmental, and most often a caricature of the thing we were morally indigent about in the first place.

It is true that we sow, we reap. When we sow hatred, hate grows, When we sow compassion, understanding multiplies. When we sow indignation, anger spreads. When we treat others as “less than”, we are diminished.

One can claim truthfully that they believe their way is the right way. For a belief is merely an individual mental construct of the story you have made to create order in your life. Claiming a belief is different than claiming your belief is an absolute imperative.

Your belief may be that your political party has the superior approach to governing, but the observable truth is that many agree with you and many others see it a different way. You may believe that your religious tradition is “the way”, but the facts just don’t stack up. The reality is that there are 1,200 Christian denominations in the US alone and 34,000 worldwide. In fact, there are approximately 55 different Baptist bodies in the US alone. And that is only within humans who claim Christ as their savior, not counting all the other various worldwide religions.

The hard truth then is that there are 55 different ways of being a Baptist and 1,200 different ways of being a Christian. Interesting that one can claim that their belief system is the uniquely superior way.

Striking the balance between unity and diversity is a challenge, but one worth pursuing.

There is a natural tension between unity (which holds a group together) and diversity (which enables individual divergence). The US has navigated these tensions since its formation, at times more successfully than others. Those tensions include:

  • Finding the line between free speech and when speech becomes harmful to individual or the greater good.
  • Balancing the rights of the individual with the rights of the group
  • Protecting religious freedom and the ability to practice your religion while allowing others to practice a different one
  • Maintaining the checks and balances that comes with three branches of government: executive, judicial, and legislative

Unity happens when a disparate grouping of unique individual parts work together in service of the larger whole.

Today we seem to have confused unity versus conformity. Take the human body as an example. The building block is cellular, but even cells differ depending on what part of the body they are a part of. Feet are different than hands and legs are different than arms, but each serve their purpose in the larger whole. The brain is different than the gut, but they are connected in ways we are just now beginning to understand. For our bodies to be at their optimal, each element has a specific part to play, none the same as the others, yet working in concert to make the whole something far greater than the individual parts.

Conformity is when others seek to impose others to be just like them. In Hitler’s reign, blonde and blue eyed was good. All else was not. And such began the purge of millions of humans that did not conform.

The question facing us today as a society is how do we come together as unique parts of a larger whole?  How do be become better together? Or the darker, other side of that question: can we even survive if we are pitted one against another and seek to destroy that which is different?

As Abraham Lincoln stated:

 “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”.

If like me, you are tired of the divide, tired of the infighting that seeds inaction, and tired of the violence and hatred, let’s agree to do some things individually, that move us toward unity.

Every small action can be like a ripple in a pond. Each ripple may seem relatively insignificant individually but reaches out into infinity. Multiple ripples can begin to intersect – and over time dramatically change the landscape of our families, our workplaces, our communities, and our nation.

I do not pretend to have all the answers, but I know some places that are a good start. As such, I’m calling on people of good will who seek to make this country (and world) truly a “more perfect union” to create some ripples by taking some small actions that, collectively, can begin to heal.

Here are three ways we might begin:

  1. Notice when you are in judgement mode.

Begin to monitor your internal reactions and dialogue about situations. Notice when you begin to assign “right” and “wrong” (or become righteous). Once you notice it happening, hit pause and examine your thoughts and feelings.

Truth be told, we’ve all had comeuppances where we made an immediate judgement about someone only to find we are totally wrong once we understood the situation more.

A few years ago, a homeless man approached me as I did my son’s laundry in San Diego. My first reaction was defensiveness and concern for my personal safety. On the street, I could have easily side-stepped a homeless person and moved on. In the laundromat, with six washers full of clothes and limited seating, I had fewer options. What ensued was a conversation that opened my heart and mind to the plight so many homeless individuals face. He was a middle-aged man who had worked all his life and held a “respectable” middle class life. A work injury caused him to lose his job and he had been unable, despite his work ethic to get back on his feet. Yes, he was homeless, yet even in that situation he was helping others. He was there washing clothing for those staying in a homeless shelter a few blocks away.

That conversation changed me. I learned more about homelessness. I was embarrassed about some of the immediate judgements I had made about him based only on my misinformed preconceptions about an entire group of people in a tough situation. Had I not opened just enough to notice my judgements, get over my fears enough to have a conversation  and be open to a different interpretation, I would have lost an huge opportunity to grow.

2. Identify the story you are telling about the “other” and then construct at least two more stories that might be plausible.

As humans, we create narratives and stories all the time about situation. It helps us make meaning and provides guidance in how to respond. Too often the stories are our own fiction, rather than true fact. Sadly, they also reflect our biases and blind spots.

Here is a simple example. I had a coaching client that began missing deadlines, forgetting to show for our meetings and not following through on actions they had committed to. My initial story was one centered on their ingratitude for my work and their ineptitude at managing their life. A fellow coach challenged me on my interpretation of the situation (#1 above) and asked what else might be happening.

With that prompt, I could craft several other stories. One was that a family member was ill (which was true) and that this person was distracted. Another was that it was not malicious, but a lack in organizational and planning skills. This too was plausible, as that was indeed a coaching goal we had set. A third was that the person was overcommitted at work and making the best decisions given multiple demands.

It was not difficult to construct three other highly plausible explanations for the behavior I was seeing. Each subsequent “story” helped me lessen my tendency to judge and place blame outside myself. It made my coaching client more human. And I showed me that I just didn’t know what was happening.

Notice how my first stories often made me right and the other wrong. This is most often the case. Unless challenged to construct other possibilities, we jump to the conclusion that puts us in the best light and the other in the worst. As such, when you get into judgement mode about another, notice, pause and then construct three other stories that might explain the situation.

3. Open your mind, be curious and have a real conversation.

If we have noticed our own righteousness gone awry (#1) and stopped to create alternative scenarios (#2), the final step is to get closer to the other person (or group’s) truth.

This is perhaps the most difficult part, for it requires us to:

    • Step into what we fear will be a difficult situation
    • Listen without judgement
    • Be humble
    • Be open to new ideas and thoughts

As humans, we tend to protect our own worldview, for many reasons. It has worked for us in the past. Those around us my have shaped those ideas and shifting them feels as if we might risk those relationships. We may have to admit we were wrong about something or just that there are different ways to think about things. Be mostly we have to be human and vulnerable – and that can be an uncomfortable spot.

The famous F. Scott Fitzgerald quote serves us well here:

 “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

One must enter these conversations with an underlying goal of learning and understanding. This is far different than arguing or converting or winning. It is a conversation based on seeing the other, honoring them as whole and wanting to learn more about them. It is about listening more that talking.

Here are some great prompts:

  • Are you willing to have a conversation about X?
  • I’d like to know how you see this…
  • Tell me more about…
  • I curious to know about…
  • Would you be willing to share….

I’ve yet to have one of these conversations where a true connection and deeper understanding was made. And all the reading I’ve done about healing divides comes back to one simple premise:

Thoughtful dialogue with deep respect creates insights, heals wounds and creates unity.

The wonderful thing is that you don’t have to go it alone. Communities and organizations everywhere are creating forums where each person can share their story and be heard. One example, Lift every Voice, is occurring Feb. 25-27 and you can learn more here. The Human Library has wonderful methodology and events that create a structure for these conversations.  There are many more – one only must look.

I’ll end with a passage from Rumi:

Like a sculptor, if necessary,

carve a friend out of stone.

Realize that your inner sight is blind

and try to see a treasure in everyone.”

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