Can we extend hands to one another and find common political ground?

MARLBORO — It is Martin Luther King day, a day when we honor a man and a movement for civil rights unique in our nation's history, and so it is appropriate that I am spending today contemplating the civil rights we so desperately need.

The event, Crossing Political Divides, is an attempt by many of us in the area to find a way over the gulfs that seem wider every day. Some 45 of us have gathered in a classroom at the School for International Training to see if those divides are too great or if we can still reach across.

As a beginning, we are watching a short clip of Van Jones, a Black man with political power, discussing politics with a family on the opposite side.

The man who says it is our last chance is white, a Trump voter, and a man who, in that moment, I entirely agree with. This is our last chance to get it right. We are both patriots. We both see the needs of our country. We both feel, desperately, that things cannot go on as they have.

And yet, if we get any more specific than that, we cannot agree. What he feels is progress to me feels like loss. What I think is righteous to him feels like weakness. What we each think is patriotism to the other seems like treason.

Yet here is one more piece of common ground. It is plain to everyone, on all sides: these divides are helping no one.

As we carry on with the discussion, Michelle shows us one way to communicate with respect; Angela tells us about a gulf she is trying to bridge in her own life; we all think about the friends, loved ones, coworkers, classmates, and members of our community who differ from us.

The others are still us. It doesn't matter how they voted, or if they voted. Maybe they carried on for Bernie Sanders. Maybe they voted enthusiastically or pragmatically for Hillary Clinton. Maybe they turned to Gary Johnson and Jill Stein with more protest than hope.

Maybe they left the primary in disgust without a candidate. Maybe they decided that Donald Trump was their last, best hope for a good job. Maybe they thought there was no point.

It doesn't matter. If any of them found any of us off the road in a snowbank this winter, they would have pulled us out.

We're all well off the road in our politics these days.

As we continue to share, we talk in small groups about the people we don't know how to talk to. We share about our close friends and family who seem much less close, and wonder why. We practice with kindness, and curiosity, and willingness to listen. We share whatever seems like a bridge to us.

As the afternoon progresses, nuance emerges. I think nuance is probably the bitter enemy or partisanship, since so much of our politics relies on making enemies of one another.

And it's human nature to do that - we all feel a little more like “us” when we have a “them” to compare to. But nuance forces us out of comfortable labels and into less-defended territory. Paradoxically, it is safer to be honest when everyone is uncertain. Doubt is a virtue.

When we practice the conversations we wish to have, role-playing the people we want to talk to, we realize together that scripts and prescriptions are only a beginning. We have to use language that matters to one another. We have to listen to opposing views and try to understand them instead of trying to destroy them. We have to be honest and direct, but also kind and uncertain. We have to cross the divides in our minds before we can cross the ones in our communities.

It is only the first meeting, and most of us leave wishing we had more time. The conversation feels unfinished - but that is how such conversations are likely to end. People do not change their minds merely because they see another side, so when we talk with our families and friends we must remember that agreeing to talk is progress in itself.

The second session took place Feb. 11. The third will be 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Feb. 26 at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in West Brattleboro. Anyone is welcome. Everyone is welcome. Hopefully, we can begin to cross divides together.

Can it work? It's hard to say. We've spent so long digging out the chasms that separate us, so long posting guards and occupying all the ground. No small step can get across, nor even a giant leap.

All we can do is extend our hands to the nearest people.

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