In my twenties I experienced a phase that was personally very empty and frustrating. I’d had a couple of serious relationships that ended, though I had believed each would result in marriage. I’d wandered into a string of temporary job positions not really knowing what I wanted to “do with my life” other than raise a family with the right person. At the end of the year 2000 I had reached the peak of opportunity where I worked, and though I loved my co-workers, I knew it was time to do something different. I remember spending New Year’s day alone in my apartment, a little depressed, and very ready for a change. I built a fire and spent the day assessing the things from the past year that had gone wrong; I listed my regrets on a sheet of paper, and eventually I burned the list in my fire. Then I started a new list – a list of everything that I could think of that I’d like to do. Energized by my new list, I made another list of every contact who could possibly offer a new employment opportunity and I resolved get myself unstuck. I dubbed the year 2001 “The Year of the Yes,” and I made a pact with myself that I had to accept every invitation I received that year, regardless of whether I was comfortable with it, as long as the invitation was safe.
And so began major changes in my life. It was possibly the most important deliberate decision I ever made. Within a month I had a new job in a new city, which was scary, but full of promise. Two months later I found myself on a plane with two girlfriends headed to New York City to stay with another college friend for a four-day weekend. I said yes to every blind date my friends set up for me, and even to a man I met while out jogging my usual evening route. (I still don’t know why that guy asked out a sweaty, frizzy-haired runner, but whatever.) I planned a trip to Italy and started learning conversational Italian. And I met my husband, a stranger who called me up one day asking me to lunch. I never would have said yes without that vow I’d made to myself earlier in the year.
2017 seems like a good year to take another deliberate tack. I can feel the winds of change, and I’ve learned that it’s important to adjust my sails or else be blown over or left behind.
Nothing has shown me more clearly how fragile our democracy is than the still-unfolding story of the United States 2016 election. The fake news stories, the Russian hacking, and the immense anger and frustration of millions of Americans contributed to the election of Donald Trump, a man whose daily reactionary Tweets fill me with unease. Before Trump was elected, the news on the right was full of fear-mongering. Now the news on the left is full of fear-mongering.
It’s a blasé tune.
We aren’t going to get past this mess that has begun unless we learn from our mistakes and deliberately step forward, one day and one conversation at a time, without fear, and without the drama. It’s time to be brave.
So I ask myself what I can do differently this year, armed with this new knowledge, that will unite people rather than further divide? What difference can I, in my small corner of the world, make? In what ways was I culpable in the past for the state our country is in? I think the process of discernment is going to continue, but the past few weeks of reflection have shown me at least a couple of points on which to start.
One is recognizing and dismantling the ancient tribalism of us versus them. We all do this. It is as innate as our animal nature. Humans constantly divide each other into subgroups: “He’s a man, so he doesn’t understand me”. “She’s a Republican so we have nothing to talk about.” “They aren’t Christian, so they must be sinners.” “They’re Mexican, so they must be here illegally.” And on it goes. Recognizing it in ourselves is the first step; engaging and finding common ground is the next step. I think I’m pretty good at recognizing it in myself, but engagement is a little harder for me. I have an introverted nature, but that can no longer be an excuse for detachment. Like my “Year of the Yes” I might need a “Year of Engagement” to better connect with others.
Perhaps another starting point is mindful conversation. How many times have I quietly listened to someone talk about something I disagreed with, without offering a different perspective? Too many, I’m afraid. I don’t like confrontation, but I’m learning that disagreement doesn’t have to be confrontational. And if we are to connect, we have to communicate. There are ways we can ask one another questions in order to dig deeper and find common ground. We usually aren’t as far apart as we think we are, and sharing our different perspectives of a situation provides a more 3-dimensional quality than any of us can get from own singular viewpoints.
These seem like small changes, but with mindful deliberation, they might provide a course correction in my own small life. All any of us can ever really do are small acts rooted in our values. So in the spirit of new year’s resolutions, I’ll summarize and make my declaration, with you, dear reader, as my witness: 2017 will be my “Year of Engagement and Connection.”