I love NPR and I love Melissa Block – her voice is so perfect for radio. But I have officially reached my limit of stories about the red state/blue state nature of our country. The handwringing is becoming as painful as nails on a chalkboard. Every media outlet – shoot, even our president – is dedicated to exposing the differences in our country and how terrible they are. Sure, we are a nation that is deeply divided not only on the issue of guns, but probably on any other issue you can think of: politics, abortion, religion, gay marriage, welfare and more. Cars hate bicyclists. Yankees fans hate the Red Sox. People with front gardens hate dogs. Bird lovers hate cats. People who exercise hate people who don’t. We are a tribal species, and hate is everywhere.
My point is that it always has been. Why must we focus on it so much?Years ago my husband Rob and I took a whitewater kayaking class. There were about twelve of us in the group and one instructor. The class took place on an easy section of the Chattooga river in north Georgia. We practiced handling our boats in relatively still water as our instructor watched and gave advice about the rapids ahead. He told us where to aim our boats and how to hold our paddles and, most importantly, where not to look.
“Don’t look at the rock,” he said. There was a big flat rock to the right of the rapids that looked unfriendly. We all looked at it nervously. “Your kayak will go where you look. So look straight down the middle of the rapids and you’ll be fine. We’ll re-group at the bottom.”One by one we each ran the five foot section of rapids. All of us made it except one guy, who was stuck on the rock. Before paddling back upstream to help him, our instructor asked us what he did wrong.
“He looked at the rock,” we all said.“Exactly.”
I felt for the guy, and I was glad it wasn't me. It was hard not to look at the rock. I’m pretty sure I closed my eyes and the boat just found its own way down, like an old horse heading back to the barn.These “chasms” in our country are like the rock. Shining a spotlight only on these differences masks the diversity of opinions people hold and the ways we connect within our chasms. If we keep focusing on what divides us, we’ll get stuck there and not see all the wonderful beauty around us that is moving and changing.
Whether you have noticed it or not, within every group are bridges between individuals. No one has just one opinion. People are complex; even within our chasms we are not clones. For example, I love dogs, especially pit bulls. Within my group of like-minded pit bull lovers are people with wildly divergent views on things like gun control, gay marriage, politics and whether bourbon or scotch is the better drink. Some are overweight and smoke; some are Buddhist vegans. Some have kids; some don’t. When I interact with these people about pit bulls, I am exposed to their other opinions about other issues. And this is not only good, it is natural and has been happening for all time and will probably contune to happen.So try not to look at the rock and instead learn something from the water. It flows around some rocks, over others and between even more all while usually staying within its banks.