Important Things We Can’t Seem to Talk About

Photo by Liza Summer on

Conflict is as old as Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve bickered over who was at fault for their joint act of eating the forbidden fruit. What strikes me about our present moment is that there seem to be so many things that are actually quite important that large parts of our society simply cannot talk about with other large parts of our society:

  • Public health measures in a pandemic.
  • How we will make the drastic changes to limit carbon emissions and mitigate the climate effects that are too late to prevent.
  • How we will face our deeply engrained history and patterns of racism and find ways to repair the damage and move toward the “beloved community.”
  • How we will stop “othering” those who are different than we are and recognize that common citizenship, whether in the nation or the world.
  • How we will address growing disparities of wealth and poverty; particularly when wealth has power to protect its position.
  • What it will take to move beyond gerrymandered politics in which political representatives must pander to extreme bases while the moderate middles that make up the majority don’t have anyone who speaks for them.

I don’t think this is a silver bullet for these really tough conversations. But I do think in our highly internet-mediated world we have forgotten how to talk with others, except those of our tribe. With others, we seem to have concluded that we can be nasty and dismissive and forget that they are human beings.

Tish Harrison Warren in a recent New York Times opinion piece suggests that we need to recover the art of small talk with our neighbors. I don’t have to leave my neighborhood to find those who see the world differently than I–political parties, social issues, race, religion, you name it. But we help each other find lost animals, share recommendations on home repairs, redeliver the mail our postal service regularly seems to scramble. Of course, we all share a love for our home town sports teams.

Can we extend that online? I notice that my “friends” who share what I think the most outrageous things, also share their personal joys and sorrows, the things common to all of us–the birth of a child or grandchild, a graduation, a serious illness, the death of a parent. Sometimes they will say things I can affirm. Do I ignore them, or express compassion or agreement.

We still haven’t gotten to the serious matters I mentioned above. That’s genuinely challenging and I am not sure I see the way forward, entirely, but I can’t help but wonder if caring for each other’s families, and especially our children and grandchildren is a decent common ground. The commonplaces that we love might just be a good enough reason to step into the hard work. The impasses that exist on so many important questions mean we very well could leave a pretty messed up world to those who follow. I so fear that part of my dying words, if I am permitted them, will be simply, “I’m sorry for the mess I’ve left you.”

While the scriptures say, “God so loved the world” they command us to love our neighbors. Neighbors are both tangible and situational. They are the people who live all around me. They are the ones with the immaculate yard, the barking dog, the kid who excels at everything. Neighbors are also situational. They are the ones who unexpectedly intrude into our life–like the girl at the fast food window who tells me she was hesitant to get vaccinated because of a relative who died shortly after getting one. There are logical answers to that and loving ones that recognize loss.

On a spring break urban project years ago with a church in St. Louis, we saw “re-neighboring” in action. In an area with a tenuous fabric of neighborhoods, people moved in, stayed, and cared and then worked to re-develop home ownership and mutual care in that neighborhood. We’re in a time as we struggle to emerge from the pandemic where we need to lean into “re-neighboring” both with tangible and situational neighbors.

Many of our global and national challenges do require concerted action. But I can’t help wonder if the basis for such action are healthy local communities that decide to really practice “neighboring” instead of being isolated into internet echo chambers susceptible to manipulation by the political machines and other nefarious actors. Maybe Mr. Rogers was right when he asked, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

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