What would it take for two people from the opposite sides of a divide to talk with one another so they can have a genuine, respectful encounter? The world has been full of so many divides – violent ones involving the Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda, Israelis and Palestinians, and non violent ones with Spaniards and Catalans being one example. All of these call for healing and coming to terms with “The Other.” It all starts with understanding, and understanding – getting to know and appreciate the world of The Other – is difficult. Reaching out to The Other is something few of us ever do or want to do. Seldom is there constructive contact between people across a divide, and the divisions remain solid, often for generations or even centuries.
The reasons for this lack of connection are obvious. Most of us have only a superficial knowledge of the person on the other side, an understanding that is immersed in our own ideas, preconceived notions and prejudices – the narrative we have about this group. Especially where there has been conflict between two groups or nations, there is a deep seated, unshakable feeling that people on one side have at their core – that the other group has done us violence – we have been murdered, wronged or dispossessed by them (sometimes this is a sentiment shared by both sides). The suffering we have endured because of the other group is indescribable – we cannot forgive and we will never forget. Those of us who in some way feel victimized by the other group have been holding on to this narrative for a long time, and it has become part of our identity. We don’t question our view of The Other. Rather, we invest constantly in keeping it alive and reaffirming it. First, we avoid any contact with The Other – the idea of talking with members of the other group and getting acquainted with them is akin to betrayal of our own people, even if members of the other group live on the other side of the same town or village. We constantly stoke the fires of our own ignorance and even hatred of The Other through what we consume – what we read, the people we talk with, even what we hear at our places of worship. This is how divides are perpetuated and become intractable.
But what if we pause for a moment to consider that maybe this narrative is harmful first of all to ourselves, that hanging on to old enmities is keeping us feeling embittered and victimized, that this feeling is not helping us solve the large problems facing humanity, that maybe the time has come to move beyond it? This immediately brings up a set of questions: how do you do this, where do you start? Reaching out to people on the Other Side takes resolve and courage. We have to (at least temporarily) be willing to put aside our own narrative and biases and approach The Other with respect. We have to be willing to listen, and that means being ready to take in that person’s pain. That’s very hard, because if you truly take in that person’s pain, you are realizing that in his eyes you’ve wronged him. We also have to be able to speak to our own pain clearly and without recrimination. Fortunately, there are examples of people who have done this and are doing this. Yet the ability to talk constructively and work to overcome differences is rare. This is not a well known set of practices that are easily available. If we see our mission as one of healing differences, one way we can do this is by disseminating this art of intentionally approaching The Other and making it more accessible.
I am writing with an invitation: let’s start understanding this process of reconciling with The Other with ourselves. We already know a lot about dialogue and listening. If we want to help others have constructive meetings across divides and heal, let’s start by sharing what we know. In that spirit, here are some questions. The intent behind these questions is to “unpack” what it takes for two groups with a disagreement (or worse) to talk with one another. That’s why these questions are rather detailed. Whatever you can contribute – however many questions you can answer, will help us shed more light on this area.
• Do you know of examples where people have deliberately spent time talking with the people they have considered The Other in order to bring about more understanding or possibly reconciliation? Have you been involved in such conversations yourself?
• How was contact between the two groups made? Was it initiated by one group or maybe one individual? How did this group approach the other group? Was this a smooth process or were there some “bumps” as contact was being made? If there were challenges, how were those handled? Did the challenges continue to “hang in the air” not fully resolved?
• When it came to the actual dialogue, what took place? Was a specific approach or methodology used to assist in the conversations? How were emotionally charged times or anger handled? Was this one meeting or a series? If this was a series of encounters, over what length of time did they take place? How many people were involved?
• What about the results or outcomes? Was progress made – was there an easing of tensions, better or deeper understanding of The Other (and of oneself) over time? Would the participants call this experience a success (or not)?
• Was there a sustainable change in the people who were involved? If they were able to form a different view of The Other and their relationship, did this perception last? Have the two groups attempted to maintain contact, or did each group go back to its side of the divide and retrench?
There are probably more than enough questions here, and these will no doubt lead to yet others.
As you probably appreciate, I am posing this invitation and questions with the hope that with your participation, we can begin building shared knowledge that can later spread beyond our immediate group and be instrumental in healing discord. This is a good time to reconnect with Margaret Mead’s powerful message:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”