Common ground (phrase): a foundation for mutual understanding
There were eight students in the class, four men and four women. Four were white and four were not. Two were immigrants to America. Two men worked at the little private college in maintenance; two were women in their fifties. A couple of young professionals, a stay-at-home mom who volunteered in her Somali community, a dignified older man finally enrolled in college after he’d sent all his kids to school: all busy adults taking night courses, enrolled in degree programs, working hard, and seeking better, richer lives for themselves, and for their families.
The course itself was a kind of hybrid freshman seminar, sort of English comp meets thoughtful-discussion-of-current-issues. The college provided a common book. That year, 2004, it was a journalist’s discussion of how, in post-9/11 times, the rest of the world viewed and considered the United States, as a government, and as a people,–which, we found, were two very different perspectives.
We met in a kind of conference room, around a table that would seat twelve comfortably–the perfect room, the perfect size, for this small troupe. The room was on the third and highest floor of a blocky brick building; it was a corner room, and we could look out over the university’s green lawns and watch the quiet neighborhoods of the suburb settle into evening. There was something lightened and safe about the space, and there was something about the people enrolled and the subject matter involved that allowed a free and open exchange.
All the students came with defenses down and doors wide open, with real curiosity about what the others thought and knew and felt. They demolished barriers from the first meeting, wanting to meet on level ground, to hear real talk about real issues. No one snorted derisively, for instance, when one of the working men spoke of feeling passed over by affirmative action-type programs; the students listened, and considered, and asked questions. And the others openly shared their experiences, too–as people of color in competitive markets, as older workers trying to remain viable and vital. Their classmates absorbed their words and wrestled with meaning.
Early on, it left off being a class and became a kind of team. Attendance was not an issue; they came, eager for the next discussion, open to learning, ready to share.
During Ramadan, Saara, the Somali woman, brought in food to break her daily fast. We would watch as the windows darkened, working until the sun took its late autumn slide, and then she would unpack a basket, set out plates for all of us, and pass everyone a kind of fried pie. Everyone tucked in; no one picked up the unusual (and tasty) food and examined it skeptically. Saara talked about her faith and her country and her brother, a military officer who was murdered by the new regime in her old homeland. She told us of her work with the Somali people in her neighborhood, helping them navigate unfamiliar systems and find the supports they needed to be successful.
As she spoke to us, calmly and confidently, in a voice lilted by intonations learned on different shores, her world grew familiar–not exotic and other, but everyday and real. As did the lives of the other people–the single mothers in their fifties, one struggling with a grown child’s mental illness; the father taking the chance to educate himself after launching his six kids; the vibrant and successful young salesman who really yearned to be a college professor; the working guys; the young assistant director of college admissions…all of them met in the right place at just the right time.
They did good work, that class. Well, seriously, they blew me away; they did great work. On the last night we met, they all brought food to share, and they compiled lists of email addresses so they could stay in touch. Charles, the salesman, agreed to come and talk during a career exploration segment of a tech writing class I was teaching during Spring term at a community college. Mary, one of the older women, gave me a beautiful hand-painted wooden box; it still, today, holds my letters and stationery. They stood awkwardly when the class wound down, reluctant to leave the tiny and temporary utopia we’d enjoyed for 16 weeks.
I waited until they had all left, cleaned up crumpled napkins, tidied the classroom, lingering at a college where, having accepted a full-time position elsewhere, I would probably never teach again. What a gift for me, as an instructor, to have had the chance to meet and work with these amazing people. These totally unique, very disparate folks who had entered into a kind of covenant, all there for a common purpose, all finding common ground.
It is evening, and I am scrolling through my FaceBook feed. I see a post from a person I know professionally, respect professionally, and don’t even come close to agreeing with politically. The post is entitled something like, “A Letter to My Child,” and it explains this man’s disagreement with my point of view. I slow down to read it.
It is thoughtfully written, I concede, although I quickly decide there are fallacies a mile wide in several of the arguments. And it is, my prissy English teacher inner voice opines, a little glib. But it is honest and an attempt to share an opposing view.
But I know my view is right. Although I’m reading, I am not listening.
Then I read the responses. There are many, and they are mostly strident, some in support of, and some opposed to, this man’s stance. One of the opposed is someone very dear to me; she has launched an attack on the writer’s post that is shrill and laced with vulgarities and that hits at him very personally. The violence of it makes me recoil–even though, on all the issue’s points, I agree with her.
I feel a sinking dread in the pit of me. I think of these two fine people, and the chasm that yawns between them. What could ever cause two people so strongly bastioned in their fervent beliefs to find a common ground?
About a month before the election, my son James and I were driving to a little town fifty miles north of here for our dental appointments. There is no interstate pathway, so this trip relegated us to back roads. It was a bright fall morning. We drove past horses grazing in October sunshine, past fields of slow moving cows, past the stubble of cornfields. We came to a stretch of Amish country where we navigated around a slow moving buggy. We tempered our speed again in a little crossroads town that has a stop sign at its intersection. As we cruised to a stop, I saw a person tumble over a rock in a yard, and I did not see that person get up.
There is a corner store at the crossroads; I pulled in and turned around. I half-registered a pickup truck behind me doing the same as I drove back to the house where the person had fallen. On the ground, propped up against a tree and looking bewildered, was a heavy elderly woman, bundled into a plaid wool jacket, rimless glasses glinting in the sun. Her sweatpants were green-streaked and muddy. Wispy gray hair escaped from a brown knit cap.
I rolled down my window to ask if she needed help. She gave me a puzzled look.
“I don’t think,” she said slowly, considering, “that I can get up.”
I turned off the car, pondering quickly our next best steps–should we try to get her up? Call for help? But the pickup truck I’d seen glided into a space right in front of us. A man got out–balding, with overalls straining over an impressive belly. He came to my window and said, “I wasn’t sure WHAT I seen till I seen you turn around. You go on, now. I’ll get ‘er.”
He went over then and held out his hands, and the woman reached out to take them. He pulled her up. Her face changed completely, shining as she looked at her rescuer. She turned her head and gave me a nod–“We’re fine now!” it said–and she gazed up at the man in wonder. We pulled away, leaving them there, engaged in earnest conversation. I had that strong feeling one gets, knowing a problem has been taken on by someone who will see it through.
As we pulled away, James noted that the truck had a bumper sticker touting Not-My-Candidates.
“How,” he asked, “could someone so nice vote for THEM?”
And the overalled man might well have been thinking, “I can’t believe one of those ones bothered to stop and offer help.”
A reaction to an emergency, a person vulnerable and needy: a chance for common ground.
What would make my Facebook friends find common ground, I wonder. I have to think that, faced with an emergency, both of those good people would put aside their differences to work together, to get the fallen one back onto her feet, to call in the necessary experts. They are, both of them, compassionate folks. They do not want to stand by while people are unnecessarily hurt.
I think of the kinds of emergencies that might create this bonding–egregious loss of freedom? Outright violence? We can’t wait until we get there, I think, to find our common ground.
Mandated participation in something–a class, a workplace seminar–creates the possibility of finding common ground. If people come in thinking, “Well, it COULD work. If the others are willing to be open and honest…well, then I will, too.” With the right people, the right program, the right environment…those obligatory meetings could turn into something rich.
But barring an emergency or a mandate, how do we leap across the chasm? And more and more,–as I weave uneasily, as the ground shifts beneath my feet, and as the gap widens,–more and more, I feel the real and wrenching need for this leaping to happen, for an open and empathetic exploration of the beliefs underlying our actions. We need to inhabit the shaded space in the Venn diagram where we overlap and converge.
So. I enter ‘common ground’ into a search engine and hundreds of thousands of hits pop up. There is a progressive rock group called Common Ground; their album cover shows hands cupping dirt from which a tiny shoot grows. I bookmark them to listen to later; I think their common ground has to do with caring for the Earth.
I find a college website that has rules of engagement for instructors trying to norm their grading, to reach common ground on what constitutes an ‘A’ and what work has to be considered failure. That website offers steps to consensus–Collaborate creatively, it suggests, and then defines that for the instructors involved. Establish effective leadership. The site describes where such meetings should take place and how long they should last, who should be there, what should be provided.
A PROGRAM, I think; what if we had a program? I remember a young woman named Valerie Walawender. Valerie, who was in a women’s writers group I belonged to many, many years ago in western New York State, developed a program to break down barriers between people, and to infuse appreciation for diversity. I type her name into the search engine and there it is: Valerie’s website (http://valeriewalawender.com/?page_id=714), and a description of the program she developed, called Faces in the Crowd. Participants are given masks; when each looks into a mirror, they see the face of another–a different gender and age and ethnicity, perhaps,–and they are asked to think for a short respite about who they would be if that really was their face. And then they have to share that story with the person next to them, and listen to that person’s story in turn.
Faces in the Crowd, it seems to me, is a tool for establishing understanding, to inching onto common ground.
But what circumstances would make us use such tools, engage in those programs, put that music on and sit down for a steaming cup of decaf and an earnest conversation with the Other?
I have been trying, this year, to shift my perspective, searching for my own strengths, and for those of others, rather than focusing on weaknesses and flaws. And here, I think, is another necessary shift…finding what we share, not what divides us. Where we converge. I am astounded by how difficult this process, seemingly simple, can be. It is so hard to really listen, so unsatisfying to release my need to be right.
The wider the divide, the more I think I lose sight of the other as person–as a person with beloved family and cherished dreams and aching hurts and needs they search to address. We become, grouped and gazed at from a growing distance, The Other Side,–a faceless, nameless, soulless mob, an entity to be battled.
And then, thus labelled, we are stuck in place, quivering on the crumbling edge of the canyon, in danger, all of us, of tumbling in.
And, oh, maybe that’s just melodrama. But maybe,–a sobering maybe–we really need to find connection, build a bridge, toss a sturdy rope, sit and talk until we uncover our places of agreement. Maybe we need to find a safe room, acknowledge this emergency, and talk it through.
Not compromising our ideals–never that. But creating the circumstances for finding common ground.