When I lived in Japan for two years after college, I became a serious student of Zen Buddhism. I studied, I practiced sitting zazen, I learned a martial art. At one point I thought I would become a Buddhist, but an odd and unexpected thing happened: the more I explored Zen, the more I was drawn to my Christian roots. By going to a new edge of religious experience, I found my center. I continued to study and practice Zen – its insights and disciple were so valuable to me; but at the same time I was able to look at the Christian faith with new eyes and a more open heart. Christianity became less of what had been handed down to me; and became more of what I chose to claim.
Upon my return to America, I continued my inclination to journey to the edge. I got ordained (which made me an outlier among my college classmates); I worked in urban congregations (which was very different from my suburban upbringing and its expectations); I sought out monastic communities (which are intentionally separated from secular life) in order to practice organized silence. And I worked over the years to help bring people who had been pushed out of normative America culture – sometimes over the edge, (homeless people, persons who are LGBTQ), into a valued and respected place in the human family.
And in the past few years, as polarization takes deeper purchase of our psyches, I find that my passion has taken a bit of a pivot: I want to help people find common ground, to claim a center where we can be community, even in the midst of stark difference. Largely in my work with Braver Angels, a national movement to depolarize America, I have been having several conversations on podcasts with people who have a very different view on the role and place of guns in our culture. My view is that more guns make our communities more dangerous; the people I am talking with maintain that guns make us safer. We don’t agree; and since Uvalde, Buffalo and Highland Park it takes more effort to have these discussions without pointing fingers and ascribing blame. And so we each work at it, trying to listen and understand one another.
After a presentation I made at a conference recently, at which I described my commitment to finding common ground, a young woman asked – clearly and graciously, how could I do the work of finding common space without betraying my positions on guns, abortion, race, climate change and the other issues that beget polarization?
Her question continues to bounce between my head and stomach. And what I am discovering, ironically, is that my intention to meet people in the center has deepened my commitment to addressing these forementioned issues. Instead of compromising my positions, I am holding on to them more fiercely. Whereas I had long gone to the edge to find my center, now, as I spend more time trying to meet people in the center (whose views are widely divergent from mine), I am finding that my commitments have a sharper edge. I am less defensive and fearful – and more hopeful, that we can move beyond the either/or positions to which too many forces and voices are asking us to subscribe, and to discover nuance, be open to new perspectives, and honor difference.
And find common ground.