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Pamela Gehrke

November 6, 2011

Pamela Gehrke, a graduate of Starr King School for the Ministry, served for one year as the Intern Minister at Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Maryland, and is currently a Candidate for Unitarian Universalist ministry. Before attending seminary, she taught mythology and literature for many years. She recently returned from a pilgrimage to her ancestral homeland in southern Minnesota.

“Cultivating Complexity”, was inspired by an interview Pamela heard with linguist Deborah Tannen on her book, The Argument Culture. The sermon reflects on her observation that American culture tends to perceive the world in “either-or” categories (Republican-Democrat, right-wrong, right-left, good-evil, etc.), when most issues have many more “sides” to them than two… and then how this applies to our communities and personal relationships.

When I was serving my parish internship in Bethesda, Maryland a couple of years ago, I came home to California only twice—once for Thanksgiving, and in January, for a meeting at Starr King School for the Ministry. I took advantage of the opportunity to visit my husband and our daughter and our cat. I had to change planes in Salt Lake City, and although my flight from Washington DC was delayed only a short while, the connecting flight to San Francisco—the last fight of the day—had already left. I was
annoyed and terribly disappointed to be losing this precious time with my loved ones. Grousing about the airlines is an ideal conversation starter, and I commiserated gamely with another passenger as we waited for the shuttle back to the airport the next morning.

We found ourselves seated next to each other on the flight to San Francisco, and exchanged pleasantries for a time. Then…glancing at newspaper headlines, he made a comment about violent crime in the District of Colombia. Feeling at ease with his warm smile and cheerful demeanor, I made a sarcastic reference to a recent Supreme Court ruling that had struck down a DC gun control law. I said It’s such a good thing it’s easier for people there to get guns, now. My sarcasm wasn’t lost on this gentleman, and he shot back, With so many of these guys running around, we have to be able to keep a gun, to defend ourselves.

Uh-oh, I thought, this is going to be a long trip. I countered with my view that people are more likely to be injured by the guns they keep than protected by them, and that countries with stricter regulations suffer fewer incidents of gun violence. After some back and forth about this, he opened a new can of worms, saying, “If they would just catch the drug kingpins and execute them without delay, that would put an end to it.” I took a deep breath, realizing that my seat-mate and I would probably come down on opposite sides of many current issues.

With a broad, sincere smile, I said “I have to let you know, I just returned from the annual meeting of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.”
He shook his head, incredulous. When I disclosed my identity as a seminary student, our conversation turned to religion. He belonged to a conservative evangelical congregation, and nevertheless we both sought common ground. At one point, I grew weary of weighty issues and asked him, “What’s your favorite movie?” Among other things, we discussed the Bible, his experience of combat in Vietnam, and how to make the best of travel mishaps. We had, somehow, reached an unspoken agreement to meet in the field out beyond our differences.

In this case, two people from opposing ends of the ideological spectrum were thrown together by circumstances. There was a time when I would have recoiled from conversation with a stranger who held views so different from mine. It is so much easier to hang out with like-minded people! A shared rant on the topic of the day can create or strengthen a bond of friendship with someone who already agrees. But some situations make it harder for us to avoid “the other.” For example, families and workplaces often bring us together with those from the “other side.”

Personal conversation is not the only realm where we need to move out beyond our disagreements. In the mass media, every issue must be represented by voices from “both sides” in order to produce “fair and balanced” views of issues and events. Linguist Deborah Tannen explores how public conversation often takes the form of debate. It seems impossible to avoid heated arguing. This has the effect of creating personal enmity between the speakers and warring camps within the audience. Moreover, reducing “balance” and “fairness” to two sides oversimplifies many issues to the point of distorting evidence and misrepresenting a consensus of specialists. The debate on global warming offers a striking example of how journalistic practice can get in the way of more complex problem-solving dialogue. Verbal combat makes a more a entertaining story than nuanced investigative reporting.

As a scholar, I concede that healthy disagreement can lead to valid conclusions and new insights. And it doesn’t have to be limited to two-sided debate. In intellectual pursuits, we can work intentionally to include multiple viewpoints, and not be satisfied that our work is finished when we have covered two opposing arguments. Using imagination and open-ended discussion to explore multiple possibilities and alternate frameworks is ultimately more productive and also more personally rewarding. It can preserve and even enhance relationships with colleagues.

In a democracy, conciliation and compromise are essential to serving the common good. Yet such cooperative leadership is often portrayed in the public square as hypocrisy, weakness, or betrayal. Can we hold fast to our support for marriage equality and at the same time, work together with religious conservatives to alleviate poverty? Can we hold fast to our beliefs about reproductive rights while working with staunch “pro-lifers” on approaches to reducing unwanted pregnancies? Can we uphold
our belief in the “worth and dignity of every person” while collaborating with the hard-line tough-on-crime leadership to create safer communities? Our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to recognize the worth and dignity of every person, from convicted criminals to political candidates to corporate lobbyists. We are called by our principles to refuse to cast “the other” as villain.

The tendency to assume there are two sides—and only two sides—to everything becomes especially troubling when opposing voices create conflicting impulses within our own souls. The idea of a dual reality of good and evil is so deeply rooted in our culture
that we need to face it squarely in order to grow toward health and wholeness. How often have you heard someone say, “I have a love-hate relationship” with another person? How often do we express “mixed feelings” in a situation where a decision is called for? How often do we struggle to reconcile conflicting feelings toward a beloved friend or family member who has hurt us in some way?

President Obama models a special ability to tolerate emotional dissonance. What I remember most about his famous 2008 speech on race relations is his description of his grandmother:

… a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

He was talking not only about his grandmother, who loved her grandson deeply despite her racism, but about his own conflicted feelings toward her. He reminds us how commonplace—and how difficult—it is to experience profound emotional contradictions within ourselves.

You might say that a dualistic worldview comes naturally to us, that our bodies have two sides, pairs of limbs and pairs of vital organs. Information technology itself is built on a binary foundation. Yet the two-sidedness of human experience is far from absolute, and the internet has developed from its binary roots into a complex global network.

In our own lives, how can we find our way to the field out beyond unproductive polarization and the destructive culture of debate? How can we reach beyond divisive conflict to promote peace and well being in our hearts, in our homes, in our congregations?

Perhaps you’ve had experience with small group ministry: a “chalice circle” or a “covenant group.” In these settings we can practice dialogue, listening deeply and resisting the temptation to score discussion points. Going around the circle, with each person allotted a measured amount of time, we can allow stories to be told, thoughts to emerge, and friendships to deepen.

In everyday conversation, we can listen for signs of “the argument culture” and watch what we ourselves say. We can learn to think in threes or fives or sevens rather than in terms of “both sides.” We can learn to say “yes, and” rather than “yes, but,” which implies dismissal of the original assertion. “Yes, but”entails a posture of defensiveness. “Yes, but I did the dishes last week.” “Yes, but I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” “Yes, but I didn’t mean it as a racist slur.” “Yes, but” sets up two opposing sides and blocks further communication.

“Yes, and” allows us to lean in and hear and acknowledge the other person, even as we stand fast in what is true for us. It moves conversation forward, makes a positive spin possible. The full complexity of our shared experience can come to light.

As we raise awareness of our own argumentative conversational habits, we can be alert to the language of combat used in sports reporting and political commentary. Some have blamed acts of violence on such rhetoric: “Wrestling with” a problem. “Firing Line.” “War Room.” On slate.com a few weeks ago I read the following:

…the Wall Street Journal — which had previously been happy to help [Michelle] Bachmann build her brand — turned its guns on her this week. Even the relatively abstract terms “position,” “strategy,” and “campaign” derive from concrete military vocabulary.

The metaphor of warfare is deep and widespread in our culture, used for all kinds of human interaction. There is an alternative metaphor, just as basic and equally natural: that of the journey. In fact, the journey metaphor is already invoked in this context, when we speak of “getting past” challenges and disagreements. We use it to describe personal inner work, managing our own contradictory impulses through spiritual journeys toward redemption and reconciliation.

Anthropologist Lamont Lindstrom describes the conflict resolution practice of villagers on the South Pacific island of Tanna. These people hold day-long meetings they describe as “voyages.” The meetings are shaped by the concept of traveling together through shared space to a common destination. Agreement emerges from interaction on the course of the journey. I can imagine how such a practice nurtures personal bonds as it promotes inquiry and problem solving. Disputes are not always
completely resolved. Individual interests are not always satisfied. The practice does affirm relationship and support community. The group moves forward together toward their common purpose, just as we Unitarian Universalists aspire to the shared mission of affirming and promoting our principles.

In closing, I offer some lines from Sufi poet, Jelalladin Rumi:

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Meet me in the field out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and
rightdoing, beyond black and white, beyond right and left, beyond
either/or, beyond entrenched opinions and attitudes that keep us
separated from our fellow human beings. Together, we’ll celebrate
being alive in this place, at this moment.

May it be so.