Today I made a new friend, nothing remarkable in that, except for the fact that we started this day as complete strangers, if not enemies ,who hold totally opposing beliefs on a topic we both feel very strongly about. Prior to today our only point of connection had been that she had taken the trouble to google me in order to get my contact info and send me a message you could broadly characterize as a piece of hate mail.
There is something very unnerving about the element of surprise in opening an email from a name you don’t recognize and discovering that someone whom you have no idea exists has put a lot of thought and energy into delivering a scathing attack of a very personal nature. After I got over my initial shock, anger, defensiveness and no small degree of outrage about her assumptions, conclusions and false accusations, I put my hurt pride aside and began to wonder about this woman and why she felt so strongly that she had decided to write all that to me. She had referred to having developed her viewpoint over many years and I found myself wondering about her and what experiences she has had. Whilst I had no illusions that I might change her point of view (with regard to either the topic or me) I thought that it could be really helpful and informative to understand the situation from a different perspective and that she might have information that could be important to know.
So I sent a reply simply thanking her for writing, saying I would like to hear more and asking her if she would be willing to meet me for a cup of tea. I don’t know who was more surprised, her when she received the invitation or me when she accepted. And so today we arranged to meet at a table outside a supermarket. I had a little trepidation but was comforted by the idea that she was probably even more nervous having to face me after what she had written and strangely I was actually really looking forward to the meeting because it seemed like such an unusual experience to have.
I wasn’t expecting the outcome we experienced. I never expected to laugh – a lot – or to have to cut our conversation short after three hours sped past. To be clear we didn’t leave with dramatically different opinions about the issue but what did happen and what I found so inspiring was that given where we started it was astonishingly easy to create a space to respectfully share our opposing beliefs and from there we also began spontaneously to dialogue constructively about solutions and compromises. I was able to get past my reactions so I put down my defenses, left said any agenda to change her mind and walked up to meet her in a spirit of openness and curiosity and without expectation. The other critical component is that she was able to see and willing to admit that I had become a symbol of the other – and as such she had attached a bunch of pent up feelings and judgements about a whole lot of people on to me.
It struck me that this is what the world needs. To take more opportunities to rise above the temptation to see difference as threat and people as “other”. The moment we start to think about how to win, we have already begun to lose. Every man-made tragedy in history, every war, every oppression and injustice, every individual act of depravity or cruelty begins with a moment in which we start to think of “them” as others. When we start to think in terms of “them” vs “us”, what “they” do or think we lose our humanity and revert to evolutionary survival mentality. Difference becomes competition which leads to conflict and instead of fostering collaboration and compromise, we devolve into survival thinking in the duality of predator and prey. The moment we stop thinking of and relating to each other as individuals with far more in common than what separates us (not least sharing time, space and finite resources on this planet), we enter a path that amasses incrementally increasing obstacles and takes us further and further away from the best possible outcome for all concerned.
I didn’t expect to like her so much and I could never have foreseen we would end our time together with a hug and hearing that she expects we’re going to be friends for a very long time. At one moment we paused because she wanted me to turn around and see the last moments of the sunset. As we sat in silence taking in the beauty I was moved by the beauty and hope I saw for the world in the microcosm of what had happened between us. We started today as enemies. But in the simple willingness to reach out over the chasm of our separation and perceived difference and give up the conviction in the superiority of our conflicting beliefs a small miracle took place.