In a deeply divided and emotionally charged nation, it is always encouraging to hear people speak of building bridges.
In Milwaukee and Waukesha counties, an increasing number of ambassadors on both sides of the geographic divide work tirelessly to construct this bridge, yet a great distance still separates too many.
With this in mind, I have been watching and listening closely for little clues to this dilemma. What keeps us apart, not just in southeast Wisconsin, but also more broadly? Why do we have such a hard time joining hands in collaborative effort? What about this wish is so difficult to make real?
Slowly but surely it dawned on me that one of the biggest challenges in building bridges is the need for re-identification. Before we can persuade others to leave the old in order to build the new, we must begin ourselves. Often we think we are. But these automatic speech patterns demonstrate something else.
- “In my personal experience, what you’re saying doesn’t work.”
- “In my own life, that’s not how things have happened.”
- “You talk about trust, but I certainly haven’t seen any reason to trust you people.”
In any effort to change a current structure, practice, or belief, our starting point is our experience. Whether we seek to find a common place in which to stand, or resist those who are different from us – and therefore a potential threat to our comfort or safety – we retreat to past experience to inform our thinking. Accepting this as normal and taking time to hear one another out would represent a big step forward.
Instead, most of us listen for shared experience (and consequent emotion, by the way). If we have been wronged in ways others have, we bond through shared grievance. If someone reaches out to help us but we don’t believe they understand what we need or have what we truly want, the exchange tends to end there.
In other words, trust is lacking. And it starts with each of us. If we do not trust ourselves to be strong enough to hear different points of view, allow full voicing of dissent, or accept the discomfort that comes from learning very different ideas, we will not be willing bridge builders.
Most people push back on this challenge. They are willing, of course. Why else would they be involved in such conversation? Yet, when confronted with their own lack of trust, many respond angrily. They feel ambushed. They resent having the problem laid at their feet; it’s the other ones who don’t get it! Sadly, and predictably, they begin ticking off the ways in which no one listens to them. No one understands them. No one cares enough to truly appreciate their unique point of view.
The impulse to build bridges gets buried under the desire to stay safe behind walls. The walls may be invisible, but they are sturdy.
What’s the solution? Personal strength forged through introspection and interaction. Going to new places, reaching out to strangers, noticing and managing discomfort, and keeping track of learning. Having new and different conversations. Asking questions and being still long enough to hear genuine responses. Developing a sense of curiosity to offset a natural tendency to stay among people you know.
I watched a large group of people interact recently and saw this dynamic in action. People formed smaller groups based on familiarity. Ethnic groups gathered around tables, self-selecting into exclusive bunches. A few people crossed invisible borders to meet and chat with others. They were seen as somehow suspect or disingenuous. I was saddened to hear comments like, “What office is he running for?” “What’s her deal? Prom Queen?”
Leaving the comfort and familiarity of “me,” in order to approach the building of “we,” an inclusive community willing to share differences and similarities in order to build trust, is no easy task. It feels risky and at times it can be embarrassing or hurtful if we overhear insensitive comments. But we must persist in the work. We must encourage one another to limit our “in my experience” responses in favor of “tell me more.” We need to listen and learn if we are to build bridges.