Accentuating the Positive in Times of Strife
“Hope has two daughters. Their names are anger and courage;
anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not
remain the way they are.”
– St. Augustine
Some amongst our customers have expressed umbrage over the sign Janet posted in our window last year. We have received letters telling us they (self-proclaimed regular customers) won’t be back until the sign is taken down. Events have been canceled. Strange times…
I often say that few wonderful things have been accomplished by filling rooms with people who agree with each other. All the magic of life truly occurs when and how we come together in context of our differences. In times of such polarization it is incumbent on us to resist the urge to flock to our sympathies but, instead, to lean into our antipathies – and strive for empathy. To those longstanding customers (and friends) who have elected to boycott us because of Janet’s sign, I beseech you to take up this challenge. And to those customers of ours who would rally against those who are so offended by the sign that they would deprive themselves of the best restaurant in Washington County, I suggest that you have a little compassion, for the sake of their loss and suffering.
According to Thomas Cahill, author of “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” Augustine of Hippo was the last classical, and perhaps first medieval man. In his book “Confessions” Augustine rings in the Age of Individual Consciousness by referring to himself with the word “I” as we use it today for the first time in written history. As Cahill puts it, “No one had ever talked this way before. If we page quickly through world literature from its beginnings to the advent of Augustine, we realize that with Augustine human consciousness takes a quantum leap forward—and becomes self-consciousness. Here for the first time is a man consistently observing himself not as Man but as this singular man—Augustine.” Of course, this impulse – the “I Am” – was to be crushed into the Dark Ages for 1200 years or so after Augustine’s passing, reemerging with the Renaissance and the advent of Division of Labor, but I digress.
In my view, the war we wage today is truly between the ancient forces of Tribe versus the nascent age of Individualism. Oh how weary we have become as we hack our way into the frontier of “I”. And what a warm bath it was for so many as they flocked into the bosom of tribe after 9/11. Flag decals appeared everywhere. United WE Stand was the slogan of the day. The forces of Tribe carried the day then, and have continued to prevail today as our personal liberties are being eroded, identity politics is the coin of the realm and battles rage between the Tribe of Right and the Tribe of Left. Truth brings little bear on the opinions of tribal warriors if it is not the message of their brand.
Nothing in the sign Janet posted is untrue for us, nor for the vast majority of our neighbors, Democrats and Republicans alike. I was opposed to the sign when Janet posted it, not for its message, but because it felt tribal. Over the years we have owned this restaurant I have often referred to Janet as a “Chicago-Irish-Democrat-Alpha-Female-Chef” and have challenged anybody who would listen to try to tell her what to do. Janet collected the sign when she attended a gathering at a Spanish-speaking church last February that was arranged after a group of street preachers harassed Hispanic church goers, hurling racist slurs, referring to their immigration status. Janet, as Augustine suggested, was angry at the way things are so she – and about 200 others that day – demonstrated the courage to see that they did not stay that way. And so the sign remains.
When the Swedish oncologist Dr Karl-Henrik Robèrt formed The Natural Step over 25 years ago he used as one of his teaching tools the image of an oak tree. He indicated that, as individuals, we are like the leaves at the end of the branches. As the wind blows and the sun shines we flutter and shimmer; seemingly we occur only in context of our differences. When there are conversations to be held, decisions to make and actions to take we must travel from the twigs into the branches until we find our shared values. There, with that which we hold in common serving as touchstones, we come together and find our way. Sometimes, when the differences seem great and the issues most difficult, we must travel all the way to the trunk of that tree of humanity.
There are important shared core values by and among those of us that disagree strongly about the actions necessary to correct the trajectory of our social life. Let’s keep those values within reach to use as touchstones. We all carry a piece of the truth, and if we are able to maintain an environment imbued with warmth, trust and respect we can leave any conversation with a truth larger than the one we brought to it.