Those people are us

By Shelly Jenson. Reprinted from Huffington Post.

I am fairly new to the dialogue world. It was a mere two years ago that I attended my first dialogue event and it was so profoundly different from anything I had ever experienced that I simply had to learn more. As I have become more involved with the dialogue community, I’ve found that my deepest passion is in bringing together communities which do not normally engage — person-to-person.

This passion has led me on a journey in which I have contacted dozens of community leaders and organizations across the vast spectrum of society that is nestled between the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountains, the valley home of Salt Lake City.

When I plunged into this endeavor, it was with the hopes of sharing both my passion for dialogue and my passion for collaborations across divides. I have not been disappointed as many new partnerships are underway, but while many possibilities have arisen, I have also experienced adverse reactions to the proposal of dialogue across divides; even with groups I have been invited to speak with.

I remember one such meeting a few weeks ago with a very conservative, mainly Caucasian, religious group in which they angrily demanded of me an explanation to their painful question; “why should we put ourselves at risk and listen to ‘those people’ speak, they always attack us because we are…” (insert stereotype here).

More recently, I was invited to speak with a very liberal, mainly minority, secular group in which I heard the exact same words (albeit with different stereotypes). And I’m not proposing this second group used similar words for they used precisely the same words.  It was surreal for me to sit and listen to the same argument from an entirely different set of ‘those people!’

I was upset and confused by what occurred at these meetings but what shocked me most was when I asked them to consider that ‘those people’ felt the same hurt and fear that they themselves felt. This request for consideration was met with ‘how dare they act like they are hurt!’

Many days have passed since these meetings and I have spent numerous hours pondering the issue(s), seeking to gaze beneath the surface. Upon reaching a hidden depth, I discovered a deeply complex weaving of fear, hurt and anger; and I realized I am both sides of ‘those people.’ On one hand, I have been involved in conversations where I acted aggressively and sought only to protect myself. On the other hand, I have experienced conversations in which I did not feel respected and experienced micro-aggressions.

What occurred in both these situations is not dialogue, although it is often passed-off as dialogue, and after experiencing this type of non-dialogue, one’s hurt and fear can often be a barrier to engaging in true dialogue. As for me, I do not engage in dialogue because it is easy, nor because I love confrontation, and least of all because I believe I can change anyone.  {It is hard enough to change myself!} I engage in dialogue because I seek to understand that which I do not understand and I find human beings can be the most puzzling — and rewarding — of creatures. And yes, I realize dialogue is not for everyone but I wonder if there is common ground from which we can all begin to understand ‘those people?’ I believe there is, and it’s very simple, and challenging.

As long as I carry the belief that ‘those people’ are incapable of feeling what I feel, or experiencing deep hurt and fear, then I can attack without remorse and exclude them from my network of compassion and empathy. But when I allow ‘those people’ to be as human, as feeling, as intensely hopeful for their cause as I am for mine, then I can not project my aggressive-disgust onto them. Which does not mean we are suddenly best-of-friends. I am personally incapable of that. But I can allow them to be another Don Quixote, jousting at the windmills they deem important.

And yes, there are those select few which I can not find one ounce of respect for and will not engage with, in any manner.  Those remain my greatest teachers for their behavior causes me to reflect on my own, and make changes accordingly. But, I do not exclude whole portions of society because I find some members of ‘those people’ extremely disagreeable.

What I would like each of us to consider, to ponder, to hold with curious reverence, is whether carrying the belief that ‘those people’ are incapable of as much genuine feeling as I am, is in fact the deepest toxicity that divides our society.

I leave you with a starting place and a question to begin your journey: If I allow ​’those people’ to feel as deeply as I feel​, will my behavior toward them change​?

Shelly Jenson is Co-Director of Utah Village Square and Utah Living Room Conversations. Shelly is passionate about bridging divides by creating events that bring many diverse communities together in order for them to individually facilitate their own experiences with respectful dialogue. Shelly has a deep analytical streak, which made her BS in Mathematics an enjoyable experience, and uses these skills to continually examine life and bring the art of heart-centered living into all her endeavors.

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