The Struggle for Common Ground

In the four days of public mourning and recognition devoted to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a few themes emerged. His devotion to the liberal cause. His checkered political and personal life. His devotion to his family, and the families of his brothers. His faith, laughter, and love of life. But also, his consummate skill as a legislator who had a legendary ability to get things done, in no small part because he was respected on both sides of the aisle and had developed friendships with many his political adversaries. He had, as Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah noted, a unique talent for seeking out common ground with an adversary, no matter how small that space was, and then working to get something accomplished through that place of shared priorities or perspective.

One could regard Kennedy's acts as shrewd Machiavellian maneuvering. But politicians are skilled enough in that art to recognize the difference between authentic connection and political expediency, and the friendship and sorrow on the faces of Kennedy's Republican colleagues these past few days resonated as something very authentic.

So it appears that Kennedy was a master at truly seeking and finding common ground; better than many of us seem to be, these days. Why is that? Many reasons. But part of the answer may be that finding common ground first requires a deep and compassionate understanding and acceptance of the idea that humans are complex, multi-dimensional creatures, as multi-faceted as any cut diamond. And beyond that, an understanding of how seemingly irreconcilable characteristics and beliefs can coexist within a single person.

We all learn, without ever being told, that people have many characteristics, some of which we like better than others. Most siblings understand that one that before the age of six. But fewer of us have to wrestle with the far more difficult mix posed by a person who at once exhibits beliefs or characteristics we find admirable, along with others we find abhorrent. In most cases, if we see evidence of a belief or character trait we find that objectionable, we steer clear. And our ability to keep our distance from those we dislike has grown in the past few decades.

In a city apartment, it's hard not to deal with your neighbors. Even front-porch America forced a bit more neighborly interaction. But with the advent of the backyard deck, the automatic garage-door opener and the suburban sprawl of gated communities, we gained a far greater ability to separate ourselves from others unless we expressly chose to socialize with them. And that trend of specialization has grown. We can now not only get 200 narrowly focused cable or satellite channels; we can also choose from thousands and thousands of narrowly-focused blogs and websites for our "news." No matter how arcane our points of view, we can find and immerse ourselves in a like-minded community through chat rooms and forums around the internet world. Many more of us telecommute, reducing our need to learn to cope with co-workers whose views don't mirror ours. We don't even have to cope with listening our way through tracks on an album or CD we don't like in order to get to our favorites. We just download the individual songs we want.

In short, it's increasingly possible to live our lives in a "silo" of like-minded thought, music, entertainment and personalities. The problem with this, of course, is that it isolates us from those who would teach us difficult and uncomfortable truths about human complexity and, through that, the art of finding common ground.

A number of years ago, I found myself living for a time in the middle of a social and professional circle where nobody else shared my worldview, or my opinions on most subjects. If I had had more options for social interaction or friendship, I probably wouldn't have spent much time getting to know the people in the group very well. But because my social options were limited, I had to look for some kind of connection or common ground. And as I got to know some of the individuals better, I saw tremendous acts of kindness and generosity, deep and heartfelt fears and sorrows, and traits of loyalty, honesty, and integrity that were both admirable and authentic.

The tough part was that in those same people, I also saw acts, and heard opinions, that were deeply abhorrent to me. Acts, phrases, insults and opinions that I would willingly spend a lifetime fighting to overcome. How could such diametrically opposed traits coexist in a single person? And how could I reconcile my admiration for parts of a person with my visceral opposition to other pieces of the puzzle?

There was no running from the question. I confronted it daily, in all my interactions. I wrestled through outrage, generalization and judgment. I tried to change their opinions through argument. But in the course of that struggle, I also slowly gained new understanding, not just of how complex humans are, but of how few people are all right, or all wrong, or without merit or fault. And that just as my admiration of a person's strengths did not mean I had to condone other traits or opinions I vehemently opposed, neither did my dismay at those traits negate the person's other strengths.

In the end, I came to some kind of peace with the possibility of agreeing and disagreeing with someone else, all at the same time. Of understanding and respecting a little bit better how they came to see the world the way they did, even as I continued to argue for a different set of attitudes, priorities, or rules. Of getting beyond a global "good guy/bad guy" dichotomy to a more nuanced place and perspective about how we all end up with such different takes on the world. As the philosopher/writer Joseph Campbell said, "One has to go beyond the pairs of opposites to find the real source ... When you have come past the pairs of opposites, you have reached compassion."

There's undoubtedly more to the equation, of course. Senator Kennedy also came from an era in politics and Congressional life without televised hearings and the grandstanding that evolved from that, or a 24/7 media culture that rewards simplistic sound-bites over complex and nuanced positions, negotiations, or approaches. Perhaps if we want more bipartisanship among our politicians, we have to turn off the cameras and grant them a lot more privacy in which to develop more nuanced relationships.

But fundamental to forging those relationships; to finding the small spaces of common ground upon which they can be built, is first gaining an understanding and acceptance of the many and oftentimes disparate facets that can coexist in another person. Of gaining a deep and authentic respect and compassion for the whole of a person that allows genuine friendship, and an open spirit of alliance on the 10 percent of shared purpose despite 90 percent of adamantly held opposition.

Fewer of us these days have to wrestle our way to a deep or intimate understanding of those human complexities. But if Kennedy was a master at the art, perhaps it's in part because he surely wrestled with that question every time he looked in the mirror. In coming to some measure of understanding or compassion about his own behavior and past, perhaps he developed a deeper acceptance of the complexity, differences and imperfections of others, as well. And a sense of compassion beyond simple opposites that not only led to some of his greatest achievements, but is surely one of the qualities his colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, will miss the most.

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