While my mother is feeling isolated in her Illinois suburb, I am surrounded by the caring community of Barnet.
Everybody I know is looking for someone in need to donate money, food, or clothes. While helping, we don’t talk of our political views. After all don’t we all need the same things? I am saying this now because I believe that if we pay attention to the core of our humanity, even extreme political beliefs won’t be able to destroy our respect for each other. Can we live with agreeing to disagree?
I will never forget my first moment entering the United States. After checking my documents, the customs officer told me cheerfully, “Welcome to a free country, Miss.” I teared up.
Having grown up in a very different country almost half of my life I was intoxicated by fresh energy. I couldn’t believe stores existed with such an abundance of food and clothes. And most of all, respect for human dignity. I was slightly annoyed when people complained about this wonderful country. I would half joke, “You need to spend one month in the place I used to live. That would give you a healthy perspective.”
But as time went by and I was settling in, I started to become aware of many aspects of my new homeland. While still feeling genuine gratitude, some questions came up, and in particular the increasing tension between the political parties.
The fact that in this country we have two or more parties, by itself, sounds like freedom to me. In my birth country, there was just one party. Although people were afraid to speak up, hardly anybody trusted the government and there was no chance of dialogue. We spoke honestly only underground and around the family table because otherwise, you could go to jail, even for just telling a political joke.
As an immigrant in the U.S., I was thrilled by the justice system. I remember that during elections where I used to live, my father refused to go vote because the ballot had only one name. Later, some serious-looking people would bring the empty ballot to our door and tell my father to sign it. They needed the statistic that 100 percent of the people agree with the leader. Here, in the U.S. we are allowed diversity of opinions and different parties. But I don’t think this freedom needs to lead to distrust and separation.
Some years ago, here in Barnet, some friends and I decided to gather neighbors with opposite political opinions. In no way were we looking to change anybody’s beliefs. Instead, our inspiration was to make a personal connection, one in which we don’t demonize each other, but instead feel each other’s concerns, joy and pain. We wanted to have an honest dialogue where our humanness is the root and our opinions are like the branches of a wide tree that can grow different fruits and be strong.
Is this hope naive? Maybe. But if we are in the middle of floods, hurricanes, or epidemics, do we ask each other what party we belong to? Or do we just help? This seems like the situation we are in right now.
In this dialogue project, we used a conflict transformation model that builds on the belief that people have an inborn capacity to empower themselves and to recognize the needs of others. Without seeking to produce a common ground, we try to improve the quality of interaction and allow differences to coexist but in constructive ways.
We were inspired to try to reach out and find out how our neighbors were feeling. Fortunately, the Barnet library kindly allowed us to use their place. Our serious debate took place surrounded by rows of children’s coloring books. We made the space cozy and prepared a reception. Other times, we were able to use the Barnet Church basement, which was sometimes still warm after community Saturday lunches.
We always spent time getting to know one another. No one explicitly laid out their political affiliations at the beginning, but many of us talked about how we had experienced political polarization with family members, as well as friends and neighbors. We discussed how to be more comfortable talking with people who think differently, and how we might learn to listen to each other.
It seemed necessary to start with the common ground: being human. When more challenging real dialogue started, we felt the pain of our differences but also tried to keep open minds. It seemed that our beliefs might separate us, while our emotions had the capacity, if not to unite us, to at least touch our hearts or even melt our solid opinions. The energy at the end of the meeting was usually intense and warm at the same time.
We continued our gatherings for a year, with some people leaving and new people joining. We raised many issues and were surprised at how little we knew about the content of other people's opinions, about our own deep unchecked biases, and the logic and even compassion of different points of view. We learned to appreciate those points of view even as we continued to disagree. What we didn’t see was any meanness or intentional disrespect.
Eventually, the group dissolved, leaving a taste of enormous possibilities for the future. Because no matter what our beliefs are, we all care about the same thing. We want to feel safe, to be able go to town meetings, to give money when we can help others. And here, in this part of the Northeast Kingdom, in my adopted country, I am learning, as locals know, to slow down at winter and get ready to enjoy the short summer.
Ella Reznikova, born in Soviet Ukraine, now lives in Barnet with her husband and a cat. She graduated from Vermont College in Montpelier, works at Karme Choling Retreat Center, and writes about her past.