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ALL THAT MATTERS: explorations of kindness and healing

Let's start with a question... “What am I missing?”

It’s a question we’ve all asked from time to time. My humble suggestion to you is that every single one of us should be asking it a lot more often than we currently do. And, when we do, we should do so with a deep conviction for following the answers to wherever they happen to take us. That's even, and maybe especially, when we think we have all the answers.

What should we do about homelessness in our community?

How can I navigate a challenging conflict at work?

What exactly is it that my significant other finds fascinating about these reality shows that continually drive me crazy?

Whether we’re talking politics, community, or just interpersonal relations, I suspect all of us could do with a little more curiosity, and a little less rush to judgment. A little less listening to respond, and a little more listening to learn.

Let me give you an example:

As CEO of the New Hampshire Humane Society, I regularly find myself talking with would-be adoptees. In one recent conversation, the candidate voiced concerns about the rates of euthanasia within animal rescue organizations, and she then extrapolated her concern into an assumption about our specific operations:

“You obviously have to euthanize animals pretty regularly because you don’t have a large facility, and I think that’s wrong.”

I told her I shared her concerns about euthanasia rates in general and that, fortunately, her assumption about us was incorrect. We don’t euthanize due to space. In fact, we are proud to have one of the lowest euthanasia rates in the region. That means we sometimes have animals with us for numerous months while we work to find an appropriate home. We have the luxury of being able to do that, but that luxury comes at a cost. Not only is it expensive to keep an animal long-term in a facility, but it also means our space is sometimes maxed out and we have to refer people elsewhere when they have a stray or surrender we can’t accommodate.

The moral of the story is that she made an assumption based on what she understands and, perhaps, her past experience. But that assumption was not grounded in the reality of who we actually are. Once that assumption was removed, and we were talking about fact, we discovered a whole world of common ground.

All of us make assumptions. It's an inevitable part of being human. Yet we also have the power to interrogate those assumptions and hold them up to the light. Sometimes, putting our assumptions aside and engaging with our curiosity will allow us to look at a problem or challenge from someone else’s perspective. Sometimes it will uncover new solutions. And, in our painfully divided society, it just sometimes might help bridge a gap with someone we thought we had lost forever.

"What am I missing?" can serve as a powerful mantra when faced with something, or someone, we don't yet fully understand.

To be clear, the power of this phrase is not something I landed on on my own. It’s an idea I’m borrowing from Mónica Guzmán, bridge builder, journalist, and author of the book I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times. Guzmán describes herself as ‘the proud liberal daughter of conservative parents.’ She has come to believe that our polarized public debates mask a reality in which our views are not as far apart as they may sometimes appear.

In just one example from the world of politics, Guzmán cites research by the think tank More In Common, which discovered that people at both ends of the political spectrum consistently and dramatically overstate or exaggerate the convictions and beliefs of ‘the other side.’ Republicans, for example, overestimated by 33% the number of Democrats who believe in totally open borders. Meanwhile, Democrats underestimated by a whopping 35% when asked how many Republicans believe immigration (when properly controlled) can actually be good for our country.

We can argue all day about the merits of any specific policy position. And given we are in an election year, we'll have plenty of time to do so in the months ahead. What I hope we can all agree is that our discussions, debates, and even arguments would be a lot more productive if they were informed by a good faith effort to understand what each person believes. This is an observation that holds true well beyond politics.

To borrow more wisdom from the wonderful world of animals, we've all heard the phrase to 'fight like cats and dogs.' And yet, as someone who is blessed to be surrounded by animals every single day, I can tell you that I am constantly seeing exceptions to the rule. More often than not, smart, and observant animals can get along with anyone, gain trust, and establish some understanding. And I think we can learn something from our furry companions.

None of this should be taken as a call for us to simply agree. It’s not even necessarily a plea for bipartisanship, or compromise. But it is a rallying call for all of us who believe in common interest, mutual trust, clear understanding, and genuine respect and empathy.

  • How can we have constructive discussions across cultural, political, or ideological differences?

  • How can we continually examine our own assumptions, and challenge those of others, so that we continue learning and growing as people?

  • How can we stay true to our convictions while respecting those who think, pray, vote, or act differently to ourselves?

  • How can we ground our conversations in mutual respect, and in a shared search for truth?

I do not, of course, have all the answers. I am, however, committed to having the conversations.

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