By Jacquie West. Reprinted from The Huffington Post.
Courage in the face of fear is not for the faint of heart, especially for those whose hearts are broken. The first Saturday after this country’s national election could have been spent any number of ways: doing chores, watching college football, working, or simply avoiding anything political, but for those of us fortunate enough to answer an invitation, we decided to try a “Living Room Conversation,” a simple model for civil discourse at The Utah Citizens Summit, on Saturday November 12th, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Civil discourse from a perfectly imperfect group of human hearts looking to each other for strength, comfort, understanding, and ultimately a path towards healing and hope. We came together knowing our individual reasons for showing up that day were as vast as our political perspectives, but for me, that was the whole point! To find common ground, to be civil, to listen and to be heard, knowing that above all we would have to agree to show respect in order to be successful was exactly my motivation for going to this gathering. Wow, what a breath of fresh air, such a contrast in comparison to the national stage of political debates! We were so different! We were able to come face to face with another person’s perspective and to sit for a moment with it. We were emotionally raw, and ready for more than Facebook comments, or awkward Thanksgiving family gatherings soon upon us. We needed the “meat and potatoes” NOW, and the reminder of beauty which can be found from something as simple as eye contact, and for many our eyes had been crying at some point over the last week.
The morning dialogues began after more than fifty of us in attendance started to get comfortable with one another. As a large group we anonymously shared our initial feelings about the outcome of the election, had our tummies filled with good food and morning coffee, and most especially we responded to a moment of meditation introduced by the event organizer, Jacob Hess, from The Village Square. Following Jacob’s lead, we created some space from “the problem” and took time to literally catch our breath, lick our wounds, and help others to see a perspective on “why was this election so emotional?” Like a grade school child sitting outside for a class activity, we closed our eyes and simply listened to the noises around us. We found our footing among a room full of diversity; whites, blacks, Native Americans, Republicans, Democrats, voters for either presidential candidate, refugees, millennials, baby boomers, evangelical Christians, Muslims, Mormons, pagans, Middle Easterners. You name it, we were an eclectic group of men and women. However, in that moment of quiet reflection all that mattered to me was that we were with ONE another, humanity was present and accounted for.
The tone was set, and with the common sense ground rules established, we formed in to small groups of six people. Showing respect and suspending judgement while looking for authenticity and welcoming it from others, we quickly shared what we had in common on the surface, but also on a deeper level. We held confusion, “How to take responsibility for another person’s fears, what do we do?” We held distrust, “How as a woman can I forgive a president-elect that I feel so betrayed by?” We held passion, care, compassion, “I am struggling to find forgiveness or understanding - I’m mad” and curiosity as to what others were processing and how they were thinking, “Are you feeling like me?” We needed this time as citizens of Utah, because we needed this time in America. Either as a citizen or a tourist, we needed to talk.
While my right to assemble, march, or protest was also available, I didn’t feel that outlet calling to me. I needed just a healthy conversation, and helpful ideas. I decided to participate in this venue because speaking is easy, but finding active listeners takes real effort. It seems pretty basic, but in our digital world of isolated thinking, many of us are prone to use a bull-horn. We miss the smaller voice in response, and the non-verbal communication, especially if it holds a different life experience or belief. I needed to listen to what others were feeling, not just what they were saying, or in fact, “not saying,” so I could better understand my own feelings. I was looking for help, and the summit organizers knew it. After our small groups and a brief break, we came together once again in a large group setting to participate in some solution finding. We heard perspectives from two different panels. Reconciliation can begin, and is already underway, as we heard from very reassuring Utah policy makers, political leaders, and professional mediators who are paving the way as models for the rest of us.
For example, being brave enough to lead others away from speaking and thinking in terms of “us and them” and more of “we” was a significant challenge in the right direction. Another instance was to take the “Living Room Conversation” model to our own living rooms, and be the agent of change in all of the areas where we are organized (school PTA’s, children’s sports fields, not-for-profits, vocations) and spheres of influence. My story concludes with the knowledge that there is more work to be done, but I am encouraged that it can be done, and it will be done if we are willing to do some work. We may need to be uncomfortable at times, but to press on for the greater good.
I suppose as an evangelical Christian, a single mom, raised in the heartland of rural Illinois, and getting my bachelor’s degree outside of Utah, I have been connected to those whose vote would land on the president-elect. My roots kept me in touch with the reality of what could be the final outcome, but it didn’t make it easier for me to accept. I know I didn’t vote for the other prominent candidate either, but yet I am questioning it all. Who am I to say the election should have gone another way? So, it’s complicated. I get it, but I found something so simple, and that gives me hope that in the future, things could go another way. When I was seen for who I am, not for my polling purposes label, but for how I am uniquely wired, it helped. I felt understood. I’m quite sure that if I feel this way, so do others whose beliefs are different from my own, and don’t we all want to be respected and understood? I believe this is what we call healing, and as a community, a state, a country, we can heal a broken heart.
Jacquie West graduated from The University of Illinois and now resides in Utah with her two daughters. She has spent the last 15 years working in human resource management and tourism operations. She is an avid skier and all around outdoor enthusiast.