Sadly, since the 2016 election, and increasingly as well in the years leading up to 2016, politicians and some media have pushed the political arguments to the margins where it is impossible to find middle ground and any hope for agreement between the political divide. The fire was lit before President Trump arrived on the scene, and unless the flame is quickly returned to a manageable level, I’m afraid that this country will burn with its own hatred. This venomous reaction is not what our country had stood for in the past. There were differences, but we lived with the differences with a degree of respect for people’s beliefs and values on both sides.
One day a few months ago, I was reading one of my professional magazines and saw an article written by Bill Doherty, one of the founders of an organization called Better Angels. The founders had crossed our country by bus, organizing workshops to encourage people on the left and the right to hear each other. They drew from their successes, learned from their mistakes, and put together a program that is now being offered across the United States.
Better Angels was established about 18 months ago in response to the rancor and polarization between people from the two political poles. At first, I was doubtful. Can people from today’s political extremes listen to each other with respect? Can we disagree without being disagreeable? I doubted this could be true.
When I went to the website (better-angels.org), their mission and approach gave me enough hope to volunteer to organize a workshop in my neighborhood. The workshop moderator did a great job. People were respectful, listened and learned something new. They saw each other, blue and red, as human beings who want the best for our country.
Shortly after, when I heard about the First Annual Better Angels Convention taking place in June, I immediately applied. I was accepted and became one of 147 delegates, almost equally red and blue, who made the trek to a small college campus near the border of Virginia and West Virginia.
Going in, my anxiety level was high. How would these people from disparate political, socio-economic, religious, ethnic, cultural, and racial and gender backgrounds get along?
Fortunately, my fears proved unfounded. We all had in common that we had participated in or observed a Better Angels Workshop. We had learned the value of listening to each other. Among the attendees were a number of “odd couples” who were wonderful examples of the Better Angels workshops’ success.
The president of a college Republican Club who had not been accepted on campus came along with the President of the Democrat Club who had bravely reached out to him. They had begun listening to each other with a respect for each other’s differences. After a while they had become friends and then roommates. They are now bringing Better Angels to the college campus. Their goal is for people to speak freely about their political beliefs without feeling attacked or criticized.
There was a Christian man who came along with a Muslim man following their shared workshop experience. They had had preconceived ideas about each other. The Muslim man had explained to the Christian man that he felt as if his own religion had been hijacked by extremists. The Christian man softened when he heard the sadness coming from the Muslim man. Both of these people have since attended each other’s houses of worship to learn more about the other’s religion.
A married lesbian woman attended with a new, unlikely best friend, a leader from Focus on The Family, a conservative organization that does not support same sex marriage. After listening to one another, they had begun to understand each other’s differences. When people pointed out to them their surprising choice of a good friend, they laughed. They had begun to see each other as caring human beings.
These were people trying and succeeding in understanding the differences between one another. At the same time, we heard an important message at the convention. People do not have to give up their beliefs, indeed, should not give up their beliefs. Living with and accepting each other’s differences is the important goal. Hopefully, our political leaders will hear the citizens of our great country and be moved to find common ground and to make needed changes.
Where I stand politically, I was afraid that I would be too far right for the liberals at the convention and too far left for the conservatives. Or that I would find myself not accepting others’ points of view. What I discovered, though, was that when we all carefully listened to each other, we heard that at our core we all love our country. We want the best for our country, our families and for the future.
As an example, I had an “uh oh” moment speaking with one woman about the issue of abortion. This is one of the most difficult issues to discuss. It surprised me to learn that some of the concerns that I had were shared by the other person. We listened carefully and respectfully to each other.
Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, sang to us the last night. His songs were a soothing reminder that we have more holding us together than tearing us apart. We all sang together with our arms around each other’s shoulders. We turned to each other to say “You are my friend, no matter what your political point of view.”
Workshops are now being organized in New Jersey and New York. I urge you to check out the Better Angels website. See them on Facebook. Learn more about their many programs and volunteer opportunities.
For me, becoming a Better Angel was something that I was compelled to do. I’m tired of seeing family members argue, roll their eyes, and in the worst cases not talk to each other. I want something better for our country, for my family, and for the future.
Please feel free to our group on Facebook as “Better Angels North Jersey” or me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or my colleague Tom Wyka at email@example.com with any questions or if you are interested in a workshop in your community.