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Can We Talk?

The past week has been difficult. I just typed and erased that sentence three times. It seems like such a gross understatement and a poor beginning for this blog, but I can think of no other way to describe the way the tragic murder of George Floyd and the subsequent violent protests have impacted us both individually and collectively, igniting a range of emotions. It has been difficult on so many levels.

And so, I have struggled to find the right words to say at a time when simple rhetoric seems insufficient to capture the heartbreak, the pain of injustice, violence, and cruelty. There are those who would take advantage of the pain of others to move their own agenda forward, causing more chaos in the process. That is disturbing. Watching the news reports has made us all uncomfortable, but so has the silence. We cannot be afraid to talk about issues if we hope to reach the truth or grasp some level of understanding.

Let’s face it: we each view the world through our own windowpanes. We form our perceptions of life through experience, culture, background and education so that we can interpret what happens to us and around us. So I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to assume that I know what it is like to live as a minority in America. I can’t relate tales of discrimination or malice just because I was born with a darker skin color. I can’t imagine how challenging each day might be for people forced to worry about their safety and security or how a mother’s heart must ache each time she must send her child out into an inhospitable world. But as a member of the human race, I can try to have compassion because I do understand grief, pain, frustration and fear, all of which are universal. And equally as important, I can listen as you speak, keeping my heart and mind open to what you choose to share with me. This is how empathy begins.

I spent 36 years in a high school classroom with students of various ethnic backgrounds. As the demographics of our district changed, so did the pupil population, and during much of my teaching career, nearly forty percent of my kids were African American. I mostly taught Speech Communication, an elective, that encompassed three grades and various academic levels. I liked to think of my classroom as a microcosm unto itself, and a true reflection of our diverse society. That made it exciting, yet challenging. Early on in my teaching career, I learned the value of ongoing, meaningful dialogue. I encouraged respectful debate and exchange of ideas. When people talk to each other, when they are able to openly discuss what they think and feel, they discover that while there are differences, there are also commonalities. That can be quite the epiphany. Through honest conversation, we can often reach a greater understanding of each other, even on topics upon which we may not readily agree. That takes trust; that takes vulnerability. But that’s also when change happens. I have witnessed it over and over again. And it is something to behold.

There is no magical formula for fixing our broken world, no powerful meme that would wake us from the slumber that keeps us in denial and somehow motivates us to sing “We are the World” around a symbolic campfire. In order for change to be collective, it must start with each of us as individuals. But what we do matters; what we say is important. We must each examine our own conscious, look into our own hearts and be honest with ourselves about what we believe, what we honor as a personal doctrine. And then, we must ask the most basic of questions about how we live: “Am I acting out of love?” It seems rather straightforward, a recurring theme among songwriters and authors, a noble idea emblazoned on t-shirts and coffee cups, but it is the most basic of truths. Respect is harvested from a garden planted in love. So is kindness and compassion. We raise each other up when we are able to recognize our mutual humanity. And I think that begins when we form relationships, when we unafraid to get to know folks who don’t look like us.

We are told to love our neighbors as ourselves. And there is no mention of color or creed in that directive. In fact, the word “love” is mentioned 551 times in the Bible. Could it really be that simple? I think so.

Perhaps the Beatles were right: “All you need is love.” We have already seen where hate has gotten us.

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