Habits of the heart: We are all in this together

February 17, 2014

I recently had dinner with my sister and we were talking work, and family, and relationships. We were both doing a little bit of venting about the challenging situations we had been experiencing and how much energy and patience they required of us. And I remarked, “Life would be so much easier if it weren't for people and personalities.” And we both laughed.

Oh, if only we all could get along. If only we all had the same work habits. If only we all viewed the world the same way. If only we all took each other's words at face value and did not read motive and intent that was never expressed. If only we were all wired alike, and thought alike, and never had crossed signals or words. Wouldn't that make life so much easier?

Perhaps. But it would also be very boring and predictable, and in fact, would probably diminish our creativity and resourcefulness. It is our diversity, and the uniqueness that we bring to the world, that makes a community richer and stronger, even as it is our diversity that can bring us into conflict with each other.

Parker Palmer, in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, says there are five habits that any community or nation needs to cultivate for their health and vitality. The first is the fundamental conviction that we are all in this together.

I have worked in many situations where people were divided. The reasons for division were varied, but in every situation, the road to healing and reconciliation started with a fundamental conviction that the relationships mattered, that somehow we understood we were all in this together and we were committed to staying at the table and staying in dialogue with one another. It wasn't always easy, and it took a great deal of maturity, but when we really listened and loved one another, even when we disagreed, we became stronger and better for it.

I admit that I like being right. I like winning. And I have been known for being forceful in my opinions. I have the ability to persuade and convince. But winning at all costs often leaves me hollow at the end. The cost is higher than I might have realized. I remember watching some movie—I can't even remember what it is now—but there were two sisters . . . and one had quite high standards for other people. She was demanding and unforgiving. Her sister finally said to her, “You can be right or you can be in relationship; which do you want?”

That has stuck with me over the years. I can be right. I can fight to win my point, to make my case, to get my way. But it does not come without hurt and damage to the relationship, and after enough times of that, people do not stay, or if they stay, they no longer fully engage or trust. They protect their heart. The relationship is broken. And we are all losers.

Now, I am not saying there are not things worth fighting for, or values that are worth standing up for, or boundaries I need to set in my life. But when I get to the end of my life, what will matter to me most is the people who I loved and the people who loved me. It will be the people, like my sister with whom I kibitzed and laughed. It will be the people I met who shared their hearts and life with me, and who listened to my hopes and hurts and, even when I messed up, loved me anyway.

Without people and their personalities, my life would be so lonely and I would be less in so many ways. If agreement were a requirement for relationship, well, when I look at my circle of family and friends, it is a good thing that something higher and stronger binds us together, because we can't even agree on what to eat for dinner some days, let alone our politics or religious beliefs.

So, church, we may not think alike. We may not always like each other even. We have divides, no doubt about it. But it is a small world. And we share this planet we call Earth. And we have one God who loves us all and calls into relationship with God and with each other. So can we at least agree on this simple premise: People matter, relationships matter, how we treat each other matters, and, fundamentally, we are all in this together. If we, the church, diverse and quirky and unique and wonderful as we are, could live that out, what a witness it would be to our world.

Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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