Beyond The Comfort Zone

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Stretching Our World

Every year, I’m asked by many people what new plants I’ll be growing, or which I’m most excited about. It’s a favorite topic of mine, too; I mentioned a few such enticing plants last week, but there are definitely lots more I’d love to find room for. Lately, I’ve been thinking about where we are intrigued by novelty and where new ideas feel uncomfortable, perhaps even threatening. I’ve been noticing that even my most conservative friends enjoy trying something new in the garden, if not necessarily in other areas of daily life. Though many folks with a very limited range of acceptable foods will try almost anything involving chocolate or cheese or bacon…

Lately I’ve found myself wondering what my world might look like if I put as much time and thought and energy into widening my circle of human acquaintance as I do into expanding my plant lists and lusts. Last week, a lovely woman mentioned that she really doesn’t know anyone whose political views differs from hers. We talked briefly about both the comfort and the dangers of living in such a supportive, like-minded community, and it’s a conversation I’m looking forward to having with more people. While I love my island community, where I have many and deep connections, I’m also very aware that it’s providing me with a bubble of affirmation, a rounded place with most of the hard edges rubbed off. After living most of my life as a misfit, I’ve at last achieved a kind of cultural comfort. Whew! Yet now I’m wondering how I can cultivate my own curiosity about otherness.

Diversity Discomfort

Saturday saw millions of people marching in peaceful protest over the state of our country and the world, in cities across the country and around the world. Most reports talked in terms of hundreds of thousands rather than millions, and the crowds probably were smaller than last year’s, yet there were even more marches in more places this year and that gives me hope. For one thing, only when movements come from the grassroots level does society actually change. Many smaller marches indicate that more communities held their own events where people with limited mobility or means could participate. By some reports, this year’s marches saw more men and more children, which some felt was a dilution and others saw as strengthening. By many reports, this year’s marches were attended by fewer women of color, despite efforts by organizers to be more inclusive. If it felt exclusionary not to be invited and patronizing to be invited, how should such events be developed? Is it possible that such events will always be most satisfying and comforting to groups of similar and like-minded people? Now I’m wondering even more about how to honor diversity as well as unity.

Like many other Women’s March participants, I live in a mostly white community; Bainbridge Island currently has about a 9.2% non-white population, a pretty big shift from a century ago and an even bigger shift from two centuries ago, when the regional population was well over 90% non-white. Today, the island tends heavily to the blue, rich in well-heeled professionals who reliably vote for liberal candidates and support progressive agendas. However, that was less true decades back as well; these days, most of the folks who work in service positions here are commuting daily over the bridge that connects us to the Kitsap Peninsula. As house prices and property taxes have risen, a steady stream of service and care providers, teachers and nurses, police and fire fighters have moved off-island to find affordable homes.

Ask And Listen, Listen And Ask

My projects often involve working closely with people who do hands-on work as well as desk work. While many people in blue-collar jobs vote blue, lots don’t. Thus, we bubble dwellers are floating in a sea of often largely unseen people who may or may not share our political values. If we are truly curious about how others think, once we recognize that they have ideas and beliefs we don’t share, the best way to find out is to ask and listen. Talking with people is rarely difficult, as long as we are genuinely interested in them. The listening part can be the most challenging, especially for those of us who enjoy a rousing argument (also known in some circles as ‘conversation’).

Connecting in more meaningful ways with people we don’t know well provides a great opportunity to listen for our own filters as well as whatever views are being expressed by others. Many layers of privilege can divide us from people whose life experiences and cultures are unlike ours, but the better we listen, the more it becomes obvious that most people really do value and want the same things; safety, food and shelter, family, home, community. Safety is high on the list for immigrants, for people of color, for transgender folks, for the elderly, for the poor and the dispossessed. People in every one of these categories live on this island, so I don’t need to make an inner city journey to find them, only to open my eyes and ears. And listen.

Filtering Filters

Listening is hard work for many of us, especially when our opinions are passionate. I’m finding that it’s every bit as important to listen to myself as to whomever I’m in discourse with. I’m learning to listen carefully to my inner thoughts as well as monitoring what I end up saying, recognizing where I’m holding judgements or making shaky assumptions. As I practice deeper listening, I try to be curious about the unspoken thoughts that reveal my own biases and beliefs. Where did these ideas originate? Have I ever really thought deeply about them? Do I still believe them?

My trans daughter has been a kind and gentle but implacable teacher in this work. She’s never judgmental about my attempts to learn, but she always lets me know when I’m making what she calls “assumptions from a privileged position.” Admittedly, it can be tough and painful work to deliberately uncover our own filters and flaws and brokenness, but it’s also amazingly freeing and spacious. Encouraged by this new freedom, I’m trying to examine my hidden and unconscious prejudices and assumptions with as much kindness and compassion as my daughter shows me. Listen and learn. Listen and love.


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8 Responses to Beyond The Comfort Zone

  1. Elizabeth Eisenhood says:

    Thank you, Ann, for this post. Since Saturday’s March, I have been wondering how to start conversations with people across the political divide. I don’t have an answer, only a kind of nervous willingness.

    It was good to see you Saturday. I think we have a similar approach to grandmothering!
    A hug, Beth

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Thanks, Beth. We’ve got to begin this process of community building in a new way if we ever hope to create a new world order (and that’s what’s required, as far as I can tell). Changing human nature isn’t a fast or simple process but if we begin with ourselves, surely we’ll pick up some skills along the way? Our grandkids will benefit, that’s for sure!

  2. Constance Dent says:

    I also thank you for this post. You raise some very good questions about how we can open a dialogue with those whose opinions and experiences might be very different from ourselves. Labeling others only serves to keep them “others” and listening is probably the only path to true understanding an progress in achieving parity in our dealings with one another.

    May our personal relationships flourish as grandly as does your garden! Love our style and gardening sense! Thank you.

  3. Tamara says:

    It has actually been a long time since I lived in a “bubble” community and there are times that I long for the freedom to express my opinions openly and know that almost everybody around me will agree. Most people in my area are white, but there are probably 50% who are actively supportive of our current president, which leaves me dumbfounded. The number of people toting guns has made me fearful of venturing onto local trails alone, something I used to do with abandon in the SF Bay Area. Yet, I agree, it has forced me to try hard to listen and understand. The problem seems to be that I am willing to listen and understand, but I see virtually none of that happening from the radical right. There is a huge divide and very little conversation. It tends to be more a matter of avoidance of political topics in gatherings where political persuasion is ambiguous. I can’t say there has been a lot of true hate crimes here, but there are small things that make life uncomfortable for the few minorities I know who live here. Drive-by comments shouted out, Confederate flags, and that sort of thing. Since the Presidential election, it seems that this type of behavior is even more blatant, with many proudly proclaiming prejudice and intolerance. How far does the pendulum have to swing before we get back to sanity?

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      I wish I knew. In my own community, I’m offering a conversation cafe to help promote community building and I recently learned that some people find the name Peace Cafe to be off-putting and even depressing (!?). Even so, every effort, no matter how small, can build community. Just smiling at people on the sidewalk can clearly be startling for some, yet I see tentative and slightly bewildered smiles return. Cheerful courtesy, little kindnesses, gentle greetings, all help more than might seem possible. So we persist!

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