This weekend, I had the opportunity to speak to several hundred people about what has been happening in our society and what we might do in response.
I came to that moment with a great deal of internal emotion and no small amount of trepidation. The emotion was driven by the sense of a compilation of tragic losses from Dallas to Minnesota and Louisiana to Baghdad and Dhaka and back to Orlando the previous month. I simply ache at the thought of the lives lost and, importantly, the lives altered by these tragedies, a ripple effect across our nation and our globe as potent as any tsunami.
The trepidation was over whether I could say anything that would bring us together and move us forward to confront these tragedies, not divided by partisanship or political preference, not divided by race or profession, but united in our common humanity.
The audience was most generous, receiving my words attentively and responding with remarkable enthusiasm. One of my daughters-in-law gave me the ultimate over-the-top compliment: “You didn’t just hit that out of the park. You hit that out of the zip code.”
Of course, not everyone was similarly impressed. While person after person came to me afterward and affirmed the importance of the message and its power for them, one gentleman was visibly angry and let me know that, in his words, I “had failed him badly.” A career law enforcement officer, he condemned my reference to the concerns of African-American parents about the possibility that their sons might suffer injury or death in the well-publicized tension with law enforcement that has been making mainstream news on and off for the last two years.
The gentleman was absolutely respectful in his criticism, and equally adamant that, from a factual standpoint, I simply was wrong to give voice to that concern.
We had a very brief conversation, respectful on my part as well, and he walked away still very, very angry.
And this may sound strange, but I was grateful. Not that he had walked away (though probably I should have gratitude for that, too. Undoubtedly, given the intensity of emotion we both felt, one or the other of us would have ended up saying something we would have regretted if we had spoken for too long). I was grateful that he had given voice to what I knew (and, actually, hoped) was the displeasure and objection of some members of my audience.
If no one had criticized my effort to link us all together in a bond of mutual empathy, across profession, race, religion and sexual orientation, I would have known that I either hadn’t been forceful enough to challenge anyone’s thinking, or that people were not willing to be honest with me about their disagreement. Because if the solution to the manifest problem of our hostility toward some of our neighbors were obvious to any intelligent person, we would have ended that hostility long ago.
We have to have these conversations. We have to have people who have access to diverse audiences who will challenge us to think about what we are doing, where all of this violence is coming from. And we need to hear well-informed, passionate disagreements about causes and solutions.
In a blog post, in a spoken message, I know I’m going to get things wrong. I will think that I have the facts when I have missed more important facts. I will think that I have found the right words when I have simply found language that makes me feel good.
Neither, in this time, is sufficient. We need accuracy of information and extraordinary clarity of language.
But we also need the courage to risk being wrong, to risk being inarticulate, and to risk sharing our frustration, even our anger, with those with whom we disagree. We can do so with respect. We can judge how much to say, for how long, and when to walk away (for now). We can agree that the outcome of our conversation is unsatisfactory, that we are not seeing the same reality, that our next conversation may be as difficult as the last.
And we need to be willing to reflect on what we hear that is disagreeable, to consider whether we find it disagreeable because it is false or because it is unpleasantly true.
And try again. And again. And again.
We cannot “win” this struggle for peace by violence. Or, perhaps to be entirely fair, we can win the struggle for “peace” by violence, but the cost is one I believe most of us would find unacceptable.
I firmly believe that we can win this struggle with words. Not empty words. Not “nice” words. Honest words, honestly spoken, sincerely attended to. Words that change how we think, what we see, how we act.
The officer’s experience was real (and even among law enforcement professionals in my audience, not universally shared). I may disagree with his facts, and he with mine, but I cannot deny that he experienced what he experienced, listening to me. That must prompt me to ask if there is something I should have said differently, or something else I should have said.
And, I can hope, his discomfort will prompt him to consider his facts and his experience as well.
Because what we need is the courage to speak from our experience and our understanding, and to listen to the experience and understanding of others with whom we disagree. Even more, we need the courage to risk being right . . . and to accept that we may be wrong.