Look at the US: What do You See?

As I sit down to write this it has been a couple of days since the shooting at the bar in Thousand Oaks, California, which occurred a little over a week after the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. Thousands of people, men, women and children continue to walk to our border to seek asylum. It is estimated that the midterm elections brought out the largest turnout of voters since at least 1970. The results show that we as a country are quite divided with many races won by a slight margin and many still being contested.

I reflected on the responses to these situations. For ongoing killings perpetrated with guns, some say the only way to prevent them is to make sure there is an armed guard in all public places, or make sure everyone is armed. Others beg us not to offer any more prayers but to stop the guns and have gun control.

In terms of the people walking to our border, we hear this is an invasion of bad people, murderers, all trying to enter the country illegally, and they must be stopped by armed force. Others understand that the vast majority, if not all, are risking their lives to escape murder, rape and the forced recruitment of their children into drug gangs in their home countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They should be met not with force, but with compassion.

As I reflected on this, an image emerged. It was one of those optical illusion pictures that I loved when I was growing up. You look at the picture and immediately see one image — let’s say a vase. My sister would look and see two people’s silhouettes. Both are there but what you see depends on how you look.

I sense that that is where we, as a people, are right now. Our country is facing many serious issues. In one way we are all looking at the same reality. But we are looking through the blinders of our experience and our worldviews.

We see things as either-or: right or wrong, liberal or conservative, pro-Trump or anti-Trump, truthful or fake news. And the list goes on.

What is remarkable about the optical illusion pictures is that if you keep looking, soften your eyes, open your mind to a new possibility — you often see the other picture emerge. Sometimes the ‘other’ picture begins to become prominent, and you almost can’t find that first image. If you leave it and come back, the two images seem to go in and out for you with relative ease.

I believe we have to continue to learn how to see the ‘other’ picture — the other person’s position. That is not always easy.

This last election strengthened in me this realization. Prior to Nov. 6, I may have too easily wanted to believe that only the 30 percent of Donald Trump’s base saw things the way he does. After Nov. 6, I understand that differently. There are some things that many folks support in the agenda embodied by President Trump and those things need to come into focus for those who voted differently. Just as the reality held by those who voted Democratic has to come to the foreground for those who support a different perspective. We all have to re-focus and try to see both images. I especially think this is crucial for the elected officials, regardless of party, who represent all the people in their district, state and country.

By seeing both images we can go in and out — foreground and background — and deepen our understanding of the positions, and even appreciate the values underlying them. As our vision softens and expands, we create an openness from which new possibilities might emerge.

I realize that many people and groups are talking about talking to each other. So is the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue, founded in 2002. We have a new program, beginning in January 2019, called “Enter the Chaos: Engage the Differences to Make a Difference.”

The purpose of the program is that, grounded in contemplative practice and processes, we can explore practical ways to learn to engage persons who operate out of different worldviews. The hoped-for outcome is to heal some of the negative effects of the polarization we experience, and to continue to be agents for transformation.

I invite you to learn more about the program by going to www.iccdinstitute.org. Just click on “Enter the Chaos” to find more information, like the currently scheduled programs throughout the country and registration information. I hope you can join in one of them.

I want to end with another one of those optical illusion pictures, which I had as a child. It comes to mind especially as I look forward to the celebration of Christmas. It is the rectangular piece with what looks like hieroglyphics on it. When you gaze upon it the word “Jesus” emerges.

The Incarnation reminds us that this universe and each of us who dwell within it embody the love of God, the Divine Mystery. It is a dynamic and evolutionary unfolding. However, we don’t always see it within ourselves or within others. Perhaps if we take time to bring that emerging figure into focus, understanding the other and creating new spaces to move into the future may become a bit easier.

[Nancy Sylvester is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan, as well as in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that, she was National Coordinator of Network, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

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