When I pull together a group of warring parties to begin a mediation my first message to them is about respect. No matter how you feel about those across the table from you – the rancher, the mining company, the environmentalist, the federal agency, the local business, the community activist – I insist on a level of respect. Number two is listening. If you are to sit at my table you must be able to keep your mouth shut, and hopefully your mind open, long enough for the “others” to explain their needs and wants. That may sound simple but it is actually asking a lot of people who may have been battling each other in court, in the press, or on the streets for a long time, and who may be so frightened and/or angry that their passion is almost uncontrollable. Sound familiar?
These two rules – respect and listen – have been trampled by both sides in the current political debate. I’m disturbed by friends and those I respect who call the “other” despicable, crazy, irrational, evil, believing with every fiber of their being that they are right and reasonable. Why won’t they listen to us, they ask? What more facts, intellect, and moral outrage can we throw at them?
I received an email recently with the subject line: “One More Reason to Hate the GOP.” I deleted it and sunk further into depression. Is that what this is about, piling up reasons to hate? I put myself in the shoes of the “other.” For me the “other” is a Trump supporter, but it’s an exercise for anyone on any side. How would it feel to be scorned, insulted, and laughed at for decades as low life, white trash, rednecks, uneducated ignoramuses who watch reality tv and don’t know what’s good for them, not to mention being victimized by an economy that is making it harder to survive? I’d be mad as hell at those liberal snobs who think they know what’s best and don’t seem to care a hoot about me or want to listen to what I have to say.
I think some of you may be cringing. The thought of sitting down and listening to what you fear will be a rant from someone you don’t know and don’t really want to know is not appealing. But I bet that it would be pretty interesting for both of you, perhaps in the right setting, with the right facilitation.
If this seems like stepping out on a very scary, threatening ledge, think about the recent experience of Karen Williams, who confronted the “other” and almost died.
Karen is a serious runner who recently participated in a marathon in northern New Mexico through the Valles Caldera National Preserve, a spectacular and huge piece of wild land that is the crater of an ancient volcano. Temperatures were high, and many had dropped out. Karen, in her fifties, was well behind the pack, alone but pushing on and enjoying the beauty of the run, when she saw coming toward her on the path ahead a bear, a mother bear no less. Unknowingly Karen had frightened a cub up a tree, and the mother was on the job, out to stop the threat.
I heard Karen tell the story recently to a group concerned about the interface between humans and wildlife, and it was riveting. The next thing she knew the bear was on top of her, biting her neck and clawing her arms. Struggling to remember any defense moves when being attacked by a bear, she curled up and lay still as the bear huffed and snorted above her. She tried screaming, hoping a fellow runner might hear, but the bear swatted her on the side of the head.
She recalls thinking to herself, “Hmm, that was not a good idea. The bear does not want me to scream. I won’t try that again.” And she lay still, waiting to die. Eventually the huffing and snorting stopped, she heard the cub descend the tree and the two left. She waited ten minutes for the bear to be out of range and began to shout. Several minutes later another runner came along, summoned help and she was taken to the hospital. The wounds were not life-threatening, although she needed a skin graft on the side of her head, and she was released to recover – physically and emotionally.
Meanwhile back at the site of the attack the state wildlife agency tracked down the bear and killed it, in accordance with a state law requiring that any wild animal that attacks a human be killed and tested for rabies. The bear did not have rabies. In fact, no bear in the history of bears in New Mexico has had rabies, but the law is the law. The only animals exempt in the law are rodents and rabbits, because there are no known cases of rabies in rodents or rabbits. This has led to a groundswell in the state to reexamine the law and consider including bears in the exemption, or some other tweak that would have saved this mother bear who was simply doing her job to protect her cubs.
And Karen is leading this groundswell. She feels bad to have been the cause of the death of this bear, a death that resulted in two motherless cubs now being raised in a wildlife center. She remembers clearly the mother bear as it came toward her. It was, she says, a very healthy bear and looking into her eyes she knew that the bear was simply doing what she needed to do. Karen ended her talk by saying that if she were attacked again by a bear – yes, she is out running again through the wilderness – and lived, she would tell the authorities that she had been attacked by “a herd of wild rabbits” so that the predator would not be automatically executed.
Think about it. A woman is attacked by a powerful enemy capable of killing her with a swat. She knows she has invaded the bear’s territory. She listens to its warning “do not scream” and she learns. She feels the bear on top of her protecting her cubs. She understands the bear’s fear and need to act. She waits, the bear spares her life and leaves. She has listened and she has learned from a mortal enemy, an enemy that she has bonded with in a most intimate way, an enemy that she respects as a result of that encounter and is even now fighting for.
Back to the political arena, where it seems that all we can do is rant, rave, insult and hate each other. What if we all acted more like Karen, responding to a threatening situation with a willingness to learn, even a dose of compassion? Of course her situation is not one any of us is likely to encounter, but still, I am struck by the message: listen to the enemy with respect. Next time I watch the news, receive a “one more reason to hate” email, or am provoked by a chance meeting with the “other,” I am going to remember Karen.