Once my ten-year old son and I were in the grocery store, and we witnessed a crime. A man stood over the mounds of grapes, plucking and tasting one after another from different bunches. “What right,” I hissed to my son, “does he have to eat grapes? What if everynone did that!” I ranted all the way home, so much so that “the man who ate the grapes” became one of those family phrases that can bring a chuckle decades later.
Where did that outrage come from? Like many passions it came from childhood. When I was in grade school, my mother was a graduate student in philosophy, and I learned from her about the categorical imperative. What I grasped at that impressionable age was that if you are thinking about doing something, you should imagine that everyone around you, even everyone on earth, will do the same thing. Because if you have the right to do it, then, of course, so does everyone else. I immediately saw that I should not throw my gum wrapper out the car window. If everyone did that the air would be thick, the ground covered, with foil and paper. And, if everyone acted like the man who ate the grapes, we would be left with a pile of stems, right?
Another passion that has guided my choices as an adult came from my father. From him I gained a deep appreciation for the democratic process. He was an enthusiastic, if not always successful, politician in my early years. He loved the race and was passionate about his underdog causes. I learned from him the joys of participating in the system, imperfect as it may be. The concept of democracy, where ideally each person has an equal voice, moves me deeply; I confess to even tearing up in the voting booth when I think about it. If we all took each vote that seriously, thinking about our needs, the needs of others, the greater good — and the categorical imperative — wow, it could be an amazing world!
Now I find myself all grown up, a professional mediator, and I see that these values instilled by my parents are core to what I do and why. My cases are complex conflicts over the use of natural resources and protection of the environment. My first and most important job is to get the right people at the table to find a solution. I am insistent that every interest with a stake in the outcome be represented. Each of those voices has a right to participate, to have a say in that ultimate solution. Of course it would be easier in many cases if the troublemakers, the obstructionists or the little guys were left out. Then the powerful players could cut a deal “on behalf of everyone.” But that strategy offends me deeply. To resolve the most difficult conflicts we face requires us all to take part, get educated, speak up and above all to listen to other voices. To approach these problems like the self-absorbed man who ate the grapes will not do.
I welcome your thoughts and stories about the origins of your passions and values. And by the way, you can still be my friend if you have sampled grapes at the grocery store. I am working on my tolerance.