Living or working with other people might be the most difficult thing we ever do. Even a marriage can be hard work. And yet, if we wish to lead a meaningful life – or choose to rebuild the foundations of the American Republic – this is our core mission.
A spirited civil society is a central part of our American heritage. More than that, without dependable neighbors there can be no real safety or security. And, without trust nothing is dependable. These are prizes to be fought for and gained through consistent and determined effort.
Where do we start? How shall we navigate the inevitable bumps and bruises of working relationships?
When we become acquainted with someone who is emotionally mature and relatively open-minded it may not be hard to develop an understanding. If, however, we need to work with someone who suffers from anxiety or has wounds from the past, (or is convinced they already know everything), then building a constructive relationship will take time and labor.
This is almost always possible, if we have the patience and courage to persist, and if our circumstances allow us to proceed safely.
There are two basic requirements. The first is to get our thinking straight, to have a positive attitude and reasonable, clearly formed intentions. The second is to gain certain practical interpersonal skills. Both will be addressed in the book.
In any potentially sensitive interpersonal relationship it is wise to look beyond superficial impressions to recognize the free personhood and integrity of the other individual. New acquaintances may not seem attractive at first, or might seem more attractive than they deserve.
Each of us is a complex mystery. We can only come to genuinely know one another if we have the generosity of spirit to inquire and take interest. This can be a rich and meaningful experience.
Stephen Covey has written that “every human has four endowments – self awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom…, the power to choose, to respond, to change.”
If we seek to build trust, and if we believe in freedom, all of these endowments must be recognized. Many of us are unaware of our own endowments, our own potential to grow and mature. And the surest way to learn and grow is in the effort to build functional relationships.
Many people will not share our vision or sense of purpose. They may not understand what we are inviting them to do, and may be distrustful until we prove ourselves. So, we need to communicate clearly, making sure we are understood, and find ways to work together. Such things take time and thoughtfulness.
We cannot wait for others to take the lead. The initiative must be ours. This is how we test our skills and put rubber to the road.
Elbert Hubbard said, “Responsibility is the price of freedom.” And Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
Understanding comes through relationship, and the best way to build strong relationships is to team up to meet community needs. While spending relaxed time offers the possibility for meaningful conversation, it is in working together to address felt-needs and resolve practical problems that we really come to know one another.
Now, suppose we need to join forces with people who are very different from us. Perhaps our politics are at odds, or someone has religious or philosophical views that we find strange, or we simply see reality very differently. How can we get along – and actually trust another in difficult or dangerous circumstances? We will touch on this briefly next week.
Again, I believe the bottom line is this: In every matter our concern must be to preserve and deepen the level of trust, because we can expect to remain under the pressures of disrupted lives, deteriorating social conditions, and the threat of violence for a long time.
We can do this. We are a resourceful people. And we will get better at it as we make the effort.
Next week: Living With Differences