I camped out at my favorite Starbucks this morning with the intention of writing about the U.S. debt crisis and the dysfunction of government. We might get to that in another post. But as I wrestled with the wording, normal life kept going on around me…and eventually forced me to pay attention.
To my left, two young women talked animatedly about dress styles. To my right, a boy of around six jabbered to his father about the baseball game they might take in later, as Dad listened with obvious patience, attention, and love.
It felt so blessedly ordinary. People—just people—talking and listening and paying attention and, by doing so, affirming each other.
This feels like something very fundamental to the human spirit. Part of us is hard-wired to be social: to talk and listen and pay attention—in other words, to use the basic abilities that are also the ingredients of dialogue.
I wonder if we can tap into this “ordinary” part of us in extraordinary circumstances, when dialogue is of the utmost importance.
Perhaps this is why some longtime public servants fondly recall the days when they’d fight like mad on the Senate floor and then head out to the local pub with their adversaries. It’s probably (as mentioned in last week’s post) what former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in her days as an Arizona legislator, had in mind when inviting the warring sides of an issue to her house for Mexican food and beer and chat. It’s hard not to relax one’s iron grip on contentious issues in such a relaxed environment. As they prattled and swapped stories and talked about nothing much, I imagine, they stopped being “politicians” and started being people—just people. They tapped into that “ordinary” vein. They allowed their humanness to come out.
And they saw the humanness in one another.
I would submit that it’s harder to mount a savage attack on your adversary once you’ve seen her human side. So these opportunities to be “ordinary” open a door, if even only a crack at first, to talk and listen.
What might have happened if, a week ago, President Obama and Speaker Boehner and House Majority Leader Cantor and others had pushed away from the debt negotiation table, changed into polo shirts and khakis, and took in a Nationals game? What if they’d shared some nachos and bought a few beers and yakked about anything but the debt? Would it have eased the negotiations, fostered more respect, led to a better, and better thought out, solution?
I think this sounds more naïve than it actually is. Why do you think parents give warring toddlers a timeout, if not (in part) to help them take a breather and regain their center? Who’s to say it can’t work with adults?
Considering what doesn’t work in Washington—and the fajitas and beer that have worked in the past—why not give it a try?