My second year of college, I ended up in this tiny shack of a house on a beautiful tree-lined block in Eugene, Oregon. My room was an uninsulated converted single-car garage attached to the back. My freshman dorm-mate, Eileen, had one of the teensy bedrooms up front, and there was one bedroom remaining. I don’t remember how we found Shelley, but she filled the vacancy and became our new housemate and friend.
Shelley was my exact opposite in so many ways:
Athletic – A member of the U of O track team, she was a petite powerhouse of muscle who worked out every day (maybe it was even twice a day?). I, on the other hand, had my first real day at the gym that year and couldn’t get out of bed the next morning! And the only organized “sport” I’ve ever participated in was ballroom dancing.
Urban – Born and raised in Chicago, Shelley had a much different experience than my hippie, back-to-the-land life in the woods of Humboldt County. I’m not sure she had ever even seen an outhouse and I had never felt the need to roll up my car windows and lock the doors as you drive around town.
Christian – She continued going to church and Sunday School every week, even though her parents weren’t making her go. Whereas, the Easter service she took me to was only the second time I had ever been to church, having been raised in an agnostic/atheist home where God, I was told, was kinda like Santa.
Republican – Shelley came from a conservative family and carried forward that tradition. Hippie families lean left, as we all know. My mom threatened to move to Canada if Reagan was elected (of course, we didn’t). And I always identified myself as a “liberal.”
But over the kitchen table, day-in and day-out, we got to know each other, to really know each other. The beauty of our relationship was that we were both very open to listening, and approached “taboo” subjects like religion and politics with sincere curiosity. It was fascinating! And as a sheltered liberal country girl, I was surprised to find that, despite our preconceived notions, it turned out we had everything in common. When we would dig down below the surface of the labels of Christian/Atheist, Republican/Democrat, and Urban/Rural, she and I held the exact same core values. We believed in kindness and compassion and moral responsibility. We desired a sense of belonging, where we would be supported and safe. We loved our families and our friends. We enjoyed going to the beach and riding our bikes along the river. We wanted a society that was fair and just. We hoped for a good job after school and a chance to have a nice home and a happy life. The only thing that was different was the labels we used to describe them or, sometimes, the specific path we saw to achieving them.
Most of us really want to get to the same place: To a world where our kids are safe and educated as they grow up, and our parents are comfortable and healthy as they age. Where we have fulfilling jobs that leave us feeling accomplished at the end of the day, whether that’s parenting or medicine or art or construction. Where we have clean air and water and food and no asthma or lead poisoning or cancer. Where we have comfortable homes, and are safe from threats of burglary, eviction, wildfires, or floods. Where we can enjoy the sound of birds on a beautiful spring morning and crickets on a warm starry night. Where we feel like we belong and are loved and accepted, and not judged or criticized or neglected.
If we can agree on a destination, why do we argue so much over the route? Is it that we really are headed in different directions, or is the true problem that we have no shared map? (If only we could just plug an address into Google and hit “go.”)
My friends, when we talk about the Climate Crisis or the Green New Deal or the next election, let’s try to remember all our shared values. And don’t be afraid to be open and curious and kind with each other. To question your assumptions and dig deeper. Labels are just the surface layer. At our core, we are all human. We are all vulnerable and we are all trying to survive. If we can turn our focus to a shared destination, perhaps we can then work backwards to figure out the fastest, safest road forward.