Discernment at the Dinner Table

Discernment at the Dinner Table

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Many people are dreading holiday meals. In the wake of the recent election, they fear that conversations about politics will become contentious and angry. Major newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune have run stories about how to manage family dynamics, and the restaurant chain Bob Evans has partnered with the Emily Post Institute to establish a hotline that will help folks remember their manners.

These precautions make sense. Because some people are grieving and others are gloating, the risk of dinner table conflict is genuine.

Cooperative Wisdom tells us the opportunities are also genuine. This national outpouring of emotion has the potential to be a time of deep discernment.  Because feelings of vulnerability are so close to the surface, we have an opportunity to coax out better understandings of each other. The opposite feelings triggered by the election have their roots in different experiences. If we can set aside the divisive campaign rhetoric, we can start to inquire about why people who matter to us see things differently.

For most grieving people, the anger that this election generated is rooted in a genuine sense of vulnerability. From their perspective, they fear the new administration may disregard or even threaten issues and constituencies which matter deeply to them. Others feel jubilant because they believe new policies will take into account values and people that have been ignored for too long. The point is that both sides have values, and the more we can understand what those values are, the more likely we are to create family structures that honor and protect them. The more we can see harms that are clear to others, the more we are able to respond constructively to the things that worry them.

People and their opinions are, inevitably, shaped by the environments in which they find themselves. If you travel at all during the holidays, you become aware that in this great country, people find themselves in very different circumstances. From an airplane, you can see the vast webs of light that define our metropolises and the fragile ribbons of road that connect our small towns. You notice that some people live in fertile, green regions where water is abundant, and others occupy terrain that looks parched and inhospitable. It’s easy to see how people in these different settings might come to very different conclusions about issues like power production or water management.

The physical environment shapes perspective but so does the social environment.  One town may be hollowed out because once prosperous industries shut down or moved away. In another, an influx of companies may have made housing unaffordable and commutes onerous. One community may have cut taxes dramatically only to find that infrastructure and services are disintegrating. Another may have raised taxes only to discover that people on fixed or modest incomes can no longer afford homes.

If you inquire sincerely about why people feel and think the way they do, they may even confide more personal details that shape their point of view. One may be concerned because heroin has become widely available in the neighborhood near their school. Another may worry about medical bills for an aging family member.  One may feel threatened by crime. Another may have a dear friend or a valued employee who fears deportation. A cousin who looks as though they have a secure job in a company that’s thriving may actually be concerned about an incipient merger.  A niece who has big dreams may be living paycheck to paycheck.

Can we listen to all of these perspectives? Can we appreciate the hopes and fears which rise naturally from these experiences? Understanding what matters from another person’s point of view doesn’t mean that you adopt their perspective or abandon your own point of view. The conclusions you have reached have validity because they have grown out of your circumstances and they also deserve respect.

For this holiday, however, the real opportunities come from setting your own perspective aside and opening to what other people feel, think and believe. Adopt a learner’s mind. Ask questions that aren’t pointed. Make a genuine effort to understand. Accept strong feelings as a sign that something important is at stake. Find out what that something is. Think of your family as a cornucopia, a rich mix that becomes beautiful precisely because there are so many textures, flavors and colors

At first, the process may feel threatening, especially if it’s not the usual practice in your family.  People don’t reveal vulnerability unless they feel safe. It’s easier to puff ourselves up and make ourselves threatening.  But that doesn’t provide a basis for the cooperation that is at the heart of families and communities and countries. If we want a community in which our values are respected, we have to start by extending that respect to others, creating settings in which people feel free to say what is in their hearts. None of this is easy, but the effort is worthwhile. Making an honest effort to discern what truly matters to another person lays the groundwork for cooperation that will produce genuinely mutual benefits.

Imagine what would happen if open-hearted conversations could occur around dining tables all across the country.  Imagine people setting aside their assumptions about what others believe and actually asking each other what they think and why they see things that way. Imagine creating a safe place where people can share what they really think because they know others will respect their point of view, even if they do not share it.  Imagine family members gently posing “why” questions until they discern the bedrock values embedded in the circumstances and strivings of each other’s lives.

Family is the first and most fundamental cooperative system. We may have different perspectives and priorities, but we are motivated to work together so everyone thrives. Thanksgiving dinner itself is evidence that cooperation yields benefits that we cannot realize alone. The meal is best when everyone contributes ingredients, recipes and cooking tips that are meaningful for them. As you sit down at the dinner table, remember that simply gathering together to prepare and share a holiday meal reaffirms our commitment to the kind of flourishing that is possible only through cooperation. For that alone, we should give thanks.

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