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Searching For Common Ground

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As a pediatrician, I enjoy dozens of cheerful encounters with children and their parents every day. By continuing to entrust me with the health care of their children, I assume these parents likewise enjoy these encounters.

Each day, I meet with families from an amazing diversity of ethnic, religious, educational and economic backgrounds. Private political beliefs are nearly always left at the door. How blissfully ignorant we are, these families and I, and how well we all get along!

Human nature being what it is, I wonder were I to know the political beliefs of the parents of my patients, would I communicate differently with some of them? Would I spend as much time with them? I'd like to think I would continue to treat everyone exactly the same. But would some parents, once learning of my political beliefs, wish to no longer entrust me with their children? Sadly, I suspect so. Corrosive can be the effect and fatal the result of partisanship on relationships.

Daily as I read in the editorial pages and hear on the radio all of the back and forth sniping between those on opposing sides of our national debates, I consider how unfortunate it is that people get along best when unaware of each other's beliefs. Would those taking vicious shots at one another across pages and airwaves in fact get along - as neighbors, co-workers, or fellow members of a congregation - if blissfully ignorant of each other's political beliefs? Sadly, again, I suspect largely so.

As Americans, it seems in some ways our bounty is our curse. In this land of plenty, we are not forced to work together out of necessity or thrift. As a result, our distrust of each other forces us into conversations only with others like us. Our ignorance of each other misleads us into assigning easy categorizations and cartoonish stereotypes to those whom we do not personally know.

Our mental filing cabinets in America today seem to have only two drawers, labeled "those who think like us", and "those who do not". Those who think like us earn our uncritical admiration and our unbending ear. Those who do not are just filed away, and never listened to again.

Americans are thus increasingly paying lip service to the ideals of democracy. We are forgetting that democracy is a thing we do together, else it is not done at all. A democracy invites and tolerates the clash of opinions, and understands its obligation to search for common ground. Indeed, a democracy knows its very survival depends upon it.

Finding common ground requires, first and foremost, releasing our anger; it must be let go; it is doing our nation no good. The clenched fist is an extension of the closed mind. Common ground is reached only through a willingness to listen with a mind that is open. Most importantly for democracy, listening permits the possibility of being listened to.

Agreeing only with those who agree with us changes nothing. A democracy recognizes that there are intelligent people supporting each side of every issue. No one can claim a monopoly on truth. Every truth has an answering truth. There exists no issue facing our nation truly as simple as a choice between two absolutes, never mind what the shrill voices on each side say.

After many years as a physician, working with families of all classes and colors, I've come to realize that people are much more alike than unalike. We all have so much more in common than we have in conflict. Even where we disagree, it is likely that your vision and mine are not so far apart.

So what I hope for most for America in these early days of the 21st century is not a living wage for our growing poor, not health insurance for our growing uninsured, not energy independence from our growing addiction to coal and oil, not reduction of our growing debt, and not the return of a competent and incorruptible government. To be sure, all these are things I do desperately want. But I cannot possibly hope for any of them until as a people we reach out as we once did to those with whom we disagree or only partly agree, in order that we gain a more clear understanding of these and many other growing problems we face together.

Most of our nation's problems will never yield themselves to speedy or simplistic solutions, despite what any pundit or politician tells us, and no political party has all the answers. Call me naïve, but until we Americans let go our contempt for those with whom we disagree, until there are outbreaks of reasonableness in our public discourse, until we begin to discuss our differences and similarities, and until we approach each other and our problems with an open hand and an open mind, America will find itself falling ever more behind in this new century. Corrosive is the effect, and fatal may be the result of partisanship on our nation.
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Todd Huffman is a pediatrician and writer living in Eugene, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to many newspapers and publications throughout the Pacific Northwest.
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