We live in a divided world, where our differences are driving a wedge between us, creating an ever-widening chasm that threatens to cut us off from each other completely. Or so it seems. When we confine ourselves to what we see and read in the news or on social media, it’s easy to think we’re already standing on the edge of the precipice, staring down into the darkness that division leaves in its wake. But, if we’re willing to sit face to face with someone and listen to their story, we’re likely to find that there is no division after all; we are one. We just don’t realize it most of the time.
I had one of those Aha! moments last week, when I sat in a circle of unfamiliar faces during a class on “meditation in everyday life.” The session was designed for people of any faith, or none at all, and so we were an eclectic group: Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, black, white, Asian, men, women, student, senior and everyone in between. I looked around at first and wondered why I was there. Why hadn’t I just stayed home and enjoyed a quiet evening with my family instead of thrusting myself headlong into this unusual group? And then, one by one, we went around the circle sharing our reasons for being there, and something wonderful rose to the surface: Although the specifics varied, our hopes and needs and hungers were incredibly similar.
Heads nodded in silent, earnest recognition as voices around the circle chimed in with struggles that felt all too familiar: easing stress, finding peace, creating balance, embracing brokenness, learning patience, escaping depression, accepting challenges, becoming mindful, staking out daily silence, reaching toward connection with the Divine.
By the end of the second class, I found myself thinking, “These are my people,” which shouldn’t surprise me at all because I encountered that same truth when I gave a retreat for a dozen women earlier this fall, and I’ve seen the same thing manifest itself whenever I’ve been part of a group of people willing to let down their guard to grow. At our core, we are more the same than we are different. We are not the divided and angry people we encounter on social media and TV, but rather a broken and unsure family that doesn’t always get along but desperately wants to find that sweet spot—the calm, peaceful place that God sets apart for each one of us.
St. Teresa of Calcutta once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.” That quote has taken on a sense of urgency in contemporary society, when it feels as though we are hardening our collective hearts against each other. Many of us feel powerless to do anything. How can we, in our little corner of the world, turn the tide?
By starting where we are. The tide begins to turn when we withhold the harsh words or mean-spiritedness at the dinner table, in our office, on the exit ramp during a traffic jam, in line at the grocery store. We can choose to see our obvious differences and divisions, or we can choose to see our shared suffering and unity.
This season, when we celebrate the Light that overcomes all darkness, we can make a commitment to be a light for others, to listen and let down our guard, to soften the hard edges of our hearts and help heal our fractured world, remembering always that we belong to each other, that we are one.
Although we tend to think our modern world’s condition is unique or unusual, the truth is that the world has always been divided. Back in 1963, Dorothy Day said: “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us.”
More than half a century later that challenge remains.
This column originally appeared in the Dec. 7, 2017, issue of Catholic New York.