I was driving through Ashland today, and with each yard I passed, I felt myself tense up. The signs in the yards reflected a political candidate I feel opposed to, and I found myself being curious about why it bothered me.
One of the best things about living in a small town is the strong sense of community I feel. When I go to the store or to a restaurant, it’s highly likely I’ll see a few people I know. A couple of weeks ago, while walking through downtown, I ran into our mayor, who followed up with me personally on a message I had sent to him about a traffic-related issue near my home. Our community is close knit, and though I wasn’t raised here, I have felt a strong sense of home from the time I moved here.
As we approach an election, I’m hyper-aware that my political views aren’t well represented in my community. That’s okay with me, because I feel confident in those views, and feel grateful that we’re free to feel and express whatever point of view we like with our votes. But it can be easy to believe that if you’re not like everyone else, there’s no place for you in that community.
The truth is, though, that diversity and individuality is really what makes a community great. When we can bring together numerous perspectives and opinions and still find common ground, that’s where the beauty of the human experience really lives. So, why do we feel the tug to hide our differences or argue ourselves into homogenous groups, polarized against those different from us?
Part of it, I think, is that we feel safer in tribes of like-minded people. In each of us there is a desire to belong, and it feels easier to protect our belonging by gravitating towards those most similar to us, where fewer conflicts will arise and threaten that safety. Think about your closest group of friends: they probably look like you, make a similar amount of income, share a similar life stage, and overlap in many of your beliefs and values.
I’m certainly in no position to criticize this behavior, as I find myself in like-minded groups pretty regularly, and I feel a tremendous sense of belonging in those groups. But, if I believe that my sense of belonging is a result of our similarities, then it’s a false security. Belonging doesn’t come from our sameness, it comes from us embracing and celebrating the individuality of each person. When we find ourselves in diverse groups of people of any type – age, gender, life phase, ethnicity, religion, political, body size, net worth, whatever - we leave our echo chambers and enter a vulnerable place.
Sure, tension might erupt over our differences, but why are we so afraid of a little tension? If we can come through healthy tension with a friend, we’ll find ourselves more deeply bonded, more trusting and feeling a much greater sense of connection because we’ll know our relationship is strong enough to embrace our true identities. When a friend disagrees with me on something, and chooses to love me, spend time with me, listen to me and confide in me, we enter into a deeper level of trust and safety in that relationship. It’s in those relationships where I feel the strongest sense of belonging, after all.
Over the coming months, our communities face the threat of division and opposition if we back away from the tension of sharing conversations with those we disagree with and hide behind our homogenous friend groups. This year has been tough and brought a ton of added stress on all of us. Let’s embrace our differences of opinion, embrace each other and listen well to those we disagree with. Let’s be extremely good to each other. Let’s belong to each other.