After a devastating year of COVID, of protests, of the election, what I may be the most tired of is hearing “I just can’t understand…”
“I just can’t understand why someone would vote for that guy.”
“I just can’t understand why people wear/don’t wear masks.”
“I just can’t understand why people are protesting/not protesting.”
“I just can’t understand why people believe that.”
Every time I hear someone say, “I just can’t understand,” I think, “Is your imagination broken?”
Even if we are too frustrated to listen right now, in the privacy of our own minds, we can imagine how the world is not the same for others as it is for us. Without leaving our house or our town, we can see that our own experience in the world is not universal and this is how others come to different conclusions than we do.
If we are able to listen to and believe others when they talk about their lives, we can come to understand and empathize with them. We can understand why or how someone living a different life with different challenges and a different history can find it so important to take to the streets in protest or to vote for someone for whom we cannot; we can imagine why someone would do the opposite of what we would do.
I have thought a lot this year about what it will take to narrow the divides — both real and perceived — that we face in our country. I have thought a lot about how we can narrow the rural-urban divide in our own state.
I think the only way forward is through, and the only way through is together.
I think we need a national and personal infrastructure project of ladders and bridges.
What I want to see in 2021 is some good, old-fashioned bridge building — between urban and rural; western Oregon and eastern Oregon; young and old; between races; between political parties. But let’s not construct a series of “bridges to nowhere.” I want bridges from here to a more perfect union and I want people to start crossing them. I know we might have to start with rope bridges that sway and narrow planks that take some guts to cross.
I know we aren’t all engineers, but those of us who are called to bridge building must. I want people to uncover their eyes, look for the bridges and start walking them. I understand that some wounds in America are too deep and too wide for everyone to cross now; I understand that some folks will never cross bridges from “I can’t understand” to “I want to understand” or from “I now understand” to “I’m sorry.”
But many people are capable of bridge building and bridge crossing now. Urban, western Oregonians: I’d like you to find the bridge that will help you understand why my rural Oregon county voted to discuss changing our county borders and “moving” to Idaho. I’m ready to cross bridges too: which bridge do you want me to be looking for?
The bridges I want to build do not ferry you from your opinion to mine — they just span the chasm so we can stop saying “I just can’t understand” and start talking and working together. I care about our schools and so do you. Let’s start with raising money for the volleyball team or the band or robotics club and see where it goes.
When we spend time on bridges in common cause (of which there are many), we moderate each other’s tendencies to see things as “us and them.” And what more can we hope for than to simply influence each other in positive ways?
I imagine that often we will stomp off these bridges in rage or pain and flee back to our own side — bridges aren’t rainbows. But as author Glennon Doyle writes, “We need to learn to withstand people’s anger, knowing that much of it is real and true and necessary. There are worse things than being criticized — like being a coward.”
She also writes, “We can do hard things.”
So let’s do the hard thing. When we find ourselves saying, “I just can’t understand …” let’s start looking for bridges. If you can’t find one and you can build one, do. We build bridges by forging relationships with people who come from a different place or class; who we don’t work with; who we disagree with but with whom we share a kernel of interest.
If we count up our friendships and relationships and don’t find people who are different than us, well, maybe that’s why we “just can’t understand” things.
If we find ourselves misunderstood by “them,” let’s look for a bridge where folks are waiting for us. They want to be understood too because the opposite of our strongly-held, “moral” belief is not an amoral belief we “just can’t understand.” The opposite of our belief is an equally strong belief forged from a different life experience and a believer who is also misunderstood.
Bridges are just one part of the national and personal infrastructure project we need — the other part is ladders. When we accomplish something, we have the choice to either carry the ladder we climbed up with us, or lower it for the folks behind us — our colleagues, our neighbors, the next generation.
What we each have or lack is based on a complex set of factors including history, luck, decisions and timing. If we are fortunate enough to find ourselves with a good job, enough to eat, a safe place to live — let’s don’t draw up the ladder we climbed. Let’s lower it for folks to rise with us. When we get a new program at our school, we can lower the ladder and help other schools gain access too. When we get a promotion at work, we can say, “there’s no more room up here” or we can lower the ladder and make space.
I think we can all find a hundred ways people helped us get to where we are, but even if you feel that you were alone in your ascendence, you can still drop a ladder and be the person that helps others along. Glennon Doyle says “the miracle of grace is that you can give what you have never gotten.”
If we all start lowering ladders in our personal life and building an infrastructure of ladders for our nation, we will narrow the division we claim to abhor in income, class, race, gender and more. A nation of more ladders is fairer for everyone. If you lower ladders and help make that the norm, you will find more ladders to climb too.
• • •
The divisions we see in America today are upsetting and seem worse than ever, but they were baked into the founding of this country; into this experiment. People in early America fought like we do along lines of ideology, class, race, gender, geography and religion. That is not to say we’re doomed, but that we descendant generations are, and will always be, tasked with creating the “more perfect union.”
As the Declaration of Independence was debated by the Continental Congress, Benjamin Franklin told fellow delegates that they must stand together or suffer separately at the hands of the British.
As Black suffragists fought and helped win women's right to vote 100 years ago this year, their motto was “Lifting as We Climb.”
Our forebearers knew the only way forward is through, and the only way through is together. It will take imagination, bridges and ladders.
Nella Mae Parks is a farmer who lives in Union County.