It’s easy to point to the things that divide us. If you only consumed media — from movies, books, articles and the news — the issues that drive us apart seem to outnumber the things we have in common. In real life though, everyday life, that overwhelming sense of divisiveness lessens, even if only a little.
As Ronald Reagan has been credited with saying, “The things that unite us — America’s past of which we are so proud, our hopes and aspirations for the future of the world and this much-loved country — these things far outweigh what little divides us.”
But in a time when politics seem to permeate everyday conversations and vitriol has reached a peak, how do we remind ourselves that although we may disagree with our neighbors, leaders and family members on occasion, they are all still human and it’s still important to conduct ourselves with dignity, integrity and, dare I say, kindness.
One of my favorite authors, Philip Caputo, wrote a book that published in 2013 called “The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean.”
The book itself is an enjoyable and largely light-hearted story of a very long road trip. Caputo, his wife and their two dogs traveled from Key West, Florida, to Deadhorse, Alaska. Why? He wanted to discover how the U.S., full of every race, religion and political leaning, remained united. After all, what do Inupiat Americans in Alaska and Cuban Americans in Florida have in common? One observes the northern lights, the other the southern cross in the night sky. Their environments alone offer plenty of reasons to focus on differences, rather than similarities, that exist under this umbrella of the United States.
If you think of it, the question of what unites applies more now than it even did when in 2011 Caputo hooked up a trailer and drove a truck across the country, visiting with residents along the way.
He had many conversations on his cross-country adventure — all interesting. But in his epilogue, as his trek ended, he talked about a couple of them as a way to wrap up the book.
In Montana, he met a resident that said, “The country definitely is in disarray. At the same time, to grow as a country, we need to have conflict, and conflict is healthy, conflict is good.”
Another explanation compared politics to astrophysics. The tension between gravity and thermonuclear fusion is what holds a star together. If gravity wins, the star collapses into a black hole. If thermonuclear fusion wins, the star explodes out. Caputo compares that to Jeffersonian forces in politics (focus on individual liberties) and Hamiltonian forces (centralized power). “Too much Jefferson leads to anarchy,” he writes, “to much Hamilton to tyranny.”
As he explained this thought to two folks who hosted him in Texas at the end of his trip, he asked for their thoughts on what holds the country together.
“Hope,” she said. “Isn’t that what it’s always been?”
I agree with both points of view. I think some conflict is necessary to move forward. Conflict is the sometimes ugly force behind change. But hope, that’s the positive push within all of us to be better. We all hope for something better — whether that hope is focused on a better job, a better attitude, a better physique, a better income or even a better sports team for which to cheer.
Conflict is OK. Hope is OK. How we act and how we handle both the positive and negative forces behind change will determine where we land, both as individuals and as a country.