I had a conversation today with a colleague who was flying out after our phone call to spend time with his dad. 6 weeks ago, his dad was diagnosed as having advanced leukemia. This week, they realized the cancer had spread to his bladder. My colleague was flying home to try to talk to his dad about hospice, something his dad was not ready to fathom, having only learned he was sick a few short weeks ago, at the age of 67.
The conversation wasn’t supposed to be about that. It was supposed to be business-related, and potentially contentious at that. We had never spoken to each other before this call, but we are involved together in something that could have been pretty ugly. I cannot speak for my colleague, but I was nervous when I picked up the phone, not having a clue how this issue would resolve itself.
And then, as we began the requisite small talk that precedes such a conversation, he told me I was his last call before getting on that plane.
When I speak and teach, I often quote the Buddhist monk and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh, who will hold up a piece of paper and state that there is a cloud in that piece of paper. If paper comes from wood pulp, he says, and the wood pulp comes from trees, which need rain to grow, and the rain comes from clouds, then there is a cloud in that piece of paper. We are all connected, to everything around us, to everyone around us.
Today, I nervously picked up the phone, entering into a conversation with someone I had not looked forward to speaking with. And within seconds, that same person became transformed into someone who was facing loss and change and uncertainty. That person became someone I cared about.
Someone like me.
As we talked, common ground built itself. What could have been contentious was easily resolved. We both wanted the same thing. We made that happen.
This morning as I started to write this post, I had intended to write about the fact that this week, for some reason, incidents kept occurring to remind me of our interconnectedness. As if that had not been my initial intent at 8am, the gods conspired at 3pm to ensure I would indeed finish that post – or as the case is now, rewrite it.
When we realize we all want the same thing; when we realize we are all on the same side; when we realize that the pinnacle of our humanity is to sense what we have in common, rather than what divides us – we can accomplish anything. Everything.
The silos we have created are just that – created. The systems we think are intractable were made by humans and can be unmade by humans. The things that divide us are not nearly as strong as the things that bind us.
We really and truly all want the same thing.
This morning as I was writing, I wanted to emphasize that when we talk with donors, when we talk with legislators, when we talk with the media – that that is where we need to begin. We need to begin at that thing we all share – that desire for the places we live to be safe, healthy, vibrant. We all want clean air and clean water, and we all want to know our kids will grow up to be strong, capable adults, who will also have a safe, healthy, vibrant world to live in.
Tonight, as I am thinking about the deep connection I felt to the man who might have started out as a potential adversary but who, within moments became my colleague, I know that that is the only effective place to start.
Don’t start with what’s wrong with today. Don’t start with the problems, the symptoms. Don’t start in the place where everyone has a different opinion, a different sense of the issues, a different idea about the solution.
Start at the place we all share. Start with our humanity. Start with our shared passion that our communities be amazing places to live. Connect at that place that is deeply held in us all.
Once you have connected, the rest is just a conversation among friends. Colleagues. Fellow clouds in that piece of paper. The walls that divide us become far more permeable when we remember we all want the same thing.