Share Common Ground

I grew up in Pittsburgh, and when I was young I heard that our city was known as the melting pot of the United States. It was exciting to grow up in an area where so many different cultures influenced everything from architecture to dining. In Elementary School we celebrated holidays from around the world, each student bringing from home stories of their family ritual, food, dress, and music. When foreign languages were introduced in later grades, teachers shared history, geography, and agriculture alongside language lessons.

Variety truly is the spice of life. The spice. Not life. We add tiny amounts of spices to our foods to make them interesting, to display our heritage, to differentiate in a way we hope all people are willing to learn about, that some will try and maybe enjoy. But the foundation food beneath that spice, is our common ninety-nine percent. We eat. We work. We talk. We clean. We clothe. We shop. Each of us is born, we live, and we die. We are all inhabitants of the same planet Earth and we are all the same species: human beings. Foundation. Common ground.

We have life in common. Kids love to play but drag their feet at homework time. When someone moves away or dies we feel their absence. Some of us have living parents, children, cats, dogs, fish; some have all of these things in their lives. We all are educated, whether formal, informal, or self-taught. We all live somewhere. Common ground.

But each of us has a completely unique story, woven from vast experiences seen only through our own eyes, and processed and stored only in our own mind. We may spend a great deal of time with a spouse, family, others we have shared living space with. We may attend a single event with thousands of people, or viewed one with millions, even billions of people. But only each of us knows what we were thinking and what we experienced through our own eyes during that time.

This blending of the common and unique, life and spice, has potential to bring us together. We can learn from each of our experiences, accomplishments, and struggles. When we meet someone, we can choose to first seek that common ground so we have a foundation on which to build. If we choose instead to first seek our differences, there is no foundation, which leaves a gap waiting to be filled by something, not the true experiences and thoughts we have discovered we share with others. 

That common ground is a bridge between what makes us unique and interesting on both sides. We feel like we are on the same page, which readies us to learn more about each other. Some bridges are slender, perhaps a co-worker or fellow student we only cross paths with occasionally. Some are broad with family, close neighbors, or friends. Through repeated interaction, common ground becomes firmer as it expands, it becomes natural to ask questions and share experiences and beliefs. We are human beings first, everything else is just spice.

But we have become focused on our differences. We have become first black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, left or right. And we shut off anything not in our self-identified group. What happened to being human first? Technology has profoundly influenced this. Media, social networks, the internet flood our minds at every turn with content meant to divide us and to discourage discussion and debate. People turn into bullies when they can hide behind anonymity. Questioning means you are shamed, cancelled. This is a toxic, imaginary world. Fresh air and in-person human contact are healthy reality.

When we are willing to take responsibility for our own actions and responses instead of seeking others to blame, we become independent. When we realize that when someone does us wrong, that is their burden not ours, we become empowered. That is freedom. If you don't believe your perception has any effect on your environment, try this experiment. Tomorrow get up and smile at everyone you meet when you venture out for work, shopping, chores. Be patient, courteous, give your place in line to someone who appears to be in a hurry. 

Our world reflects back to us what we offer it. And though we all have stresses, bad days, misfortunes, we can improve not only our own lives but every life we touch for the better. Change is hard. It starts with a single step. One conversation in person, where you ask, "How are you today?", then listen and smile. Try to see through that person's viewpoint. Imagine being them. Even if they are just sharing their commute to work, a phone call they had, or a trip to the grocery.

You may already be a good listener, try asking that question to someone you dislike or who has opposing views on an issue that bothers you. Again, just listen and smile. Once you start this practice, it become habit. Share a little about yourself, similar subjects to what they have shared. Build that common ground. With fertile, strong common ground, you may never need to approach topics of difference. But eventually you can. And when you venture there, follow the same rule. Listen and smile. Resist the urge to retort or argue. But instead inquire further about why they feel as they do. As you get to know someone, you begin to understand how their life experiences and surroundings have helped form their opinions.

Once you are comfortable at that level and have invested in a relationship, try sharing an experience that has led you to a differing opinion on something, perhaps a subject they have already brought up. The goal is not to convince, persuade, or change. Just simply to share your opinion. The more people do this, the more we retrain ourselves and those around us to start seeing each other first as fellow human beings again. Divisiveness evaporates. It takes practice, but when you see others first on common ground, your positive impact on the world is exponential because your life touches many others, some slightly, some deeply.

The world will not change by waiting for some government, power, or big influencer. Just the opposite. It will change through each of us because the world is our mirror. Ready to change the world? It's in your hands.