I have always been fascinated by the Celtic concept of thin places—where the world seems to light up with a dynamic sense of Mystery, an extra-ordinary presence that can take us beyond ourselves. Beautiful sunsets can be thin places. For me, standing at the edge of Niagara Falls, on the Canadian side, watching the power of the water as it cascades to the waiting canyon below has always been a thin place. So was the place in the woods, at camp, where I, as a young teen had a circle of trees transformed into my own chapel in the woods by the presence of radiant sunbeams.
These days, however, I find myself continually finding thick places instead. Most prominent of those thick places are: a Republican Congress and Executive branch that refuses to pass any legislation unless it undoes actions and initiatives of the previous administration; A Democratic Party whose only vision is to depose the sitting President and win the next round of elections; and the corporate enterprise formerly known as the news media that is remarkable proficient at chasing down rabbit trails. Thick places!
Thick places are the walls we erect between our differing points of view, chasms that open between the various ways we live our lives. The building blocks of those walls and the bulldozers digging those chasms are our fears. Then we begin to be afraid of the walls and the chasms themselves. In fear, we back away from them, becoming increasingly unable to see the people they represent—the people on the other side.
In a church fight, a wise man told those of us on the other side: “When you look at the lineup of those on my side of the issue, you tend to pay more attention to the most radical ones at the back of the line. Likewise, when I look at your side, I tend to see the most radical of your proponents. The backs of our lines can’t talk to each other; but those of us toward the front can.”
When we have built walls and dug chasms, there is only one way ahead—stiles over the walls and bridges over the chasm where those of us toward the front of our separate lines can meet. But what do those stiles and bridges look like? What does it take to put them in place?
First, it means that I refuse to paint those who disagree with me as enemies. And I no longer assume that they all agree with the most radical position I oppose. I have encountered in recent years many responsible gun owners, members of the NRA, who want restrictions on military-style automatic rifles, large clips, and bump stocks. Furthermore, they support more stringent regulations about purchasing and registering guns, including training in gun safety. I can no longer assume that all gun owners support the dogmatic rhetoric of the NRA.
Second, after decommissioning my inflammatory enemy name calling, I find that I am now in a position to broach the possibility of conversation across the divide. While we may not be able to meet initially half-way between our two opposing positions, we may be able to meet on the stile over the wall, or on the bridge that crosses the chasm between us. Before we can talk, we have to take a step or two toward each other—shouting at a distance has never been a very good way to communicate. Too much is lost in the transmission and reception.
Third, I’m not sure where it goes once we start talking. But that’s the point. Conversation , in and of itself, can lead somewhere—even if it is more conversation. At least we aren’t tearing at each other’s jugular.
And our fears. They are not going to magically disappear. If, however, we begin to engage one another across the divides than maybe, just maybe, instead of backing away from our fears, we will move toward them and through them. We can acknowledge and embrace our fears, acknowledge and embrace our differences, as well as acknowledge and embracing one another—even if we don’t immediately and forever solve the issue dividing us. Such reaching out across the divides that separate us—finding a way to live together in the tension of differences— is the American dream. When we reach out to one another, we begin to heal the spiritual disease that is infecting our society.