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Karen Telleen-Lawton: The We in ‘We the People’

Presidential cycles bring introspection on a national scale. Who are we? What are we striving for?

“This is an historically peculiar election cycle, boisterously disrupted by outsiders, one of whom found the perfect host body in the Republican Party and became its presidential nominee,” notes Jennifer Senior of The New York Times. “An investigation of voter estrangement has never felt more urgent.”

We need to ask ourselves, who are the “we” in “We the people”?

It isn’t just one we; many have made their voices heard this summer, from Olympians to party politicos to Black Lives Matters supporters and their those that replace “Black” with “All.”

NPR’s Terry Gross recently offered a distinctive voice when she interviewed the author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Author J.D. Vance brings the unique perspective of a Yale-educated lawyer who grew up among the hill people of Kentucky and southern Ohio.

Vance describes his book as revealing what happens to a rural community when the economy disintegrates. He examines the social isolation, poverty, drug use and religious and political upheaval in greater Appalachia. The book has been on Amazon’s top 10 for weeks.

Vance functions as a bridge, attempting to translate “otherness” from a perspective with which few of us have experience. His task is not easy.

Critic George Steiner writes that translation occurs both across and within languages: “You are performing a feat of interpretation anytime you attempt to communicate with someone who is not like you.”

Why is this so difficult? From before we can even articulate it, we each are forming an individual story: a different interpretation of the world.

We each experience daily life — even the same event — in a unique way. And yet we’re called upon to come together in this still-grand experience called democracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville puzzled over this when he visited the United States from France in the early 1830s and penned his renowned Democracy in America. He worried about the future of our young country’s experiment and suggested that its citizens needed to develop the “habits of the heart” that democracy requires.

Nearly two centuries later, Parker Palmer took up this challenge in his 2011 book, Healing the Heart of Democracy. In a book that seems prescient regarding this year’s election, he defines and expounds upon these habits of the heart:

» We must understand that we are all in this together.

» We must develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness.”

» We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.

» We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.

» We must strengthen our capacity to create community.

If you can sit down to a Thanksgiving meal seated beside your most difficult relative, you can understand that we are all in this together.

You can value “otherness” if you can appreciate the perspective of someone whose unexpected, even weird idea solved your group’s vexing problem. When you resist a dialogue of hate and anger, you cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.

When you can speak up calmly but firmly when someone, including yourself, is not treated with dignity and respect, you have generated a sense of personal voice and agency.

And one final habit: ask someone different than you to tell you their story. If you can really listen, you have strengthened your capacity to create community.

This we must all do, for ourselves and for the sake of our American democracy.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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