Conflict is a normal part of life. It involves disagreement and opposition. Even the most agreeable individual is unlikely to escape conflict if he or she has any opinions.
Currently, conflict and dissension are frequent and loud in the U.S. It would be naive to suggest that if Americans were just nicer to each other, our massive polarizations regarding politics, immigration, religion, race, climate, taxes, health care and more would melt away. They won’t.
Rather, it is more useful to find more commonalities among those with whom we interact. Commonalities, described as having something in common or sharing features and attributes, simply means recognizing that people who seem so dissimilar in the way they live, work, talk, worship and more, really do have things in common with us. After all, Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Antonin Scalia were far apart ideologically but used to enjoy opera together.
The first time I clearly understood the importance of finding commonalities was on a visit to Russia (then the CCCP) almost a half-century ago. Landing at the St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) airport was scary, especially as a grim baby-faced machine gun-toting immigration officer confiscated my “Time” magazine. It was peak “Cold War” time. It was hard to believe Americans had anything in common with Russians.
Yet, on a Saturday morning in a park, I observed a young father trying to help his son, about 5 or 6 years old, learn to ride a two-wheeler. The father held on to the seat and raced alongside as the little boy wobbled while trying to pedal his bike. In about fifteen minutes, the dad released his hold on the bike and the child rode the bike independently. Both were grinning from ear to ear. We’ve all seen that scene in many American communities.
It reminded me that when we encounter people who have different ideas or views, we often widen the “them vs. us” chasm. If views on politics, religion, dress, lifestyle are at variance with that with which we are comfortable, we frequently assume that the individuals holding views different from our own are not worth knowing or even dangerous.
A frequent critic of my columns strongly disagrees with much of my writing. Yet, we have at least two commonalities. We both believe that family is very important and that a good education is a must for a successful adult life. He vociferously laments that he cannot get me to agree with his positions, but our different backgrounds and experiences predict that our views will remain discrepant. He’s a good person who does fine things for the community and as long as we can find some commonalities, there can be civilized, and sometimes, positive interactions.
With the holiday season here, finding commonalities is very important in maintaining relationships. Families and friends can and do become polarized over any number of issues, and long-standing connections can be ruined. It would be Pollyannaish to say when we zero in on what we have in common with others, serious conflict fades away. Finding shared ideas in activities or experiences won’t change people’s opinions or beliefs, but it may help humanize opponents and limit interpersonal stress. In our conflicted country and world, finding more commonalities is worth a try.