When I was a kid, one of my friends had just learned to use a lawn mower and was mowing his yard for the first time. I sat across the street and watched as he mowed a strip of yard, retraced his steps on that same strip, and then moved over to mow the next strip. It never occurred to him that he could actually mow in both directions. I remember laughing so hard, I almost watered my own yard, if you know what I mean.
Mowing the yard is a solitary, somewhat mundane activity. It involves a repetitive process of back and forth while being hypnotized by the sound of the engine. When I mow my yard, I usually take advantage of the solitude by blasting 70’s music through my earbuds while pondering some ideological thesis or real-world dilemma. I wish I could report that I spend my deep-in-thought, back-and-forth time developing brilliant solutions for my life or business. Unfortunately, what usually happens is that I obsess about some inane experience that has irritated me until I’m totally stressed out by the time the yard is done.
During my most recent mowing experience, my mind was focused on something more significant—the challenges we have been facing in our world over the past few months. As I’ve read the news, followed social media, and engaged in discussions with family, friends, and colleagues, I’ve been confronted with the same dilemma over and over. I keep wondering, “What can I say?”
You see, I am a speaker and author. I use words to share stories, create new perspectives, and hopefully, generate a bit of laugher. My industry is full of thought leaders, authors, experts, and motivators. I feel like we’re the ones who are supposed to have all the answers to life’s most perplexing questions. And yet, I don’t know what to say. I have no clear-cut answers. In fact, I feel like all I have are questions.
In response to the coronavirus or the racial divisiveness in our country, I watch newspeople, political insiders, and community leaders make comments such as, “all we need to do is ____” or “what they should have done is ____.” And while sometimes I might agree with the comment, I soon realize that if the solutions were that easy, the problems would have already been fixed. The issues are complex, the solutions are multifaceted, and no one has all the answers.
Interestingly, during all this unrest, I have found myself aligning with people who see the world as I see it, and discounting anyone who offers an opposing position. For those with whom I disagree, I don’t have to hear more than a sound bite before I’ve already turned them off. As I consider my behavior, it occurs to me that perhaps I don’t have the only perspective on certain issues. That being said, since it is my perspective, I tend to hold to it firmly. What if I’m mowing my yard one strip at a time and not even aware that there is a more effective approach? Since my yard still gets mowed, I have no need to find another way.
Shortly after my wife and I were married, I decided to install crown molding in my dining room. If you know anything about installing crown molding, you’re probably shaking your head in anticipatory amusement right now. At the time, I didn’t have a clue. But a friend of mine was a carpenter so I asked him to show me how to do it.
Crown molding sits at a forty-five-degree angle, diagonally covering the edge between a ceiling and a wall. That’s pretty straightforward. But when you get to the inside corner of a room, you have to saw the wood at a unique angle and cut it backwards. Essentially, the process involves some sort of witchcraft and the molding was virtually impossible to cut using the amateur tools that I owned. On one corner, I cut twelve pieces of wood trying to fit two together neatly. Finally, I just installed them anyway and squirted tons of caulk into the huge gap where they didn’t fit together at all.
But here’s the thing. My carpenter friend understood how to cut crown molding and could do it with his eyes closed. He could even explain it to me in simple terms. Yet, not one word he said led to any understanding on my part. There was a huge disconnect between his perspective and mine.
This is what the world feels like to me today. There are a number of gaps in our understanding which leads to confusion, frustration, and anger. When we see a friend on Facebook write, “I don’t mean to be political but…,” we immediately cringe, knowing that it’s not going to turn out well. When we see a corporate executive or a government leader hurl accusations at an another leader, we shake our head and wonder, “What happened to courtesy and respect?” And when we see members of our communities threaten one another in the midst of an unrelenting virus and continued racial and economic inequities, we must recognize a total lack of understanding.
If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us hate to admit that we don’t understand something. I surely don’t want to be the guy who took twice as long to mow his yard because I didn’t understand how the process worked. That would be embarrassing. And I certainly don’t want to admit that I lack an understanding of my neighbor’s experience or whether health concerns supersede business concerns. I have always prided myself in being somewhat insightful and certainly empathic. However, if we as individuals, community members, and leaders want to create a better world for everyone, we must strive for greater understanding.
Like I said earlier, I’ve been hesitant to say anything during this surreal time because I really didn’t know what to tell you. But I do believe in a process that was taught to me by my favorite social work professor who reminded us that we can never fully understand another person or their situation…but that we must try.
So, maybe that’s what I can say. First and foremost, let’s try to understand those with whom we disagree, those who are not like us, and those ideas that seem complex. And perhaps when we sit down and explore the differences in our understanding, a light bulb will go off that reminds us that there are other ways of seeing the world than ours.
And that’s what I was thinking about when I mowed my yard the other day—in both directions, by the way. As for the crown molding, I’ll leave that to the people who know more than me.