There is an apocryphal story, peculiarly American but also universally human, that during the US Civil War, a water source called Spangler’s Spring at the Gettysburg, PA battlefield served as a neutral site where soldiers from either side of the conflict met and talked to each other. Whether this actually happened or not is a subject of dispute, but it is, as is said, a true story, in that it reveals the hunger of the human heart for connection, reconciliation, and verbal communion across deep divisions…something rare yet desperately needed here in America. This legend has persisted because we collectively wish it were true; we deeply desire our better natures to prevail over our egos, pride, and willingness to resort to violence when we don’t know what else to do with our pain.
We have a choice in these fractured times: before we go down the path of chaos and social destruction, we can listen, deeply, to ourselves and each other- connect now, before more damage is done, to the story we would like to tell our great grandchildren. We can choose not to inflict greater suffering on each other, access the powerful tool of our imaginations and ask ourselves: What do we want our collective story to be?
There is a reconciliation community in Northern Ireland called Corrymeela, and one of the buildings there is called, An Croi, Irish for The Heart. The structure is literally built in the shape of a human heart; it is an actual gathering space, where, like the legendary gathering at Spangler’s Spring, people are invited to experience their unity as humans, whatever their background. Whatever happened or didn’t happen at Spangler’s Spring, surely the enduring story is rooted in a similar need for a unitive space, somewhere to access and share what poet, theologian and Corrymeela community leader Padraig O’Tuoma calls “our truest dignity: “ to be alive with a story to tell.”
We need gathering places like these, and we need them now-safe spaces where we can reflect, tell our stories, share our hearts, and together create the New Story of our future, one committed to our common good, our victory over fear, our striving to end suffering for ourselves and all life on the planet.
A friend suggests that public libraries might be good for this and is exploring that for conversations this Fall. And all of us can turn our living rooms and coffees shops and Facebook pages into safe spaces as well if we are willing to disarm our hardened hearts and judging minds. We can invite the friend we want to unfriend, the relative we thought of canceling Thanksgiving dinner over so we didn’t have to meet face to face, the co-worker whose presence on the planet we secretly judge as being worse than a member of ISIS. Sit down, share a cup of tea or coffee, and don’t talk politics. Choose not to vent or indulge your need to be right. Talk -and listen- about what and whom you love, your dreams for them, what your deepest, most cherished value is, how you want to grow old and wise.
I had just written the previous line when I got an anguished call from my beloved godson, the child of old and cherished friends, telling me that his 29-years-young brother died yesterday of a post-surgical pulmonary embolism. Given these broken hearts and the enormity of this vast sorrow, I was not going to publish this post. But the dreadful news reminds me, and perhaps you too, of how fragile and vulnerable life is. Love, while we can. Connect, while we can. Let’s not waste a single precious moment generating disdain for another human…not one.
Together we can live a real, true story of reconciliation, of struggle, yes, but with kindness and integrity, a story other voices a century from now will tell with pride of their wise ancestors whose legacy is one of honoring our common humanity, and working—hard—to ensure that we treat each other with dignity, respect, and yes, love. That’s all we have, in the end.
So now, take a breath. Please. Pick up the phone.