Humans need communities. We are social animals, and we rely on each other for support, both material and emotional. Family is one such community. Sometimes that is enough. Other communities result from being thrown together in work or neighborhoods. But often we seek out others who share our values, our experience, our interests. We join a church, a bridge club, a civic group, a parents’ group, a tennis association, and form friendships with those who are easy to talk to because of shared backgrounds and a similar way of viewing the world. And if we are not careful, we retreat into enclaves of the like-minded, avoiding conflict with those who view the world differently. Bonding has been strengthened by social media where we get to pick those we listen to and tune out those we don’t want to hear. Our society is strong on bonding. But it is weak on bridging.
In his book Them, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse argues that we need to talk and listen—especially listen—across the bridges, the gulfs that separate us. Trump supporters and Bernie supporters, native-born and immigrants, rich and poor, male and female and those who don’t identify with traditional gender roles, liberal and conservative, more educated and less educated, urban and rural, Left coast and heartland.
It is good to be bonded to people you love and respect and enjoy, but we also need to bridge if our fractured society is going to move beyond polarization. When I visited San Francisco last year with my daughter’s family, we walked across the Golden Gate Bridge. The view from the bridge was amazing, and we could look back on the city we came from and see it from a different perspective.
Bridging among people rather than places is challenging, to truly listen to people who experience things differently. It’s also rewarding, inviting you to reconsider your world view and maybe do some tweaking. You can start the easy way, with books written by people you don’t always agree with (Ben Sasse in my case), or with TV shows that feature people who are different. The widespread acceptance of LBGTQ people was a result of bridging, most often because it was encountered within our bonding circles—a relative, a friend, the son or daughter of a neighbor. Likewise, men and women have had to both bond and bridge with the opposite sex if they want love, romance, sex and offspring. Sometimes mutual learning has taken place. Other times not. But the segregation of our society into racial, ethnic, class and urban/rural enclaves makes those encounters across other bridges less frequent. So we have to find ways of getting out of our comfort zones. Liberals can watch Fox News now and then while conservatives can check out MSNBC.
Next week is Martin Luther King Day, observed in many communities with a day of service. We can volunteer with prison ministries, food banks, homeless shelters, Habitat for Humanity to meet people whose life experiences have shaped their thinking in different ways. You can seek out events for Black History Month in February to attend. You can volunteer to help an immigrant learn English. A couple of years ago, I taught ESL to three graduate students wives (Muslims from China, Egypt and Libya). The increase in cross-cultural understanding was amazing for all four of us.
Bonding takes place over time. Bridging, likewise, is a process, not an action. In honor of MLK Day, look for a gulf you need to cross and find a bridge to take you there.